Are you a Tumblrer, a Flickrer, or an old-fashioned channel-surfer?
Let’s return to Dr. Marshall McLuhan for a moment.
Central to his history of mass media is the relationship of mass-produced literature to tribalism—or, rather to its central role in the detribalization of the Western world. The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) details the process through which the phonetic alphabet, handwritten summa, and finally the printing press gradually drew Western culture from the active, nonlinear, and vibratory world of oral/tribal culture and into what we would now recognize as civil society. “Print,” McLuhan says, “is the technology of individualism.” In an exegesis of Hamlet’s famous dilemma, he touches on the tensions of cultural shifts wrought by new technologies:
Hamlet is repeating a commonplace conflict of his century, that between the old oral “field” approach to problems and the new visual approach of applied or “resolute” knowledge. And “resolution” is the cant or conventional term used by the Machiavellians. So the conflict is between “conscience” and “resolution,” not in our sense at all, but between an over-all awareness and a merely private point of view. Thus, today the conflict goes the other way. The highly literate and individualist liberal mind is tormented by the pressure to become collectively oriented. The literate liberal is convinced that all real values are private, personal, individual. Such is the message of mere literacy. Yet the new electric technology pressures him towards the need for total human interdependence.
McLuhan argued that television (and the inchoate electronic media of the 1960s and 1970s) were denuding the cultural patterns sustained by print culture and germinating a new age of tribalism. The thrust of it was that the integration of new technologies into culture systemically alters subjects’ sensory worlds; an environment where distances shrink, barriers dissolve, and communication becomes instantaneous is more similar to the oral/tribal environment than the Gutenberg/civil society environment, and will foster behavioral patterns more congruent with the former than the latter milieu.
If the digital revolution has not quite tribalized us (yet?), it certainly has in many respects communalized us. This is the epoch of the Like, the Share, the retweet, the reblog, and the viral video. We dispatch our passing thoughts to the cloud in real time. We upload our photos as we take them. We post screenshots from the TV shows we watch, video clips from the games we play, scans of the pictures we draw, and we pass along the screens, clips, and macros our friends share with us.
There’s no dearth of op-eds or blog posts cataloguing the challenges facing literature in the digital age—diminishing attention spans, competition from television and video games, a public education system that implicitly teaches children to treat the reading of fiction as a mandated chore to be done for the reward of a good grade, and so on. Less often addressed is the nature of literature as an intrinsically private experience fighting for viability during an age exalting the shared experience (a preference inculcated by the new media competing with print).
When people (such as Mr. Proust) romanticize or reminisce about the act of reading, it is frequently suggested or stated that the ideal condition for poring over a book is a quiet, private place. We read by ourselves; we read silently. It is widely considered impolite to “read over one’s shoulder.” Two people reading the same book in the same room do not read at the same pace; the interior “voice” pronouncing the phonetic implications of the symbols on the page (or screen) is different for each of them, as are the sensations aroused by the “content” of the words. Reading is an internal, subjective, individuated activity.
It does not need to be pointed out that this isn’t the case for the mass media of the 20th and 21st centuries. A hundred people seated in a theatre watching The Martian or Everest are all viewing the identical sequence of images and listening to an identical audio track in practical simultaneity. The same can be said for a family watching a TV show (the noun adjunct “TV” might well be on its way to becoming a lingual vestige, like the word “phone”) or the college students watching YouTube clips in a hazy dorm room. Nobody in these groups will have precisely the same experience, but all of them are witnessing and hearing the same event, external to them, and virtually identical.
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It is mostly the same with video games (which are often touted as the digital scion to the novel). Because player/viewer interactivity is fundamental to the medium, no two people playing Half-Life are going to have the same experience. (Yes, Half-Life is an old game, but I am an old gamer.) Player A might stumble into an area that Player B overlooks and passes over. Player B might prefer to preemptively solve a problem with trip mines rather than run out and face it with guns blazing.
But players A through D are all approaching the same “problems” in the same world. The structure and appearance of the Black Mesa labyrinth is identical for each player. Their in-game role as superhero scientist Gordon Freeman thrusts each of them into the same confrontations with the same aliens that boomtube into the same locations at the same moments; each player combats them with an array of weapons that look, sound, and behave identically. Each of them will shoot down an identical HCEU helicopter at a set location using the same rocket launcher. When any of them speak of the pivotal sequence in the Lambda Complex, they’re all describing the same event (I once again emphasize the externality of the experience) the same textures of colored light, the same CLANG CLANG CLANG CLANG of Gordon Freeman’s crowbar.
