Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Narrative, Language, and Medium

So, last year I was asked if I'd write an article for a special issue of an Italian online journal called Between, which is the journal of the Italian Association of Comparative Theory and History of Literature. The theme of the special issue is Technology, Imagination, and Narrative Form, and they asked me to do something media ecological, not surprisingly.Well, more precisely, the exact theme is Tecnologia, Immaginazione, Forme del Narrare, and I've linked it to the journal issue page so you can go take a look, there are quite a few articles, and a good number of them are in English, including mine.

So, okay, the title of my article is Notes on Narrative as Medium and a Media Ecology Approach to the Study of Storytelling and if you click on that link it'll take you to a page where you can see the article online, but through a funny little window. Anyway, you can download the PDF from there, if you care to.

So, anyway, I know, so far this isn't much of a post, substance wise, but wait, there's more. You see, I let folks know about it on the Media Ecology Association's e-mail discussion list, and received a query from someone on the list who is not very knowledgeable about the field, and was skeptical about the idea of language as medium, which I discuss in the article. I provided some explanation, and thought it was worth sharing a modified version of it here on good old Blog Time Passing.

So here goes:

In regard to applying to language the idea that each medium has its own bias, that refers in particular to linguistic relativism, also known as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which says that different languages give us different tools for thought, and different ways of viewing the world. Each language then has its own bias, which is why you cannot be fluent in another language if you are transposing word for word, instead you have to think in the other language. Linguistic relativism was not solely the idea of Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf, there was also Dorothy Lee, George Orwell (in 1984) and long before them, Wilhelm von Humboldt.

Related to linguistic relativism is the general semantics of Alfred Korzybski and others, who regard language in general as having a bias based on its abstracting of perception (itself an abstracting of reality), and in understanding language as a tool, and therefore take the position that modifying the tool can modify our ability to understand and relate to reality, hopefully for the better. Also related are various philosophies regarding symbolic form on the part of Whitehead, Russell, Wittgenstein, Cassirer, Langer, etc. And more recently, there is the metaphor theory of Lakoff and Johnson, which argues that all language is metaphorical, and the metaphors embedded in language influence the way we experience the world.

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis was broadened in several ways, notably by Edmund Carpenter working with McLuhan, to apply to media, also by Edward T. Hall to apply to culture (defining culture as communication), and by Postman to apply to the general idea of structures underlying all things. An earlier connection was made by Sergei Eisenstein in referring to the language of film. In the field of media ecology, the classic essay is Carpenter's "The New Languages" which appeared in the Explorations journal in the 50s, the Explorations in Communication collection in 1960, and has been reprinted many, many times in anthologies on media and communication. The idea also appears in Understanding Media of course, in the chapter on media as translators, and in the appendix to the critical edition. In Carpenter's essay, he says that all languages are media, and media are our new languages, with their own counterpart to vocabulary and grammar, and following Sapir-Whorf, their own inherent bias as to how the world is viewed.

While the idea of linguistic relativism was suppressed by Chomsky and his followers in linguistics, it's made a comeback in the post-Chomsky era.

As for the quote, "Language is the medium of literature as marble or bronze or clay are the materials of the sculptor," from Edward Sapir's classic work, Language: An Introduction to the Study of Speech, the word medium had been in use at the time he was writing (circa 1921) to refer to the material artists use. It's similar to the way that Harold Innis later uses medium to refer to writing surfaces, categorizing them as heavy or light, each associated with cultural biases towards time or space, respectively.

So Sapir is saying that language is the basis of literature in the same way that paint and canvas are the basis of painting. It's what we call an analogy. And it's an early reference to language as a medium, at a time when the term medium was not widely used to refer to what was traditionally known as the press and speech, so that it shows the concurrent evolution of terminology and the media ecological insights that go with it.

But the idea that literature is a function of language is not at all limited to media ecology. That's the basis of the humanities tradition of modern languages, the study of language and literature together, also known as philology (which Tolkien was a professor of, and forms the foundation of his fiction, based on fictional languages; Humboldt was also a philologist), and which can be traced back to the medieval trivium, to rhetoric and especially grammar, the subject of McLuhan's doctoral thesis, and before that to Talmudic scholarship. The bias of a language means that different languages are associated with distinctively different literatures, that there are aspects of French literature that cannot be understood unless you understand what is distinctive about the French language, and that cannot be translated into another language.

So, all of this is foundational within the field of media ecology, and summed up by saying, the medium is the message. And as a wise man once said, all the rest is commentary, go and learn it.

And that's the story, miei amici, so ciao, for now!


raw poetry by donna snyder said...

I thoroughly enjoyed this brief rendition of your painter. I don't really see how the idea, that language is to literature as paint and canvas is to painting, can be controversial or seen d anything but a given. Likewise the belief that specific languages affect the way spreadsheets of those languages think, feel, and express themselves. Nice to read you again, Professor.

Lance Strate said...

Thank you very much, Donna, nice to hear from you as well!