due in 5 hours- I need a 1 page of literature review of the documentstude11212121212
Mitchell Stephens Thinking Through Moving Media
social research Vol. 78 : No. 4 : Winter 2011 1133
WhAT reVoluTIoN IS IT, ANYWAY?
That we are in the midst of a major communications revolution is hard
to miss nowadays. Individuals who only had a decade or so to get used
to sitting at their desks and accessing an overwhelming collection
of information, products, news, and entertainment can now sit in a
restaurant and involve themselves in what has grown to include much
of the world’s available supply of information, products, news, enter-
tainment, and people. We have begun to divert ourselves, socialize with
each other, educate ourselves, and update ourselves in ways that did
not exist when anyone over 20 today was born. Our old communica-
tions machines—typewriters, music discs, film, landline telephones,
wireless transmitters, and the printing press—have been overthrown
or are tottering.
But what exactly is perpetrating this revolution?
There are many candidates for the “invention” of our time—the
one that seems to have pressed the “refresh” button on a significant
stretch of human culture. What was the key breakthrough? Was it
the computer, the personal computer, the Internet, the World Wide
Web, Google, the smart phone, or perhaps even Facebook? Or was it
the digital coding of information in general that has been leading us
into a new era? This essay will employ a historical perspective in an
attempt to sort out some of these contributions and it will propose
that the truly revolutionary invention of our time may turn out to
be none of the above. Instead, it may prove to be an invention with
older roots: the moving image and its younger companion, the moving
1134 social research
Looking back it is not difficult to see the vast transformative
power of writing and print. But what is our communications revolution
doing to us? Certainly, it is—as did writing and print—radically easing
our access to information. Certainly, it has—as did writing and print—
made possible entrancing new ways for us to communicate with and
entertain each other. Certainly, it is in the process of eradicating—as
writing and print began to do—geographical and financial boundaries
to information and communication.
But my thesis is that this communications revolution, like those
led by writing and print, will have a more profound effect, a more
thoroughly revolutionary effect, than merely facilitating our access
to wisdom, diversions, or each other. This essay will argue that this
communications revolution in its most radical manifestations will help
us develop new ways of thinking.
What are those radical manifestations? One way of approaching
that question is to consider the curious incident of the old men in the
beginning of the twenty-first century.
The old MeN Who dIdN’T gruMble
New communications technologies inspire complaints. Usually the
attacks are launched by those most attached to the old communica-
tions technology, those whose power, indeed, rests on the old technol-
ogy. For most of history that has meant that most such complaints have
emanated from old men.
The classic example is to be found in Plato’s Phaedrus (1956). Here
a nested series of bearded old men—Plato writing about Socrates, who
claims to be quoting an Egyptian king, Thamus—participate in a take-
down of writing as not producing “wisdom” but “only a semblance of
it,” not “wide knowledge” but only “the delusion” of having it. Writing,
for these men, is illegitimate, a “bastard,” because it escapes its
“father.” Meanwhile, the established and threatened form of commu-
nication—a conversation “under a teacher’s instruction,” under an old
man’s instruction—is celebrated as “a discourse inscribed with genuine
knowledge in the soul of learner.” As is often the case with old men
Thinking Through Moving Media 1135
grumbling, this epistemological critique barely conceals concerns
about etiquette and power: a piece of writing, Plato has Socrates warn,
is capable of “falling into the hands of those who have no concern with
it . . . it has no notion of whom to address or whom to avoid” (68–69).
Many passages in the Bible—which, of course, is chockablock
with bearded old men—can be read as devaluing a then still relatively
new technology—though not a communications technology: agricul-
ture. Note the many times characters, seeking spiritual renewal, return
to the “wilderness.” This, for example, from Exodus: “They turned
toward the wilderness, and there, in a cloud appeared the Presence of
the Lord.” And, on the face of it, the second commandment, as revealed
in Exodus, is not just an attack on a still relatively new communications
technology; it is an explicit and unambiguous prohibition of it: “You
shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness of what
is in the heavens above, or on the earth below or in the waters under
the earth” (Tanakh 1985: 110, 115).
Few technologies have inspired as much grumbling, in their
extended youths, as print. Pope dismissed “[p]rinting as a scourge for
the sins of the learned.” Near the end of War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy calls
“the dissemination of printed matter” the “most powerful of igno-
In my book, the rise of the image the fall of the word, I collect numer-
ous examples of similar grumbling by old men, with or without beards:
against opera (“chromatic tortures,” it was dubbed in eighteenth-
century England), against theater (“the sewer in which the rebellious
vices exhaust themselves,” proclaimed Ralph Waldo Emerson), against
radio (“has means of appealing to the lower nerve centers and of creat-
ing emotions which the hearer mistakes for thoughts”) and even
against the pencil with an eraser when that was new (“It might almost
be laid down as a general law that the easier errors may be corrected,
the more errors will be made” [1998: 31–5]).
