Monday, April 30, 2007

My Day!

I just came across this file and thought I'd add it here, for the record. In 2002 I was the Keynote Speaker at the Annual Meeting of the Rocky Mountain Communication Association, which was held at the University of Denver--my address was "Human Communication and Human Technology: Coming of Age in the Twenty-First Century," and it was very much influenced by the experience of 9/11 and its immediate aftermath, which was still fresh in everyone's minds that February (in fact, my trip to Denver was the first post-9/11 flight that I had taken). But hosts, Frank Dance, Dennis Gallagher, and Bonnie Orkow were very gracious and hospitable. And, after I made my speech, I was presented with the following Proclamation:

Well, the actual Proclamation is hanging in my office. This is just the image from a file from a scan I took of it.

Anyway, what can I say, Colorado has been good to me. And when in Denver, Vote Gallagher! Early and often!

Sunday, April 29, 2007

All Blogged Up!

Well, this is pretty comical, and the joke's on me. Having written two posts on how blogs run in reverse chronological order, I find that the two posts have been published out of order, with the one I wrote earlier today, Blog Up!, being placed underneath, and therefore before the one I wrote yesterday, Through the Blogging Glass. In other words, they appear in what would in any other context be considered correct chronological order or sequence.

How did this happen? Well, I started to write Blog Up! yesterday, and as I was working on it, I realized that I was getting into a separate topic, one that should come first, so I clicked "SAVE AS DRAFT" and then created a new post, Through the Blogging Glass. Today, when I went to "EDIT POSTS" to retrieve Blog Up! to continue working on it, I noticed that it was listed underneath Through the Blogging Glass, as if it had been posted earlier, not just saved as a draft earlier. But I didn't give it a second thought until I was finished, and posted Blog Up! and went to "VIEW BLOG" and saw that it had been inserted as if it had been posted before Through the Blogging Glass.

So, first and foremost, this post serves as an errata of sorts, noting that the order has been reversed due to this peculiarity of blogger.

Second, it serves as a reminder that editing is, after all, a way of reordering sequence, and reality, straightening out story lines, and otherwise improving the end product. In a sense, editing is a way of concentrating time, as much more time goes into writing, rewriting, and editing, in order to get things just right, than it would to just write a first draft, whereas the reader reading the words takes the same amount of time either way.

Editing also allows narratives to be made linear. Before writing, oral traditions were characterized by episodic narratives, the formulaic episodes and themes being open to many different arrangements and sequences. After writing, it becomes possible to construct a narrative that runs perfectly from beginning to middle to climax/anticlimax/end, the Aristotelian narrative and Freytag pyramid. After printing, which brings with it a high degree of literacy, it becomes possible to write a narrative in which a second narrative or sequence of events is being reconstructed--what I am referring to is the 19th century invention of the detective or mystery story, which Edgar Allen Poe pioneered.

So when we edit, we alter time--I know I did--which means that time is no longer like the Rocky Mountains, as a writer such as Kurt Vonnegut could tell you, or as I did in a previous post.

So where does this leave me? All blogged up and nowhere to go?

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Through the Blogging Glass

In a previous post entitled Cybertime, Blogtime I discussed how blogs resemble traditional handwritten logbooks and diaries in that blogs contain a series of entries made in chronological order, and in this sense both types of media generate a sense of time that is linear and sequential. But in traditional logbooks and diaries, we move forward through time as we read from the top to the bottom of the page, then over to the next page again from top to bottom, then, turning the page, again from top to bottom.

But with blogs, we move backwards through time as we scroll down from one entry to the next. And then we click to load a new page with older posts, and again we go from the more to the less recent entries as we scroll downwards. That is why I said that what we call (weB)LOGS can also be thought of as B(ackwards)LOGS. And this represents a new experience of time, a new concept of time, blogtime, a variation on what I have previously referred to as cybertime.

Blogtime brings to mind Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass:

Chapter-5 Wool and Water

'It's very good jam,' said the Queen.
'Well, I don't want any TO-DAY, at any rate.'
'You couldn't have it if you DID want it,' the Queen said. 'The rule is, jam to-morrow and jam yesterday--but never jam to-day.'
'It MUST come sometimes to "jam to-day,"' Alice objected.
'No, it can't,' said the Queen. 'It's jam every OTHER day: to-day isn't any OTHER day, you know.'
'I don't understand you,' said Alice. 'It's dreadfully confusing!'
'That's the effect of living backwards,' the Queen said kindly: 'it always makes one a little giddy at first--'
'Living backwards!' Alice repeated in great astonishment. 'I never heard of such a thing!'
'--but there's one great advantage in it, that one's memory works both ways.'
'I'm sure MINE only works one way,' Alice remarked. 'I can't remember things before they happen.'
'It's a poor sort of memory that only works backwards,' the Queen remarked.

McLuhan was fond of that quote: It's a poor sort of memory that only works backwards. So blogs constitute a poor sort of memory, don't they?

And blogs take us through the looking glass, or should I say, through the blogging glass. We find another world on the other side of the glass, the screen: it is a world that mirrors our own, yet moves in the opposite direction, where effects precede their own causes. It's a world with a magic ecology that reflects but also runs counter to our own.

We look through the blogging glass and think we see others like ourselves, but maybe we just see reflections of ourselves, hear echoes of our own voices. We go through the blogging glass and become others to our own selves, spirits looking down at our own flesh. And like light through a prism, we are refracted from a unity to a multitude of identities and selves as we move through the blogging glass.

It's quite a jam, won't you join me today?

Blog Up!

To continue to reflect on the topics brought up in yesterday's Through the Blogging Glass post, you might say that the bias of the blog as a medium of communication is to present posts in reverse chronological order, making it, in Lewis Carroll's words, a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.

Except that blogs do not only work backwards, that's just their default mode. There is more than one way to skin a blog, that is, to read this type of text or move through this particular media environment. For one, each post can be read individually, as its own, discrete web page. For another, posts can be grouped together topically, by clicking on the labels or tags (but note that within this grouping, the posts still come up in reverse order from latest down to earliest). Alternately, it is possible to navigate the blog hypertextually, clicking on links within the blog that might take you to other pages in the blog, or to pages outside of the blog.

And it is also possible to read a blog in chronological order, moving forwards from the earliest post to the latest. This is what one of my MA students, Marian Kozhan, is doing in her research for her thesis, which is on the topic of courtesan blogs. In doing so, you can capture and in some way recreate the sense of a life being lived in forward motion, a sense of an ongoing personal development, a sense of some sort of series of events, unfortunate or otherwise, that is being recorded through the blog.

To read a blog in chronological order is to go against the grain in some ways, especially when you navigate by scrolling up. But it is more than the bias of the blog that is being countered here, but a larger cultural bias as well.

Simply put, we are accustomed to reading from the left to write, while some writing systems, such as Hebrew, move from the right to the left. Most writing also allows for reading from the top down (in Chinese writing, both top to bottom and right to left are norms). But writing from the bottom to the top is very rare, albeit not unknown, and it comes across for the most part, and certainly for us westerners, as strange and unnatural.








I know, I know, reading upwards is not the same as scrolling upwards, but there is a common element here, which leads me to ask, are there any examples of this upward movement? Maybe when we look up at tall buildings, monuments, trees, mountains, and the like, so this possibly is associated with a sense of climbing. But reading upwards does not convey any sense of loftiness that I can discern, just maybe a bit of vertigo.

I should note that when we scroll down through any kind of electronic text, be it a word processing a document, hypertext node or a blog, the lines of text move upwards so that we can read downwards. The same thing happens when the credits roll in a film or video, the lines almost always move up, which seems only natural as we read or scan the text downwards. On occasion, a filmmaker may violate this norm for effect, generally to create a sense of the alien, as George Lucas did in his first feature film THX 1138(based on a short film he did as a student), starring Robert Duvall.

