Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Medium is the Muse

So, I have another new book in print now, this time a co-edited anthology of creative work entitled The Medium is the Muse [Channeling Marshall McLuhan]. It's a collection of poetry, poetics, creative writing, and cartoons, co-edited by the celebrated poet, and scholar of media poetics, communication theory, and media ecology, Adeena Karasick. Here's the cover, which is very, very cool:

And in case you're wondering whose picture that is, yes indeed, it is a very young, college age Marshall McLuhan. It's from a photograph that has not previously been seen publicly, and is used here by permission of the McLuhan Estate, with all rights reserved and all that jazz.

And just for good measure, here are a couple more versions of it:

And yeah, those are the links for buying either a soft or hardcover version of the book. So c'mon, what are you waiting for? Maybe a little more information? Well, here's the write-up from NeoPoiesis Press:

Oracle of the electronic age, Marshall McLuhan believed artists could wake us and offer new windows into the world. This diverse collection brings together twenty-nine poets, writers, and artists who channel McLuhan as both medium and muse. Like McLuhan's work, this volume will delight, divert, provoke, incite and inspire readers to channel McLuhan in their own imagination and creative endeavors.

So you can see that aside from the whatever value you might place on the editors, we have contributions from none other than Tom Wolfe, not to mention Elizabeth McLuhan (one of Marshall's daughter's), rock musician John Watts, and many others. And it's tempting to list everyone again, but how about I give you the Table of Contents instead? Here you go:



The medium is 
Lance Strate 

brush up on yr mcluhan / start dewing it now th medium 
bill bissett 

Tom Wolfe 

Man Made Whole Again 
Tom Wolfe 

All the Information in the Sun 
Robert Priest 

Short Sound Play 
Robert Priest 

Robert Priest 

It Came One Day 
 Elizabeth McLuhan 

Self Reflection 
Elizabeth McLuhan 

To Sit 
Elizabeth McLuhan 

Chop Gently 
Elizabeth McLuhan 

The Purple Rose of Brooklyn Or, Meeting Marshall McLuhan
(With a Little Help From Mayan Apocalypse Planet X/Nibiru) 
Marleen Barr 

McLuhan Kaleidoscope 
Mary Ann Allison 

Flash in the Pan 
John McDaid 

Tony Burgess 

dear marshall i know you 
Stephen Roxborough 

Marshalling McLuhan 
Lillian Allen 

Peter Montgomery 

Messy Necessity 
Adeena Karasick 

In My Blogal Village, Print is Hot 
Adeena Karasick 

Your Leaky Day 
Adeena Karasick 

BW Powe 

BW Powe 

William Marshe 

Constitution of Silence 
Steve Szewczok 

we, the real mad poets 
Jill McGinn 

Late Summer Twilight 
Jerry Harp 

Pegged to Invisible Consequences 
John Oughton 

McLuhan’s Bride 
David Bateman 

The Mechanical Bride’s Consolation 
Michelle Anderson 

Curriculum Vitae 
Alexandra Oliver 

M.F.M.: Media Friend Marshall 
Toshio Ushiroguchi-Pigott 

I Wouldn't Have Seen It If I Hadn't Believed It: A Probe Poem 
Andrea Thompson 

Dear Mr. Mössbauer, are you online? 
Dale Winslow 

Silent Resonance 
Dale Winslow 

It Was Never a Flower to Begin With 
Dale Winslow 

Si Philbrook 

mY parts 
John Watts 

Lance Strate 

Lance Strate 


The volume also includes a series of illustrations by acclaimed comics creator Dean Motter, and a couple by popular culture maven Arthur Asa Berger.

Now here is the basic information, including list prices:

ISBN 978-0-9855577-5-1
144 pages
5.5”x8.5” perfect bound, paper

ISBN 978-0-9892018-5-8
144 pages
5.5”x8.5” hardcover

So really, this wouldn't be a bad volume to use in a class devoted to creative explorations in communication, media, poetry, etc.

For more information, you can contact  info at neopoiesispress.com (and tell  them I sent you!).

Monday, July 21, 2014

Missing the Point About (Mis)Information

So, last week my friend and fellow media ecologist Corey Anton contacted me, and asked me to take a look at a YouTube video that had got him all riled up. The title of the video is What is NOT Random? and it was posted by "Veritasium" which is described as "a science video blog featuring experiments, expert interviews, cool demos, and discussions with the public about everything science."

And it is very clear that there are a significant amount of resources and effort that went into this video. It has great production values, which requires skill, and funding. And it shows in the end product being a rather amusing ten minutes, but we all know what Neil Postman had to say about video as a medium and amusing ourselves to death.

But I will say that they do a good job, for the most part, in talking about the Laws of Thermodynamics, and the basic binary opposition within the physical universe between order and organization on the one hand, and chaos, entropy, and randomness on the other.

But they go off the deep end, and make a serious error, when they bring in the subject of information. You might say that, as scientists, the concept of information is outside of their comfort zone, indeed, outside of their territory, but after all, Claude Shannon was a mathematician and engineer, and his information theory was nothing if not a scientific understanding of the process of communication framed as the transmission of information.