By the 1980s, women certainly had won the right to have their
grumbling heard: Tipper Gore’s campaign against violent or sexual
music lyrics or videos, under the aegis of the Parents Music Resource
1136 social research
Center, is an example. And those of us currently becoming old will
remember the unisex and almost universal grumbling that greeted
television: “pablum,” “the boob tube,” “the idiot box,” “a vast waste-
land,” which was “turning brains to mush” (Stephens 1998: 27, 31–36).
There’s a cycle to this, and it always ends the same: once a form of
communication is itself threatened by a powerful and even newer form,
the grumbling about it stops. After the arrival of TV, it is very difficult to
find Pope-like or Tolstoy-like critiques of print. And even the chorus of
complaints against television now seems suddenly to be quieting.
My book was written in 1998, before the Internet had begun to
display its powers, so it did not deal with a curiosity in regard to our
current communications revolution: the fact that old men and women
have not been emitting all that much grumbling. Yes, some excep-
tions have been taken: op-ed pages and the Web itself have featured
a few attempts, for example, to rebut the argument that the success-
ful protests against the regime of President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt
can be credited entirely to social media, though the arguments they
were rebutting, giving social media that much credit, proved difficult
to locate (Rosen 2011). Bill Keller, the former executive editor of the
New York Times, is among those who have made clear that he is a Twitter
skeptic: “the enemy of contemplation,” he calls it, adding the hardly
controversial charge that Twitter is “ephemeral.” Keller also quotes
the novelist Meg Wolitzer describing today’s technology-suckled high-
schoolers as “The generation that had information, but no context.
Butter, but no bread. Craving, but no longing” (Keller 2011).
Similarly, there are plenty of examples of the affection for
forms like printed books (oh the smell!) or newspapers (. . . with a cup
of coffee in the morning . . .) that one would expect to accompany
their gradual demise: “Newspapers dig up the news,” insists John. S.
Carroll, former editor of the Los Angeles Times. “Others”—presumably
bloggers and websites like Huffington Post—“repackage it” (Stephens
2010). However, old-fashioned, decline-of-civilization grumbling—
“semblance,” “bastard,” “you shall not,” “scourge,” “ignorance’s weap-
ons,” “tortures,” “sewer”—has been conspicuous in its absence. Keller,
Thinking Through Moving Media 1137
for example, though well positioned for the role of prophet of doom,
not only is temperate, even whimsical, in his critique but goes out of
his way to list good points of social media.
Yes, you can find more heated criticism if you look hard enough.
The Web is so capacious that just about everything gets said there
sometime by someone. (I was even able to locate one 70-year-old retired
sportswriter in Arizona, who had just been criticized on the Internet,
proclaiming: “The Internet is like a sewer” [Garber 2009]). Still, the curi-
ous fact is this: our old men and women, at least those who can manage
a touch screen, seem reasonably fond of a lot of what appears on such
screens. Is there something about this communications revolution that
has caused them to surrender their historical role?
SeTTINg cIcero IN TYpe
Among Marshall McLuhan’s more interesting and more reliable points
is the observation that “the ‘content’ of any medium is always another
medium.” He explains that “the content of writing is speech, just as the
written word is the content of print” (1995: 151). Each new medium
“imitates,” as McLuhan did not quite say, a medium that came before.
Plato, the point is, wrote dialogues. And early printers simply set old
handwritten manuscripts in type. By the year 1500—in the first half-
century of printing, in other words—317 different printed editions of
Cicero, who had been dead for a millennium and a half, appeared in
Europe (Stephens 1998: 47).
A new medium must, of course, add something of value; other-
wise, no one would bother. Printing enabled hundreds of copies of each
of those editions of Cicero to disburse themselves across the continent.
But there was little to distinguish the copies themselves from their
handwritten model: they were printed in a black typeface intended to
mimic the script used by copyists, and they lacked such amenities as
tables of content, indexes, title pages, Arabic page numbers, and stan-
What McLuhan fails to note in his formula is that the “content” of
a new medium does not remain a previous medium. Media do eventually
1138 social research
stop imitating. They eventually acquire their own varieties of content,
finding in the process new ways of justifying their existence. Reprints
of Cicero would eventually be nudged aside in Europe and its colonies
by two mostly new forms: the printed newspaper and the novel. Those
tables of content, indexes, title pages, Arabic page numbers, standard-
ized spellings and more legible typefaces all also arrived, for the most
part, after the printed book and periodical. But this process of figur-
ing out new, original forms to exploit the considerable potential of a
new medium inevitably takes a while. The first printed newspaper and
the first printed novel appeared in Europe a century and a half after
Usually, the more imitative the content the less old men grum-
ble. Pope had nothing against reprints of the “Ancients”; it was all
that new stuff from the “Moderns” that was scourging the “learned”
for their “sins.” Movies had an early burst of respectability when—in a
movement called film d’art, begun in Paris in 1908—their imitation of
theater grew most reverent and their choice of plays at which to aim a
camera grew most refined. Even television, that most grumbled about
of media, managed to please the critics and even be accorded a “golden
age” when for a few years in the 1950s it began broadcasting live plays.
