Return to the Text

Audiovisual Fasting in a Propagandized Age

It’s no coincidence that the modern understanding of propaganda can be traced back to the use of new technological media in the era of the World Wars. Of course, propaganda wasn’t invented in that era, but the rise of mass media was co-extensive with the refinement of its modern forms. Photography, and especially radio, were weaponized by belligerents to bolster commitment to the war cause and to undermine the enemy’s confidence.

Both photography and radio share a particular immediacy. The realistic imagery of the former simulates an experience of presence in the viewer: the photograph simulates the sensation of being in the place that is depicted by the image. Seeing is believing. Similarly, radio gives presence to the voice of one who is absent: listening to a radio broadcast creates the perception that the speaker shares a space with the audience. These feelings of presence and immediacy play a critical role in persuasion.

Since the second half of the twentieth century, media technology has combined photography and sound: through television and cinema, we simultaneously experience voice and image. Today, the speed of digital media provides broadcasts with a temporal immediacy – viewers can watch in real time as events unfold. This effectively triples the audience’s perception of presence (visual, aural, and temporal), and thereby multiplies the rhetorical power of the message. This dynamic is especially powerful when it comes to the dissemination of news. ‘News’ is a genre of communication that aims to make audiences aware of events that happen at some remove, and thereby persuade viewers of those happenings’ relevance to their lives. In short, the news’ ghostly function is to make the absent event present.

Not only has digital technology accelerated the dissemination of news events, it has allowed higher fidelity in their transmission, achieving a realism that was lacking in the twentieth century. For these reasons, modern news coverage has an unprecedented rhetorical power to shape the viewer’s world. But this power is now routinely abused. Corporate media entities aren’t satisfied to simply bring the event to their audience; they aim to condition the audience’s reception of those realities. The news media has become the most effective propaganda machine in the history of the world. What power do audiences have in the face of this hypermediated attempt to shape public opinion, and even reality itself? Of course, they can turn off the news entirely, disengaging from the political realm and cutting ties with public life in their communities. But such a move comes with obvious costs, not the least of which is forfeiting one’s own small power to shape opinion and the course of human events.

A better solution, perhaps, is to resist consuming information via modern audiovisual media. Counterintuitive as it may seem, a technological regression is in order. We must return to the text. Historically, text has been understood as a derivative medium, one that strips communication of the immediacy of speech and sound: the sensory dimensions of real experience. This is true. But in an age of omnipresent propaganda, audiovisual fasting becomes not only a means to reclaim some autonomy in processing information, but a strategy for resisting the coercive rhetorical power of the modern media ecosphere. The unique suasive force of voice and vision ensures that audiovisual media colonize our thinking and reflection. A historical comparison of the way that speech and text shapes our cognition shows that the older technology of the written word allows for greater intellectual independence, and thus, personal liberty.

Bicameralism and Prehistoric Power of Voice

The link between speech and persuasion has a deep history. In his book Magic, Rhetoric, and Literacy, William A. Covino notes that the modern English word grammar is etymologically related to the Medieval word grimoire, an archaic word for collections of magic spells or incantations. This connection underscores that language – particularly its oral forms – has the capacity to change the world around us. Just like a magical incantation must be correctly pronounced and organized if it is to produce its intended effect, everyday speech must also adhere to certain rules (e.g., a grammar) if it will convince the audience. Thus, the etymology of grammar hints at the powerful capacity of persuasive speech to change the world.

But there is even earlier evidence of the mystical and divine powers that were attributed to speech and the aural experience of it. Julian Jaynes wrote a controversial book entitled The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, in which he argued that anthropologists and psychologists are wrong about when human consciousness first emerged. While the interdisciplinary consensus holds that humans displayed behavioral modernity around 50,000 years ago, Jaynes combines literary, archaeological, and psychosocial analysis to argue that human consciousness actually arose around the Bronze Age Collapse (a period of cultural turmoil that took place only a little over 3,000 years ago). Jaynes doesn’t prove that the emergence of consciousness occurred at the end of the Bronze Age, but he does offer an intriguing account of the deep link between language, auditory perception, and persuasion.

