Introduction to the Humanities
Topic 2: Media and Culture
In our first topic we saw how, in cultures without writing, story-telling serves as an important method to preserve and pass along the knowledge that’s considered necessary to the continuation of the culture itself. In the second topic, we looked closely at alternatives to conventional story-telling (namely, painting and lyric poetry) as ways of representing the world to others and to ourselves. In this last topic, we’ll examine the changes that can occur when human cultures develop alternative physical forms in which to record and pass on our representations of the world — our stories, our art, our knowledge or ‘truth’, and all other species of information (in other words, our culture). These physical forms, sometimes called the media* of communication, are always related to and influenced by the technological capacities of the culture in which they’re used. However, in turn they can also influence the culture itself by way of the kinds of thinking that different forms of communication media enable and encourage, or disable and discourage.
In the material below, we’ll review the forms of physical media for preserving or communicating information and knowledge that have been important to the development of human culture, from the beginning of recorded history to the present day. For each historical stage, there is a page reference that tells you where to find a short discussion of this topic in your textbook. You will also find occasional links that lead to additional information on the Internet regarding some aspect of that topic.
[* media is the plural form of the word ‘medium’, a conducting channel between two points, and in this usage it refers to ALL physical forms of communication or representation, NOT simply to our current, casual usage of the word as a shorthand for ‘news media’; please keep these different meanings separate when thinking about this topic]
Prehistory (textbook, pp. 2-4)
From the opening pages of your textbook, we know that the earliest forms of ‘persistent’ media (those that last for an extended period of time), from the prehistoric period, are the media of visual representation used by the Paleolithic human cultures – cave paintings and small sculpted figures crafted out of stone, wood, bone, and ivory. (The cave paintings link will take you to a gallery of ancient cave paintings.) As your textbook explains, the practices of more recent hunter-gatherer cultures allow us to make the educated guess that prehistoric uses of such representation included attempts to control the surrounding environment so as to enhance or ensure the chances of survival. These techniques of control might have included ‘sympathetic magic’ (a form of externally directed control) or education of the group (a form of internally directed control). Whatever form it took, this practice implies that the humans of the prehistoric period believed that these visual representations of the world contained some kind of power. As we’ll see in a moment, a belief in the power that lies in the act of representing the world continues to the present day, regardless of whether the representation takes the form of visual depiction, printed words, or electronically transmitted speech.
Sumer (textbook, pp. 6-7)
In response to the rise of the early cities, and the expansion of production and trade that accompanied the cities, the ancient Sumerians developed over 4500 years ago the first known writing system, cuneiform, as a way to maintain records of their commerce. (The link will take you to a photograph of a complete ancient cuneiform tablet.) As the textbook notes, cuneiform started out as a system of pictographs, iconic visual representations of the things being recorded. However, when the system of pictographs became abstracted and standardized into a system of wedge-shaped stylus marks, an important change took place. The speed with which scribes could write using these abstracted signs allowed the use of writing to expand beyond simple record-keeping. The writing and reading of cuneiform (a skill attained by only a few) became a tool of political power as well as commercial power.
At the same time, this new form of representation retains that connection to spiritual (or religious) power that originated in the prehistoric use of visual representation. Much writing from the distant past is ‘sacred writing’. In fact, the Egyptians had a separate system of written symbols specifically for sacred writing. These symbols were called hieroglyphs (Greek for ‘higher writing’ or ‘sacred signs’). The system of hieroglyphic writing retained its pictographic (representational) qualities, which suggests a continuation of the ancient connection between visual representation and spiritual meaning.
Greeks and Hebrews (textbook, pp. 41-42, 44-47, 92-95)
In the Greeks and the Hebrews, we find two cultures that took the medium of writing and applied it to different purposes – in both cases, with great effect. The Hebrews recorded a collection of oral stories and songs, edicts and laws of social behavior, prophetic teachings, and a smattering of historical chronicles (of varying accuracy) and used them as the focal point of an enduring religious tradition. Many contemporary scholars believe that the continued survival of the Judaic tradition, in the face of a long history of hardships and challenges, derives in part from its dedication to a written text, one that served as a vehicle of continuity for Jewish belief and as a motivation among its followers to learn to read and write.
In their earliest uses of writing, the Greeks also recorded many of their ancient oral stories, especially those dealing with the gods and heroes. However, the unique contributions of the Greeks derive not from the application of writing to religious purposes, but from the transmission of a different oral tradition – the rhetorical tradition of debate and public argument – into the written medium. The most famous examples of this transformation are found in Plato’s dialogues, in which he represents the philosopher Socrates engaged in a dialectic confrontation with other oral philosophers (also known as rhetoricians or Sophists). By relocating their methods of argument into the written medium, the Greeks make it possible to extend and deepen those methods, allowing for the systematic thought of Plato, Aristotle, Pythagoras, Euclid, and the other philosophers, natural scientists, and mathematicians of the classical age.