Is the reason we are not hearing more grumbling about the
Internet and its cousins because we are still in the setting-Cicero-in-
type phase—the film-d’art phase, the showing-live-plays-on-TV phase?
Our digital gizmos seem to possess all the glamour and impudence we
associate with the cutting edge. It is hard to think of them as imitat-
ing. But all new forms of communication once seemed poised on the
cutting edge. And all new forms of communication have imitated.
Somewhere in every one of our smart devices—from laptop to
iPhone to iPad—is something that serves as a keyboard: a reworking of
the typewriter. The “graphical user interface” on our various screens
has featured the accouterments of desktops: files, scissors, a clip-
board—another form of imitation (a “metaphor,” it was initially called).
The Web has organized itself into “sites,” as if pretending to be a neigh-
borhood filled with shops. Email is, to say the obvious, imitation mail—
Thinking Through Moving Media 1139
super-swift, super-convenient mail. Instant messages and texts are even
swifter mail. YouTube places a miniature TV screen on our computer,
smart phone, or tablet screens. Blogs look a lot like journals or diaries,
turned upside down. Facebook, too, has diary-like elements, as well as
scrapbook-like elements and letter- or telegram-like elements. We use
Twitter to “curate”—to direct each other to attractive songs, videos,
and writings in this world full of wonders, this world-become-museum.
We use Twitter, too—along with all those swift messages, texts, and
scrawlings on Facebook “walls”—to engage in what once might have
been called “chitchat.” But the earlier form of communication that has
probably been most imitated on Web, smart phone, and tablet “pages”
has been old, respectable, and endangered print.
Most news sites online are essentially tables of content, which
justify their existence with one impressive addition: the ability to skip
instantly to any story listed or previewed there. Commercial websites
mimic the printed catalog—with, again, that remarkable ability to hop,
step, and jump. Wikipedia is, of course, a version of another form origi-
nal to print, which first appeared in Paris in the eighteenth century:
the encyclopedia—though one of unprecedented size, composed by an
unprecedented number of authors. Spell check, track changes, those
hundreds of fonts, the great convenience of the online dictionary and
the online thesaurus—this is print that has died and gone to heaven.
And Google, with its sleek, minimalist design; Google, this newly
minted verb; Google, which appears for the moment to have placed
itself at the heart of this communications revolution; Google, which
increasingly looks like a compendium of all the world’s knowledge;
Google is what? I think it is pretty clear that this “search engine” is just
a version of the original search facilitator—the index that eventually
started appearing at the back of printed books. Google, in its magnifi-
cence, is a universal index.
In 2008 the Atlantic did have a go at grumbling about Google.
Nicholas Carr, though not even 50 at the time, undertook the chal-
lenge, falling back, notwithstanding some perfunctory nods in the
direction of cognitive science, upon the same sort of critique that has
1140 social research
been leveled against all media that are more efficient than their prede-
cessors: that too easy and too fast threaten to make us lazy, skittish, and
superficial. Google, Carr fretted, is “chipping away” at the “capacity for
concentration and contemplation” (Carr 2008).
But Carr’s effort, too, is halfhearted: he admits that he might be
a “worrywart” and acknowledges the limits of his own argument by
noting that there were similar critiques of writing and print. The truth
is that it is hard even for middle-aged or old men and women not to be
impressed with the dozen or so fine answers, along with 41,700,000
other mostly useless answers, you can get in .26 seconds in response to
a Google query. Given the number of crotchety critics wandering the
planet these days and their propensity for working themselves into a
lather about anything from a video to a vaccine, Google and company
have gotten off remarkably easy.
The phrasing I have leaned upon in this article is borrowed from
Sherlock Holmes, of course—speaking in Arthur Conan Doyle’s story,
“The Adventure of Silver Blaze.” The great detective deduces from a
dog’s “curious” failure to bark in the night that the animal must have
been familiar with the perpetrator. Our old men and women, I am
arguing, are relatively content with so much that is happening in our
new media because they are familiar with it, because it has so much in
common with their beloved print.
“ANoTher TIMe, TheN, SocrATeS”
Socrates might not have been the fellow you wanted to encounter as
you went about your business in fifth century BCE Athens. The old
philosopher was a great enthusiast, of course, of discourse—arguably
the most important proponent of this form of communication the
world has seen. But he had an odd way of going about a conversation.
