Towards an Ecology of Understanding: Semiotic, Medium Theory, and The Uses of Meaning

  Author: Marc Leverette
Published: January 2003

Abstract (E): This paper argues for a bridge between the paradigms of semiotics and medium theory. It inquires into how the two paradigms define media (as text, massage, environment, …) and relate them to other components of the communication chain (the message, receiver, channel, …). While some semiotic approaches tend to concentrate on message interpretation, most medium theorists emphasize the medium or media form rather than content. A link between these two theoretical realms can allow for a more cogent analysis of media and their place in society.

Abstract (F): Cet article plaide en faveur d’un rapprochement entre sémiotique et médiologie (“medium theory”). Il analyse la manière dont ces deux paradigmes scientifiques définissent les médias (comme texte, impact, environnement, …), puis les rattachent aux autres composants de la chaîne communicationnelle (message, récepteur, canal…). Là où certaines approches sémiotiques tendent à se concentrer sur l’interprétation des messages, la plupart des théoriciens en médiologie accentuent le média plutôt que le contenu. L’établissement d’un lien entre les domaines respectifs de la sémiotique et de la médiologie peut permettre une analyse plus efficace des médias ainsi que de leur place dans la société.

Keywords: medium theory, semiotics, media ecology, interpretation, McLuhan, media environments


* I would like to thank Lehne Leverette, Todd Gitlin, Tom Harkins, Michael Boyden and the editors of Image and Narrative for their insightful comments and criticisms, as well as Neil Postman and Christine Nystrom for their always stimulating conversation and advice.


Among strands in the debate surrounding the theoretical approach to media, the most important division line seems to be that between form and content, or medium and message. The following paper is a critical analysis of medium theory’s explorations of communication technologies and its (unsatisfactory) incorporation of semiotics’ inquiry into the uses of meaning regarding texts and signs. In my opinion, the two fields have traditionally held oppositional views regarding concepts such as media/medium, content, and interpretation. It is the purpose here to illustrate the need to build a bridge between these two worlds.

The traditional concern of semioticians has been the meaning implicit within particular texts, whereas the main contributions of medium theorists deal with the impact of media or technologies on culture and human consciousness. A weakness of semiotics is often its inability to distinguish between implicit and explicit messages. Its intellectual bias towards interpretation tends to lead to overinterpretation. A weakness of medium theory has been the tendency to trivialize content and dismiss the importance of meaning/message interpretation. The overarching problem that connects the two fields is semantics. Both intellectual frameworks are founded on notions and theories plagued by ambiguities, and are often turgid and contentious bodies of work that are, at times, myopic and circular. To correct these problems, it will be argued that semiotics should form and maintain an active merger with medium theory and vice versa. Through clarification and synthesis, I will argue, semioticians will gain a sense of technological effects, as well as the importance of the medium when reading content on that medium. Alternatively, this will give medium theorists a better appreciation regarding the importance of the quest for meaning and the driving need for dynamic interpretation of texts. I hope to show that medium theorists are actually followers of the tenets of semiotics. Finally, a bridge linking these two theoretical structures will allow for a more coherent and holistic understanding of the media, both in McLuhan’s sense of media as messages and semioticians’ views of messages framed within the media.

Medium Theory and Media Ecology

While semiotics (or semiology) has an intellectual history dating back to Peirce, Saussure, and Vico, medium theory is a relatively new discipline in communication theory. It assumes that large, amalgamated technology presupposes a process of standardization, such as specific historical eras (oral, chirographic, print, and electronic) and relational “effects” on consciousness (e.g. “print creates linearity”). The problem is that medium theory assumes society is nothing but a reverberation of the medium, and that social institutions and interactions are either nonexistent or subordinate. However, this is changing somewhat (for example, McLuhan’s medium theory did not take on a sociological context until Meyrowitz’s use of it). My concern, however, is not with social awareness, but rather with meaning. As a graduate student trying to find a correlation between medium theory and the immersion we maintain daily in what we ominously refer to as simply “the media,” I am concerned by medium theory’s negligence in regard to what the medium’s message actually may mean. Semiotics provides a way of reading a symbol/sign system that allows for connotative and denotative meanings, but at the same time it ignores the form of the message and its role in altering consciousness and the social order. Medium theory, on the other hand, points to the changes brought about by symbol structures, but provides no clear explanation as to the importance of the messages conveyed. Joshua Meyrowitz, in No Sense of Place, describes the limitations of the focus on media content (see Ch. 2) and opts for an approach that bridges medium theory with the “situationism” of Erving Goffman and others.

According to Meyrowitz, in his essay “Medium Theory,” “[m]ost of the questions that engage media researchers and popular observers of the media focus only on one dimension of our media environment: the content of media messages” (50, italics mine). The concern that this was not exhaustive of the questions that could, and should, be asked about the media led him to coin the term discussed herein. He writes:

A handful of scholars – mostly from fields other than communications, sociology, and psychology – have tried to call attention to the potential influences of communication technologies in addition to and apart from the content they convey. I use the singular “medium theory” to describe this research tradition in order to differentiate it from most other “media theory.” Medium theory focuses on the particular characteristics of each individual medium or of each particular type of media (50, italics original; also No Sense 16).

In this way, medium theorists argue that various factors influence how a medium is appropriated by a culture and try to account for its social, political, and psychological impact.

Due to this line of rationale, medium theory is often accused of preaching technological determinism, when in fact it is not. While media forms and structures are internalized and function as unacknowledged catalysts for change within the structure and conduct of thought and discourse, it is the interaction between media technology and human beings that is the object of the medium theorist, and not the technology itself. The most apt metaphor is that of Neil Postman’s “ecology,” which best describes the complex interplay between human, technology,
media, and the environment (see Postman, Teaching). Herein lies the complex concept of the media environment, which is firmly entrenched in Meyrowitz’s perspective, most likely due to his training, under Postman, in Media Ecology at New York University in the late 1970s.

In its essence, media ecology looks at a culture in the biological sense of the word; it is a communication theory based on science and biology metaphors. In biology, if something new enters a culture, it changes the entire culture, not just the new thing itself. This is an underlying principle firmly rooted in systems theory and ecology. “When a new factor is added to an old environment,” Meyrowitz notes, “we do not get the old environment plus the new factor, we get a new environment” (No Sense 19). This is to say, the environment is always more than simply the sum of its parts. This type of examination is the work of the ecologist, both traditional and media.