It is only with the use of writing that systematic thought and argument can be pursued to the degree that it was by the Greek (and later the Hellenistic) thinkers. In fact, it might even be that it was only with the use of alphabetic writing that such a systematic approach could be pursued and widely communicated. (The first true alphabetic writing system appears to have been developed by the Phoenician culture. Use the link to see a table of the Phoenician alphabet and its relationship to the Greek alphabet.) Unlike pictographic writing systems, which have hundreds and sometimes thousands of symbols in the writing vocabulary, alphabetic systems have only a few dozen at most. Alphabetic systems achieve this economy through an extreme abstraction – there is no direct connection between symbol and meaning in alphabetic systems. Where each symbol of a pictographic system represents an object or a concept (that is, it has a meaning in itself, such as ‘sun’, or ‘food’, or ‘house’), each symbol of an alphabetic system represents only a sound, such as ‘b’ for ‘buh’ or ‘o’ for ‘oh’ (that is, it has no meaning on its own). In other words, pictographic systems require a symbol for almost every word, but the much smaller number of symbols in an alphabetic system can be recombined in an abundance of ways to represent the sounds of each word. And because the number of symbols to be learned and remembered in an alphabetic system is so much smaller than in a pictographic system, literacy (the skill of reading and writing) is easier to achieve and therefore more widely acquired.
This fact in itself can serve to spread the practice of systematic thought in a culture where it is already taking root. However, some contemporary scholars have also argued that learning an alphabetic system of writing and reading can also contribute to the development of abstract, systematic thought because it trains its users in the practice of abstraction, as well as encouraging the assumption that well-ordered thoughts are those that follow each other in a linear sequence, like words on a written page and the letters that make up those words. Although it’s difficult to gauge the accuracy of this argument, certainly it’s true that the Greeks had a dedication to order and proportion that was rare in their own time (p. 47).
Gothic Cathedral (textbook, pp. 157-163)
We don’t usually think of construction technologies as being media of communication, but the Gothic cathedral proves that they can be. Although written texts were used by the learned during the European medieval period, the overwhelming majority of the European population was not literate. In such an atmosphere, the Christian clergy were often on the lookout for new ways to educate their congregations in the principles of Christian belief. The Gothic cathedral combined a number of techniques of construction and design to produce a structure that could be called a “bible in stone,” the purpose of which was to keep the churchgoers ever mindful of the teachings of the Christian church.
These techniques of construction included the pointed arch, the ribbed vault, and the flying buttress, which together allowed the builders to achieve both great height and ample span while at the same time opening up the side walls to allow in plenty of light. The internal space that these techniques provided made possible great choir spaces and enough room to stage the liturgical pageants and morality plays that were popular during this period. Meanwhile, the intricately painted altar panels, the sculptural capabilities of the medieval stonemasons, and the breathtaking use of stained-glass windows in those open side walls provided a thickly layered depiction of the figures and stories that make up the Christian drama. Together, all of these features of the Gothic cathedral make it essentially a multimedia event, long before the 20th-century coining of that term.
Printing Press (textbook, pp. 186 and 230-231)
In or around the year 1450, Gutenberg perfected the printing press, a new technology for the production of written texts. The printing press was, for all practical purposes, the first assembly line. It made possible the manufacture of books more cheaply, more rapidly, and in far greater numbers than ever before, which had the effect of exposing the general populace of Europe to an enormous quantity of information and ideas that had previously been available only to a very few. It facilitated learning and literacy on a much wider scale, which not only expanded the practice of science and improved the techniques of manufacture, but also contributed in large measure to the establishment of democratic institutions of government. The printing press also, as your textbook notes, enabled the rapid spread of criticism leveled against the traditional authorities of the Christian Church, which led eventually to the Protestant Revolution.
A parallel development to the introduction of the printing press was two new techniques for the accurate reproduction of visual images: the woodcut and the engraving. When used in combination with the printing press, these techniques made possible the widespread use of illustrations in the many thousands (eventually millions) of books that were being produced. This proved to be important to the expansion of scientific study in the following century, because studies of the natural world are much more easily communicated when accompanied by illustrations of the objects of study.
Scientific Revolution and Modern Philosophy (textbook, pp. 294-302)
As described just above, the new medium of the printed book contributed greatly to the growth of science in Europe during the centuries that followed. It enabled an expansion of the educated populace, and it allowed for the wide distribution of new scientific observations along with new ideas and theories to explain those observations. Also, by contributing to the spread of the Protestant Revolution, which fragmented the social and cultural influence of the Church, the printed book made it possible (at least in some parts of Europe) to consider new explanations for natural phenomena without concern for how the Church in Rome might look upon those explanations.
