Media Theory

The act of storytelling is in essence a linear mode of expression. There is a before and after, a beginning and an end. It is a consequence of the writing revolution, and a model from the universe that existed prior to electronic media. It functions in a way where certain things are hidden and slowly revealed to build tension and excitement, with a payoff in the end to finally sum up the whole story, which in most cases try to tell you some sort of moralistic view. One could probably trace such practices back to its roots of the Shaman or ‘campfire’ stories, where people would gather to hear the tales of the unknown.

Does this still work today? By ‘work’, I mean, will people still find this interesting and convincing? With the presence of electronic media (internet, mobile phones, video, etc), things are starting to change. I might be getting ahead of my argument here, because I’m not giving enough background on how the media is changing the way our minds work, i.e. the way we construct our thoughts and understand the world. To start off, all stories, whether visual or audio, have a frame implied; by that i mean a start and an end, whether it’s a physical frame (like the ones we see on paintings), or a time-frame. Human beings like to see things in that way, because we are affected by notions of life and death, and as such we try to make sense of our short span on Earth. So stories are convincing because they frame a moment to the benefit of their point, but have people ever wondered about what happens after ‘they lived happily ever after?’ What happens to Snow White and the Handsome Prince after they fall in love and get married for many years? Isn’t there a possibility that she might get old and ugly too and turn into the wicked witch that sought to wreck her? Would that, then, change the premise of the story, and set a new tone for its point of view?

Storytelling provides a framework for fragmented viewpoints, all making sense in their own little universes, without consideration of others, which is what makes crossovers interesting. When two worlds collide, we have a juxtaposition of ideas that form new relationships and therefore new ideas. Imagine a movie where Spider-man meets The Dark Knight, how would that play out? They probably already did a comic on that already, and that’s simple enough as they have much in common, with a clear definition on who’s good and evil. ( on a side note, the notion of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ is also a concept that only exists within a certain ‘frame’, although this should be left for another essay.) But what if it was say, Spider-man meets Terminator? Not the most predictable combination but even so, would be a bizarre but interesting one to watch, if such a movie was ever made. The concepts that hold each universe together must find a way to merge and make sense of each other. Spider-man projects a thriving civilization that is threatened by some crooks with the likes of the Joker, while Terminator speaks of a dystopian and crumbling vision of the future at the mercy of machines. When civilization is threatened by a greater evil such as the Terminators, would the baddies like the Joker put down their petty goals and fight alongside Spider-man to save humanity? Or, if the Joker lives in a world where time machines exist, would he try to take over one and travel back to own Skynet, and perhaps even assassinate Spider-man’s mother? Whichever the case, it requires alteration and compromise of both sides, sometimes leading to new consequences unforeseen by the authors themselves. In essence, they are two systems conjured up by different creators being put together to co-exist, and the lines that shape their features will also be the ones that cut each other down.

Or what if it was a mash-up of a China war film on the revolution and a war film from maybe Taiwan? Both sides would have different points of views on who is the good and bad, because they have different ‘frames’, and it would be interesting to watch how it pans out, if ever made. Propaganda, is in effect also another function of storytelling, and with the introduction of electronic media, it is hard to keep their story intact with so many other interferences. Electronic media makes information fluid, joins pieces together, even those that weren’t meant to be together (not unlike the new combinations of couples across the globe thanks to sites like match.com). It is difficult to censor information from people today and to convince people of a story that only exists within borders.

Yes, there is life after death; it is continued in our sons and daughters.

It’s crazy how Vilem Flusser’s writings could inform me about Chinese thinking. Vilem Flusser’s work mainly focuses on communications theory, and treats it as a science, almost like physics, approaching with a very analytical and critical rigor. And yet, even though I was reading it mainly for my curiosities in media theory, i somehow stumbled upon some views that coincided with my findings on Chinese culture.

Linear thinking had triumped in the West; after the printing of the bible, after the industrial revolution, after people learned history. Linear thinking was the ability to think in terms of logical sequences, which manifested into writing, mathematics and finally science. Science could be said to be the highest order of Linear thinking, putting theory into practice and method. One could say Western history, being linear itself, was the history of linear thinking, and how linear thinking has ‘progressed’ (grown in a linear fashion) to what it is today. You could say the West dominated the ‘Fission’ process of things, breaking down and analyzing and going deep into things. Such an approach contributed to ‘disciplines’, specialization and industrialization. Divide and conquer, so to speak.