So, I really don't see any excuse for making the kind of fundamental error regarding the relationship between information and randomness that Veritasium makes in the following video. If you care to, go ahead and watch it and see if you can recognize the obvious mistake in their thinking (you should be able to spot it if you know your information theory):


 So, depending on your background, you may or may not have recognized the misinformation about information  that Veritasium is expressing in this video. And even if you do, you may still want to see if your diagnosis of their problem matches up to ours, or you might be interested in hearing exactly how we identify and discuss Veritasium's error, or maybe you might just enjoy hearing our voices and the way that Corey and I interact via Skype. So I'll share the exchange that Corey recorded for uploading to YouTube, with the caveat that our video is not a slick, polished, professional production like Veritasium's. Indeed, it's pretty basic and low tech (by digital video standards). But here it is:

And you can see it over on YouTube, posted on Corey's channel, under the title, What does Veritasium mean by "information"? A Not Random Question.  I'll add that we both tried to post the link in the comments section for the Veritasium video, and either through some manual rejection or automatic setting, something prevented it from showing up. And I thought science was supposed to be a public activity in which theories and findings are open to critical assessment, refutation and falsification. Maybe Veritasium needs to brush up on more than just information theory?

A great place to start learning more about the subject is with the field of media ecology, and as we mention at the end of the video, the Media Ecology Association.  And for a media ecological approach to information, which is somewhat divergent from that of information theory, you can take a look at my 2012 open access article, Counting Electric Sheep: Understanding Information in the Context of Media Ecology, which you can download for free, along with Corey Anton's Terms for Talking about Information and Communication.

And let's hope that in the future, we can have more informed discussions about the concept of information than those that can be found in the Veritasium video.


Sunday, July 20, 2014

My Sermon on Torah, Tribes, and Tribalism

Every so often over the past several years, I've served as lay leader for Friday evening Sabbath services at my Reform Jewish temple, Congregation Adas Emuno of Leonia, New Jersey. And this past Friday night, July 18th, was one of those times, and I prepared a special sermon for the occasion, or as they are more traditionally referred to, a D'var Torah, which means, Word of Torah (which I jokingly refer to as a word from our sponsor). 

And as the phrase implies, the D'var Torah is often based on the weekly Torah reading, and this past week's Torah portion or parsha is called Matot, the names generally being taken from the first or one of the first significant words in the portion (the same is true for the Hebrew names for the books of the bible, as opposed to the names used in the Christian tradition). And Matot is part of the Book of Numbers, beginning with chapter 30, verse 2, and ending with chapter 32, verse 42 (and chapter and verse are also Christian inventions, which is why the Hebrew portions do not line up with those divisions).

The content of this week's parsha ranges across a few different topics, but what I picked out as a theme for my D'Var Torah is the subject of Tribes and Tribalism. I posted my sermon over on the congregational blog of Adas Emuno a little earlier, under the heading of On Tribes and Tribalism, but want to record it here as well:

Parsha Matot

This week's Torah portion or parsha is called Matot, a Hebrew word that we translate as tribes. The parsha begins with, "And Moses spoke to the heads of the tribes of the children of Israel" (Numbers 30:2).

And we understand that some 3,000 years ago, there were a group of tribes that collectively were known as the Hebrews and the Israelites, and later became known as the Jewish people. And some three millennia later, here in America, we sometimes refer to ourselves, to the Jewish people as the tribe, and to ourselves as members of the tribe.

And there's a touch of Jewish humor, and more than a little irony, in calling ourselves the tribe. After all, we are citizens in a democracy; we make our homes in cities and suburbs; we go to school and get high school, undergraduate, and graduate degrees; we work in businesses and professions; and we are surrounded by gadgets and gizmos and all sorts of advanced technology. And we are comfortable and more or less happy to be living in the modern world. Sure, civilization has its discontents, as Sigmund Freud put it, but we generally don't wax nostalgic about being nomads. We don't long for a return to living in tents out in the wilderness, hunting and gathering just to survive. We don't romanticize the tribal way of life of our ancestors, certainly not along the same lines that the 17th century English playwright John Dryden introduced the concept of the noble savage, a stereotype famously invoked by the 18th century French philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. 

 Moreover, for us as Americans, the word tribe is most closely associated with the people encountered by Christopher Columbus and the Europeans who followed him in exploring and inhabiting the western hemisphere. For those of us of a certain age, the indigenous peoples of the New World were known collectively as Indians, and we also learned that they could be broken down into separate Indian tribes, the Navajo, the Apache, the Cherokee, the Comanche, the Hopi, and the list goes on to include some 566 tribes recognized by the United States government, which still officially uses the name Indian, as in the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Although the noble savage stereotype was established early in the history of European colonization of the New World, and invoked in our stories about Pocahontas, and how the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock celebrated the first Thanksgiving, Europeans also have a long history of oppression and persecution of these indigenous peoples, beginning with the abusive treatment by Christopher Columbus as governor of the island of Hispaniola, continuing with the Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors, with the French, Dutch, and English settlers in North America, and with the western expansion of the American republic. I think we all know about the broken treaties and the confinement of native populations to Indian reservations. And we also know about how the old, traditional western genre in literature, film, and broadcasting worked, where the cowboys were always the good guys, and the Indians the bad guys. And as the bad guys, the Indians would always lose. And I think we are all aware of the racism they were subjected to as well, and the fact that somehow, despite all the progress we made in regard to Civil Rights, we still have a football team named the Washington Redskins.