If Plato’s dialogues can be taken as an accurate reflection of
Socrates’ conversation, we know that he could upon occasion simply
tell and hear news. In the Charmides, Socrates, having returned from a
battle, goes to a gymnasium, which, in Benjamin Jowett’s translation,
Thinking Through Moving Media 1141
he describes as one of his “old haunts.” The friends who greet him ask
for “the story” of that battle, and Socrates dutifully provides “the news
from the army” and answers their questions. Socrates, in turn, proceeds
to ask them “about matters at home.” The matter in which he seems
most interested: “whether any of” the young men are “remarkable for
wisdom or beauty, or both.”
But Socrates, in Plato’s account, does not indulge in news or
gossip for long. The young man who seems most to excel in beauty, and
perhaps also wisdom, Charmides, sits down besides the old philosopher
at that gymnasium, and soon Socrates, as is his wont, has confronted
him with a philosophic question: “what, in your opinion, is temperance
(sophrosyne)?” Charmides answers: “quietness.” Socrates demonstrates
at some length that “quickness and cleverness” are better than “quiet-
ness.” Charmides then proposes “modesty” as his definition of “temper-
ance.” Socrates, with help from Homer, dismisses that suggestion, too.
In taking on the young man’s next attempt at a definition,
Socrates also ends up taking on Critias, Charmides’ older “guardian and
cousin.” Indeed, Socrates interrogates Critias, his friend and student,
with such vehemence, that Critias accuses him of merely “trying to
refute me, instead of pursuing the argument.” Socrates doesn’t dispute
the accusation: “And what if I am?” (Plato, Charmides)
To engage in a conversation with Socrates—whose name appears
in many definitions of irony—is to have your words turned inside out
and against each other. “Whatever statement we put forward always
somehow moves round in a circle, and will not stay where we put it,”
complains Euthyphro, another young man who has fallen into a conver-
sation with Socrates. (Plato, Euthyphro: 13). One learns. Charmides
certainly learns, though they never do settle on a definition of temper-
ance. Euthyphro has much to learn.
But talking with Socarates offers quite a different experience
than most residents of Athens or anywhere else expect from a conversa-
tion. He rarely shot the breeze. He engaged in few pleasantries. Instead,
he jumped on contradictions. He bore in. He mocked. He tore apart.
This description, which echoes that of Euthyphro, is from Plato’s Laches:
1142 social research
Whoever comes into close contact with Socrates and has
any talk with him face to face, is bound to be drawn round
and round by him in the course of the argument—though
it may have started at first on a quite different theme—
and cannot stop until he is led into giving an account of
himself, of the manner in which he now spends his days,
and of the kind of life he has lived hitherto; and when once
he has been led into that, Socrates will never let him go
until he has thoroughly and properly put all his ways to the
test (Plato, Laches: 187e).
Socrates is certainly aware that he can be a handful: “All day long
and in all places [I] am always fastening upon you, arousing and persuad-
ing and reproaching you. You will not easily find another like me. . .”
(Hulse 1995: 21). There is something intemperate, if you will, about the
way Socrates converses. Alcibiades acknowledges that often “I act like
a runaway slave and keep out of his way” (Parker 1979: 14). Euthyphro
eventually unfastens himself, “Another time, then, Socrates. I am in a
hurry now. . .” (Plato, Euthyphro: 20).
I want to argue that there is a larger explanation for Socrates’ odd
and difficult conversation, that it was not just due to this singular man’s
odd and difficult personality—or, as Plato would have us believe, his
exalted ethical standards. My point is that thought in fifth-century BCE
Athens—the kind of thought that Socrates exemplified—was outgrow-
ing the oral tradition, outgrowing mere conversation. It was a kind of
thought formed, in part, by writing—or, more precisely, by a kind of
proto-writing. Socrates, as was typical of Athens’ free-born males, was
literate. Indeed, Greece, where vowels were first added to the alpha-
bet, was the first country to have widespread literacy (for free-born
males). And writing, thinkers two and half millennia later have come
to believe, encourages analysis (including ethical analysis), encourages
turning ideas inside out and against each other.
But unlike his contemporary, Thucydides; his student, Plato;
or Plato’s student, Aristotle; Socrates did not write out his thoughts.
Thinking Through Moving Media 1143
Instead, he tried to force literate ways of thinking into an earlier form of
communication. It was a sometimes awkward attempt, requiring “fasten-
ing on,” full of “arousing and persuading and reproaching,” not always
welcome: “Another time, then, Socrates.” It left the old philosopher suffi-
ciently unpopular that a majority of his fellow citizens voted that he be
executed. (It didn’t help that his students Critias and Charmides proved
intemperate, vicious actually, when they imposed an oligarchy on
Athens.) Socrates was in no position to understand that he was asking too
much of discourse. But the thoughts in Socrates’ conversation—despite
his reverence for discourse—were looking for another medium in which
to express themselves. They were looking for writing.
