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The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology and the Arts

Author: Richard Lanham
Publisher: Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1993
Review Published: December 1998

 REVIEW 1: Geoffrey Rubinstein
 REVIEW 2: Judyth Avary Baker

Richard Lanham's The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology and the Arts is an astonishing anomaly. The fact that it's a full-tilt celebration of the artistic, expressive, pedagogical, community-building and consciousness-expanding possibilities of the digital age is nothing new. What's new is that Lanham relies not on geeky techno-utopian pop hyperbole but on a thoroughgoing mastery of classical rhetoric and a grounded, expansive interdisciplinary register of evolutionary forces at play to launch this herald of coming good.

For Lanham, digital media represent the unraveling of the often repressive and fixed authority of the printed text. The "electronic word's" interactivity, negotiability and free play with music and graphic arts revitalizes the mimetic sensorium of oral culture while maintaining the cumulative powers of exosomatic memory storage that began with literacy. Lanham thus advises that we revisit the rhetorician's integrative dramaturgical grasp of communication as a dynamic, organismic and complex open system, employing the expanded view of communicative possibility that new technologies demand. He casts this recommendation as against the subliminal biases of print and the Western philosophical inclination to seek always to land on rationally finalized and non-contingent portrayals of Truth. Lanham conveys a full sense of how the dynamics of a new media environment will relentlessly insist on a major overhaul in education that moves us toward both a more situational and a more panoramic understanding of our place in the unbounded, patterned disorder of the universe. In so doing, Lanham flexes his muscular command of chaos theory, postmodern aesthetics, art history, anthropology, and evolutionary psychology to expand from his home base of literary and rhetorical theory and pedagogy.

Perhaps my enthusiasm for Lanham's achievement is colored by a constraining immersion in media studies, a field that celebrates its own integrative interdisciplinary perspective while often maintaining a confounding apathy toward the importance of creative agency in the production of media artifacts. I'm not sure whether I was disturbed or refreshed by the conspicuous thinness of Lanham's treatment of the Marxian vestiges that crucially inform most media studies perspectives. The cognitive and creative implications of new media as thought-structuring tools of expression have, in media studies, been made subordinate to a concern with audience reception and the political and economic institutional forces that figure in determining access to production tools and distribution of media texts. Lanham almost single-handedly provides the timely and much-needed antidote to this reactionary impoverishment in media studies.

Marshall McLuhan was perhaps Lanham's most-watched predecessor in the project of bringing a deeply thought-through rhetorical analysis to bear on the evolutionary possibilities of electronic media. McLuhan made the unforgivable faux pas of entering popular discourse and indulging in too-early prophecy, allowing media studies to form and consequently dismiss unfairly oversimplified conceptualizations of his work as heretical fluff. Walter Ong maintained better scholarly decorum, which allowed his depictions of orality, literacy, and the "secondary orality" of electronic media entry, at least, to the margins of media studies in the unfortunately tangential enterprise of providing students with a well-rounded education in communication history.

Lanham's book arrives at the evolutionary moment when the Internet is beginning to turn the mass communication distribution model on its head and new softwares are beginning to erode the entrenched portrayals of exclusionary access to modes of expressive production. Both the Internet and new tools of expression are, of course, deeply mixed up with big business and regulatory agendas. However, the character of these technologies -- the increasingly democratic possibilities of expression and distribution they facilitate -- is at least as important to our comprehension of the media environment as the institutional forces that are, admittedly with great success, vying for positions of what must be characterized as provisional dominance in the political economic arena these technologies represent.

The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology and the Arts is a worthy successor to McLuhan's Understanding Media and Ong's Orality and Literacy. Lanham's book stands with these as a classic of substantive speculation on which great theory-building utterly depends and as an original, dazzlingly realized portrayal of communication's central evolutionary role in human experience.

Geoffrey Rubinstein:
Geoffrey Rubinstein will graduate with a Ph.D. in Communication/Media Studies in December from the Center for Mass Media Research at the University of Colorado. His dissertation is titled "Creativity and the New Technologies of Expression." For the last three years Rubinstein was the academic advisor and content expert for the 26-part documentary/telecourse on mass communication called "MediaWaves," which airs on Knowledge TV on cable and on local PBS stations for colleges offering the telecourse; he also wrote the companion book, Media Waves: Exploring the History, Technology, Business and Culture of the Mass Media.  <GRubinstei@aol.com>

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