Workers' Liberty #2/2


The medium and the message

I agree with John Cunningham (WL 2/1) about many of the points he makes about cinema: that particular techniques have been misrepresented as progressive, and that attempts to create an alternative 'political' cinema have been failures. However, he is completely missing the point about 'modes of perception'.

By Andy Robinson

>His account is based on confusing perception (the way in which the world seems to a particular person) with sensation (the physical input of images through the senses). These are related, but separate; perception is not reducible in any mechanical way to sensation.

John's claim that 'There is no evidence that the way we perceive the world changes other than by a slow, evolutionary process' is simply wrong. He has a point if we limit the discussion to sensation (though even here, senses such as sight, sound and touch are now frequently modified by technology; cinema for instance allows us to look at a flat screen yet nevertheless see a three-dimensional image). But there is another dimension to perception.

The evidence John asks for comes from cross-cultural psychological and anthropological studies of perception, i.e., how things seem to people. To take a few examples: one study around the turn of the last century found that the ability to see a specific image in a two-dimensional photograph is culturally specific. People in some isolated areas of Switzerland were unable to recognise themselves in photographs. The reason for this is that seeing an image of a face in a photograph is not merely a matter of sensation (seeing the physical photograph), but also involves a process of interpretation ('translating' the small two-dimensional image into a representation of a larger, three-dimensional face). This ability is not inherited or evolved; it is learnt, and therefore varies between cultures.

Another study examined an African tribe who lived exclusively in enclosed environments (forests), so they rarely saw anything from a distance: the trees around them obscured anything which was not physically close to them, so they did not have to assess their distance from an object. This study found that members of the tribe did not acquire the ability to perceive distance. For instance, when taken out of the forest, they thought distant objects were near, and reached out to touch them; and they thought approaching vehicles were actually growing larger before their eyes. People who have learnt distance perception do it so automatically that it seems natural to them, but it is actually a learnt form of perception (not sensation), specific to some cultures and absent in others.

Another set of examples come from the Gestalt school of psychology. These studies found that, if you show someone a picture which is incomplete, they 'imagine' it to be a complete picture. For instance: if you draw a face as a circle of dots which are not joined to each other, you see it as a face, even though all that it physically coming in through your senses is a number of unconnected dots. Then there are studies such as that by Carmichael and others: these researchers found that people's memory of an image was different depending on how the image was captioned.

In anthropology, this leads to something called the 'Sapir-Whorf hypothesis' which states that we don't directly perceive the external 'real world' at all; each culture sees it through its own spectacles, as it were, so that what each culture sees differs from that of others. It is as if we are inside a house with stained-glass windows: what we perceive relates to something outside us, but that 'something' is always distorted by the particular assumptions we hold. This does not only include explicit assumptions, but a lot which come as second nature to members of a particular culture. Our language, systems of meaning, and technologies serve as our particular 'stained-glass window': they put a particular slant on what we see, so no perception is ever purely sensation and nothing ever precisely reflects 'objective reality as it really is'.

In this sense, therefore, there is no problem on principle with saying that a form of technology, such as film, can alter our 'mode of perception' in a relatively short space of time.

It is also likely that technology alters ways of viewing the world - hence the development of revolutionary movements and different 'modes of production'. The 'primitive' idea of a magical world beyond human control could not survive the development of technologies to control the world; the medieval Christian assumption that all human beings believe in God could not survive the rise of technologies such as writing and practices such as global trade which led to sustained contact with other cultures. The French Revolution came hot on the heels of the spread of the printing press; it is no coincidence that the revolutionary ideas came from mass-produced books and were disseminated in printed pamphlets and illustrations. Also, the evidence for the effects of film and other new technologies are the changes in social life in the 20th century. For instance, 20th-century political movements (whether Bolshevik, Thatcherite, social-democratic, Blairite, Nazi or whatever) have depended on new technologies to constitute themselves as movements. There is a large difference between a political movement which is run through face-to-face contacts, and one which relies on cinema, radio or TV to mobilise a following which may well be geographically fragmented.

To take an example: the modern TV election is a quite different affair to the older kind of election which relied on grassroots mobilisation (in this case, a change for the worse). It is unlikely that Blairism could have 'achieved' anything as a movement were it not for the technology of television. It is no coincidence that the debate about Socialist Alliance campaigning focused around the use of face-to-face or massified means of communication (i.e., canvassing versus leaflets).

Thus, technology is far more than merely a 'technique' for getting across the same basic message; it fundamentally changes the messages which can be delivered. As Marshall McLuhan put it, 'the medium is the message'. When new technologies - especially communication technologies - spread across society, this can change not only the ease with which existing practices occur (e.g.,. speed up communications): it can alter the way people see themselves and their world. I agree with John that this does not necessarily make film progressive; but I think film has been influential in some ways on perception. For instance: many of the figures of speech George W Bush is employing against 'the terrorists' are drawn from cinema. In action films, 'terrorists' are always motiveless evildoers, and they are defeated by strong, ruthless, male heroes. It now seems the present crisis is being assessed through these same assumptions. Medieval politics was viewed through images drawn from the technology and culture of its day. For instance, many dissident movements relied on religious beliefs and ways of thinking drawn from experiences of the church, which was then a major focus of communication. Though not a technology, religion involved a 'way of seeing' which altered what people thought and perceived.

The relationship between medium and message is important for revolutionary politics because it completely falsifies the bourgeois account of history. In both fact and fiction, bourgeois authors write as if human history was always made up of basically the same kind of people as today. Actually, the way people perceive the world has changed fundamentally through history - and that means that it can change again. It also means that the development of new ideas, technologies and techniques can alter people's perceptions in a progressive direction.

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