My Introduction to Media Studies course is currently grappling with Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death. Comprehending the medium as metaphor for our culture is challenging, so I present a lot of examples in class to help them see the reading in a new way. In this first of two media marathoning blog posts, I hope to demonstrate that our culture’s dominant means of communication infiltrate the fantasy worlds that captivate our imaginations. I take the following idea as my starting point:
Discussing how the telegraph changed the nature and structure of public discourse, Postman explains that, with the telegraph’s aid, “transportation and communication could be disengaged from each other, that space was not an inevitable constraint on the movement of information” (64).
When analyzing commonly marathoned texts, I’ve been paying attention to the means of communication in the story worlds. In particular, I see unique communication media in the Lord of the Rings, A Song of Ice and Fire, and the Harry Potter series. Written in the time surrounding the world wars, the Lord of the Rings books generally feature archaic methods to convey messages: word of mouth, letters carried by horseback, or even fire signals. As such, we see Frodo in grave danger because absent-minded barkeep Mr. Butterbur forgot to send him Gandalf’s letter of warning about the Black Riders. In the previous example, communication and transportation are not disengaged, thus leading to logistical problems. When we do see communication divorced from space, it is still a precarious enterprise. With the palantirs, seeing stones that enable users to communicate with others who possess the one of the stones, we can see cultural anxieties surrounding intelligence gathering (spying) and counterintelligence. In the Mata Hari era of the early 1900s, we may deploy spies to gather information and intercept telegraphs, but we cannot be sure of the veracity of such information.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2EJYmsBZ2hE
In an interview with Charlie Jane Anders of Gawker’s io9 blog, George R. R. Martin explains the significance of his raven message carriers, considering them symbolic of the struggles surrounding communication accuracy and timeliness: “They’re an Internet that’s subject to hacking, with arrows and archers and shooting them down, and people killing the ravens, and messages not going through. I do try to reflect that in the books, too. I try to do these little things that impress me from history. One of them is the unreliability of information. You know, they didn’t have CNN. So they would get these reports of battles that were late and were wrong.”
We also see the impact of unreliable information in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, but what strikes me the most about communication in Harry Potter is the great variety in the wizards’ means to communicate. Like Martin’s ravens, we have owls as efficient and user-directed message carriers. The wizarding world boasts many other unique means of communication: Sirius Black can show up in flames to have a fireside chat with Harry; Aberforth Dumbledore can use a bewitched broken mirror to learn Harry needs help; oil paintings become deceased wizards’ avatars, enabling them to travel through the art world; and Dumbledore’s army can be mobilized using bewitched coins. What I take from the Harry Potter collection of communication tools is that even in the archaic wizarding world that writes with quills and ink, Rowling could only conceive of a world that divorced communication and transportation. Her imagination could not go beyond the collection of communication technologies we now have at our fingertips. Put differently, wizards cannot not communicate. In place of email, we have owls. In place of social media or texting, we have fireplace and mirror. In place of video diaries, we have Dumbledore’s pensieve. In place of Twitter, evites, or facebook events, we have coins to help us flash mob Voldemort. What I take from all of these examples—Lord of the Rings, A Song of Ice and Fire, and Harry Potter—is that the stories of our times communicate our cultural anxieties, including our anxieties surrounding communication.