“No innovation,” writes the French historian Fernand Braudel,
“has any value except in relation to the social pressure which main-
tains and imposes it.” (1984: 431) Here I am talking about an intellec-
tual pressure—the pressure to analyze—that flowed from, imposed,
and then maintained this astoundingly powerful innovation: writing.
With Thucydides, Plato and, in particular, Aristotle—with writing—the
Greeks obtained, to take out of context a line from Shelley in Prometheus
Unbound, “wisdom” that “once they could not think.”
A beTTer gAzeTTA
Eventually, there would be an even newer wisdom for humankind to
begin trying to think. In due time (a couple of millennia), a new kind
of thought began to push up against the limits of writing. I will try to
make this point with regard to my research on journalism.
By 1566 a newssheet was being distributed, weekly, in Venice. I
found copies hidden among diplomatic letters in London. It was called,
among other names, the gazetta, which may have been the name of the
coin for which it sold: hence, the title of so many of the world’s newspa-
pers; hence, the Russian word for newspaper. And since the European
newspaper has spread around the world, and since the European news-
paper descends from these Venetian news sheets, every newspaper in
the world today has DNA that can be traced to 1566 in Venice (Stephens
1144 social research
Where was the new thought here? With weekly and therefore
more established and dependable distribution of news, a mostly new
political force was being created: a public, increasingly as informed
on events as its leaders. And this public was gaining an increasingly
comprehensive and reliable view of the world as a well-lit, comprehen-
sible place—the stage upon which a series of discrete but connected
events, a week’s news events, occurred.
This way of thought came, in part, from printing—or, again
more precisely, a proto-printing. The letterpress had arrived in Venice
almost a century earlier. Literacy was on the rise, now that there were
so many more books around to read. And all those reprints of Cicero
and his contemporaries, as they were imbibed by Europe’s literate,
were beginning to increase the continent’s knowledge levels. One-shot
printed newsbooks and news ballads had also been appearing, featur-
ing glimpses, however incomprehensive and unreliable, of events far
away. Copies of Columbus’s own letters on his discoveries had even
begun appearing, shortly after his return in 1493, in multiple editions
across the continent. The flow of news and ideas had been increasing in
volume and speed.
But those 1566 Venetian news sheets were not printed. Each copy
was handwritten. This comprehensive and reliable view of the world
could only display itself, consequently, in some hundreds of copies.
Given limits in distribution, the public in question was so small it
barely deserved the name. And this comprehensible and reliable view
of the world had to pass through the hands of slow and potentially inac-
The kind of thinking exemplified by the gazetta, in other words,
was not well served by the gazetta. This way of thought was pushing
past, through, beyond the limitations of the handwritten. And some
other new—and connected—religious, scientific, geographic, mercan-
tile, and literary worldviews were also bumping up against those limi-
tations in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Europe. They each had their
own dissatisfactions with writing. Scientists, for example, needed
more regular and reliable information on new discoveries than even
the most industrious letter writers could provide; merchants—at least
Thinking Through Moving Media 1145
those not wealthy enough to hire their own correspondents—needed
better information on events that might influence markets. They, too,
required a new form of communication to illuminate, examine and
sustain the new rounder, plainer, more realistic, more knowable world
they were espousing.
The wanted form of communication began to arrive when the
printing press turned away from reprints of Cicero and began devot-
ing itself to forms that made better use of its capabilities. As Socrates’
way of thinking began to find its true home in the writings of Plato, the
worldview initially inscribed in the gazetta began to find its true home
with the appearance of the world’s first printed weekly in Strasbourg in
1605. Don Quixote also appears in 1605. A way of thought was facilitated
by the new newspaper, the new novel, the new scientific journal (later
in that century). It became a dominant way of thought in Europe and
America up until the twentieth century.
eISeNSTeIN MeeTS joYce IN pArIS
One way of looking at twentieth-century thought—and I belatedly
apologize for skipping so blithely over centuries and philosophies—is
as a rebellion against the well-lit, comprehensive, reliable, comprehen-
sible worldview that had long been promulgated by the printing press
and the periodical. It was too static, too rigid, too narrow, too certain,
too “linear,” to borrow a term from Marshall McLuhan: one point after
another, one point leads to another. Cubism, abstract art, futurism,
dada, stream of consciousness, pop art, op art, postmodernism, and
their various cousins helped lead this rebellion.
Their revolutionary ways of looking at the world came, in part,
from the arrival of a new form of communication on the cusp of this
new century: early film—or, to use the vocabulary introduced here,
proto-moving media. For early film was fluid, jumpy, capable of cutting
in and out, and inevitably self-conscious about its perspectives. Just
before she drafted the remarkable modernist middle section of To the
Lighthouse in the spring of 1926, Virginia Woolf composed a short essay
on “the Cinema.” The words and phrases she uses to describe this new
medium and its potential are revealing, for they are words and phrases
1146 social research
of modernism: “burgeons, bulges, quivers, disappears”; “speed and
slowness; dartlike directness and vaporous circumlocution”; “violent
changes of emotion”; “thought in its wildness”; “collision”; “cascades”;
“the chaos of the streets” (Woolf 1926).
