Nice Image You've Got There. Shame If It Got Memed.
The Convivial Society: Vol. 2, No. 15
Welcome to The Convivial Society. In this installment, you’ll find some thoughts on the cultural consequences of digital media. A big chunk of new readers means that I’m being a bit more careful not to presume familiarity with themes that I’ve written about before, so some of what follows may be old news for some of you. Either way, you can file this installment under my ongoing effort to think about the social and political fallout of digital media. And it really is an effort to think out loud. Your feedback and even pushback are welcome.
“I can’t express how useless these old school Sunday shows are,” Sean Illing recently tweeted, “and it blows my mind that a single human person still watches any of them.” Illing is here referring to the gamut of Sunday morning political talk shows—This Week, Meet the Press, etc.—and I can’t imagine that many people would step up to bat for the value of these shows. But their waning status may be worth a moment’s reflection as an entry point into a discussion about the ongoing digitization of our media ecosystem. And, to be clear, I’m not thinking here of “the media,” as in journalists, newspapers, and cable talk shows. What I have in mind is media as the plural of a medium of communication such as writing, print, telephony, radio, television, etc. Sometimes the advent of a new medium of communication can have striking social and psychic consequences. Here’s how Neil Postman once put it:
A new medium does not add something; it changes everything. In the year 1500, after the printing press was invented, you did not have old Europe plus the printing press. You had a different Europe. After television, America was not America plus television. Television gave a new coloration to every political campaign, to every home, to every school, to every church, to every industry, and so on.
So, with this approach in mind, here was my initial response to Illing’s tweet. Regarding the Sunday morning shows, I suggested that “their use, such as it is, is as content or fodder for the newer medium, rather than as an important medium of information in their own right. The assumptions and values of their form are irrelevant compared to the assumptions and values of the new form into which they are absorbed.”
This is basically just media ecology 101. For those of you still getting your bearings around here, I’ll mention that along with channelling the strain of old tech criticism that includes Lewis Mumford, Jacques Ellul, Ivan Illich, and the like, I also occasionally slip into media ecology mode. Marshall McLuhan, the aforementioned Neil Postman, Walter Ong, and Harold Innis are some of the leading lights, and you can read more about media ecology on the website of the Media Ecology Association. The few lines above from Postman give you a good sense of the approach. The general idea is that a medium of communication matters as much as, if not sometimes more than, the content that is being communicated through it. McLuhan, in another memorable formulation, put it this way: “Our conventional response to all media, namely that it is how they are used that counts, is the numb stance of the technological idiot. For the ‘content’ of a medium is like the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind.”1
This can be a counter-intuitive claim if we’re used to thinking about a medium of communication (and technology in general) as an essentially neutral form. Spoiler alert: It’s not. As McLuhan famously put it, “The medium is the message,” which, as he went on to explain, means, for example, that “the ‘message’ of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs.” A change, I want to stress, that is largely irrespective of the nature of the content that the medium is used to communicate.
Media ecology, then, offers a helpful set of critical tools we can apply to questions about digital media and the public sphere. So, for example, in saying that the Sunday talk shows are fodder for the new medium, I’m recalling McLuhan’s observation that “the ‘content’ of any medium is always another medium.” In this case, digital forms of communication constitute the newer medium. And the point applies not only to the Sunday shows, but really to all pre-digital media. Television, film, radio, print — all are taken up and absorbed by digital media either because they themselves become digital artifacts (digital files rather than, say, rolls of film) or because they become the content of our digital media feeds.
This means, for example, that a movie is not only something to be taken whole and enjoyed on its own terms, it is also going to be dissected and turned into free-floating clips and memes and gifs. What’s more, the meaning and effect of these clips, memes, and gifs may very well depend more on their own formal structure and their use in our feeds than on their relation to the film that is their source. It means, too, that both the nature of the television show changes when it is made for digital contexts and that we watch Ted Lasso, in part, so that we can post about it. And, it means that every other Sunday morning or so, Chuck Todd is trending on Twitter not because he is an authoritative and influential media figure, but because he is not. It means the more savvy guests know the point of their appearance is not to inform or debate, but to generate a potentially viral clip, or, alternatively, to assiduously avoid doing so. It means, ultimately, that the habits, standards, and norms of the older medium are displaced by the habits, standards, and norms of the newer medium. However seriously the Sunday morning hosts take their job, it just doesn’t matter in the way they think it does. It all starts to feel a bit like a modern version of Don Quixote. The ostensible protagonists have not realized that the world has moved on, and they unwittingly strike a tragicomic note. Woe to those who fail to grasp this point, and woe to all of us when the point is best grasped by the most unscrupulous, as is too often the case.
