Sunday, April 22, 2007

Magic Ecology

I was quite pleased to hear about the following post on Machina Memorialis, a blog by John Walter, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of English at Saint Louis University and the archivist of Walter J. Ong Manuscript Collection (and I assume he won't mind my quoting it in full):

Musings on Media Ecology and Grammar, Glamour, and Grammarye

April 22nd, 2007

While I’ve read the first half of Lance Strate’s Echoes and Reflections: On Media Ecology as a Field of Study in Communication Research Trends, I wanted to skim the whole book to think about it as a possible text if I decide to go with a media ecology theme for the special topics course. I like Lance’s various definitions of media ecology, and this passage from the book’s introduction stood out as something I wanted to blog:

From the standpoint of the trivium, Echoes and Reflections may be regarded as a grammar book, in that media ecology is concerned with the structures, rules, and biases governing languages, media, and technologies–governing the world as well as the word. (3)

It’s this notion of trying to understand how languages, media, and technologies function within that explains what I find so intellectually interesting about media ecology and its sub-field orality-literacy studies.

But I also like this passage for its positing Echoes and Reflections as a grammar book in the medieval sense of the term, in large part because I can’t think about grammar any more without thinking about Shippey’s discussion of grammar, grammarye, and glamour in both The Road to Middle-Earth and J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century. This discussion is, in large part, a gloss on the curious passage in “Farmer Giles of Ham” in which the parson suggests that Giles take some rope with him as he goes looking for the dragon a second time. The passage from “Farmer Giles of Ham” reads:

at least the parson with his booklearning might have guessed it. Maybe he did. He was a grammarian, and could doubtless see further into the future than others.

This is one of Tolkien’s philological jokes, Shippey tells us. Well, joke isn’t the right word, but it’s Tolkien having some philological fun. Glamour is a corruption of grammar and is “paralleled in sense” by grammarye. Glamour is the ability to change shape for the purposes of deception, and grammarye is “occult learning, magic, necromancy.” To better make sense of this, I want to posit the notion of “natural” magic, the magic of faerie (to use a Tolkienian term), and formulaic, ritualistic, rule-bound magic one studies and may even learn from books. Grammarye would be of the later sort.

So, how does this all connect to Strate’s discussion of media ecology? Well, a grammar, in the medieval sense, is concerned with structures, rules, and biases. Its function is to make visible the invisible or hidden by providing the formulas and rules that govern a subject. (Consider, for instance, Innis’ study of biases, McLuhan’s laws of media, and Ong’s discussions of the interiorization of technologies.) In other words, as a field of study, media ecology is a grammar that explores the unrecognized function of language, media, and technology (the glamour) as systems (grammarye).

It’s an idea we shouldn’t take too seriously, but it is a bit of Sunday morning fun.

I am gratified to have the passage from my introduction deemed blogworthy by John, and to be linked thematically to Tom Shippey, whose scholarship I admire (and I highly recommend both books that John mentioned, which are the definitive works written about Tolkien), and through Shippey to J. R. R. Tolkien. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings have been my favorite books since I was a kid, I also have have great affection for his lesser works, not the least of which is Farmer Giles of Ham (and as I mentioned in a previous post, I once presented a paper on Tolkien, identifying him as a media ecologist and comparing him to McLuhan--I also said in that post that I'd post the paper on this blog if there is sufficient reader interest, ha ha).

I should add that I look forward to reading the new posthumous Tolkien book entitled The Children of Hurin (although I probably won't get to it until after the semester is over).

My point about media ecology as grammar, grammar being one third of the basic curriculum of the medieval university, the other two being rhetoric, and dialectic or logic, comes from Marshall McLuhan, whose doctoral dissertation, nominally about the early modern writer Thomas Nashe, turned out to be a history of the trivium, with special attention to grammar (viewing the history of western culture as an ongoing war between dialectic or logic on the one hand, and grammar and rhetoric on the other; rhetoric is the ancestor of the field of communication, whereas grammar is the foundation of media ecology). McLuhan's thesis was published last year under the title of The Classical Trivium: The Place of Thomas Nashe in the Learning of His Time and I organized a very stimulating panel discussion about the book at last year's National Communication Association convention--we'll be publishing a couple of the commentaries in Explorations in Media Ecology (the journal of the Media Ecology Association). Let me be clear on this, I found the book to be extremely stimulating--it helped me to understand media ecology from new angles--but it is definitely advanced material, not for beginners or even intermediate media ecologists.

Now McLuhan was both a scholar and a practical mystic, a phrase he used to describe G. K. Chesterton, which I in turn used to capture his own sense of "media transcendence" in an essay I wrote for the Legacy of McLuhan anthology that I co-edited with Ed Wachtel. So the connection that John points to, of grammar and glamor, grammarye and faerie, referring to the word in both its written and oral forms (and note the similar relationship between spell as in spelling by putting the letters of the alphabet together in correct order, and casting a magic spell by uttering words in the correct order, which is related to the word spiel I mentioned in a previous post), was one that was not lost in McLuhan, who was both very religious as a Catholic convert, and mystical in a way that endeared him to the New Agers while alienating those committed to pure rationalism.

For my own part, I have for a long time felt that there is a certain magic connected to media ecology, which can be felt sometimes at Media Ecology Association events, and at other media ecology events such as the Ong Conference held at Saint Louis University a couple of years ago, where I first met John Walter. While media ecology can be much like any other field in the humanities and social sciences, and treat the mystical, spiritual, and sacred as epiphenomena caused by profane and prosaic social, cultural, and psychological processes (e.g., the alphabet as the basis of monotheism), the approach is open to treating religion on its own terms (e.g., the Word of God as medium); the perspective can be used within mystical, spiritual, and sacred systems of thought. Media ecology can also be magic ecology, which accounts for the glamour associated with certain media ecologists, such as McLuhan.

And for my own part, my work as a scholar favors rational analysis, but I will admit to another side as well, religious yes, but something else as well. As a student in the religious school of Temple Isaiah of Forest Hills (now sadly gone, having merged with several other Reform congregations), I was first introduced to the Kabbalah, and researched it in depth for my Confirmation class (Jewish Confirmation is a ceremony that dates back to the Temple in Jerusalem, but was abandoned after its destruction, and brought back by the Reform movement as a kind of religious school graduation ceremony that occurs a couple of years after the bar or bat mitzvah, viewed as completing the coming of age that the b'nai mitzvah began). The paper I wrote about the Jewish mystical tradition back then was quite the megillah (the Megillah is the Book of Esther, which is read on Purim, and is used to refer to anything that goes on for too long--I made reference to this in my recent post about NBC's airing of the Virginia Tech killer's video). Since that time, I've been a Kabbalist in certain respects (quite distinct from the popularization of Kabbalah in recent years, rather rooted in Isaac Luria), which is to say that I've been a grammarian grounded in ancient and medieval Jewish mysticism, which is to say that I've been a particular type of media ecologist, of course. I'm not going to say any more about it at this point, as for the future who can say?

But for now, let me leave off with one thing to bind them: when Tolkien came up with the character of Gollum, was he at all thinking about the Golem?

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