But our attitudes have changed dramatically over the past half century, and this is reflected in the fact that, outside of our government and the National Football League, we prefer the phrase Native Americans today, and associate it with more progressive attitudes towards a minority group that constitutes about 2% of the total US population, about 5.2 million people according to the latest census. This is pretty close to the percentage of the US population that is Jewish, a little less than the total number who identify themselves as ethnically Jewish, a little more than those of us who identify ourselves as Jewish by religion. But our sense of connection is about more than numbers, or the use of the word tribe, or even the fact that the first Europeans to encounter Native American peoples thought they might be lost tribes of Israelites, which was an idea that figured prominently in the Mormon religion. Our sense of connection also has much to do with our long tradition of social justice, and our great sympathy, and empathy, for oppressed peoples wherever we encounter them. That is why the Jewish involvement in the civil rights movement in America extended to the fight for justice for Native Americans.

Congress passed the Indian Civil Rights Act in 1968, but civil rights for Native Americans is a more complicated issue than it has been for other minority groups. From the very founding of the American republic, our government has negotiated treaties with Native American tribes, and therefore has recognized those tribes, as sovereign entities. Tribal sovereignty is limited, but it does mean that Native Americans can be dual citizens of the United States and of what our government refers to as domestic dependent nations. It is not all that common to refer to the tribes as nations here in the United States, but across the border in Canada, Native Americans are now commonly called First Nations. And more generally elsewhere, the word nation has been used in place of tribe more and more often in recent decades. That's because the word tribe has some negative connotations, associated with the savage, the primitive, the archaic, while nation confers a much greater degree of respect and legitimacy on a group of people.

But what, then, is a tribe? In one sense, a tribe is an extension of a family, and the term is synonymous with clan, although sometimes tribes are seen as composed of several different clans. But we see the idea of kinship clearly in our tradition, in the line of descent from Abraham to Isaac to Jacob, and from Jacob, who is also given the name Israel, to his twelve sons who become the ancestors of the twelve tribes of Israel. The complicated kinship structure also includes Abraham's first born, Ishmael, who also has twelve sons, who in turn become the ancestors of twelve Arabian tribes. And Isaac's first born, Esau, has five sons, and through them becomes the ancestor of other tribes, including the Edomites, and the Amalekites. You may recall that the Book of Esther includes a very prominent Amalekite by the name of Haman. So tribal identity is associated with the traditional idea of blood as a metaphor for kinship, but there is the connection formed through marriage, which is highlighted in the Book of Ruth, and the broader idea of a household. But the main point is that tribe is an extension of the idea of kinship, so if we are members of the tribe, we all related, all members of the same extended family.

So what, then, is a nation? The root meaning from the Latin has to do with birth, the same root as native, and nativity, and it is synonymous with breed, stock, kind, species, race of people, and… tribe. The traditional notion of a nation, then, is a group of people with shared ancestry, with a common ancestor, people related to one another through an extended form of kinship, sharing the same blood, part of the same family. So the word nation can refer to a tribe. Or it can refer to a collection of tribes, such as the twelve tribes of Israel, or the Achaeans of Greece who fought the Trojan War, or the Iroquois confederacy that formed in this region during the 17th and 18th centuries, not to mention the Mayans, Incans, and Aztecs of Mesoamerica. The point is that a nation is not defined by its government, but by its people. The same nation can change governments many times; for example, France has been a kingdom, a constitutional monarchy, a republic, an empire, and a dictatorship. The great scholar of Judaism, Jacob Neusner, has stated that, from the time of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 of the common era, and the final defeat of the Jewish rebellion in the year 135, we became a nation in exile, and remained so until the founding of the State of Israel in 1948.

The words tribe and nation have different connotations, but quite a bit of common ground, along with the traditional use of the word race, used to refer to a race of people, or what we otherwise would refer to as an ethnic group. This is the sense in which Nazi ideology was based on racial theories that claimed superiority for what they termed the Aryan race, viewing Jews and Gypsies as inferior races and therefore the target of ethnic cleansing, and the Slavic race as lower than the Aryans but good enough to be their servants. But whether we speak of race in this sense of the word, or ethnic group, or nation or nationality, or tribe, what we are essentially referring to is a people. That's what we do when we say, am yisrael chai, the people of Israel live. And when we speak of a people, we mean something more than a population, more than numbers. This week's Torah portion comes from what is commonly known as the Book of Numbers, and last week's portion included a census of the 12 tribes, but the Hebrew name for the book is Bamidbar, which means, In the Desert, and it is in the desert that the Jewish nation is born. Because when we speak of a people, we mean a population that shares a sense of group identity, that feels a sense of connection, of kinship, that shares a common culture, a distinctive way of life, and a distinctive way of looking at the world.

But there are times when a people split up, divide into different groups, start to go their separate ways, and lose their shared identity. This is the problem that Moses faces towards the end of this week's Torah portion, as the Israelites prepare to take possession of the land of Canaan, with each tribe occupying its own designated region. The leaders of two of the tribes, Reuben and Gad, tell Moses that they want to settle on the east bank of the Jordan River, and not occupy the Promised Land. And Moses responds, "Shall your brothers go to war while you stay here?" It's a question some have raised in regards to the State of Israel today. And Moses goes on to say, "Why do you discourage the children of Israel from crossing over to the land which Adonai has given them?" The tribes of Reuben and Gad respond that they will send their men across the Jordan to support the other tribes, and will only return and settle down in the east bank after all the other tribes have taken possession of their lands. And this becomes an acceptable compromise.

