© Lance Strate and Figure/Ground Communication
Dr. Strate was interviewed by Laureano Ralon on August 18th, 2010
is an American Professor of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University, one of the founders of the Media Ecology Association and the MEA’s first president (1998-2009), a past President of the New York State Communication Association, and currently Executive Director of the Institute of General Semantics. His scholarship has focused on the development of media ecology as a field of inquiry, with special attention to the work of Marshall McLuhan, Walter Ong, and Neil Postman; on the historical relationship between modes of communication and sociocultural phenomena such as heroes, religion, nationalism, the city, the self, and consciousness; on the impact of new technologies and digital media including online communications and mobile telephony; on media history and futurism; on language and symbolic communication as it relates to media and technology; on communication and autism; on popular culture phenomena, including television, film, baseball, masculinity and alcohol, the sense of smell, and science fiction and fantasy. He has served as editor of several journals: the General Semantics Bulletin, the Speech Communication Annual, and Explorations in Media Ecology (which he founded), and as supervisory editor of the media ecology book series published by Hampton Press. He is co-editor of several anthologies, including Communication and Cyberspace, and The Legacy of McLuhan, and the author of over 100 articles and book chapters, and of Echoes and Reflections: On Media Ecology as a Field of Study (Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 2006). He also blogs, writes poetry, and is a partner in NeoPoiesis Press.
What attracted you to the PhD program in Media Ecology at New York University, what memories do you have from those days, and how was your overall graduate experience at NYU?
I was introduced to many of the basic elements of media ecology, including McLuhan, and also general semantics, and general systems theory in 1974, in the first semester of my freshman year at Cornell University, when I took Jack Barwind’s introductory communication theory class, and it all immediately clicked for me, so he really got me started down that road. I started out as a biology major with the intention of going on to medical school, but that didn’t work out for me (although I did earn a Bachelor of Science degree), so I wound up majoring in Communication Arts instead. I even became a teaching assistant for course credit in my senior year, and taught a discussion section on the impact of technology with readings from Boorstin, McLuhan, and Ellul, for that introductory course.
But I had no intention of pursuing a career in academia, and I had no idea what to do after graduation. So, my mother convinced me to continue my schooling, and I wound up at Queens College in 1978, pursuing an MA degree in the Media Studies program directed by Gary Gumpert. Gary was quite knowledgeable about media ecology, which was important, and I also had coursework with some outstanding scholars with backgrounds in rhetoric and critical/cultural studies, such as Dan Hahn, Robert Cathcart, Parke Burgess, Peter Dahlgren, and John Pollack.
I was also working as a teaching assistant for Gary’s Introduction to Mass Media class, providing multi-image lecture support (multi-image involved banks of slide projectors coordinated by a computer console), and hanging out in the Multimedia Lab at Queens College. Joshua Meyrowitz was the Director of the Lab (having at one time been Gary’s assistant too), and Ed Wachtel was Josh’s second-in-command (my second year there, Josh had left for the University of New Hampshire, and Ed became the Director). They both were doctoral students in the Media Ecology Program at New York University, we quickly bonded, and they became like big brothers to me. And they told me that, given my interests, I should go for my PhD in media ecology at NYU. They explained that there was nowhere else I could go where I could study this sort of thing freely and in depth. So, what attracted me to NYU’s Media Ecology Program was the fact that it was a program devoted to exactly the kind of thing that I was interested in, and that it was recommended by two individuals who I looked up to as role models.
So, I applied, went in for an interview, and they accepted me on the spot, which came as a pleasant surprise. But I was still thinking of graduate study as something to do for the time being, not as a career, and I didn’t really get serious about working in academia until a few years later. There was a saying back in the sixties and seventies, “go with the flow,” and that’s basically what I did back then. I didn’t find my career, or calling if you like, it found me.
I began the media ecology PhD program in 1980, and was immediately impressed by the approach they took, which was a great books approach. Some of the students thought that reading a book a week was too much, but I drank it all in. The first semester of the doctoral seminar, none of the books had anything at all to do with media in the conventional sense. Instead, we read about perception (Adelbert Ames, R. L. Gregory), information and cybernetics (Norbert Wiener), systems theory (Ervin Laszlo), the study of language and symbolic communication (C.K. Ogden & I.A. Richards, Postman & Weingartner, Susanne Langer), general semantics (Wendell Johnson), nonverbal communication (Edward T. Hall), consciousness (Julian Jaynes), symbolic interaction (George Herbert Mead, Erving Goffman), and relational communication (Paul Watzlawick, Stanley Milgram). Much of this corresponds to what is otherwise known as communication theory, but there was a sense of depth and connection that I don’t think you could find elsewhere. In the second semester of the doctoral seminar, we finally got around to studying McLuhan, Innis, Mumford, Ellul, Ong, Boorstin, Havelock, I. J. Gelb’s book about writing systems, books by Lynn White and Jean Gimpel on medieval technology, Elizabeth Eisenstein on the printing press, and Postman’s latest (which was Teaching as a Conserving Activity then). And for that entire year, Neil Postman and Christine Nystrom team taught the seminar, and started it at least an hour and a half early because the two hours it was assigned was just not enough time for discussion. It was a heady experience, to say the least, and an exceptional foundation. There were 3 more years of coursework after that, it was a 60-credits for the PhD, and they had just changed it from a 3-year to a 4-year program to give students more time to complete it, so my class was called the Class of 1983/1984. In those days, the classes were pretty big, and we started out with something like 16 students in ours.
In addition to the classes, there were the Media Ecology Conferences, held twice a year when I started, later only once a year, which took place at Sack’s Lodge in Saugerties, NY (and elsewhere before I started the program, and also somewhere else later on, during the 90s). They were retreats for the students and faculty, with some of the alumni coming back as well. And Neil would bring in an impressive array of guest speakers for us. The most memorable, though, was my first, in the Fall of 1980. That Friday evening, Neil led off with an address based on Teaching As A Conserving Activity, which had been published the previous year. I remember being thrilled and inspired when I heard it, and afterwards told him that now I know for sure that I’m in the right place. The next day, we were treated to talks from Eric Havelock and Lewis Mumford! Corinne McLuhan was also present, Marshall McLuhan having recently passed away, and that evening there was a panel discussion with three of his associates reminiscing and relating anecdotes—I believe it was John Culkin, Frank Stroud (a Jesuit who was with McLuhan towards the end), and Louis Forsdale of Columbia University’s Teachers College (Forsdale was Postman’s mentor, and had been bringing McLuhan down to New York for talks as early as the fifties). Each class used to get its own t-shirts (picking its own color and desing) that said “Media Ecology” and our class year, with our names on the back. Robert Blechman is wearing his in his famous “Model Media Ecologist” video. And they would give t-shirts to the guest speakers, so Mrs. McLuhan got one of our class t-shirts, and Havelock and Mumford, and on the back of each it said Corinne, Eric, and Lew, respectively.
I was also young enough, and the economic climate was favourable enough, that I was able to spend a great deal of time just hanging out with Neil and his colleague, Christine Nystrom, and with some of the other students. I learned a great deal just from doing that, and it was great fun as well. Sometimes Neil would read us whatever he was working on at the time, and get our feedback and input. I was thrilled to have made some very modest contributions to his work in this way. And he was always getting interesting correspondence and phone calls, which he would share with us. One time, not long after the publication of Amusing Ourselves to Death, a reporter from the New York Times called to ask for his thoughts about some current event, and Neil said that he would consult his “theory squad” and get right back to him. Jay Rosen, Stephanie Gibson, and I were hanging out with him at that time, and he turned to us and said, “Okay, how can we pin this one on television?” And so, we each came up with our speculations on the relationship between the medium of television and whatever social phenomenon was being considered, I don’t recall the specifics. And he called the reporter back and told him, here’s what the theory squad came up with. And it’s important to understand that this was not a flippant or insincere attitude that he had, he just revelled in the spirit of intellectual play, and good humour, in what McLuhan called probes, and in being willing to make generalizations and see where they lead you (and he also didn’t hold the news media in the highest esteem). Another time, he said to those of us who were hanging out in the office that day, no more work for today, let’s go to the movies, there’s something that I want you all to see, and took us all out to see this new film called, The Gods Must Be Crazy, which was both media ecological and hilarious.
It took me a little over a decade to get my PhD, in part because I got sidetracked with other things, in part because I wound up doing one of those magnum opus dissertations. But traveling in the slow lane gave me an opportunity to make the most of my graduate education, and the 80s were a great time for the program. The 70s were too, but they were different, looser, more experimental, the curriculum not as well formed, and I think that many of the students wanted to be like McLuhan, and saw Postman more as a peer, maybe even a rival, than a mentor. During the 80s, McLuhan was no longer with us, and Postman had become the leading “media guru,” so he became the model that his students wanted to emulate. As for the 90s, that was when I drifted away a bit, having a tenure-track position and a family, but things changed at NYU too, Neil became department chair, new faculty were hired who were not sympathetic to the mission of media ecology, the program changed, and it just wasn’t the same. Then Neil got sick, and the program did not survive for very long after he passed away.
I think that one of the hardest lessons to learn, at least that I’ve had to learn, is that we tend to think of situations as permanent structures, when in reality they are just transitory events—what Walter Ong says about sound applies here as well, it all only exists as it is going out of existence.
