18 July 2005

McLuhan Lectures 2005 - May 11 – Marcel Danesi – The Medium is the Sign

Marcel Danesi took the stage last evening at The McLuhan Lectures, for a talk on "The Medium is the Sign." He began his exploration by pointing to the general societal concern about those who control the mass-media. The common belief is that those who control the dissemination of information thereby control the construction of impression and thought among the public. However, Danesi points out that, despite controlling the information content, media moguls cannot control the meaning we, the public, make of the information, since meaning structure is "unconsciously" created, emerging as a result of cultural constructs and conditioning. This is, in point of fact, a great description of McLuhan's foundational notion of figure and ground: figure is what we notice, ground is everything else, and it is the interplay of figure against ground - "one medium rubbing against another medium," as McLuhan wrote, from which meaning emerges.

Danesi contends that McLuhan was the first, and perhaps the greatest semiotician, but he didn't realize it. In his unique explication of the effects of the things we conceive and create - particularly the unnoticed effects, McLuhan spoke "true semiotics" even though he didn't have the specific vocabulary of semiotics with which to express his ideas. (McLuhan, as we know, used the language of literary criticism, grammar and rhetoric, which were the areas of his training.)

A sign is both medium and message simultaneously, "signifier" and signified." Danesi held up two fingers, spread wide apart. "What does this mean?" he asked the crowd. Peace, victory, girl power (from ancient times - the inverted triangle referring to the "chalice" of femininity and fertility, retrieved later by the Spice Girls), came the answers. Depending on the cultural milieu in which an individual was raised, a given sign has a different meaning to different people, and a common meaning to those who are culturally connected, or have fluency in multiple cultural semiotics.

Semiotics essentially had its start with French philosopher Roland Barthes, who described how signs create meanings, and especially hidden meanings. But Barthes brought too much of his own cultural ideology with his creation of the field, and in particular, his hatred of American pop culture. Enter McLuhan who observed that "advertising is the greatest art form of the 20th century." Through advertising, and the rise of pop culture in general, disseminated through an ever-expanding mass-media, we have created conditions for the emergence of global collective consciousness. In particular, McLuhan observed the launch of Sputnik, and the proliferation of communications satellites and proclaimed those events as the genesis of the environmental movement. Danesi pointed out that humanity's adaptation to the biosphere is dependent on the "semio-sphere" – in other words, our collective and mutual understanding of signification and evolution of the attachment of meaning to the various things we create. We are not only products of our genes, but also of historical processes. Hence signs, and the culturally derived meanings with which they are associated, become crucial to the evolution of social construction of societies. This provides an interesting connection to Paul Thompson's exploration of "evolution as a medium" at last week's lecture. And because meaning is based on shared experience and precedent, McLuhan's notion of retrieval as the dominant mode of the laws of media tetrad takes on an added significance relative to human behavioural and biological evolution.

The interpretation of signs, that symbol (or action) "X" conveys meaning "Y" is a metaphoric action, particularly in the McLuhan sense of being transformative. For example, the "V for victory," made iconic by Winston Churchill after the second world war, was appropriated by hippies and peaceniks of the 1960s as the anti-war, universally recognized, peace symbol. Note the McLuhan reversal occurring.

Danesi recalls a McLuhan lecture that he attended years ago. McLuhan said that the mass–media are both blessing and curse. While they convey information to an extent that is unprecedented in human history, they disembody us. McLuhan always said that when we are "on the air" via electronic media, we are "no-bodies." More people gain access to more information than was ever available before. But people also acquire a form of mass consciousness that, in a way, brings back or retrieves the pre-mass literacy collective mind that existed when the Church was dominant in European society. Thus, the media moguls who own and control the majority of mass media have control over the distribution of information, and therefore have the potential for tremendous social consequences. What is different now, of course, is that people themselves have the ability to seek out information from multiple sources simultaneously, creating far more individualized meanings drawn from a vastly wide array of cultural and social grounds. The relationship among "the people" and the mass-media and their respective moguls is far more complex and "problematized" today, since the mass-media themselves are social constructions, subject to the same sorts of semiotic meta-meanings as is everything else.

