¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 As I’ve already indicated, the novel is hardly the sole literary form whose death has been critically mourned; one might similarly investigate the “ends” of the epic, the long poem, the sonnet, the drama in verse, the tragedy, poetry and the theatre altogether, the belletristic essay, and the literary letter. Each of these genres is “dead,” and yet each lives on, albeit in altered forms. The epic has been reborn in the big novel (e.g., Gravity’s Rainbow, Underworld); the popular poem flourishes in song lyrics and the spirit of the theatre in independent film; et cetera. Each form is altered by its historical circumstances of production and reception and by the forms that succeed it; this alteration does not equal death but the recombination of old forms into new. Of course, this tension between old and new is not limited to the literary sphere; each advance in communications technologies has produced a similar outcry among cultural watchdogs, mourning the loss of the trusted old form and decrying the apparent cultural decline produced by the new. Plato reports Socrates’ story condemning the rise of writing in an oft-cited passage of the Phaedrus. In this narrative, King Thamus refuses the invention of the Egyptian god Thoth, insisting that writing “will introduce forgetfulness into the soul of those who learn it” (79), destroying the facility of memory by allowing the student to rely upon written records. Whose judgment this rejection of writing ultimately represents–that of Thamus, Socrates, or Plato–is open to question, but it is important to note that the Socratic method of teaching relied upon the existence of a primarily oral culture, and that the introduction of writing to that culture could undermine the method. Similarly, Gutenberg’s miraculous invention, so justly praised by critics of television, was itself accused of the same erosion of cultural standards that the boob tube has ostensibly produced. Just as Mann argues that the modern era is typified by the numberless “deaths” of varying cultural forms, the era is likewise characterized by the continuous hue and cry over the cultural effects of new technologies. Much of this lamentation, however, is less interesting for its claims than for its motives; as Cecelia Tichi suggests of the battle between television and the book: “at issue here is resistance to technological change by groups perceiving their interests to be imperiled by that change” (Electronic Hearth 175). The lament over a new technology inevitably goes up from the quarters that house the old technology, from those who stand to lose (whether in financial terms or in less material terms of cultural status) if the old form disappears. Thus Plato’s deploring the rise of writing; thus the call among Venetian abbots and scribes for banning the printing press; thus Neil Postman’s concerns about television and computers. Nonetheless, these lamenters owe something to the very technology they argue against, a point that doesn’t wholly disprove their critiques but does reveal something of the complexities of the media ecology. We have Plato’s words today because of Thoth’s invention. Alexander Pope’s conviction that “the invention of Printing” was intended as “a scourge for the sins of the learned” (qtd. in Stephens 34) comes despite the connections of his fame to the printing of the Dunciad. And numerous sites dedicated to the work of contemporary techno-lamenter Neil Postman have sprung up on the World Wide Web.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 In what follows, by relying heavily on studies of the rise of individual technologies, I trace a common thread of anxiety that runs through the histories of the new communications media that have arisen since the mid”“nineteenth century. The cultural discourse that surrounds such technological change has repeatedly invoked three separate yet intertwined concepts about the new forms: technologies of mechanization have produced concerns about dehumanization; technologies of image production have been greeted with concerns about illusion and ideology; and technologies of interconnection have confronted concerns about the loss of the individual. The first of these concepts, which I refer to as “the machine,” posits in the increasing mechanization of U.S. culture a turn from putatively human values to those that devalue the human. The second concept, “the spectacle,” reveals anxieties about the relative importance of the image and the word in its concerns about the manipulation of visuality. The third concept, “the network,” relays fears about a growing web of physical interconnections through which the individual might be subjugated to the mass. Each new form of communications developed during the twentieth century interacts with at least one of these concepts, and most with more than one. Anxieties about vaudeville and other forms of popular theatre, as well as those about USA Today and the contemporary newspaper, connect the notions of the spectacle and the network. Anxieties about photography and film mobilize the notions both of the spectacle and of the machine. Anxieties about the railroad and other forms of transportation, as well as about the radio, link the machine and the network. And anxieties about television and the Internet terrifyingly link all three concepts.