© Brenton Malin and Figure/Ground Communication
Dr. Malin was interviewed by Laureano Ralon on July 12th, 2011
Brent Malin is an Assistant Professor of Communication at the University of Pittsburgh, where he specializes in media history, theory, and criticism with a focus in cultural studies and critical theory. His work explores how various popular cultural artifacts suggest particular understandings of identity and the implications of these understandings for questions of cultural power and citizenship. Malin has examined such contemporary topics as the construction of masculinity during the Clinton era, as well as earlier issues such as the ideologies of whiteness and middle-class distinction that accompanied the early 20th century stereoscope. Other recent work has focused on the ways in which institutional, scientific, and journalistic discourses on technology have impacted ideas about pleasure, emotion, and identity in the United States—examining such varied technologies as the steel guitar and the psycho-galvanometer. Malin has taught graduate and undergraduate courses at the University of Iowa, St. Olaf College, Allegheny College, and San Francisco State University.
How did you decide to become a university professor? Was it a conscious choice?
My father was a 7th and 8th grade history teacher, and both of his parents were teachers as well, so I always saw teaching—in one form or another—as a possible goal. I also grew up in a fairly politically and theologically liberal (especially for a small Kansas town) Methodist church that helped me realize the value of asking interesting philosophical and ethical questions. By the time I was confirmed into the church in 8th grade, I was starting to read fairly widely in philosophy, theology, history of religion, and literature more generally, although before this I had never really been a heavy reader. I was also fortunate to have some good high school teachers who supported and encouraged me in exploring these ideas still further.
Given some of my broad reading in religion, I developed an interest in studying various cultures, and began college as an anthropology major. Like so many students, I felt like my mind was really being opened to all sorts of new ways of thinking about the world—not only in my anthropology classes, but across the whole range of courses I was taking. Throughout my time in college, I really started to understand that the University was the place to ask the questions that had been fascinating me for some time. After I wrote a paper about The Brady Bunch for a composition class, an English professor introduced me to “cultural studies” as an area, and I ended up becoming an English major with a cultural studies focus. This allowed me to read a lot of really interesting theoretical work and then apply it to traditional literary texts as well as various films, television programs, and other bits of popular culture. I found that this gave me some nice ways to apply the kinds of philosophical questions that I liked to some practical questions about culture and identity.
Given these interests, after a short stint working at a mental hospital, I went to graduate school in Communication at the University of Iowa. At this point, I had more or less made up my mind that I wanted to keep asking these questions in a University context. My professor’s at Iowa helped me hone my thinking still more. I found that Communication and the study of media was an ideal home for me. I had always been a bit of a dilettante, and media studies let me explore a number of different areas—literary studies, philosophy, cultural studies, law, economics, psychology, history, aesthetics, ethics. There are always new things to learn, and new things to discuss with my students.
Joshua Meyrowitz’ thesis in No Sense of Place is that when media change, situations and roles change. In your experience, how did the role of university professor evolve since you were an undergraduate student?
I started College in 1990 and remember very well one of my friends trying to explain to me what email was. I got an account my first year, but so few people seemed to have them, that I really didn’t use it. Over the next couple of years, people were talking about email more and more, and I remembered that I had an account. The next thing I knew, the whole email revolution was underway. Of course, the “World Wide Web” would begin to take off in the mid to late ‘90s and would bring about all sorts of other changes.
I think that email made some changes to the ways that professors communicated with students—just as it impacted communication more generally. When I was a student, you really needed to make use of a professor’s office hours. While students still visit me, I get a lot of emails on things that would probably have been handled face-to-face 20 years earlier. That said, I think that in Meyrowitz’s sense, the job of the professor may have changed a bit less than, say, the job of a medical doctor. As you know, for Meyrowitz much of the change brought about by electronic media like television has to do with showing some of the “back stage” behaviours that might have been hidden at other points in time, particularly in regards to children. The more exposure different roles are given in the media, the more they can lose some of their mystery and enchantment. I think doctors are likely facing an interesting new kind of patient who, using things like Wikipedia and other online sources starts to see themselves as a kind of mini-medical expert (and, in fact, may be extremely well informed). Although college students use sources like Wikipedia, I’m not sure that they are as concerned with arriving at some personal expertise in terms of something like English Literature or Media Studies as they are with understanding some strange growth they see on their skin.
What makes a good teacher today? How do you manage to command attention in an age of interruption characterized by fractured attention and information overflow?
I think that much of what makes a good teacher today is not much different than what made a good teacher when I was in college or even in high school, and perhaps no different than when my father was in college or high school. I know that a lot of people would suggest that teachers need to be able to use all sorts of multi-media examples in order to grab students’ attention. But I think that a good teacher should be able to deliver a strong, interesting lecture, or lead a good discussion, with nothing more than a chalkboard. In my view, good teaching is always about communicating an interesting idea with clarity and passion and asking the students to think about it, challenge it, apply it, and so forth.
