Tuesday, August 28, 2007

There's a McLuhan in My Media Soup!

Over at PressThink, Jay Rosen has a reply to Michael Skube's Blogs: All the Noise That Fits, the 3,238th bloggers vs. the press anti-blogging rant which acuses bloggers of not doing original reporting. In Skube vs. Rosen, newmediatheory.net suggests that considering a number of Anglo-American media theorists might deepen the discussion. In this post, I try to add to that ongoing conversation.

Based on your reading of McLuhan in your MA, are there any insights of McLuhan that you feel still fundamentally inform your take on the emerging role of blogs in the media today?

I would say he is still useful in at least the following three ways:
1) The media are typically additive rather than substitutive--there are plenty of media roles to go around and it isn't the end of the world if they are expanded or redistributed. Of course, when this undermines a curmudgeon's authority later in life we can't expect him/her to comprehend the reality, to be pleased by the outcome, or to accept its rationality. Failure to understand the basic taxonomy of blogs is to demonstrate ignorance of your purported object of discussion. Film scholars certainly won't get sympathy for complaining that the latest melodrama is one of the lamest excuses for documentary film they've ever seen. It's a sign of incompetence and lack of knowledge, not an exculpatory context. Militantly raving about your own category mistake is a sign of intellectual failure and lack of curiosity about how your own opinion actually connects up with cultural reality.

2) Historical precedent demonstrates we may expect proponents of expiring views of the role of certain media in a changing world to cling to their increasingly counter-factual views with near theological and historically uninformed fervor. The media rank very high on the list of institutions about which people often seem constitutionally incapable of becoming self-reflexive or self-conscious. The authority of certain forms of entrenched cultural capital is often capable of disqualifying or marginalizing what our lying eyes tell us about sociological reality for decades. These general human failings are further complicated by whole public relations industries with vested interests in discrediting entire media systems in ways that are often consistent in terms of partisanship, but tactically and strategically incoherent as regards media systems per se.

3) Previous tectonic shifts in the media landscape give us important historical context. They provide a precedent for imagining the possibility of old media being challenged and reshaped without utter extinction being the necessary outcome. It was easy to imagine that the telegraph or the radio or the TV would make the news aspect of the newspaper completely redundant, too slow to be considered news anymore. The paper as it originally functioned was revolutionized by the wire services in the mid-nineteenth century and many of its originally perceived purposes of existence were largely farmed out to the electronic media from early in the twentieth century. The purpose of the popular press has already been revolutionized several times over by now. Since the mid-twentieth century, newspapers shifted from breaking the news to defining the news within a several tiered media hierarchy of popular and less popular outlets whose cultural capital and opinion-making influence was an inverse function of their audience share. In other words, for many decades radio and TV delivered the news, but newspapers set the agenda that they all followed. Talk radio, cable news, our current media system agenda setter Matt Drudge, and the more recent emergence of the wider blogosphere have all in their own way fundamentally reshaped this landscape and are in the process of making it more interactive even as older hierarchies of news-defining authority continue to function in their own way.

The really hard part, obviously, is what does all this mean now? That's the question your recent projects are clearly attempting to explore and map out in a more or less pragmatic and experimental manner and why it's so fascinating to keep tabs on what you and your collaborators are able to come up with.