In Jaynes’ history of consciousness, the emergence of writing plays a crucial role in the social evolution of humanity. Before humans were conscious, they had a “bicameral” (or divided) mind: one part was the “willing” component that determined individual actions (operating subconsciously), while the other was the “listening” component that heard and obeyed the will of the former. Jaynes’ contention, in brief, was that pre-historical people experienced their thoughts as auditory hallucinations – often in the form of commands for how to act.

To make an example, whereas a modern person may think to herself “I need to go to the grocery store” (with no external verbalization of that thought), the prehistorical man heard a command: “Hunt.” He did not consider this any ‘thought’ of his own. The auditory experience of the command suggested to him that this voice came from some unseen, external source of authority. Jaynes asserts that, due in part to the omnipresence of the commands, early man identified them as dictates from the gods, which he therefore felt powerless to resist. The fact that these basic commands were often necessary for survival (e.g. “Run!,” “Hunt!,” “Water!,” etc.) indicated that the pain or hardship that always seemed to follow disobedience was punishment for defying the divine will.

Jaynes claims that as civilized life became increasingly complex in the late Bronze era, humans experienced the emergence of self-consciousness, a “breakdown” of the bicameral mind. This mental phenomenon was required for navigating the many new interactions that defined urban life, which often required self-awareness. Slowly, the aurally-hallucinated external commands were silenced. Instead, the voice was internalized and came to be recognized as the reflective thought of one’s own independent will. Because the divine commands had been compulsory, prehistoric life was lived on autopilot. The divine voice was sovereign and its persuasive power was complete. But once that voice was internalized, it was not only silenced, it was stripped of its divinity: it became resistible. Free will was born. The internal voice of the self did not demand obedience. On the contrary, successful social life often required refusing to obey the internal commands. In short, stripping cognition of its auditory externality also stripped it of its transcendent authority.

The Experience of Text and the Silence of the Inner Voice

Jaynes does not suggest that the emergence of writing caused the breakdown of the bicameral mind, but he does concede that writing was a technology that accelerated and shaped the transformation of human cognition. In essence, writing was a new technology that allowed internal thoughts to be re-externalized. As James C. Scott and others have explained, the rise of state power and institutional forms of control were enabled by the textual revolution. But writing inaugurated other important changes, too. Externalizing internal thought in the form of text gave those thoughts a physical and enduring presence in the world. The text was an object. Further, it was a silent object. Whereas the prehistorical auditory mind experienced the presence of the divine through the vocalization of its will, the literate individual was left with a text that could not speak on its own. It was not an entity, it was a thing.

“Reading” the text (a re-internalization of someone else’s thoughts that had been externalized through the act of writing) required hearing the ideas in one’s own voice, either mentally or aloud. The idea that the effectiveness of a text required “taking it in” or internalizing it is illustrated in magic ritualism. LeCouteax notes that in spells which required a practitioner to write down magic words, it was common that the ritual required some destruction of the text, which was then dissolved in a liquid and drank (xxii). Yet whereas one had no control over what commands issued from the prehistoric divine voice, the internalization of the ideas via text was a matter of the reader’s will. The individual could choose not to read – he could refuse, or close his eyes, or destroy the text.

While the written word retained some of the persuasive power of oral communication, it lacked the presence and immediacy. Texts distance us from the events they describe, both physically, aurally, and temporally. This ensures that the reader retains some agency and autonomy that was lacking when faced with the auditory divine command. Reading entails a distance that opens a space for contemplation – a kind of reflection that was impossible when we were followed everywhere and always by the voice of god.