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Moreover, the dual existence of these fears, manifesting both on the cultural (in the sense of aesthetic or technological) and on the social level, suggests the deep imbrication of changing modes of cultural production and changing social structures. Cultural forms develop out of and reflect their contemporary social structures, while they also affect the developing futures of those societies. Although this volume is not fundamentally concerned with unpacking the precise nature of that interconnection, it is important to note the mutual implication of the cultural and the social, and in particular to interrogate the moments at which writing that is ostensibly about one set of fears (cultural anxieties about the network’s tendency to undermine individualism, for instance) reveals the latent presence of those fears’ repressed other (social anxieties about the racial, ethnic, or gendered nature of the mass overtaking the unmarked “individual”). Such moments repeatedly indicate the ways that anxieties about the social, particularly in an age so concerned (at least at a surface level) with avoiding the appearance of racism, or sexism, or ethnocentrism, are often contained within and masked by more palatable discussions of the aesthetic or the technological.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 The rise of the machine as a figure of literary concern during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, then, signals a deep cultural ambivalence about the processes of modernization, a simultaneous fascination and revulsion. The intimate relations between writers and mechanisms throughout U.S. literature, as explored by such critics as Leo Marx and Cecelia Tichi, hint at a connection between technological and cultural production, as the dominant technology of any culture gives shape to that culture’s understanding of the world. In an era dominated by the computer, the relationship between that technology and representations of virtual reality is easy to spot; such a relationship between mode of production and representational content, however, long predates the contemporary period. The U.S. identification with and anxiety about the machine can be dated, as Leo Marx’s work indicates, to the introduction of steam-driven manufactures into Jefferson’s pastoral ideal; as early as the late eighteenth century, the writings of manufacturing’s proponents present “a prophetic vision of machine technology as the fulcrum of national power,” revealing “peculiar affinities between the machine and the New World setting in its entirety: geographical, political, social, and, in our sense of the word, cultural” (Marx 155″“56). These affinities between the machinic and the cultural become pronounced in the moment of modernization. The spread of mechanization, from clockworks to the steam engine to the factory production line, dramatically affected modernist cultural production, as new technologies encouraged the replacement of Romantic conceptions of being in nature with views of the human being as a form of machine. This shift reflects a simultaneous cultural rejection of the Romantic dominant and a longing for the return of that dominant in response to the machine. Marx’s “machine in the garden,” the trope of technology’s incursion into a mythologized nature, thus recurs in literary texts from the late nineteenth century onward as a continuing and intensifying–rather than momentary and localized–conflict between the Romantic ideal and a changing contemporary culture.
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 This conflict is due, however, not to the replacement of nature by the machine but to the protracted, if tenuous, coexistence of the two. Frederic Jameson, in one of his famous formulations of the distinction between modernism and postmodernism, points directly to that coexistence, claiming that in modernism “some residual zones of ‘nature’ or ‘being,’ of the old, the older, the archaic, still subsist; culture can still do something to that nature and work at transforming that ‘referent.’ Postmodernism is what you have when the modernization process is complete and nature is gone for good” (ix). Thus, for Jameson, the postmodern differs from the modern largely in terms of completion; the project of modernization, in process during the earlier era, is over in the later. This sense of completion, however, seems to suggest the perennially deferred nature of the postmodern, as the conflict between the machine and something we continue to think of as “nature” continues into the present. This suggests that, rather than indicating an authentic break between the modern and the postmodern, Jameson’s gesture toward modernization creates a historical continuity across the periods it affects, an ongoing conflict between Romanticism and technology.