What was it like to work under Neil Postman – how was he as a mentor and supervisor?
I find that students often get the impression from reading a book like Amusing Ourselves to Death that Postman was some kind of curmudgeon, and nothing could be farther from the truth. He was pretty amusing in his own right, playful, humorous, and never overly serious. He was a great conversationalist, loved to engage people, and it didn’t matter what their status was, it could be the President of the United States or the janitor, he just liked to get people talking and make people laugh. He was very good at asking questions (and questions were very important in his view, more important than answers), he quizzed people, and did not talk about himself all that much, unless he had an interesting story to convey—he was not a “me, me, me” person, not terribly ego-driven, and in fact limited in regard to self-disclosure. Now, I’m not all that talkative, which could be a problem when hanging out with Neil, so after awhile I took it upon myself, when we were at conferences or other kinds of events, to find interesting people for him to talk to. Generally, he was not very comfortable with long periods of silence, unless he was reading of course.
Neil seldom talked shop, by which I mean he seldom wanted to continue discussions that came up during class once class was over. He wanted to talk, but about other things, and the conversations were certainly intellectually stimulating. For example, one evening when we had gone out after class during my first year there, he and Christine Nystrom introduced the categories of cute and not-cute, and had us students suggesting pairs of items that would fit, like television is cute and movies are not-cute, or shorts are cute and pants are not cute, or popcorn is cute and potato chips are not-cute. It was pure play, but it also drove home a point about aesthetic categories (much like McLuhan’s hot and cool), and how we can “get them” without being able to quite articulate the criteria, just as a shared intuitive perception.
Neil was an athlete, a college basketball star, he even played a little minor league baseball, and he had the kind of confidence that goes along with being a jock. I wasn’t big on sports myself, but we did bond over the New York Mets. I had grown up in Queens and have very fond memories of 1969, when the Mets won the World Series against all probability, while Neil’s loyalties were transplanted from the Brooklyn Dodgers, having grown up in Flatbush, to the Mets who played not all that far from where he lived, in Flushing. We had many conversations about how much we disliked Davey Johnson’s managing style, how frustrating we found Darryl Strawberry’s performance, how much we admired Dwight Gooden’s pitching, and how impressive we found Tim McCarver’s commentary whenever the Mets games were being televised. Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, when the Mets had their amazing comeback, took place during one of the Media Ecology Conferences, and dozens of us were packed into a small television room in Sack’s Lodge, praying for a miracle at the end, and getting one. Neil had left the room, not wanting to be aggravated further, but hurried back when he heard our cheers as the Mets started to rally, and he was there to see the Mets pull through. What a time that was!
Neil and I also connected over religion. We students used to joke that he was the Rabbi, Christine Nystrom who is Protestant was the Minister, and Terry Moran (who started the media ecology program with Neil, and is still teaching at NYU) was the Priest. Neil was not especially religious, but he recognized the importance of religious traditions, insisted on maintaining a respectful attitude towards religion and significant symbols in general, and valued his own heritage. I think he was also amused, and flattered, that Protestants, including Evangelical Christians, and Catholic clergy as well, were quite enamoured of his arguments about television, technology, and culture.
Neil was an outstanding public speaker, and everything I know about public speaking I learned from him. I also learned a great deal about writing from him, and sometimes was present when he was working on his books, like The Disappearance of Childhood, Amusing Ourselves to Death, and Technopoly. I was amazed that while he was writing with a black flair pen on a yellow legal pad, his lips would move, as he sounded the words to himself, and he always emphasized that we should write for the ear, not the eye. That was a very important lesson for me. When it came to mentoring and critiquing student work, though, Neil took a laissez-faire approach that was fine for some (as Paul Levinson mentioned in his interview), and after all he was a busy man who found it increasingly more difficult to give his students individual attention, but of course everybody wanted more from him than he was able to give. When it came time for me to put together a dissertation committee, I asked Neil, and then asked Chris Nystrom, and Chris said fine, but that she wanted to be the chair of my committee, because in the past Neil would get the credit, but she would end up spending much more time working with the student. I said that was fine with me, so Chris was as much my mentor as Neil, and she was much more demanding then Neil—she really taught me how to be a scholar, and gave me the feedback I needed to improve my writing significantly. She was a great editor, on the dissertation work that I and many others gave her, and also when Neil got a major grant from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, had me doing research on beer commercials and writing it up, and had Chris revising, amending, and editing the report, Myths, Men and Beer, which made a big splash when it was published in 1987. Christine Nystrom deserves a great deal of credit, from me personally, and for her contributions to media ecology in general.
Neil tried to create a sense of community and family among his students. It may have been a dysfunctional family at time, it may have been what Thom Gencarelli dubbed “the media ecology mafia” at other times, but I learned much about community-building from him. He brought a Goffman-like analysis to bear on the structuring of the program, and the Media Ecology Conferences, and he took a special delight in working out the room assignments and roommates for the retreat, and gossiping about the new arrivals. He really loved the media ecology community that he built, and I think he was very pleased to see it expanding out into the world over the years.
When I started at NYU, I remember Neil referring to himself as a populariser, rather than an original thinker, but perhaps he saw himself as something more than that later on, I’m not sure. But he never took himself too seriously, always said that the most important thing for him was the time he spent with his students. Certainly, he enjoyed his success as an author and speaker, was willing to go on the media in order to talk about the media, but he never went around acting like a big shot, he answered his own phones, and was often willing to go give a guest lecture or address for a group for free, as long as he had the time. If he was asked to help out in some way, he would if he could. Some people are like that, others just aren’t. I think that’s why he got along so well with James Carey, after Jim came to New York City to start a doctoral program at Columbia University’s Journalism School—they both were open, unassuming, and generous in that way. Unlike Jim, however, I don’t think that Neil was meant to be an administrator, despite the fact that he became a department chair at NYU. For one, Neil didn’t pay enough attention to details, and for another, he didn’t care for confrontation at all. To use his own words, he was a “loving resistance fighter.”
Neil had a real talent for reading people, and I’ve heard other students of his relate how he told them something important about themselves that they had not previously been aware of. One day he said to me, “Lance, you’re like me, you take responsibility.” I don’t know what prompted him to say that to me, and at the time, I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about, I was in my 20s, ABD, no position aside from doing the adjunct circuit, I wasn’t feeling very responsible at all. But Neil had an insight into my character that, in retrospect, I really find quite amazing. As Neil’s son Andy put it in the beautiful eulogy he delivered at Neil’s funeral, Neil is a rare exception to the rule that says you should never use the phrase “very unique,” because that is indeed what Neil was, very, very unique.
Do you still remember the original research proposal you submitted along with your application package for PhD studies? Did your research interests change much during the course of your graduate studies at NYU?
At the time that I applied, there was no requirement of that sort, although they may have added one at some later point. And I entered the program with no specific idea of what I wanted to research. I just wanted to study media ecology, learn more about it. In that sense, my interests didn’t change very much. In our first year, we were required to do an extended paper tracing the history and impact of a particular pre-20th century medium. My media history paper was on perfume, which was a follow-up on a paper I did at Queens College for Robert Cathcart, which was about the cultural history of communication and the sense of smell. Cathcart wanted to include it in the second edition of the anthology that he had co-edited with Gary Gumpert, Inter/Media, so the media history paper gave me the opportunity to engage in additional research on the subject, and this became my first academic publication when it was published in 1982 (and my third academic publication when they reprinted it in the third edition of Gumpert and Cathcart’s reader in 1986). So I considered making that my dissertation topic briefly, but I remember mentioning it to Gary, who seemed to disapprove of the notion, and said that I had already done that, and should move on to something else.
I briefly considered doing some kind of textual analysis. I had a bit of a knack for it, as an undergraduate, in my MA program (where I did both popular culture and rhetorical analysis), and in the Media Ecology Program, where Terry Moran taught propaganda analysis, and Neil and Chris did a course on movies as popular culture, based on Roland Barthes’ Mythologies. I did do that sort of thing for the Myths, Men, and Beer study, and I think Chris Nystrom even suggested that I could turn that into a thesis, but I wasn’t interested in doing so. To me, textual analysis was too easy, too simplistic—I had come to NYU to do media ecology.
Back when I was an undergraduate, I had been very taken with Daniel Boorstin’s The Image, and decided to do my dissertation on his hero/celebrity dichotomy, linking it more explicitly than he had to changes in the media environment by drawing on McLuhan, Postman, and others, and also bringing in the orality-literacy literature, i.e., Havelock and Ong, to show how that shift was linked to the earlier change from the mythic hero to the historical hero. I wrote a paper on it, and it became the first academic journal article that I had ever published when it appeared in ETC: A Review of General Semantics. Postman was the editor of ETC at the time, and the term paper assignment for every class in the program at that time was to try to write an article suitable for publication in ETC. I was a bit disappointed that none of my earlier papers were selected, to be honest, but I finally got one accepted in my fourth year, and “Heroes, Fame, and the Media” was published in 1985, that was my second academic publication. Another piece taken from my dissertation work, “Time-Binding in Oral Cultures,” appeared in ETC in 1986, in the last issue under Postman’s editorship.