If you've never seen the movie, you might want to take a look, it's interesting, but a far cry from the Star Wars films he's famous for (although you can see some hints of what's to come). THX 1138 is an artsy film about a future dystopia where society is like a machine, entropy has set in and things seem to be running down, everyone is sedated through drugs and holographic television (following Aldous Huxley), but sex is illegal, and reproduction is done in the factory. The soundtrack is especially notable, given the collaboration with audio expert Walter Murch (and the sound system THX is derived from this movie). An interesting thing about this movie is that it was the first release from Francis Ford Coppola's film company, American Zoetrope, Lucas having been an intern for him previously. Warner Brothers, who backed Coppola's production company and distributed THX 1138, was not at all happy with the initial product to come out of American Zoetrope, the movie itself bombed (although it did develop a cult following), and the WB called in Coppola's debts. Coppola had to abandon his plans for the epic film about Vietnam that he wanted his company to do next, and produce something more commercial, so he wound up doing The Godfather (a truly great film), and wasn't able to make Apocalypse Now until much later (and Lucas was not able to work with him on it as he had originally planned to do). So, THX 1138 changed the course of movie history, although Coppola and Lucas remained friends and did work together from time to time (e.g., American Graffiti, not to mention the Captain Eo attraction that once could be seen at Disney theme parks, a 3D SF music video starring Michael Jackson). Lucas was always unhappy with the final editing of THX 1138 and was able to release a director's cut (with some updated special effects, as is his way) recently.

That was a long digression, I know, and for a relatively small point, the fact that the credits on THX 1138 roll from the bottom up. But, hey, it's my blog and I'll digress if I want to.

But to return to the main point, the question of whether to move forward in time by moving up or moving down is an issue of some contention in regard to e-mail etiquette--when replying with history, do you place your new comments before or after the text you are replying to (or alternately reply inline, which allows you to skate the issue, I suppose). This topic has earned a Wikipedia entry under the heading of Posting styles.

One last example, one that I encountered in the amazing National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City (site of the upcoming Media Ecology Association convention, as mentioned in an earlier post), is that some Mayan documents, including calculations and calendar listings, were written from the bottom to the top. Could it be, then, that the Mayans were the first bloggers?

In any event, I'm looking forward to another opportunity to climb the pyramids of Teotihuacán, from the bottom up, and then back down again. And after I do, you can count on me to blog it up!

Friday, April 27, 2007

Scenic Routes on The Sopranos

Early in the history of this blog (if two months can be considered a history), I posted my book chapter on The Sopranos, which looked at the series as a whole (up to 2002) from the perspectives of cultural geography and media ecology. This year, there's been a relative paucity of Jerseyana compared to past seasons, but I do want to note the significance of the road trip that Tony and Paulie take in order to avoid the possibility of arrest in the most recent episode, "Remember When" (aired on April 22, 2007). The episode shows them leaving, then driving at night down in Virginia. Here's what it says in the official episode guide:

Paulie and T drive through the night rain reminiscing about the old days. When Paulie mentions Ralphie, Tony brings up Ralphie's off-color joke about Ginny that got him knocked off when someone told Johnny Sack . "Who the f**k would tell Johnny about that joke?" Tony asks. "How should I know?" Paulie replies defensively.
The action shifts to the subplot concerning the elderly Junior Soprano at the Wycoff Therapeutic Center (a North Jersey locale), before returning to Tony and Paulie:

Dozing off on the road, Tony recalls the dive motel they stayed in back in the day in Culpepper, Va. They head off to find the Havenaire motel, but in its place is a corporate Marriott. No steaks, no bottle of scotch available from room service. They have to settle for nachos at Buckingham's pub where Paulie reminisces about similar trips he made with Tony's father, Johnny Boy. The next morning, T chastises Paulie for being too chatty with the hotel patrons: "We're supposed to be layin' low."
The episode moves back and forth between the two plot lines, so when we return to Tony and Paulie, they're in Miami, where they remain until they've been assured that they are not in trouble back in Jersey.

What is left unexplained, and would be less than obvious to viewers unfamiliar with the region, is that they have followed one of the most common vacation driving routes since Eisenhower built the Interstate Highway System. They hopped on the New Jersey Turnpike, which in North Jersey is part of Interstate 95, and headed south. As you near Philadelphia, I-95 veers west into Pennsylvania, but New Jerseyans, and New Yorkers, stay on the New Jersey Turnpike to avoid the detour, and I-95 eventually swings back east as you cross the bridge to Delaware, which thankfully does not take long to get through. After that, it's Maryland, which is undeveloped for a little while, but then comes Baltimore, and then the long run around Washington, D.C., and you're in Virginia.

And once you get passed the suburbs of D.C., the highway becomes mind-numbingly monotonous, horrifying so as much of the time there are trees on both sides of you, so it's like you're in a long tunnel, and you don't even see the cars coming in the other direction to break up the tedium! It is the absolute worst part of the trip, so it makes perfect sense for Tony to be dozing off at this point.

As you may have gathered, I am more than a little familiar with this route. On numerous family vacations we have driven down to Walt Disney World this way, and I usually do most of the driving. I would note that we were spared the endless and also quite boring ride through the Carolinas, which is at least more open visually, but goes on forever. Georgia goes by fairly quickly, and Florida takes a long time to get through, but at least the scenery is interesting, and you know you're getting close at that point. Of course, to get to Orlando you have to make a right onto Route 4 after Daytona Beach, whereas Tony and Paulie would have stayed on I-95 all the way to the end to get to Miami (and viewers were also spared any scenes of a trip down Alligator Alley), and this was the main vacation destination back in the old days before Disney opened up shop.

So, the point I'm making here is that by going to Miami, they remained directly linked to home, able to set foot on a highway that stretches north almost directly to Tony's front door.

Aside from writing about the series as a whole, I've also made reference to a specific episode here and in a more recent post, Return of The Sopranos: A Border Dispute. But it's also possible to focus in on one single scene--quality exists across all the levels, it's a fractal kind of thing.

So, the episode that aired two Sundays ago (April 15, 2007) entitled "Stage 5" is interesting for its self-reflexive references to movie-making, not to mention Geraldo Rivera's guest appearance, but there is one scene that stands out as exceptional, although you could hardly tell from the description in the episode guide:

Silvio is at dinner with Gerry Torciano when a shooter working for Doc Santoro takes Gerry out. Sil gets out unscathed.

The scene itself is amazing. Silvio and Torciano are sitting at a table in a restaurant with two girlfriends, Silvio is talking, the camera focuses on him and Torciano is off camera to his right, and in mid-sentence we go to complete silence. Silvio is still seen talking, but we can no longer hear anything. My immediate reaction was confusion, what does this mean? Actually, I thought it might signal some kind of stroke or heart attack. But, hardly noticeable, the right side of Sil's face has been slightly splattered with blood. Everything is in slow motion, with some stop and start movement, a near-frozen moment in time, as Silvio looks up. And then it's suddenly back to normal, with sound restored and time moving normally, as we see the assassin firing his gun, and Torciano going down. What is amazing about the scene is that the shot that we hear and see comes after the moment of silence and slow motion. I'm not sure if the idea here is that we missed the first shot and are only seeing the second, or if the scene portrays the weird kind of mixed up experience in such a moment, where the perception or maybe just the memory of the event seems to lag behind the actual event, so that the effects precede the causes--this is what Aristotle referred to as formal cause, which Marshall and Eric McLuhan believed to be the basis of a media ecology perspective. But either way, this is a very effective way to convey the subjective sense of shock that even a seasoned gangster would feel when taken by surprise by a gunshot.

In this shot, and especially in the three episodes that have aired so far in this final season, but also largely throughout the series, David Chase has not, in my opinion, glamorized gangsters or the violence they're associated with. Instead, they've been portrayed as banally sociopathic, and as entropy in action--going to hell in a hand basket, as Norbert Wiener was wont to say.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Autism and Advocacy

April is Autism Awareness Month, and before the month is over, I thought it would be appropriate to add another post on the topic here, to complement my earlier one.

As I mentioned in that first post, my son has been raising money for the Center for Outreach and Services for the Autism Community as an extension of his Bar Mitzvah Project for Congregation Adas Emuno, and you can read his essay on his Donation Page. But this fundraiser is only the most recent of his efforts as the sibling of a child with autism, and an advocate for autism. And that's why I decided to bring him with me to a conference on autism advocacy last October.

My colleague James T. Fisher, a professor of theology and Co-Director of the Francis and Ann Curran Center for American Catholic Studies, and another father of an autistic child, not to mention an all-around great guy, organized the conference which was held at our Lincoln Center campus, and was entitled: Autism and Advocacy: A Conference of Witness and Hope. Jim asked me to introduce and moderate one of the sessions, which I was glad to do. At least some of the program is available via RealPlayer, and I will provide the links below. But first, some photos.