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Modernism as an aesthetic was in part born out of the clash between the technological and the natural. Tichi argues that, in the modern period and “[u]nder the aegis of engineering, the U.S. novel of the early twentieth century conceptually changed. The lineage of narration yielded to one of construction” (“Technology” 477). By her argument, the shift from narration as the novel’s key invisible element to the visibility of its processes of construction produced an “amalgamation” of technology and literature. This amalgamation, however,
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 occurred with such rapidity that it often had the appearance of discontinuity. Suddenly loosed from their separate categories, technological and organic figures of speech seemed to jostle each other, suggesting the tensions that inevitably arise in times of rapid sociocultural change, when the old order seems to vanish in the onrush of the new. (Shifting Gears 18)
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Such anxieties as here surface in the tension between the technological and the organic result whenever an old order, or an old mode of being, or an old means of making sense of the world is threatened with disappearance. The Romantic view of nature, for instance, was driven in part by a vast connotative shift in the concept of the “mechanism.” Once identified with nature and “the celestial ‘machine'” (Marx 162), the concept came for the Romantics to represent that opposed to the organic; in this shift, the machine becomes that which is specifically unnatural. Post-Romantic cultural thought has largely maintained that opposition, while gradually shifting allegiances within it, allowing the tension between the organic and the technological to intensify. In realist fiction, for instance, writers began looking equally closely at the machine and at the garden; naturalism’s positivist philosophy further understood that garden as a special type of machine. Modernism thus results from the continuing problematic coexistence of the technological and the organic, slightly transformed by a new speed that gives rise to the “appearance of discontinuity.” The formalist tendencies of the modernist writer in viewing the novel as a construction reveal an ongoing interest in the clash of technology and nature; the modern “shock of the new” arises in those writers’ formal enactment of that clash in exposing what Tichi calls the “gears and girders” of their texts (Shifting Gears xiii).
¶ 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Such conflicts between the organic and the machinic, and between the Romantic and the modern, are enacted in the technology of photography and revealed in the reception of that technology in the mid”“nineteenth century. Photography in its very form implies a changing status quo; the ability to “fix” a moment in time highlights that moment’s motion. The technology of photography thus paradoxically communicates obsolescence through its claims to permanence. Moreover, in undermining previous notions of time and permanence, and in its seemingly objective accuracy, photography appeared at its birth to announce a direct threat to painting. This threat was famously received by French artist Paul Delaroche, who is said, upon his first viewing of a daguerreotype, to have exclaimed: “From today on, painting is dead!” (see Levinson 46). However, as Jean-FranÃ§ois Lyotard points out, the challenge that photography posed was not to painting per se, but to one of the functions painting had been thought of as serving:
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¶ 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 The air of obsolescence thus in the nineteenth century settled not around painting in general, but around pictorial realism; the mechanism of photography communicated more directly with realist epistemology than could the painter. Photography simultaneously threatened to displace literary realism as well, illustrating the fundamental disconnect between the ideals of realist writing and the materials at its disposal:
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¶ 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 Photography thus undermined the realism espoused by painting precisely through its technological advances and the power it wielded to represent more, faster, better. It further undermined literary realism by calling the very possibility of verbal verisimilitude into question.
¶ 14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 But the new medium, while thus undermining literary realism, gave support to its claims about the truth value of realistic representation. In fact, the new form became a site throughout the Victorian period of the ongoing literary contest between Romanticism and realism (see Green-Lewis). Each side in this conflict saw photography as evidence of its own superiority, evidence of either the sufficiency or the insufficiency of empiricism in accounting for reality. But each position nonetheless created anxiety in the writer about his relationship to the new form. Anxieties about the photograph among Romantic writers stem not from its apparent capacity to capture reality but from two conflicting senses of its weakness as a representational form: its inability to capture the intangible, immaterial aspects of reality; and conversely, through technical “tricks,” its ability to alter reality, or to lie. Where the figure of the photographer appears in the Victorian romance, he is thus largely represented as evil, the possessor of malevolent powers; these powers are “both affirmed and controlled by their relegation to the fringes of novelistic action” (Green-Lewis 7). For the realist writer, on the other hand, photography captured the tangibility of things as they are and supported his faith in the possibility of adequate knowledge of truth through the perceptions of the senses–but did so perhaps a bit too well. “Photography,” Jennifer Green-Lewis points out, “promised a superior grasp of reality, a realism more real than the thing itself” (30). Through its apparent ability to capture reality, photography helped shove Romanticism out of the cultural spotlight. But by “outperforming” literary realism, photography began to call that mode’s basis into question as well.
