Talk to the Media, Speak to the Language
You must talk to the media, not to the programmer. To talk to the programmer is like complaining to a hot dog vendor at a ballpark about how badly your favorite team is playing.”
Language is inescapable. The building blocks of communication are integral to our attempts to understand the world in which we live; so much so that it makes no sense to investigate anything cultural without addressing them. There’s a reason we seek answers to problems — problems like the war in Afghanistan, but also problems like a disagreement between two co-workers — by way of things we call discourse, forums, mediation.
I tried something fun last week. I read two books in succession, both of which were published in the late-‘60s, and which sought to explore the strange transition taking place at that time within the modes of information being heaped upon humanity. And while they come from a very different societal landscape than the one we live in now, they struck me as texts vital to the reality of 2012 because of their precision of thought — the way they get to the root of it all.
The Medium is the Massage, written by theorist Marshall McLuhan (who is maybe better known as a guy who predicted the existence of the World Wide Web about three decades before it was invented), doesn’t actually have too many words in it. Over the course of about 150 pages, its fragmented passages are interrupted at every turn by images and laid out and designed by co-author Quentin Fiore. While that kind of semi-theatrical presentation, featuring both jarring photographs and quirks like upside-down text, seems obviously dated by now (but don’t tell that to Mark Danielewski fans), it reveals to us the subconscious first layer of McLuhan’s point: confusion — a feeling of being overwhelmed by new media. This is a feeling that, 45 years later, hasn’t gotten old. McLuhan writes:
Innumerable confusions and a profound feeling of despair invariably emerge in periods of great technological and cultural transitions. Our ‘Age of Anxiety’ is, in great part, the result of trying to do today’s job with yesterday’s tools—with yesterday’s concepts.”
We’re still living in an age of anxiety, however different our jobs and tools have become. Whereas McLuhan dealt with television and its magnetic hold on the mind of a generation, we’ve been forced to encounter the impossibly fluid world of social networking and instantly-transmitted information that has destroyed our ability to actually process a text before reacting to it. Or has it? That inability to sufficiently respond to the effects of new media without short-circuiting, or just getting flustered — the kind of thinking that creates groups of warring factions who debate over the usefulness or destructiveness of things like Facebook and e-readers — that’s the feeling of despair McLuhan is talking about. It’s hard to describe, and it always results in cultural conflict.
Conflict based on what? That always changes, and it doesn’t always matter. But the weapon used to fight those conflicts has, of course, never changed; it has always been language, the basic tool of communication. This is a beautiful and an awful thing. As McLuhan notes, it also became a somewhat hopeless thing upon the introduction of what he calls “electric technology” into society. How can we gain an accurate, objective perspective of the petty debates we choose to engage in regarding politics, economics, art, whatever? You’d like to remove yourself, but the instant nature of new media won’t allow for an easy route to clarity. The discourse, forums, and mediation are just theatrics, like the very layout of McLuhan’s book — they are a collectively strange illusion, allowing us to believe we’re making progress on an issue while trapping us further within an endless reliance on the very communication that’s tied us up in the first place. “No detachment of frame is possible.”
So when detachment isn’t really an option — when taking even a single step outside the dialogue between man and media is impossible — we find only one direction in which to travel. This is inward, downward into language, to explore but also perhaps simply to vent the frustration that accompanies transition, to deconstruct the roots of communication that have freed, enslaved, and confused us.
Enter Samuel R. Delany. My second book last week was his masterfully conceived novel, Babel-17. The story is of interstellar war, alien encounters, and a brilliant heroine who saves everyone from destruction. But the real exploration is a journey into language — the root of his characters’ suffering as well as their very spiritual liberation.
So while Delany is writing trippy sci-fi compared to McLuhan’s denser non-fiction, in many ways he picks up exactly where McLuhan leaves off. Aside from the fact that Babel-17 is, itself, a language — a perfect language that is both the cause of unavoidable conflict and the key to ending the novel’s war — Delany explores the very personal, fundamental aspects of communication to which McLuhan alludes throughout his own work, highlighting, above all else, the underlying confusion. Rydra Wong, on her quest to decipher Babel-17, meets an alien, called only the Butcher, whose linguistic uniqueness leaves him with no conception of the words “I” or “you.” She tells him, when he resists her efforts to teach them:
Don’t you see, sometimes you want to say things, and you’re missing an idea to make them with, and missing a word to make the idea with. In the beginning was the word. That’s how somebody tried to explain it once. Until something is named, it doesn’t exist. And it’s something the brain needs to have exist, otherwise you wouldn’t have to beat your chest, or strike your fist on your palm. The brain wants it to exist; let me teach it the word.”
Delany has struck something so deep here — he is reacting to the transitional confusion of the technology of his own human society by searching for the origin of it all, the creation of a sense of self without which no television or internet, no media at all would ever be possible. And the sense of self is not a physical feeling, an emotion, or a reaction to the external world; it is “I” — the ambiguous, malleable word.
At the same time, the novel confronts the other side of communication, namely, its ability to overcome the culturally visual signs and symbols that so often distract us from understanding one another. One of the most sneakily important characters in the book is a guy we see only twice: once at the beginning, and once again near the very end. He’s a customs officer who at first represents society’s stereotypical square. We meet him first as he meets Rydra, while she’s in the process of assembling her crew to travel across the galaxy. He’s staggered by this overwhelming fear of the strange people he meets as she takes him into her urban underworld in search of the best pilot, navigator, etc., all of whom he’s required to register in the official database before departure.
We find, by the second time we see him, that the very act of speaking with those undesirable types has rearranged his perspective — not detached him from that perspective in a totally objective way, but drawn him more deeply in touch with it. And it’s the brief response of the person he’s sharing those feelings with that reminds us of the key to it all.
“‘I saw a bunch of the weirdest, oddest people I had ever met in my life, who thought different, and acted different, and even made love different. And they made me laugh, and get angry, and be happy, and be sad, and excited, and even fall in love a little. And they didn’t seem to be so weird or strange anymore.”
‘Communication was working that night?’
‘I guess so.’”
So what does this all mean to us, aside from a couple of good reads? Looking backwards from the vantage point of 2012, McLuhan and Delany, for all their respective brilliance, sit there kind of like ancient artifacts in the grand scheme of things. But it’s not the specifics of their arguments or plot points that we really need to draw on; it’s the inquisitive spirit that allowed them to seek out and attempt to express the role of communication in the tumult of their own times.
We have just as much bullshit through which to wade as they did, but we can find a new sense of clarity — as readers, and as people — when we remember that it’s not always enough to speak about the conflicts of our generation, or even to speak to one another. We have to speak to the language.