The term “media ecology” was first employed in November 1968, at the annual meeting of the National Council of Teachers of English in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where Postman used the phrase in a major address for the purpose of suggesting a new direction for the teaching of English (published as “Reformed”). In coining the term, and subsequently the field of study, Postman pointed out that he was not inventing a non-existing discipline, but simply giving a name to the kinds of inquiries in which a number of scholars were already engaged. He cites as examples of practicing media ecologists such people as Lewis Mumford, Harold Innis, Peter Drucker, Jacques Ellul, Marshall McLuhan, Edmund Carpenter, David Riesman, Norbert Wiener, Ray Birdwhistell, and several others (Postman “Reformed” 161). Here the connection between medium theory and media ecology is obvious. McLuhan would have considered himself a media ecologist in this sense: he was trying to create an awareness about the hidden effects of electronic technologies, in much the same fashion that Rachel Carson, in Silent Spring, exposed the unintended consequences of pesticides (Morrison 5-6, 23n3). James Morrison argues that if we see McLuhan in his true light as a “technological environmentalist,” it will expose the blindness of his misperceiving critics who see him as a booster of technology; “in truth, he was no more so than Rachel Carson was a promoter of DDT” (Morrison 6). From this ecological framework, we can see that people today do not merely live in a world of the physical. The world is symbolic. We live in a reality filtered by various media; call it what you will: Plato’s cave wall, the world outside and the pictures in our heads, mediated reality, second-hand world, the media environment, the media torrent. As argued above, when a new technology or new symbol system enters a culture, the entire system will change. The examination of this phenomenon is the work of the media ecologist/medium theorist.

Because it takes an entire system to enable a medium to take effect, the charge of technological determinism doesn’t stand. Technological determinism is a powerful view of the nature of social change, wherein new technologies are discovered serendipitously and then go about altering social change and progress. Progress, in this view, is the history of these inventions, thus history itself, foreseen and unseen, direct and indirect, is nothing more than the effects of these technologies. For example, the steam engine, the automobile, and television are makers of modern man and his condition (Williams 13). But in medium theory’s ecological paradigm we can see that is not the case. For example, the printing press didn’t take hold in China, but it did in Europe several centuries thereafter, for reasons involving the cultural milieu of the age. If a printing press were to end up in the middle of a Brazilian rain forest or an African jungle, it obviously wouldn’t start churning out social change. In order to have an effect it would need to involve the system as a whole. Inspired by the film The Gods Must Be Crazy, Christine Nystrom refers to this line of thought as “coke bottle media ecology” (personal communication, April 4, 2002).

McLuhan and Structuralism

Ecology aside, it becomes increasingly clear that the hard-line medium theory stance is actually a structuralist point of view. That is to say, the examination concentrates on the structure of the symbol system (the medium) to understand the effects of its inherent grammar. Meyrowitz can then be seen as a structuralist, as can McLuhan and for a medium theorist such as McLuhan, content is directly relational to structure. For him, “content,” is an illusion derived “from one medium being ‘within’ or simultaneous to another” (McLuhan and Parker Counterblast 24). This is to say that no medium of communication operates in isolation. McLuhan advanced three hypotheses observing how every medium affects every other medium (Understanding Media).

The first, and most generalized, is that the “content” of a medium is always an older medium. Thus, the “content” of writing is speech, the “content” of print is writing, and so on. The second is that a new medium is always in competition with an older medium for the time, money, attention, and loyalty of the culture into which it is introduced. Part of the heated ferocity of this competition is the fight between allies of the older medium (print, say) and allies of the new (television, for example) wherein, as the preceding principle implies, what is at stake is not merely a technology/medium, but the entire lifestyle that the technology/medium implies. Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death is an elegant example of a “typographic man” trying to come to grips with his place in a television world. The third hypothesis is when a new technology/medium is introduced into a culture and usurps the function of an older technology/medium. Either the older technology/medium will undergo some radical transformation and survive, or it will obsolesce and be preserved as an art form (I am thinking here, for example, of the commodification of handwriting (wedding invitations, etc.) in an age of fast and accessible word processing).

To return to the idea of structuralism, we can observe that since different forms of communication have different ways of encoding reality, the structure (grammar, form) of any medium of communication is, in itself, a message which reveals a certain perception of reality. This is basically what I take McLuhan to mean in his most well known aphorism, “the medium is the message.” Luckily for us, and for the sake of clarity, Edmund Carpenter puts it somewhat less pithily, in “The New Languages”: “Each medium, if its bias is properly exploited,” he writes, “communicates a unique aspect of reality, of truth. Each offers a different perspective, a way of seeing an otherwise hidden dimension of reality… A medium is not simply an envelope that carries any letter; it is itself a major part of that message” (Carpenter 174-6). Accordingly in this view, it is the form of the medium, not the content of the message it carries, that dominates our organization of reality. The structure of the printed book, to take one of Carpenter’s examples, presents a “reality” that has been divided into static units which can be analyzed individually. The structure of television, alternatively, presents a “reality” in which everything happens at once and events are difficult to isolate and analyze (Carpenter 162-6; see also, Nystrom).

But the role of structure is no mere coincidence in McLuhan, who considered himself a structuralist. One of his primary influences, via James Joyce, was Giambattista Vico, who many see as the father of modern structural theory (see Hawkes). McLuhan’s posthumously published Laws of Media: The New Science clearly betrays this influence. In a 1969 letter, McLuhan remarked:

. Vico’s new science was so important for [Joyce’s] linguistic probes… Vico was the first to point out that a total history of human
culture and sensibility is embedded in the changing structural forms of language (Letters 385).

Structuralism, in its modern usage, is a European (primarily French) movement in humanities that conceives of any cultural phenomenon as the product of a system of “signification” and attempts to identify a “grammar” of that culture, which could be seen as the rules by which meaning is communicated. By this definition then, McLuhan was a structuralist. In a 1974 letter to historian and popular culture scholar Marshall Fishwick, McLuhan wrote, “…my approach is rightly regarded as ‘structuralist.’ I have acquired that approach through Joyce and Eliot and the Symbolists and use it in The Mechanical Bride. Nobody except myself in the media field has ventured to use the structuralist or ‘existential’ approach” (Letters 506).

A Semiotic Critique of Medium Theory: Eco on McLuhan

With this in mind, we may begin to see the connection between medium theorists and the work of semioticians. But from within semiotics, we find one of McLuhan’s harshest critics. Umberto Eco’s 1967 essay “Cogito Interruptus,” written largely in response to Understanding Media and The Medium is the Massage, reiterates the point that, for McLuhan, the medium makes irrelevant the content transmitted. Taking into account the Guttenbergian habit of linearity, Eco insists readers must come to terms with McLuhan’s denied rationality:

McLuhan has recently realized that perhaps books must no longer be written; and with The Medium is the Massage, his latest “nonbook,” he suggests a discourse in which word is fused with image and the chain of logics are destroyed in favor of a synchronic, visual-verbal proposition, of unreasoned data set spinning before the reader’s intelligence. The trouble is that The Medium is the Massage, to be completely understood, needs Understanding Media as a code (“Cogito” 231-2).

