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CRITICAL READING OF: CRITICAL THEORY, POST-STRUCTURALISM, AESTHETIC AND SOCIAL THEORY, COMMUNICATION THEORY, MEDIA THEORY, THEORY OF VISUAL CULTURE, AESTHETIC AND POLITICAL THEORY, DIGITAL MEDIA, CULTURAL STUDIES, SOCIOLOGY. A COMPILATION FROM A NUMBER OF INTERNET SITES LISTED AND ACKNOWLEDGED.
….Orienting y'all to what cultural theory, visual literacy, and new media are all about. Before we plow on into new media as it stands today, there are a few central ideas that should be introduced and clarified for a kick-off, since they help to put much of the rest of this area into some sort of context. If you understand what I mean by these concepts, much of the rest of this introduction to new media and culture should make more sense.
Before even trying to tackle the questions of visual/new media literacy, the first thing we need to do is to define what new media are, what old media are, and then try to figure out how to incorporate these terms into our framework of understanding. Perhaps, then, we should first look at what media literacy is supposed to be about -- then we can extrapolate to talk about new media literacy. After all, the subjects are kind of related!
New Media means basically just that: new media. The latest form of mass communication developed by society always tends to be given this label. In years past it was radio, television, cable TV, satellite TV, etc. Nowadays it tends to be used primarily to talk about emerging digital/electronic communications forms, particularly the internet and the World Wide Web. That leaves the other media, i.e., old media, as everything that came before, such as newspapers, film, radio, television, and so on.
That's the easy part, because surprise, surprise, when we come to the subject of media literacy, there's some disagreement out there about what media literacy actually means. Some people think of media literacy purely in terms of a defensive mechanism to help our children navigate their way through the minefield of insidious, pejorative, and God-knows-what-else kinds of advertising that they're hit with every time they turn on the TV. Give our kids the tools to understand how the media are trying to manipulate them, and they will be able to fend off the commercial propaganda, so the thinking goes. Others, meanwhile, see media literacy in more positive terms, as a tool that allows us to be informed, critical consumers of the media -- in much the same way as teachers of English Literature think that that field of study enables us to become better readers.
Still others focus on the visual literacy component of media literacy as the most important part. This semiotics-based approach looks on media as a language, with its own visual syntax and grammar, which needs to be learned in order to be understood -- again, a bit like English Lit.
Still, most analysts and academics agree that most conceptualizations of media literacy share the following essential elements:
* Mass media are constructed entities that also help to construct reality (more on this later).
* Most media (at least in the good ol' USA and, increasingly, in the rest of the world) have strong commercial drives and are commercially oriented.
* Media also have very strong political and ideological implications (whether we realize it or not). The commercializing drive alluded to above is just one important aspect of this.
* Each of the media has its own unique aesthetic, and each medium's content is closely related to its form. That's just a fancy way of saying that newspapers present information in a very different way from television, and because of that they also present the world in a very different way. Marshall McLuhan was thinking of something like this when he came out with his famous maxim, "the medium is the message".
These are all valid ways of thinking about media literacy. But in a nutshell, we need to remember that media literacy is -- or should be -- all about helping each and every one of us how to figure out what the hell is going on in the Wide World of Media that surrounds us and envelopes us. Anything that can help us do that can also help us get along in the world a whole lot better -- or at least enable us to keep our eyes open! And what's true of the older media applies equally to the new media. If we're going to be swamped by the Internet and the Web, we need to know what's going on, why we're all spending so much time on the Web, what it's doing to us, and whether we're controlling it or it's controlling us! That would be nice to know.
Now we're ready to begin.
part 2 "REALITY" and
(OK, this is pretty long and a little deep, so be prepared to do some reading. Oh, and BTW, this stuff really is important to understanding new media--honest!)
Now, for many philosophers, this is the bottom-line question: What is the nature of reality? What is real, what is made-up and/or imaginary, and where is the dividing line between the two? A closely related concept is truth. What is truth? Does it even exist? This is important because the internet is allowing us to create and enter a whole new universe -- that of electronic cyberspace -- where we can act and interact with each other in a completely different way than we would in the "outer" universe. Within this cyberspace universe we can have one or many different personalities, and we have to figure out how we can deal with our potentially multiple personalities and realities in this new paradigm. Of course, people from all over the world have been looking at the nature of our existence (a branch of metaphysics known as ontology) for a long, long time. Interested? Now read on.
