For those who don’t know Marshall McLuhan, he is the grandpappy of media studies. Being a mediated personality and all, I sort of feel it is important to have a good solid grasp on my heritage, so …
Amidst the many really interesting things he says about the nature of media and the mediated life, one little phrase really leaps out:
To make the news is to become fictionalized.
He’s right, but what does that mean?
To make the news is to become fictionalized. Even for a brief moment, you cease to be who you are, and become a mediated fiction.
Before I explain that, there are two ways to make news:
- Write the news.
- Be the news.
Since the writer is abstracted from the news and we don’t necessarily know who they are, they are not in the position to be fictionalized. It is those who make the news who become fictionalized.
So what is it to become fictionalized through the news?
To make the news is also to become the news. They key lies in that turn of phrase.
To become the news is to cease to be yourself and to instead be a news item, a short snippet of narrative divorced from its context and thus made mythic.
In an instant, Joe Fireman is no longer a stressed but happy husband with a wife, two kids, and a sick mom who needs to be moved to a nursing home. Instead, Joe Fireman is the hero who rescued the little girl from the well.
And the little girl down the well? Well, she is, of course, the little girl down the well. She is not a person, she is not the girl who is going to grow up to marry her college roommate’s cousin, she is the girl down the well.
In making the news, you becomes iconic, a fiction defined by the moment that is only tangentially attached to the person behind the icon.
So you are probably saying, “Yeah, yeah Moot. That’s old news. Tell us something new.”
Okay, I will.
You see, McLuhan was writing in the early 1960s. The United States (and Canada, where he was writing) was different back then. Our relation to media was different. The television was just coming into power. The personal computer did not exist yet, and the Internet to connect that computer up to was a nagging concept in some people’s minds that they thought could help to build a better military. Computer-mediated communication was a full generation of peoples down the road still.
At the time of the writing, the world was not yet small, and the living did not yet outnumber the dead.
McLuhan observed that there was a division between how we perceived television and movies. We saw movies, in essence, as pre-recorded plays, but television we saw as something more immediate, something more real. One sociological aspect of this is that people who worshipped celebrities worshipped movie stars and television characters. Let me say that again: movie stars and television characters.
This is important in part because it is not longer true. McLuhan’s perspective makes sense for his time period. People don’t remember Casablanca as that World War II movie, or that one about the love affair between Rick and Ilsa, they remember it as a movie that starred Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, and Claude Rains. No one went to go see a Bogart film because of the movie hype, or the comic book it was based on, but because it was a Bogart film. Movie icons of the period were worshipped as actors, not as characters.
On the other hand, when it comes to television, and except those characters that portray themselves, we sometimes cannot even remember the names of our favorite actors. Fast, who plays Bart Simpson? The dad in the original Brady Bunch? The boys on South Park? Seven of Nine? Dr. Baltar? Tony Soprano? Dr. House? Yeah, hard core fans will know. The rest of us don’t know and don’t care. In television, we are not interested in the actors, but the characters.
Times change. Our attitude toward television has changed the way we relate to movies. We no longer worship the actors. There too we have begun to worship the characters. The early days of television followed the model of movies, and television shows were designed as vehicles for famous actors and performers. This changed with the abstracted world of the sit com and soap opera, where the character was divorced from the person playing it.
At the time McLuhan was writing, there was a clear split between the famous actor in movies and the famous characters on TV. After he wrote his most famous works, there was a shift, and movies, like TV, moved away from being vehicles for famous actors. Instead, they became movies sold based on genre, plot, entertainment value, or amount of over the top action. As much as anything, this is probably because studios wanted more blockbusters and fewer studios were interested in just plain dramas. The actor became insignificant in the face of the character.
I for one cannot remember any of the following names, even though they are quite famous: the people playing Harry Potter, Spiderman, all of the Batmen (know most of them but can’t remember which is which), all of the X-Men except Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, all of the Lord of the Rings cast except for … ummm … Ian KcKellan. (What can I say, Patrick Stuart and Ian McKellen are hotties.) The point is though we may have favorite actors, we tend to think of movies in terms of the characters now, and not the actors.
Abstracting the character from the actor may be a good thing for the movies (and television) since it allows a deeper exploration of themes through fiction. Things designed as vehicles for actors are more likely to have the depth of an Abbott and Costello movie than a Bogart flick. In other words, the separation of the actor from the role allows for a greater possibility of better story telling. This is a good thing. The fact that the story line is too often abandoned in favor of a bigger special effects budget is its own unrelated problem.
This shift has implications for McLuhan’s theories.
I propose that the corollary to his assertion that to make the news is to become fictionalized, is as follows:
For a fictional character to make the news is to become real.
Not physically tangible, Rei Tori has not skipped blissfully out of the Lucky Dragon, but psychically real in the eyes of the viewing public. Followers of the Harry Potter movies don’t follow it because the main character is played by Daniel Radcliffe, or even that Ralph Fiennes plays Voldemort, they follow it because of Harry Potter. To them, Harry Potter is real.
And Harry Potter is very real, in the sense of a cultural meme now deeply embedded in our psyches. He has been thoroughly and completely reified through a process of social realization. Harry Potter is real. Spiderman is real. The X-Men are real.
How real are they?
Well, a while ago a psychiatric center in the Northwest United States was looking for counseling staff that spoke Klingon. Why? Because some of their patients were firmly convinced they were Klingon, and the center felt that it was important to be sensitive to their unique cultural identity. Okay, sounds hokey, but it probably helped with their care and therapy immensely.
To be so firmly convinced of the reality of something to believe that one is that thing is an impressive achievement, even if the vehicle of choice ends up being a psychiatric patient. And, though I won’t swear to this, I am pretty sure that some of those Klingon and Jedi and Sailor Moon otaku at the cons are actually quite sane, somewhere deep down inside.
In fictionalizing themselves, these people have made their adopted fictions real. By the same process, the media reporting on fictional characters as newsworthy makes those characters real. Very few people probably think that they are Harry Potter, and a slightly larger number may believe Harry Potter is a real person, but there are probably quite a few that believe in the reality of Harry Potter.
So, if by the mere distribution of a fictional character as a meme, we can reify that character and make them real, what does that say about the nature of fiction and our relation to it?