SYMBOLIC: ADVENTURES IN TEXT
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January 19, 2005
110: The Medium and the Message
I spent most of the weekend doing page layout for the first volume of the Misfit Library Journal, cutting and pasting and placing text on the page. At some point, the words vanished and it became an exercise in moving blocks of text around in an effort to create sequences that maintained a flow. If the reader can't dive into the text -- if there are too many rocky protrusions near the edge of the deep water -- they'll be less likely to submerge themselves in the work. They'll skim, they'll wade, they'll look for other places to swim. How much of our discourse is bent around presenting information in a palatable format? How tightly is our communication wrapped around our pleasure principle?
Suffering through a full Catholic Mass in Latin, notwithstanding. Some activities are all about penitence.
I recognize that I'm not the target audience of such a discourse and that, for those who want to partake of such an event, there is pleasure to be had from the extensive ceremony. For them, the message and the medium both stroke the same happy spots in their cortex. For me, not so much, but that reflects more on what I find useful in communication than on any intrinsic quality of the liturgy.
Sure, Marshall McLuhan famously opined that the "medium was the message" and several generations of advertising executives and pop culture jockies held onto their jobs because of the perception that HOW you said something was just as important as WHAT you said. And, unfortunately, discourse has become even more skewed in this time of ten second sound bytes and 24-hour newscasts: HOW you say something is everything, WHAT you are saying is irrelevant.
How hollow have we become? Aye, stuffed with static and saliva-stained junk mail.
One of McLuhan's other observations was the idea of "amputations," where an "extension" -- a piece of technology allows for us to extend our normal human reach in some way -- contributes to the amputation of some previous extension. The telephone, for example, alleviated the need for penmanship because it was easier to speak on the phone than it was to write a letter. E-mail, in turn, resurrected the functionality of letter writing but it traded mass communication for clarity and brevity. The Internet and its ready connectivity has made us global citizens, but at what cost? What have we given up in return for the flood of information that is now available to us?
I think it comes back to that ten percent argument -- the "we only use 10% of our brains" argument. We're still only working with that fraction, filtering out everything else. The struggle for that small slice of our attention has become fierce and we've tunnel-visioned ourselves down to That Which Catches Our Eye. We've become magpies, our fancies caught by the shiny things.
I'm reading K. J. Bishop's The Etched City right now and I find myself having to make an effort to read carefully. She is very florid, yet very precise in her language and it is easy for my magpie eyes to start skimming the words. Not much happen in any given paragraph, but part of the enjoyment of the work comes in watching how she says things. I've been reading too superficially over the last few years, cottoning to the Michael Crichton style of writing (the "if I string together enough dialogue and stage directions, it'll be a book" school of putting text on the page), and have neglected the sheer act of reading, of enjoying the construction of the language.
It takes time, you know. Who has time any more? Too much TV to watch, too many films to see, too much music to hear, too many words to read. My language is being amputated. That's the trade I'm making in return for global connectivity. Have I made the right choice?
Posted by Teppo at January 19, 2005 02:56 PM