Here, we need not belabor the profound changes that the textual revolution brought with it. More important is that many modern scholars assert that this revolution – with its attendant ramifications for human thought and interaction – is still in the process of unfolding. Jaynes himself wrote that “We, at the end of the second millennium A.D. are still in a sense deep in this transition to a new mentality.”

Reclaiming Autonomy from the Digital Gods

Digital media and the internet have emphasized the audiovisual elements that the shift from oral culture to textual culture had seemed destined to render obsolete. Certainly, the internet still makes use of text. Indeed, the very code that enables digital media is itself a text with an intricate grammar of its own. But as Marshall McLuhan explained (one of the few of his era who anticipated our mediated culture and the speed with which it emerged), the cultural energy today is once again on the side of sight and sound – the moving images and cacophony of noise that attends them. In short, at precisely the moment that the textual revolution seemed to be total and complete, we have returned to forms of information gathering that have much more in common with the conditions that obtained in the earlier era that Jaynes described, where we are constantly barraged with aural commands and propositions. But instead of the voice of one god, we are subjected to a thousand voices – many of which are advancing claims and demanding actions that are diametrically opposed to one another. We went from a prehistoric, schizophrenic reality where we were hearing one voice, to a premodern textual culture that silenced and internalized this voice, to a postmodern context where we are continuously hearing voices (plural) which seek to colonize our minds. Returning to the text is a powerful means to resist the coercive, rhetorical demands that the mediated chorus make of us.

One advantage of text is that we must actively choose to internalize its contents. When CNN is blaring at the airport gate, you are relatively powerless: you must either take in the hysterical bloviating of Brian Stelter, or overpower his voice with aural input from another source – listening to music or someone else’s voice. The omnipresence of audiovisual media in our daily lives is largely unavoidable and thus capable of shaping our views and determining our actions. This decreases individual power to decide which ideas one will consume and which beliefs one will hold.

The presence and immediacy of these voices and their attendant images are the source of digital media’s rhetorical prowess. Jacques Derrida argued that “in every case, the voice is closest to the signified […] All signifiers, and first and foremost the written signifier, are derivative with regard to what would wed the voice indissolubly to the mind or to the thought sense, indeed to the thing itself.” “Derivative” meaning always secondary to heard sound: what are written letters but symbols that represent particular sounds? Because text is derivative and secondary to the voice, it is also less powerful when it comes to persuasion. For this reason, a return to textual sources of information serves as a way to resist the suasive force of digital media.

Serious thinking – forming thoughts and ideas and beliefs – can only occur when a few preconditions are satisfied. One must have time to contemplate. This requires that one can control the flow of information as it comes in. Consuming information textually allows for the reader to move at the pace of thought, stopping at key moments for reflection. Serious thought also works best when distractions are minimized. The multisensory experience that digital media aims to produce in the audience multiplies the number of demands on their attention. In contrast, the consumption of text is an exclusively visual activity which allows for more focused critical reflection.

Finally, thinking requires a cognitive space in which the thinker has control: control to determine the object of consideration and the power to determine what to think about it. Audiovisual media colonizes the mind with others’ voices and the images they have chosen to advance their own rhetorical aims. Although a text often represents the voice of someone else, the act of consuming text always renders those statements in the reader’s own voice inside their head. This ensures that the space of the mind is not cohabitated with a million voices in addition to one’s own, allowing for a more careful consideration of the ideas in question.

A return to textual sources of information is an affirmation of one’s own intellectual authority. It silences the chattering of the screens and gives voice to the self. In an age when we are bombarded with sensory input, designed by entities who have unspoken agendas that make demands of us (of which we are often unaware), the written word restores some of our agency as thinkers and consumers of information and facilitates the forms of intellectual resistance and integrity that will help us keep our sanity in a schizophrenic age.

Adam Ellwanger is professor of English at the University of Houston, Downtown. His latest book, “Metanoia: Rhetoric, Authenticity, and the Transformation of the Self” will be available in paperback in April 2022.

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