I’ve since published several other articles and book chapters based on my dissertation topic, but in a way all of my work in media ecology connects to that work. When I started, I had the impression that media ecology was fairly clear-cut and well established, so that it would just be a matter of applying it to a specific topic. But once I got started, I realized that this was not the case, and that I needed to work out and present an understanding of media ecology in general, distinguishing between the oral, chirographic, typographic, and electronic media environments. This involved synthesizing the work of a great many scholars, which took much longer than I anticipated, but gave me a very extensive background in the media ecology literature. I guess that’s often the case, we start out thinking we’re studying one thing, realize that in order to study it we first have to study something else, and so it goes, on and on. In the end, you realize that your study, and all of scholarship, is of necessity an unfinished project.
How long have you been teaching at Fordham University? What does Fordham mean to you?
For the 1988-1989 school year, I had secured my first full-time academic position, a one-year temporary line at William Paterson College, which has since become William Paterson University. During that year, I applied for a position at Fordham, in what was then the Communications Department (now the Department of Communication and Media Studies, a new name that I had come up with), that was the third time I had applied, and it in fact was the charm. After being interviewed, I had lunch with members of the department, hardly said anything as they were all talking up a storm, and later they all said how much they enjoyed having lunch with me. As Watzlawick might put it, it was the relationship that mattered, not the content (and relationship is analogous to medium). So I started at Fordham in the Fall of 1989, Ed Wachtel was on the faculty there, so it felt like I had followed him from Queens College to NYU to Fordham. I was still working on my dissertation, so I had to accept an instructor line, along with the pressure, and motivation, to complete my doctorate, which I did in 1991.
I had no prior experience with Catholic institutions, so coming to Fordham I didn’t know what to expect. My background is not obvious from my last name, religion did not come up during my interview, and as the child of Holocaust survivors, I was a little bit cautious about it all—my mother emphatically advised me not to tell them I’m Jewish. The subject first came up when I was having a conversation with John Phelan and he described something as being Pharisaic, and I said that the Pharisees weren’t so bad. That led to him asking, me telling, and Jack immediately made it clear that I was very welcome there, as did the department chair at that time, a Jesuit named Donald Matthews, who since has passed away—we had many wonderful conversations about religion and other matters. Over the years, it’s been a great experience, learning about how much we have in common, at the core of things, and I have learned a great deal about the Jesuits while working at Fordham, for which I am quite grateful. I think the interaction between the religions is an opportunity for great synergy, and collaboration between Jews and Catholics in particular is so very New York.
After I was hired, I started to review some classical rhetoric, thinking that it must figure prominently in a communication department at a Jesuit university. Boy was I wrong. There was no connection to rhetoric, almost none to speech, or interpersonal communication, and little to communication as a field or discipline. There was a deliberate decision to steer the department clear of those areas, and not get too deeply into media production either. Instead, the emphasis was mainly on mass communication, institutional analysis, and policy and ethics. In my graduate education, there wasn’t a great deal of emphasis on policy and ethics, so that was a good learning experience for me as well, and I have a great deal of respect for that approach, although the department does not have that same focus today that it did when I started out there. But I also tried to inject more of communication and rhetoric into the department’s curriculum, and connect us to the Jesuit ideal of eloquentia perfecta, perfect eloquence, which very much resonated with me. And of course more media ecology.
It was very meaningful for me that I was going to teach at a Jesuit university, knowing that Walter Ong, one of my main intellectual influences, was a Jesuit. And it was very meaningful that I was going to teach at he university where McLuhan had been the Albert Schweitzer Chair of the Humanities for the 1967-1968 school year, which was a major turning point in many ways, for McLuhan, and for media ecology. I had the opportunity to build on these connections, organizing a major two-day symposium on The Legacy of McLuhan in 1998, which celebrated the 30th anniversary of McLuhan’s time at Fordham, and the 50th anniversary of our department. And that led to a series of McLuhan lectures at Fordham that featured Tom Wolfe, Camille Paglia, and Jerry Brown. I also was able to organize a few seminars and lectures concerning Walter Ong. Fordham is where the Media Ecology Association was born (on September 4, 1998), and its been the host of a number of other significant events, including the first and fifth MEA Conventions, the MEA’s 5th anniversary celebration, and several Institute of General Semantics conferences. Over the years, we’ve became a major center for McLuhan Studies as well as media ecology, with myself and Ed Wachtel, and Paul Levinson who I hired when I was department chair, and Sue Barnes (who since departed for the Rochester Institute of Technology), Margot Hardenbergh, Janet Sternberg, and others.
The Jesuits place a high value on teaching and education, we have very few large lecture classes which is important, there is a very strong core curriculum, and overall we provide an outstanding liberal arts education, that is something to take pride in. And we have great students here, bright, talented, a pleasure to teach. Our undergraduate major is by far the most popular, which of course is both good and bad in different ways. The academic culture here is quite traditional and conservative, and that can be frustrating, given that the field of communication does not have the long history of philosophy, theology, history, psychology, or English. So, for example, we’ve been looking for support for forming a School of Communication and starting up a PhD program for a long time now. I’ve done a bit of administrative work, a term as department chair, a couple of few years directing the undergraduate program at our Rose Hill campus, three years as graduate director, and it’s really not very interesting if all you get to do is tread water, just a buncha meetin’s and memos, and not build anything new. I also am on the Board of Mentors for our Master of Arts in Humanities and Sciences, an interdisciplinary program, and have mentored theses and taught the introductory course for them, and that has been very rewarding.
I don’t think it’s all that unusual to say that my sense of connection to my university has deepened over the years, as I gained tenure, was promoted to Associate, and then to Full Professor, but March of last year stands out as a time when I really felt that strong emotional bond. That was when I received my Bene Merenti Medal for 20 years of service at Fordham, it was part of the Spring Convocation, Ed Wachtel wrote the citation for me, which made some humorous pokes at my blogging, President Joseph McShane made believe he was shocked to hear of such things as he presented me with the medal, and it all just felt good and right. And two days earlier, Fordham was host to an early morning private outdoor concert by U2 for the ABC network’s Good Morning America program, and I had brought my son in with me, and two of his old elementary school teachers, who had called my wife up and begged that I should get them in because they were really big fans of the rock group. That was really cool, being part of a small crowd, standing not all that far from the group. So, yeah, teaching at Fordham is pretty cool!
In a recent interview, I asked Eric McLuhan whether there was a difference between the Toronto School of Communication and Media Ecology. He said “The ‘Toronto School’ is completely ersatz, invented decades after the fact as a sort of attempt at branding what a few Canadians have tried to do by way of studying the effects of media,” adding that, “the people involved were working on their own.” As for the term Media Ecology, he stated that it is a term which he invented when he and his father were at Fordham: “I discussed it with Postman and he ran with it,” he explained. How is Media Ecology different from Canadian Communication Studies in your opinion?
The Toronto School is more of a metaphor than a School compared to, for example, the Chicago School of Sociology, where they were working on human ecology, a term that originated with the Scottish scholar Patrick Geddes, and which constitutes part of the foundation for media ecology; the Chicago School really did involve interaction among Dewey, Mead, Veblen, Park, Burgess, and Wirth, but they were not all contemporaneous with each other. And of course there’s the Frankfurt School, with Horkheimer, Adorno, and Marcuse being tightly connected, and then Walter Benjamin, who I consider very much in the media ecology camp, is often included among them, although he was on the periphery of that group. So we always have to take references to a “school” with a grain of salt. Innis was at the University of Toronto when Havelock taught there, and Innis was at the University of Toronto when McLuhan taught there, but they weren’t much more than ships passing through the night it seems. But they were in line of sight of each other, and clearly there was a McLuhan circle, if you like, that included Edmund Carpenter early on, and the Explorations group, and came to encompass his other collaborators like Harley Parker, Wilfred Watson, Barrington Nevitt, Robert Logan, Bruce Powers, etc., and his students like Donald Theall, Frank Zingrone, B. W. Powe, Phillip Marchand, etc. So I do think there is something of a there there. But I think people latched onto the idea of a Toronto School because they needed a way to refer to what we call media ecology. Theall said he coined the term, and I think he was looking for a designation for the kind of perspective that Innis, McLuhan, and Carpenter shared. Jack Goody picked it up, and in the transition, I think it came to be used to refer to non-Canadians like him and Walter Ong as well. The whole thing has been perpetuated not too long ago by Elihu Katz in his reader, Canonic Texts in Media Research, which he edited with John Durham Peters, Tamar Liebes, and Avril Orloff, where there are 5 sections on the Columbia School, the Frankfurt School, the Chicago School, the Toronto School, and British Cultural Studies. The section on the Toronto School only has two essays, one on McLuhan by Josh Meyrowitz, and one on Innis by Menahem Blondheim. Now, that’s a pretty impoverished way to look at media ecology in general as a field or tradition or school, or even to look at the Toronto School in more specific terms (what about Havelock or Carpenter?), and that’s not meant as a knock at Josh, of course, who wrote a fine chapter for the book, or at Menahem. But it does further the reification of a designation that really needs to be taken with a grain of salt, and with a sense of humor.
