Its happened to anyone who pays attention to the news. You begin
to follow a storysay, the ethnic tensions in Yugoslaviafrom
its early appearance in the news pages. You try to learn the various
factions and the matters in dispute. Each week brings new developments,
which you fit into a mental schema taking shape in your head. "Whats
going on in Yugoslavia" becomes one of the territories you regularly
visit through the news. With each visit you make revisions in your understanding
and speculate about what might happen next. And then, for one reason
or another, it gets to be too much. Perhaps you go off on vacation and
miss the newspaper for a week or two, or some other story captures your
attention. Or you simply determine that its not worth the effort.
You give up on Yugoslavia. You are no longer "following the story."
But thats not the end of it, for the story will follow you.
A headline here, a radio bulletin there, an occasional glance at the
images on the evening news: without conscious effort you remain vaguely
aware that "somethings going on in Yugoslavia," and
that it now involves planes and guns. Note the location of this awareness.
Since the story is following you, it enters consciousness from the rear,
lodging itself in what we usually call "the back" of the mind.
This is the medias storage bin. It is the place where pop songs
register their prevalence, celebrities edge into view, headlines leave
a hazy impression, and ad jingles get stuck.
In the suburban housing tract where I grew up, the front yards
were separated by driveways, but the backyards were not. The houses
proclaimed their separateness in facing the street, but as you got deeper
into each private lot the space suddenly changed character and became
public. Without fences or driveways, the backyards formed a kids
commons, privately owned but publicly traveled.
"Linked at the back, separated at the front"here
is an image that could describe the state of our minds in an age of
electronic communication. As you go deeper into each private mind, you
suddenly come upon a brightly-lit public spacethe electronic commons,
where the brand names, pop tunes, and video icons roam. In our search
for the meaning of the electronic age, we would do well to begin here.
When Marshall McLuhan wrote the most famous words in media studies,
"The medium is the message," he directed our attention away
from content of communication to certain formal qualities of the media
themselves. He wanted us to think about the nature of the spoken word
vs. the nature of written texts, the nature of print vs. the nature
of TV. McLuhans conceit was his claim to deduce the "effects"
of a given medium through extremely abstract statements about its form.
Thus, if print is a linear, one-thing-at-a-time medium, then its effect
must be to enforce linear, one-thing-at-a-time thinking.
It was useful to think about print this way, but far more useful
was the habit of thinking about "media" at all. That the media
themselves have effects, that they constitute a new kind of environment,
that this environment produces its own messagesthese are McLuhans
real contributions. His generalizations about individual media remain
fascinating but often useless. TV, he said, gives us "light through"
the screen, whereas with cinema we get "light on." Neat, but
McLuhans Delphic pronouncements influenced many bright people
during the 1960s, including a political consultant and ad man named
Tony Schwartz. In 1973, Schwartz published The Responsive Chord,
a forgotten classic of media prophecy. The book argued that common sense
notions about communication are inadequate for understanding the way
the media work today. Schwartz was especially hostile to "transportation"
metaphors, which suggest that the purpose of communication is to transmit
a message ("information") from one point to another, from
a sender to a receiver. In an electronic environment, where everyone
is saturated with messages, transmission is hardly at issue. In somewhat
overly-technical prose, Schwartz observed:
A listener or viewer brings far more information
to the communication event than a communicator can put into his
program, commercial or message. The communicators problem,
then, is not to get stimuli across, or even to package his stimuli
so they can be understood and absorbed. Rather, he must deeply understand
the kinds of information and experiences stored in his audience, the
patterning of this information, and the interactive resonance process
whereby stimuli evoke this stored information.
The advice is not banal. Schwartz is not saying, "Know the
audience you want to reach." Hes saying, "Forget about
reaching the audience at all." The point is not to
deposit your message in the other persons mind, but to somehow
activate the layers of meaning already deposited there by the media.
Schwartz notes that "the listeners or viewers
brain is an indispensable component of the total communication system.
He adds that "much of the material stored in the brains of the
audience is also stored in the brain of the communicatorby virtue
of our shared media environment."
In other words, the audience isnt really "out there"
at all. The goal cant be to "reach" it because there
really is no territory to reach across. Our minds are no longer separate
cognitive spaces. They are each a part of the electronic commonsjoined
at the reader, privately-held but publicly-traveled. They way you communicate
through this space is not to send messages (or compose texts). Instead,
you fashion a "package of stimuli" that will "resonate"
with what is already and continuously communicated. Not expression,
then, but the return of the expressed becomes the savvy communicators
aim. Schwartz writes:
In communicating at electronic speed, we no longer direct
information into an audience, but try to evoke stored information
out of them, in a patterned way....A "message" is not
the starting point for communicating. It is the final product arrived
at after considering the effect we hope to achieve and the communication
environment where people will experience our stimuli.
It is Schwartz, I think, who comes closest to understanding the shift
that so concerns us today. It is not that print is dying, and with it
abstract, sequential thought. It is not that the image is triumphing
over the word. These statements are true but not quite true enough.
they fail to notice what else is happening: in the media, in politics,
and even in intellectual life, the search for the "responsive chord"
is crowding out all other impulses. Neither public discourse nor private
expression can survive such a shift. Schwartz gets nearer than anyone
else has gotten to the ascendant principle when he writes that "we
no longer direct information into an audience, but try to evoke stored
information out of them."
