Clinging to the Dragon’s Teeth
AN ENTIRELY UNQUALIFIED GRAD STUDENT’S HOT TAKE ON MULTIMEDIA IN FRESHMAN COMPOSITION
The Man, the Medium, the Message
Marshall McLuhan and New Media
For some help from the past, we’re going to look to a late 20th century media theorist (and full-time English professor at the University of Toronto) Marshall McLuhan. During his peak popularity, he was basically media theory’s equivalent of Neil Degrasse Tyson. He appeared on talk shows, television documentaries, interviewed John Lennon, and even showed up in a bizarre cameo (shown below) in the Woody Allen movie Annie Hall.
McLuhan became well-known for his assertion that all technologies are extensions of man, and explored the profound difference the phonetic alphabet not only makes on humanity’s absorption of information but on our sense of self and our relationship with the world around us. McLuhan understood that technologies are more than simply tools to enhance some attribute of human experience, but can radically change it in a variety of ways stretching beyond our ability to travel faster, build quicker, or spend valuable hours watching people make colored goop instead of wasting our time trying to find food. Technology has the capability of changing us, and, when it has, we’ve often been ignorant of it when it’s doing it.
While introducing this concept in one of his most first major work, The Gutenberg Galaxy, McLuhan further expanded on the idea in Understanding Media. The most transformative of technologies, to McLuhan, affected how we communicate and, in his own age, technological advancements in communication increased in frequency with every little change making enormous impacts (as they continued to do in the three decades after his death in 1980).
To McLuhan, 20th century man was a man split between two eras. The era of print and the “electric age” where information was relayed through electrical signals. McLuhan’s famous saying “The Medium is The Message” was a signature “tease” of his that laid out his theory’s conceit in one simple phrase. You can find McLuhan himself explaining the phrase below (keep watching for some interesting thoughts on television):
“Mediums” offered their own distinctive environments.
As McLuhan pointed out, the change in our world goes far beyond simply speed or amount of knowledge. The mediums themselves can radically change how we interact with the world, each other, and ourselves.
McLuhan spent a good deal of time talking about TV, which, in his day was the “rising star” of his era’s “new” media. Even in its limited availability at the time, with only a few channels, it was radically transforming the world. If you watched a little further in the video, you would see that television was not just “creating illiteracy” but rather, “creates another form of awareness” (3:02). How much more so does the internet create a new form of awareness than TV?
We’re going to turn to one of McLuhan’s famous works, “Understanding Media,” which catapulted him to stardom. Building on the work he had started in “The Gutenberg Galaxy.” He further explored the changes wrought by the “technology” of the phonetic alphabet and extended his message to other forms of media. Any technology to McLuhan was an extension of a part of man. According to him, the media of the electric age were extensions of man’s central nervous system, involving them through the combination of images and sounds to connect us to it, much like we were connected to one another in tribal communities before we developed the individualizing technology of the phonetic alphabet and by consequence, reading.
“The message of the movie medium is that of transition from lineal connections to configurations.” (27)
Movies are supremely visual in nature and cannot be judged by the same measurements as texts in their persuasive effectiveness. McLuhan lived before the age of home computing, but his understanding of film as a movement away from linearity and into “configurations” of mixed-media elements offers a sneak-peek into modern theories about new media and hypertexts. Clifford Brooke, who I previously quoted earlier, redefined the old “canons of rhetoric” to accommodate new media and change the language as we transition from text to “interface,” which is a fancy word to refer to “new media” forms, that are, by nature, constantly changing form and content depending on who is encountering them.
Before we move further, we must step back. To understand how profoundly our own technologies could affect us, we must turn to how previous technologies affected previous generations. McLuhan gives us some clues in his work.
I’m going to tell you a story first. It’s a story that was repeated often by McLuhan to refer to the rise of the phonetic alphabet:
The first King of Thebes -at this point simply a man called Cadmus- sought revenge for the murder of his compatriots. In true, ancient Greek warrior fashion, this involved killing a giant water dragon, and, as can be expected, he did (with a little help from his friends, the gods of Olympus). He was then instructed to “sow” the dragon’s teeth into the ground. These teeth then grew into warriors, who, after a jewel is thrown into the middle of their ranks, fight against one another. Cadmus himself finished them off. All except for five. These five Cadmus took with him to build Thebes.
McLuhan interpreted the myth through the lens of Cadmus’ role as the bringer of literacy to the Thebans, and, consequently, to the whole of ancient Greece, radically transforming the region. These teeth were emblematic of the Phoenician alphabet and the resulting change, which, in this case began with conflict and misunderstanding and ended with the further spread of “civilization.”
