A University of California
Multi-Campus Research Group

Fall 2000 Conference: November 3-5


Media Determinism and Media Freedom
William B. Warner

Over the course of Western history one finds many different variants of the media determinism thesis-the idea that media determines culture. When Milton credits the printed book for enabling the Protestant reformation, when early and late modern critics step forward to warn of the effects of novel reading, film going, tv watching, web surfing-from the Sunday supplements to the advanced theories of Walter Benjamin, Adorno & Horkheimer, Guy Debord, and Marshall McLuhan, all are suggesting (or worrying) in one way or another, that media determines culture. The media determinism thesis comes in two basic flavors: the simplest version of the theory assumes that the content of a medium induces a mimicry on the part of the reader, audience or spectator. Thus for example, the anti-novel discourse of the 18th century worried that the amorous novel rewires the desire of labile female readers so they imitate the sexual intrigues they read about; the candidates in our Presidential election would promise the young against the representations of media violence supposed to induce a dangerous imitation. In a more complex version of the media determinism thesis it is said that it is the form of a medium as a somatic and cognitive practice that imposes certain effects (in the Phaedrus, Socrates worries that writing will atrophe the memory of speakers (fill out by making precise); in McLuhan's theory, each medium becomes an environment that implies a certain effects; for example, television might produce global village). While the idea of media determinism has most frequently been associated with dystopian warnings about cultural catastrophe or loss, the same theory can be used as a utopian promise or a boast (Daniel Chandler). Thus, in the early history of the telegraph, the radio, television and the Internet, each new medium was supposed to guarantee the arrival of unprecedented community enabling a radical elision of regional, national, or cultural differences. Media determinism promises that some new communications technology will free us from the vexing labor of politics: its antagonism, its interminable negotiations.


Theories of media determinism usually imply the possibility or necessity of claiming media freedom, the belief that there is such a thing as freedom of expression, and that it should be protected by law and encouraged through our media policy. The prior existence of freedom of speech is assumed by the 1st Amendment, which declares, "Congress shall make no law …abridging the freedom of speech or the press…" Without trying to engage the knotty question of what transcendental signfier "freedom" means here, or whether there is such a thing as freedom of speech, I will make these observations. The privilege given speech, over every other medium of expression, is a primary radical of Western culture; it is often assumed that speech is so close to the subject's interiority that it is less a medium than an unmediated expression of the subject. Secondly, the special place of freedom of speech within American history may derive from the speech act that lies at the nation's origin: the Declaration of Independence. Derrida has demonstrated the covert dependency of speech upon writing across the long arc of Western culture; and, in fact the efficacy of the US Declaration depends upon the media supplements of writing and printing. The declaration would never have achieved the performative efficacy it did without the broadside that conducted the text of the Declaration throughout the 13 colonies in the days after July 4, 1777; or without the signed document had totemic role for the young republic as it traveled with the Continental Army during the Revolution and then became the most valued piece of political scripture for the new Republic. A certain romantic mystification of speech, as the media subject's natural right, operates within the claim to media freedom down to the present.


It is difficult to make the media determinism thesis compatible with the claim to media freedom, because they imply diametrically opposed concepts of the media subject (I use the term media subject to sustain the two possibilities of this position: as the target of a media system or the agent who expresses themselves within a medium). In various species of media determinism the reader, the audience, the spectator is supposed to be passive and vulnerable, a tabla rasa receiving the impress of meanings determined elsewhere. [I suspect that a printing metaphor lies behind this theory: media imprints itself upon the mind of users, as print imprints its form on paper.] In this painting of a novel reading reading by Greuze, entitled, "A Lady…" the elements on the reader's table, and the posture of her aroused body, suggest that the reader imitates the romantic entanglements of the novel she reads. [Image: Grueze] In this famous picture from the cover of Guy Debord's The Society of the Spectacle, the cinematic apparatus renders the spectators a homogenized mass in the thrall of a powerful spectacle. [Image: Debord] The media subject as the passive receiver of the messages of the media system lie behind the propaganda and advertising regimes of the 20th century; the media subject understood as a susceptible and vulnerable is the pretext for most regimes of media censorship and filtering. Against this idea, Milton's Areopagitica, writing near the end of the 2nd century of print media, promotes the reader as vigorous, exposed, independent and active. More recently, British culture studies represents the fan of popular culture as an agile and creative appropriator of the media commodities created by the media industry. A still more radical conception of the media subject is suggested by Varela's studies of autonomous systems like the frog's brain: such an autonomous system is the receiver of a perturbation rather than a fully articulated representation (Paulson); it develops the power to rework all that happens to serve its own needs. [check and rework] No longer conceptualized as an imput/output system or transmission model (Chandler) implicit in most media deterministic accounts, the media subject as active agent is not positioned as either reader or writer, speaker or auditor, performer or spectator. Understood as an autonomous system, the media subject is constantly rewriting what is read, rewording what is heard, projecting a revision of what is shown.[DeCerteau, Barthes]

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