But Eco, the “massage” having rubbed him the wrong way, misses a simple fact: the reason Understanding Media is required to truly break through the Massage is that the latter tome is actually nothing more than a collection of previously published works designed by Quentin Fiore and coordinated by Jerome Agel. In a 1966 letter to William Jovanovich, then president of Harcourt, Brace, & World, Inc., McLuhan writes of The Medium is the Massage: “I didn’t write anything for that book. It is excerpts with pictures… it would be a boost for the other books” (Letters 339). In regard to the often misspelled and misquoted massage title, McLuhan noted the intent was to suggest that “a medium is not something neutral – it does something to people. It takes hold of them. It rubs them off, it massages them, it bumps them around” (from an hour-long NBC-TV program on McLuhan in March 1967, qtd. in Letters 340n5).

Another problem Eco has with McLuhan are his “games of definition.” “Here,” he writes, “we are still at the level of a deliberate regeneration of terminology for provocatory purposes” (“Cogito” 233). But this critique is nothing new. From McLuhan’s use of terms such as “hot,” “cool,” medium,” and so forth, it would appear an academic growth industry was born. (For example, how many times will we read: “What McLuhan really meant when he said was…” See Norvell Chs. 1 and 2 and Leverette “Semantic”.) But Eco, a semiotician by trade, is concerned with meaning in the purest way. “Gutenberg man,” he notes, “and before him, alphabet man had at least taught us to define precisely the terms of our speech. To avoid defining them further precisely to ‘involve’ the reader further… is a trick to throw sand in our eyes” (“Cogito” 233). The drawback to McLuhan’s aphoristic, metaphorical style regarding media is that, for Eco, he seems to be confused as to what a metaphor, or a medium for that matter, actually is. He writes:

It is not true that- as McLuhan says- all the media are active metaphors because they have the power to transmit experience into new forms. In fact, a medium translates experience because it represents a code… But the definition of medium as metaphor also covers a confusion in the definition of medium. To say that it represents an extension of our bodies still means little (“Cogito” 233).

But a metaphor, by definition, is a bridge, performing a kind of carry-over from one domain into another (see Gozzi 79). Within this function, media do qualify as metaphors, but it is the medium theorists’ misuse of meaning that often leads to semantic ambiguities such as these. For example, in a chapter titled “The Medium is the Metaphor,” Neil Postman writes: “Today, we must look to the city of Las Vegas, Nevada, as a metaphor of our national character and aspirations” (Amusing 3). Moreover, he goes on to implicitly recognize the city (Las Vegas), entertainment, and commercialism as the metaphors for his argument, not “the medium” as he proposes in his chapter title and in many overt declarations throughout the text (Flayhan 189).

To return to Eco, it is in McLuhan’s reasoning where the theoretician of communication finds trouble, “because the differences between the channel of communication, the code and the message are not established” (“Cogito” 233, italics original). Alas for Eco, however, McLuhan’s greatest sin is in his playful misuse of the term “content.” McLuhan often saw content as irrelevant, the juicy piece of meat the burglar brings to distract the guard dog, or simply an “illusion” that a medium can be in and simultaneous to another medium (McLuhan and Parker Counterblast 24). Also, particularly with sports, McLuhan saw the “audience” as content. He felt the activities must reflect the image of the audience, because the audience makes and uses games (see McLuhan and Nevitt 145-6 and Leverette Wrestling Ch. 3). For Eco, the receiver is not the content, but the central aspect of the communication process. It is in the receiver where interpretation occurs and meaning is bestowed. He writes: “The medium is not the message; the message becomes what the receiver makes of it, applying to it his own codes of reception, which are neither those of the sender nor those of the scholar of communications… the message depends on the reading given to it” (“Cogito” 235-6, italics original). Where McLuhan had four “laws of media,” the tetrad, Eco has but one: “I would say that variability of interpretation is the constant law of mass communications” (“Towards” 141).

McLuhan as Semiotician

Interestingly enough, interpretation is where McLuhan began, starting his career as a literary critic. As a student of the New Criticism, the notion that a text is active and people receptive can be seen throughout his early work. In 1951, McLuhan published The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man, a collection of fifty-nine concise essays on the sources and meanings of popular culture. Examining comic strips, advertisements, and other promotional imagery of the American press (with playfully chosen illustrations to boot), he writes, “Ours is the first age in which many thousands of the best trained individual minds have made it a full time business to get inside the collective public mind… bringing about this condition of public helplessness” (Mechanical v). Because of McLuhan’s later medium-centric oeuvre, I feel this text is too often ignored.

The Mechanical Bride is interesting in regard to Roland Barthes’s Mythologies. In “Myth Today,” the theoretical essay that concludes Mythologies, Barthes outlines the theoretical assumptions that inform the other essays. He presents a semiotic (Barthes uses “semiological”) model for reading popular culture, essentially adding a second level to de Saussure’s schema of signifier + signified = sign. A few years later, in Elements of Semiology, Barthes clarif
ies the model with the addition of the more familiar terms of denotation and connotation. Denotation is an object’s primary signification and connotation, then, is the secondary signification. He writes: “the first system [denotation] becomes the plane of expression or signifier of the second system [connotation]… The signifiers of connotation… are made up of the signs (signifiers and signified united) of the denotated system” (Elements 89-91).

This is how medium theorists can use semiotics, for they do, in fact, use content by reading (in the semiotic sense of the word) both medium and media environment as a text and face the problem of trying to avoid the obvious (content). The media (as institutions) provide content, not so that it can be avoided, but with the express and ostensible purpose of being seen, heard, read, etc.

Media as Text?

“Text” has become a common nomenclature in the academic discourse about media, particularly under the umbrella of cultural studies. The “textualization” of television is an instructive case.

Sociologist Ron Lembo notes that the term “text” is “well suited for explaining the social complexities of television use” (63). Semiotician John Fiske writes in Television Culture: “no text is simply a pattern of signifiers; a text is a bearer of meaning…” (84). But earlier he writes: “a program becomes a text at the moment of reading…” (14). This leads to a definition of “reader” much in line with Eco’s participatory view, as “the producer of texts, the maker of meanings and pleasures” (Fiske 17). Media ecologist Raymond Gozzi, in The Power of Metaphor in the Age of Electronic Media, argues against this view in “Why Television is Not a Text.” Gozzi is clearly a print lover. His hard-line medium theory stance is constantly compelled to differentiate between the printed word and a televised image, therefore relocating the term “text” to a spot under his all encompassing rubric “metaphor.” In his view, usage of the term “text” will inevitably lead to a “decline in literacy” since the activating schema for reading will become disassociated with the written word (See Gozzi 97). By arguing that “watching television is not ‘reading’ a ‘text,'” Gozzi emphasizes the fact that he has no interest in semiotic exercises such as “reading” (97). His negatively affected reactions, such as “a ‘reading’ is an interpretation” (95, italics original), skate dangerously close to technological determinism and tautology in their denial of human cognitive processes within the steamrolling juggernaut of print’s rolling over of us.

