Saturday, 7 January 2012

Twit(t)less in Weimar

As a certified cyberidiot, I ended up witlessly last night as a SMSer, when I was just trying to track down my hero Bill Siemering who gave me my first freelance gigs at WHYY-FM. He had sort of disappeared, so I Googled about, discovering he had been preaching local media as a cultural missionary in—Africa and Mongolia! (More of that later.)

I started my daily swipe at the Poynton state of journalism and discovered that Ken Auletta, the New Yorker media savant, had just commented on the USC study that the daily press would disappear in five years! It prodded me to put on the media history hat I had first worn as Gilbert Seldes’ Annenberg gofer as an assistant professor teaching media history at Penn.

So here goes! My media history was a souped up take on “From Cave Painting to Comic Strip”. I emphasized the McLuhan rule that newer media have always threatened the status quo ever since our ancestors discovered that the new medium language was more effective than billy clubs in settling arguments. And in the 1920’s radio threatened print media and in the 1950’s, TV threatened radio. Only the pace had picked up. It was the way our media worlds worked.

Then a funny thing happened. I realized that my doctoral dissertation ,”John Fiske as ‘American Scholar’: The Testing of An Native American Tradition”, namely, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Phi Beta Kappa oration of 1836! I had written this interpretation with the Doctoral Committee’s gun to my head. I had asked for permission to write on Marshall McLuhan’s new ideas. But in 1951 these fresh angles on communication only elicited a negative “Huh?” from these old fogies! So I complied and filed in the atic when it was accepted in 1957. Until last week when I read the last chapter for the first time in 54 years. And it made great sense.

Fiske was a very, very bright Harvard student, but he made the tactical mistake of noisily reading Herbert Spencer and Charles Darwin as his No vote to required Sunday Chapel. The still theological brass noticed his apostasy and blacklisted him for the professorial job he would have been great at. And his family had no income he could fall back on. So he created a new kind of career that eventually did him in, physically: he traveled transcontinentally on the new medium of dependable rail as a roving lecturer, eventually publishing his talks about the newly invented genre of American History in popular books. It was a tough go, but he made do by innovating.

Alternative weeklies like the revered “Welcomat” could and should batten on the leisure-oriented ads of failed dailies. They should also maximize circulation by at first free copies at local high schools and colleges, generating student interest with accessible disputations on the discrete conditions that threaten the effectiveness of mass education. As the vagaries of unemployment become more and more threatening, free media can sponsor analytic discourse on related problems. Some of the money that businesses invest in bespoken institutes and paid for representatives could support more honest investigations as the Gates and Buffets of the ruling classes defect from the crudest Cashocracy.

At Annenberg we had an evening lecture series featuring media policymakers explaining their problems and decisions to a required audience of graduate students. The trouble often was professors sucking up to media brass rather than asking usefully tough questions. And I’ll never forget the first class complaining to me ,one by one in conference at graduation time about the paradox that sponsor Annenberg ran the worst TV and daily in town. The answer to that is tough: more taxes and less phoney charity.

And of course our public schools need a thorough introduction to the slippery new institutions of mass culture. When I outlined such a course at the Daedalus Conference in the Poconos (1959) as I had devised as a Carnegie postdoctoral fellow at Penn, the poet Randell Jarrell literally ended the conference by booming the inanities of “You’re the man of the Future, Mr. Hazard, and I’m glad I won’t be there.”

Well, he wasn’t, committing suicide some years later in South Carolina. That saddened me twice, since I relished teaching his poems. The Upper Westside New Yorkers there got off on such dumb inanities. Norman Podhoretz led the pack, mocking the promising young TV writers like Paddy Chayefsky and Gore Vidal as ”kitchen sink dramatists”. (Perhaps, but more intellectual than such “plugged toilet” critics.)

I believe more and more, from my experiences inside and outside Academe, that the copycat humanists who unthinkingly repeated each other’s un-truisms about the mass culture they judged inferior to their middlebrow nonentities are responsible for its slow and erratic maturing. These parvenus, we mustn’t forget, were scrabbling out of Brooklyn and the Lower East Side. We should empathize at their pain, but ensure that the next generation of humanists are not disgracefully off target.

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