Monday, April 25, 2005

On Channel Two

Until I read Andy Cline's entry at, I didn't even know it was TV Turn-Off week.  I've already soaked up a few minutes of TV today, so I guess I blew that one.  Next year, next year.  Plus, with the NBA playoffs, forget it.  Anyway, I'm much less inspired by a week for this and a week for that than I am by the grad school mantra: "Get yourself right for next week."  Or something like that.

I read Steve Johnson's article--"Watching TV Makes You Smarter"--yesterday.  And I've read a few of the entries made by folks (here and here and here) from the blogroll who've written on the subject.  Should be clear from the outset that I'm not sure I've got anything much to add.  But I'll try.

Johnson's article suggests to me the importance of more complicated understandings of cognition--of thought activity.  What happens in the encounter with a particular interface--paper or screen?  What's the mentation?  The mind in action?  And how are mediating tools (Werstch, Bruner, others) implicated in the complex neural patterns inside one's head, the firing of pulse-driven networks, the image vectors figuring some animated correspondence to word, sound, intelligible object.  Sure, depending on which examples of television programming we want to invoke as an example, we can argue that the tube affords us activations more complex than we might've known otherwise.  But loopy, fractured narrative structures?  Not unique to television nor to any medium.

I agree with Jeff in his contention that Johnson's article is a solid articulation of the cultural shift instigated by new media; a media mind--yup. And yet it's not just the media part of the phrase that seems to be misunderstood, obscured in the school-as-institution's cling to literacy.  Mind, too, has been shrugged aside either as a mystical, speculative science or, in no more hopeful terms, as a universalizing monolith misappropriated to the narrow path of biological determinism (I oversimplify, but some version close to this one seems familiar).  Three pounds of generic (c'mon, whose is it?) grey matter and a dissection pan.  Since I've been reading some brain science books this semester, I've been wondering--week in, week out--about how much bearing it has on the work we do in composition, especially when we hinge pedagogies on new media.  How much do we assume, for example, about how minds work, about how meaning is differently apprehended, differently made?  The givens in comprehension? Whether attendant to the teacher-penned comments at the margin of the page or in the complexly spun plots of a television program. Recently and specifically, it's been Faucconier and Turner on conceptual blends and Antonio Damasio on mind and affect in The Feeling of What Happens.

I expect this discussion will continue to stir throughout the week--as people find time to read Johnson's article at this frenzied moment late in the semester (two weeks to go at SU).  Its coincidence with TV Turn-Off week sets up an interesting counterbalance, no doubt.  As just one last thought, it also got me thinking about the montage episodes ABC has so thoughtfully edited this week (endless efforts to put H.Dumpty back together again).  Last night they aired a re-cycle of Desperate Housewives; Wednesday the same thing's going on with only must-see show of the season in my world, Lost.  And so even as Johnson makes the case that television programming potentially stimulates us to more complex ways of thinking about story sequences and about inferential dialogue-gaps that require us to fill in through projection and anticipation, ABC has turned out full, hour-long episodes dedicated entirely to catch-up, as if everyone wasn't watching every episode.  Continues the questions, how will we be conditioned?  What leaks into habits of mind?  And so on.

Added: Dana Stevens of Slate comments on Johnson's article. Bookmark and Share Posted by at April 25, 2005 7:02 PM to Media