In my view, a text is something to be read and while television as a medium is not a text, the individual electric artifacts disseminated via its flow are. Infomercials, programs, movies, commercials, sports, news, etc. all could, and should, be thoroughly combed over by the textual analyst. In this same vein, print is not a text, but books, magazines, newspapers, pamphlets, billboards, etc. are. Lastly, I must again concede to Lembo: “The textual metaphor is, after all, only one way of characterizing television use” (68).

But however we, as semioticians or as medium theorists, or as both, may classify television, we must realize that the “tube of plenty,” to use Erik Barnouw’s phrase, is one aspect of the larger media environment, a medium among many. The following section can be seen as an introduction to the concept of environment and the various accouterments with which academia associates it.

Media as Environment?

In Counterblast, McLuhan notes, “Media effects are new environments as imperceptible as water is to a fish, subliminal for the most part” (McLuhan and Parker Counterblast 22). Running with this metaphor, he wrote in 1970’s Culture is Our Business, “Fish don’t know water exists till beached” (191). If for the most part the technological environment is invisible to its inhabitants, whoever actually discovered water wasn’t a fish – which means that we are least likely to notice those aspects of our surroundings in which we are most deeply immersed (Nystrom 110). This is what Todd Gitlin refers to as the “torrent” washing over us with an infinite glimmer feeding us disposable feelings only to fade back into the rhythmic twitch of the unceasing flow. In Media Unlimited, he too takes up the discrepancy of McLuhan’s “glib formulation”: “the medium is the message.” He writes, “Media do not simply deliver information,” continuing:

An image or a soundtrack is not simply a set of abstract signs that describe, point to, or represent realities standing elsewhere. Not only do they point; they are. They are wraparound presences with which we live much of our lives. McLuhan was closer to the truth when, in a playful mood, he titled one of his later books The Medium is the Massage (9, italics original).

Though Gitlin’s concern is media as institutions and as a way of life, rather than as technology, the connection between environment and torrent is clear. He continues: “Media are occasions for experiences – experiences which are themselves the main products, the main transactions, the main ‘effects’ of media. This is the big story; the rest is details” (9). And: “the wonder of communications was that the carriers of information did not simply transmit facts or ideology. They occasioned a human experience – a sense of connection to the world” (47). Media are, in fact, our world as we know it.

The notion that there is a hidden environment has so permeated modern discourse that we find the metaphor seeping into other fields. In political science, Benjamin Barber’s capitalist McWorld is a new kind of chilly “virtual reality, created by invisible but omnipotent high-tech information networks and fluid transnational economic markets…” (26). I won’t attempt a discussion of “the global village” metaphor here, but in Barber’s case, “global mall” may be more applicable.

To segue back into McLuhan, we see the importance of the term environment as a metaphor for media. He describes it as, among other things: an “active process” (Understanding vi); “formed by our new technologies,” and imperceptible in its initial reign” (“Guaranteed” 200); processes and not containers (“Information” 199); either visible or invisible (an invisible environment is fragmentary and significant, a visible environment is saturating and visible: an environment is a process and not a container) (“Technology” 5); always invisible, degrading, and a process (McLuhan and Parker Counterblast 30); relying upon all the components in a situation [ecological], and acting as a process (McLuhan and Parker Vanishing 242); changing us (McLuhan and Nevitt 90). Since the environment is in constant flux, much like the torrent overwhelming us, the massage is more apropos than is the message.

In an early essay in his medium-focused epoch, 1955’s “A Historical Approach to the Media,” McLuhan observed that we were fast becoming passive victims, “helpless illiterates,” in the new changing world of technology as the “media themselves act directly toward shaping our most intimate self-consciousness” (110). Nine years later he writes:

Over and over I’ve talked to groups and individuals about new technology as new environment. Content of new environment is old environment. The new environment is always invisible. Only the content shows, and yet only the environment is really active as shaping force (Letters 311, also see the related discussion in McLuhan “Relation”).

Here then, is McLuhan-medium theorist, functionally acting as McLuhan-semiotician, reading the environment as text, extrapolating and illustrating both connotative and denotative levels of meaning. Interpreting the media environment is an important step towards uniting semiotic analysis and medium theory. If we can approach the environment fr
om this two-prong strategy, we will further ourselves in comprehending its “effects,” “messages,” and “massage.”

What McLuhan meant when he wrote “the medium is the massage” was that a medium is a complex and effective “set of events” which change our outlook and the posture of entire groups of people (McLuhan “Change-Overs” 114). Like Poe’s sailor caught in the maelstrom, McLuhan insisted that we cannot understand the technological experience from the outside. We can only comprehend our situation once we’ve realized how the electronic age “works us over.”

All media work us over completely. They are so pervasive in their personal, political, economic, aesthetic, psychological, moral, ethical, and social consequences that they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected, unaltered. The medium is the massage. Any understanding of social and cultural change is impossible without a knowledge of the way media work as environments (McLuhan and Fiore 26).

As Arthur Kroker points out, in Technology and the Canadian Mind, “When McLuhan noted in Counterblast that ‘environment is process, not container,’ [p.30] he meant just this: the effect of all new technologies is to impose, silently and pervasively, their deep assumptions upon the psyche…” (56). Therefore the process that is our environment massages us into reworking our “ratio of senses.” It is from within the media environment that a merger between interpretive semiotics and medium theory becomes a necessity, as McLuhan once said: He, Innis, and other explorers of media environments are like blind men tapping canes in the dark (Meyrowitz No Sense 343n19).

Conclusion: Necessitating a Link

Todd Gitlin, writing about environment or what he calls “the torrent,” describes the problem of managing the unmanageable:

We are aware of its parts but oblivious of its huge place in our day-to-day lives. It is everywhere, too much to take in. It is, in a sense, like nature- that verwhelming presence human beings once found so threatening yet auspicious that they conjured up gods and demons to imagine their way through its ungraspable allness (112).

Semioticians and medium theorists should be called to task to replace the “gods and demons” and contribute a course of navigation in a world where signification, mediation, and an interface with the hidden environment all add to the need for a more functional critical code with which to decipher reality.