I quite understand the desire of Canadians to assert their claim to fame, and there is no doubt that McLuhan and Innis were giants, so I think that references to the Toronto School are also a matter of national pride, and that’s great—I happen to really like Canada. Back in 1996, I published an article entitled “Containers, Computers, and the Media Ecology of the City” in an online journal called media ecology that Stephanie Gibson had started (and that sadly has since vanished from the web), and in it I suggested, playfully I tried to make clear, that if we’re going to talk about a Toronto School, then we should also talk about a New York School. Now, this is even more of a stretch than the Toronto School, especially if we start with Lewis Mumford, who was from Flushing, and very much a New Yorker, but never had a permanent academic position, and also include Susanne Langer, who taught at Columbia for a while before moving up to Connecticut College, not all that far from Yale, where Eric Havelock had gone after Toronto. But there certainly was a McLuhan circle here as well, that included Louis Forsdale at Teachers College, Peter Drucker at NYU before he moved to California, Postman, his collaborator Charlie Weingartner who taught at Queens College for a while, Gary Gumpert who also was at Queens College, John Culkin who brought McLuhan to Fordham and later went on to found the Media Studies Program at the New School for Social Research (where members of the Frankfurt School had moved to, at least those who escaped from the Nazis like Adorno), media producer Tony Schwartz, Paul Ryan who was McLuhan’s assistant at Fordham and went on to become one of the pioneers of video art along with Frank Gillette, Carpenter who moved to Manhattan, Jerome Agel, and many others. And in a more specific sense, there’s the NYU school, with Postman, Nystrom, and Moran, and other faculty they were associated with like Henry Perkinson and Joy Boyum, and the students who came out of the media ecology program, such as myself, Meyrowitz, Levinson, Jay Rosen, Jib Fowles, Susan Maushart, and hundreds more. Later on, I think this was in one of my MEA President’s Addresses, I also introduced the idea of a St. Louis School, since McLuhan taught at Saint Louis University for 7 years, and while he was there Walter Ong was his MA student and thesis advisor. I think the St. Louis connection, and the McLuhan-Ong relationship, has not gotten the attention it deserves. So I started talking about 3 historical centers of media ecology, St. Louis, New York, and Toronto, and how we’re always happy to add more to that list (Mexico City in recent years, for example). But again, I think you have to approach this as a game of geography, and not get too caught up in it. We’re really talking about the diffusion of ideas and influence here, networks of interaction and relationships. That’s what it’s all about.
Now, you ask about Canadian Communication Studies, and I know there’s a Canadian Communication Association, but I’m not sure what if anything is different about the approach to communication when you cross the border. I don’t consider myself an expert on Canadian Communication Studies per se, but from what I’ve seen, Canadians are not born with a McLuhan gene or an Innis gene, and all too often are not terribly well educated about the great contributions of their countrymen, although they are more likely to have heard of those scholars than Americans are, and to express regret about not knowing more. I know Paul Levinson and I have talked about this on occasion, that we have more expertise on McLuhan at Fordham that anywhere else on the planet (others may take exception to this, which is fine, I’m all for friendly rivalry, just remember to keep it friendly). But from what I’ve seen, Canadian communication scholars are just as into critical/cultural studies, postmodernism, ethnography, etc., as their American cousins, which is to say that, more often than not, they are not media ecologists.
Now, as to Eric’s claim that he invented the phrase “media ecology,” which he’s said to me privately before, and then stated in an address to the MEA, I can neither confirm nor deny that. I know that Robert Logan says that Marshall McLuhan coined it, but in both cases, there simply is no evidence to support the claim. It sounds like the kind of thing McLuhan would come up with, but some other quotes attributed to McLuhan actually came from Carpenter and Culkin, so who’s to say? I once asked Neil Postman who coined the term, and he told me that Marshall McLuhan did, and that it was in Understanding Media. Well, the Understanding McLuhan CD-ROM had come out not too long before that, and it had the entire text of Understanding Media, and The Gutenberg Galaxy, and they were searchable, so I searched, and it’s not there, nor is “media environment” there. In fact, on the CD-ROM, it came up in a recorded conversation between McLuhan and Forsdale, but as something Postman was involved in. So I went back to Neil and told him it wasn’t in there, and Neil looked kind of sheepish, and said he thought that maybe he did make it up, but then attributed it to McLuhan to give it more authority. But at other times, talking to Postman, Nystrom, and Moran, it just seemed like no one could remember, and Chris, who has the best memory, said she thought it may have been one of the graduate students when they were hanging out after a class, having a beer (Postman was teaching for about a decade at NYU in communication and English education before the media ecology program was launched). So no one knows for sure, and perhaps it’s best that its origins remain apocryphal. I am fairly certain, though, that the phrase emerged during the 1967-1968 school year when Marshall McLuhan came to Fordham, and Postman used to travel uptown from Greenwich Village to the Bronx to hang out with McLuhan. But whatever its origins, Postman was the one who formally introduced it in a talk he gave at the annual National Council of Teachers of English conference in the fall of 1968.
Of course, the ecology metaphor was present in Understanding Media, so there is no question that Marshall McLuhan inspired the coinage. Then again, that ecology metaphor is also in the earlier work of Mumford, and Mumford got it from Geddes, and well, that’s inter-textuality for you! It’s been interesting to try to trace the diffusion of the phrase. For example, there was a student of Neil’s, Ray Arlo, who introduced “media ecology” to the video artist community, where it was picked up by Paul Ryan and Frank Gillette, and Arlo published a half page essay in the portapak artist magazine, Radical Software back in 1971, and I’ve seen people citing that article without any awareness of the connection to Postman or the field it represents (no mention is made of by Arlo of Postman in the article). And more recently, I’ve seen a flurry of popular usages in which reference is made to “a media ecology” or “the media ecology” in a somewhat superficial way, to refer to a particular mix of different media. It makes more sense to me to work off of Postman’s original definition, that media ecology is the study of media as environments, it’s an –ology after all, and otherwise talk about media environments as an object of study.
By the way, we had very mixed feelings about the name media ecology when I was a graduate student. We didn’t love it. But we never came up with something better. Media studies would have been all right, but it wound up gaining too diffuse a meaning as an adjunct to cultural studies. I heard that John Culkin used medium studies, or maybe it was medium study, but that never caught on, and would have been too easy to confuse with media studies. Meyrowitz came up medium theory, which is the theory that the medium is the message, and I think that’s fine for the social/behavioral science side of media ecology, but McLuhan never wanted to be referred to as a theorist (he’d say, I probe, not prove), and Ong also rejected theory, pointed out that the root meaning of the word is visual (there’s a tendency to favor the acoustic in media ecology, against the visual bias of western literate culture). Oh, and Regis Debray came up mediology, which isn’t bad, but perhaps like media studies is too general. For me, the turning point came in 1994, when I successfully proposed that Hampton Press initiate a book series devoted to media ecology that I would supervise. I thought long and hard about what to call it, and finally went with media ecology because it works and it had a history. At that point, the die was cast, as far as I was concerned, so when it came time to create an association, there was no question about using media ecology in its name.
What is Media Ecology anyway, and how does it fit within the larger framework of communication theory?
Well, my book, Echoes and Reflections: On Media Ecology as a Field of Study tries to answer the question of what is media ecology. But I assume you’re looking for a slightly shorter answer. So I suppose we could start with the idea that it’s a field, a field of study and as Postman put it, a field of inquiry, defined by the kinds of questions we ask, and the kinds of stories that we tell. As a field, media ecology is an -ology, a kind of study, as opposed to an -ism, that is to say, a doctrine or ideology, and Postman first defined it as the study of media as environments.
As it is a study of media, media being the key term, some might say the “god term,” it’s important to understand what is meant by it. First, there’s the mass media, what most studies of “the media” have been concerned with. Then there are media used in other contexts, such as organizations, groups, or for interpersonal or intrapersonal communication, like photography, the telephone, or email (the impetus behind Gumpert and Cathcart’s Inter/Media). From there, we can expand beyond what are typically considered communication technologies to all manner of codes and symbol systems, including language, and speech, and to all types of symbolic form, including painting, sculpture, music, dance, etc. If this sounds like semiotics, there is indeed a connection, and I think that Peirce was important in that he put forth the idea of categorical differences between index, icon, and symbol. This would also include nonverbal modes of communication, then, such as kinesics and proxemics. And that includes the use of objects and spaces, for example, the arrangement of chairs in a classroom as it influences the kinds of interactions that go on. In this sense, we can refer to any situation as a medium (Meyrowitz combines Goffman and the symbolic interactionists with Mcluhan and medium theorists in this way, arguing that both media and situations are information systems). We can go back to Malinowski and equate medium with situational context, or simply context. And we can see in Bateson and Watzlawick that their contrast between relationship and content is the same as the distinction between medium and content; in other words, that relationships are media. So any mode of communication can be considered a medium of communication.
But media ecologists do not limit ourselves to media of communication, and any technology, or technique, can be considered a medium, including forms of transportation, means of production, tools, containers, machines, technological systems (e.g., electrification), and all manner of techniques, such as agriculture and the assembly line, and any form of human organization. Really, then, any human invention or innovation can be considered a medium. In a sense, any interface between ourselves and our environment is a medium, and that could include our organs of perception, and the organism as a whole, our bodies as media. So when we talk about media, we’re talking about both methods, along with materials, we’re talking about the question of how? And the more that we probe, work and play with media ecology, the more that we, or at least I realize that it is not so much about “media” as things, as it is about mediating as an activity or event, and mediation as a process.
