© Paul Levinson and Figure/Ground Communication.
Dr. Levinson was interviewed by Laureano Ralon on August 7th, 2010.
Paul Levinson is a professor in the Department of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University in New York City. As a commentator on media, popular culture, and science fiction Levinson has been interviewed more than 500 times on local, national and international television and radio. He is frequently quoted in newspapers and magazines around the world and his op-eds have appeared in such major papers as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, New York’s Newsday, and the New York Sun. He is also an accomplished science fiction writer; hosts four podcasts, and maintains several blogs. In April 2009, The Chronicle of Higher Education named him one of Twitter’s top ten “High Fliers”. Prior to his academic career, Levinson was a songwriter, singer and record producer in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with recordings by the Vogues, Donna Marie of the Archies and Ellie Greenwich. As a radio producer he worked with Murray the K and Wolfman Jack.
In addition to having taught at such prestigious post-secondary institutions as the New School for Social Research, London School of Economics, Harvard University, New York University and the University of Toronto, you are a prolific writer who has authored over 100 scholarly articles, as well as numerous science fiction books. I find it a little intimidating to look at your resume, because it defies everything that I have always been advised to do – namely, to choose one thing and stick with it. How do you manage to be so productive?
Your mentors – at least in so far as this advice – seem to be narrow-minded losers. The human intellect is easily capable of doing many things – the current name for it is multi-tasking. Anyone who says anything different is only reflecting his or her insecurity. I sleep 6-8 hours a day, sometimes more. I also swim, garden, watch television. And I spend lots of time with my wife and kids (who are now adults). I also sing. Indeed, the more I do, I find the more I’m able to do.
I teach as well. But of the schools you mention in your question, I’ve taught on a regular basis only at the New School for Social Research (and now at Fordham University). I gave guest lectures at the rest.
In addition to your academic career, you are also a well-renowned science fiction writer. How do you balance out both careers? Do you think of yourself primarily as a teacher, a writer, or both?
My critics have sometimes said my science fiction reads like scholarship, and my scholarship reads like science fiction. Different critics have said this about my work, and they didn’t mean it as a compliment. But I think it is indeed a compliment, and it is true. Fact is the foundation of all good science fiction – it encourages readers to willingly suspend their disbelief. I did years of research, on and off, in preparation for The Plot to Save Socrates, my most recent novel. It contains a new Socratic dialogue – which I wrote. In order to be convincing, I had to be deeply familiar with Jowett’s style. Meanwhile, in order for nonfiction to be riveting, you have to know how to unfold your facts in a good story – or, see the story in the truth of history.
Thus, I balance my scholarly and science fiction writing because they are two sides of the same narrative, research coin.
Teaching for me is not much different than writing – I speak what I’m thinking rather than write it. I therefore see myself primarily as both a writer and a teacher – both flowing from the more primary profession of thinking.
McLuhan once said that he considered himself a generalist, “not a specialist who has staked out a tiny plot of study as his intellectual turf and is oblivious to everything else.” Do you consider yourself a generalist also?
Yes, I’m with McLuhan 100% on that. Multi-tasking, cultivating many different areas of thoughts in different fields, is the spice of intellectual life.
If I’m not mistaken, you were in the first cohort of Media Ecology graduates along with Lance Strate and Christine Nystrom. What memories do you have from your graduate studies at New York University in the 1970s?
It was sheer joy. The conversations I had with McLuhan in Toronto were the best discrete intellectual conversations I ever had with anyone in my life, but they were just a handful of extraordinary conversations over several years. In contrast, my three years at NYU were a continuous intellectual thrill.
Lance Strate was not among the first cohort of graduates, and indeed was not in my class – he was in the program a few years later.
Chris was among the first graduates, and she was one of my teachers. She and Neil Postman were the most extraordinary teachers I ever had. Neil taught me a lot, about being a good teacher – treasuring your students and what you have to teach them. And Chris’ logic, her uncompromising rationality, was a wonderful beacon.
I was closest to Josh Meyrowitz in my doctoral class – and Ed Wachtel who was in the class after us, and Bob Blechman, George Back, and Peter Haratonik in the class before ours. But many other students in our classes were exceptional.
Your PhD thesis, Human Replay: A Theory of the Evolution of Media (1979), was mentored by none other than Neil Postman. How did the two of you connect and how was he as a supervisor?
As a supervisor of my doctoral thesis, Postman was perfect: he left me alone to write my thesis as I pleased. He trusted me to do a good job, and gave me great support. As I said in #4 above, he was an extraordinary teacher. He also taught me a lot about being a public intellectual. In many ways, he was a second father to me (my father was a lawyer, and also had great influence on my life). I think about Neil often, and regret that he’s not here to see and smile and joke about my accomplishments.