Medium theorists need to incorporate semiotics into their paradigm to gain a respect for content and the overarching importance of meaning. And while medium theory needs semiotics to better understand the signs of life, semioticians need medium theory in order to better understand the “allness” of our signified environment. “Cultivating and nourishing desires…” writes Gitlin, “everywhere [media] leave behind deposits of what only can be called a civilization – not an ideology, or a system of belief, but something less resistible, a way of life soaked in feeling, seeming to absorb with equal conviction traces of every idea, or for that matter, the absence of all ideas” (191). The “styles of navigation” need better navigators (see Gitlin Ch. 3).

Before we can grasp at media’s enveloping “allness” we need clarification over our understanding, agreement on what we mean when we say “mean,” and a structuralist approach that will never simply be content with content. Delivery is but one aspect of media’s contact with human existence; to deny messages entirely is to deny the importance of society. The semantic ambiguities of both medium theory and semiotics require “demystification,” not only of the theories alone, but regarding the environment itself if we are to even begin to conceptualize the tremendous Joycean divine thunderclap that is the totality of our modern life with media.


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Leverette, Marc. “The Semantic Sins of Saint Marshall: McLuhan’s Maddening Misuse of Meaning.” Under review.

—. Wrestling Nation: The Myth of the Mat in American Popular Culture. Lewiston, New York: Edwin Mellen Press, forthcoming.

Lippman, Walter. Public Opinion. New York: Free Press, 1922.

McLuhan, Marshall. Culture is Our Business. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1970.

—. “Great Changeovers for You from Gutenberg to Batman: Address to Annenberg School of Communication, Pennsylvania, 28 April 1966.” Vogue 148 (July 1966): 62-3, 114-5, 117.

—. “Guaranteed Income in the Electric Age.” The Guaranteed Income: Next Step in Economic Evolution? Ed. Robert Theobold. Garden City, NJ: Doubleday and Company, 1966. 200.

—. “A Historical Approach to the Media.” Teachers College Record 57:2 (November 1955): 104-10.

—. “Information Hunt Looms Big.” College and University Journal 4 (Spring 1967): 196-208.

—. The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man. Boston: Beacon Press, 1951.

—. “The Relation of Environment to Anti-Environment.” University of Windsor Review 12:1 (Autumn 1966): 1-10. Reprinted as “The Relation of Environment & Anti-Environment.” The Human Dialogue: Perspectives on Communication. Eds. Floyd W. Matson and Ashley Montagu. New York: Free Press, 1967. 39-47.

—. “Technology and Environment.” Arts Canada 105:24 (February 1967): 5-7.

—. “To Henry J. Skornia.” 3 Oct. 1964. Letters of Marshall McLuhan. Eds. Matie Molinaro, Corrine McLuhan, and William Toye. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1987. 311.

—. “To Marshall Fishwick.” 1 Aug. 1974. Letters of Marshall McLuhan. Eds. Matie Molinaro, Corrine McLuhan, and William Toye. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1987. 506.

—. “To Robert J. Leuver.” 30 July 1969. Letters of Marshall McLuhan. Eds. Matie Molinaro, Corrine McLuhan, and William Toye. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1987. 385.

—. “To William Jovanovich.” 1 Dec. 1966. Letters of Marshall McLuhan. Eds. Matie Molinaro, Corrine McLuhan, and William Toye. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1987. 339. 

—. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964.

McLuhan, Marshall and Barrington Nev
itt. Take Today: The Executive as Dropout. New York: Harcourt, Brace, & Jovanovich, 1972. 

McLuhan, Marshall and Eric McLuhan, Laws of Media: The New Science. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988.

McLuhan, Marshall and Harley Parker. Counterblast. New York: Harcourt, Brace, & World, 1969.

—. Through the Vanishing Point: Space in Poetry and Painting. New York: Harper & Row, 1968.

McLuhan, Marshall, Quentin Fiore, and Jerome Agel. The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects. New York: Bantam Books, 1967.

Meyrowitz, Joshua. “Medium Theory.” Communication Theory Today. Eds. David Crowley and David Mitchell. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1994. 50-77.

—. No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Mills, C. Wright. “The Cultural Apparatus.” Power, Politics, and People: The Collected Essays of C. Wright Mills. Ed. I.L. Horowitz. 404-20.

Morrison, James C. “Marshall McLuhan: No Prophet Without Honor.” Ed. Barbara Jo Lewis. New Dimensions in Communication Volume XIII: Proceedings of the 57th Annual Conference of the New York State Communication Association, 1999. 1-28.

Mumford, Lewis. Technics and Civilization. New York: Harcourt, Brace, & World, 1934.

Nystrom, C.L. Toward a Science of Media Ecology: The Formulation of Integrated Conceptual Paradigms for the Study of Human Communication Systems. Diss. New York University, 1973.

Norvell, George Michael. A Reference Dictionary of Terms in the Published Works of Herbert Marshall McLuhan. Diss. University of Maryland, 1979.

Oakeshott, Michael. “A Place of Learning.” The Voice of Liberal Learning: Michael Oakeshott on Education. Ed. Timothy Fuller. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989 (1975 essay). 17-44.

Ong, Walter J. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (London: Routledge, 1982.

—. Rhetoric, Romance and Technology. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1971.

Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. New York: Penguin Books, 1985.

—. “The Reformed English Curriculum.” High School 1980: The Shape of the Future in American Secondary Education. Ed. Alvin C. Eurich. New York: Pitman Publishing Corporation, 1970. 160-8.

—. Teaching as a Conserving Activity. New York: Dell, 1979.

—. Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York: Vintage Books, 1992.

Real, Michael R. “Cultural Studies and Mediated Reality.” Journal of Popular Culture 9.2 (1975): 81-5.

Scheuer, Jeffrey The Sound Bite Society: Television and the American Mind. New York: Four Walls, Eight Windows, 1999.

Storey, John. An Introductory Guide to Cultural Theory and Popular Culture. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1993.

Williams, Raymond. Television: Technology and Cultural Form. New York: Schocken, 1975.

    Bio: Marc Leverette is a doctoral student in media studies at Rutgers University. The author of Wrestling Nation: The Myth of the Mat in American Popular Culture (forthcoming), he is currently at work on an intellectual history of medium theory and a study of allusion in popular media.

Takayuki Yokota-Murakami, Don Juan East/West: On the Problematics of Comparative Literature

Takayuki Yokota-Murakami, Don Juan East/West: On the Problematics of Comparative Literature.

Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998.
226 pp. ISBN 0791436667.

