Anarchy and Hierarchy, by A. Griscom



Some individuals, according to McLuhan, are able to resist media's powers of indoctrination. These are the artists who aspire to uncover truth, to look reality straight in the eyes, getting past all the cultural clutter; the ones who comment on cultural conventions, the mythic creations of media. Marcel Duchamp, for instance, hung a toilet from the ceiling and called it art. Andy Warhol put an everyday can of soup on a canvas, rearranging the context in which that object takes on value. Both made plain the fact that we assume that reality restricts things to a particular purpose, or use value, but then we can bend or reconfigure it. "The effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinions or concepts, but alter sense ratios or powers of perception steadily and without any resistance. The serious artist is the only person able to encounter technology with impunity, just because he is an expert aware of the changes in sense perception" (UM 15) The artist, according to McLuhan, has a particular sensitivity to patterns of perception.

The very fact that media, like metaphors, transmit and transform experience limits them to the realm of simulacra. What media depict as reality are only translations of reality. The concept of the simulacrum is central to Jean Baudrillard's analysis of postmodern consumer society, "with its endless networks of media and advertising images that... precede any reality to which they might be said to refer" (Baudrillard 104). Plato's simulacrum is a debased reflection, understood as inferior to the abstraction from which it is derived. It challenges the very notion of a "true copy" or an authentic rendering. Even today, when a multimedia have the capacity to generate such a potent sensory experience, such a comprehensive rendering of reality, authenticity is out of reach. In her essay, "Imprisoning of Reality," Susan Sontag discusses the limitations of media:

Reality has always been interpreted through the report given by the images, and philosophers since Plato have tried to loosen our dependence on images by evoking the standard of an image-free way of apprehending the real... Most contemporary expressions of concern that an image world is replacing the real one continue to echo, as Fuerbach did, the Platonic depreciation of the image: true insofar as it resembles something real, sham because it is no more than a resemblance. (376)

We do well to keep in mind, during this discussion of two quantum leaps in communications technology, that the medium is, by its very nature, a sham.

Repercussions of new media

McLuhan's exploration of media goes as far back as the creation of the alphabet. The media which dominate a particular time period ascribe particular modes of understanding to the culture in which it operates. Each medium reveals, communicates and instills important aspect of reality, of truth. For example, the creation of the alphabet generated a reality based on patterned code. It distinguished more definitively what Ferdinand de Saussure called the signifier and the signified. Writing encouraged an analytical mode of thinking with an emphasis on lineality. McLuhan explains the message of the alphabetic medium: "It is in its power to extend patterns of visual uniformity and continuity that the 'message' of the alphabet is felt by cultures" (UM 170).

The media's effects are not restricted to abstruse notions of reality and manners of perception. Another example of the consequence of media in culture relates to the more physical arena of politics --- the arrangement of governing and economic powers. When an alphabet imposed itself on oral cutter it

meant power and authority and control of military structures at a distance. When combined with papyrus, the alphabet spelled the end of the stationary temple bureaucracies and the priestly monopolies of knowledge and power. Unlike pre-alphabetic writing which with its innumerable signs was difficult to master, the alphabet could be learned in a few hours. The acquisition of so extensive a knowledge and so complex a skill as pre-alphabetic writing represented, when applied to such unwieldy matters as brick and stone, insured for the scribal caste a monopoly of priestly power. The easier alphabet and the light, cheap, transportable papyrus together effected the transfer of power from the priestly to the military class. (UM 174)

Media are therefore invested with the power to structure themodus operandi of both the individual and society at large.

A precursor to the Digital Revolution, the Cubist movement revolted against the rigid, one-sided uniformity on which print and realist painting were contingent. Cubism disregarded the fixed vanishing point --- and with it, the inexorable truth of the artist into which the viewer's gaze obsequiously disintegrated. Cubist painters took full advantage of their medium --- realizing that a two dimensional canvas and a set of paints permit far more than a specialized illusion of the third dimension. Instead, McLuhan explains, "cubism sets up an interplay of planes and contradictions or dramatic conflict of patterns, lights, textures, that 'drives home the message' by involvement... By giving the inside and outside, the top, the bottom, back and front and the rest, in two dimensions, drops the illusion of perspective in favor of instant sensory awareness of the whole" (UM 12).

The cubist movement, of course, was limited to a small band of artists, and therefore did not seize the nation with the ubiquity of mass media. But in today's world, where personal computers are fast becoming as common to the household as the phone, the masses (of the Western world) are becoming intimate with the multiplicity of perspectives represented in cubist painting. The space created by the digital medium is hypertextual --- that is, it creates a vast network of interconnected literary, graphic, auditory, and cinematic texts, none of which are privileged over the others, where interpreted meaning is as multifarious and unfixed as the perspective of a cubist painting. Charles Ess argues that "perhaps the most compelling claim made for hypertext systems is that they will democratize access to information and thereby contribute to a greater democratization of society" (246). I will explore this latter relationship later, in further detail, but I include these various examples to demonstrate how different forms of media can promote radically different messages --- and therefore radically different configurations of sensory experience, and, by extension, society. Critic and theologian Ross Snyder calls media "Architects of the consciousness... The media architects alter our conceptions of time and space just as did the architects of the past" (323).

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