The President of Fordham University, the Rev. Joseph M. McShane, S.J., was present to provide welcoming remarks, and here are a couple of photos taken before the conference began, where he is telling Benjamin that I work too hard.

If you can't wait, here's Joe's Welcome and Jim's Introduction.

The Opening Address was delivered by Timothy Shriver, nephew of President of John F. Kennedy, son of Sargent Shriver, brother of Maria Shriver, brother-in-law of Arnold Schwarzenegger, and most importantly, founder of the Special Olympics. He gave a very inspiring speech, specifically urging young people to get involved in advocacy. So, afterwards, I brought Benjamin over to meet him, and to tell him that Benjamin was an example of exactly what he was talking about. So, here's a photo of us talking to Timothy Shriver. And what do you think Benjamin had to say to him? He said, "Is your brother-in-law a robot?" Shriver did a double-take before realizing that it was a reference to The Terminator, and gave a quick chuckle. He had already given the impression in his address that he wasn't one of Arnold's biggest fans.

The Morning Session,
Communities of Faith Engaging Autism, and the luncheon were uneventful, and then I was the Moderator for the Afternoon Session on The Varieties of Autism Advocacy. Jim Fisher asked me to begin the session by talking a little about the kinds of advocacy that my family has been involved in, so I made some relatively extemporaneous remarks. And I had told Benjamin that I was going to mention him as well, and ask him to talk for a couple of minutes about his Bar Mitzvah project. I should have told him to sit down until I called on him, but neglected to, so he hovered around me while I spoke, which was kind of comical. You can see it happen on the streaming video, but first let's look at some photos, starting with a couple of me all serious and dignified-like:

Now, let's pull back to get Benny into the picture:

And here's a couple more:

The photographer really caught some really great facial expressions, don't you think? Anyway, here are a few more:

And now, heeeere's Benny (and me, the proud Papa!):

Although he was a little bit tongue-tied at first, Benjamin had absolutely no fear or hesitation about addressing several hundred people!

So, now for the links. First, there's the page with the program and all of the links for streaming video:

THE VARIETIES OF AUTISM ADVOCACY is the specific link for my intro and Benny's remarks. This is followed by Bruce Mills.

The entire session is listed, but I'm not sure if all of the video is actually up there yet--Jim told me it will be eventually. The talk by Kassiane Alexandra Sibley on my session was especially controversial, as she is herself autistic, and argued very forcefully, and in a confrontational manner, that autism is not a disability and does not need to be cured, or treated. This lead to a very lively, and heated question and answer session that I had to moderate rather actively (good thing I have a lot of experience with this sort of thing), as Sibley and some other attendees who are also high-functioning individuals with autism represented a position antagonistic to that of the parents of children with autism who were present. You can hear some of that at the end of her talk (although unfortunately the audience members were not picked up by the microphone so well).

My session was followed by another on CATHOLIC EDUCATION AND THE SPECTRUM and then a CLOSING REFLECTION by Jim's wife, Kristina Chew, who is an Assistant Professor in Classics at Saint Peter's College (like Fordham, a Jesuit institution) in Jersey City. Kristina has a blog of her own that's well known in the autism community--Autismland.

Anyway, another page provides a list of the participants, along with brief bios:

And here's a report on the conference published in Inside Fordham (which includes a couple of quotes from me):

Anyway, the conference was very well-attended, several hundred people were present, and the event was very well-received. A great success for Jim Fisher, and Kristina who also had much to do with organizing the event. Jim told me he hopes to hold more events on autism in the future, and he certainly has my support.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

One Hell of a Misnomer

One of today's Associated Press news items, although it isn't technically news in any real sense but rather, refreshingly, a history lesson, is the fact that "America" is celebrating its 500th anniversary--I read it in today's North Jersey Record, for the record. The report begins:

GENEVA -- Centuries before it became a continent or country synonymous with wealth, power, freedom or democracy, "America" was coined by a Renaissance cartographer as the catchall designation for a world that Europeans had yet to name or explore.

The name stuck despite its humble history and unsure start at a backwater French court. It celebrates the 500th anniversary of its baptism in the remote town of St. Die today, exactly a half-millennium after its first use on a world map.

The murky origins are causing problems in winning recognition for the source. A resolution citing cartographer Martin Waldseemueller and the conference organized by Rene II, the Duke of Lorraine, for their unique contribution to American history has yet to make headway in the U.S. Congress.
Let's skip the politics, and get into the interesting part of the story:

Sometimes called America's birth certificate, the map and accompanying 103-page "Cosmographiae Introductio" caused the hemisphere to be named for explorer Amerigo Vespucci instead of Christopher Columbus.

"AMERICA," in capital letters, appears on a part of the map showing what is now Brazil. The first map to depict a separate Western Hemisphere and a separate Pacific Ocean, it also included an inset of North and South America, and a portrait of "Amerigi Vespucci," whom Waldseemueller honored for being the first to identify the New World as a new land mass.

Columbus believed to his death in 1506 that his four voyages had all been to Asia. Vespucci, an Italian who came to the New World soon after Columbus, sailed along South America's north and east coast.

"Europe and Asia have received names of women," Waldseemueller wrote in the book first released to the public on April 25, 1507. "I see no reason why we should not call this other part 'Amerige,' that is to say the land of Americus, or America, after the sagacious discoverer."

The full title for the 12-panel map covering 36 square feet was "a drawing of the whole earth following the tradition of Ptolemy and the travels of Amerigo Vespucci and others." It has been housed since 2003 in the Library of Congress, which paid $10 million in making the map the most expensive single item it had ever acquired.

"It is remarkable that the entire Western Hemisphere was named for a living person; Vespucci did not die until 1512," wrote John R. Hebert, the library's chief of the geography and map division.

Of course, it is one thing to assign a name, it's another to make it stick. And what was the glue that affixed "America" to the New World for all time?

But Hebert said America was not universally accepted after its baptism. Waldseemueller, perhaps in an indication of second thoughts, removed America from later geographical works in the next decade, substituting "terra incognita" (unknown land) for both continents, or "terra nova" (new world) for South America and "Cuba" for North America.

Printers, however, reinserted America after Waldseemueller's death. The name was later used by other cartographers, earning widespread acceptance for both continents by the late 1530s.

"It was appropriate," wrote Daniel Boorstin, the late historian and former librarian of Congress, "that the name America should be affixed on the New World in a manner casual and accidental, since the European encounter with this new world had been so unintentional."

It was the power of the printing press, another illustration of media ecology shaping history, and geography! As Boorstin explains in his excellent book The Discoverers (a work full of media ecological insight), by the time people realized that Columbus was the true discoverer of the Western Hemisphere, and despite efforts to change the name of the New World to the more appropriate designation of "Columbia," it was too late. The name "America" had been too widely disseminated, too well publicized, too effectively preserved in the print media.

So, happy 500th to one hell of a misnomer!

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Tidal Rave

Now for a happier topic:

Mike Wesch, who I wrote about in a previous post, In the Footsteps of Ted Carpenter, which includes his wonderful YouTube video, The Machine is Us/ing Us, the winner of this year's Media Ecology Association's John Culkin Award for Outstanding Praxis in Media Ecology, has received an honor almost as great--well, okay, much greater. His colleague, Harald Prins, wrote the following in an e-mail I received earlier today:

Subject: Anthropologist Michael Wesch Wins Rave Award 2007

Dear Students, Friends & Colleagues,

Kansas State U anthropologist Michael Wesch, self-taught specialist in
digital ethnography, is one of the winners of this year's prestigious
RAVE award from Wired Magazine. Check it out at

He is off to San Francisco on Friday to receive this award, together
with other lauded innovators. For those not familiar with Wired
Magazine, it is described as “a full-color monthly American magazine
and on-line periodical published in San Francisco, California since
March 1993. Owned by Condé Nast Publications, it reports on how
technology affects culture, the economy, and politics. Wired was a
great success at its launch and was lauded for its vision, originality,
innovation and cultural impact. In its first four years, the magazine
won two National Magazine Awards for General Excellence and one for
Design” (Wikipedia).

The other winners include Arnold Schwarzenegger, J. K. Rowling, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Tim Kring (creator of the hit TV show Heroes), Alfonso Cuarón (director of the SF film, Children of Men), and Arianna Huffington!!!

That is, very, very impressive Mike--it's been a regular tsunami of kudos and accolades , hasn't it? And much deserved! Congratulations to you!