Michael Schudson has made a related observation in discussing the
rise of modern advertising. "Selling," Schudson writes, "is
trying to get the consumer to buy what you have. Marketing is trying
to have what the consumer wants." Consider this remark from
the point of view of an author. Suppose I feel that I have "something
to say" and I want to write a book that says it. I also want this
book to sell, or at least to reach those who might find its message
relevant. There are many ways of undertaking a selling effort, the most
basic of which is the choice of style. Thus, I try to write my book
in a style that will "reach" the right readers while at the
same time conveying my meaning.
All this belongs to the past, says Schwartz. Instead of trying
to sell the book I have in mind, I should have in mind the book that
sells. Instead of starting with "something to say" and trying
to "get my message across," I should begin with the messages
that already criss-cross the electronic commons. What I will "say"
is determined solely by the search for what Schwartz calls "the
responsive chord," the mix of signals that will resonate with material
already stored in the audience. In a radical sense, the text I produce
is arbitrary. Its only function is to activate the return of the expressed.
This is an approach Madonna understands. Everyone who has remarked
on her has pointed out how often shes changed her image in order
to keep selling records and videos. Its true of course, but Madonna
is not concerned with selling herself. Shes a marketing whiz.
Rather than sell the image she has, she wants to have the image that
sells. But its not really "her" image; it originates
at the point where the audiences awareness of itself and her awareness
of the audience meet. Its "theirs," or "ours"
more than its "hers." This sort of self-marketing requires
a thin commitment to any one imageindeed, it requires a thin selfbut
it also takes an extraordinary feel for the pulsations of the media
environment. The thin self, the extraordinary feelAndy Warhol
had both, which is why we consider him one of the geniuses of the electronic
Consider the same phenomenon in the political realm. The Willie
Horton ads during the 1988 campaign have been denounced as racist by
almost everyone. But they were worst than racistthey were arbitrary.
Designed as a package of stimuli for the sole purpose of winning the
election, they expressed, not the racist ideology of the Republican
Party or the Bush campaign, but the complete indifference to content
that a politics of the "responsive chord" demands. George
Bush is a dangerous man on the campaign trail because, lacking a political
self, he is willing to say anything. Reducing his campaign to a package
of stimuli disturbs him not at all.
Three years ago, the scandal surrounding Bushs selection
of Dan Quayle as a running mate emphasized Quayles privileged
background and draft-dodging. But the real scandal was the arbitrariness
of Bushs selection. No one in the Bush camp cared very much about
Quayle, his views, or his background. He was just another package of
stimuli. Young and telegenic, he seemed likely to appeal to women voters,
an important bloc. That belief was mistaken, but today, after three
years of Quayle jokes, the joke is on those who focused on Quayle, when
they should have been worrying about Bush and his vicious indifference
to a politics with content.
The Democrats think theyre scoring points when they complain
that Bush has "no domestic agenda," a phrase well hear
more and more of in 1992. The Democrats should read Tony Schwartz. Having
no agenda may seem like a vulnerable political strategy, but it is an
excellent communication strategy, for it affords you the flexibility
you need to keep striking the responsive chord. (Madonna, one might
say, has "no domestic agenda.")
The "Education President," the "Environmental President"Bush
seeks these labels the way Barry Manilow seeks the right chords for
a new song hes writing. Manilows songs are never really
"new." They track over the memory of his previous songs. When
you hear one for the first time, you think that maybe youre remembering
it. The chords Manilow tries to hear are not "his" chords;
theyre the responsive chords. This is the way Bush plays politics:
he tries to hammer out the chords that will resonate with enough voters
to keep him in office. Its not even correct to say that hes
a man without principles, for he believes in a principle that reduces
"reality" to a quaint concern of the weak-minded. Schwartz
calls it the resonance principle: "That which we put into the communication
has no meaning in itself. The meaning of our communication is what a
listener or viewer gets out of his experience with the communicators
Ultimately, this is the shift that should worry us. Not the waning
of print and the rise of television, not the triumph of visual imagery
over the word, but the victory of the resonance principle over the reality
principle, the substitution of an electronic commons for the world we
actually have in commonthe world where bridges decay, people suffer,
economies collapse, and ozones evaporate. It is certainly true that
without literate habits of mind we cannot understand this world, or
organize ourselves to repair and improve it. But it is also true that
within the realm of the literati, the resonance principle operates just
as effectively. For increasing numbers of academics, the path to success,
or at least comfort, is to find a constituency of other academics (including
a healthy portion of graduate students) whose buttons you learn to push.
To progress in your career means to keep on pushing. The insularity
of so much discourse in the academy, the unwillingness to engage in
debate across ideological divides, the mind-numbing mantra of "race,
gender and class" that dooms to banality the typical academic conferencethese
are signs of the resonance principle at work. Intellectual life is reduced
to a marketing strategy: dont try to sell the ideas you dont
have; try to have the ideas that sell. Of course, the "buyers"
are pitifully small in number, and their real influence in the culture
is almost nil, but these, after all, are badges of honor among the textually
In mass politics and the mass media, the audience is far bigger,
but the aim is just as narrow: to get the mix of signals right, to find
the formula that fits with the existing tendencies in the audience,
to strike the chords that will resonate with what has worked in the
past. Our hope must be that people will get tired of the endless playback,
in culture, in politics, and in academic life. Although the new resonance
principle works by the law of desireit assumes that youll
want now what youve wanted beforethe one desire the law
cant cover is the urge to be free of recycled desires.
Every semester I have students who are passionate about their music.
They usually prefer bands whose sound resonates so poorly it can only
be heard on college radio. These students give me hope.