A brief history of reality and truth
Here, we're looking primarily at the philosophical nature of reality in the Western tradition, since that is the main environment within which the Internet and other new media have grown. But of course, Eastern philosophy has had a lot to say about it as well. However, unlike the Western tradition, most Eastern religions (Buddhism, Hinduism, etc.) tend not to get too hung up about the concept and hold that reality is nothing more than a "haze of unreality" based on a net of relationships between people and nature. Eastern philosophy often relegates the world around us to the level of a peripheral or surface distraction (e.g., the Hindu concept of maya) between us and true enlightenment (such as Nirvana in the Buddhist tradition).
Actually, Plato was thinking along broadly similar lines when he made a distinction between reality and surface appearance. Plato thought that "reality" resided in his Eternal "Forms" -- Truth, Justice, Beauty, Piety, for example -- and everything on earth -- law, government, beautiful people, pious observances, etc. -- were just pale imitations of these Forms. Plato's Republic, which was ruled by the Philosopher-kings, was essentially some sort of heavenly home for these perfect Forms, which provided the initial causes for everything that happened on earth.
Plato's student Aristotle thought this was a pretty stupid conception of the world. He thought that reality was contained within the nature or mechanisms of things themselves, not in their surface forms. Aristotle thought that reality was contained within the nature or mechanisms of things themselves, not in their surface forms. He thought of things not in terms of some transcendent ideal (as Plato did) but in terms of their function, or telos. So a chair is not any good insofar as it partakes of some ideal of chairness but because it works as a chair.
Here's a ~Not-so-Gratuitous Quote from my favorite book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance~ that helps better explain this dichotomy. (And there'll be more of these sprinkled throughout this site).
I think it was Coleridge who said everyone is either a Platonist or an Aristotelian. People who can't stand Aristotle's endless specificity of detail are natural lovers of Plato's soaring generalities. People who can't stand the eternal lofty idealism of Plato welcome the down-to-earth facts of Aristotle. Plato is the eternal Buddha seeker who appears again and again in each generation, moving onward and upward toward the "one". Aristotle is the eternal motorcycle mechanic who prefers the "many". I myself am pretty much Aristotelian in this sense, preferring to find the Buddha in the quality of facts around me. (Emphasis added.)
This difference between Plato's and Aristotle's views of reality is one of the major fault-lines which still divides fundamental Western concepts of the natures of Being, Truth, and Reality. Plato's emphasis on the importance of form and surface representations provides the basis for most of Western art and Romanticism. Aristotle's emphasis on underlying mechanisms and content over form, on how things worked, provides the philosophical basis for Western science and technology. However, this dichotomy is not quite as simple as all that. (Nothing ever is in philosophy.) You can't just say that Plato is all artsy-fartsy and Aristotle is the philosophical motor mechanic. Plato also emphasized the importance of setting up demonstrable proof, i.e., proof that something is real instead of just made up, as one of mankind's highest goals. This orientation toward the real is a major facet of Western science. Scientists -- whether involved in space travel, oceonography, subatomic physics or whatever -- like to think they're in pursuit of the absolute, universal truth. Plato helped to put that idea into their heads.
(NB: Beyond the simple Plato-Aristotle dichotomy is a broader orientation of Western philosophy, also derived from the Greeks, that deals with reality in decidedly dualistic terms, i.e., a tendency to consider our relationship with the world as that of an observer (or subject) with the world as external object. This subject-object orientation fundamentally alters the way Westerners view reality, and is the basis of scientific rationalism. We often tend to see ourselves as somehow dissociated from the universe around us, and this allows us to do things like conduct experiments by scientific method, or destroy our environment in the pursuit of profit without a thought for the impact on others. Eastern philosophies, by contrast, tend to be more monistic).
Plenty of other movements and Big Names in philosophy have had a go at explaining what reality is about. The Sophists, aka the Skeptics, of ancient Greece, thought that reality as a concept was moot. Reality and truth are not about perfect Forms or even underlying perfection, but about who could spin the best line of argument. In the absence of any absolute proof of reality -- since you couldn't know anything for certain anyway, even what you experienced with your own senses -- "reality" was nothing more than the winning argument in a debate. Thus the Sophists emphasized the art of debate and verbal argument over the search for truth. Aspects of this idea, variously expressed, have been enormously influential, particularly in the Anglo-American tradition through thinkers such as John Milton and David Hume. Modern-day courtroom lawyers in the United States, who win their cases by presenting the most compelling argument to a judge or jury, can trace a direct line of descent back to these early Skeptics. (The tradition in most Continental European and other countries' courts, by contrast, is to search for the truth in a non-confrontational environment -- a quite Platonic endeavor.)
