Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Media Ecology and Cultural History

So, Donna Halper raised another interesting question over on the MEA listserv, and I thought I'd share my response with you here. Donna wrote that, "A historian friend of mine, who is involved with social and cultural history, said to me that, as she sees it, media ecology seems like an offshoot of social and/or cultural history." Donna correctly (in my opinion) disagreed with this assessment, and asked what others thought. So here, now, is my reply:

First off, I'd say that media ecology is not an "offshoot" of cultural history because we can trace media ecology's origins back to before there was such a thing as cultural history.  If we consider Plato's Phaedrus to be the first media ecological treatise, then we've got over two millennia before there's any cultural history.

Second, cultural history is a subset of the discipline of history, and as a method, a subset of historical methodology.  Media ecologists employ a variety of methods, and some of what we do is history, and some of the history we do is cultural history, and some of it is history of technology, which is somewhat different from cultural history; and we also do some history of ideas, and Mumford referred to his own method as "ecological history." 

There are some great examples of media ecological cultural history, such as Walter Ong's Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue, and Eric Havelock's The Greek Concept of Justice (although that would be classified under Classics).  The last few chapters of The Bias of Communication, where Innis gets away from the grand theorizing that we tend to focus on, could be considered cultural history, and James W. Carey followed that lead in his own scholarship, as did Carey's students, like Daniel Czitrom in Media and the American Mind, or Barnhurst and Narone in The Form of News.  My first academic publication, "Media and the Sense of Smell," which appeared in the 2nd and 3rd editions of Gumpert and Cathcart's Inter/Media reader, was a form of cultural history, although I didn't learn about that designation until much later.  And I do think that cultural history is not a bad choice for media ecological theses and dissertations.

Technically, cultural history should involve a degree of historical research into primary sources, and emphasize the history over the theorizing.  Media ecologists do emphasize the historical context in their studies, but often engage in theorizing as well, a kind of historiography that many historians frown upon.  So, for example, McLuhan's Gutenberg Galaxy is historical, it's about culture (and technology, and ideas), but it's not a detailed historical study, it's a series of probes, and it presents generalizations about writing and printing within an historical context.  Postman's Disappearance of Childhood draws on secondary sources to establish an historical context that supports his critique of the television medium on American society.  Likewise, Boorstin's The Image is not a history, it's a commentary and critique that uses history as part of its argument.  Joshua Meyrowitz's No Sense of Place uses case studies drawn from recent history and current evens to support his effort at social psychology theory-building.  Paul Levinson's The Soft Edge identifies itself as a natural history, and synthesizes historical information, but is really more of a natural philosophy of media and technology.

At the opposite end of history, media ecologists have also engaged in futurism, extrapolating from historical patterns and contemporary trends to made predictions about where we might be headed in the future.  This was a big part of media ecology in the 60s and 70s especially.

Cultural history, and history in general, is only one of many methods that media ecologists utilize, singularly or in combination.  We also use philosophical methods (including those derived from the philosophy of science and technology (e.g., Don Ihde), but also from ethics (Corey Anton's Valuation and Media Ecology anthology gets into this), philosophy of symbolic form (e.g., Susanne Langer), pragmatics (e.g., Peirce, Dewey), and metaphysics (e.g., Eric McLuhan on formal causality), aesthetics (e.g., Gombrich, Sontag, Paglia), all manner of literary and textual analysis (e.g., semiotics, and popular culture studies, as in McLuhan's The Mechanical Bride), linguistic analysis (e.g., Sapir, Whorf, Dorothy Lee), ethnography (Lee again, Carpenter, Hall, Goody), psychological/behavioral, sociological, biological, etc., etc., etc.  In sum, there is no method that we are not open too, even quantitative, empirical, and experimental methods have been employed by media ecologists.  We run the gamut from what Innis called "dirt research" to McLuhan's grand theorizing.

In regard to research methodology, I guess you could say that media ecology is eclectic, but also synthetic.  But media ecology also stands as a method unto itself, I think, in the broader sense of the word.  The etymological dictionary says that the word method is derived from the Latin methodus, which means "way of teaching or going," which fits because media ecology is in many ways a curriculum, a course of study.  And the Latin is derived from the Greek methodus, which means "scientific inquiry, method of inquiry," and in the ancient sense of science, media ecology is indeed a way of knowing, and was described by Postman as a field of inquiry.  And that Greek word comes from the combination of meta, for after, and hodus, for a traveling, a way, so method is a pursuit, a following after, and that fits nicely too.  Media ecology is a pursuit of understanding, a following after great ideas, an approach and a way.  As Ong points out, words like system, theory, and perspective are visual metaphors, as opposed to the bodily metaphor of method as travel or way.  We are fellow travelers following along the media ecology way, and if you like, the Tao--with apologies to Fritjof Capra--the Tao of Media Ecology.

So, you see, my friends,  there is indeed a method to this madness....

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