Thursday, April 24, 2008

A Good Read, I'm Told

So, I don't know how it happened, but April is almost over and nary a post from me. Well, there's still time to rectify that situation, so here goes.

I've been meaning to share with you the book review of Echoes and Reflections: On Media Ecology as a Field of Study that my fellow media ecologist Peter Fallon posted on the site. You can go there directly by clicking here, and go to his main page with all of this reviews by clicking here, but I'm sure that Peter won't mind if I reproduce his review of my book here in Blog Time Passing. So, here goes:

Peter rated it: 5 of 5 stars5 of 5 stars5 of 5 stars5 of 5 stars5 of 5 stars

bookshelves: media-ecology
Read in December, 2007
recommends it for: anyone interested in media ecology
Associate Professor of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University, author/editor of an already impressive array of books (including the Hampton Press’s Media Ecology series, of which the present book is a recent release), graduate of NYU’s Doctoral program in Media Ecology, irrepressible wordsmith (and punster), blogger, and one of the founders and current President of the Media Ecology Association, Lance Strate’s ubiquitous presence in the field of media studies makes his name as recognizable to its adherents as the names of McLuhan, Innis, Ellul, and Ong. Furthermore, as not only an organizational leader but also an intellectual facilitator of media ecologists in the pursuit of their studies and work, Lance Strate has, I would suspect, garnered a great deal of good will for both his organization and himself. He has been very helpful and encouraging, for instance, to me.

So there is a certain danger (or at the very least, presumptuousness) involved in reviewing a book by a fellow whose face deserves to be chiseled on the Media Ecology equivalent of Mount Rushmore. I’m not sure I remember what I was thinking when I agreed to this. But fully cognizant of those risks, without a sentence more of equivocation, I can report that I found Echoes and Reflections to be a deeply spiritual book of soulful yearning: for knowledge, for patience, for strength, and for understanding of some of the deeper, more confounding mysteries of life.

Echoes and Reflections: On Media Ecology as a Field of Study is a difficult book to categorize, especially to anyone who might come upon this journal and this review from beyond the horizons of the Media Ecological perspective. Those people might very well be confused by both the structure of Strate’s two-part presentation and the seeming heterogeneity of his content. There is, it should be noted, no essential conflict between the first and second parts of this book; this is (as Media Ecologists know) the beauty of the Media Ecological perspective, and the genius of the author in making connections not immediately apparent to the unprepared observer.

The title of the book, “Echoes and Reflections,” serves as an organizing metaphor for the book itself and as an observation about the various dualities that seem to present themselves to us in our studies; some dichotomous, some complementary, some in opposition, some in apposition. Sound and sight. Speech and writing. The subjective and the objective. Faith and reason. Orality and literacy. We are constantly reminded, we media ecologists, of the ecological nature of not only human communication, but of human thought, of human culture, and of the human being itself.

Part One of Echoes and Reflections is an impressively comprehensive review of the canon of media ecological literature. It is an echo of all that the founders, the pioneers of Media Ecology, have told us. Reading it, I was reminded that William the Conqueror, first Norman King of England, commissioned a book called “the domesday (doomsday) book,” which documented every piece of property in his kingdom, every chattel, every landowner and all of his holdings, for the purposes of taxation. Oral legend maintains that if England were to cease to exist, it could be reconstructed on the basis of descriptions held in the Domesday book. A similar attention to detail is present in Part One of Strate’s book, and it is not too egregious an act of hyperbole to suggest that if Media Ecology were to disappear from the human noetic world, it could be rebuilt with the help of Part One of Echoes and Reflections.

Strate moves systematically and determinedly through descriptive essays on the origins of Media Ecology, on McLuhan and Innis and “the Toronto school”; on Walter Ong and orality/literacy studies; on the complementary and equally influential relationship of media history and the history of technology, on Lynn White’s influence on Marshall McLuhan and McLuhan’s on Elizabeth Eisenstein; on Neil Postman and “the New York school”; on Mumford, Ellul, and the study technologies and their effects; and on the “formal roots” of Media Ecology. The extended essay that is the core of Part One of this book traces both the historical and conceptual foundations of Media Ecology and could easily serve as the curriculum of an excellent program of graduate study. Those with the patience and determination to read the books described in Part One are certainly Media Ecologists, with or without formal graduate study or credentials.