Descartes summed up (no pun intended) his take on reality with his famous dualist maxim, cogito ergo sum, or "I think, therefore I am." Descartes essentially posited a non-skeptical concept of reality, saying that reality is quite simply that which we experience with our minds -- period. Ultimately, however, Descartes' theory rested on the existence of a beneficient God. Basically, to buy into Descartes you'd have to accept that (a.) there was a God and (b.) that S/He would be a "nice guy," who would let us hold on to our "real" reality, and who wouldn't deceive us so systematically that everything we sensed was a mirage. Not surprisingly, some people thought that this was a bit of a stretch.
Philosophers such as Hume and George Berkeley (respectively, a Scotsman and an Irishman) carried the Skeptical torch into the Enlightenment era by doubting the reality of matter itself. If "reality" is nothing more than the sum of our sensory experiences, they'd argue, how can we be certain that there's any "real" set of corrseponding objects "outside" our bodies. For all we know, each one of us could simply be a bodyless brain in a tank someplace, being fed images and other sensory input by some mad scientist.
It was left to Immanuel Kant to attack Hume and the other skeptics in the 1780s. Taking a position closer to Plato, Kant posited that a "noumeal" world exists beneath (or beyond) the "phenomenal" world which we experience every day. Even though we can't prove these "noumea" exist they have to be there, argued Kant, to make the whole thing work. Hegel, on the other hand, argued in the 19th century that the world works according to a deeply inscribed plan. "The rational is the real," said Hegel, "and the real is the rational." His theory (which greatly influenced Marx) led to the view that people are creatures of the historical processes in which their societies are immersed and lack, for the most part, the power to break free. That was deterministic reality for Hegel.
There have been other takes on reality, from the existentialists to the deconstructionists and the postmodernists. Some commentators, such as Jean Baudrillard, have gone as far as to suggest that reality has been usurped by hyperreality in the television and information age. This might all seem as bit of a mish-mash, and 20th century thinkers haven't really helped to close the argument. I'm certainly not smart enough to say which of these guys were right and which were wrong. But it does seem that in this age of the internet and new media we are moving toward a society which functions less on deterministic Platonic lines (where we're always seeking the "correct" way to do things and attempting to reproduce a sense of near-perfection in our endeavors) and more like an Aristotelian model, where we don't worry so much about perfection as our measure of truth or reality but are willing to experiment and play with multiple versions of reality. Maybe reality is, simply, what we make it. Anyway, time to move on . . .
Next: Introduction, The Future of the Book
Landow, Duguid, Bolter, and O'Donnell all more or less accept that some sort of shift is taking place from a print paradigm in communication to a visual paradigm.
•George Landow is quite happy with that, because it'll change everything -- form, content, culture, language itself, everything; content is intimately linked with its material/formal base, and let the technologiocal determinist chips fall where they may; we're going to wipe the cultural slate clean with hypertext.
•Paul Duguid also believes content is related to its social and material base, but as a sympotomatic technology guy he thinks this won't lead to the decline of the book, because so much of our culture is tied up with the form of the printed word, and that won't change in a hurry; so the culture will survive, because people want the book to survive.
•James O'Donnell, perhaps the most skeptical and reactionary when it comes to new technology, thinks that the book will survive as the "defining symbolic communication", because "no one is going to read a novel on a twitchy little screen."
•Fellow classicist Jay Bolter challenges this notion; he does agree with Duguid and O'Donnell that the culture will survive, though not because the book form will survive (he's pretty sure it won't; in fact he'd go as far as Landow in suggesting that language itself could almost disappear) but because the book form has no real effect on cultural values; because he's neither a technolgical determinist *nor* a textualist Bolter thinks society's underlying cultural traditions will carry on just fine, regardless of the mode of representation, even if the printed word goes out the window altogether.
•Umberto Eco, meanwhile, doesn't accept Bolter's assumption that new technologies make the shift to the visual inevitable.
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