Such an understanding of the mass-media calls into question the myth of objectivity. According to the thinking of the Toronto School of Communication, and apparently according to Danesi's semiotics as well, objectivity is an artefact of mass literacy in which knowledge and ideas can exist separately from the knower and the thinker. In primary oral societies, the "object" (knowledge) is inseparable from the "subject" (knower or speaker). While objectivity was effectively created in the Gutenberg Galaxy, Danesi observes that objectivity has not disappeared in digital galaxy because of convergence of digitized media that accelerates the dissemination of diverse content. However, I would point out that any such acceleration has the potential to effect a reversal. Hence, we must look carefully for signs (sorry) of the reversal of objectivity, perhaps through the imposition of socially constructed meaning from ground effects. A simple example: the "objectivity" of the U.S. Fox News Network, or Canada's CanWest Global newspapers.

The implications of a reversal of objectivity is actually far more complex and subtle, as the knower and the known, or creator and creation, are no longer separate in the same sense as the author and her/his book once were. With the amplification of voice and ubiquity of presence effected by ubiquitous connectivity and pervasive proximity, convergence of digitized media, if indeed such a convergence is occurring (and I would argue the opposite), we must question the nature of the relationship between object and subject - and whether there is another sort of "-ject" yet to be discovered - under conditions that McLuhan described as audile, as opposed to oral or visual/literate.

Throughout human history, as language/media evolve, they evolve towards greater simplicity, rather than complexity. Older forms of language, music and other forms of communicating ideas are much more complex than the forms we use today. One could observe, as McLuhan did and Paul Thompson pointed out, that we evolve through technology. Is there a law of meaning that is analogous to principles genetics? In language, complex grammar gives way to simpler syntax. (e.g. loss of cases; reduction in tenses in English over the years) But paradoxically, in reducing the complexity of the structure, modern language can express more complex ideas than could earlier language. For example, the alphabet didn't replace pictography, although it was originally derived from pictographs of goods for trade. However, the alphabet enables more complex meanings to be encoded with ever increasing efficiency. But why is efficiency a motivating force? A Harvard linguist named George Kingsley Zipf claimed that people use the fewest resources to accomplish a particular goal. This observation gave rise to "Zipf’s Law" in linguistics, namely that there is an inverse relationship between the length of a word and its rank order of usefulness and use in the language. For example, abbreviations and acronyms as economical compressions that become increasingly useful as they express complex meanings very economically. In the United States, for instance, the invocation of two juxtaposed numbers, nine and eleven, has tremendous political, legal, moral and ethical implications that have rippled throughout the society. The claim is that it is a biological compulsion to expend the least amount of effort to convey meaning without reducing meaning.

The tendency is to reduce the signifiers, while enhancing the signified, leading to a sort of principle of least effort in media studies. Alphabets were first a means of compressing signifiers while maintaining the range of the signified. Over time, other uses are found for the compressed signifiers, expanding the range of what can be signified, thereby increasing the scope and capability, while reducing the complexity of the language. Today, for example, the Internet (and mobile communication - let's just say ubiquitous connectivity) is multiplying this principle of compression, having an evolutionary effect on language. As language evolves phonetically, again we are reminded of McLuhan's assertion that the dominant form of our times is audility. Coming to grips with that notion necessitates a radical rethinking of how we teach children to communicate in schools; the current emphasis on traditional literacy taught in traditional ways may be doing a disservice to society, paradoxically lessening many children's ability to read and write.

From the audience: Why didn’t McLuhan use the terminology of semiotics, given the influence of Giambattista Vico? Semiotics was being confronted during the 1960s by the academy, and was not accepted by the sciences until the 70s, to connect how the senses connect to meaning. McLuhan did this, but did not have the language of semiotics. McLuhan understood the power of poetic language to engage the imagination via metaphor. Hence McLuhan followed Vico.

Meaning is embodied. How then do we understand the notion of information vis-à-vis embodiment? Information doesn’t exist, says Danesi (in a Shannon-Weaver context). Rather, it is meaning that is intrinsically embodied, not the transmission of signs. In semiotics, the emphasis is on the "formation" of the person when experience and sensation comes "in." What is "information literacy" anyway? In semiotics, there is no separation of information from its context and embodiment, and experience.

Cute anecdote: Danesi spoke about his grandson who, when he was 17 months old, was learning to speak. The boy had an orange cat at the time. Danesi described how he would pour juice for his grandson, and attempt to teach him what it was. As the cat entered the room, the young boy pointed to the pet and pronounced, "juice." Semiotics has the concept of "sensory knowing" For example, an infant exploring an object for the first time will experience it through all of his/her senses. This is cognition. The infant will associate the various sensory experiences with that particular instance, and later, will "re-cognize" any objects with similar sensory attributes with those first associations. Hence, the cat becomes "juice." As McLuhan said, "the right word is not the one that names the thing, but the one that gives the effect of the thing."

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