Shortly before his death, Neil discovered that I wrote and published fiction. He said it was something he had always wanted to do, but couldn’t quite. That meant a lot to me. Neil said that to me at a conference Lance Strate had organized at Fordham University. Lance has a genius in organizing conferences and bringing people together.
I assume that you met McLuhan in person, but I wonder if you had read him systematically and understood him “correctly” before doing your PhD…
Yes, I’d been reading McLuhan since my undergrad days at the City College of New York in the 1960s. I thought I understood him correctly, but he didn’t agree – at least, not completely. I sent Marshall a copy of my doctoral dissertation in the summer of 1978, just before going on vacation with my wife Tina. When we returned, I found a message on my answering machine. “I’m reading the dissertation, Paul, and enjoying it, but you’re not fair to Harold Innis and me about media determinism – we’re not media determinists.” A few months later, though, he said that he really liked my ideas about media evolution. He said to me, “you would be a logic boy” – not a compliment – “but you’re a musician, a songwriter, and that saves you, makes you right brained”. That was a compliment.
Do you think McLuhan’s work continues to be misunderstood?
Yes. First, many people in the academic world, and the media, are too lazy to seriously read McLuhan. Or, in the case of academics, they still resent McLuhan’s success.
I recently was quoted in a Reuters article, where I disagreed with the notion that “content is king” – a phrase being flung around without understanding by a lot of people these days. I said – no surprise – the medium is still the message, in particular, what I call the “new new media” these days (media that make producers out of consumers). Several readers protested: how can I think that media are more important than content? Which misses the point, just as many of McLuhan’s critics did and do. And that point is that media shape the content – media express themselves through content. But since the content is what we see and hear, people pay attention to that, and not enough to the media – just as we look at someone’s face, hear someone’s voice, and pay attention to that, not the DNA that made the face and voice possible. Which is fine and even appropriate for everyday life. But scholars and theorists and people who try to understand what is going on need to do better. McLuhan certainly did – but he’s still very much in the minority.
In April last year, The Chronicle of Higher Education named you one of Twitter‘s top ten “High Fliers.” What do you make of this social media environment we dwell in? There is a lot of talk about attention span lately, especially of how it is at deficit because of our over-reliance on ‘tweets’ and 10-minute YouTube videos. Is there such a thing as The Dumbest Generation in your view?
No generation is intrinsically “dumb” or dumber than the previous – the very suggestion is dumb. Nor is there an “over-reliance” on Tweets or 10-minute YouTube videos (note, by the way, that YouTube recently extended its maximum video length to 15 minutes). The short form has always been an essential and invigorating part of the human intellect – hence, “brevity is wit”. We have always excelled in the short burst, as consumers and producers. By the way, as I point out in my latest book, New New Media, you can consider the Tweet a micro-blog, and it resonates both with McLuhan’s glosses (“the medium is the message,” etc) and telegraphic communication. McLuhan’s glosses especially are at the apex of the human intellect.
What are you currently working on?
I’m working on a new edition of New New Media, but won’t be calling it New New New Media. You can see some of the updates in progress in my “What’s Newer than New New Media?” at http://newnewmediabook.com I have a brand new time travel novelette coming out – “Ian’s Ions and Eons” – look for its publication in Analog Magazine later this year or early next. I’m writing the sequel to The Plot to Save Socrates - called Unburning Alexandria - and also a new Phil D’Amato novel (he is a detective with a penchant for the strange and science fictional who has appeared in three novelettes and three novels by me, including “The Chronology Protection Case” and The Silk Code). Whiplash Records in England is bringing out a limited vinyl re-pressing of my 1972 LP, Twice Upon a Rhyme (another example of my multi-tasking, right?). I have a treatment and pilot script for a television show - The Genesis Virus - with my Phil D’Amato character. (I wrote the treatment and script with Chuck Sterin and Tina Vozick – a rarity for me, since I enjoy doing my creative work without collaboration.) My InfiniteRegress.tv blog is about television and politics, and I put up 5-10 posts per week. My podcasts are going strong – especially “Levinson News Clips: TV Reviews”, which has been earning lots of advertising revenue. And I’m continuing work on two other books, The Flouting of the First Amendment and The New Golden Age of Television Drama.
When is your next book coming out?
The new edition of New New Media won’t be out until 2012. It will pick up and extend the central chapters in New New Media - assess where Twitter, YouTube, Facebook have headed, and their increasing impact on our society and lives. And the book will also delve into developments which were barely on the screen when the first book was written – such as Kindle books now exceeding sales of paper books on Amazon. There will be political updates – such as the use of social media by the Tea Party in America, as well as by progressives, and a look at how nations around the world have tried, mostly unsuccessfully (good!), to control social media in their countries.
And I may well have another book come out before that I don’t even know about now.
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