In other words, as a good friend of mine is fond of asking, “what frames what?” It’s a good diagnostic question, and it applies nicely here. So we might ask, “What frames what, the televisual medium or the digital?” I’d argue that the answer is pretty straightforward: increasingly, digital media frames all older forms, and it is the habits, assumptions, and total effect of the digital medium that matters most. I won’t pretend to know all of what this will mean, of course. Digital media is a complex, multi-faceted, ever-shifting phenomenon, and we’re still sorting out the “symbolic fallout.”2 But I can tell you that many of the disorders of our moment, particularly with regard to what we sometimes quaintly call the public sphere, will make more sense if we see them, at least in part, as a function of this ongoing transition into a digital media ecosystem.3
Let me take another angle on this theme by commenting on an observation Ari Schulman, the editor of the The New Atlantis, recently made when he tweeted that he was “struck by the odd sense that America is post-pseudo-event. If the same disastrous scenes of Afghanistan pullout happen ten years ago, you can practically feel them preparing the reels for a Newseum exhibit. Now events are events, yet it doesn't feel like a relief.”
I think I understand what Schulman is getting at here. It’s the sense, especially pronounced the more online one happens to be, that events can’t sustain the kind of attention that was once lavished on them in an older televisual media environment. Or, to put it another way, I might say that it’s the sense that nothing seems to get any durable traction in our collective imagination. I’ll provisionally suggest that this is yet another example of the medium being the message. In this case, I would argue that the relevant medium is the social media timeline. The timeline now tends to be the principal point of mediation between the world out there and our perception of it. It refracts the world, rather than reflecting it. And it’s relentless temporality structures our perception of time and with it our sense of what is enduring and significant. And, at the risk of becoming pedantic, let me say again this happens regardless of the nature of the content we encounter or even how that content is moderated. But let’s come back to the idea of being post-pseudo-event.
“Pseudo-event” was a term coined by Daniel Boorstin in his 1962 book, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-events in America. They were a function of a regime of the imagination ruled by the image, or, more specifically, the manufactured image. According to Boorstin, the pseudo-event “is not spontaneous, but comes about because someone has planned, planted, or incited it.” It was Boorstin, too, who in this same book gave us the category of someone who is famous for being famous, or, in his words, “a person who is known for his well-knownness,” a similarly artificial and vacuous dynamic. An event, by contrast, has a certain of integrity to it; it lacks the artificial character of the pseudo-event that exists chiefly to be noted and commented upon.
So, are we, as Schulman suggested, post-pseudo-event? Yes and no, I’d say, but first a little bit of clarification may be in order. It’s important to note that on the ground, of course, the withdrawal from Afghanistan is not a pseudo-event; it is the site of very real danger, desperation, and suffering. It’s also worth distinguishing between the cultural power of the image and a pseudo-event. Images are the currency of the pseudo-event, but an event captured by an image does not thereby necessarily become a pseudo-event.
The questions we’ve been hovering around have to do with how different media of documentation and dissemination translate a concrete event into the realm of symbolic cultural exchange. The power of a medium lies in this work of mediation, which in turn shapes the public sphere and the experience of the self in relation to it. It is in this way that the advent of new media technology—from writing to print and then radio, television, and the internet—can have far-reaching consequences.
So let’s come back to Schulman’s observation. I’d say that we are not quite post-pseudo-event. In fact, from a certain perspective they have multiplied exponentially in the so-called attention economy. But something is different, and one way to see this is to recognize what has happened to the image, which, again, is the substrate of the pseudo-event. Simply put, images aren’t what they used to be, and, as a consequence, the character of the pseudo-event has changed as well.
As we approach the 20th anniversary of the September 11th attacks, I’m tempted to suggest that the image of the towers burning might be the last example of an iconic public image with longstanding cultural currency. There are undoubtedly some more recent examples of powerful and memorable images, but their power is subverted by the digital media environment that now frames them. I’m tempted to argue that 9/11 marked the beginning of the end for the age of the image in the sense that Boorstin meant it. Specifically, it is the end of the age of the manufactured image that speaks compellingly to a broad swath of society.