I couldn’t help but think, however, that is was a shame that more explanation and exegesis was not included in Part One of Echoes and Reflections; I know, however, that it was neither Strate’s purpose nor his luxury to provide anything more than a conceptual map of the Media Ecological territory. To have attempted to do so would have meant writing not a book, but an encyclopedia.

Still, in his fascinating account of the construction of the field, as well as in the descriptions of the seminal works he provides, Strate makes it clear that he shares the same yearning that McLuhan, Innis, and Postman felt; that Ong, and Ellul, Mumford, White, and Eisenstein felt: a yearning for greater understanding of “the extensions of man,” a yearning based on the echo of intuition, that “Aha!” moment of the mind, when we are blessed to see, for no good reason, the intimate connection among ourselves, our tools, our thoughts, and our beliefs about the nature of the world.

In Part Two, Strate plumbs the depths of this yearning as he reflects upon his dual but inseparable experiences as a media scholar and as the father of an autistic child. He muses about the changing nature of the self in a global moment of transition from literacy to electricity. Like Innis, in his concern for finding a balance in human civilization between concerns for time and for space, Strate yearns for a balance between the narcissistic individualism of literacy and the echolalia of the new orality brought about by electric media. The echoing effect of orality can bring us stability and reassurance and the semblance of certainty, but can stunt intellectual growth by inhibiting curiosity; the narcissistic visual emphasis of literacy can open us to new information but in so doing can cut us off from the other and, so, from ourselves.

The metaphor of amputation – of “cutting off” and being cut off – is not unfamiliar to Media Ecologists. It is the logical corollary to a similar metaphor of medium as prosthesis: an “extension of man.” Strate considers the “cutting off” involved in the autistic phenomenon: the cutting off of the autistic person from his/her environment, the cutting off of mind from body, the cutting off of abstract, conceptual, propositional thought from the concrete, sensory, and presentational.

Strate suggests that “the parallels between autism and orality are striking,” (p. 116) and notes that the metal operations of children described by Piaget, the “savage mind” described by Levi-Strauss, and the thought processes of people with various brain defects described by Sacks (and others) all bear a striking resemblance to certain characteristics of oral cultures. But autism is not orality any more than oral culture is savage culture. The stresses of electronic culture and the rise of a powerful new strain of orality are not responsible for Sarah Strate’s condition (one can almost hear Strate insisting); but what is?

Strate refuses to let our hyper-mediated electronic culture entirely off the hook, at the very least for the ways in which it exacerbates the autistic condition: “From the fluorescent lighting, which many find painful, to the sensory bombardment and information overload, which disrupt the thought processes of us all, our culture offers neither the routine predictability and slow pace of primary orality, nor the quiet contemplation of traditional literacy.” (p. 126) Our culture may not be the problem; it certainly is not the solution.

In the end, Strate cannot solve the mystery of his daughter’s autism; I believe he knew this when he sat down to write Echoes and Reflections. Yet I sense a very powerful need for him to have gone through this exercise in contemplative reason – he had no choice – and his knowledge of human communication, of the interplay of technology and culture, of theories of mind, and of human cognition were both the impetus and the tools of this exercise. He had no choice. He did not answer the question, but in asking it he reaffirms everything that those great thinkers celebrated in Part One of Strate’s book had in common and asked of us as media scholars: investigate those connections between (in the words of George Herbert Mead) mind, self, and society.

In Echoes and Reflections, Lance Strate has written a powerful and unusual book, one that is at the same time erudite and scholarly, and soulfully spiritual. It is redolent of another type of mystery, the mystery of love. It is an echo of a scholar’s love for learning, thinking, and understanding, and a reflection of a father’s love for his child.

There have been other reviews of the book, and overall I've been quite pleased with them, but this one is the most meaningful for me. And so, let me take this opportunity to say thank you to Peter, who is himself the author of Printing, Literacy, And Education in Eighteenth-Century Ireland: Why the Irish Speak English, the winner of the Media Ecology Association's 2007 Marshall McLuhan Award for Outstanding Book in Media Ecology. Thanks, Peter!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Honestly, I use your book on an everyday basis. As someone developing my own niche in this field, there is no better reference book for the scope of media ecology.