Moses uses the fear of God to keep Reuben and Gad from splitting off from the other tribes, but I think it is worth asking, what was it that held the Israelite tribes together? After all, the tribes descended from the sons of Abraham, from Isaac and Ishmael, became estranged from one another, and became, on many occasions, enemies. The same is true of the tribes descended from the sons of Isaac, from Jacob and Esau. So why didn't the same thing happen to the tribes descended from the sons of Jacob?

We can point to the shared experience of being slaves in Egypt, of their subsequent liberation, and revelation at Sinai. That certainly ought to go a long way towards insuring a sense of solidarity. But what also was essential in binding the tribes of Israel together was the Torah itself, a sacred text that was given to all of them as a shared inheritance. It was understood as a message from Adonai that was addressed to every Israelite tribe. It gave them a set of laws, the first true system of codified law, that applied to every tribe, and unified them all under a single constitution. And it gave them the first true written history, a shared history of the Hebrew tribes, a relatively fixed history in the place of a set of myths and legends passed on by word of mouth, and constantly changing from generation to generation. And it was based on a system of writing, the aleph-bet, that made it possible for the tribes to communicate with one another more effectively than before, which kept them from drifting apart. The aleph-bet also made it possible for the tribes to keep records, and to organize themselves in increasingly more complex ways. And the aleph-bet was the basis of formal education, of schooling, of study, and of the ability to employ more abstract forms of thought than peoples who lacking in literacy.

The result was not by any means a perfect union. The Torah, and the Tanach tell the story of a struggle to maintain a collective identity. In the Book of Judges the tribes are a loose confederation, and some but not all of them come together every so often under the leadership of a particular chieftain. Saul, the first king of Israel, is not all that different from the judges who preceded him, and when he assembles an army, the tribes of Reuben and Gad do not participate. It is King David who is finally able to unite the Israelite tribes into a unified kingdom. And to establish a capital that is independent of any one tribe, he conquers the city of Jerusalem, a city that was outside of any tribal region. The founders of the American republic followed this example in creating the District of Columbia where the city of Washington could be situated, so that our capital would not be located in any one of the states. David's son, King Solomon, built the Temple in Jerusalem to strengthen the union of tribes, but after he died, the kingdom split in two, with the southern kingdom of Judah, composed of that largest of the tribes, together with the small tribe of
 Benjamin, along with members of the tribes of Levi, the priestly tribe that had no land assigned to them. The rest of the tribes formed the northern kingdom of Israel, which was eventually destroyed by the Assyrians, with the members of those tribes either assimilating, or joining the southern kingdom, or joining with newer settlers in the north to become the Samaritans. The tribe of Benjamin was eventually absorbed into the tribe of Judah, leading to the notion of the ten lost tribes of Israel, the subject of centuries of searching on the part of Christians as well as Jews. And not long after the discovery of the New World, some thought that the ten lost tribes had been found, thinking that they were the Native Americans.

Recently, there as been some evidence that remnants of some of the ten lost tribes did survive into the Roman era, but today we really are the tribe, that is, the tribe of Judah, which is why we call our religion Judaism, and call ourselves Jews, even those of us whose name indicates membership in the tribe of the Levites. But we are divided in others ways, between Ashkenazi, Sephardic, and Mizrahi Jews, between Israeli and Diaspora Jews, between Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Orthodox Jews, and so on. We commonly use the metaphor of branches in talking about Judaism, that our own Reform Judaism is one of the branches of Judaism, and this metaphor resonates with the Tree of Life, which was said to have existed in the Garden of Eden, and which also serves as a metaphor for the Torah, for the sacred text that binds us together as one people.

In one rabbi's discussion of Parsha Matot, he notes that there is another word that is used in the Torah that like matot also means tribes: shevatim, which means branches. Matot, on the other hand, means sticks, and its appearance in this week's Torah portion suggests that the Israelite tribes have become less connected to one another than they previously had been. The Lubavitcher rebbe expresses a beautifully spiritual sentiment in suggesting, "Every stick yearns to return to its tree, yearns for the day that it will once again be a fresh, vital branch, united with its siblings and nourished by its progenitor." But, of course, we know that unless we go to great effort to preserve the severed limb, sticks that are cut off will tend to scatter, and grow further and further apart. And that is what happens to families, to tribes, to peoples as they separate. Unless they have something to hold them together. Something like our long tradition of literacy and learning.

Parsha Matot also includes an account of the Israelites taking revenge against the Midianites, in response to an earlier attempt by the Midianites to destroy the Israelites. The Midianites were also said to be the descendents of Abraham, and often at odds with the Israelite tribes, although Zipporah, the wife of Moses was a Midianite, and her father Jethro was a priest of Midian. The passage serves as a reminder of the realities of tribal life, of the conflicts, the violence, and the brutality. There is nothing noble about tribal savagery, and the Israelite tribes were not immune to it. And what this Torah portion relates are the realities of tribal warfare. But what the Torah also conveys is the fact that, just as the long journey of return from slavery in Egypt to settlement in the Promised Land was about to come to end, the Israelite tribes were just beginning a much longer and more difficult journey, from tribalism to civilization. The tribes of the children of Israel, our ancestors, were pioneers in that uncharted territory, as they forged a new way of life based on the rule of law, human rights, and ethical principles, and on education and learning based on alphabetic literacy. 