¶ 15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 These concerns about the new medium, however, often pick up their vocabulary from the discourses of the spectacle and the machine; critics of early photography raised concerns alternately about the morally dubious nature of a form that can fool the public with realistic illusions and about the aesthetically questionable status of a picture created by an apparatus. Both concerns are aimed at writerly or painterly self-preservation. The critic who argues about photography’s manipulation of illusion reveals an anxiety that “is not lest its viewers mistake a photograph for its original subject but rather that the photograph is a superior kind of painting, that painting as he knows it and painters such as he has been have been superseded by the technology of the camera” (Green-Lewis 52). Similarly, many of the concerns about the new form’s status as art focused on the photograph’s mechanical origin, equating the work it produced with the products of the factory or the assembly line. This discourse inevitably reveals underlying anxieties about class and gender: “Photography’s frequent figuration as mechanical work and its association with menial labor were obviously in part the consequence of anxiety about the wide social range of photographers and no doubt contributed to its metaphoric evolution as a product of science rather than art between the mid and late nineteenth century” (42). Claims of aesthetic decline thus conceal more personal concerns; technological obsolescence stands in for and masks the social. Already, in this first incursion of “new media” into the territory of the old, we see in evidence many of the concerns critics will voice a century later about television.
¶ 16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 Though not, strictly speaking, a communications medium, the railroad demands brief consideration for a number of reasons. First, as Leo Marx argues, the U.S. railroad–that quintessential machine charging through the unspoiled garden–was “the revolutionary machine of the age” (180). The dramatic change in transportation, both of people and materials, that its technology wrought was a necessary factor in the rapid course of industrialization that produced the modern era. Moreover, the railroad profoundly captured the U.S. imagination. “The invention of the steamboat had been exciting,” claims Marx,
¶ 17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 but it was nothing compared to the railroad. In the 1830s the locomotive, an iron horse or fire-Titan, is becoming a kind of national obsession. It is the embodiment of the age, an instrument of power, speed, noise, fire, iron, smoke–at once a testament to the will of man rising over natural obstacles, and, yet, confined by its iron rails to a predetermined path, it suggests a new sort of fate. The “industrial revolution incarnate” one economic historian has called it. Stories about railroad projects, railroad accidents, railroad profits, railroad speed fill the press; the fascinating subject is taken up in songs, political speeches, and magazine articles, both factual and fictional. (191)
¶ 18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 The railroad became the focus both of national pride in U.S. ingenuity and of national anxiety about the increasing power of the machine and the decreasing power of the individual. But the railroad also effected radical transformations in contemporary epistemologies. On a most basic level, the necessity of coordinating railroad schedules led to the institutional regulation of time, including the development of time zones. Furthermore, in creating new metaphors by which Americans lived, the railroad transformed the culture’s notions of history, lending itself to visions of inexorable progress (see Marx 194″“207).
¶ 19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 But beyond these contemporary shifts, the railroad paved the way for future changes in communications. As Wolfgang Schivelbusch has argued, the railroad was a necessary element in bringing about the perceptual changes that prepared early twentieth-century culture for the rise of the new media that captured communications: the cinema and the radio. In the railroad, argues Schivelbusch, lie the origins of the modern “annihilation of space and time” upon which twentieth-century perceptions of the real depend. This foreshortening of space–in which the train’s speed caused to be “displayed in immediate succession objects and pieces of scenery that in their original spatiality belonged to separate realms” (60)–is directly connected to the filmic notion of montage, as the compression of space leads to the destruction of Walter Benjamin’s “aura”:
¶ 20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 The remote regions were made available to the masses by means of tourism: this was merely a prelude, a preparation for making any unique thing available by means of reproduction. When spatial distance is no longer experienced, the differences between original and reproduction diminish. In the filmic juxtaposition–i.e., the perception of montage, the juxtaposition of the most disparate images into one unit–the new reality of annihilated in-between spaces finds its clearest expression: the film brings things closer to the viewer as well as closer together. (42)
¶ 21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 Moreover, the railroad’s mechanicity allowed it to achieve what Schivelbusch calls “pure speed,” which he defines as “speed perceived as an independent quality because it is divorced from the organic base of horse-power. (At the beginning of the twentieth century, the human voice was subjected to that same process of dissociation from its natural habitat, its natural condition, by the microphone and the radio)” (48). The railroad’s speed, then, is achieved precisely by heightening the already extant conflict between nature and technology, dissociating perception from its “natural” origins.
