The fish that bites its tail

Last Monday I left the class thinking about three main ideas my mates talked about: Language is a technology on its own (said Caterina); the British Library has one of the largest collection of pornish writing in the world; and the amanuensis thought the print to make books ugly. These last two ideas had of course to do with the novel and printing. And so this got me to think about Don Quixote, as it was one of the first novel, and it has a bad reception.

As in the case of the printers vs amanuenses, poetry was the high-art, the one which had the goddess like state for readers due to its form: rhythm, rhyme, images and, to some extent, its metaphysical content. When Cervantes dare use prose to narrate a realistic story it was believed to be ugly, non artistic; and so it was a form soon abandoned. Don Quixote made little sense to its contemporaries – it was read, and has its own response to it by Avellaneda (or Lope de Vega) as Pamela would have a century and many years later. Certainly, no other similar work was published after 1615. The author even tried to embellish what he probably knew was not the best form to write – but the fact that he was a bad poet did not help him in getting a better standing for his work, at all (“The Phoenix of the Wits” and friends used to laugh at Miguel).

I am writing about this particular work of fiction because I do believe that any literary form (a media) is inclusive of a previous one (Cervantes was using a phonetic alphabet for sure, trying to include the best literary form, and fitting other genres into his work, for instance), and the new one alters the old one at the same time. It may be disregarded at first. In due time, though, that hated form becomes the rule, modifying the whole scope of reality – it changes the society that was trying to avoid that particular media.

Reading McLuhan’s Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964) has just helped me in reinforcing my own postulation. I would summarize his notions in three main references:

  • From oral to written = from discontinuity or pluralism to continuity and homogeneity. The invention of the phonetic
    "El pez que se muerde la cola" or "The fish that bites its tail" is a Spanish expression for "vicious circle"

    “El pez que se muerde la cola” or “The fish that bites its tail” is a Spanish expression for “vicious circle”

    alphabet lead to a revolution in that it permitted translation of cultures, leading to the homogenization of, at least, the Western world.  One of the most relevant idea is McLuhan’s connection between the creation of this kind of society and the military, specially in the passage related to the French and American Revolutions and the situation of oral communities.

  •  Technology is an extension of the central nervous system of humans. As such, the human existence is modeled on a new way because in accepting such extensions there is a “subliminal awareness and numbness” that gets the man “perpetually modified” (46). Moreover, it is thanks to that favorable reception of new mechanism that the man “finds ever new ways of modifying his technology” (46).
  •  Hot vs. cool media: the first “extends one single sense in high definition” and requires no participation from its audience; it is explosive (examples are the phonetic alphabet, paper, or radio). The second asks its audience for completion of the content (speech, the telephone, are examples). They are relevant to society and its variation in that “specialist technologies detribalize” and the “nonspecialist electric technology retribalizes” (24). Therefore, its implications towards the presence of media in culture is that of the effect the hot medium has when introduced to a cool culture (30-31). (I think that if this chapter were a media, it would be quite cool, for I was to actively participate not to get lost).

There are many other hypotheses along the book. Nonetheless, those are, in my opinion, the most relevant. Also, because they have some connection to our previous readings. Maybe one of the major links is that McLuhan seems to agree with Kittler in his notion that “media define what really is.” Both philosophers converge on declaring that technology, the medium, inventions are both the means and the content; or as McLuhan puts it: “the medium is the message.” At the same time, they both assert the fact that the new tool has no meaning on itself. It has no existence. The medium only gets both meaning and existence when in combination with other medium. But the meaning is not exactly what we should worry about (not too much, leastwise). The effect is the basis for all concern.

Regarding the effect of media, I am going to take into account McLuhan’s notion about the hot medium being a means towards homogeneity in order to go back to literature and to close the post with a quote from Moretti on “The Sould and the Harpy.”

Let us say that the substantial function of literature is to secure consent. To make individuals feel ‘at ease’ in the world they happen to live in, to reconcile them in a pleasant and imperceptible way to its prevailing cultural norms. This is the basic hypothesis

Written years later (1988), it points again to the idea that media, in this case written works of literature, are nothing but an extension of our principles; those that we use, basically, to establish order by conventions and so, entertainment, all our gadgets, are just new forms for our nervous system and its tranquility.


3 thoughts on “The fish that bites its tail

  1. Very good post, Jennifer! I too was wondering about books as media. Although McLuhan seems to mostly focus on media as a result of electricity (or powered thereby), his writing does appear a bit self-reflexive, doesn’t it? You do mention that the chapter on ‘hot’ vs. ‘cool’ media in itself seemed ‘cool’ because of the participation it required on your part in reading it. On the basis of McLuhan’s distinction of ‘hot’ vs. ‘cool’, I absolutely do agree with you, although my brain at times seemed a bit overwhelmed to the point of numbness… 😉
    However, thinking of media — including books, novels, poems, etc. — as stimuli on our nervous system, to which extent ever, is a quite interesting idea!

  2. Hi Jennifer,

    Excellent post! I enjoyed reading your brief history of Cervantes. I did not know that his work was deemed ugly because it was prosaic. I believe that as you have shown that even though something is unfavorable, like Don Quixote, it can change the method of writing or understanding. Media serves the purpose of unifying and not only that but also to influence positive thoughts. What I mean by this is media wants people to be comfortable. It wants us to feel in control. That is why so many websites are mutable, and we can control the person that we want to be on Facebook. Books were an important medium in preserving the word of humans. It changed oral tradition and created a world that no longer needs to memorize, because memorization is challenging. Overall, I think after reading your blog that media homogenizes and comforts.



  3. Pingback: My computer ♥ literature

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