The “Extension of Nation”: Commodity and Commodification

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The shift from oral to printing culture affected human beings’ perception of society. Nations are global villages where information is a commodity.

The 21st century is the place where words (spoken, read and thought), stream from the screen to the page, from virtual to actual and whose information speed is by far exceeding what McLuhan predicted forty years ago. The “global village” has become a global market where information is a commodity and its circulation is a commodification based on a higher necessity of information, especially if considered in the expanded configuration emerged with global migration flows.

In fact, as a consequence of the emerging multicultural communities and the fragmentation of the concept of Nation, media turned into an essential connection whose circulation of information is regulated by the rules of a globalized market, hence, sold as commodity, according to the post-industrial logic of “production on demand”. This means that in the new technology era the public prevails on the private on so far as, after Gutenberg’s invention, the closure prevailed on the openness.

Media as Social Modifier

Two scholars from the Toronto School of Communication, Marshall McLuhan and Walter J. Ong in Understanding Media and Orality and Literacy provide an analysis of the social issues connected to the introduction of printing and electric media in the modern age. Between the two works, there is a common thread, that of media as social modifier, that leads to the conclusion that the new technologies have not only revolutionised the process of knowing, but also the entire social structure of human beings, in particular, of ethnic communities.

McLuhan assumes that the role of the “medium” as extension of the human body (for example, radio as extension of the ear) is amplified in the electric age more than in the mechanical age; he identifies a final “imploding” phase of extension as “technological simulation of consciousness, when the creative process of knowing will be collectively and corporately extended to the whole human societies” (McLuhan, 1964: 19).

The shift from printing to electric contributed to replace the detachment between man and media with the deep involvment of human senses and our very consciousness. Unavoidably, the participation of body and psyche, according to McLuhan, means that our consensus is superfluous: “our conventional response to all media […] is the numb stance of the technological idiot.” (McLuhan, 1964: 32)

The trance state produced by the charge of electric media is the reason why we are not aware that the medium brings a message that “shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action” (McLuhan, 1964: 24). Every medium, McLuhan argues, has a content that is a medium itself (for instance, the message of writing is speech) but since the electric light is a medium without a message (unless used to enlighten a verbal ad), electric media such as radio and television have a powerful subliminal message, that anaesthetizes our faculty of opinion.

Second Orality and Global Village

In the same way, Walter J. Ong, by analysing how the transition from the manuscript culture (mainly oral-oriented) to the printing culture (visual-oriented) contributed to the replacement of collectivism in favour of individualism, points out that book production influenced the human way of thinking and relating. The print book was a consumer-oriented product that “encouraged and made possible on a large scale the quantification of knowledge” (Ong, 1988: 127) but it also marked the shift from the world of sound to the world of visual space.

By exploiting visual space, Ong writes, “print encouraged human beings to think of their own interior conscious and unconscious resources as more and more thing-like,[…]” (Ong, 1988: 129). Hence, print encouraged closure, a sense of private and personal point of view that reflects in some way the concept of completeness of a print book: “print is curiously intolerant of physical incompleteness.” (Ong, 1988: 130).

What Ong noticed is that, since printing culture was based on the visual communication that encouraged individualism and closure, the electric age can be considered as a secondary orality culture that exploits both visuality and aurality/orality to such a high degree that “generates a sense for groups immeasurably larger than those of primary oral culture.” (Ong, 1988: 134)As a result, what Ong calls “secondary orality” coincides with the McLuhan’s idea of “global village”, where the old sense of privacy and ownership of words has been replaced with the social and political commitment of human beings’ participation.

The Commodification of Information

The role of media in the new expanded social configuration is for Ong that of the function of types (separate piece of metal) in the printing process: “it embedded the word itself deeply in the manufacturing process and made it into a kind of commodity” (Ong, 1988: 116). In the globalization era, new media, as mediator between the market and the consumers, sell information as commodities.

In respect of this, Arjun Appadurai opens his essay Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy saying that “The central problem of today’s global interactions is the tension between cultural homogenization and cultural heterogenization” (Appadurai, 1990), specifying that very often the two concepts are tightly linked to the concepts of Americanisation and “commoditization” (or commodification).

This commodification of information is realised through what Appadurai calls “mediascapes” and “ideoscapes”: “mediascapes” are both the “distribution of the electronic capabilities to produce and disseminate information (newspapers, magazines, television stations, film production studios, etc.) […] and […] the images of the world created by these media” (Appadurai, 1990); “ideoscapes” are “also concatenations of images, but they are often directly political and frequently have to do with the ideologies of states and the counter-ideologies of movements explicitly oriented to capturing state power or a piece of it” (Appadurai, 1990).