¶ 22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 Thus the mechanics of the railroad exist as the precursors to filmic montage and radio’s sound projection. But a more fundamental change lay in the transformations the railroad caused in visual perception; according to Schivelbusch, the railroad
¶ 23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 and the motion it created became integrated into [man’s] visual perception: thus he could only see things in motion. That mobility of vision–for a traditionally oriented sensorium, such as Ruskin’s, an agent for the dissolution of reality–became a prerequisite for the “normality” of panoramic vision. This vision no longer experienced evanescence: evanescent reality had become the new reality. (64)
¶ 24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 Just as photography bespoke obsolescence through its simultaneous ability and failure to “fix” an instant in time, the railroad hastened obsolescence by introducing motion into perception. Speed and motion become part of the new sensorium, which accepts change–and ever-accelerating change–as normal. Contemporary anxieties surrounding this speed-up frequently connect such increases in motion–conveyed in metaphors of “unrest,” of an unhealthily nervous activity–to a takeover of humans by machines (see Marx 174). Thus Emerson: “Things are in the saddle, / And ride mankind” (Emerson). The machines producing the world’s speed-up are perceived as controlling human direction. Many of these concerns are, as Leo Marx phrases it, “stock expressions of the widespread and largely impotent anxiety generated by mechanization; no doubt the most popular, closely akin to the ‘men-will-become-machines’ trope, was the Frankenstein fable: the story of the robot that destroys its heartless creator” (184). Such worries about the machine, however, whether it is transforming human nature or carrying the potential to destroy it, are securely rooted in contemporary ideologies. The “men” who require protection from the rapacious values of the machine are inevitably of a certain race, a certain class, and a certain gender; “mechanization will hardly seem a menace to those upon whom society confers little dignity of soul (or status) in the first place” (189). In fact, the democratizing power of the machine is precisely part of the problem; during the nineteenth century, the railroad partly obliterated class distinctions, for 90 percent of the railroad’s passengers traveled in the same accommodations. All these factors–the interconnection of the nation through the “annihilation of space and time,” the increase in machinic power and authority, and the bringing together of disparate social classes–led to often violently stated antagonisms toward the railroad. Perhaps only the most extreme representation of this antagonism was the Ohio school board that declared the railroad “a device of Satan to lead immortal souls to hell.”
¶ 25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 Film–once similarly described as a “primary school for criminals”–adds to such misgivings about mechanization further misgivings about illusion. The very technology of film is founded in the illusion of motion, created by a rapid succession of still images, which served to heighten concerns about the still image’s ability to manipulate reality and, in effect, to lie. But visible in this critic’s commentary is the true source of early twentieth-century anxieties about film: not the images displayed or their motion, but the audience in attendance. It was for this reason that, with the first attempts to regulate the new medium, the rules targeted not film producers but exhibitors. That the producers (in the very early days of film, that is, before the establishment of the West Coast studios) were largely middle class and U.S. born while the exhibitors were often immigrants is not incidental. As Robert Sklar argues in Movie-Made America, film has its origins in working-class entertainment; the rise of film was particularly “galling” to reformers, not because of its content but because “workingmen and immigrants had found their own source of entertainment and information–a source unsupervised and unapproved by the churches and schools, the critics and professors who served as caretakers and disseminators of the official American culture” (18″“19). Official culture felt itself under threat from both a new technology and a swelling working class. Much complaint about the cinema used the former threat to cover for the latter; according to Sklar, the critics of the new medium “rarely said what was on their minds,” dealing instead “with symptoms rather than causes, surfaces rather than depths” (123). Thus, early calls for film censorship frequently and unsurprisingly speak of protecting women and children from depictions of licentious and otherwise immoral behavior rather than of protecting middle-class, white U.S. culture from the encroachments of values foreign to it. And thus, much early academic and writerly anxiety about film centered upon its co-optation of narrative from the novel, its manipulation of fantasy, and its use as an ideological tool, only rarely mentioning–and then in a protective, paternal fashion–those gullible masses for whom the new medium had become a primary cultural experience.