I should add that in the U.S. at the beginning of the 20th century there was a real concern about “information overload” because of the new mass media of film and radio, leading to similar concerns about how to educate. Similar concerns arose around the telegraph in the 19th century. We could take this back to Socrates, in fact, who expressed anxieties about how the new technology of writing—which let information flow out too freely for his taste—would impact teaching and learning. It’s worth asking to what extent concerns about education and information are enduring concerns that say as much about our anxieties (about technology or about how to create good students) as they do about any actual technological effect.
What advice would you give to young graduate students and aspiring university professors?
I’m not sure that there is any specific advice that will work for all students and aspiring professors, since so many situations are different and many people’s goals (career and otherwise) are likely to be as well. Still, I would probably say that although I think it’s important to be contemporary, rather than picking an immediately trendy topic to research and teach about, most people would be better served by committing themselves to some long standing questions that are likely to survive the more general academic trends. So, instead of being the “Facebook expert,” try being the expert on long distance relationships who happens to study Facebook.
In 1964, Marshall McLuhan declared, in reference to the university environment that, “departmental sovereignties have melted away as rapidly as national sovereignties under conditions of electric speed.” This claim can be viewed as an endorsement of interdisciplinary studies, but it could also be regarded as a statement about the changing nature of academia. Do you think the university as an institution is in crisis or at least under threat in this age of information and digital interactive media?
I think there are a number of crises facing universities today, but that most of them have less to do with digital media than they do with a growing trend towards privatization and an unquestioned free market ideology that is dominating much of American culture. Although it’s perfectly valid to expect universities to be efficient, to give students their monies worth, and so forth, I think it is dangerous to assume that a university will run best if it is run like a private corporation. We need to be having a conversation about those goals of education that are not necessarily compatible with corporate profits or ideals. There are actually a number of important parallels in the media themselves—which have become increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few large corporations. For example, because of a series of deregulatory decisions in the ‘90s, the U.S. broadcast television networks were able to produce and own many more of their own programs than they could in the past. A straight “free market” ideal would suggest that such deregulation would bring about higher quality products. In fact, the networks decided to produce the cheapest possible thing they could make—reality television. The point is that what is most profitable for a corporation is not always of high quality in any number of other ways many people think are important.
You are an Assistant Professor of Communication at the University of Pittsburgh, where you specialize, among other things, in media history. Well, I would like to quote a passage from a conference McLuhan gave in the 70s: “My kind of study in communication is really a study of transformation, whereas all information theory and all the existing theories of communication I know of are theories of transportation. All the official theories of communication studied in the schools of North America are theories of how you move data from point A to point B to point C with minimal distortion. That is not what I study at all. Information theory…is a theory of transportation and it has nothing to do with the effects that these forms have on you; it is like a railway train concerned with moving good along a track – the track may be blocked, maybe interfered with. The problem in transportation theory of communication is to get the noise, get the interference off the track, let it go through. Many educators think that the problem in education is to get the information through; to get it passed the barrier, the opposition of the young, just to move it, keep it going. I have no interest much in that theory. My theory or concern is with what do these media do to the people who use them…so mine is a transformation theory: how people are changed by the instruments they employ.” Would it be fair to say that McLuhan’s approach to communication/media studies has a stronger ontological basis than other theories which, being concerned with the mere dissemination (encoding and decoding) of messages, display stronger epistemological biases?
James Carey made a very similar critique of what he called the “transmission view of communication” in a 1975 essay titled “A Cultural Approach to Mass Communication.” He was trying to move communication from a view of communication as “transportation” (another term he uses) to a view of communication as “ritual.” I think a number of people—particularly in cultural studies—employ variations of this ritual model of communication, which is less concerned with a “Sender-Message-Receiver” model of communication and more interesting in situating communication media in a denser cultural context. Carey was also concerned with challenging the “media effects” paradigm that seemed to be predominant in media studies. This was captured in Harold Lasswell’s famous definition of the communication situation: “Who, Says What, in Which Channel, to Whom, with What Effect?” Those working under an effects paradigm might well agree with McLuhan’s “transformation theory,” despite their general inclination towards a “Sender-Message-Receiver” model. Carey would likely agree with his critique of the transportation view, but disagree with the idea that “effects” should be the center of media studies. Of course, “effect” can be understood widely, and McLuhan was not simply talking about the elevated heart rates that were being explored in much experimental media research.