Now, Eastern minds had a different approach for a long time. From the fundamental principles of calligraphy and typography, to cooking, to society and moral ethics, Chinese thinkers have approached things from a wholistic point of view. This is in tune with what Flusser terms as ’surface’ thinking; the ability to synthesize things at once, and put things together to create a greater whole. You could call it the ‘fusion’ of things. Take Chinese calligraphy and art for example: masters in the Chinese arts have always been taught that the unpainted surface of the paper is more important than the painted surface, or to put it in another way, the negative space. In doing so, the Chinese artist seeks to achieve a balance between negative and positive until it is finally in harmony. This philosophy is also resonated in the Yin and Yang from Taoism, where it provides wholisitc guidances for the way of the world, and not to separate individual things from the cosmological body (段章取意). Again, this approach is seen in cooking as well, in things as simple as steaming fish and vegetables; the idea of it is to steam them together in a cooker so that the flavours of the fish and vegetables mix: the fish fragrance goes into the vegetables, and the vegetable flavour seeps into the fish in a mutual osmosis. And then you have martial arts such as Taiji, which stems from the I-Ching, which the word ‘Taiji’ pretty much means ‘The Grand Completeness’, and is all about teaching oneself to balance forces.

Now, when the British attacked China during the Opium war, it was pretty much a fight between linear and surface thinking. The technologies nurtured from analytical scientific thinking were too powerful for the wholistic civilization of China at that time. The world saw Britain crush an ancient civilization with their almighty canons, and signified another victory in the progress of linear thinking. This, and probably many other wars, contributed to the rejection of China’s traditional culture by its own people, deeming it ‘backward’ (another linear term) and superstitious. People lost faith in a culture that had been with them for centuries. As such, since then, from Sun Yatsen to the Cultural Revolution, traditonal Chinese practices and thought were rejected, and western logic and sciences have been adopted. Today, modern China is what it is today because of this, and the people continue to look to the West because of their leadership in linear thinking. In fact ‘modern’ is a term that comes from linear history, almost like the ‘final stage’ of progress.

But yet, somehow, and thankfully, alot of Chinese practices have been preserved. Partly because China is so big, and many Chinese fled overseas, taking their cultural practices and values with them. The Chinese values that had been preserved, such as 凉 and 热气, in Chinese medicine, or Confucious teachings, start to conflict with modern day values and the premises on which modern China is built upon. In everyday life, the battle between line and surface continues, between logic and wholistic, science and magic.

And yet, as China advances (another linear term) rapidly into modernity and linearity, Americans start embracing Eastern practices such as Yoga and Wholefoods. How do things fit together? they ask. How does it all make sense? How can so many races exist together in harmony? China itself has long been a mixture of cultures and civilizations. But it believes in the integration and harmony of plurality, and so even from the time of Qin Shihuang, China has sort to unify its people in so many different ways.

They still are doing so today.

A book is a sequence of spaces.
Each of these spaces is perceived at a different moment - a book is also a sequence of moments.
A book is not a case of words, nor a bag of words, nor a bearer of words.

A writer, contrary to the popular opinion, does not write books.
A writer writes texts.
The fact, that a text is contained in a book, comes only from the dimensions of such a text; or, in the case of a series of short texts (poems, for instance), from their number.

A literary (prose) text contained in a book ignores the fact that the book is an autonomous space-time sequence.
A series of more or less short texts (poems or other) distributed through a book following any particular ordering reveals the sequential nature of the book.
It reveals it, perhaps uses it; but it does not incorporate it or assimilate it.

Written language is a sequence of signs expanding within the space; the reading of which occurs in the time.
A book is a space-time sequence.

Books existed originally as containers of (literary) texts.
But books, seen as autonomous realities, can contain any (written) language, not only literary language, or even any other system of signs.

Among languages, literary language (prose and poetry) is not the best fitted to the nature of books.

A book may be the accidental container of a text,. the structure of which is irrelevant to the book: these are the books of bookshops and libraries.
A book can also exist as an autonomous and self-sufficient form, including perhaps a text that emphasises that form, a text that is an organic part of that form: here begins the new art of making books.

In the old art the writer judges himself as being not responsible for the real book. He writes the text. The rest is done by the servants, the artisans, the workers, the others.
In the new art writing a text is only the first link in the chain going from the writer to the reader. In the new art the writer assumes the responsibility for the whole process.

In the old art the writer writes texts.
In the new art the writer makes books.
To make a book is to actualize its ideal space-time sequence by means of the creation of a parallel sequence of signs, be it linguistic or other.