Barr on Blacksburg

The Virginia Tech massacre was the subject of three of my previous posts, the first entitled Yom Hashoah, the second under the heading of The Bell Tolls For Us, and the third, in response to the NBC airing of the killer's video was Guns and Cameras.

Several other media ecologists have also chimed in, including Keith Massie on his myspace blog, and Bob Blechman in an opinion piece published online in Blogcritics Magazine, under the title of Spiritual Laryngitis.

But I especially want to call attention to the letter to Locus Online, written by my friend, the feminist science fiction literary critic Marleen Barr. Locus magazine is devoted to science fiction, and Marleen's letter, really more of an essay, connects to slain member of the SF community James Bishop, and to Liviu Librescu, the Holocaust survivor who sacrificed his life to save his students (they were the subjects of my first two posts). But what makes Marleen's soul-searching commentary especially noteworthy is the fact that she taught in the English Department of Virginia Tech for 14 years! Her letter ends with a message of love and forgiveness, and I want to add to that, God bless you, Marleen.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Tolkiens of My Affection

Well, I said I'd post my Tolkien paper here if there was sufficient interest, and due to popular demand (there was one request, really), I've decided to go ahead. This is also a way to celebrate the publication of The Children of Hurin (the new, posthumous J. R. R. Tolkien work). But this essay is primarily about Tolkien as a media ecologist, and it is a paper I presented at a conference a few years ago, which I had provided for publication in an online proceedings of that conference that never materialized, so I'm pleased to make it available now on my Blog Time Passing. Your feedback is quite welcome.

Tolkiens of My Affection
Lance Strate
Department of Communication and Media Studies
Fordham University
Bronx, New York 10458
(718) 817-4864
Paper presented at the 61st Annual New York State Communication Association Conference
Kerhonkson, NY
Oct. 24-26, 2003

The title that I have taken for this paper is something of a pun, as the name Tolkien is frequently mispronounced as Tolkehn, and when written out looks like the word token. No doubt Professor J. R. R. Tolkien would have been able to explain the linguistic origins of this mispronunciation. He was, after all, a renowned philologist who held first the Rawlinson and Bosworth Chair of Anglo-Saxon, and later the Merton Chair of English Language at Oxford University. And perhaps, as an expert in linguistics, he would not have been too insulted to have his name conflated with the term token, given that token can be defined as a symbol or sign. And my intention is to present this paper as a symbol or sign of my affection for the author and his works. I suspect that affection is a term that is not used very frequently in serious scholarship, as we academics tend to traffic in thoughts, rather than emotions, in arguments and propositions rather than feelings and intuitions. But I take as my authority Susanne K. Langer, who in works such as Philosophy in a New Key (1957), Feeling and Form (1953), and Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling (1967, 1972, 1982) has championed the study of emotion in cognition and symbolic form. And when it comes to books like The Lord of the Rings (Tolkien, 1965a, 1965c, 1965d), there is no denying the powerful feelings that the novel evokes in so many readers.

Tolkien lovers exhibit the fervor of the spiritual convert, not the objectively distanced appreciation of the critical reader. This too can be disturbing to the serious scholar, unless The Lord of the Rings is framed as a religious narrative. And Tolkien did confess that the novel is "a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision" (quoted in Shippey, 2000, p. 175). Now, I should also mention that he wrote this in a letter to a Jesuit priest, but what is particularly interesting is what he went on to write:
That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like 'religion', to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism. (p. 175).

The result is something quite different than the religious fiction of Tolkien's fellow Inkling, C. S. Lewis. The Lord of the Rings does not point to any specific institution, belief-system, or practice. Rather, it presents us with a narrative that represents religious experience as a symbolic form, a narrative that evokes the general conception of religious experience in all of its varieties, as William James would have it. Along with The Hobbit (Tolkien, 1965b), we have a set of stories that take us from the familiar and profane world of the Shire, to alien landscapes and sacred spaces inhabited by wizards, elves, dwarves, nature spirits, dragons, wraiths, and demons. We have a hero's journey, but in place of Joseph Campbell's (1968) monomyth, we have Tolkien's multimyth, one for each member of the fellowship of the ring.

Frodo's quest is necessitated by Bilbo's earlier travels "there and back again," but in place of an adventure we have the solemn enactment of the scapegoat myth, as discussed by Kenneth Burke (1950). Sam's journey begins in service to his master, but ends with his mastering of himself. Merry and Pippin both go through a rite of passage from playful youth to mature leadership. Legolas and Gimli begin by championing their own races, but go on to transcend the limitations of species loyalty to become defenders of all life. Gandalf falls and rises, moving from life to death and back to life again, while Boromir's is the failed hero's journey, a failure of virtue followed by death and the final return and cremation of his body. And Aragorn's is the most traditional hero's journey, as he separates himself from his mundane existence as a ranger, faces many trials as his initiation, and returns as the King triumphant.

These stories represent spiritual journeys, but the journeys also represent our progress through the stages of life. We are all on a one way trip to Mount Doom. And, we all hope for a resting place beyond the sea. We all must live our lives knowing that in the end we will meet death, and in that way as well as in many others we will fail. And we must find the courage to live with this knowledge, and to have faith and do the right thing even if we do not know the way, and the situation seems hopeless. The denial of death, and the discovery of the hero within all of us, is essential to the human psyche according to Ernest Becker (1971, 1973).

It seems to me that these themes speak to us all the more powerfully following 9/11. When Peter Jackson's film of The Fellowship of the Ring was released just three months after the terrorist attacks, I could not help but be deeply moved to hear the exchange between Frodo and Gandalf taken from the book's second chapter, "The Shadow of the Past":
'I wish it need not have happened in my time,' said Frodo.

'So do I,' said Gandalf, 'and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us." (Tolkien, 1965a, p. 82).

Jackson rightly highlights these lines which, in the book are immediately followed by discussion of "the Enemy," significant no doubt but obscuring the universal meaning of Gandalf's first few sentences. There is the suggestion of a higher power, in the implication that someone other than ourselves decides about the times we are to live in. And there is the affirmation of free will within the limitations of a divinely ordered universe.

I have been discussing the religious quality of The Lord of the Rings to help to explain the strong emotion that many of us feel towards the book, and therefore its popularity. And if I seem too extreme in this, consider the recent book by Thomas Shippey, who holds the Walter J. Ong Chair in the English Department of Saint Louis University. Published at the end of the 20th century, the book is entitled J. R. R. Tolkien, and subtitled, Author of the Century. Now, if this seems mere hyperbole, here is how Shippey (2000) justifies the claim:
Late in 1996 Waterstone's, the British bookshop chain, and BBC Channel Four's programme Book Choice decided between them to commission a readers' poll to determine 'the five books you consider the greatest of the century'. Some 26,000 readers replied, of whom rather more than 5,000 cast their first place vote for J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Gordon Kerr, the marketing manager for Waterstone's, said that The Lord of the Rings came consistently top in almost every branch in Britain (105 of them), and in every region except Wales, where James Joyce's Ulysses took first place. The result was greeted with horror among professional critics and journalists, and the Daily Telegraph decided accordingly to repeat the exercise among its readers, a rather different group. Their poll produced the same result. The Folio Society then confirmed that during 1996 it had canvassed its entire membership to find out which ten books the members would most like to see in Folio Society editions, and had got 10,000 votes for The Lord of the Rings, which came first once again. 50,000 readers are said to have taken part in a July 1997 poll for the television programme Bookworm, but the result was yet again the same. In 1999 the Daily Telegraph reported that a Mori poll commissioned by the chocolate firm Nestlé had actually managed to get a different result, in which The Lord of the Rings (at last) only came second! But the top spot went to the Bible, a special case, and also ineligible for the twentieth-century competition that had begun the sequence. (pp. xx-xxi)

Of course, Shippey does not rely on popularity alone to argue for Tolkien's place of honor among twentieth century authors, but it is not my intent to discuss the literary merit of The Lord of the Rings here. Instead, I simply stand before you unashamed to declare my feelings of affection towards J. R. R. Tolkien.

But I began with the plural form, "Tolkiens of My Affection," because I also want to include the author's son, Christopher Tolkien, who has worked as a posthumous editor of his father's work, publishing collections such as The Silmarillion (Tolkien, 1977) which provides the history leading up to The Lord of the Rings, Unfinished Tales (Tolkien, 1980), The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien (Tolkien, 1981), and the 12 volume series, The History of Middle Earth (Tolkien, 1983a, 1984, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995).

