le plus loin le plus serré

le plus loin le plus serré
mourning art

in memoriam

"yet I tell you, from the sad knowledge of my older experience, that to every one of you a day will most likely come when sunshine, hope, presents and pleasure will be worth nothing to you in comparison with the unattainable gift of your mother's kiss." (Christina Rossetti, "Speaking Likenesses," 1873)

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

the medium is the message (?)

I taught FEED for the first time this week; it's a book I'm especially fond of, and is obviously both readily and richly loaded with material for discussion. I also know, from past students who have read the book for other classes, that it goes over pretty well: a good book for the second-to-last week of the semester.

The class discussion ended in a way that surprised me, although maybe it shouldn't have. A number of people made the claim that the book is about materialism and consumerism, that a warning about the perils of too much consumerism is the "message" of the book. Aside from my personal belief (which is more of a conviction, bordering on a fact) that there is no one message in anything, this one surprised me. To me, for me, FEED is so clearly about the perils of a technocentric culture. The feed is the mechanism driving the consumerism, it's true, but it's also a consumer good itself; Violet tells Titus that she didn't get her feed for so long in part because her family couldn't afford it, and she goes on to tell him that something like 28% of Americans don't have the feed at all.
The argument propounded by my students seemed to be that technology - the feed - isn't a bad thing, in and of itself; it's the way it's used that's the problem.

I'm skeptical of this argument. Class ended before I had time to really think or talk it through in the way I would have liked, but I felt uneasy, thinking of the book as primarily addressing the evils of a consumer culture.

As one student said, the book tells us that technology kills; another student countered that technology has always killed.

Both of these arguments seem true. It's hard to look back at the history of human invention and not see a whole lot of violence and ugliness based on technological advancements - gunpowder as maybe an obvious one. Then you get examples like the Enfield repeating rifle, which sits at the heart of the 1857 Mutiny/sepoy/Indian rebellion against the colonial British. You get the automobile, which is the mechanism for thousands of deaths yearly.  Various forms of medical technology across the history of medicine have caused all manner of deaths, or at least failed to save lives.

But I think FEED is saying more than this. Anderson is so clearly engaged with language - with the devaluation, the devolution of language, of the ability to communicate in any meaningful way: the feed is responsible for this. References to things like the English-to-English wordbook, all the many moments when Titus can't think of a word and the feed supplies him with one, the horribly awkward, if not fractured, speech of Titus's father and of the President (whose speech sounds remarkably like Sarah Palin's), Violet's ability to read and write, Titus's inability to read and write - they all point to a larger issue of language and communication.
Communication, and a sophisticated linguistic system (written and spoke), are allegedly markers of civilization. It's what separates humans from animals, at least in popular mythology (never mind, for now, the language of primates and whales and dolphins and birds). The loss of the capacity of language production and usage through dependence on the feed marks a step back in human evolution, doesn't it?

And the feed shutters its user from the rest of the world. Titus and his friends can easily ignore the global unrest that the novel hints at, because their feed will protect them. He doesn't always interact with the others smoothly; the first instance is when the one female friend avoids the hacker in the beginning, comes to visit them in the hospital, and is lost in her own feed, "watching" a reality show. The telepathic messaging, the ability to screen out certain images, users, ideas - the feed is an isolating device. In some ways, it mimics the weirdly anonymous communal experience of theatre-going; it isn't my specialty enough to know much about it, but there is a fair bit of work done on the movie theatre as place/space, of the anonymity of the darkened theatre, of the individual yet shared experience of filmgoing. An audience is together in one room, but in the dark, not readily conspicuous even to one's neighbors; everyone is individually absorbed in the images on the screen; there is no communication between the humans present in the space. In some ways, it seems like the feed works in the same way.

I could just be reading the novel through my own techno-anxious lens; though I don't go in much for reader-response criticism, I'm perfectly willing to recognize that our own subjectivity affects the meaning we're able to discern from a text. And since I find the many kinds of portable electronics on market now to be very isolating, to be the illusion of communication and experience when they in fact devalue communication and experience, it's very easy for me to see the feed as a substantial problem in FEED.

The feed isn't just the vehicle for the insane consumerism of the book's dystopic America; the feed - the medium - is the message, in that (rather tired) old formulation.

OR ???


am I just a stubborn, vaguely reactionary technophobe?

then again: do these two need to be mutually exclusive?


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