Reviewed by Hu Ying
University of California, Irvine

“Comparative literature is humanism,” proclaims René Etiemble in his 1963 book The Crisis in Comparative Literature. This is what Yokota-Murakami sets out to debunk in his recent study Don Juan East/West: both the humanist claim of universalism at the core of Etiemble’s statement as well as the methodology of comparative literature. Yokota-Murakami’s project is a torturous one: in his own words, “I should compare in order to un-compare”(x). Indeed, the very title sets up the comparison of European and Japanese versions of the archetype Don Juan, an expectation that part of the book fulfills, while the rest of the book critiques the methodology underlying just such a comparison. Thus, to some extent, the book reads rather like an unsuccessful research project, a project whose unfeasibility becomes obvious halfway through. Yet, precisely by focusing on the necessary failure of his initial project, the author succeeds in launching a powerful disciplinary critique of the very project of comparative literature.

Don Juan East/West begins with a brief review of the history of comparative literature as a discipline, which was launched in the latter half of the nineteenth century and in approach was largely influenced by comparative linguistics. Until the middle of the twentieth century, scholars primarily engaged in establishing the genealogy of related literary entities across the national boundaries of Europe, with “influence” and “sources” being the operative terms in their comparative study–this is known as the French school of comparative literature. With the critique of nationalist sentiment after the Second World War, the older concept of comparative literature based on European national literary traditions and their connections was widely felt to be inadequate. The postwar atmosphere of humanism and intellectual cosmopolitanism gave rise to the method of applying “theoretical concepts” to cultures within and beyond Europe, thus licensing comparativists to engage in transcivilizational comparisons–this is the American school of comparative literature advocated by Etiemble among others.

While the previous model of influence-tracing is obviously Eurocentric, Yokota-Murakami’s main critique deals with the postwar model of transcivilizational comparison which, he argues, entails “a certain aesthetic violence” (10), “for it cannot be achieved except by a distortion of the object in accordance to the viewer’s paradigm” (187). This paradigm, he asserts, is invariably Western, Don Juan being a case in point. Another point of critique of the “theoretical” approach is its decidedly ahistorical bent (in contrast, the influence-tracing model is historical, although admittedly narrow in scope). The basic assumptions behind such transcivilizational comparisons, Yokota-Murakami argues, are humanist, universalist and essentialist, namely that we all share certain essential human traits that underlie our literature regardless of our cultural/historical specificities. Throw a measure of Orientalism into the mix, and we have the “Eastern Don Juan.”

In some ways, the choice of Don Juan as an example of critique is providential, although the author presents it as incidental. For what better case to illustrate the universalist/essentialist claim of human sexuality? Citing primary sources from Tirso di Molina, Molière, Pushkin and E.T.A. Hoffmann, as well as secondary works from a host of comparativists both European and Japanese (the latter castigated as “colonized” intellectuals), Yokota-Murakami lays bare version after version of claims of Don Juan as the embodiment of the “human essence,” the universal/eternal “male instinct,” “paragon of masculinity,” etc.. In fact, some of the humanist claims are so un-reconstructed that at times the text seems to be beating the proverbial dead horse. Not that the horse of humanist-inflected Eurocentrism is necessarily dead, but the target is a bit too easy, which in turn renders the instrument of critique correspondingly rather more blunt than necessary.

Were the author to have stopped at this critique of humanism and universalism, his project would have been no more (or less) than an extension of the West’s own critique of the Enlightenment tradition, a critique that swung into full force in the 1960s, soon after the American model of transcivilizational comparative literature was introduced. Since this model furnishes the main target of disciplinary critique for Don Juan East/West, it is not surprising that Yokota-Murakami cites Derrida and Foucault frequently to support his own argument. Yet, rather than merely flexing theoretical muscle, the book historicizes sexual ideology in early modern Japan and thus opens up a new field of inquiry aided by theoretical reflection. Through a discussion of how Western romantic love and sexology discourse was introduced into Meiji Japan, Yokota-Murakami demonstrates succinctly the rapid though subtle changes in the Japanese conceptions of love, lust and sexuality, conceptions that are situated within the multiple contexts of Western cultural imperialism, the reemergence of Japanese militarism, and above all, the project of modernity in Japan.

The tools Yokota-Murakami employs at historicization are considerably more refined than those levied against Eurocentrism. They are primarily linguistic: the Japanese translation of Western works during the Meiji era (1852-1912), and specifically, the different semantic and cultural content of the Japanese words employed to translate terms such as “love” and “lust.” Following the implications of a weak version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (that language determines the nature of a culture in which it is spoken), Yokota-Murakami argues that the separation of “spiritual love” from “carnal love” of post-Enlightenment Europe was quite unknown to the pre-Meiji Japan. Engaged in a sort of Foucauldian archeology, Yokota-Murakami unearths the rich etymological meanings attached to different Japanese terms used to translate the Western notion of romantic love, Meiji neologisms which have become standardized and whose origins have therefore long been forgotten. By delving into Meiji-era Japanese dictionaries and tracing the changes of semantic meanings of “love” in the modernist “I-novels” early in the twentieth century, Yokota-Murakami shows how attending to semantic nuance can lead to crucial historical specificity, and he uncovers something truly fascinating: that in the introduction of the Don Juan figure to Japan, there was a process of displacement/erasure with regard to the construction of sexuality. The Don Juan in early Meiji Japan is a narrowly defined Romantic hero, with connotations of spirituality, sincerity, and morality. A certain, some would argue central, quality of Don Juan is erased in the process, a quality that is associated with the more expansive definition of sexuality, an excessive and exorbitant sexuality which incorporates passion as well as sorrow.

This alternative definition of sexuality is displaced from Don Juan to the iro-otoko, a celebrated libertine figure ubiquitous in premodern Japanese fiction, which by Meiji time had become closely associated with the undesirable “feudal past” of Japan. And as such it must be purged from the modernizing Japan. Thus, Don Juan’s evil twin, now known as “lust,” became increasingly pathologized in medical/ scientific discourse, while Don Juan the Romantic hero, with his maximum contrastive power, connoting the desirable modern West, was introduced and celebrated. Yokota-Murakami thus concludes tha
t sexuality as a conceptual framework “is a historical construct that came into being as a specific significative constellation around the turn of the century” (144).