The History of Middle Earth is itself an incredible achievement, not a literary one, but in its own way an amazing work of scholarship. For what Christopher Tolkien has done is to go through all of his father's papers and present us with a vast variety of drafts, revisions, and variations of Tolkien's work, much of it related to The Silmarillion, about a quarter of it to The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien's son provides a painstaking and loving account of his father's writing process, down to the level of reporting to us about the erasures on the page, what has been written over the erasure, and whenever possible what appears to have been erased. He presents a remarkable level of detail that can be quite fascinating in its accounting of the mechanics and materiality of his father's writing. It is sobering to consider that wartime paper shortages affected Tolkien's writing process. And it is uplifting, at least for us academics, to remember that he was grading examinations when he came upon a blank page in a student's exam booklet, was relieved to find one less page to read, and was moved to write on that page the sentence that started it all: "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit" (see Shippey, 2000, pp. 1-2).

But overall, the level of detail that Christopher Tolkien provides can, in all honesty, also be quite overwhelming, and even tedious at times. Still I find myself moved, again, by the emotional undercurrent that I can only imagine is at work in these books. I find myself envying the opportunity he had to go through his father's extensive manuscripts, to follow the marks his father made with his own hand by bringing pen and often pencil to paper and, in so doing, to get to know his father's mind in so incredibly intimate a fashion. For writing, as Christine Nystrom (1987) notes, is about nothing so much as it is pure thought, and pure emotion.

In thinking about the sons of famous writers, I cannot help but notice the parallel between Christopher Tolkien and Eric McLuhan, who edited his father Marshall's work in several collections, and who completed his father's culminating work, Laws of Media (McLuhan & McLuhan, 1988). And this led me to consider the other connections between Tolkien and McLuhan. For example, both men were Catholics, and both the product of conversion, although for Tolkien it was his mother who made the decision to convert when he was a child. Both were influenced by their religion, but refrained from making overt references to Catholicism in their writing. Both came from the colonies of Great Britain, McLuhan was the consummate Canadian, Tolkien was a son of South Africa although he grew up in England. Tolkien was a product of Oxford, while McLuhan came to England to study at Cambridge. There may even have been some social or scholarly network links between the two; for example, Owen Barfield, one of Tolkien's fellow Inklings, influenced McLuhan's ideas about sense perception. Both McLuhan and Tolkien enjoyed great popular success in the United States, particularly during the sixties, but both failed to gain the acceptance of critics and scholars in their lifetimes. Followers of Tolkien and McLuhan both tend to have strong feelings about the authors, as do their detractors, and consequently their tends to be a sharp dividing line between the two. Understanding and appreciating both writers is often described as a kind of gestalt perception, either you "get it" or you don't, and as a kind of epiphany and religious conversion in itself. Moreover, both Tolkien and McLuhan had a particular affinity for the Middle Ages, and a suspicion of modernity. Tolkien, as a philologist, was an expert in languages as they relate to literature and culture. McLuhan began by studying literary theory and criticism, identified himself with grammar and rhetoric of the medieval trivium (and therefore language and literature), and went on to be a leading scholar of culture, communication, and media.

Now, it may be that these connections are simply similar patterns of experience. But I have a particular interest in McLuhan, and in media ecology, the field that he helped to form. And those of us interested in this field sometimes indulge in a form of intellectual play and ask whether a scholar or writer not previously associated with media ecology might be in fact be a media ecologist. And so I raise the question, is Tolkien a media ecologist? That is, did he have an understanding of media and of symbolic form, an understanding of how they might play a leading role in human affairs? You may already have guessed that the answer is yes, or else I would not have posed the question.

One way to understand media, and media ecology, is by understanding language and the study of languages. This was abundantly clear to Louis Forsdale, the Columbia University professor of English Education who championed McLuhan back in the fifties, and who was a mentor to Neil Postman and many other early media ecology scholars. Forsdale (1981) explained that McLuhan's media ecology was an extension of the linguistic theory associated with Benjamin Lee Whorf, Edward Sapir, Dorothy Lee, and others, the hypothesis that the particular language we speak influences and shapes the way we understand and experience the world. During the fifties, McLuhan's colleague, the anthropologist Edmund Carpenter described media as the new languages (Carpenter & McLuhan, 1960), and in Understanding Media (2003) McLuhan devoted a chapter to media as translators, as metaphor, and as language; he also discussed language and speech as a type of medium.

It is true that Tolkien did not concern himself very much with media, even in the broad sense that McLuhan employed, nor was he entirely sympathetic to the field of linguistics, that is the scientific study of language. Philology is an older discipline, a humanistic approach to language research that emphasizes the history of language, and its cultural and literary context, what we might otherwise term the pragmatics of communication (Watzlawick, Bavelas, & Jackson, 1967). Tom Shippey (2000) identifies himself as a proponent of philology within the English curriculum, and in this sense on the same side as Tolkien in battles over academic requirements. Therefore, his insights into Tolkien are of particular relevance for us, and when Shippey declares that "in philology, literary and linguistic study are indissoluble" (p. xvii), I can't help but hear echoes of McLuhan's famous maxim, "the medium is the message." For Tolkien, the study of historical works such as the Elder Edda, the Kalevala, Beowulf (which he delivered a significant scholarly lecture on, see Tolkien, 1983b), and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (an edition of which he co-edited, see Tolkien, 1975) was indissoluble from the historical study of languages.

Shippey also places Tolkien in the context of two other twentieth century English authors, James Joyce and George Orwell. McLuhan found in Joyce a major influence and source of inspiration, and he would certainly consider Joyce a media ecologist (see McLuhan, 1969; McLuhan & Fiore, 1968), as would his son, Eric (1997, 1998) and his first graduate student, Donald Theall (1995, 1997). Joyce enjoyed the kind of critical success that eluded Tolkien, but the two held in common a great love of language, and a powerful impulse towards linguistic creativity and play. Orwell also influenced McLuhan, and Postman included him in his earliest list of media ecologists. And while Orwell's attitude towards language lacked the joy found in Joyce and Tolkien, his Appendix to 1984, "The Principles of Newspeak," stands as one of the most interesting fictional applications of the Whorf-Sapir-Lee hypothesis, specifically suggesting that controlling language is tantamount to thought control (Orwell, 1949, pp. 246-256). Newspeak is therefore the modern equivalent of the Black Speech of Mordor. Tolkien's fiction shares the view that there is an intimate connection between language, thought, and culture, but as a scholar, his approach is more sophisticated. Shippey (2000) explains some of Tolkien's more interesting views on language:
He thought that people . . . could detect historical strata in language without knowing how they did it. They knew that names like Ugthorpe and Stainby were Northern without knowing they were Norse; they knew that Winchcombe and Cumrew must be in the West without recognizing that the word cûm is Welsh. They could feel linguistic style in words. Along with this, Tolkien believed that languages could be intrinsically attractive or intrinsically repulsive. The Black Speech of Sauron and the orcs is repulsive. When Gandalf uses it in 'The Council of Elrond', 'All trembled, and the Elves stopped their ears'; Elrond rebukes Gandalf for using the language, not for what he says in it. By contrast Tolkien thought that Welsh and Finnish were intrinsically beautiful; he modelled his invented Elf-languages on their phonetic and grammatical patterns . . . It is a sign of these convictions that again and again in The Lord of the Rings he has characters speak in these languages without bothering to translate them. The point, or a point is made by the sound alone. (p. xiv)
Shippey then goes on to write
But Tolkien also thought—and this takes us back to the roots of this invention—that philology could take you back even beyond the ancient texts it studied. He believed that it was possible sometimes to feel one's way back from words as they survived in later periods to concepts which had long since vanished, but which had surely existed, or else the word would not exist. (p. xiv)

And thus, Shippey concludes that
However fanciful Tolkien's creation of Middle-earth was, he did not think that he was entirely making it up. He was 'reconstructing', he was harmonizing contradictions in his source-texts, sometimes he was supplying entirely new concepts (like hobbits), but he was also reaching back to an imaginative world which he believed had once really existed, at least in a collective imagination: and for this he had a very great deal of admittedly scattered evidence. (p. xv)

But The Lord of the Rings is not only strongly influenced by Tolkien's scholarly background, it is very much a product of his love of languages. The linguistic medium was Tolkien's message for the very reason that he began by constructing fictional forms of speech, and only after constructing his imaginary tongues did he then go on to create myths and legends as the content of his "Elf Latin" (such as appear in the Silmarillion), and still later the novels we know as The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien explained in a letter that appeared in the New York Times that, "I am a philologist, and all my work is philological" (Shippey, 2000, p. xiii). In a subsequent letter to his American publishers, he went on to elaborate,
the remark about 'philology' was intended to allude to what is I think a primary 'fact' about my work, that it is all of a piece, and fundamentally linguistic in inspiration . . . The invention of languages is the foundation. The 'stories' were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse. To me a name comes first and the story follows. (p. xiii)

Tolkien's creation of fictional languages might be construed to be a thought experiment in philology, or simply a form of scholarly play, but it is also a work of extraordinary imagination. Even the humble origin of the hobbit follows this pattern of formal cause, as first Tolkien writes the sentence on the exam paper, "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit," not knowing its meaning. Afterwards, he analyzes the linguistic roots of hobbit and realizes it actually means hole-dweller. And from this understanding of this one sentence, he then goes on to write all of the remaining sentences that make up the novel known as The Hobbit.