And that’s where the idea of “media as environments” comes in, ecology being the study of environments. So we’re talking about human beings being situated in technological environments, symbolic environments, information environments, and communication environments, as well as natural environments. There’s the outer environment that we modify through technology, and the inner environment, our maps and worldviews, that we construct through our modes of perception, communication, and language. And as environments, media influence the way that we think, feel, and behave, our social organization and our culture; as Postman put it, following the usage of the terms in bacteriology, cultures (e.g., acidophilus) are grown within media (e.g., milk), or put another way, cultures emerge out of media environments. We see media as playing the leading role in human affairs, so that speech and language are essentially what makes us distinctive as a species, what makes us human; and systems of notation and writing about intimately bound up with the transition from simple tribal societies to more complex forms of human organization, and what has traditionally been referred to as civilization; the alphabet is the basis of the unique development of western culture; the printing revolution brought us out of the medieval world and into the modern one; and electricity and the electronic media have been transforming us in ways that we are only beginning to get a handle on, so we end up only able to describe it as postmodern. That’s looking at things in broad strokes, but we can also examine in more specific terms the media environment of any given time and place. And each individual medium, or form of mediation, is in another sense an environment, as it creates its own unique sense of time and space (e.g., the sense of space we experience when we’re talking on the telephone, the sense of entering another world we may gain from reading a book, looking at a picture, watching a movie, and of course cyberspace, and cybertime, a favorite subject of mine). Also, as we become used to any innovation, it becomes routine and fades into the background, we no longer pay attention to it, it becomes in that sense functionally invisible, environmental, and we become much more vulnerable to its effects. This is where McLuhan’s aphorism, the medium is the message comes in, as well as John Culkin’s saying, we shape our tools and thereafter they shape us.
When we look at media, modes of communication and forms of technology, as constituting environments, we have to be engaged in an ecological approach, which is to say that media ecology constitutes a form of systems thinking. When you introduce a change into any part of an interdependent system, that change resonates throughout the system. It’s not a matter of linear cause-and-effect, but of emergent properties (or formal causality for Eric McLuhan). The charge of “technological determinism” is a straw man argument used to dismiss media ecology, at least in my experience. There certainly hasn’t been a media ecologist who has set forth a doctrine of technological determinism, with the possible exception of Jacques Ellul, who argued that, in advanced societies like the United States and France, we allowed “la technique” to take control over the course of the 20th century. But no one has presented an argument for pre-determination (technological Calvinism?), or inevitability of outcomes, it’s simply been a matter of convenience,( and maybe of poetry), a short-hand to talk in terms of cause-and-effect. So systems thinking is essential, but media ecology is not the same as other kinds of systems thinking, there is a dialectic between medium and message, environment and its content, and there are qualitative factors that go beyond the single dimension of information, of information access and barriers, volume of information, and complexity (which are indeed important questions for us).
So, beyond the media as a topic and object of study, media ecology is a way of looking at things. Back when I was at NYU, we often referred to media ecology as a perspective, and distinguished between individuals who share that perspective, and others who didn’t. That’s not a bad way to look at it, although in retrospect it’s another one of those visual metaphors. Maybe sensibility would be better. Or method, not in the specific sense of research methodology, but in the broader notion of an approach, a way, a path to knowing, a way of inquiring, an epistemology if you like (Postman referred to “media epistemology” in Amusing Ourselves to Death), or if you like, as a way, a Tao, the Tao of media ecology. Liss Jeffrey described the experience many had with McLuhan as one of religious conversion, and there does seem to be a kind of “aha!” moment of discovery, a kind of either you get it or you don’t. It could sometimes seem like a religious experience, but maybe more so an aesthetic phenomenon (I once playfully said that media ecology is a “genre”)—for McLuhan, it was a matter of perception, which was why he emphasized the need for training of the senses, especially via education in the arts. Postman, and I believe Ong as well, thought that the approach could be presented in a logical and coherent manner so that others could come to understand it by way of reason, and Nystrom went so far as to try to systematize media ecology, by forming a set of hypotheses, with limited success however (they’re included in her doctoral dissertation, and Postman incorporates them into a set of questions he lists in The End of Education).
One point that’s often overlooked is that media ecology is a curriculum. When Postman introduced the term in 1968, it was in the context of proposing that media ecology replace the existing high school English curriculum! And it soon after took the form of the curriculum of the Media Ecology Program at NYU. And that was based, in part, on the bibliography of Understanding Media. The idea was, if you want to understand media, to understanding McLuhan, and how McLuhan understood media, read the books that he read to arrive at that understanding. I remember Carey, who was at times a severe critic of McLuhan, saying that McLuhan’s bibliography was his most important contribution, and Carey looked at the NYU curriculum vary favorably; I also recall Gumpert commenting on how well educated graduates of the program were. In this sense, you might also think of media ecology as a school, the sum total of the Toronto, New York, and St. Louis Schools and more, a school of thought, and in that sense you could also call it a discipline (albeit one that is highly interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary). I also like the phrase that Camille Paglia gave us, an intellectual tradition, one that has been to a large extent North American, but in no way exclusively so. And while system is a visual metaphor, and I wouldn’t call media ecology a system in the sense that it’s a closed set of ideas, it is very much an open system. But a better way to put it, I think, is that it is a network, of ideas and of people. As an intellectual network, there is no strict boundary, as there would be in a system, but we can identify the primary nodes of the system, which would be the individuals who are most frequently cited and had the most interaction with others in the network, and they would be McLuhan, Ong, and Postman, and you can work your way out from that center (each one, in his own way, being somewhat off-center) and view other thinkers as being closer to the core, or further away from it, rather than strictly speaking being in or out of the field. Anyway, that’s the way I look at it.
But you also asked about communication theory, and that is somewhat problematic. Communication theory is not really a theory, or even a perspective, so much as it refers to theories of communication in the plural, and a theoretical approach to communication (as opposed to one focusing entirely on practice, and one that is entirely humanistic). I have identified myself as a communication theorist, and I consider that to be my home, academically speaking. And back in the 70s, the field of communication was trying to develop a systematic and coherent approach to theory, to transition from being one of the first interdisciplinary fields into a full-fledged discipline. And I learned communication theory in that way, and have taught it in that way. But during the 80s, what became know as the “ferment in the field” and turn towards cultural studies put an end to those efforts, and I’m not sure they’ll ever be revived again. And although many of us welcomed the opening up of the field at first, having been dissatisfied with the fact that social/behavioral science or if you like scientistic approaches had a monopoly on legitimacy in communication theory, I think many of us also saw the shift as going too far in the other direction. So maybe the pendulum will swing back again, who knows?
But I would say that media ecology and communication theory have a certain amount of overlap, and media ecology incorporates some of the best of what used to be basic to communication theory, like the study of symbols and signals, linguistic relativism, general semantics, information theory, cybernetics, systems theory, kinesics, proxemics, symbolic interaction, relational communication, etc. And in a very limited way, the insights of McLuhan, Ong, Postman, and others about media and technology, and communication, consciousness, and culture have been incorporated into communication theory. So there is significant overlap, and common ground. But media ecology does not fit within communication theory, in the sense that it is not a subset of the field of communication in my opinion (I know others may disagree on this point), but rather is genuinely interdisciplinary, with significant presence as well in English and literary studies, anthropology, etc. Moreover, I’d say they’re apples and oranges, in that communication is a topic, a subject that can be studied from many different perspectives and approaches, which is why some feel that it can never be a coherent discipline, and perhaps ought not to be one, while media ecology is an approach, and a perspective, sure, and if not entirely coherent (that is, not paradigmatic) than at least fairly consistent in sensibility.
How did the Media Ecology Association come about, and how did its mandate evolve over the years?
The NYU Media Ecology program had many strengths, but it was weak on preparing students for careers in academia. While it was part of a communication department, it was in a School of Education, and the faculty was not connected to communication at all. Postman and Moran had degrees in English Education, and Nystrom was one of the first media ecology graduates. When they started the program, they thought they’d get their students from the field of education, say those who want PhDs to further their careers as school superintendents and principals. And they thought it was enough just to encourage their students and alumni to hire other media ecology students and grads. They did have us join the International Society for General Semantics, because Neil was editing their journal, ETC (the ISGS merged with the Institute of General Semantics in 2004), but no one was very involved with that organization otherwise.
Neil did say that we should go check out academic conferences, but pointed out that the most important communication took place outside of the sessions—in other words, in making connections and networking. But he did say that we should go to the sessions to see how much higher the level of discourse was in our program than it was out there. Now, this was often true, not all the time, but a lot of the time. But it had the unfortunate effect of giving many of the students an excuse not to get out there into the larger field.