When the dragon’s teeth were “sown,” there was conflict, with each “tooth-man” battling each other and Cadmus for the jewel. After this first bout, they became civil and helped build a civilization. This is true of any transformative technology, it creates a dissonance between the old world and the new. It challenges old ways of thinking and creates tension. For the Greeks, the alphabet was just this transformative technology. The dragon’s teeth were eblematic of the phonetic alphabet (it is unlikely the shared Phoenician roots of the phonetic alphabet and Cadmus himself was a coincidence).
“As an intensification and extension of the visual function, the phonetic alphabet diminishes the role of other senses of sound and touch and taste in any literate culture.” -Marshall McLuhan
McLuhan spoke from a stance informed by an older technology that, much like the smartphone in our era, quickly took over and affected life in some pretty extraordinary ways. Societies impacted by the phonetic alphabet separated “thought and action” creating a new kind of person, one who was defined by linear, sequential thinking.
According to McLuhan, before the age of the phonetic alphabet, man was defined by his oral culture. There were few opportunities for effective, meaningful communication outside of the spoken word. There was little distinction between thought and action.
It’s been nearly a year since I first traveled overseas. While there, I worked with refugees near the Syrian border. The intervening year has brought plenty of surprises (both fortunate and not so fortunate), and, as sad as I am to admit it, after so many months of the humdrum repetition of daily life I often forgot some of the things I learned there about what love really means.
For World Refugee Day I want to remind myself and others of a situation that we often, whether consciously or unconsciously, drive to the background of our lives. I also want to remember those that touched my life in that hot July, who continue to live, work, and dream as I write this.
One of the greatest problems I run into when people talk about the refugee crisis is that we fall into “statistic speak.” Treating those affected by it like some homogeneous set of numbers, we toss around the awfulness of something like ‘7 million displaced people’ with a disturbing lightness of mood, following it with little more than a shaking head and a canned comment indicating a casual remorse. The sheer magnitude of independent lives affected should crush us. Instead, we respond with a unilateral and simplified “pity” toward ambiguous suffering. In my own experience, the suffering is overwhelmingly individual. While others may just recall numbers and news clips, I remember faces and names.
I met mothers who’ve suffered losses I can’t imagine, I met fathers who exhibited constant love for their children, I met young men close to my age trying to make the best out of a horrible situation, and I met children who, despite all the pain they suffered or violence they survived, laughed, played, and made this silly American’s first classroom an extraordinary (and often exasperating) place to work in.
And, in thinking about them all over again, I wept.
At the most basic level, the lives of those I met were incredibly familiar to me. They shared many of the same basic desires, hopes, and flaws that populate my own hometown. In the midst of enormous divides, I was reminded that at the core of every man, woman, and child is a universal nature that I often neglect to notice among my own neighbors. Each one embodied an enormous soul of humanity, warts and all.
They don’t need our pity, they need our understanding. I believe any one can tell you that a romance can’t get much further than infatuation without mutual understanding. There are similar rules for the higher, more selfless forms of love; to love others more effectively, we must earnestly seek to understand them.
You may or may not have a refugee population in your own city, but you can take a few minutes to learn about them no matter where you are. You can watch a few videos on Youtube, watch a film on Netflix or Amazon (I can recommend a few, including 50 Feet From Syria, The White Helmets, and The Return to Homs to understand the Syria crisis in paticular) or read some quick articles on not only the problems but the creative, inspiring solutions nonprofits and businesses around the world are coming up with.
Today, even as media coverage of the refugee crisis continues to play second fiddle (if not third or fourth) to the American political circus, it doesn’t look like it’s stopping anytime soon. As Syrians, Rohingya, Yemeni, South Sudanese, and many other groups continue to seek safety from prolonged, devastating conflicts, we must remember that we have a humanitarian duty (especially those among us who claim to be Christians) to love those suffering around the world for no other reason than they are human beings like us, images of awesome divinity and elemental mortality. Whatever you can do, whether it’s praying, sharing, learning, or giving, I challenge you to show some love toward refugees today.
To close, I want to encourage you with a quote from the Prayer of St. Francis (which may or may not have actually been written by him) in which the author cries to God:
“-grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned.”
Love comes first. Remember that.
If you can afford it, consider giving a one-time gift (or even better, become a regular donor) to one of the following charities helping to build back lives both here in the states and abroad:
World Relief: https://www.worldrelief.org/give
Preemptive Love: https://preemptivelove.org/donate/
World Vision: https://www.worldvision.org/donate
“He executes justice for the orphan and the widow and shows His love for the alien by giving him food and clothing. So show your love for the alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” -Deuteronomy 10:18-19
You Should Have Watched . . .
