When I first thought about the Terminal Reading series, I saw it
as a spur to controversy. I wanted response, however argumentative.
On that score I have been most gratified. Though the volume of mail
has not caused the mailman any extra trips, the letters, comments, and
clippings that have come in have been thoughtful and searching to a
high degree. And by and large my suspicions have been confirmed: that
there are a great many intelligent people who happen to find our era
of electronic communications more liberating than alarming. Optimistic
and visionary projections have outnumbered letters of commiseration
two to one. This forum page, which I view as a kind of sampler of the
range of opinion, conforms to these proportions: two pro, one
First, a correspondent from New Hampshire passed along an article
by Jan Bruck, a professor at the University of New South Wales, Australia.
The piece, from which I excerpt several paragraphs, is entitled "Writing
in the Electronic Age," and makes an eloquent argument on behalf
of the new modes of processing and disseminating information:
The print media were the backbone of industrial society. The electronic
media are the backbone of post-industrial society. As they speak the
language of the majority, they are providing a forum for most people
to express their political interests. they also have the potential to
remedy some of the problems which have rendered print communication
less effective: breaking down the traditional authority of authorship,
speeding up the process of information exchange, and giving access to
broader sections of the population. In this way, they are creating a
new public sphere in which the majority of people can participate. With
radio and television, the traditional notion of authorship as a form
of intellectual ownership is breaking down: the "deconstruction"
of the author proclaimed by French post-structuralist authors like Jean
Baudrillard is actually happening there. Radio and television producers
are not "auteurs" in the strict sense because they usually
work in a team and therefore cannot claim sole ownership of the product.
In contrast to the authority of the writer which is based on the
notion of the exclusivity of knowledge, the authority of those who appear
on radio or TV as presenters or stars is based on the idea of a knowledge
which is shared by everyone. Since the audiovisual language of the electronic
media is universally comprehensible, issues raised there are more likely
to be seen as everyones concern, and the problems posed are for
everyone to resolve.
Television is the postmodern medium par excellence: it knows few
barriers and boundaries; it represents potentially every section of
the community; it reflects all opinions and tastes, and it enables everyone
to have equal and easy access to cultural forms which the traditional
literate institutions kept apart along social lines of demarcation.
Doing this it is contributing to the reversal of values which Nietzche
proclaimed for modern society, a revalorization in the cultural and
political spheres on an unprecedented scale.
In his book, No Sense of Place: The Impact of the Electronic
Media on Social Behavior, Joshua Meyrowitz explains how the electronic
media are bridging divisions which print technology deepened over the
past 200 years: between adulthood and childhood, female and male genders,
public and private spheresundermining hierarchies of authority,
removing taboos and changing traditional roles of social behavior. Expressions
of opinion through the audiovisual media puts more pressure on governments
and political leaders to consider the interests of the wider public
in their decision -making. Radio and television can empower people to
take politics into their own hands: the rise of resident action groups
and alternative political movements in the past twenty years owes a
lot to the effectiveness of the visual image to represent the political
will of the people. The recent thawing of relations between East and
West, the political reforms in Eastern European countries which culminated
in the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, and the increased awareness
of the problems facing the Third World would not have happened without
television. The constant exposure to images which reveal "how the
other half lives"behind the Iron Curtain or in the killing
fields of the Third Worldhas challenged peoples traditional
ideological preconceptions. But while the Cold War between East and
West is ending, the many "hot" wars which are troubling the
Third World as a legacy of colonial exploitation and superpower rivalry
will give the electronic media their biggest challenge yet: to aid in
the decolonization of the Third World and to pave the way towards global
glasnost and perestroika.
Adam McKeown, from Chicago, echoes Brucks optimism, but sounds
an interesting cautionary note. His letter has likewise been excerpted:
The seductions of television have to an extent focused the attentions
of the great mass of Western people back onto some common themes. The
limits of television programming and the need for profit have in some
ways acted as the limits of space and education did in the days when
traditional and elite culture dominated mans cognition. But I
think we are talking in terms of decades rather than centuries when
we consider how long it will be before the electronic media are cheap
and easy enough to utilize with the same freedom as we now utilize the
The computer not only provides freer access, but freer creation
as well. Software programs increasingly allow the user to design and
create things that previously could only be done by skilled professionals.
The computer has become the main refuge of the American individualist
(in the mythic sense). It is the largest frontier that exists in America,
where one is most free to do as one pleases, and his behavior is tolerated
because his results are often appreciated. As networking becomes more
extensive and software more easy to use, there will be more and more
opportunity for the computer user to choose his own life, to satisfy
his own idiosyncrasies. In living this life of extreme individuality,
he will move further and further away from a social homogenous existence,
and from the existence of a culture which corresponds to and mediates
this existence. The result of living ones life through the computer
screen and identification numbers is not that one just becomes an undifferentiated
cipher, but that one may become differentiated to an extreme, living
a personal life completely separated from the give and take of society.