But cinema, as is typical, was slow to understand and express its
new powers. It had taken years for the close-up to be accepted. It had
taken years for parallel editing to be accepted. It had taken years to
overcome the impulse to imitate theater sufficiently so that the camera
could wander beyond “the best seat in the house.” The most adventur-
ous silent filmmakers, such as Sergei Eisenstein, eventually managed
to fill screens with some of Woolf’s “quivers, “dartlike directness,”
“violent changes of emotion,” “collision,” “cascades” and “chaos.”
Eisenstein made the Battleship Potemkin in 1925. But in the world of
moving images, a technological step forward is inevitably followed by
an artistic step back: the arrival of sound in 1927 led to more sluggish
camera work and more filmed plays.
We tend to conclude that new forms of communication are more
mature than they really are. Virginia Woolf thought that of film: “For
a strange thing has happened,” she writes in that essay, “—while all
the other arts were born naked, this, the youngest, has been born fully
clothed. It can say everything before it has anything to say” (Woolf
1926). Woolf was wrong to assume some sort of precocious wisdom on
how film might best communicate but right about its struggle to figure
out what it might communicate. Both efforts continue today. Film, like
all new media, was born naked.
The revolutionary perspectives that were inspired, I am arguing,
in part by film were most often realized, instead, on the painted canvas
or the printed page. Twentieth-century literature, art, philosophy, and
(I add with less confidence) physics can be seen as attempts, often not
conscious, to escape the rigidity of the canvas or page—to escape their
frustrating, infuriating regularity, clarity, and flatness. These white
rectangles had once provided a bright, even brilliant stage for the most
real, most exotic dramas, but the page, the canvas had now begun to
seem too predictable, too sluggish, too confining, too stiffly realistic,
too brashly knowing to really know. Yet cubism, abstract art, futurism,
Thinking Through Moving Media 1147
dada, stream of consciousness, pop art, op art, postmodernism, and all
the rest of the twentieth-century rebellions were launched on the same
canvases and pages they were trying to overthrow.
And the results—like Socrates’ conversation, like the handwrit-
ten gazetta—often proved less than satisfying. How to say this without
sounding like a philistine? Despite its manifold insights and splendors,
twentieth-century art still sometimes looks like attempts, shall we say,
at a new way of looking at the world, not like that new way of looking
at the world itself. Twentieth-century literature as it dances and dwells,
veers and sputters, displays no shortage of beauties. However, in strain-
ing to burrow back into the mostly unexamined flit and flux of our
thoughts, it has sometimes tended—again, no disrespect intended—to
be a little too unsteady, unmoored, and agitated to be enjoyably read:
another time, then, Finnegans Wake. It is possible to look upon twenti-
eth-century thought as not yet having found its medium.
In 1929 in Paris, James Joyce meets Sergei Eisenstein—an early
partisan of and wizard of montage, among the most radical of cine-
matic techniques. Joyce’s sight has deteriorated by then, but he and
Eisenstein discuss a joint project: a film. One hopes—I have located no
report on what sort of film they had in mind—that Joyce and Eisenstein
sensed that film was the natural home for the stream of consciousness:
consciousness being, to say the obvious, full of sights and sounds, as
well as run-on sentences. One hopes they understood that what Woolf
called “thought in its wildness” might best be captured in a medium
that was not static, narrow, regular, or rigid. Joyce and Eisenstein never
made their film. Others, of course, have tried recreating the stream of
consciousness in moving images—with varying degrees of success. But
maybe this latest revolution in thought is still in the process of learning
to express itself. After all, the great triumphs of print—the Encyclopédie,
the Enlightenment itself, Tolstoy himself—did not arrive for centuries
after print’s invention. Maybe the struggle against the immobile, the
certain, the linear still has decades to go, even centuries to go. Maybe
this struggle has outlived modernism and postmodernism and is still
with us in the mostly unnamed movements of culture and thought of
this new of century.
1148 social research
But do we possess, as we engage in this great cultural and phil-
osophic undertaking, that most valuable and necessary of tools: the
appropriate form of communication?
dISeNTANglINg The Web
If computers, smart phones, and whatever other devices Apple
designs for us are to be used just so we can better communicate with
each other—hundreds of each others; all around the world; sharing
thoughts; photos, likes and dislikes; “friending”; online dating; well,
that’s fine. The old ways of socializing have faded considerably now
that such a large percentage of humanity has made its way into anony-
mous cities, now that television and computers themselves have drawn
us into rooms by ourselves. Communication is good. Communication
without geographical boundaries or extra expense is even better. And
if you’re not reduced to merely taking in what Leo Tolstoy or Walter
Cronkite want to tell you, if you can post your own thoughts, photos,
likes and dislikes out there for anybody interested to see—if you can,
as we used to say, “interact” —well, that is real added value. Socializing
without the inconvenience or embarrassment of having to lug along
your physical body is pretty weird but may have some advantages, too.
