Vorlesung: "Umberto Eco"

 

 

Umberto Eco

University and Mass Media

 

 

 

 

It is impossible to think about the present or the future of universities without taking into account that universities live in a world dominated by mass media. If so, one must ask if and to what an extent these old institutions called Universities are influenced by the various channels of mass communication. It is certainly possible to assume the opposite, and to wonder if and how the university can influence mass media. In both cases, I think it is indispensable to face some questions concerning the new status and the possible role of a university in the framework of a mass media oriented civilization.

Naturally, it would be possible to answer such a question in bad faith. One could say that mass media are a vehicle of banality, of superficial amusement; that they search for novelty for the sake of novelty, and attempt to inculcate consensus among th e masses. In contrast, the university is the place of original research, of serious and painful meditation; it maintains a direct link to tradition; it is suspicious of novelty- it produces a continuous critical revision of knowledge, and looks only for t he approval of an élite.

One could say that the university permits a direct, interpersonal communication, whereas the mass media are characterized by a long-distance, indirect communication. Mass communication takes place when a centralized Sender transmits a message by a tech nologically complex channel that reaches a community of Addressees scattered all over a vast region. These Addressees are diverse in their social status, culture, political opmions. The Senders do not know to whom they are speaking and so they must orient their message to a sort of ghost Audience, from whom they cannot receive any immediate feedback. On the contrary we are still eager to think of a university in terms of the Greek agorà, a place where the new Platos and Aristotles ple asantly walk, debating on the eternal problems of human mind and on the nature of our universe with a selected bunch of disciples.

Unfortunately such stereoypes do not correspond to the present state of affairs. If mass media are not a homogeneous institution - given that a book published by a university press and the latest rock-music record are both mass media - neither i s the university itself. It is a place where high-level research is performed, but it is also a place from which elementary notions and basic information are disseminated.

Can we say that the university is still the place for direct interpersonal communication between teacher and student? What happens when a professor lectures to five hundred students in one hall, the capacity of which is at the most three hundred? Have the remaining two hundred students, crowded in a corridor where the lecturer's voice is broadcast over a loud speaker, or by an internal tv network, automatically entered the realm of mass communication? Can we say that the students who follow the lesson, taking notes which they will not be able to decipher later, are part of a direct, interpersonal dialogue? And what about the ones who ask their friends to tape the lesson in order to listen to it weeks later?

What is the size of our agora when we are dealing with phenomena such as the Open Universities?

Moreover, even though universities wanted to ignore the existence of media, they become media events: the economic problems of universities, the most recent researches, the hottest cultural debates receive a substantial coverage on the part of the medi a. One finds in newspapers and in weekly magazines, statistics about the state of higher education and regular ratings of the qualities of different universities.

Many events taking place on campus rapidly become issues for the media, such as feminist criticism or the phenomenon of the politically correct. In Italy, at the beginning of every academic year, not only weekly magazines, but also newspapers de vote pages upon pages to detailed information on what a given scholar will teach in Turin, another in Rome, and another one in Venice, reporting about their ideological differences and their potential audience in the same way as they do wi th a foot-ball charnpionslfip. The recurrent "crises" of the Italian university make newspaper editors salivate just as much as the latest love affair of a famous actor - and the media covers these events, frequently, with the same superficiality and the same penchant for scandal that they devote to the life of a tv star.

Thus the university does not live in an ivory tower, and its life is influenced and sometimes determined by the media.

But there is more. Italian talk shows, where people behave, as if they were taking part in the massacre of Saint Valentine's Eve, are inundated with university professors. The formula of the Italian talk show is the following: there must be an actor or some other figure whose function is to provoke and to increase the tension of the discussion; then, a mad scientist (let's say a discoverer of the elixir of long life, or an amateur archeologist who has found the real location of Noah's Ark) must be prov oked, so as to entertain the audience with his or her madness., and, finally, a university professor who represents the Voice of Trath, of Specialized Knowledge and/or of Common Sense. By the end of the show, it is very difficult to distinguish the univer sity professor from the mad scientist or from the actor, and all of them are shouting in a quite undignified way.

The main difference between the American and the European university is that the former is. set on a campus, a sort of monastery separated fiom the city. In America, there is not a real conflict between "Town" and "Gown" because the Gowns live outside of Town. In Europe, the university is placed in the center of the city, is a part of the city, and so is continuously involved with city life. Neither students nor professors can completely ignore civic life, which explains why in Europe there are so many university professors who vm'te as columnists, critics, or political commentators for newspapers and magazines.

The boundaries between the, university and the mass media are much less clear than one might think, and it is necessary to draw a map of the many ambiguous and gray areas in order to identify les liasons dangereuses, the hybrids, the grafts. So let me present a typology of different aspects of this continuous and inevitable mutual influence.

1. The university studies the mass media. I am always astonished when, in the course of an interviews, American journalists ask me how a scholar as I am can also have written essays on Superman and Charlie Brown. It seems that they have forg otten that during the fifties (before I was involved in the study of mass media), there were in America academic journals which included subtle analyses of detective stories, comics, and Tin Pan Alley music. These journalists have likewise overlooked the studies of Robert Merton on the role of radio in war-time propaganda, and those of Cantril on the

effect of Orson Welles's "War of the Worlds" (all written in the late forties), which were livres de chevet for European cultural sociologists. They do not know that the best of the mass media criticism by the Frankfud School was elaborated in A merican universities.