- A Perpetual Procrastinator’s Guide to What You Might Have Missed
The Square (2013)
The Square (not to be confused with the 2017 film of the same name) is a model of what a great documentary should look like, bringing a problem that seems distant and foreign into intimate focus. Centering on the planning and aftermath of the famous 2011 Egyptian revolution (a series of peaceful demonstrations revolving around an enormous protest in Tahrir Square). Considered to be the primary reason for President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation, the demonstrations set off a series of events that resulted in chaos overwhelming Egypt and despotism returning in different forms. This film traces the inspiring and heartbreaking journey of Egyptian activists, who, after achieving arguably the greatest victory for a peaceful revolution in recent memory, face lingering sectarian and religious divisions within their own ranks as they watch their democracy suffer again (and again, and again).
As a character-focused piece, the film presents the viewer with several figures of the movement, representing different sub-groups and roles. From the young, fiery Muslim activist Ahmed Hassan to the British-Egyptian actor Khalid Abdalla (known for his roles in The Kite Runner and the recent adaptation of Assassin’s Creed), the revolutionaries challenge our preconceptions.
One character, whose presence elevates the film’s message through the sheer complexity of his situation, is that of Muslim Brotherhood member Magdy Ashour. Walking alongside liberals, conservatives, Christians, and Muslims as a part of the greater movement, Ashour reminds us that behind the curtain of a particular ideology lie real human beings, with family and friends. The violence or abuse of authority perpetrated by a group, no matter how despicable, does not nullify the humanity of its members.
His struggle to handle the sometimes opposite pulls from his two allegiances creates some uncomfortable scenes of tension that, no matter your orientation, makes you feel for his predicament. Ashour, while I don’t want to give away spoilers (although, if you’ve googled his name, you already know what I’m talking about), is the film’s tragic figure, perpetually trapped between powerful forces of tyranny, religious and political. In today’s increasingly toxic and divided socio-political climate in the US, his story is timely.
That being said, the film’s oversight of the Muslim Brotherhood’s terrorist and terrorist-affiliated actions is irresponsible, giving viewers a simplified and sanitized picture instead of the complicated and often grotesque reality.
You Should Have Listened . . .
- A Look Back at The Overlooked
Land of the Living (2012)
Nashville-based artist Matthew Perryman Jones is anything but a household name. His music, however, marked by a distinctive, atmospheric folk rock-style has earned him a devoted following (of which I unashamedly identify as). His recent albums have utilized crowdfunding methods to great effect. By cutting out the “middle-man” Jones creates just the kind of music he wants to make, not having to yield to the needs of “the market” or the wiles of mainstream record producers.
The result of his first big crowdfunding effort was his 2012 album The Land of The Living. I purchased my own copy about three or four years ago, but I recently rediscovered it. It’s an album that is incredibly rich in both its poetic lyrics and its audio. One main influence for the album is the correspondence of Vicent Van Gogh with his brother Theo Van Gogh, which, if you listen to any of Jones’ music, is perfect source material for his songwriting and musical style. Jones took the title of the album from one of these letters, and one of the songs is even titled, “Dear Theo.”
Some could accuse Jones’ of being a bit repetitive, and, in a sense, they would be right. Jones has a signature style, which he pulls off very well. However, I believe that Land of the Living showcases a greater variety of sounds that his other albums. This diversity of sounds appears in the first four tracks, slipping from the idyllic, melancholic folk “Stones From The Riverbed” into two thumping, clattering rock-inspired meditations in “Poisoning the Well” and “I Won’t Let You Down Again,” until finally transitioning into the lofty orchestral ode of “O Theo.”
If you haven’t listened to Matthew Perryman Jones, give this album a listen on wherever you stream your music, and, after you’re done, consider supporting Jones’ next album at PledgeMusic. Since he’s already raised over 100% of his original goal, 10% of the money you pledge will go to blood:water mission, which partners with groups and individuals throughout Africa to empower communities to tackle both water/sanitation problems and the HIV/AIDS crisis. The other 90% will go to make sure that Jones create what will hopefully turn out to be another great album.
At the beginning of this semester (oh, crap! Adult life doesn’t happen in semesters!). Scratch that, at the beginning of this past season (or is it phase? section? chapter?), nevermind, at the end of the summer, my life faced a little implosion. Fresh off the plane in America after taking a big risk by serving overseas, my plans were upended by financial and spiritual struggle. Plans that were once set in stone now splintered like wood under an ax. My career aspirations split into several camps, like warring tribes of ideals in my own head (not exactly what you’d like to hear from a recent college graduate that, after showing up back at home, should have some inkling of a career path). All the things I “should” have had: the internship hours, the work experience, and the extracurriculars that lead right to that modern fantasy of the ideal “adult life.” College felt like an incubator, protecting me with a shell of security as I soldiered on toward receiving that golden ticket of a diploma. Instead, I came out a soft, sickly yellow egg, only half-baked, dragging with me an extraordinarily expensive piece of paper. Unfortunately, there is no reentering after exiting the birth canal of graduation. Life has officially started.
