Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

To contact me about organizing, email me at rpwolff750@gmail.com




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Saturday, July 18, 2009

THE MEDIUM IS THE MESSAGE

One of the burdens inflicted by the old on the young is the lore they have acquired over the course of their lives, without which, they are quite sure, the young will be unable to survive. In the old days, when this wisdom took the form of tips on avoiding sabertoothed tigers and poisonous berries, the young had good reason to pay heed. But in a world in which the old are constantly asking the young how things work, or are pleading with eleven year old granddaughters to stop their VCRs from blinking "12:00 12:00," it is a bit harder to market the wisdom of the ages. Still, the impulse will not die, so here I am, turning to a blog to pass on a bit of grandfatherly insight.



Like all really useful tips, this one can be summed up in a slogan, in this case one taken from the Canadian lit professor and media theorist who enjoyed a good bit of fame in the 60's, Marshall McLuhan. Those of you who are classic film buffs will remember McLuhan from his surprise walk-on in Woody Allen's Annie Hall. McLuhan's slogan was The Medium is the Message. This was actually a pop version of something Aristotle pointed out in the Metaphysics, namely that the nature of a thing is determined by its form, not by its matter. But I digress.



Let me articulate the bit of wisdom I am going to pass on by telling two stories. The first is about me personally. The second concerns something I watched on television. Both date from the 6o's.


Me first. David Suskind was a producer and talk show host whose vehicle, The David Suskind Show, was very popular in the 60's and 70's. After the '68 student uprising at Columbia, Suskind decided to do a show on campus radicals, and since I had played a role in the Columbia affair, I was invited to join four or five other young radicals on the panel. We were very full of ourselves, and laid into him unmercifully for the entire hour. At one point, we berated him about the absence of any women on the panel and even up called from the audience a female comrade to join us. When the show ended, and the credits were rolling, we figured we had really given the Establishment a death blow, and sat there with barely concealed smiles of satisfaction on our faces, until Suskind turned to us, and with genuine gratitude, said "Great show!' All of sudden, the scales fell from my eyes. This was his show, We would be gone next week, but he would be back. He wasn't afraid that we would be outrageous, radical, even obscene or blasphemous. All he was worried about was that we would be dull, and since we had not been, he had won.

The other story concerns the queen of schlock novels, Jacqueline Susann. One day she appeared on the David Frost Show to discuss her oeuvre with four critics. The two I recall most vividly are Rex Reed, who was her very good friend, and John Simon, an imperious, fiercely intellectual literary critic who holds a doctorate in Comparative Literature from Harvard and is famous for not suffering schlock gladly. Frost had arranged things so that Susann sat on the stage with him, and the four critics sat below in the first row of the audience. As the discussion proceded, Simon expressed his disgust with Susann's writing in no uncertain terms, at one point, actually saying that he would rather watch dogs fornicate than read one of her novels. In a few pithy sentences, he told her why what she wrote was not literature. What he said -- you will have to take my word for it -- was completely true. But she was sitting alone on the stage, and he was sitting down in the audience with three other interlocuters, so that he had to look up at her as he spoke, and that structural fact about the arrangement of the mis en scene completely defeated him. The audience was with Susann all the way, and Simon was reduced to a furious silence that came off, in the circumstances, more as petulence than as scorn.

In both cases, form defeated content. We young radicals could not have won even had we set fire to Suskind's set. And no matter how trenchant Simon's critique, it was impossible for him to triumph as a champion of genuine literature against the onslaught of schlock.

We can see contemporary examples of this same truth weekly on the Sunday morning talk shows. A serious, thoughtful, penetrating critic of the received wisdom appears for fifteen minutes on George Staphanopoulos's sound stage, and then Cokie, George, and the other pundits emasculate the guest with their "objective" evaluation. No one can win in that situation. The control of the format allows Stephanopoulos and the others totally to control how the content is received.

Recently, my younger son, Tobias, was invited to appear on Fox News to be interviewed about Obama's policies concerning gay and lesbian Americans. [Tobias was the Co-Chair of the Advisory Committee on LGBT matters for the Obama campaign, and is a leading gay legal theorist and activist.] He declined. It was, for me, one more proof of his essential wisdom.

So, be warned. Form dominates content. The Medium is the Message. You cannot win the game, no matter how brilliant your play, when your opponent owns the playing field and is calling balls and strikes.

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