Our Holy Scriptures tells the story of our difficult struggle to banish tribalism, and not by having some other, deeply flawed form of civilization imposed on us by others, not by the Egyptians, or Babylonians, or the Greeks or the Romans. When it's imposed from the outside, it is all to easy to revert to tribalism once that outside force is gone. Freud called it the return of the repressed, and we can see it happening all over the world today. No, what the Israelite tribes did was to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, find their own way to a civilized way of life. And in doing so, they insured the survival of the Jewish people as a nation in exile. 

No one knows how many tribes have vanished over the course of human history, how many tribal languages and cultures have disappeared with out a trace, and continue to do so to this day. But as the people of the book, we have survived against all odds. Over the past two millennia, we have survived new forms of tribalism that came in the name of religious zealotry, and we survived the modern form of tribalism born of Nazi and fascist ideologies in the 20th century. And we continue to find ourselves struggling against the force of tribalism today. It is an external struggle, as current events make all too clear, but it is also an internal struggle, to maintain our collective identity, to continue to survive as the tribe, and as a civilization committed to higher ideals.

I can think of no better way to conclude than with the words of the prophet Isaiah (49:6): 
"It is too light a thing that you should be My servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the offspring of Israel; I will also give you to be a light unto the nations, that My salvation may be unto the ends of the earth."

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Some More Reading for the Summer

So, this is the third year in a row that Roy Christopher asked me to contribute to his Summer Reading List feature, where he compiles the recommendations of various scholars and intellectuals, based on the books they intend to read over the summer months. And of course, I'm happy to contribute, as this also gives me an excuse to pull out a set of volumes from the rather massive piles I have stored up all over the place. And being the kind of person I am, having made this commitment, I will be sure to complete the readings I've assigned myself, no matter the distractions or other readings that might join the batch.

You can read my selections, along with those of several others, over on Roy's blog and website, under the heading of Summer Reading List, 2014, which he posted on June 25th.  But for the record, here on my own blog of record, I will record my picks, complete with links to Amazon for ease of ordering in case you are so moved to do so:

At the top of my reading list for this summer is On Reflection: An Essay on Technology, Education and the Status of Thought in the Twenty-First Century (Canadian Scholars’ Press, 2013) by Ellen Rose, an outstanding scholar. And speaking of great scholars, I have Elizabeth L. Eisenstein’s most recent work, Divine Art, Infernal Machine: The Reception of Printing in the West from First Impressions to the Sense of an Ending (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011) high up on my stack as well.

I am also looking forward to reading B. W. Powe’s important study, Marshall McLuhan and Northrop Frye: Apocalypse and Alchemy (University of Toronto Press, 2014). This looks to be a summer for biographical and semibiographical works, as I also have lined up In Thought and Action: The Enigmatic Life of S. I. Hayakawa (University of Nebraska Press, 2011) by Gerald W. Haslam with Janice E. Haslam, and Appletopia: Media Technology and the Religious Imagination of Steve Jobs (Baylor University Press, 2013) by Brett T. Robinson, as well as The Science of Leonardo: Inside the Mind of the Great Genius of the Renaissance (Anchor, 2007) by Fritjof Capra.

I’ve picked up some second hand books that I intend to enjoy this summer, including two from Ralph Waldo Emerson. One is a stray volume of his collected works that combines two of his major publications, The Conduct of Life and Society and Solitude (Macmillan, 1910). The other is Essays And Journals (Programmed Classics, 1968), selected and with an introduction by Lewis Mumford (which alone is worth the price of purchasing the book). And then there’s Understanding Understanding (Harper & Row, 1974), by Humphry Osmond, with John A. Osmond and Jerome Agel, which I am understandably curious about.

For poetry, I can’t wait to delve into the long awaited volume from Dale Winslow, Tinderbox (NeoPoiesis, 2013). And in graphic novels, there’s The Walking Dead Volume 21: All Out War Part 2, real brain food that I’ll no doubt gobble up in one sitting when it comes out in a few weeks.

For the previous years' picks, you can take a look at my 2012 post, Some More Reading List, and last year's S'more Reading Listed.  Oh, and I almost forgot to mention, back over on Roy Christopher's Summer Reading List, 2014, he concluded with his own reading list, and can you guess which book he included? You got it, none other than Amazing Ourselves to Death: Neil Postman's Brave New World Revisited

Thanks, Roy! I hope you find it worth your while!

Monday, July 14, 2014

Texting Ourselves to Death

Time for another quote by yours truly, this one appearing in a story published in Fordham University's newsletter, Inside Fordham, on June 24, written up by Tom Stoelker. The title of the article is Texting: Do Fewer Words Equal Less Literacy? and there's also a heading that reads, "The Human Mind in Decline" (that has a catchy sound to it, don't you think?).

Anyway, the piece begins with a few paragraphs about a recent talk given at Fordham by a philosophy scholar:

On a recent visit to Fordham, philosopher Maurizio Ferraris, Ph.D., explained what many students already know and practice: cell phones are not for talking. In his new book to be published this summer by Fordham University Press, Where Are You? An Ontology of the Cell Phone, Ferraris argues that cell phones are writing machines.