The medium of language, then, is the hidden ground of The Lord of the Rings, one that I believe becomes most visible in The Two Towers, in the chapter entitled "Treebeard". It is there that Merry and Pippin meet the Ents, an ancient race of tree-like giants who guard the forests and herd their trees just as humans may herd sheep. I have always been fond of this part of the novel, even before I understood its significance, but I must also admit that the encounter with the Ents is, in many ways, unnecessary. It is true that it allows Merry and Pippin to make their first independent contribution to the War of the Ring. And it is true that the Ents attack and defeat Saruman, eliminating the second greatest evil, and freeing the riders of Rohan to come to Gondor's rescue. But the important battle against Saruman was fought at Helm's Deep, and Tolkien does not even describe the actual attack of the Ents on Isengard, merely their march and the aftermath of their victory. They therefore are something of a deus ex machina. Moreover, it would have been a simple enough task to describe Isengard as defenseless after Helm's Deep, and have Gandalf dispose of the tower of Orthanc, or to give the role to some other army, say of elves or dwarves.

No wonder, then, that Peter Jackson felt the need to tamper with this part of the story, giving Merry and Pippin a stronger role in the film as the ones who persuade the Ents to go to war, while omitting entirely the extended conversations between the Hobbits and the Ents. This may be attributed to the translation from a verbal medium to an essentially visual one, and in this instance one dominated by special effects. But I also think that this is one of a few instances in which Ralph Bakshi's animated version of the first half of The Lord of the Rings is a better and more faithful adaptation. But it is in the novel alone that we find the full range of Tolkien's philological thought. For example, after Merry and Pippin meet their first Ent, who explains that some call him Fangorn and others call him Treebeard, he goes on to say that he won't give them his true name, explaining
'For one thing, it would take a long while: my name is growing all the time, and I've lived a very long, long time; so my name is like a story. Real names tell you the story of the things they belong to in my language, in the Old Entish as you might say. It is a lovely language, but it takes a very long time to say anything in it, because we do not say anything in it, unless it is worth taking a long time to say, and to listen to.

'But now . . . what is going on? What are you doing in it all? I can see and hear (and smell and feel) a great deal from this, from this, from this a-lalla-lalla-rumba-kamanda-lind-or-burúmë. Excuse me, that is part of my name for it; I do not know what the word is in the outside languages; you know, the thing we are on, where I stand and look out on fine mornings, and think about the Sun and the grass beyond the wood, and the horses, and the clouds, and the unfolding of the world. (pp. 85-86)

A little further on in the chapter, the hobbits suggest the word hill, and Treebeard responds by saying, "Hill? Yes, that was it. But it is a hasty word for a thing that has stood here ever since this part of the world was shaped" (p. 87). Later still, Treebeard reveals something about the origins of Old Entish, and with it the Ents' position in the conflicts of Middle-earth:
I am not altogether on anybody's side, because nobody is altogether on my side, if you understand me: nobody cares for the woods as I care for them, not even Elves nowadays. Still, I take more kindly to Elves than to others: it was the Elves that cured us of dumbness long ago, and that was a great gift that cannot be forgotten, though our ways have parted since. (p. 95)

The notion of being cured of dumbness is a curious one, unless we recall that Tolkien was in fact a doctor of languages.

Apart from language in general, media ecologists are also concerned with the distinction between oral and written language, and with cultures shaped by literacy and cultures characterized by its absence and the presence of oral tradition. Professor Tolkien could hardly be unaware of these issues himself, as he was a contemporary of Milman Parry (1971), who established the nonliterate origins of the Homeric epics and documented the oral composition characteristic of the singers of tales in early twentieth century Serbo-Croatia. The Ents appear to be an oral culture, which is why their names are so long; in reality, the full name of a member of an oral culture might include the recitation of an entire genealogical line of descent. And when the hobbits first meet Treebeard, he is puzzled as to what they are because they do not fit into the categories he memorized in the form of song. Thus, he says
You do not seem to come in the old lists I learned when I was young. But that was a long, long time ago, and they may have made new lists. Let me see! Let me see! How did it go?

Learn now the lore of Living Creatures!
First name the four, the free peoples:
Eldest of all, the elf-children;
Dwarf the delver; dark are his houses;
Ent the earthborn, old as mountains;
Man the mortal, master of horses. (p. 84)

The solution to Treebeard's uncertainty, offered by the hobbits, fits exactly with what Walter Ong (1982) described as the homeostatic nature of oral cultures. Pippin asks, "Why not make a new line?" and then suggests, "Half-grown hobbits, the hole-dwellers." He then adds, "put us in amongst the four, next to Man (the Big People), and you've got it" (p. 85). Whether this also means changing the number four to five is left up in the air, but after all Tolkien was a philologist, not a mathematician.

Media ecologists such as McLuhan and Ong link the distinction between orality and literacy to the distinction between the two primary sense organs, the ear and the eye. They describe a kind of war between the two over the course of world history, as the ear dominates for most of human history, but the eye gains ascendancy in ancient Greece and Rome, and again in modern Europe and America (until finally overcome by the electronic media's retrieval of acoustic space and secondary orality). This is not a theme that Tolkien emphasizes, and yet he does tend to favor the acoustic over the visual in his treatment of good vs. evil. The Ring is itself an object of visual beauty, associated with possessiveness and greed, and a magic item that acts on the visual sense, both in rendering its user invisible, but at the same time more visible to the the Black Riders and Sauron. For example, at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring, in "The Breaking of the Fellowship," Frodo slips on his ring to escape Boromir, and finds himself gifted with a vision of Middle-earth at war that only induces despair in him. Then, Tolkien (1965a) writes
And suddenly he felt the Eye. There was an eye in the Dark Tower that did not sleep. He knew that it had become aware of his gaze. A fierce eager will was there. It leapt towards him; almost like a finger he felt it, searching for him. Very soon it would nail him down, know just exactly where he was. . . .

He heard himself crying out: Never, never! Or was it: Verily I come, I come to you? He could not tell. Then as a flash from some other point of power there came to his mind another thought: Take it off! Take it off! Fool, take it off! Take off the Ring!

The two powers strove in him. For a moment, perfectly balanced between their piercing points, he writhed, tormented. Suddenly he was aware of himself again. Frodo, neither the Voice nor the Eye: free to choose, and with one remaining instant in which to do so. He took the Ring off his finger. (p. 519)

The Voice was, of course, Gandalf, who had fallen in Moria, but returned to oppose the Eye of Sauron. And Gandalf opposed the White Hand of Saruman, the image of the hand symbolizing Saruman's identity as a technologist. Moreover, Sauron's Ring is a wonderful example of what McLuhan calls the extensions of man, a media or technology that extends Sauron's reach but amputates (literally) his power when Isildur cuts off both ring and finger. Even the technologies of the free peoples present a Faustian bargain, as Neil Postman (1992) would put it. For example the Palantíri or looking stones of Aragorn's ancestors, Middle-earth's telecommunications system, became a means by which Sauron could gain access to others and corrupt them, as he did with Saruman and Denethor, Steward of Gondor; this sounds an awful lot like television as described by Postman. And the three jewels known as the Silmarils, forged by the Elf Fëanor, become the source of great conflict among the Elves and the higher powers. The light they contain is good and beautiful, but in capturing and containing the light, Fëanor sets the stage for much evil.