But the printed book also began to reshape how educated Europeans thought of themselves and – perhaps – how they thought, period. Consider, for example, Diderot’s Encyclopédie, one of the major events of the 18th century. The underlying goals of the project – “the accumulation, codification, and systematic preservation of knowledge” (p. 300) – assume that knowledge itself is that which can be gathered into books. Or to say it another way, printed books are containers for knowledge, and knowledge consists of those things that can be organized into a form to be represented in a printed book. In practice, this turned out to be a powerful assumption, but whether it accurately describes knowledge in its entirety is debatable.
Consider as another example the philosopher and mathematician Rene Descartes and his famous dictum, “I think, therefore I am” (Cogito ergo sum). By this Descartes means that, although I might doubt the existence of all else, and reject the reports of my senses as possible deceptions, I can at least be certain of the existence of this cogitating (that is, thinking) mind, which asks itself, “What can I be certain of knowing?” The existence of these thoughts implies the mind that thinks them, and the existence of that mind – according to Descartes’ logic – implies the self of which that mind is the essential feature. Therefore, “I am.” (Note that this chain of reasoning does not necessarily establish the existence of a physical body for that self to reside in … Descartes’ “I” had to do a lot more thinking before he was able to devise a logical argument for that connection.)
But let’s stop and consider this for a moment. This idea that Descartes had (still strongly influential in today’s Western world) of a solitary self, this free-floating thinking mind, cogitating inside itself and deducing conclusions divorced from any connection to the external world: this idea would have made almost no sense at all to thinkers of earlier times… certainly not to medieval Christian thinkers, and certainly not to the ancient Greeks. Take Socrates, for instance. For Socrates, “to think” is to engage in oral dialogue with other minds, testing one’s opinions and perceptions against their challenges, arriving eventually at some tentatively held conclusion. Neither the thinker, nor the mind, nor even the self (the “I”) makes much sense outside of a community of thinking peers. So how is it that we come to such a substantially different notion as Descartes’ solitary “I”?
The answer to that question is pretty complex, and we don’t really have a complete answer yet. It would include, among other things, the history of the development of individualism (discussed in your textbook in its coverage of the Renaissance period). However, a fairly persuasive argument can be made that part of the answer lies with the printed book. Before the coming of the printed book, reading was still frequently a communal activity. One read to others, or with others, or others read to you — aloud. Even if you were alone in the room, chances are that you read aloud, softly, to yourself — almost as if there were others with you. (Most books during this time were in monastery libraries and frequently dealt with spiritual subjects, so reading them could be seen as another form of worship. In this context reading aloud, “in the presence of God,” made sense.) The practice of reading silently, as we usually do today, was rare. It was only after the arrival of the printed book that reading silently to oneself became a common practice. It’s hard to say why, exactly. Perhaps it’s simply that there were so many more books, and so many more people had access to them, that you were more likely to be in the vicinity of other people when you were reading… other people who didn’t necessarily wish to hear your book as you read it. Or perhaps it’s because many of these new books dealt with secular (non-spiritual) subjects, so the question of worship didn’t enter into the equation, which would remove part of the justification for reading aloud. Or perhaps it’s a combination of these and many other reasons. At any rate, we started to read silently. And when we did, something changed.
When we read aloud, the act of reading is an external act; when we read silently, it becomes an internal act. When we engage in a spoken dialogue with our peers, as Socrates did, thinking is an external act. When we engage in dialogue with the thoughts and ideas on a printed page (while reading silently), thinking becomes an internal act. When this kind of reading and this kind of thinking become one’s habitual practice, it becomes much easier to think of the thinking mind – and the “I” that one attaches to it – as a purely internal phenomenon, a phenomenon driven by its own internal energies, sufficient to itself. And it’s through this habit of conceiving of thought and the thinking mind as purely internal phenomena that Descartes is able to arrive at the solitary thinking self, the “I” whose thoughts provide his only unshakeable certainty of existence. Nevertheless, Socrates and his classical Greek contemporaries would not have recognized the self described by Descartes.
Information Age (textbook, pp. 431-433)
The “information age” is a term for the transformations that have taken place as a result of the introduction of electronic media of communication. This period actually begins with the debut of the telegraph in the mid-19th century, followed by the telephone late in that century and radio early in the 20th century. However, the effects of those technologies, which produce practically instant communication with almost any point on the globe, began to exert cultural influence primarily in the 20th century. Their effects were amplified and extended by early 20th-century technologies like motion pictures and television. Finally, in the latter half of the 20th century, the digital computer and the global spread of interconnected data networks (the Internet) made it clear that we’ve entered a new era in the preservation and communication of knowledge.
