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Sunday, April 29, 2007

The Medium is the Message

My only appearance on a tv talk show was an ill-fated effort back in the 60's, when I was a professor of philosophy at Columbia. Along with four other young lefties, I did a turn on a David Susskind show devoted to academic radicals. The five of us tore into Susskind as a lily-livered liberal, raked him up one side and down the other, protested the absence of women on the panel by calling one of our female compatriots onto the stage from the audience, and in general did everything we could think of to disrupt what we imagined to be his plan for the show. We were pretty pleased with ourselves until, as the credits were rolling at the end of the half hour, he turned to us with a big smile and said, "Great show." Suddenly the scales fell from my eyes, and I realized that we were, from his point of view, a collection of useful idiots helping him to keep his ratings up. Since this was his show, he would be back next week with some other panel, while we would be back in our cubicles. He wasn't worried that we would say dangerous radical things. His only fear was that we would be boring and his audience would flip to another channel. We had done exactly what he had hoped. "Great show."

As Marshall McCluham had observed only a few years earlier, the medium is the message. Or, as Aristotle argued two milennia earlier, it is form rather than matter that determines the nature of a thing.

These thoughts are prompted by the extraordinary transformation that the blogoshpere is working in the realm of mainstream media punditry. For decades, I along with the rest of politically engaged America, have been listening to the pontifications of pundits left, center, right, and troglodytic on everything from nuclear war to the unfortunate Anna Nicole Smith. David Broder, George Will, Cokie Roberts, Juan Williams, Mark Shields, David Brooks, John McClaughlin, Tony Blakely, George Stephanopolous, Tim Russert -- on and on they go, clogging the airwaves with their opinions. It is an odd career -- pundit. One is paid a large salary to have opinions, as though having an opinion were an accomplishment, like playing the Beethoven violin concerto. Some pundits started life as actual reporters, nosing about, going to foreign countries, making themselves knowledgeable about some area of public policy. But the stock in trade of many of them seems to be nothing more than the ability instantaneously to form, express, and then conveniently to forget an opinion on absolutely anything.

Collectively, the ability of the chattering classes to define the parameters of public discourse is enormous. But having a political opinion is actually a rather minor talent. It is not much more diffcult than having a preference for beers or ice cream flavors. Virtually everyone who is paying attention at all has opinions.

Now, it is natural to suppose that those who become pundits are wiser, more knowledgeable, more privy to generally inaccessible information than the rest of us, and hence that their opinions are, taking all in all, significantly worthier of attention than are ours. And this supposition is lent weight by the common practice on television news shows of putting on camera ordinary men and women whose expressed opinions are manifestly less well-expressed and apparently less well-informed than those of the pundits.

Enter the blogosphere, which gives unlimited numbers of people the opportunity to express their opinions, at whatever length they choose, in a format exactly as easily accessible as the opinions of the publicly important. I surf the web a good deal, reading many of the blog postings to which I am directed by the Daily Kos or Arianna Huffington or, and what I find there is at least as intelligent and knowledgeable as the offerings of the punditry. Indeed, in some instances -- Juan Cole's Informed Comment is a case in point -- what one finds on the web is so far superior to anything one can hear on television that it becomes absolutely essential to an understanding of what is happening in the world.

The formal structure of the web is through and through anarchic and anti-hierarchical. The lowliest blog [this one, for example] is exactly as accessible as the the official website of the Federal Government. It is as though everyone from NBA superstars to grade school kids had been condemned to play one dimensional basketball, in which no one had any height. There are thousands, if not scores of thousands, of men and women in this country whose opinions on this or that matter of public concern are as strong, solid, insightful, and original as any that can be heard coming from the mouths of the Broders and Russerts and Friedmans.

I am convinced that over time this structural fact will work to transform American politics in ways that I, as an anarchist, welcome and find entirely healthy.

So, this is now my blog. Will anyone read it? Will anyone link to it, pass the link on, bring into being an audience? I have no idea. Will it matter that I am known in some circles for things I wrote forty years ago? Not a bit. There is something scary and genuinely invigorating about the prospect.

I shan't attempt to add a post every day, or comment on every passing event. I welcome comments, and assuming that my success as a blogger is as modest as I expect it to be, I will undertake to respond to every one.


Lucille said...

I first found your blog on 6/11/2013 after finding your Autobiography of an Ex-White Man while searching Books in Print for relevant sources for my redesign of my Philosophy of Education class (to make it more effective for urban teacher preparation) at a state university in Illinois. A blurb on that site led me to look you up on the U Mass Amherst website, which led me to your blog. After reading some of your recent postings from retirement in France, I was curious when and why you began the blog, which led me to click on the first year (2007) and this very first post. As you've been blogging ever since then, I assume the answer to your question--will anyone read this--was positive. Although I am too busy with all my tasks at hand to read much more of your blog now, I may very well return to read more after I look at three texts of yours that interest me in particular: the above mentioned Autobiography of an Ex-White Man, Understanding Marx, and The Autonomy of Reason. Perhaps the Ideal of the University too. I'm posting this comment now just to let you know that new readers like me, who I'm remiss to admit knew nothing of you or your work before today, are still finding our circuitous way to your blog six years after you started it. Thanks for all you have invested and shared through the years and all the best for your retirement in France. Sincerely, Lucille

Robert Paul Wolff said...

What a perfectly lovely message! Welcome to the blog. I hope you find many things that interest or amuse or instruct you. Blogging has given my senior years new life, and I hope to carry on at least until I am ninety!