“If you can use your living voice, why would you use dead letters?” Ferraris asked. “Because we don’t like the voice.”

By taking the function of the phone from voice to writing, he argues, the smart phone essentially becomes a recording machine, a journal. Since text could be publicly available well after the conversation is completed, it also outlasts the life of the actual conversation—as well as that of the writer.

“The basis of this sort of social bond is not communication, but recordability,” he said. Ferraris’ view hints at the growing debate among academics as to how texting is changing literacy and sociability.

Clearly, Ferraris does not understand communication, and the essential point made by media ecology scholars such as Harold Innis, James Carey,  Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman, that we can communicate over time as well as over space. He certainly does not seem to be aware of Alfred Korzybski's basic concept of time-binding, which is made possible by humanity's capacity for language and symbolic communication. Whether it's preserving the cultural heritage and essential knowledge via oral tradition, or the storing of knowledge outside of collective memory through writing, print, photography, and audio and visual recording devices, or information storage and retrieval via digital technologies, communicating over time has a great deal to do with the maintenance of social bonds, as well as cultural continuity.

Okay, end of rant, and now it's my turn to weigh in:

Lance Strate, Ph.D., professor of communication and media studies, said that when this generation’s new media first arrived on the scene, its emphasis on text spurred hope of a new generation of literacy. But now that the net has become increasingly visual, Strate says that a “telegraphic discourse” has come to dominate, where images and immediacy vie for cell phone users’ attention.

Strate’s recently published book, Amazing Ourselves to Death: Neil Postman’s Brave New World Revisited (Peter Lang, 2014), reframes Postman’s assertion that image-saturated media undermine reading and rhetoric.

“New media continues to be text-based, but it’s becoming much more visual,” he said. Strate said that in Postman’s view an increased emphasis on image elicits emotional rather than rational responses to information. On the flipside, today’s emphasis on efficiency creates what Strate calls “hyperrationality,” which he compared to a numbers game.

“Both take us away from the balance of oral and literate,” he said.

And of course I am grateful for the mention of my new book. But that's it for me, and what's interesting about Tom's article is that it presents a succession of viewpoints. Here are the next two:

Swarthmore College President Rebecca Chopp, Ph.D., during a visit to Fordham, said that texting has spawned “one of the greatest crises in America.”
“Millennial students don’t know the basic rules of discourse. They are struggling to learn how to communicate face-to-face and not just on the iPhone,” she said at a recent Center for Ethics Education symposium.

But there are others who find the changes less threatening. Addressing the Fordham faculty at Faculty Technology Day, tech writer David Pogue said that “every generation has its bugaboo” and that “we tend to worry more than necessary.”

And now, returning to Fordham faculty, the view from noted education scholar and children and media expert Fran Blumberg:

Associate Professor of Education Fran Blumberg concurs. “I don’t see it as that dramatic, as if this is going to change the face of the human race, or like we’re going to have chips in our brain,” said Blumberg, Ph.D., who teaches counseling psychology in the Graduate School of Education (GSE). Blumberg, whose own research includes the development of children’s attention in digital learning settings, said the phenomenon is clearly a cross-disciplinary problem, involving media studies, childhood development, cognitive psychology, business, and, of course, computer science.

And another representative from Fordham's School of Education:

Kristen Turner, Ph.D., a GSE associate professor, is an expert on the nature of digital language and the choices students make in their digital writing. Turner said that using the written language in place of oral communication has learning possibilities that should be exploited.

“The students are very aware of their audience when they text, and as a writing teacher I’m always trying to explain ‘audience.’ In texting, they get it,” she said. “My perspective is that literacy is changing. We have to teach differently and learn differently because of that. And we better do it fast or we’ll be in trouble.”

And returning to the field of philosophy, the final commentary goes to my colleague and friend, Babette Babich:

Babette Babich, Ph.D., professor of philosophy, said that fear of new technology is nothing new, and she teaches that in a Philosophy and Media class. She points out that, in Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates uses the Egyptian myth of the god Theuth and King Thamus to make the case for the superiority of rhetoric, memory, and the spoken word over the then-newfangled written text.

“Those who acquire [writing] will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful,” Socrates said. “They will rely on writing to bring things to their remembrance by external signs, instead of by their own internal remembrances.”

“We live on a diet of texts, Tweets, and ‘likes,’ always hungry for the next dopamine rush of the new,” said Babich. “But the problem is that today’s students have an anxiety in the time pressures of receiving and replying to a text.”

“If for Socrates the human mind has been in decline since writing began, the ‘rules’ for texting can accelerate that decline.”

The irony, of course, is that Plato recorded Socrates’ words in text.

And that ends the article. Here are some additional comments that didn't make it into the piece:

McLuhan never predicted the disappearance of writing altogether, and anyone who is familiar with McLuhan will find comments to the contrary extremely annoying. 

When McLuhan said that writing was becoming obsolescent, he didn't mean it would be rendered extinct. McLuhan stated that a new medium does not eliminate an older one, but rather requires the older medium to redefine itself, to find a new niche, as radio did after television was introduced.

In other words, McLuhan said that a new medium does not cause an older medium to disappear, but rather to redefine itself, and he also said that when a medium becomes obsolescent, it becomes an art form. 