In tracing the emergence of a “modern” sexual paradigm in Japan through a (paradoxically meta-) case-study of Don Juan in Meiji Japan, Yokota-Murakami ultimately argues against comparison itself: “comparative perception, which discovers similitude, inevitably involves exclusion. Exclusion is marginalization. The universal/ identical is maintained only through constantly relegating differences to the field of deviation, barbarism, perversion, illegitimacy, abnormality, and inhumanity” (187). This is when Yokota-Murakami himself may be charged with ahistoricism, in claiming that the postwar American school of comparative literature loses its own historicity and becomes the definitive paradigm for “the comparative perspective.” One might well ask: what happened in the past three or four decades, after Etiemble reinvented the field of comparative literature? The answer is, quite a lot. Maybe not as much in the narrowly defined discipline of comparative literature, which, with the aging and cutting of programs in recent years, has arguably become narrower still, but certainly in the critique of Eurocentrism and the general debate over the “state of the humanities” surrounding such issues as canon formation, multiculturalism and postcolonialism. Some of the participants are indeed comparativists such as Yokota-Murakami himself, or Rey Chow, to cite another famous example whose recent work was reviewed in these pages in the last issue. Incidentally, the French or American schools hardly represent a stronghold on the center of comparative literature nowadays–indeed they have been rather derisively referred to as “the French hour,” “the American hour” (Guillén, The Challenge of Comparative Literature, 1993). And what of the comparative method? Is it inherently violent and exclusive, as Yokota-Murakami polemically argues, or only historically so? While exposing the historicity of such violence, the historicity of the pretense of universalism, as Yokota-Murakami does so well in Don Juan East/West, is there anything we comparativists can recuperate in the method? Or, to put it differently, what do we lose by giving up “the comparative perception” altogether?

Here is one answer from a comparativist who argues, nearly as polemically as Yokota-Murakami, that “cultures are more than just empirically comparative: they are intrinsically comparative,” that they are “fundamentally beside themselves.” In other words, this built-in comparativeness functions to “dislodge normalized, standardized, homogenized, habituated meanings” (James Boon, Other Tribes, Other Scribes, 1982). Should we lose sight of it, we run the risk of believing, however briefly and unwittingly, that there is indeed a premodern Japan, or a Japan, or even an East and a West that have normalized, standardized, homogenized, habituated meanings.

Web Source:

Marxist Media Theory

Marxist Media Theory

The Sapir-Whorf Hypotesys

    Greek Translation now available

    Within linguistic theory, two extreme positions concerning the relationship between language and thought are commonly referred to as ‘mould theories’ and ‘cloak theories’. Mould theories represent language as ‘a mould in terms of which thought categories are cast’ (Bruner et al. 1956, p. 11). Cloak theories represent the view that ‘language is a cloak conforming to the customary categories of thought of its speakers’ (ibid.). The doctrine that language is the ‘dress of thought’ was fundamental in Neo-Classical literary theory (Abrams 1953, p. 290), but was rejected by the Romantics (ibid.; Stone 1967, Ch. 5). There is also a related view (held by behaviourists, for instance) that language and thought are identical. According to this stance thinking is entirely linguistic: there is no ‘non-verbal thought’, no ‘translation’ at all from thought to language. In this sense, thought is seen as completely determined by language.

    The Sapir-Whorf theory, named after the American linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf, is a mould theory of language. Writing in 1929, Sapir argued in a classic passage that:

      Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society. It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection. The fact of the matter is that the ‘real world’ is to a large extent unconsciously built upon the language habits of the group. No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached… We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation. (Sapir 1958 [1929], p. 69)

    This position was extended in the 1930s by his student Whorf, who, in another widely cited passage, declared that:

      We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds – and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds. We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way – an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language. The agreement is, of course, an implicit and unstated one, but its terms are absolutely obligatory; we cannot talk at all except by subscribing to the organization and classification of data which the agreement decrees. (Whorf 1940, pp. 213-14; his emphasis)

    I will not attempt to untangle the details of the personal standpoints of Sapir and Whorf on the degree of determinism which they felt was involved, although I think that the above extracts give a fair idea of what these were. I should note that Whorf distanced himself from the behaviourist stance that thinking is entirely linguistic (Whorf 1956, p. 66). In its most extreme version ‘the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis’ can be described as consisting of two associated principles. According to the first, linguistic determinism, our thinking is determined by language. According to the second, linguistic relativity, people who speak different languages perceive and think about the world quite differently.

    On this basis, the Whorfian perspective is that translation between one language and another is at the very least, problematic, and sometimes impossible. Some commentators also apply this to the ‘translation’ of unverbalized thought into language. Others suggest that even within a single language any reformulation of words has implications for meaning, however subtle. George Steiner (1975) has argued that any act of human communication can be seen as involving a kind of translation, so the potential scope of Whorfianism is very broad indeed. Indeed, seeing reading as a kind of translation is a useful reminder of the reductionism of representing textual reformulation simply as a determinate ‘change of meaning’, since meaning does not reside in the text, but is generated by interpretation. According to the Whorfian stance, ‘content’ is bound up with linguistic ‘form’, and the use of the medium contributes to shaping the meaning. In common usage, we often talk of different verbal formulations ‘meaning the same thing’. But for those of a Whorfian persuasion, such as the literary theorist Stanley Fish, ‘it is impossible to mean the same thing in two (or more) different ways’ (Fish 1980, p. 32). Reformulating something transforms the ways in which meanings may be made with it, and in this sense, form and content are inseparable. From this stance words are not merely the ‘dress’ of thought.

    The importance of what is ‘lost in translation’ varies, of course. The issue is usually considered most important in literary writing. It is illuminating to note how one poet felt about the translation of his poems from the original Spanish into other European languages (Whorf himself did not in fact regard European languages as significantly different from each other). Pablo Neruda noted that the best translations of his own poems were Italian (because of its similarities to Spanish), but that English and French ‘do not correspond to Spanish – neither in vocalization, or in the placement, or the colour, or the weight of words.’ He continued: ‘It is not a question of interpretative equivalence: no, the sense can be right, but this correctness of translation, of meaning, can be the destruction of a poem. In many of the translations into French – I don’t say in all of them – my poetry escapes, nothing remains; one cannot protest because it says the same thing that one has written. But it is obvious that if I had been a French poet, I would not have said what I did in that poem, because the value of the words is so different. I would have written something else’ (Plimpton 1981, p. 63). With more ‘pragmatic’ or less ‘expressive’ writing, meanings are typically regarded as less dependent on the particular form of words used. In most pragmatic contexts, paraphrases or translations tend to be treated as less fundamentally problematic. However, even in such contexts, particular words or phrases which have an important function in the original language may be acknowledged to present special problems in translation. Even outside the humanities, academic texts concerned with the social sciences are a case in point.

    The Whorfian perspective is in strong contrast to the extreme universalism of those who adopt the cloak theory. The Neo-Classical idea of language as simply the dress of thought is based on the assumption that the same thought can be expressed in a variety of ways. Universalists argue that we can say whatever we want to say in any language, and that whatever we say in one language can always be translated into another. This is the basis for the most common refutation of Whorfianism. ‘The fact is,’ insists the philosopher Karl Popper, ‘that even totally different languages are not untranslatable’ (Popper 1970, p. 56). The evasive use here of ‘not untranslatab
    le’ is ironic. Most universalists do acknowledge that translation may on occasions involve a certain amount of circumlocution.