Of course, part of the problem was that media ecology was on the margins of the field. The common understanding at that time was that if you wanted to get published, don’t cite McLuhan. Looking back, it seems pretty clear that there was a tacit conspiracy to exclude McLuhan from serious consideration in academia. I’m not saying it was a conspiracy in an organized sense, just that there was a consensus that resulted in his complete exclusion, for some on the grounds that he was not scientific, for others on account of ideological reasons (that he was too conservative, a crypto-Catholic, etc.). It was also said that Postman was subject to similar prejudice in the communication field (as a McLuhan follower, and being an outsider to the field). So, you couldn’t get media ecology scholarship published (outside of ETC), and you wouldn’t see it mentioned anywhere in communication textbooks. There was almost no recognition anywhere in the field. And it was also said that it was not wise to mention McLuhan, Postman, or media ecology in job interviews if you wanted to get hired (I didn’t always follow this advice, though).
As I recall, it was Casey Lum, of the students from the 80s, who urged us to go to conferences, present papers, and all that, to learn about the field and find a way to fit in. Casey had a more sophisticated career orientation than the rest of us. So some of us started to do that sort of thing, and tried to get involved in various ways. And met with some resistance. For example, in the New York State Speech Communication Association, they were fine with us paying our dues, coming to conferences, and presenting papers, but they looked down on scholarship focusing on media, as opposed to speech and interpersonal communication. So when I ran for Vice-President (one of those succession things where you go from VP-Elect to VP running the annual conference to President and then Immediate Past President), the speech people rallied to make sure I didn’t win (the fellow who did get elected almost destroyed the organization due to incompetence), and then a couple of years later the same thing happened to Thom Gencarelli (by the mid-90s, things changed, and I was elected in 1996, and organized the most successful conference in the organization’s history in 1998—and also had the name changed to the New York State Communication Association—Thom Gencarelli was elected a couple of years after me, and over the past decade, media ecologists have been a major presence in NYSCA’s leadership and membership).
So we didn’t have much help from our mentors in breaking into the field, and in fact we had to convince them to come to conferences with us. But they were willing to join us once we got started, at first reluctantly, but Neil and Chris did enjoy seeing their students presenting papers, and Neil especially became quite fond of NYSCA, and a great supporter of the organization. And they’d go to other conferences as well, the National Communication Association, and the International Communication Association, but mostly kept a low profile and hung out with their present and former students.
I don’t know when I first thought about the idea of an association dedicated to media ecology, it was probably pretty early on, but I do recall the first time I talked with anyone about it—it was around 1995-1996 I believe, at Casey Lum’s house, when he, Thom Gencarelli, and I were hanging out on Casey’s front porch. I imagine they too had given the subject some thought, and while we all agreed that participating in communication associations was important, we also acknowledged that it wasn’t sufficient, and that we needed an organization of our own. At that point it was all talk, though, and I don’t remember much of the specifics of the talk. But in April of 1997 we held the first of a series of program sessions at communication conferences that consisted of roundtable discussions about media ecology. It was at an Eastern Communication Association convention in Baltimore, the talk quickly turned to starting an organization, and Stephanie Gibson offered to set up an email discussion list so that we could continue the discussion, which she did. This proved to be a very powerful tool, and the MEA was born out of the media ecology listserv. At first, almost all of the list members were NYU alumni and students, along with Chris Nystrom, and it all had a very chatty, informal quality to it. At one point, Neil used Chris’s email to write a hilarious message, addressing us as the ghost of Marshall McLuhan, and chiding us about wasting our time in this way.
So, the listserv was both amusing and intellectually stimulating, but I also saw it as a networking tool, and immediately set about trying to build it, inviting everyone I could think of who had an interest in media ecology to join it. Others helped out in this effort, but I believe no one worked on it to the extent that I did. It was very important to me from the beginning that this be more than an NYU alumni group. So there was a great effort at outreach, and ingathering, that gave us a base to launch the MEA from. I was able to organize the Legacy of McLuhan Symposium at Fordham in March of 1998, using the listserv to identify potential participants (we had over 40 for a 2-day event) and publicize the event, and using the event to attract more people to the listserv, and to build a mailing list of potential members. Thom Gencarelli has said that the McLuhan Symposium was MEA Convention number zero, and the point was well taken, because we launched the MEA six months later, on September 4th. I hosted the meeting in our department’s conference room up at Rose Hill in the Bronx, and Casey and Thom came of course, along with Sue Barnes, another graduate of the NYU media ecology program who was my colleague at Fordham at the time. Paul Levinson had recently joined us as a visiting professor, and he happened to be around at the time we were meeting, so I invited him to join us, so the five us were the charter members, so to speak, and we called the MEA into existence, and assigned ourselves preliminary offices, Sue as Executive Secretary, Thom as Treasurer, Casey as Vice-President, and yours truly as President.
We held our inaugural convention in June of 2000 at Fordham, and ratified our constitution at that time. But we weren’t satisfied with our organizational structure, and had an organizational meeting with the officers and some advisors, including Postman, Nystrom, Gumpert, Carey, Levinson, and Meyrowitz, some just stopping by to lend moral support and some, notably Carey, Gumpert, and Nystrom, spending an extended period of time with us and giving us the guidance we needed to work out a sustainable set-up. This amounted to a major revision of our constitution, which was ratified in 2001, and forms the basis of the MEA’s organizational structure today. In 2002, I launched the MEA’s journal, Explorations in Media Ecology, with the help of Judith Yaross Lee of Ohio University, and we started off as co-editors. After 3 years, I went on to serve as editor for another 3 years, before handing the journal over to Corey Anton, who just completed his 3-year term, and Peter Fallon will be succeeding him. I stayed on as MEA President for an extended period of time, trying to do as much as I could to get the organization off to a good start in its first decade, and stepped down in January of 2009, having been succeeded by my colleague, Janet Sternberg—Janet and I coordinated the 2005 MEA Convention which was held at Fordham again, and she had been serving as MEA Executive Secretary for many years.
I never really thought of the MEA as having a mandate, that sounds way too official for what we were doing, apart from making the world safe for media ecology, of course. And like any group that’s been subject to bias and prejudice and marginalized, the only way out of that situation is to organize. Media ecology has been hurt in some ways by being too individualistic. It’s an approach that favors independent thinking, that is certainly the case, but it had suffered due to the “media guru” syndrome, where too many of us wanted to be like McLuhan, or Postman, a lone public intellectual, rather than part of a community of scholars. We needed to get together in order to establish the legitimacy of our approach, and to do that we needed to create an identity, a name. It may sound cynically postmodern to suggest that it’s all a matter of social power and language games (or creating a brand), I’d like to think there’s more to it than that, but it had to start with us media ecologists standing up for ourselves, not hiding who we are or apologizing for engaging in the kind of scholarship and intellectual activity that we know to be valid and important. And we have to give others some understanding of who we are and what we’re about, a name, a map that at least outlines the contours of our territory. With all the nonsense that’s out there in academia, the least they can do is make a little room for us, but that didn’t happen until we asserted ourselves. And these efforts have been successful, as at least in the field of communication there’s been increasingly greater recognition of and respect for media ecology in textbooks, journal articles, and books. It’s happening in other disciplines as well, like anthropology and English.
Having an organization of our own also was important for moving our field forward. Whenever we were presenting papers for a communication conference, or submitting articles to a journal, we had to contend with the fact that the individuals evaluating our submissions, and most of our audience and readers would have little or no familiarity with media ecology, so everyone had to start from the beginning, over and over again, explaining the basics, justifying what we were doing, starting from square one as it were. So it was important to have a context where we could assume that the audience or reader is already familiar with McLuhan’s concepts of media as extensions, hot and cool media, and the medium is the message; Innis’s ideas about time and space biases, and the monopoly of knowledge; Havelock and Ong’s distinction between orality and literacy; Boorstin and Postman’s arguments about image culture; the contrast between typographic and electronic media; etc. If we don’t have to explain the same things over and over again, we’re freed up to make progress, that’s a pattern that media ecologists trace back to the impact of writing in freeing the mind up from the demands of memorization.
Outreach has been an important part of the MEA as well. The NYU network gave us a good base to build on, but as I mentioned before, MEA was always meant to be something much bigger than that. (And not everyone who studied with Postman, Nystrom, and Moran were particularly interested in media ecology, or in academia, or in joining an association.) Even before we started the organization, we tried as much as possible to reach out to others, including those who studied with, collaborated or associated with, or followed McLuhan, or Ong, and to others who shared the perspective, like James Carey, who championed Innis, and Carey’s associates and students, and Cliff Christians, who is a leading expert on Jacques Ellul, and folks like Jay David Bolter, Katherine Hayles, Elizabeth Eisenstein, Denise Schmandt-Besserat, and many more. And we reached out to like-minded independent scholars, like Camille Paglia, Douglas Rushkoff, Howard Rheingold, Lenoard Shlain, and Fritjof Capra, to name a few. And we connected with many other scholars and intellectuals who had previously felt isolated and alienated, and had no name for the kind of scholarship they were doing, no sense of identity, no community. That’s one of the most gratifying experiences I’ve had with the MEA, one that’s occurred many times over, to bring someone into the fold, and see how happy he or she becomes to have found an intellectual home.