Moreover, I think it's clear to see that we will eventually have chips in our bodies, and that we're not that far off from it. And the thing about Socrates is that he was right, the more we rely on writing, the less we develop our memories, and it's use it or lose it. And with Google searches, memory atrophies even further.

This is not to say that we should abandon all hope, but we do need to understand what we're up against, in our efforts to preserve at least some of the civilization that brought us to this point. Otherwise, maybe we will find ourselves, among other things, texting ourselves to death.

Jewish Movie Marvels

So, another op-ed piece I wrote was published in the June 20th issue of the Jewish Standard entitled, Superhero Spring, and subtitled "Examing the midrash of popular cinematic culture." Now, if you follow me on Twitter (and if you don't, why not?), you may have seen my tweet on May 23rd:

3 movies about Marvel superheroes all out now at the same time. That's unprecedented. A tribute to Stan Lee!

Or maybe you saw it when the tweet was forwarded to my Facebook account. If not, never mind, you saw it now. And I made it a point to see all three of those movies, accompanied by my son Benjamin, who I've been dragging to see superhero movies since he was old enough for them. As I've mentioned at least at some point on this blog, buried somewhere in some past post, I have a longstanding interest and affection for superheroes and the comics medium, stretching back as far as I can remember.

And much has been said on the Jewish connection to the comics medium and the superhero genre, given that many of the early comics creators were in fact Jewish. In particular, much has been written about Superman, who was created by two Jewish teenagers in Cleveland circa 1938, and also more generally about the Golden Age of comics that followed. Much less has been said about the Silver Age associated with the 60s, and about Marvel Comics which started early in that decade. 

So these three movies were an occasion for me to think about the topic, and then write a little think piece on the subject. Here's how it begins:

The second quarter of 2014 has been rather remarkable for superhero movies, with three different films, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and X-Men: Days of Future Past, in the theaters all at the same time at one point.

At this point, it makes sense to include the trailers for the three films, so that even if you haven't seen them, you can at least get a sense of what I'm referring to.

Of course, the trailers emphasize action and special effects, but at least you can get a feel for the style of the films from them. But my interest here is in the characters and essential plot lines as they relate to the characters, and how that reflects a certain ethnic and religious experience, and identity. So let me return to the opinion piece now:

All three movies are adaptations of Marvel Comics, the publishing group launched by Stan Lee (aka Stanley Lieber) in 1961, and purchased by Disney in 2009. Stan Lee was the son of Jewish immigrants from Romania, and as a teenager took a job in 1939 with Timely Publications, the company that he eventually would evolve into Marvel Comics.

The Marvel Age, as it came to be known, was in many ways the result of a collaboration between Lee, as writer and editor, and the artist Jack Kirby. Kirby (aka Jacob Kurtzberg), the son of Jewish immigrants from Austria, started to work as a comics artist in 1936, and was hired by Timely in 1940, while he was still in his early 20s. He worked with Joe Simon, just a few years his senior and also the son of Jewish immigrants, and the two created the most famous of patriotically-themed superheroes, Captain America. Fighting Nazis months before the United States entered the Second World War, this hero stood as a counter to Nazi theories of racial superiority, as the product of good old American know-how.

Captain America originally was a frail and weak young man, unfit for military duty, until he was given an experimental serum that transformed him into a super soldier. In a reflection of the egalitarianism of American culture, anyone receiving the same treatment could reach the height of human perfection just as he had. But the secret formula died with the scientist who created it—who was assassinated by a Nazi spy.

At first glance Captain America comes across as an all-American hero, but his story in fact encapsulates the intergenerational experience of immigrants and their children. Growing up in Europe under difficult conditions, immigrants tended to be relatively small of stature, sometimes sickly, while their children, born and raised in the United States, grew up tall and strong due to superior diet and medical care. The powerful resonance of this hero, resurrected by Lee and Kirby a few years into the Marvel Age, continued despite the counterculture movement (Peter Fonda’s character in the 1969 film “Easy Rider” was nicknamed Captain America), and is still present in the sequel to the first Captain America film, in which Scarlett Johansson reprises her role as the superspy Black Widow. “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” continues to remind us of the moral clarity of the American fight against Nazism (in the films largely represented by the fictional organization Hydra), as well as the ideal of the American dream, which tells us that we can improve upon and remake ourselves through our own ingenuity.

I'll just add here that, for me, this understanding of how Captain America reflects the immigrant experience came as a sudden realization. The insight is not altogether original, in that, for decades now, the character of Superman has been understood to be the ultimate immigrant, but figuring out how Captain America served as a variation on the same theme was something new to me.

Anyway, on to the next one:

Lee and Kirby also created the X-Men, a superhero team composed of mutants, born with genetic differences that resulted in extraordinary powers and abilities. While originally framed as stories about good mutants battling evil mutants, the concept naturally lent itself to stories about prejudice, drawing upon themes derived from the history of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust and the civil rights movement. Magneto, one of the X-Men’s main antagonists, espoused a variation on Nazi racial theories, arguing that mutants constitute a new species, which he dubbed homo superior. Lee and Kirby never intended for the character to be seen as Jewish, although as the back story evolved he was shown to have been a victim of the Nazis, who after all persecuted a number of other minority groups.