If this is generally near the mark, then one explanation is simply that not long after 9/11, the image economy began to collapse when the market was flooded with digital representations. As a simple thought experiment, consider how different the documentary evidence of 9/11 would be if the event had occurred ten years later after smartphones had saturated the market. There’s another observation by McLuhan that applies here. McLuhan, together with his son Eric, developed a tetrad of media effects as a useful tool for analyzing the consequences of new technologies. The four elements of the tetrad were enhancement, retrieval, obsolescence, and reversal. Or, to put these as questions:
What does a technology enhance?
What does it make obsolete?
What does it retrieve that had been obsolesced earlier?
What does it flip into when pushed to extremes?
In response to Ari’s observation, the fourth of those effects came to mind. “When pushed to the limits of its potential,” McLuhan claimed, “the new form will tend to reverse what had been its original characteristics.” In this case, the massive proliferation of images leads to a degradation of the cultural power of the image. Boorstin himself noted the roots of the pseudo-event in the “graphic revolution” of the late 19th century, and, indeed, it was a revolution powered by new tools and techniques. But the ability to generate and circulate digital images represents yet another revolution in scale, although scale is not the only factor.
One characteristic of the digital image is the ease with which it can be not only reproduced and disseminated but also manipulated. I don’t mean this only in the more nefarious sense, I mean simply that just about anyone with internet access and a computer can set about to fiddle with an image in countless ways, yielding everything from artifacts of what used to be called re-mix culture to the more notorious case of deepfakes. (Beyond this, of course, there is the more recent development of synthetic images generated by a variety of high-powered computing processes.)
With the same “graphic revolution” that Boorstin referenced in mind, Walter Benjamin argued in a well-known early 20th-century essay that the work of art lost its aura, or a kind of authority grounded in its unique materiality, in the age of its mechanical reproducibility. The Mona Lisa, in other words, loses something of its cultural power when any of us can slap a passable reproduction over our toilet if we so desired. Perhaps we can extend this by saying that, in turn, the image loses its own cultural standing in the age of its digital manipulability. Mechanical reproduction, photography especially, collapsed the distance necessary for a work of art to generate its aura, its commanding presence. Digital manipulability has had an analogous effect on the image. It’s no longer received from a class of professional story tellers who have monopolized the power to produce and interpret the symbolic currency of cultural exchange. The image-making tools have been democratized. The image itself has been demystified. Every image we encounter now invites us to manipulate it to whatever end strikes our fancy.
I took to Twitter while I was writing this to do a little bit of unscientific research about the power of images. I asked what the more recent examples of iconic images might be, suggesting that I wondered whether there were such images. I don’t remember the exact wording because I deleted the tweet after it was quote tweeted into the white supremacist corners of the platform. But, while it was up, the responses were instructive. While some genuine examples came up, most notably, I think, the image of the Syrian child who tragically drowned fleeing his homeland, most were, in fact, memes or decidedly ironic images.
It’s probably too simplistic to put it this way, but perhaps we might say that the age of the image has yielded to the age of the meme. Again, this is not to say that powerful, moving images no longer appear, but they are framed by the ethos of digital media, which has, presently at least, given us the meme as its ideal form. The image could sustain a degree of earnestness, the meme is much too self-aware for that. The image could inspire, the meme, powerful in its own right, cannot. The image could be managed, the meme resists all such efforts. And as the image has yielded to the meme, the pseudo-event now manifests chiefly as the Discourse—ceaseless, self-referential, demoralizing, and ultimately untethered from the events themselves.
Ultimately, the image as it fed the pseudo-event became a tool to manage public opinion, and now it is broken. Some people get this, others obviously do not.
In a post from a few years back, Andrew McLuhan, Marshall’s grandson, commented on this observation and noted how it reworked a portion of T. S. Eliot’s “The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism”: “The chief use of the ‘meaning’ of a poem, in the ordinary sense, may be (for here again I am speaking of some kinds of poetry and not all) to satisfy one habit of the reader, to keep his mind diverted and quiet, while the poem does its work upon him: much as the imaginary burglar is always provided with a nice piece of meat for the house-dog.”
“Symbolic fallout” is a phrase I’ve borrowed from Ivan Illich. Here’s the context: “"I would like to get ... people to think about what tools do to our perception rather than what we can do with them ... how their use shapes our perception of reality, rather than how we shape reality by applying or using them. In other words, I'm interested in the symbolic fallout of tools, and how this fallout is reflected in the sacramental tool structure of the world.”