Postman, Nystrom, and Moran did a great job of creating a sense of community within the narrow confines of the NYU graduate program, they were content with having done that, and it certainly was quite an accomplishment, while it lasted. I think it would have been better still if they had created something like the MEA too, there was some potential with expanding the scope of the ISGS when Postman was editing ETC, but that didn’t work out. Of course, it’s easy enough for me to say what they should have done, considering the fact that they were running a graduate program pretty much by themselves, with little in the way of help or resources. Things changed when Postman became Chair of a restructured Department of Culture and Communication, but that seeming success was the downfall of the Media Ecology Program, as it diluted the focus, distracted the faculty, and at the insistence of a foolish and arrogant dean who had no idea of the value of the program, it resulted in a steadily increasing loss of the mission of media ecology there. For my part, it was clear that we needed an association in the short term to get beyond the parochial nature of NYU-based media ecology, and in the long term because Postman and his colleagues were getting older, and they were not preparing the way for media ecology to continue at NYU beyond their time. So forming the MEA was an invoking of Minerva’s owl, to use the Hegelian metaphor that Innis favored.
I feel the passing of time very acutely, and the creation of the MEA took on a greater urgency as the years went by. Still, it really hit home that we were witnessing the passing of a generation when we lost Walter Ong and Neil Postman in the space of two months in 2003, followed by Daniel Boorstin and Susan Sontag, and then James Carey, and Donald Theall, and more recently Frank Zingrone, Paul Watzlawick, and Edward T. Hall. I’ve found it very painful to lose so many of our mentors and intellectual influences, but it made a difference that we could come together as a community to mark their passing and celebrate their memory. I know that, in a different way, many of my fellow NYU alumni mourned the passing of the media ecology program a few years ago, although frankly I was relieved when they stopped using the name since they were no longer teaching media ecology very much without Postman and with Nystrom retired, and therefore it was only creating confusion about the field. Some saw it as a crisis, that there would be no more PhDs in media ecology, but I think it may be better this way, that media ecology should not be the monopoly of any one program or university. Of course, given the chance, I’d love to start up that kind of program.
So, one thing that has changed is that the MEA has become less about bringing in senior scholars that we look up to, and more about reaching out to peers, and to younger scholars and students. For me, it was a big disappointment that something like this wasn’t in place when I was a graduate student, as a support system, so I worked at trying to set up the kind of situation I would have liked to have existed when I was starting out. And this involved using media ecology to analyze academia as a communication system, to understand its media and modes and significant symbols, to apply systems thinking to understanding how the various parts of an organization would interact and work together, and to put that understanding into practice in creating the MEA. I think of it my efforts as a form of scholarship, like writing a book, or as a work of art in its own way. And I think it comes down to a fundamental directive that can be derived from media ecology, to create the kind of environment that we want to live in.
Do you think communication studies should be a discipline, concerned as it is with a sort of “nothingness,” i.e., the material and symbolic environments we are immersed in – environments which tend to saturate our perception and are therefore as transparent as water is to fish?
If you consider the question you’ve asked here, it lends itself to a yes or no answer, and that was a point that Postman especially stressed, and that other media ecologists do as well, that the questions we ask have much to do with the answers we obtain (that’s a variant on the medium is the message).
Should communication be a discipline? I think so, in the sense that there are a set of ideas specific to the study of communication that are distinct from political science, economics, sociology, psychology, philosophy, history, etc. Even distinct from the study of media, as many people who study media study them as forms of expression, that is, as art forms, or as extensions of social, political, or economic forces, rather than as means of communication (and here I am also drawing a distinction between communication and media ecology). I think there is something worth preserving in the approach to communication that was used when I was a student, back in the 70s, and 80s. There may not be a set paradigm, as earlier hopes that one thing or another would serve in this capacity, be it cybernetics and information theory, or Rogerian psychology, or behavioral theories of attitude change, or the systems/relational view, didn’t pan out. But I think there’s a communication curriculum that’s worth preserving because it is intellectually stimulating and pragmatically useful. What is a discipline, after all? In one sense, it’s when a set of ideas become systematized, and I am not in favor of establishing a closed system, that’s deadly. In another sense, a discipline is a school, we come back to that idea, and schooling is about the relationship between teacher and student, aka disciple. The oral tradition never quite disappears, we learn a set of stories, a rap (in the older, pre-hip hop sense), a kind of epic from our teachers, and pass them on to our students. Sing to me, O Muse, of the wrath of Alphabetic writing! So, a discipline, I suppose, is a school writ large.
So, yes, communication should be a discipline, in my view, and when I was a department chair and called in front of the Deans and Academic Vice-President to discuss my department, and they freely expressed their view that there was no coherence to it, no there there, I defended communication as a discipline, and talked about the common core of scholarship dating back to Plato’s Phaedrus, Aristotle’s Rhetoric, St. Augustine (they liked hearing that), and more recently, Dewey, Lippmann, Lasswell, Mead, Wiener, Hall, Watzlawick, and of course McLuhan. But in many ways, communication never quite cohered into a discipline, and then the whole notion of disciplinarity fell apart in the eighties, and I’m not sure if they’ll ever put Humpty Dumpty back together again. That is, I don’t think it is one today, it’s certainly less of one than it was before, and I don’t think it will become a discipline, at least not anytime soon. It’s a minor tragedy, in my view.
I’ve heard it said that communication started out as the first interdisciplinary subject, and as communication departments were formed in the postwar era, they naturally evolved from being interdisciplinary to trying to develop a discipline of their own. That seems like a natural progression, and pushed too far, you get what’s been referred to as the hardening of the categories, a pun that was used by both McLuhan and Postman (seems like the medical phrase “hardening of the arteries” isn’t used so much these days, so the humor has lost its resonance). I do think that universities should allow for much more flexibility in allowing faculty to organize and re-organize themselves over the years. And media ecology is very much an interdisciplinary field. But I think we also have to be cautious about the idea of inter-disciplinarity. It’s one thing for scholars trained in different disciplines to collaborate. It’s another thing for one scholar to be trained in multiple disciplines (raising the question of the difference between being interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary). It’s an entirely different thing for a scholar to be entirely without a discipline. My old NYU classmate, Paul Lippert, has made this point, that what passes as interdisciplinary often is entirely undisciplined. One of the points that Henry Perkinson makes in No Safety in Numbers (the first book published in the media ecology book series) is that the risk-aversiveness of contemporary American culture extends to academia, where risk-free scholarship has been created. And interdisciplinary work often functions in that way, because if my work isn’t in your discipline and yours isn’t in mine, then there’s no way we can critique each other or find the other’s scholarship to be inadequate, and if no one is working in the same area as me, my work being uniquely interdisciplinary, then I am completed insulated from anyone else’s negative evaluation. Let me hasten to add that this is not to condemn all interdisciplinary work, not at all, it’s just to point out the problem that it introduces.
As for communication being concerned with nothingness, that’s like Seinfeld, the show about nothing, which was actually a show about communication and social interaction. So yes, I’ll take that. But what is the field, or discipline, about nothing? Is it communication? Or maybe it’s philosophy? I think you can go back to the trivium of rhetoric, grammar, and dialectic, and find that they are each about nothing in their own way, that is, about no specific subject matter, only about the ways in which we communicate. And as I discussed in my book, Echoes and Reflections, communication is not just about nothing, it’s about making something from nothing.
You may not remember this, but we had an interesting exchange and disagreements about Heidegger a few months ago, which in turn led us to consider the notion of the “Death of the Author.” I was hoping to pick up where we left off, and ask you about yours views on post-modernity and post-structuralism? Was the death of the author a premature death sentence in your view?
I don’t remember the specifics, but I’ve had conversations of that sort on many occasions. First, as far as Heidegger’s concerned, I know there are some media ecologists who find his work valuable, and would include him on their main reading list, but I’m not one of them. I just don’t find him very helpful in understanding anything about the world that I’m interested in, or all that understandable in many instances. And for the most part, the scholars I’ve read who have tried to use Heidegger have not impressed me at all, with the exception of Don Ihde (who strikes me as a decidedly un-Hedeggerian Hedeggerian). Anyway, the man was a Nazi, and Hannah Arendt notwithstanding, it was not some minor error in judgment—as the child of Holocaust survivors, this is something I take very seriously. It hasn’t stopped me from buying books he wrote, or reading them, but unlike, say, Levinas, I feel no need to engage with him or provide a detailed critique of his work. Better, his name should be blotted out.