I think the question is not whether the computer will threaten
the prized individualism we have so recently attained, but whether or
not it will take this individualism to an undesirable extreme. A world
of hackers and video addicts is not a world of homogeneity, but a world
of extreme isolation.
Finally, writer Jascha Kessler, from Santa Monica, California,
graciously permitted me to cull from his essay, "Epimetheusor,
A Reflection on the Box," which was delivered as an
address at the 56th International P.E.N. Congress, held in Vienna in
November of 1991. Kesslers intent, set out in the opening paragraphs
of his essay, is to speculate about the place of the self in a world
of undergoing radical ideological as well as technological transformations.
His concluding paragraphs, which come to focus on the place of the writer
and literature, seemed to me especially the point. There is pessimism
here, but it is pessimism of the most thoughtfuland necessarykind:
IF the deliberate, totalist campaign against the Self seems to be dissipating
today like the nightmare of evil it truly was, does it mean that we
are out of danger? One hears the rumor of a "new world order."
If there were to be such a novelty under the sun, moreover a new democratic
world order envisioned as the logical creation of "market economics"
(for thats whats currently advised by some Western leaders),
is there any reason for us, as writers, to expect that it will also
provide a favorable environment for the "self?" Not at all.
Unhappily, there may be better reasons to fear that the future will
manifest quite the contrary result. Not that Literature (with a capital
"L") will not retain its inherent power to express and project
imagined possibilities. As has always been true, fictions are formative
for the potential Self. ButLiterature is locked in a deadly contest
with another "species," so to term it, of fictions: I mean,
the fictions offered by the Media. Our melancholy question today is:
Which fictions are, well, true? Which fictions are the real
SOME psychoanalysts are aware that the danger signs are clearly visible
and should be read (at least, so far as therapeutic practice is concerned).
They have been learning their contemporary patients psychic life
is predominantly composed of a pastiche of conscious and unconscious
fantasy selves, derived from saturation in the Media since earliest
childhood. Since we are by now quite experienced as to the nature of
the universe presented by the media, it suffices to remark that, although
its offerings may be far more various, phenomenologically speaking,
than the forms of communication available before the advent of broadcasting
seventy years ago, it is anything but traditional or systematic in its
influence on the formation of an individuals psychic architecture.
It is also ubiquitously present today, radiating to everyone from hospital
cradle to hospital deathbed. Furthermore, while it often includes many
traditional genres of dramatization, it does so in much-reduced formats.
Certainly as compared to the written word, the forms of the media are
also drastically reductive. Not that any one presentation is
necessarily confused; the opposite is true, since skilled technique
articulates the content of every second. Nevertheless, the experiencing
of the media over years is as a whole absolutely unstructured, incoherent,
and, by any rational analysis of reality, all but chaotic.
From a psychoanalysts point of view, the consequences are profound.
No longer operative, let alone meaningful, are all the identifications
with those fictive persons immanent in a cultures hoard of venerable
archetypes, those long-established cultural models out of which the
individuals fantasy life was once upon a time composed. From a
writers point of view, the consequences are profoundly unsettling.
Its not simply a matter of competition with the Media for the
attention of an audience. Instead, its become a question if communication
is possible with persons whose judgment of reality does not resemble
that of people who lived before this era, people whose imaginations
responded to what fictions once were. Furthermore, what sort of communication
is it? Certainly what seems to have been severely decreased by television
viewing is peoples imaginative cognitionalthough not as
a result of what they have watched on the screen! What happens to children
is that they usually pass from believing that everything presented by
television is real to a later conviction that "nothing is
real." In other words, the "world has become crowded with
Again, from the psychoanalytic perspective, fictions are part of the
process by which we invent our reality, a reality that includes other
real persons. "Fictions do not stimulate life, they are a source
of life." From the writers perspective, however, todays
question is, Whose fictions? The answer comes, the fictions of
the Media, which are all entirely fictions per se, whether
what is shown is drama, or simulated action, "raw and unedited"
"actuality," or even non-fictional narration, like news or
documentation or instruction, or a walk through an art gallery. The
problem also is, what kind of fictions? The answer is: fictions
incommensurate with reality, because the only "reality" viewers
brought up in the television age have incorporated into their psychic
life is that of the fictive reality of the Media....
WRITERS have always assumed that the audience or a reader was another
"real" person with a "real" Self. In our time that
"real" Self is no longer the kind of "real" Self
it seems to have been in the past, certainly not that Self proposed
only yesterday by Freud and his followers. Their conception of the Self
was that of an autonomous, integrated, mature being. But in todays
societies, populated increasingly by people with fictive personalities,
personalities formed and developed through the agency of the fictions
offered them by the media, that ideal Self may well be a lost possibility.
In short, it seems to me a rather tenuous proposition at best that the
way towards the achievement of Self is now cleared and open. Even our
new-found political and economic freedoms do not offer grounds for any
such revived expectation. The Media that have so influenced the Twentieth
Century are only commencing to extend their domination of the coming