Thompson, John B. The Media and Modernity: A Social Theory of the Media. Stanford, CA: Stanford U P, 1995. Summary
: In this monograph, sociologist John B. Thompson argues that the mass media has divorced social interaction from face-to-face constraints of space and time. This condition of modernity has led to change in the ways the public, community, tradition, and even the self are constituted and understood. Comments
: Every once in awhile, you happen across scholars who are true stars of their fields in all the metaphorical particulars: they are untouchable, utterly brilliant...and their ideas are so inaccessible that they might as well be residing in an entirely different galaxy. Thompson, thankfully, is not
one of those scholars--in person or in print. His work is rigidly organized, meticulous, and, most importantly, grounded
; he walks you through complex concepts like it's a easy stroll around the block, and the final destination proves to be both intuitively and rationally obvious. (If you have no appreciation for people who are good at stating--and defending--the obvious, you haven't been in the academy long enough.) As you might expect, then, Thompson's writing is crafted first and foremost to be understood, so clear and direct that it at times borders on the tuneless. Here's a perfect example of the best and the worst of this book's prose in a single sentence: "I have already commented on Reagan's proneness to commit gaffes and on how his PR managers tried, with some success, to limit the negative consequences of these public displays of incompetence.
" My spell check tells me that "proneness" is a real word...but it's still not one I would have chosen, and it was especially jarring at the start of a transitional sentence. On the other hand, the sentence's meaning and intent are unambiguous and incontestable.
Anyway, what this measured yet dry and mostly humorless argumentation means, at least for an auditory learner like myself, is that this book was quite easy to read and comprehend--but not at all easy to read and comprehend quickly
. Now that I've finished it, though, (and lemme tell ya it took more than a week), it is abundantly clear to me why it was listed on my program's Core Required Reading List. Thompson's extensive theoretical/historical brush-clearing and ground-leveling in advance of the presentation of his own theories is invaluable formative knowledge for beginners in the fields of communication and media studies, and his critical analyses of the works of Adorno/Horkheimer, Habermas, Foucault, and others gave me some needed perspective on material I've been struggling with this past semester...though his take on Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities
was significantly less generous than mine. In addition, I found his explications of quasi-mediated interaction and of publicness without co-presence to be especially thorough and astute, and those interested in studies of globalization and fandom (^^; may find this book's conception of the reception/appropriation of media content useful as well...
...Though, to be honest, I wasn't entirely thrilled with the foundation of hermeneutics and symbolic interactionism that he used to justify his characterization of the self as "a symbolic project that the individual actively constructs." What I've read of Gadamer's Truth and Method
grates profoundly on my ESOL teacher's soul, and I am skeptical about how much conscious (never mind rational) control we actually have over our own development. Experiments conducted in the field of neuroscience suggest that we do not have as much control over our actions as we think we do, that the self itself might just be a trick our brains play on us, and Implicit Association testing suggests that we believe things about the world we genuinely didn't even know we believed in the first place. Moreover, he makes certain assumptions about subjectivity on these bases--that the self is not fragmented by media, for example, but rather has more options with regards to what it can become--with questionable truth value, given how hard they are to know for certain. Sure, you can survey people for their opinion (and I can almost hear Thompson himself in my head right now reminding me that how identity forms is an empirical question), but if personal self-evaluations aren't entirely reliable, well. What a bind. These were, for me, the weakest logic strands of what is otherwise a magnificently well-argued and comprehensive examination of the social impact of modern media. Notes
: trade paperback, 1st American edition; first published in the UK by Polity Rating
- A book to feel great admiration for, not to fall head over heels in love with. But that's fine--it's still one of the best scholarly texts I've read in quite awhile.