¶ 26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 Each new technological form threatens those that have gone before. Images threaten print; photography threatens painting; film threatens the novel; television threatens film; the Internet threatens television. But, as Paul Levinson indicates, cultural jeremiads about new communications technologies, while often rightly sensing the implied loss of old forms, frequently operate under complex motives.
¶ 27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 Although we can sympathize with such fears on the human level of appreciating the pain attendant to any kind of cultural loss, our ethics also need to note that for most people the old way of communicating and thereby living is usually inferior to the new. Indeed, new media since the printing press have in every case served to ultimately further the democratization it engendered, with the result that critics of the new media have usually been defenders of the elite, attempting to bar the new onslaught of the masses. (56)
¶ 28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 The onslaught of those masses–and in particular, their “otherness”–is the subtext of the anxiety of obsolescence. The masses attendant behind fears of new media come closest to the surface of texts of obsolescence as these engage with the concept of the network, but they are also visible in mobilizations of the concepts of the spectacle and the machine. In the chapters that follow, I focus in upon the contemporary novel’s readings of each of these three central concepts as they revolve around television, which serves here as a metonym for something broader that might be characterized as the “electronic media.” As I use this term, I mean to speak inclusively of all media forms (including photography and film) that participate in or are defined by the machine, the spectacle, and the network. “Television” should thus be read less as the historical culmination of these forms of mediation–leading to a teleological narrative of media development–than as a figure for these three concepts of mediation, the key late twentieth-century form that embodies all the complaints about the influence of the communications media on U.S. culture. As these complaints would have it, the television set itself is a machine that distances us from humanity, encouraging us to think of ourselves as machines; the televisual product is a spectacle, distracting us from the “real”; the television broadcasting system is a network of one-way connections that destroys our ability to speak back to the sources of power while providing that power with a terrifying means of control and surveillance. But by reading closely, we can uncover in diatribes about the evils of television the attempt to protect an elite and elitist culture from the incursion of the viewing masses; the true terror of television for many of these writers is not the screen or the content, but the boobs who watch it.
¶ 29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 Internet technologies, in this model, serve as a temporary media “future,” a form still in development, but one that has been much written about in relation to these three core concepts. Despite the Internet’s heavy reliance on text, the new medium’s adaptations of writing to the visual limitations of the computer screen (as well as the often-discussed fact that the World Wide Web only “took off” once the ability to transmit images was written into its code) firmly connect this medium to the terms of the spectacle. The computer itself is often viewed as a foreign, threatening technology that has furthered our capitulation to mechanical values and heightened our sense of the human as a machine. And the frequent debates about privacy, security, intellectual property, and censorship on the Internet rely upon the terms of the concept of the network. But this is not to point to the Internet as an endpoint of the media narrative. U.S. media culture has given the impression since the late 1990s of being on the cusp of some new convergence of extant technologies, a cross-fertilization whose first new shoot was seen in a short-lived hybrid technology, WebTV. In this very preliminary stab at a new integrated medium, the three concepts of spectacle, machine, and network functioned once again. As the press materials described it: “WebTV is not the Internet tacked onto your TV screen–quite the contrary. WebTV is designed to harness the power of the Internet to make watching television more involving, more entertaining, even more inspirational.” The contradiction embedded in these statements–WebTV is not just television plus the Internet; it’s television with the Internet added!–reveals part of the reason for the ultimate failure of the technology: it wasn’t new. It was also far too literal an attempt to combine these two quite opposed media. Television, as McLuhan pointed out more than thirty years ago, is a “cool” medium; the viewer becomes absorbed by it. The Internet, on the contrary, is “hot”; a user (note already the important shift in terms) must take an active part in completing the communication. These two forms simply cannot be slapped together. Frankly, we don’t want television to be any more “involving” than it already is. As Bruce Owen suggests: “sometimes it’s nice to be passive” (10).