Ethnoscapes and Technoscapes

Furthermore, Appadurai distinguishes between “ethnoscapes” and “technoscapes”: “by ‘ethnoscape’, he states “I mean the landscape of persons who constitute the shifting world in which we live: tourists, immigrants, refugees, exiles, guestworkers, and other moving groups and persons constitute an essential feature of the world, and appear to affect the politics of and between nations to a hitherto unprecedented degree” (Appadurai, 1990).

On the other hand, “technoscape” is for Appadurai “the global configuration, also ever so fluid, of technology, and of the fact that technology, both high and low, both mechanical and informational, now moves at high speeds across various kinds of previously impervious boundaries” (Appadurai, 1990). As we have seen so far, the connection between ethnic movements and technological development is a reality that affects the way diasporic communities relate with inside and outside configurations, but according to Appadurai, another element is essential to the understanding of these connections.

“Finanscapes” is the notion emerging “since the disposition of global capital is now a more mysterious, rapid and difficult landscape to follow than ever before, as currency markets, national stock exchanges, and commodity speculations move mega-monies through national turnstiles at blinding speed” (Appadurai, 1990).

Imagined Communities

However, Appadurai’s considerations are relevant if framed inside the multicultural context created by migration flows and global interaction, since he affirms that “the global relationship between ethnoscapes, technoscapes and finanscapes is deeply disjunctive and profoundly unpredictable” (Appadurai, 1990). Benedict Anderson in its Imagined Communities affirms that “primordial villages of face-to-face contact” (Anderson, 1991: 6) no longer exist, since a new nationalism (the “fabrication” of a national identity) continue to be supported by the diasporic communities.

The very concept of Nation, he argues, is nothing but an “imagined political community” (Anderson, 1991: 6): imagined because “the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.” (1991: 6) As a matter of fact, the “global village” has expanded and media are mainly responsible for the creation of a new nationalism inside the communities, that is translated, in the nostalgic attachment to the homeland represented by media and cultural manifestations, as for the Italian communities in Canada.

Functioning and Failure of an Empire

An explanation of the political function wielded by media has been given in 1950 by Harold Innis, another scholar from the Toronto School, colleague of and inspiration for McLuhan. In “Empire and Communication”, his approach to the social issues deriving from the invention of the printing press seems to be more pragmatic and economic-centered than the works of his fellows, due to his education in history and economics.

Anyhow, by analysing the effects of the monopoly of knowledge that accompained the birth of each medium of communication, he offers an interesting explanation to the functioning and the failure of an empire. “Monopolies of knowledge – he writes – had developed and declined partly in relation to the medium of communication on which they were built and tended to alternate as they emphasized religion, decentralization, and time, and force, centralization, and space.” (Innis, 1950: 166).

According to Innis, the combination of two contrasting biases creates the conditions for the growth of an empire: the bias created by a medium towards politic and religious organisation (that is, bias on respectively space and time) and the bias towards a second medium introduced to check the first one. For instance, “the Byzantine empire emerged from a fusion of a bias incidental to papyrus in relation to political organisation and of parchment in relation to ecclesiastical organization” (Innis, 1990: 170).

In the same way, the bias created by parchment towards the ecclesiasitc organization led to the bias towards paper and eventually to the political organisation. Innis focuses his attention on the discussion about the freedom of the press at the end of the sixteenth century and on the rising of vernaculars after the introduction of printing, that caused a rapid growth of nationalism: “The publication of debates implied an effective control over the manner and context of parliamentary speeches” (Innis, 1990: 167).

Extension of Man, Extension of Nation

In the very last pages, afraid of the possibility of a new bias on communication and a new nationalism, Innis seems to be very concerned about the destiny of Western society. He writes that “mass production and standardisation are the enemies of the West” (Innis, 1990: 169) and suggests that a possible solution for the stability of space and time (and the resulting reduction of government control) could be achieved by the limitation of mechanisation and the recovery of the oral tradition.

In fact, a few pages before (148) he affirms that compared to the inflexible parchment, the printing and the mechanisation reduced the gap between written words and the oral tradition. The question now is whether the “secondary orality” put forward by Ong is the possible return to the oral tradition or not, since he unhapply and realistically explains how closure is what we bequeathed from print and how the oral tradition is “gone forever”: “Presidential debates on television today are completely out of this older oral world. The audience is absent, invisible, inaudible.” (Ong, 1998: 135).

Considering the psychological impact of printing analysed by McLhuan and Ong, in light of the concerns shown by Innis, it would be interesting to rethink the role of medium as an extension of man as well as a parasite of human consciousness, but above all, as extension of a Nation.