In the war between the ear and the eye, Tolkien, like most media ecologists, is on the side of the ear. Thus, sound is prioritized in his fictional account of the beginning of the world, which serves as the first chapter of the Silmarillion and is titled "The Music of the Ainur". It starts with
There was Eru, the One, who in Arda is called Ilúvatar; and he made first the Ainur, the Holy Ones, that were the offspring of his thought, and they were with him before aught else was made. And he spoke to them, propounding to them themes of music; and they sang before him, and he was glad. (Tolkien, 1977, p. 3)

The Ainur are angels, although in some respects they more closely resemble the gods of Greek and Norse mythology. At first they are unable to join together in unison to create music, but then Ilúvatar acts:
Then Ilúvatar said to them: 'Of the theme that I have declared to you, I will now that ye make in harmony together a Great Music. And since I have kindled you with the Flame Imperishable, ye shall show forth your powers in adorning this theme, each with his own thoughts and devices, if he will. But I will sit and hearken, and be glad that through you great beauty has been wakened into song.'

Then the voices of the Ainur, like unto harps and lutes, and pipes and trumpets, and viols and organs, and like unto countless choirs singing with words, began to fashion the theme of Ilúvatar to a great music; and a sound arose of endless interchanging melodies woven in harmony that passed beyond hearing into the depths and heights, and the places of the dwellings of Ilúvatar were filled to overflowing, and the music and echo of the music went out into the Void, and it was not void. (pp. 3-4)

As Tolkien continues on with his creation myth, the greatest of the Ainur, Melkor, takes on the role of Lucifer in challenging Ilúvatar's theme, and weaving in discordant notes of his own devising. Ilúvatar asserts himself, and although strife has been introduced in the midst of harmony, he tells Melkor and the rest that "no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined" (p. 4). The Ainur are put in their place, at which point we finally move from the ear to the eye:
Ilúvatar said to them: 'Behold your Music!' And he showed to them a vision, giving to them sight where before was only hearing; and they saw a new World made visible before them, and it was globed amid the Void, and it was sustained therein, but was not of it. And as they looked and wondered this World began to unfold its history, and it seemed to them that it lived and grew. (p. 6)

Music is followed by vision here, just as Genesis begins with God's speech act, "Let there be light," and then continues with the actual appearance of light. Tolkien's creation parallels Genesis in certain ways. As a symbolic form, it conveys the feeling of Genesis, and of Western creation myths in general. But it is not consistent with the Biblical account of creation. It is religious, but not specifically Catholic or in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Along the same lines, overt references to Christianity, such as those that appear in the Perelandra trilogy written by his fellow Inkling, C. S. Lewis, are not present in Tolkien's fiction. There are familiar motifs, for example Gandalf's death and resurrection, and Frodo's self-sacrifice and essential crucifixion—hence the nineteen sixties slogan "Frodo Lives!" But these elements do not by any means add up to an allegory. Moreover, Tolkien wrote in the Foreword to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings, "I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers." (Tolkien, 1965a, p. xi).

As a philologist, Tolkien is an historian as well as a linguist and literary theorist. And his fiction reflects the historical consciousness that emerged in the nineteenth century, and is reflected in the philosophy of Hegel and Marx, the world histories of Toynbee and Spengler, the media ecology of Lewis Mumford and Harold Innis, and the nonfiction and science fiction of H. G. Wells and Isaac Asimov. Moreover, the combination of language and history forms the basis of something more than a narrative. It provides us with an environment, a symbolic environment, a media environment. We become immersed in Tolkien's world, and as in the baptismal ritual, immersion leads to conversion. Today, it has become commonplace to talk about universes, the DC and Marvel Universes in comic books, the Star Trek and Star Wars universes in television and film, and game playing universes such as was pioneered under the name Dungeons and Dragons. Tolkien's act of creation gave us the first of these fictional universes, and remains the model that others still draw upon today.

Tolkien's historical consciousness extends to form as well as content, as The Lord of the Rings incorporates elements of the medieval manuscript. He breaks up the otherwise homogenous text of the novel with poetry and song, some of which is in English, some in Elvish without translation. He mixes into the narrative bit and pieces of his fictional myths, legends, and histories. And he includes illustrations with Elvish writing, maps, genealogical tables, and other appendices. In this, we can draw a parallel to McLuhan's untraditional books, notably The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) which also retrieved elements of scribal manuscript production. In both instances, critics had difficulty understanding the formal innovations as well as the highly original content that these works contained.

By way of conclusion, I would suggest to you that the power of Tolkien's work, his ability to elicit such strong emotion in his readers, has much to do with the fact that he was a media ecologist, that he understood the media of speech, language and symbolic form. And for myself, understanding media has helped me in understanding Tolkien, and served to deepen my affection for the author and his works.


Becker, E. (1971). The birth and death of meaning: An interdisciplinary perspective on the problem of man (2nd ed.). New York: Free Press.

Becker, E. (1973). The denial of death. New York: Free Press.

Burke, K. (1950). A rhetoric of motives. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Campbell, J. (1968). The hero with a thousand faces (2nd ed.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Carpenter, E. & McLuhan, M. (1960). Explorations in communication. Boston: Beacon Press.

Forsdale, L. (1981). Perspectives on communication. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Langer, S. K. K. (1953). Feeling and form: A theory of art. New York: Scribner.

Langer, S. K. K. (1957). Philosophy in a new key: A study in the symbolism of reason, rite and art (3rd ed.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Langer, S. K. K. (1967). Mind: An essay on human feeling (Vol. 1). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.

Langer, S. K. K. (1972). Mind: An essay on human feeling (Vol. 2). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.

Langer, S. K. K. (1982). Mind: An essay on human feeling (Vol. 3). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.

McLuhan, E. (1997). The role of thunder in Finnegans Wake. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

McLuhan, E. (1998). Electric language: Understanding the message. New York: Buzz Books.

McLuhan, M. (1962). The Gutenberg galaxy: The making of typographic man. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

McLuhan, M. (1969). The interior landscape: The literary criticism of Marshall McLuhan, 1943-1962 (E. McNamara, Ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

McLuhan, M. (2003). Understanding media: The extensions of man (Critical Ed., W. T. Gordon, Ed.). Original work published in 1964.

McLuhan, M. & Fiore, Q. (1968). War and peace in the global village: An inventory of some of the current spastic situations that could be eliminated by more feedforward. Corte Madera, CA: Gingko Press.

McLuhan, M., & McLuhan, E. (1988). Laws of media: The new science. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Nystrom, C. (1987). Literacy as deviance. ETC: A Review of General Semantics, 44(2), 111-115.

Ong, W. J. (1982). Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. London: Routledge.

Orwell, G. (1949). 1984. New York: New American Library.

Parry, M. (1971). The making of Homeric verse: The collected papers of Milman Parry (A. Parry, Ed.). Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Postman, N. (1985). Amusing ourselves to death: Public discourse in the age of show business. New York: Viking.

Postman, N. (1992). Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Shippey, T. A. (2000). J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the century. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.8\

Theall, D. F. (1995). Beyond the word: Reconstructing sense in the Joyce era of technology, culture, and communication. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Theall, D. F. (1997). James Joyce's techno-poetics. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Tolkien, J. R. R. (1965a). The fellowship of the ring. New York: Ballantine.

Tolkien, J. R. R. (1965b). The hobbit: Or there and back again. New York: Ballantine.

Tolkien, J. R. R. (1965c). The return of the king. New York: Ballantine.

Tolkien, J. R. R. (1965d). The two towers. New York: Ballantine.

Tolkien, J. R. R. (Ed. & Trans.). (1975). Sir Gawain and the green knight, Pearl, Sir Orfeo (C. Tolkien, Ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Tolkien, J. R. R. (1977). The Silmarillion (C. Tolkien, Ed.). New York: Ballantine.