¶ 30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 Worse, expecting the Internet to be a new form of television–and expecting our new convergence models to follow in the footsteps of older media– falls into the egregious fallacy that Levinson describes, following McLuhan, as “rear-view mirrorism,” the determination to read new forms through the lenses of the old (see Levinson 126). Hence the “horseless carriage” and the “wireless”; hence also “interactive television,” an unwitting oxymoron repeatedly perpetrated by well-meaning futurologists. This rear-view mirrorism may in part be responsible for the cultural anxieties about new media we see in the anxiety of obsolescence, as it suggests that new media can and should take over the roles of older forms, making them obsolete. But new media take unpredictable paths of development. Whatever the future of the communications media holds, we must keep in mind one key fact about all the aforementioned struggles among media: none of the forms under threat have disappeared. As Levinson demonstrates in his case study of the changes effected in radio by the rise of television, old forms often find niches within which to operate, filling demands that the new media overlook. Thus impressionist (and expressionist, and cubist, et cetera) painting, which uses visuality in ways ignored by photographic realism. Moreover, many media battles are resolved not by such a division of territory but by the formation of new hybrids. Such is the argument advanced by Tabbi and Wutz in the introduction to Reading Matters:
¶ 31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 As the systems theoretician Niklas Luhmann has argued, an enlarged media environment leads not only to “differentiation”–a definition of each medium’s alterity from other media–but also to a productive ecology, a reciprocity between media that ensures the continued presence of older, less advanced storage and communications technologies: “The higher complexity of a new level of development makes it possible to reinvest the old [in this case, print] with new meaning, as far as it lets itself be integrated. New technological developments do not necessarily mean the forceful negation of older media, but rather their recombination.” (9; bracketed insert in original)
¶ 32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 0 In this notion of media recombination, we can see the importance of cable television, pay per view, and the VCR, all of which recouped an audience for film just when television threatened to kill it off.
¶ 33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 0 Given these models, there is no reason to suspect that print generally, or the book in particular, or the novel most specifically, will die. The medium, or the genre, might instead come to fill a particular cultural role ignored by film, television, and the Internet. Or print and the electronic media might produce a new hybrid. This hybrid might look something like the e-book, or it might look like hypertext on the Web. It is more likely, however, that it will take a form we cannot yet imagine; “e-book” and “hypertext” both smack of the rearview mirrorism we should work to avoid. We might instead consider Stuart Moulthrop’s vision of the future of print:
¶ 34 Leave a comment on paragraph 34 0 It is part of the paradoxical nature of postmodernism that old categories do not die; instead they stick around, generating influence anxiety. While certain media ecologists once thought print might be dead, we now find ourselves in what Jay David Bolter calls “the late age of print.” The culture of writing did not vanish apocalyptically in a flash of cathode rays; it has persisted, stubbornly mutating, reappearing on what Donna Haraway calls “etched surfaces of the late twentieth century”–silicon chips and digital displays. Print is undead. (269)
¶ 35 Leave a comment on paragraph 35 0 It is curious, of course, to think of print as “undead,” existing in a vampire state of sorts–until we remember that Haraway intended the cyborg body itself as the quintessential contemporary “etched surface” (see Haraway 176). Just as the cyborg, by being both human and machine, is in Haraway’s view able to escape the oppressive binaries of gender and race, so text–in a future that will be both print and electronic, both tangible and intangible, both dead and alive–may find a path out of the ideological quandaries in which it is bound.