Second, in declaring the death of the author, what was Barthes doing that was so different from I. A. Richards and the New Criticism, which was the strain of literary criticism that was most influential for McLuhan, Ong, and Postman (I recall Neil saying in class that wherever he went, meaning intellectually, he would find that Richards had been there before him)? It sounds so momentous put into such terms, with the French flair for the dramatic. But thinking about it media ecologically, it was print culture that gave rise to the absurd idea of originality in writing, and idealized the author as someone who literally created something from nothing, ex nihlo, sui generis, yada yada yada. After all, at the very base of things, we’re all communicating in languages that we didn’t invent, with words most of which were invented by individuals long forgotten. In oral culture, composition was formulaic and traditional, originality was about connecting to archetypes, and the goal was preservation of knowledge, keeping things in memory, not experimentation and novelty. At the same time, as Albert Lord points out, it’s not that authorship is anonymous, as naïve folklorists once argued, it’s that the singer, the performer is the author, which would be entirely obvious to all present at the performance. Performance and composition are one and the same. With writing, we get the separation of the message from the messenger, the knower from the known, and the writer from the text. Writing separates the sender from the receiver in space, and in time, removes the context of nonverbal communication, situation, etc., and does not allow for interaction and interrogation, as Plato noted in the Phaedrus, so exegesis and hermeneutics are introduced in order to compensate for the author’s lack of presence, as is, eventually, an interest in understanding the author’s life and times. In scribal culture, however, there generally was no clear distinction between writing and copying, and no concept of an author who didn’t rely on commonplaces and incorporate something of someone else’s work. Print gave rise to the notion of text as something other than a material object, as something abstract that exists across all of the many identical copies of the work. It took the textuality out of text, transforming writing from a handicraft into an act of pure intellectual creation. And printing opened the door to copyright legislation and the concept of intellectual property, and to originality as the criterion of literary quality, and in this sense, as McLuhan noted in The Gutenberg Galaxy, gave rise to the concept of the author as we understand that role. It follows that what print gaveth, the electronic media taketh away, so we are experiencing the death of the print culture concept of the author. And the death of the reader. And the reading public. And ideology. And much else besides. But people still write, and claim authorship, and new media introduce new forms of composition and creative production, such as the remix and mash-up (which can also be seen as a retrieval of aspects of oral composition). And the proliferation of heterogeneous media forms, as opposed to the prior situation where culture was dominated by the relatively homogenous manifestations of typography, has made scholars more aware, more conscious of the differences between different media, of their different biases, which has opened the door to media ecology as a field, as well as post-structuralism and post-modernism.
Structuralists, like Claude Lévi-Strauss have been considered part of the field of media ecology, Robert Blechman in particular sees Lévi-Strauss as close to the core, and I certainly agree that he is important. The same is true of post-structuralists like Foucault and Derrida, and they do fit into the perspective, but I’m less sympathetic to their work. Foucault has an important point to make about power, but in doing so loses media ecological focus, unlike say Innis or Ellul, and Paglia has made the point that much of what he has to say was taken from Goffman, without attribution. Derrida can be interesting at times, but he doesn’t acknowledge the influence McLuhan had on him. He does credit Gelb for the term grammatology, and rightfully notes that it was a mistake to ignore the distinction between orality and literacy, but he goes off the deep end in universalizing writing—media ecology is very much about categorical differences, differences that make a difference as Gregory Bateson was wont to say, rather than about universalism—and Ong, who almost always says nothing unless he has something positive to say about a scholar, criticizes Derrida for arguing that speech is a form of writing. Deconstruction is very much about understanding the nature, biases, and limitations of writing as a medium, but it loses sight of the very fact that writing is indeed a medium, one that is different for myriad other media.
When I was still a doctoral student and little books published by Brooklyn-based Autonomedia started to appear in bookstores in Greenwich Village, I was very excited. This was my first exposure to postmodernism, and it was thrilling to read Baudrillard sounding altogether McLuhanesque, and it raised my hopes for the future of media ecology—this was before the McLuhan revival of the 90s. Baudrillard’s concepts of hyperreality and simulation are interesting and can be useful (and Umberto Eco does a good job of dealing with them in Travels in Hyperreality, although his criticism of McLuhan in that book reflects a very poor understanding of McLuhan’s thought), but I eventually realized that he was just recycling Walter Benjamin, and that Daniel Boorstin had made the same point in a much more incisive way in The Image. I like that Baudrillard at least credits McLuhan, but he doesn’t do a good job of representing him. Paul Virilio, whose work I also enjoy, took one of McLuhan’s innumerable ideas and probes, speed, and made that his whole shtick, and didn’t credit McLuhan for it. Jean-François Lyotard’s point about the decline of meta-narratives is also very much in line with media ecology, and he connects it to the computer, although without much in the way of explanation, and he draws on Wittgenstein, who is also considered part of our intellectual tradition. But scholars and critics have been talking about the loss of shared values, beliefs, myths, ideologies, common culture, etc., for some time before Lyotard, so mainly what he did was to stick the postmodern label on the phenomenon. Postman wrote about the same thing in The End of Education, by the way (and I did write an article about how Postman could be seen as a postmodernist—he seemed alternately bemused and bothered by that). Fredric Jameson connects postmodernism to video, which is a media ecological insight that he gets from McLuhan, but his main emphasis is on late capitalism, without acknowledging the media and technologies that make the expansion of capitalism possible, in the way that Ellul and Peter Drucker would. Arthur Kroker has a strong connection to McLuhan, and I like his willingness to engage in experimentation, but he tends to get lost in hyperbole as he tries to out-McLuhan McLuhan and out-Baudrillard Baudrillard. Mark Poster does a better job of dealing with poststructuralism and postmodernism because he also recognizes the importance of McLuhan, and Meyrowitz’s No Sense of Place. And Kenneth Gergen too represents a better take on the postmodern condition, because his understanding of constructivism goes back to Watzlawick, and he draws on McLuhan and Meyrowitz as well. Ultimately, though, postmodernism is a name that indicates that we don’t know what era we’re in anymore, we just know that it’s not the same as it used to be. It suggests a focus on the symptoms, and an inability to recognize what gave rise to them. From a media ecology perspective, the early modern period begins with Gutenberg, and leads to the Enlightenment; Romanticism is also modern, but it signals a point where we have become secure in being modern, and can look back and idealize the tribal. Modern art actually reflects some of the changes brought on by electricity, and postmodernism is just another name for electronic culture (of which, digital culture or cyber-culture is a subset).
As I’ve tried to indicate, among media ecologists, some embrace Continental theory/philosophy, others reject it. Paglia argues that the Frankfurt School and French Post-Structuralists have little to offer to help in understanding contemporary culture, and that we have a North American intellectual tradition that has been unfairly overlooked by the majority in academia. Carey was enthusiastic about British Cultural Studies at first, but then felt that it had degenerated into ideology studies, instead of considering culture and technology more broadly, so he argued for an American Cultural Studies instead. Ong rejected post-structuralism for ignoring the massive amount of research coming out of several different disciplines that has given us a very clear idea of the differences between orality and literacy. Postman simply had no patience for scholars who could not express themselves clearly and had nothing new to say. He was particularly critical of the French in that regard, but that was excluding Ellul, and Lévi-Strauss, and Barthes. I’d even look back to Alfred Korzybski, founder of general semantics, who viewed most of philosophy as just word play with high level abstractions, symbols without referents. And similar views were held by Bertrand Russell, and Alfred North Whitehead, and Wittgenstein.
Unlike postmodernism and post-structuralism, I think that media ecology requires some connection to science—not just social science mind you, but physics, chemistry, and of course biology, ecology being a biological science. Postman criticized scientism, and technology, but never denied the validity of scientific method, and in fact incorporated it via his use of general semantics, Korzybski advocating for the use of a scientific approach in all walks of life. McLuhan was not very scientific, but he did see science as an outgrowth of the study of grammar from the trivium (reading from the Book of Nature), and grammar is also the basis of media ecology. Ong was a bit of a biologist, there was Leonard Shlain who was a surgeon, and Robert Logan, a physicist. And then there’s the contribution of cybernetics, systems theory, chaos and complexity, and autopoiesis, e.g., Norbert Wiener, Gregory Bateson, the physicist Ilya Prigogine, the biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela (who provided the theoretical basis for Niklas Luhmann’s media ecological sociology), Stuart Kauffman, Katherine Hayles, and many others. And so much of it goes back to Einstein, we live in Einstein’s universe, still, and what is relativity but the study of relation, another word for medium?
What are you currently working on?
I’m in my third year as Executive Director of the Institute of General Semantics, and I’ve been organizing a symposium entitled New Languages, New Relations, New Realities to take place at Fordham on Oct. 29-31, featuring the annual Alfred Korzybski Memorial Lecture to be delivered by Deborah Tannen, and also featuring Doug Rushkoff, Robert Logan, Gary Gumpert, Susan Drucker, Paul Levinson, Tiffany Shlain, Nicholas Johnson, David Rothenberg, and Michael Shudson, among others. I do hope you’ll join us, and there’s still time to submit a paper or proposal, the deadline is the end of August. I’m also putting together a collection of my writings on general semantics and media ecology to be published through the IGS later this year, and co-editing with Corey Anton an anthology entitled Korzybski and…
I received a grant from Time Warner Cable to do a study on the future of children’s television, with the idea of incorporating media literacy principles into the design, and I’m working on that with my colleague at Fordham, Lewis Freeman, and with Peter Gutierrez, a well known media literacy maven. I’m also a partner in NeoPoiesis Press, Eric McLuhan mentioned in his interview that we’re publishing his Media and Formal Cause book, and I want to publish a little illustrated book on McLuhan and media ecology next year. NeoPoiesis mainly does poetry, I’ve been writing poetry myself for the past few years, and I hope to get a poetry book out next year as well. And my longstanding writing project has been a book explaining media ecology in a somewhat systematic manner. Echoes and Reflections represents some of the preliminary work, and this would be the next step, tentatively titled Understanding Media Ecology. There are other things in the works as well, it’s a dynamic system, things change, things emerge, often unpredictably, and I just have to go with the flow sometimes, that’s media ecology for you.
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