Beyond the Galaxy [A Conference Talk]

Recently, I was invited to deliver a paper at the BH+DH Conference at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The call for papers prompted presenters “to study how digital humanities grows out book history, how ‘bh’ and ‘dh’ continue to be mutually informative and generative, and how they also contradict each other.” Below is a copy of my presentation, which I hope to return to as an article:


First film, then print, and finally, the post.

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After the horrific events of Charlottesville and a growing tolerance of racist rhetoric by our civic leaders, various pundits and politicos throughout the mainstream media have expressed, on the left, shock, and further to the right, awe, at the reemergence of white nationalism from out the west wings of American political discourse. Of course, racist ideology is nothing new to our nation’s institutions, nor has it ever vanished from them entirely, such that if anything of late has been in fact surprising, it is not that white supremacists occupy every corner of the Oval Office, but rather that they do so, so flagrantly. Just about gone are the folksy dog whistles—why would they need them, when the Commander-in-Cheeto is the first president in over a century to not enjoy the companionship of any pet—and in their place we hear political rhetoric hounded by Dixie-whistling confederate apologists and shepherds of a Germanic carnage, who bear the tiki-torch of America’s shameful and ongoing legacy of racism. The fact of that matter is that while the White House has repeatedly housed white supremacists, the American public has not seen such brazen and blatant racism come from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue since Woodrow Wilson screened D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915). The first-ever film shown at the presidential residency, Wilson reportedly described it as “writing history with lightning,” and it was thanks to his enthusiastic approval and that of the Supreme Court—Chief Justice Edward White only agreed to watch the three-hour epic after hearing it made heroes of his beloved Klan—that the pictured secured wide release and enormous popular success.[1]

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For all its ahistorical sincerity, the irony underlying the historic impact of The Birth of a Nation is that, while the film utterly and willfully misrepresents white supremacist propaganda as an accurate record of Reconstruction and the rending of American unity, at the same time Griffith’s masterpiece engendered a new movie-going public across the country, as well as rekindled the KKK—the same iteration as likely included Fred Trump, by the way. In establishing for the first time a nonverbal cinematic language, a feature-length narrative structure, a full score combining original and adapted music, realism as film’s standard aesthetic mode, and (especially) Hollywood’s huge economic potential,[2] The Birth of a Nation stands as a principle illustration of the relationship between a citizenry’s ideology and its media. Said otherwise: D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation gave birth to our nation of movie-goers, with its artistic and technical innovations defining even up to today the basic rules and expectations we have for cinema—an origin inseparable from the film’s similar entwinement with the politics of its, which remains our, time. The point here is not simply that Griffith’s movie functioned explicitly as racist propaganda reimagining and revitalizing American white nationalism, but that by delineating the nascent medium’s grammar and potential, The Birth of a Nation hailed a cinematic citizenry, doing for the 20th Century what Benjamin Franklin’s printing press did for the 18th and what Silicon Valley has been doing for ours: That is, they effect newly mediated publics, or what Benedict Anderson has termed imagined communities.

According to the late Anderson, the birth of a nation—and here we are talking about the concept of a nation generally, no longer limited to Griffith’s film or to America specifically, but nationhood and nationalism at large—is entirely dependent upon an era’s dominant medium of communication, and in particular, the development and standardization of print technology. When combined with the mechanical reproduction and disseminative power of Capitalism, early print media “laid the bases for national consciousness” by both giving “a new fixity to language” as well as fixing “unified fields of exchange and communication” among a burgeoning public.[3] For the first time, print media—and especially newspapers and pamphlets—permitted people who would otherwise be strangers separated across continental geographies and centennial temporalities to conceive of themselves as an interrelated population of fellow-readers, all sharing the same semi-official “print-language,” each reading the same printed material. “These fellow-readers, to whom they were connected through print,” writes Anderson, “formed, in their secular, particular, visible invisibility, the embryo of the nationally imagined community,” wherein every morning people would open their newspapers, well aware that countless like-minded neighbors were simultaneously replicating this banal ritual, absorbing the news in privacy and silence, as if in morning prayer. What is more, the synthesizing form of the medium itself allowed this emerging citizenry to imagine themselves as a quasi-cohesive community, sharing the space and the time of a single printed page: Persons in, say, Maryland could see juxtaposed on the same page a column covering the commercial news of their surrounding neighborhood and, barely a line apart, a paragraph on the social happenings in Virginia, thereby creating among these fellow-readers a sense that this disconnected assemblage of events, people, and things all belonged together, and in time, all belonged to the imagined community of a single, limited nation[4]imagined not because they are inauthentic, but because nations are speculatively established, founded upon a promise first made available by the “reproducibility and dissemination” of print media.[5]

