Monday, April 2, 2007


On Saturday I participated in Communitas, the alumni reunion for Fordham's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (prospective graduate students were also in attendance)--you can see the write-up of the event on Today at Fordham. Of course "communitas" refers to the spirit of community, a kind of spirit that we don't experience all that often in graduate education where specialization and compartmentalization seems to be the rule (McLuhan and Postman both would quip about how universities develop a hardening of the categories). Of course, community and communication come from the same root term, and it's all about communing with one another.

For my part, I wasn't able to stay for the big lecture by novelist Peter Quinn, but I did give a talk in the morning about Marshall McLuhan and media ecology, entitled "The Medium is the Message: Understanding Media as Environments." This is nothing new for me, of course, I've done this sort of thing numerous times at other universities, and at conferences and all, but it was nice to have a chance to do it for the home crowd for once. Anyway, here's the blurb for the talk:

Everybody talks about the media, some people even try to do something about the media, but few truly understand the media as media. Marshall McLuhan, who was Fordham University's Albert Schweitzer Professor of the Humanities during the late 1960s, famously stated that "the medium is the message," and in addition to coining the term "global village," provided an approach to understanding media as environments. McLuhan's media ecology provides a means of making sense out of the social and cultural revolutions that have rocked our world from the 1960s to the present day. His method begins with the understanding that communication cannot occur without the prior existence of a medium, and that media and technology constitute an invisible environment in which we live. As environments, media shape and alter who we are, individually and collectively, and are now taking us into entirely unanticipated, and certainly controversial new directions.

It was a great pleasure to have as a respondent to my talk Fordham's eminent philosophy professor, Dominic J. Balestra. With his help, we were able to connect some of the 20th century media ecological thinking with the philosophical work of Aristotle and Descartes, not to mention Copernicus and Galileo. And what a delight to speak to an audience full of former and entering graduate students from a variety of disciplines, history, English, sociology, and of course communication, and to get their active engagement and feedback. For me, one of my most gratifying professional experiences is when I can introduce media ecology to new audiences, and get that kind of "wow! I never looked at things that way" reaction. Neil Postman used to talk about that experience when I was a doctoral student, and he was absolutely right that there is just something amazingly eye-opening about media ecology, especially when you can bring it to entirely new audiences in fields that have not encountered the ideas before.

And there's also something about media ecology that nourishes the spirit of community. Or as McLuhan might have put it, the communing is the communication.

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