In making the case for the power of eyewitness narrative to affect our perception and understanding of reality, William J. Mitchell calls upon the example of Orson Welles' radio broadcast program, The War of the Worlds. By drawing a parallel to this 67-year-old work and the effect it produced, Mitchell makes an important point about today's world and the opportunities modern media and instant access to eyewitness accounts provide. Focusing on Mitchell's analysis of The War of the Worlds, I have omitted the sections in which he quotes the radio program itself and a New York Times article about the radio program, both of which come after the first paragraph below:
By eight o'clock in the evening, on Sunday, 30 October 1938, when Orson Welles began presenting The War of the Worlds over the Columbia Broadcasting System, the nuances of the electronic present continuous were long familiar. Listeners knew how to interpret them--and that provided an unprecedented dramatic opportunity. Of course it was just a scary radio play about an unexpected alien attack from the skies, with the characters breaking in to "regular programming" to provide "live eyewitness" accounts of fiery destruction in New Jersey and New York. The actors addressed the audience directly, describing events supposedly unfolding before their very eyes...
It did not matter that the events being described were imaginary -- and, indeed, wildly implausible. There was no simple way to know that the "explosions" were special effects. If you were too far away to be a potential eyewitness yourself (it was clever of Welles to set ground zero on an isolated farm in New Jersey) and too uneducated to catch the scientific howlers (Welles deployed a "great astronomer" and other scientific authority figures to deflect critical scrutiny of the details), it was impossible to distinguish fact from falsehood. Electronic signals had demonstrated that they could construct the most outlandish of beliefs and provoke people to act instantly on those beliefs.
It was the power of the electronic present continuous voice--the presumed direct connection to simultaneously unfolding, distant events--that caused the trouble. [pages 105-106]
1. How does Mitchell use literary allusions, such as this use of Orson Welles' War of the Worlds and frequent references to James Joyce's Ulysses, to further his ideas? What effect does his use of established works from the middle of the 20th century have on his arguments and us as readers?
2. Since 1938, have there been any widespread works of theater or narrative which have attempted to affect people in the same way as War of the Worlds did, using invented eyewitness accounts to generate some kind of response?
3. Are there ethical issues in this kind of entertainment, manipulating people's emotions without people requesting to be manipuated in this way, as they would by paying to see a movie or buying a book?
4. Later in the same section, Mitchell draws a parallel between the eyewitness narratives of War of the Worlds and those of the September 11th attacks. Is there any way we could immediately tell the difference between the fiction of the former and the reality of the latter? Are we too reliant on the media and too trusting of what we hear from others? Do we have any alternative, or is this a necessary vulnerability of our technology? What would Mitchell's answer to the last question be?
Mitchell, William J. Me++: The Cyborg Self and the Networked City. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003.
Last modified 8 February 2005