There is an aspect of McLuhan’s general media theory which, I think, is clearly at variance with those of other historians of communication, such as Harold Innis or Lewis Mumford: his emphasis on the individual rather than society. Additionally, the historical model of his three-fold program argues that communication studies was revolutionized with the birth of the telegraph; that everything changed the moment that the message could travel faster than the messenger, and that this required a new way of thinking about communication altogether, as well as new tools to explore the new set of phenomena in the electric age. Though originally accused of being a technological determinist for seemingly marginalizing the role of human agency, McLuhan was really a humanist in my view. That said, he has been most recently appropriated by the Speculative Realists, who among other things question the primacy of the human as having some special kind of dignity; for example, Levi R. Bryant, one of the founders of the movement known as Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO), has argued for a “Democracy of Objects,” which in my view is another way of saying that objects do communicate/interact among themselves in their own peculiar way. This seems to be at odds with the humanist view of somebody like, say, Jean-Paul Sartre, who, in Being and Nothingness, argued that only humans (the being-for-itself) can touch things and persons. I realize this is an ambitious question, but can there be communication independently of us?
You’re probably starting to get the sense that I fall more into the Innis/Mumford camp. We could include Carey here as well (who wrote an essay explicitly picking Innis over McLuhan). I don’t think that any of these three would disagree that the telegraph was in some sense revolutionary. However, they would be more likely to see it as a continuation of previous communication practices. I think McLuhan’s position is often more nuanced as well. In Gutenberg Galaxy, McLuhan drew connections between writing, the development of the phonetic alphabet, and the emergence of the printing press, each of which played its own role in the development of a particular culture of literacy. In this sense, there was less of a radical break between written culture and print culture than some might suggest. Although I don’t believe McLuhan quite makes this argument, I think we could say that there is a kind of hyper-alphabetization that takes place in the telegraph’s Morse code. Telegraph operators deal in dots and dashes that represent letters. The “telegraphese” of Hemingway may well be a continuation of the demystification of language that began, for McLuhan, with the phonetic alphabet.
Carey’s other approach that sets him apart in this conversation has to do with his interest in explaining what our ideas about communication say about us. John Durham Peters’ book Speaking into the Air takes up and builds upon many of these ideas. So, for instance, from the 18th century through much of the 19th century, the word “communication” meant precisely communication between objects. Ben Franklin would use the word to describe the connection between a lightning rod and the ground. Here, communication meant physical or electrical contact between inanimate objects. The fact that we now use the word almost exclusively to describe contact between human beings says something about the long process of transformation that the word, and our thinking about the concept, went through throughout the 19th and early 20th century. This actually has quite a bit to do with the “transportation” notion that McLuhan and Carey both discuss. Carey and Peters would tell us that our answer to the question of whether non-human objects can communicate (and even our asking of the question) will say as much about ourselves as it will the objects we are presumably describing.
Your own work explores how various popular cultural artifacts suggest particular understandings of identity and the implications of these understandings for questions of cultural power and citizenship. I’m afraid I never fully understood what a cultural artifact really is: Is it a liturgical form for public worshiping? A metaphor we think with? A set of social relationships deriving from a pre-existing referential whole? Part of the symbolic environment we dwell in? What makes an artifact “cultural” what it is, and how is it different from a mere object?
It is all of these things, and simply describes all of those objects that are meaningful for us. We could differentiate a cultural artifact from a geological artifact, for instance a piece of rock that tells us about some moment of geological time. However, as soon as that geological artifact is dug up, and people start to talk about its importance, it would become a cultural artifact as well. The meaning people derived from it, what they do with it (e.g. put it in a museum) and even the sense that geological artifacts matter and should be dug up in the first place, would be products of the culture in which those artifacts are made meaningful. As a result, the artifact’s “meaningfulness” would provide a way of studying the culture for which it was meaningful. Of course, someone’s interest in studying cultural artifacts would have things to say about them as well!
You are also interested in the ways in which institutional, scientific, and journalistic discourses on technology have impacted ideas about pleasure, emotion, and identity in the United States, examining such varied technologies as the steel guitar and the psycho-galvanometer. What are some of your findings so far?
This work traces some of the arguments about the “transportation” understanding of communication, especially as it is rooted in discussions and analyses of the new media of the early 20th century. One thing that becomes clear from looking at this period is that, as I’ve already suggested, much of the early 21st century concerns about information overload, attention, emotional overstimulation, and so forth have been active concerns for quite some time. I the context of the early 20th century, I trace this to both anxieties about new technology and concerns about emotional control brought about by American discussions of modernity. Things like the rise of the middle-class, immigration, and urbanization, brought about parallel concerns about self-control. We can see these in how social scientists studied the media, how media producers marketed their products, and how a range of other thinkers confronted the new technologies of the age.
What are you currently working on?
I’m finishing up a book project that takes up these questions about early 20th century communication technology and emotion, and ties them to discussions taking place in the early 21st century. It is currently under contract with NYU Press and if all goes well, it should be out in the next year or two.
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