Decades after the character was introduced, however, he was transformed into a Jewish-Holocaust-survivor-turned-terrorist through a bit of revisionist comic book history, something of a Malcolm X and Meir Kahane for mutants. In the comics, this depiction is balanced by the presence of other, entirely positive Jewish heroes, such as the young mutant Kitty Pryde, who plays a significant role in “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” but is never identified in regard to religion or ethnicity. That balance is entirely missing in the 2011 film, X-Men: First Class, which shows Magneto’s childhood experiences in a Nazi concentration camp. While this serves to explain his militancy, the transformation from victim to villain cannot be entirely justified, and the characterization would seem to reflect changing attitudes toward Israel and Zionism in recent years. Thankfully, this year’s X-Men film (the seventh in that series) avoids any mention of Magneto’s background, as the future that he and the other heroes fight to prevent is one in which mutants—along with almost everyone else—are subjected to a new kind of holocaust. But there is an obvious bit of relativism at work in this film in that the leader of the anti-mutant crusade is played by Peter Dinklage, a New Jersey native perhaps best known for his work as Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones. Although no mention is made of his dwarfism, the clear implication is that even those subject to persecution are not immune from persecuting others.

And since I bring it up, here's the trailer for that previous X-Men film:

Embedding is disabled, so I can't include this other video here, but you can watch X-Men Opening Scene (2000) - Magneto in Auschwitz extermination camp over on YouTube, just click away, but be sure to come back here after you're done.

And here is the original comic book cover for the 1981 "Days of Future Past" storyline, featuring older versions of Wolverine and Kitty Pryde:

Now, let me return to my op-ed for the third Marvel to make it to the silver screen this spring:

Spider-Man is Stan Lee’s most memorable creation, and has been commonly described as Woody Allen with webs, a superhero who is a bit of a schlimazel, plagued with personal problems, perhaps even a bit neurotic, or, in the parlance of the ‘60s, full of hang-ups. Much like Captain America, Spider-Man is described as “puny” before his transformation, in this case due to an accidental bite by a radioactive spider. While meek and mild, he is a highly intelligent and diligent high school student, living with over-protective parents (actually his aunt and uncle), a type familiar enough in postwar Jewish communities like the Forest Hills section of Queens, where the story of Spider-Man begins.

I should note that I grew up next door to Forest Hills, in Kew Gardens, so I always felt a strong affinity to this character. Here's the cover from his 1962 comics debut:

 And back now to the opinion piece:

Although he is given an Anglo-Saxon name, Peter Parker, and a matching identity, the Jewish sensibility of Marvel’s most popular hero also extends to his constant use of humor even while fighting a supervillain.
But what drives Spider-Man above all else is a very Jewish sense of guilt. This is worked into his origin. He does not immediately dedicate himself to helping others after gaining his extraordinary gifts. It is only after standing idly by during a robbery that he is shocked to learn that the criminal he allowed to escape went on to murder his Uncle Ben.
Stan Lee’s most memorable quote, “with great power comes great responsibility,” comes via this character, who serves as a father figure for Peter. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (actually the fifth Spider-Man film, although the sequel to the 2012 series reboot) continues to emphasize the themes of guilt and responsibility as they relate to Peter’s girlfriend Gwen Stacy (another source of tragedy and guilt).

Of course Jews do not have a monopoly on guilt, but we do have our own particular brand of it. A colleague of mine whose father is Jewish and whose mother is Catholic insightfully observed that Catholics make you feel guilty for things that you do, while Jews make you feel guilty for what you don’t do. This of course corresponds to the sins of commission and omission. Ogden Nash, in his poem, “Portrait of the Artist as a Prematurely Old Man,” famously suggested that the sins of commission are preferable in that “they must at least be fun or else you wouldn’t be committing them,” whereas it is the sin of omission “that lays eggs under your skin.”

Speaking of Ogden Nash, here's what you might call the portrait of the poet...

And I feel obliged to add that the colleague at Fordham University who explained the distinction between Jewish and Catholic guilt to me is none other than my long time friend and fellow media ecologist, Ed Wachtel. And after I shared a copy of the original op-ed in the Jewish Standard with him, he chided me for not mentioning him by name, so now I am correcting that particular sin of omission. In addition to it evoking a chuckle  and a nod of recognition from anyone familiar with the two faiths, he has truly made a very significant observation, that different cultures and religious traditions can have different types of guilt. And it certainly made my essay much more interesting than it would have otherwise been. Thanks, Ed!

 And now for the conclusion of my think piece:

The guilt for what you don’t do, for standing idly by while others suffer, for not taking a stand against discrimination and injustice, for not opposing the evil that we find in the world, for not being the best that we can be and for not taking responsibility for ourselves and for others, is the underlying message of the Marvel Age, in comics and now in motion pictures. It serves as a kind of pop culture midrash for our times.

The Marvel Age of Midrash, that does sound like something Stan Lee might have written, and maybe Jack Kirby too. They did have a taste for alliteration, which maybe had something to do with ancient and medieval Hebrew's use of poetic devices of assonance and parallel structure.

Jack Kirby  (l.) & Stan Lee (r.)

from Uncanny X-Men #98 (1976)

I think it's fair to say that Stan Lee, now 91 years old, and Jack Kirby (1917-1994) are the real marvels behind the movies of this past spring. So to Stan Lee, and to the memory of Jack Kirby, I say a hearty, mazel tov!