If we are also to use these increasingly powerful and increas-
ingly thin digital devices just to get better access to information, that’s
also fine. Being awash in knowledge is certainly better than being
deprived of knowledge. As the price of such devices falls and access
to them spreads, the latest political, scientific, and medical informa-
tion is becoming available to people in towns small as well as large,
in places out of the way as well as in the center of things. Although
you wouldn’t always know it from our politics, the case can be made
that we are living through a watershed moment in human history: the
end of the era of insufficient information. There is no arguing with the
importance of that.
But this is all—I’ll hazard the word “just” again—an expansion
of the mission of print. Print—joined by the postal service, the tele-
phone, and television—allowed us to socialize with numerous folks
(Pierre Bezukhov, Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, Rachel and Ross) who are not
Thinking Through Moving Media 1149
physically there. Print—along with the postal service, the telephone
and television—opened up worlds we could enter without our bodies.
And print—along with those other forms of communication and with a
nod, as always, to writing—was once the great information dispenser,
the great knowledge spreader.
I don’t want to underplay the importance of finishing and improv-
ing upon print’s mission, but I do think we have a right to wonder if
improved communication and access to information are really to be
the great accomplishments of our current communications revolution,
which, at first glance, looks to be a profound one. Or are we still miss-
ing something: the true “killer app,” the facilitator of a new way of
We can see the beginnings of such a new way of thought, I am
arguing, in Joyce’s writing, in Picasso’s paintings, even in Einstein’s
and Heisenberg’s physics—in the twentieth century’s encounter with
the uncertain, the unresolvable, the diverse, the ironic, the multiper-
spectival. And, I believe, the twenty-first century is bringing forms of
communication that will help us think such thoughts—think them
Who’S reAdY For VIrgINIA WoolF?
In the rise of the image the fall of the word (1998), I argue for the potential,
as yet mostly unexplored, of moving images. My point does not assume
that we might replace words with a new language of images (which
was part of what Virginia Woolf imagined in her essay on the cinema).
Umberto Eco has well demonstrated the persistence and futility of that
dream (1995: 144–177). Instead, my argument is built upon an analogy
to the way writing made words into objects, enabling them to be reor-
ganized in lists, compared, analyzed. Fast-cut moving images, I suggest,
enable little splinters of the world—things, faces, places, moments,
tiny scenes—to be converted into objects, objects that can then be reor-
ganized, compared, analyzed. And such images can easily be combined
Splinters of the world in motion, and working together with
words, can more easily explore the ways in which life is uncertain
1150 social research
and unresolvable. Such splinters and their sidekicks are unavoidably
diverse, ironic by inclination, and naturally multiperspectival. And
because they can more easily and more entertainingly convey concepts
that are not fixed or tied down, they have the ability—once we master
the art—to help us learn to navigate the uncertain and unresolvable.
Here again is Virginia Woolf from her essay, imagining a new
Then, as smoke pours from Vesuvius, we should be able
to see thought in its wildness, in its beauty, in its oddity,
pouring from men with their elbows on a table; from
women with their little handbags slipping to the floor. We
should see these emotions mingling together and affect-
ing each other. We should see violent changes of emotion
produced by their collision. The most fantastic contrasts
could be flashed before us with a speed which the writer
can only toil after in vain; the dream architecture of arches
and battlements, of cascades falling and fountains rising,
which sometimes visits us in sleep or shapes itself in half-
darkened rooms, could be realized before our waking eyes.
No fantasy could be too far-fetched or insubstantial (Woolf
Woolf is imagining this in 1926. I had the considerable advan-
tage of writing my book 72 years later. But it was still too early. The
Web—where it now appears this new cinema is most likely to flour-
ish—was then still an infant. Moving images, in the intervening 13
years, have indeed become more and more important on the Web.
But these moving images—on YouTube, for example—have not much
occupied themselves with Woolf’s “thought in its wildness.” That is not
surprising. Moving images, which took another large step backward
after their initial move to television, have taken a step backward again
in beginning to establish themselves on the Web. Some online video
seems to have condemned itself to recapitulating the history of silent
film, as much television initially did. So we are mostly still stuck in the
Thinking Through Moving Media 1151
pre-Eisenstein stage. Some of those who produce video for the Web do
not yet seem even to have mastered the power of montage. It is still
But the Web is large. Cameras and editing software are getting
cheap. The percentage of the global population in a position to make
art expands. We have begun to see—in this still very young medium—
early signs of new and intriguing kinds of communication, of motion.
