Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Hearing and Media

So, back in 2008, I was contacted by Kathi Mestayer about an article she was writing about hearing loss, as she had seen me quoted in the New York Times (see my post from back then, The Secondary Orality of Social Networking), and liked my comment about the primacy of orality and speech.  So I sent her an extended reply via email on the subject, which she thanked me for, and that was that.  At least until last November, when she contacted me again about an article she was writing for Hearing Health magazine.

As you may know, I have a certain interest in disabilities, albeit relating to autism.  As far as hearing is concerned, well, I did sacrifice quite a bit to rock and roll, but that's a story for another time.  But I do want to note that when I was a student, both graduate and undergraduate, it was still quite common for communication departments, many of which had a longstanding connection to the study of speech, to include faculty whose specialty had to do with speech impediments and hearing loss.  And while some real connections were made, for the most part the scholars had little or nothing to do with each other, and that kind of combination is rare nowadays in American universities.

So, anyway, we had a few telephone conversations and several email exchanges, and the article finally appeared in the Spring issue of the magazine. If you click on that link, you can see the magazine online at a rather interesting site called Issuu.  I find it a great example of Marshall McLuhan's observation that the content of a medium is another medium.  On this site, we see the attempt to faithfully reproduce paper media, magazines, newspapers, catalogs, calendars, brochures, even white papers, not only in the manner of the PDF document, but in simulating the three-dimensional look of documents, and the experience of turning pages.  

Arguably, this is an example of what McLuhan called rear view mirror thinking, trying to do yesterday's job with today's tools.  It does make sense, however, as a means of archiving and increasing the accessibility of documents whose primary form is print, and also as an alternative for print media that have decided to go digital because of the cost of production and distribution, but want to retain their traditional format.

Anyway, having mentioned McLuhan, it should come as no surprise that his name comes up in the piece, and Kathi went so far as to title her article, "The Medium is the Message," which takes on an entirely new slant in an article associated with hearing impairment and loss.

Because of the format used, I can't transfer the text of the piece onto this blog post in the form of block quotations, which would make for easy reading, but I can show you what the pages look like.  Here's the first page of the article:

A good opening, and clearly in line with media ecology thinking, as she quickly moves from the apparent similarities to the truly significant differences that make a difference, and McLuhan (and me), not to mention the Media Ecology Association:

Phatic communication is small talk, a form of ritual communication where the goal is not the transfer of information, or influence, but merely the creation and maintenance of relationships, social bonds.  In this sense, relational communication is in effect a medium, and from a media ecology perspective, it is in essence a medium.  Following Gregory Bateson, Paul Watzlawick and his colleagues in The Pragmatics of Human Communication distinguish between the content and relationship level of communication, equivalent to the communication and metacommunication levels, and these correspond quite clearly to the distinction between content and medium that McLuhan makes.  Anyway, sorry to interrupt, carry on:

And there's that reference to the New York Times article that started it all.  And the quote from Helen Keller sums it all up perfectly (in my conversation with Kathi, I had mentioned that Hellen Keller, when asked if she would rather be blind or deaf, said that she would prefer to be blind, because people are kinder to the blind, whereas they tend to be annoyed with the deaf).  Vision objectifies, sound connects.  

Understanding the differences between the senses should also allow us to understand the differences between their corresponding impairments.  And that should allow us to better accommodate and aid individuals with disabilities, a truly worthwhile goal!

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