2561532Despite immediate appearances, the literary character of nationalism is not lost in the transition from print to film as our dominant national medium, from the birth of a nation with cannons to The Birth of a Nation with cameras nearly a century and a half later. Had I the time here, I would more fully trace the relationship between exclusionary racism and print-culture nationalism through reference to the work of Peter Sloterdijk, and tying that together with the traditional humanities more generally, but for now I want to limit our scope to a discussion of how media structure ideologies, and thus how communication technologies inform our understandings of the human condition. That media function unconsciously to constitute our social and psychical experience is what Marshall McLuhan means with his famous dictum that the medium is the message: The ideological power of the periodicals written by the founding fathers stems not so much from the overt arguments they make for revolution or democracy, but from the material form in which those arguments are delivered. The topical juxtaposition of a newspaper page or the replicative distribution of a printed pamphlet thus can do more to unite and stabilize the idea of a national public in the minds of diverse, silent, yet monolingual fellow-readers than any explicit patriotic rhetoric.

For McLuhan—who agrees with Anderson that nationalism finds its origin in the regularity of print technologies,[6] which is why modernity’s epoch of the nation-state is coterminous with what he calls the Gutenberg Galaxy—the cinematic medium merely continues the alphabetic, literary import of the printing press. Insofar as “the Gutenberg technology of movable types is quite indispensable to any industrial or film process,”[7] from the contracts to the critics, then, writes McLuhan, “[f]ilm, both in its reel form and in its scenario or script form, is completely involved with [print] culture,”[8] that is, with “a culture in an extreme reach of typographic conditioning,”[9] of which “[f]ilm [is], as a form, [its] final fulfillment.”[10] McLuhan’s claim here is not ancillary to my larger point about nationalism, print culture, and—here is where we are headed, in short order—the Internet’s transformation of traditional ideological structures; rather, McLuhan helps us to explain the excessive popularity of Griffith’s film by interpreting The Birth of a Nation not as a revolutionary break with communications media past, but stricto sensu as a continuation of print’s ideological form of mechanical reproduction and uniformity, imagistic juxtaposition, phantasmatic interiority, high-definition realism, and linear narrative structure.[11] By this account, the unprecedented and perhaps still unparalleled triumph of The Birth of a Nation at bottom should be generally attributed to its patriotic and nationalist function, instead of its entertainment appeal, aesthetic merit, sheer novelty, or use as Klan propaganda (in this context, it is worth recalling that the film came out after the outbreak of World War I, but before the United States joined the Allied forces, a point when exceptionalist isolationism and protectionist nationalism were running high).

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Were Griffith to release his film today, complete with CGI-enhanced battles and a score by Hans Zimmer that goes BWONG, I doubt it would be greeted with the same success, despite an audience already existing that has shown a renewed political commitment to white nationalism. Even a century after The Birth of a Nation, mainstream film studios, like our public discourse at large, have maintained a banal tolerance of racist ideologies, and audiences rarely balk at even the most egregious examples of minority exploitation or erasure; rather, it would be the film’s overriding and structural nationalist implications that would fail to connect with viewers today. Such a claim may seem counterintuitive in light of movements declaring they will #hashtag Make America Great Again and demanding we put America First—the latter slogan also being used by Woodrow Wilson in the 1916 presidential election—but my point here is, again, a structural one: If nationalism and nationhood as such arise with the ascendancy of print media, are conditioned by and contingent to Gutenberg technologies, then in an era marked by the decline and death of print, in the wake of print’s waning, nationalism and nationhood consequently must bear witness to this shift, characterized itself by the fluidity and specificity of the Internet, our new, now dominant medium.