Tolkien, J. R. R. (1980). Unfinished tales of Númenor and Middle-Earth (C. Tolkien, Ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Tolkien, J. R. R. (1981). The letters of J. R. R. Tolkien (H Carpenter with C. Tolkien, Eds.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Tolkien, J. R. R. (1983a). The book of lost tales: Part One (C. Tolkien, Ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Tolkien, J. R. R. (1983b). The monsters and the critics: And other essays (C. Tolkien, Ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Tolkien, J. R. R. (1984). The book of lost tales: Part Two (C. Tolkien, Ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Tolkien, J. R. R. (1985). The lays of Beleriand (C. Tolkien, Ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Tolkien, J. R. R. (1986). The shaping of Middle-earth: The Quenta, the Ambarkanta, and the annals (C. Tolkien, Ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Tolkien, J. R. R. (1987). The lost road and other writings (C. Tolkien, Ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Tolkien, J. R. R. (1988). The return of the shadow (C. Tolkien, Ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Tolkien, J. R. R. (1989). The treason of Isengard (C. Tolkien, Ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Tolkien, J. R. R. (1990). The war of the ring (C. Tolkien, Ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Tolkien, J. R. R. (1992). Sauron defeated: The end of the third age, the Notion Club papers and the drowning of Anadune (C. Tolkien, Ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Tolkien, J. R. R. (1993). Morgoth's ring: The later Silmarillion, part one (C. Tolkien, Ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Tolkien, J. R. R. (1994). The war of the jewels: The later Silmarillion, part two (C. Tolkien, Ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Tolkien, J. R. R. (1996). The peoples of Middle-Earth (C. Tolkien, Ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Watzlawick, P., Bavelas, J. B., & Jackson, D. D. (1967). Pragmatics of human communication: A study of interactional patterns, pathologies, and paradoxes. New York: Norton.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Magic Ecology

I was quite pleased to hear about the following post on Machina Memorialis, a blog by John Walter, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of English at Saint Louis University and the archivist of Walter J. Ong Manuscript Collection (and I assume he won't mind my quoting it in full):

Musings on Media Ecology and Grammar, Glamour, and Grammarye

April 22nd, 2007

While I’ve read the first half of Lance Strate’s Echoes and Reflections: On Media Ecology as a Field of Study in Communication Research Trends, I wanted to skim the whole book to think about it as a possible text if I decide to go with a media ecology theme for the special topics course. I like Lance’s various definitions of media ecology, and this passage from the book’s introduction stood out as something I wanted to blog:

From the standpoint of the trivium, Echoes and Reflections may be regarded as a grammar book, in that media ecology is concerned with the structures, rules, and biases governing languages, media, and technologies–governing the world as well as the word. (3)

It’s this notion of trying to understand how languages, media, and technologies function within that explains what I find so intellectually interesting about media ecology and its sub-field orality-literacy studies.

But I also like this passage for its positing Echoes and Reflections as a grammar book in the medieval sense of the term, in large part because I can’t think about grammar any more without thinking about Shippey’s discussion of grammar, grammarye, and glamour in both The Road to Middle-Earth and J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century. This discussion is, in large part, a gloss on the curious passage in “Farmer Giles of Ham” in which the parson suggests that Giles take some rope with him as he goes looking for the dragon a second time. The passage from “Farmer Giles of Ham” reads:

at least the parson with his booklearning might have guessed it. Maybe he did. He was a grammarian, and could doubtless see further into the future than others.

This is one of Tolkien’s philological jokes, Shippey tells us. Well, joke isn’t the right word, but it’s Tolkien having some philological fun. Glamour is a corruption of grammar and is “paralleled in sense” by grammarye. Glamour is the ability to change shape for the purposes of deception, and grammarye is “occult learning, magic, necromancy.” To better make sense of this, I want to posit the notion of “natural” magic, the magic of faerie (to use a Tolkienian term), and formulaic, ritualistic, rule-bound magic one studies and may even learn from books. Grammarye would be of the later sort.

So, how does this all connect to Strate’s discussion of media ecology? Well, a grammar, in the medieval sense, is concerned with structures, rules, and biases. Its function is to make visible the invisible or hidden by providing the formulas and rules that govern a subject. (Consider, for instance, Innis’ study of biases, McLuhan’s laws of media, and Ong’s discussions of the interiorization of technologies.) In other words, as a field of study, media ecology is a grammar that explores the unrecognized function of language, media, and technology (the glamour) as systems (grammarye).

It’s an idea we shouldn’t take too seriously, but it is a bit of Sunday morning fun.

I am gratified to have the passage from my introduction deemed blogworthy by John, and to be linked thematically to Tom Shippey, whose scholarship I admire (and I highly recommend both books that John mentioned, which are the definitive works written about Tolkien), and through Shippey to J. R. R. Tolkien. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings have been my favorite books since I was a kid, I also have have great affection for his lesser works, not the least of which is Farmer Giles of Ham (and as I mentioned in a previous post, I once presented a paper on Tolkien, identifying him as a media ecologist and comparing him to McLuhan--I also said in that post that I'd post the paper on this blog if there is sufficient reader interest, ha ha).

I should add that I look forward to reading the new posthumous Tolkien book entitled The Children of Hurin (although I probably won't get to it until after the semester is over).

My point about media ecology as grammar, grammar being one third of the basic curriculum of the medieval university, the other two being rhetoric, and dialectic or logic, comes from Marshall McLuhan, whose doctoral dissertation, nominally about the early modern writer Thomas Nashe, turned out to be a history of the trivium, with special attention to grammar (viewing the history of western culture as an ongoing war between dialectic or logic on the one hand, and grammar and rhetoric on the other; rhetoric is the ancestor of the field of communication, whereas grammar is the foundation of media ecology). McLuhan's thesis was published last year under the title of The Classical Trivium: The Place of Thomas Nashe in the Learning of His Time and I organized a very stimulating panel discussion about the book at last year's National Communication Association convention--we'll be publishing a couple of the commentaries in Explorations in Media Ecology (the journal of the Media Ecology Association). Let me be clear on this, I found the book to be extremely stimulating--it helped me to understand media ecology from new angles--but it is definitely advanced material, not for beginners or even intermediate media ecologists.

Now McLuhan was both a scholar and a practical mystic, a phrase he used to describe G. K. Chesterton, which I in turn used to capture his own sense of "media transcendence" in an essay I wrote for the Legacy of McLuhan anthology that I co-edited with Ed Wachtel. So the connection that John points to, of grammar and glamor, grammarye and faerie, referring to the word in both its written and oral forms (and note the similar relationship between spell as in spelling by putting the letters of the alphabet together in correct order, and casting a magic spell by uttering words in the correct order, which is related to the word spiel I mentioned in a previous post), was one that was not lost in McLuhan, who was both very religious as a Catholic convert, and mystical in a way that endeared him to the New Agers while alienating those committed to pure rationalism.

For my own part, I have for a long time felt that there is a certain magic connected to media ecology, which can be felt sometimes at Media Ecology Association events, and at other media ecology events such as the Ong Conference held at Saint Louis University a couple of years ago, where I first met John Walter. While media ecology can be much like any other field in the humanities and social sciences, and treat the mystical, spiritual, and sacred as epiphenomena caused by profane and prosaic social, cultural, and psychological processes (e.g., the alphabet as the basis of monotheism), the approach is open to treating religion on its own terms (e.g., the Word of God as medium); the perspective can be used within mystical, spiritual, and sacred systems of thought. Media ecology can also be magic ecology, which accounts for the glamour associated with certain media ecologists, such as McLuhan.

And for my own part, my work as a scholar favors rational analysis, but I will admit to another side as well, religious yes, but something else as well. As a student in the religious school of Temple Isaiah of Forest Hills (now sadly gone, having merged with several other Reform congregations), I was first introduced to the Kabbalah, and researched it in depth for my Confirmation class (Jewish Confirmation is a ceremony that dates back to the Temple in Jerusalem, but was abandoned after its destruction, and brought back by the Reform movement as a kind of religious school graduation ceremony that occurs a couple of years after the bar or bat mitzvah, viewed as completing the coming of age that the b'nai mitzvah began). The paper I wrote about the Jewish mystical tradition back then was quite the megillah (the Megillah is the Book of Esther, which is read on Purim, and is used to refer to anything that goes on for too long--I made reference to this in my recent post about NBC's airing of the Virginia Tech killer's video). Since that time, I've been a Kabbalist in certain respects (quite distinct from the popularization of Kabbalah in recent years, rather rooted in Isaac Luria), which is to say that I've been a grammarian grounded in ancient and medieval Jewish mysticism, which is to say that I've been a particular type of media ecologist, of course. I'm not going to say any more about it at this point, as for the future who can say?

But for now, let me leave off with one thing to bind them: when Tolkien came up with the character of Gollum, was he at all thinking about the Golem?