One result of this shift in communication media is a heightened sense of the interrelatedness of different parts of the world. Events on one part of the globe, simply because they are immediately known around the world, can affect events on another part of the globe in a relatively brief span of time. More importantly, we’ve become more aware of how some action “here” can have real, physical effects “over there.” For instance, the long-term use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) as an aerosol in one portion of the world during the middle decades of the twentieth century (mostly the Northern Hemisphere, and mostly Europe and North America) appears to have produced a physical consequence – the depletion of ozone in the upper atmosphere – in another portion of the world (the Southern Hemisphere, mostly in the region of Antarctica). This sense of interrelatedness can potentially lead to a greater sense of community… or, as recent events have taught us, it can lead to a greater potential for conflict.
Another result of electronic media is the overwhelming proliferation of information in all forms – written text; recorded sound; still images; video images; highly abstracted computer data – and the accelerated speed at which it moves. This proliferation/acceleration yields the paradoxical effect of giving us access to more information than ever before and leaving us less certain than ever before which information we should give our attention to. However, when we add together television and the contents of the typical Internet Web page, it seems clear that the balance of information we ingest on a regular basis has shifted from the written (a linear mode of representing) to the visual (a nonlinear mode of representing). Also, by presenting all information – past, present, and future – within the same frame of reference and under the same degree of control, both television and the Internet can make all information sources seem to stand on the same ground – thus the postmodern aesthetic habit of choosing influences almost whimsically from a variety of cultural traditions of both the past and the present.
A third result of the rise of “information” as a constant feature of our cultural landscape is its influence upon our sciences and our philosophies. In the scientific concept known as “chaos theory,” many natural phenomena are re-described as complex patterns of information. In molecular biology, we re-describe our physical selves as the expression of an information blueprint – a genome – contained in strands of chemical units of information (DNA). In language philosophy, we question our ability to arrive at “truth” because of the suspicion that any attempt to represent the world through a language is biased toward the methods that the particular language uses to structure information. (This theoretical skepticism is accompanied by a practical skepticism, one driven by the sense that, with so many sources of information – and so many ways to manipulate that information with our technologies – judgments of reliability seem more an act of faith than of reason.)
In all of these ways, our new electrical/electronic media of communication have already had far-reaching effects upon our cultural attitudes and environment. Yet, we stand merely at the beginning of the information age. As described in the notes above, we have strong reason to believe that the mediums of writing and print, each in their own turn, profoundly influenced our patterns of thought and our notions of human identity (for instance, the propensity to reason logically and systematically, or the capacity to imagine ourselves as a separate and individual self based in thought). Given this possibility, what further effects of our information media might be taking shape around us… or within us?
Topic Assignment: Media and Culture
In what ways do you think the communication media of the information age have influenced the way you see the world? (Keep in mind that I’m using the word “media” here in the very broad sense that I’ve been discussing above, NOT – repeat, NOT – the very narrow sense of “news media.”) All of you have learned the skills of reading and writing – skills associated with the media of the printed book and the written word. But probably all of you have also grown up with television, and most of you have even grown up with computers. Which world would you say that you feel more comfortable in? The world of print media, or the world of electronic media? If electronic, how do you suppose this might influence your habits of thought and your methods of expressing those thoughts? (For instance, how do those habits and methods contrast with those you know who prefer, or exist primarily in, the print world?) If you do feel more comfortable in one media realm or the other, do you ever find yourself feeling, when talking to someone who exists primarily in that ‘other’ realm, as if you and they are scarcely speaking the same language, or thinking with the same concepts? What sorts of mental habits do electronic media encourage, or make easier or more convenient? What sorts of mental habits do these new forms of media discourage, or make more difficult or less convenient?
What self-perceptions, if any, might we still share in common with a contemporary of Socrates? or a medieval European? or Descartes? How do your own perceptions of your self-identity differ from those people? Can you foresee how our self-perceptions might change in the future? Who might we be (or, more importantly, think ourselves to be) after another 100 or 200 years of information-age electronic media? (Note that the printing press was the primary medium in the Western world for about 500 years before the rise of the electronic media.) Will we recognize ourselves? By that last question I mean, will the ‘us’ in that future (who of course won’t necessarily be literally those of us involved in this course) recognize as familiar the ways that we describe ourselves today as ‘selves’? Would the ‘us’ today recognize those future ‘selves’, the ways that they imagine and describe themselves, and the habits of communication that they use to jointly arrive at those descriptions?
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