For images are not the only entities that can move, when converted
into bits and subject to the proper software. Their companions and
ancient competitors, words themselves, can scurry about.
In spoken language, words slither and slide out of our mouths
in all sorts of interesting and fun ways. But in writing, words have
been bolted into those thin black lines on white pages—unable to
budge. It had, therefore, never been possible to combine the cognitive
power of written language with the power of motion. There was some
evidence that words might be set free in late-twentieth-century televi-
sion commercials and the work of such directors as Mark Pellington
for MTV. But online—using the program Flash, for example—written
words have most definitely been allowed to escape the prison of the
page and perform all sorts of new tricks: flying here and there, chang-
ing color, morphing into each other. This is something new in the
history of human communication.
Isn’t this dynamic language what twentieth-century poets like e.
e. cummings were reaching for, if not prophesying? Doesn’t this mix of
moving images and moving words—moving media—give us a chance
finally to capture the whirls, rushes, and eddies of our thoughts in a
way that is not at all a chore to follow? Moving media may be at their
most entertaining when they flit and flux. Don’t these signifiers in
motion offer us a chance to look at a face, at a scene, at an issue from
many sides at once?
The case can be made that we are searching, as we enter this
new century, for a new philosophy: that we need to think through how
our identities now often seem to shift with our surroundings, with our
wardrobes; that we need to understand the way we modulate irony to
signify varying degrees of seriousness; that we need to consider the
1152 social research
way we dance in and out of belief. How hard it is to approach these
ideas with words or images that just sit there on the page or screen.
How much more effectively they might be approached with words and
images that themselves can shift, dance, and modulate. The wanted
form of communication, from this perspective, is not Wikipedia,
Google, Facebook, the iPhone, the iPad, or Twitter—any more than it
was MS-DOS, Excel, Word, Windows, or the Huffington Post. Our chance
to gain “wisdom” that “once” we “could not think,” if this analysis is at
all correct, rests with moving media.
Technologically, it gets easier and easier. The exertions necessary
to think such thoughts come naturally, it turns out, to digital media.
Indeed, all the necessary kinds of movement can be found today in one
corner of the Web or another.2 But our current “sites,” “pages,” and
little television screens may not be sufficient to contain these essays in
motion. We may need forms that do for moving media what the news-
paper and the novel did for print.
If this indeed is where the more radical phalanxes of this commu-
nications revolution are heading, there may indeed be plenty about
which our equivalent of bearded old men might grumble: enlighten-
ing but unfamiliar and perhaps disturbing forms, enlightening but
unfamiliar, and perhaps disturbing thoughts: disposed to undercut our
certainties, our senses of identity, that which we take seriously and our
beliefs—or what is left of our certainties, identities, seriousness, and
beliefs. For more than a century after film brought us the first moving
media, decades after the first stirrings of digital media, this would be
something new. And enlightening and disturbing are what new forms
of communication do.
1. My reading of this classic passage from the Phaedrus has been
informed by Derrida (1972: 75–134).
2. See, for some quick examples, the work of Billy Collins and
Julian Grey/Head Gear <http://www.bcactionpoet.org/budapest.
html>; Steven Johnson and RSA animate <http://www.youtube.
com/watch?v=NugRZGDbPFU>; Craig Stephen <http://vimeo.
Thinking Through Moving Media 1153
com/3070130>; Will Herrmann and Benjamin Zephaniah <http://
www.youtube.com/watch?v=IL8jYA8Ho1U>; Chris Milk <http://www.
thewildernessdowntown.com/>; and Sir Moving Images <http://
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arien mack, Alfred and Monette Marrow Professor of Psychology at the New School for Social Research, has authored or coauthored more than 60 articles on visual perception as well as the book Inattentional Blindness (with Rock, 1998). She has been the editor of Social Research since 1970.
birgit meyer is Professor of Religious Studies at Utrecht University. As an anthropologist of religion, she works on African Christianity; Pentecostal churches; religion, media, and the public sphere; and (audio)visual culture, aesthet- ics, and the senses. She is coeditor of Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art, and Belief.
nicholas mirzoeff, Professor of Media, Culture and Communication at New York University, works in the field of visual culture and is collaborating with the not-for-profit Islands First on a project concerning the visual culture of climate change. He is the author of The Right to Look: A Counterhistory of Visuality (2010).
mitchell stephens, Professor of Journalism and Mass Communication at New York University, is the author, most recently, of the rise of the image the fall of the word (1998). His book, A History of News (1988, 1996), has been translated into four languages and was a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year.”
mckenzie wark is Associate Professor and Chair of Culture and Media, Eugene Lang College The New School. His publi- cations include A Hacker Manifesto (2004) and Dispositions (2002).
Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.