Yet I still cling tightly to the inside of my egg, still surrounded by the protective reality created by undergraduate attitudes. I try to ignore the cracks that form in the shell that protected me from the barbs of real-life as the demands of a world that, despite all the “preparation” I was supposedly getting, served to help me rest inside my yolk., suckling on the last remains of that membrane we like to call “liberal arts.”
Yet I wouldn’t trade it away for anything. I wouldn’t be the same person without college, not because of the utility of it, but the more intangible abilities involved in developing connections with people irrespective of their value in setting me on the path toward a specific career or attaining financial stability. It helped shape who I am and challenged me to think outside of the boxes I had created for myself (all whilst remaining ironically inside of a box).
As a slightly non-traditional student, I spent the first two years embedded in academic work, quietly hidden behind a computer screen as I tried to obtain that mythic 4.0. The fact that I was able to finish the last couple seasons of The Office during finals week should not be counted as academic brilliance, but a severe case of social stasis. College posed a two-fold problem to me, indicative of the nature of the two different institutions I attended. I dove straight into academics at my junior college, and upon arriving at university, discovered how small my world had become. For me, this lack of patience and fearlessness ended with me, at the beginning of my Junior year, “starting over” just in time for my college experience to almost be over. Those last two years embodied the paradoxical experience that liberal arts college represents. While supposedly preparing me for a “career” through a generalized set of skills, I sacrificed the ideal “work-experiences” that cast a shadow over nearly any job applications. While establishing relationships with students and faculty, I missed out on other forms of “networking” (a term which retains an inherent ickiness for me) with a specific career field. My extracurriculars, with a mind toward “expanding” myself, have actually served to limit the kinds of opportunities I can apply to. That dissonance between my academics and my personal endeavors seem only to confuse people looking for candidates they can snugly fit into a pre-fabricated position.
College reminds me of a great book, that despite all the praise and adoration showered on it, cannot be dissected effectively. It cannot be balanced with sets of weights. It cannot be added to an equation or judged by a set of statistics. As soon as you try to grasp at an absolute value, it slips through your fingers again. All the while it sinks a little farther into memory, evermore unclear in its purpose. College is a time for transformation and can be a catalyst for enormous growth. Unfortunately, I never gave myself to time to discover how to put that transformation to work. Sometimes, the pain of solace (which, while effective to encourage me to write and share pieces like this, pierces deeper than a knife), makes it hard to remember any detail about my undergraduate experience that changed me. In these times of forgetfulness, I feel the weight of its shadow, which, unclear and foggy, constitutes a more oppressing substance in its absence.
Sometimes, I simply want to run after some wayward and simple dreams, irrespective of the training I received. To learn to be a carpenter in New England, a miner in West Virginia, a deep-sea fisherman across the Atlantic, or a cow-herder in some far-off country. One of my favorite songs, by the band The Head and the Heart starts with a simple line, “I wish I was a slave to an age-old trade/ Riding along railcars and working long days.” College’s greatest burden is the weight of ambition. Often, more than anything, I wish I could be freed from that expectation of success. The reminders about my “potential,” although intended as thoughtful and true statements of my ability to grow, now elicit soft pangs with every memory. Why must I be so filled with the need to find purpose and the spectre of “potential”, when all I really need right now is a job?
Today, though, there remains hope that someday it will be worth it. One thing college teaches you is that a moment is just that, a moment, and we are not defined by one day or one season. Mistakes are not death sentences and life does indeed go on. A season of struggle does not decide your direction, and in the midst greatest times of conflict and uncertainty, the seeds of success are being sown. Facing rejection and regret can be steps toward a brighter future. Returning to my egg metaphor, that shell, which, dim and discolored as it appears, may be the key to that future. The very unpreparedness I resent could enable me to see the world through different lenses, not limited to one path toward fulfillment. Life is short, but it’s also wide. Possibilities still lie on the horizon, and it might take some time to find my path again. That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t appreciate the journey, with all of its peaks and pits. Like all great stories, something’s bound to go wrong. All I can do is get to work writing the next chapter.
I’m too young for regrets,
My day has just started,
The dawn is still fresh
with hope unpracticed and skill unknown.
Before I get too old,
Let me breathe fresh air
for the first time
As it drifts toward memory,
a slow, suspended journey,
Dark and lonely heights,
Carved out by the flames
of bittersweet days
descending toward the dark.
Looking back I see
idol hours spent for naught
I sit forsaken
by my own burning heart,
a flaming shrine
to passion undone.
My mind is dust,
an urn full of ashes
freshly gathered from a fire.
A word too often writ,
Without a pause
Rolls onward, and when I push
For one last fight
Against its ever-steady pace
I stumble against its motion.
I crack upon the sidewalk,
Blood pools on the pavement,
A harsh release,
I rise a little less of a man,
But readier to walk again.
Thank God for that wasted time,
Rejoice at what is lost,
To live a little is to die,
Bit by bit,
In pursuit of wayward dreams
And useless memories.