This is all to say that if we have, over the past few years, seen the rise of neo-nationalisms and neo-fascisms abroad and at home, then these social trends and political movements necessarily must be of a different quality than their print-based predecessors. In place of print-nationalism’s mechanical uniformity, wherein a Texan and a Wisconsinite conceive themselves as always receiving the same news, sharing the same page, appearing under the same typographic conditions, the economic model of the Internet is constructed around targeted advertising and individually curated newsfeeds, what Eli Pariser describes as our algorithmically personalized filter bubbles, which prevent traditional communities from imagining themselves as interconnected across space and time. Whereas print technologies effectively stabilize and elevate some particular vernacular dialect into a standardized national tongue—or, in the related case of screen media, the way regional American accents generally have been reduced in deference to network newscaster English—the Internet once again returns us to a semi-oral kaleidoscope of nonstandard usages and in-group slang, often involving nonverbal signals like memes, emojis, and reaction gifs. This drift moves in other directions, as well, for if print media traditionally were limited in their dispersive capacity to physically and temporally “finite, if elastic, boundaries, beyond which lie other nations,” as Anderson says,[12] these borders fall away when faced with the instantaneous, widespread, indefatigable reach of the Internet.

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The rapid-fire, far-ranging technological systems underlying contemporary modes of communication irrevocably alter our traditional social formations, thereby giving birth to new nationalisms ostensibly reproducing an imagined past, but in reality unrecognizable to those older institutions. The hypertextual fecundity and fluidity of modern digital media make print’s uniformity, isolation, and commonality unviable as principles for political organization, which is why neo-nationalisms (particularly of the white supremacist type) position themselves as a-nation-within-a-nation, representatives of a supposedly “true” or “real” political remnant that inherently disrupts any sense of functional national unity by pitting neighbor against neighbor, where a citizenry are defined not by a geographic or typographic relation, but by ideological and ethnic affiliation. Again, had I the time today, I would trace this transformation of nationalism from the so-called Gutenberg Galaxy of print media, through the Babbage Black Hole of digital technology, to what McLuhan labels our emerging Global Village—but whereas McLuhan sees this “simultaneous happening,”[13] this “sudden implosion” of “all social and political functions” as a net positive of the Net,[14] what we have seen of late is how the move from classical nationalism to the Global Village has resulted in a resurgence of tribalism and eugenic ideologies.[15] To be clear, this is not to say that such racist and divisive tribalism is inevitable, nor do I mean to endorse a vision of strict technological determinism; yet changes in media will ineluctably have social and subjective effects, prostheses working to redefine what we can do, how far we can go with one another, and therefore, at bottom, who we are as a people. Had we been paying closer attention to this shift, the advent of the Global Village could have gone the way McLuhan believed it inevitably would, a world where political boundaries and personal bigotries fall away as we are thrust into a situation of radical cybernetic interconnectedness. The possibility has not been foreclosed, and we might still reorganize ourselves and our society towards that egalitarian promise should we chose to do so—and the moment for that choice simply will not wait in a world of digital haste—but a functioning democracy can no longer be achieved through the stratagems and structures of print-nationalism, for though the structural ideal of the republic might still remain, the nation as traditionally imagined is no more.

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[1] Franklin, John Hope. “‘Birth of a Nation’: Propaganda as History.” The Massachusetts Review 20.3 (1979): 425.

[2] The Birth of a Nation remained the highest-grossing film (and perhaps still does, adjusting for inflation) until surpassed by another Civil War epic, Gone With the Wind (1939), which was itself replaced The Sound of Music (1965)—one way or another, it’s as if America has an inordinate love of racism on film.

[3] Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. NY: Verso, 2006: 44.

[4] Ibid., 62.

[5] Ibid., 37.

[6] McLuhan, Marshall. The Gutenberg Galaxy. Toronto: Uni. of Toronto P., 2002: 199.

[7] McLuhan. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Corte Madera, CA: Gingko P., 2003: 395.

[8] Ibid., 385.

[9] Ibid., 388.

[10] Ibid., 393.

[11] To this end, McLuhan notes that “it was the detailed realism of writers like Dickens that inspired movie pioneers like D.W. Griffith, who carried a copy of a Dickens novel on location” (ibid., 387).

[12] Anderson, 7.

[13] McLuhan. The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects. Corte Madera: Gingko P., 2001: 63.

[14] McLuhan, Understanding Media, 5.

[15] The tribal reimagining of America is revealed in the different ways the presidency is imagined by the electorate: On the one hand, the president is a bureaucratic figurehead, albeit invested with a gross amount of power, able to move and motivate policy, but ultimately subordinate to institutional forces; on other hand, the presidency becomes a cult of celebrity, a totemic figure invested not only with power, but fetishistically crystalizing the tribe’s enjoyment, hopes, beliefs, and so on—this is not a right versus left divide, mind you, for such tribal cults characterized the whole spectrum of the 2016 election.

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