    Individuals who regard writing as fundamental to their sense of personal and professional identity may experience their written style as inseparable from this identity, and insofar as writers are ‘attached to their words’, they may favour a Whorfian perspective. And it would be hardly surprising if individual stances towards Whorfianism were not influenced by allegiances to Romanticism or Classicism, or towards either the arts or the sciences. As I have pointed out, in the context of the written word, the ‘untranslatability’ claim is generally regarded as strongest in the arts and weakest in the case of formal scientific papers (although rhetorical studies have increasingly blurred any clear distinctions). And within the literary domain, ‘untranslatability’ was favoured by Romantic literary theorists, for whom the connotative, emotional or personal meanings of words were crucial (see Stone 1967, pp. 126-7, 132, 145).

    Whilst few linguists would accept the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in its ‘strong’, extreme or deterministic form, many now accept a ‘weak’, more moderate, or limited Whorfianism, namely that the ways in which we see the world may be influenced by the kind of language we use. Moderate Whorfianism differs from extreme Whorfianism in these ways:

    • the emphasis is on the potential for thinking to be ‘influenced’ rather than unavoidably ‘determined’ by language;
    • it is a two-way process, so that ‘the kind of language we use’ is also influenced by ‘the way we see the world’;
    • any influence is ascribed not to ‘Language’ as such or to one language compared with another, but to the use within a language of one variety rather than another (typically a sociolect – the language used primarily by members of a particular social group);
    • emphasis is given to the social context of language use rather than to purely linguistic considerations, such as the social pressure in particular contexts to use language in one way rather than another.

    Of course, some polemicists still favour the notion of language as a strait-jacket or prison, but there is a broad academic consensus favouring moderate Whorfianism. Any linguistic influence is now generally considered to be related not primarily to the formal systemic structures of a language (langue to use de Saussure’s term) but to cultural conventions and individual styles of use (or parole). Meaning does not reside in a text but arises in its interpretation, and interpretation is shaped by sociocultural contexts. Conventions regarding what are considered appropriate uses of language in particular social contexts exist both in ‘everyday’ uses of language and in specialist usage. In academia, there are general conventions as well as particular ones in each disciplinary and methodological context. In every subculture, the dominant conventions regarding appropriate usage tend to exert a conservative influence on the framing of phenomena. From the media theory perspective, the sociolects of sub-cultures and the idiolects of individuals represent a subtly selective view of the world: tending to support certain kinds of observations and interpretations and to restrict others. And this transformative power goes largely unnoticed, retreating to transparency.

    Marshall McLuhan argued in books such as The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) and Understanding Media (1964) that the use of new media was the prime cause of fundamental changes in society and the human psyche. The technological determinism of his stance can be seen as an application of extreme Whorfianism to the nature of media in general. Similarly, the extreme universalism of the cloak theorists has its media counterpart in the myth of technological neutrality (Winner 1977; Bowers 1988). My own approach involves exploring the applicability of moderate Whorfianism to the use of media.


    • Abrams, M. H. (1953): The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition. Oxford: Oxford University Press
    • Bowers, C. A. (1988): The Cultural Dimensions of Educational Computing: Understanding the Non-Neutrality of Technology. New York: Teachers College Press
    • Bruner, J. S., J. S. Goodnow & G. A. Austin ([1956] 1962): A Study of Thinking. New York: Wiley
    • Fish, S. (1980): Is There a Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpretative Communities. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press
    • McLuhan, M. (1962): The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul
    • McLuhan, M. (1964): Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill
    • Plimpton, G. (ed.) (1963-1988): Writers at Work: The ‘Paris Review’ Interviews, Vol. 5, 1981. London: Secker & Warburg/ Harmondsworth: Penguin (pagination differs)
    • Popper, K. (1970): ‘Normal Science and its Dangers’. In I. Lakatos & A. Musgrave (eds.) (1970): Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge. London: Cambridge University Press
    • Sapir, E. (1929): ‘The Status of Linguistics as a Science’. In E. Sapir (1958): Culture, Language and Personality (ed. D. G. Mandelbaum). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press
    • Steiner, G. (1975): After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation. London: Oxford University Press
    • Stone, P. W. K. (1967): The Art of Poetry 1750-1820: Theories of Poetic Composition and Style in the Late Neo-Classic and Early Romantic Periods. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul
    • Whorf, B. L. (1940): ‘Science and Linguistics’, Technology Review 42(6): 229-31, 247-8. Also in B. L. Whorf (1956): Language, Thought and Reality (ed. J. B. Carroll). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press
    • Winner, L. (1977): Autonomous Technology: Technics-Out-Of-Control as a Theme in Political Thought. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

Semiotics for Beginners

Tools for Analyzing Prose Fiction

Tools for Analyzing Prose Fiction

Narratology is a type of formalist criticism that explains and analyzes the structures, modes, and techniques of narrative. See Abrams, “Narrative and Narratology” (123-25), “Plot” (159-63), “Point of View” (165-69).

Narrative: story comprising characters, their dialogue and actions, and the events in which they participate.

Point of View: the way a story is told; the perspectives which are presented to the reader

  • First-Person Narrative: the narrator refers to him/herself with the pronouns “I” and “me”
    • Protagonist or Participant/Observer
    • Self-consciously narrating or Unself-consciously narrating
    • Reliable or Unreliable/Fallible
  • Third-Person Narrative: the story is told in the third-person, with pronouns “I” and “me” used only in dialogue
    • Omniscient: narrator knows everything about all characters, events, etc.; omniscient narrators may also occasionally employ embedded focalizers, characters whose perspectives temporarily control the narrative
      • Intrusive: narrator comments on and evaluates characters and actions; establishes what counts as facts and values in the narrative
      • Unintrusive/Impersonal/Objective: narrator “shows rather than tells”; does not explicitly comment on or evaluate the actions
    • Limited Point of View: narrative is controlled by through the limited perspectives of one main character (or a very few important characters) who does not know everything; such a third- person focalizer is often called a center of consciousness

Varieties of Authorial Voice:

  • Published Attribution::
    • Anonymous
    • Obvious pseudonyms (male, female)
    • Purportedly real names (male, female)
  • Authorial Voice or Standpoint:
    • Ungendered/gender-neutral voices
      • Obtrusive or Unobtrusive
      • Universalized or Located/Situated
    • Gendered voices
      • Overtly claimed masculine or feminine standpoint
      • Implied masculine or feminine standpoint
      • Transparently counterfeit masculine or feminine standpoint