But what happens if we sit Players A through D down with four copies of The Great Gatsby?
Despite reading the same descriptions of Jay Gatsby’s mansion—“a factual imitation of some Hotel de Ville in Normandy, with a tower on one side, spanking new under a thin beard of raw ivy, and a marble swimming pool, and more than forty acres of lawn and garden”—all four readers’ visual conceptions of the place will be wholly different. Each will read about Daisy Buchanan and her “low, thrilling voice,” that pronounces each sentence as though it were “an arrangement of notes that will never be played again.” The passages are identical to the line and letter, but the voice each reader “hears,” its tone, its elocution, will be exclusive to them. If we imagine that Gamers/Readers A through D are also police sketch artists, and we ask each of them to produce a drawing of Tom Buchanan’s face (with its “rather hard mouth” and “shining arrogant eyes”), what we’ll end up with are four drawings of very different-looking men.
Unless, of course, all four gamers/readers/artists have recently watched the 2013 Great Gatsby film. Films based on novels communalize the original work by externalizing the content, converting a code for private suggestion into a mass-produced spectacle of light and sound. (How many early Harry Potter readers, I wonder, found their original pictures of Harry hijacked by the image and voice of Daniel Radcliffe after the 2001 theatrical release of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone?)
It is precisely the externality of electronic media that gives it such currency in a digital sharing culture. There likely isn’t a single popular film, TV show, or game from the last five years that hasn’t spawned hundreds or thousands of image macros, .gifs, redubs, mashups, art pieces, etc., that its fandom hasn’t passed along the network ad vertiginem. My guilty TV pleasure is The Flash; on Twitter an episode premiere becomes a participatory activity rather than a private, passive viewing. Twitch and the YouTube LP (“Let’s Play”) have facilitated video gaming’s incursion into the realm of spectator sport, and in some cases have allowed viewers to play single-player games as an aggregate.
Conversely, what is the netizen to do with a short story in the latest Paris Review but quote it? Link to it? Comment on it? Or type a short review on his or her blog?
On the other hand: just as the Gutenberg age birthed the (mostly accurate) narrative of the author or artist as an individual labouring in solitude, we see the electronic age redefining the creative as a team player. A TV show, a film, or a video game is most always a product of collaboration between a group ranging in size from a handful to a horde. A director will approach a new project with a vision in mind, but the realization of that vision is contingent on the contributions of his or her crew. The Wachowskis conceived and directed The Matrix, but their names share the credits with roughly four hundred others.
Tolstoy thought it absurd to say “Napoleon defeated the Russian and Austrian armies at Austerlitz” for the same reason it’s silly for any of us to say “Hideo Kojima made Metal Gear Solid V.” Napoleon couldn’t control every decision, every movement, or every reaction of every individual actor in his army through the fog of war; and Kojima, while he was at the head of his own army and could direct and delegate its members, was not personally responsible for every aesthetic or technical judgment made during the course of Metal Gear Solid V’s development. Making a video game, or a TV show, or a film is a communal effort—a community banded together for the purpose of creating a product that will earn money, but a community nevertheless.
The complexion of today’s mass media looks more like communities of artists and artisans producing work to be received by communities of viewers, listeners, and players who increasingly use that work as the object of group activity.
The contrast between the coruscating communal buzz of the fandom and the private experience of reading might be a vindication of McLuhan’s retribalization theory. Indeed, today there is something conservative—if not reactionary—in the insistence that it is worth one’s while to routinely spend a few minutes to several hours intensely concentrating on something crafted by a single person (who might not have distinguished him or herself in a professional field, or in a more popular medium), on an internal experience that can’t very effectively be liveblogged, screencapped, or tweeted about.
There’s little cause to expect that fiction’s readership won’t continue its decline as subsequent generations cut their teeth on externalized and participatory media experiences. But I’d also like to believe that for some, the book may become a kind of sanctuary—a confessional, a Zen tea house, a conversation with a stranger over a cigarette on the cold street in January, away from the obstreperous crowds and noise of the club.
Patrick Roesle honestly couldn’t tell you whether he prefers The Great Gatsby or Half-Life, though he will insist that neither should be made into a film. He believes in the green light, and suspects it might be connected to the Vortigaunts somehow.