The Media Determinism Project
PI: William B. Warner
1. Brief abstract: New information technologies, and the ongoing digitalization of different media forms, have intensified questions about the effect of media upon social life. From as early as the Ancient transposition of speech into writing, critics have maintained that media has a determining effect upon culture. This project does not seek to endorse or reject or reshape this thesis in relation to any particular medium or historical epoch. Instead, I hope to reframe the debate by doing a survey of the different arguments about the ways media shapes culture, organize an archive of those positions, and then do a conceptual topology of those arguments. By using a team of graduate students to gather together the many ways media determinism has been thoughtabout different media, in different media, and within very different epochsthe project will seek a fresh cross disciplinary perspective upon an age-old issue. It is hoped that this study will enable me to understand the role of the media determinism thesis within a cultures complex negotiation with the new media technologies.
2. Background: Since Platos attack upon writing for its deleterious effect on memory, critics have been speculating about the influence of new media on human culture. I have studied this issue closely in relation to the 18th century novel, especially around the debates about the dangerous effects of absorptive, solitary novel reading upon young women and men in the 18th century. What do I mean by media determinism? I refer to the thesis that changes in media have a determining effect upon culture. The most popular proponent of this thesis in the mid 20th century was Marshall McLuhan. McLuhan liked to compare changes in media to changes in the global living environment: both require adaptation by those who would survive. The more patient and systematic historians and media theorists who have worked in the wake of his theories have offered many different ways to extend or contest the media determinism thesis. Thus, some historians have demonstrated the way the movement from manuscript to print is the condition of the possibility of the protestant reformation and the scientific revolution.(J. Goody, E. Eisenstein) Historians and theorists have contested media determinism in several different ways: by laying bare the arbitrary choices the lie behind the institution of new media forms (from the newspaper and radio, to television and the Internet); by insisting upon the active constitutive role of culture before, during and after the institution of new media; by aligning the media determinism thesis with the self-interested owners of new media. (D. Czitrom, M. Warner, M Crispin Miller, S. Hall) The media determinism thesis has some of the inevitable and irresolvable character of what used, in the hey-day of post-structuralism, to be called a problematic: some sort of conceptual resolution of the thesis depends upon achieving consensus upon the three terms of the thesis, media determines culture. But, even if one could achieve consensus upon the meaning of these terms, and there is little sign of this happening, new media technologies come along to upset the old consensus. Perhaps like the debate about nature versus nurture, the media determinism thesis seems deeply lodged within our culture as one of the main ways we make sense of change in the modern period.
Recently completed project: My research on the 18th century print media cultures suggested another way to approach this question. In my research on the 18th century novel I found that the point was not to decide who was right or wrong when it came to media determinism, but instead to understand how the terms and forms of those debates comes to structure the media forms and practices developed in their wake. Thus for example, media workers like Defoe, Richardson and Fielding took note of the astonishing popularity of the short, plot-centered novels of amorous intrigue, and sought to exploit this new vogue for silent absorptive reading for entertainment. By embedding elements of these short sexy novels in their own writing, they developed an enlightened and morally improving alternative to the arousing popular fiction of Behn, Manley and Haywood. To put it into modern terms: by rewriting the software circulating on the network of early modern print entertainment, they not only expanded and diversified the media content on that network, they enabled an expansion of the network of print media culture. Novels became the dominant artistic print form of the 19th and 20th century.
Current project: I am seeking seed money to carry out a broad survey of the various ways critics, scholars, social scientists and Sunday supplement moralists have hailed the arrival, or sounded the alarm, of new media. My historical research has convinced me that it is the assumption (or worry) that media determines culture that inflects debates about censorship, copyright, privacy, and many of the other issues of media policy receiving renewed scrutiny in an age of the rapid expansion of digital media. In envision two steps to this process.
Brief discussion. This project will build upon the way humanists and theorists have thought about these questions, but it will seek to go beyond those paradigms and become ambitiously multi-disciplinary. Thus, for example, I will hire graduate students from several disciplines, so as to take advantage of their diverse expertise (from Medieval studies to Communications). In addition to the historical and contemporary material investigated, I would like to include detailed critical analysis of studies now being conducted within the social sciences on the influence upon children of violence in the media. [I know Barbara Wilson, who has shared her work on the National Television Violence Study with me. Once I have studied it, I would like to interview faculty on the assumptions surrounding their work.] Within this huge terrain of study, there are two ways I narrow my focus. First, I will be focusing upon those media central to narrative entertainment and narrative art: writing, print, film, television and the world wide web; secondly, I will be paying attention to those critical epochs when a new medium is undergoing institutionalization (e.g. the early 20th century invention of narrative cinema; the mid 20th century arrival of TV; the arrival of the WWW in the last 6 years of the 20th century.)It is then that the most is promised and the most is dreaded with each of these media, and it is in the inaugural years of a new medium that the thesis that the media determines culture intensified expression.
Possible future outcomes of this research include a) the staging of a multi-disciplinary conference on this topic; b) the development of grant and/or fellowship proposal in this area; and c) publication, in electronic or print form, of research findings.
3. List of References:
W., and Horkheimer, Max. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Translated
by John Cumming. New York: Continuum, 1982.
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