Historical Case Studies, The Dialectic, and Mediology

Since I am struggling to condense all of the different methodologies into a cohesive blog post, I would like to focus specifically on Czitrom’s “Media and the American Mind,” while emphasizing how the adherence to a single approach–historical, in this instance–might prove problematic in media studies. Interestingly enough, Czitrom’s historical case studies on developed and developing technologies become yet another historical study for future readers seeking to understand the early 1980’s reactions to developing technologies, such as cable broadcasting, public access, and what I presume to be predictions of the laser disc (?). In so doing, Czitrom not only shows us the utopic and dystopic reactions to the development of every major technology since the telegraph, but also (perhaps intentionally?) offers a view into these reactions occurring within himself before (for him) the emergence new technological prospects.

I am not very well acquainted with the historical case study approach, and I hope I am not extrapolating too much from Czitrom’s text in understanding the dialectic to form a central focus of this approach’s methodology; however, Czitrom’s emphasis on the “historical sketch” of “dialectical tensions” appears to bear significant impact on his study. One such example is the dialectic between “the progressive or utopian possibilities offered by new communications technologies” and “their disposition as instruments of domination and exploitation” (184)–in other words, between utopian and dystopian constructions of emerging technologies. The dialectical tensions between, on the one hand, a corporatist and profit-determined potential for new technologies of communication, and, on the other, one that might create a more democratized and populist form of cultural production through the accessibility and affordability of culture-producing technologies, might not be dialectical in nature at all. The dialectic presumes that the latter provides an antithesis of the former, and thus leads to a synthesis, perhaps a sort of resolution between the two. However, instead of dialectical movement, we have only the co-option or appropriation of the latter by the former, a movement by which the corporate, profit-determined side of cultural production (i.e. the “culture industry”) appropriates elements of more democratically produced culture into its broader ideology of consumption as “lifestyle”. Therefore, perhaps the dialectic is not the best model for understanding these tensions.

This is by no means to disparage the dialectic in general, but to question the way Czitrom employs it to seemingly resolve the (perhaps, irresolvable) tensions between each side of the constructed binary. Mediology appears to provide the antidote to such an approach by “abandoning the ancestral oppositions” (Debray)–in this case, between the dystopic and the utopic–in favor of an ecological understanding where the plethora of perceptions are not forced into a single opposition but allowed to form a field of conflicting, diverging, and converging forces. However, I am not entirely clear on the relationship between dialectical and ecological thinking, and this is something that I would like to learn more about.