Indeed, credit must be given to the university establishment for having undertaken, despite rnuch opposition, the first systematic study of the civilization of mass communication, and for having devoted entire schools and departments to the study of th is phenomenon, Perhaps today we have gone too far. All too often, mass media are analysed, even when all that there is to know has already been investigated. One smiles at times when thinking of the numerous studies which suggest that the obsessive image of white in detergent-powder advertisements is engendered by certain archetypal motivations. A first-year student can read all about this in glossy magazines, for which university professors also write. It would be sufficient simply to ask the advertising agents, who usually have had a good university education and have read Jung. Nevertheless, it is the university that has been studying the mass media and that has helped generate critical resistance among the public at large.

At most, we can say that in Europe the academic analysis of media has had a greater impact on society than in the United States. In the United States, the studies of Merton or Cantril are neither read nor discussed in high schools; in Europe, a critica l awareness of mass-media strategies - also as vehicles for ideologies - has frequently influenced the educational curriculum. More and more often, conscientious teachers in high schools prepare their students to think critically of mass media by analysin g advertisements or newspapers in the classroom.

2. The university works for mass media. The independence of the university from political power is merely a pastoral illusion or wishful thinkin. Nine hundred years ago, the University of Bologna acquired its freedom and autonomy becau se three of its professors assisted the Emperor in a legal controversy with the Church. In exchange for their collaboration, the Emperor signed the first document which established the university's independence. Similarly, the Collège de Fra nce was born of a political initiative on the part of Francois the First to counteract the overwhelming power of the Sorbonne.

It is not unusual for university professors - or in any case for a scholar - to become consultants of the political establishment (from Aristotle to Kissinger). There is nothing surprising about the fact that mass-media experts become mass-media consul tants. Frequently one discovers that a certain slogan for a new car has been invented by a famous sociologist.

I believe that an expert who understands some of the mechanisms of mass-media manipulation should be able to conduct research independent of profit-making interests; yet, I wonder if my position suffers from a certain leftist bigotry. We would not be s urprised if an expert on mass communications worked as a consultant for a campaign on ecological education or on AIDS prevention, just as it seems natural to us that most university professors collaborate with publishing houses.

Probably, some compromises between the university and the centers of economic and political power are more acceptable than others, since they have been condoned and institutionalized by tradition. If we consider the collaborations of eminent teachers o f the Renaissance with the first famous printers, and if we reread the authoritative prefaces full of praise in the books of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, then we realize that the relationship between the scholar and the publishing industry has been established for quite some time. Let us not overlook the fact that, since Aristotle's and Plato's time, philosophers have also been the prince's advisors. If an inextricable knot has existed between the controllers and the controlled within the univ ersity since the invention of the printing press, the development of mass media has only made this knot even more intricate.

3. Mass media exploit the university. Let us imagine the strictly honorable position of a scholar who analyzes the persuasive mechanisms of mass media, independent of financial and advisory assistance. From the viewpoint of the morality of i ntentions, such a scholar is beyond suspicion. But if he publishes the results of his research, then the mass media may exploit it. Hence, the scholar's critical description of forbidden procedures of persuasion may become an unintended contribution to th e application of those very procedures.

This problem obviously exists for every discipline. The chemist knows very well that if he writes a paper on Oriental poisons, a murderer could potentially use the information. However, the chemist regards such research as a description of somet hing that exists independent of one's writing about it. In contrast, in the social sciences, the scholar is incessantly obsessed by the danger of creating a phenomenon by simply describing it.

A book of essays on Madonna, published in the United States in the early nineties, included a variety of erudite quotations from deconstructionist literature, semiotics, Heidegger, and so on. Did the essays present a critical analysis of the Madonna ph enomenon, or did they contribute to the reinforcement of the Madonna myth?

4. The university trains a work force for the mass media. The preparation of a work force for the mass media is perhaps more typical of the American situation than of the European one. But in fact, in universities all over the world, there are c ourses which train students to perform according to the standards defined by newspapers, television networks, and publishing houses. In principle, there is nothing strange about this, since the university prepares students to become lawyers, physicians, a nd businessmen, However, these professions evolved together with the educational institutions that trained the future professionals, and were intended to invent and to teach, at the same time, both the new practices and their philosophy, or their ethical standards. Thus in the early schools of medicine were thaught, at the same time, bloodletting and the Hippocratic oath. In the case of the mass media, newspapers, advertising, cinema, and television have existed and developed independently of formal educa tional institutions, which might have defined their ideal conditions. We thus have the paradox that within the same university, the department of commtunication teaches a practice that the department of political science or philosophy criticizes as ethica lly questionable,

One might think that the university survives on this plurality of viewpoints. Unfortunately, however, when and where this happens, there is no example of integration of differing perspectives. Communications students learn how to become

journalists according to the current criteria, whereas philosophy students learn how to criticize journalism as a perversion of the search for truth. In academic institutions, the two perspectives can coexist honorably side by side, but the two lines of thought will generate two different kinds of citizens and future professionals who will ignore each other for the rest of their lives.

5. The university takes advantage of the media. Even if many university

representatives continue to ignore the mass media, the university, nevertheless, uses it for good as well as bad ends. The mass media now accomplish some educational functions that once were performed by the schools. Once upon a time, teachers themselv es had to supply didactic materials, often in manuscripts or typescripts, while today these are produced by the cultural industry in a cheaper and more accessible form.

Information and ideas once disseminated by educational institutions are now

transmitted directly by mass media. Once upon a time schools had to teach students

where Sarajevo was and where the borders of Kuwait were, while today this information is communicated directly by newspapers and television. This does not imply, however, that educational institutions are any less involved with the dissemination of suc h information. Mass media transmit this information in an uncritical and unmonitored fashion, and it is the responsibility of the educational system to check and correct it. This has changed the role of middle and higher education: today, it is more impor tant that the university criticizes the mass media´s account of fundamental ideas and information, rather than actually transmitting this knowledge itself.

Once the main textbooks were produced within the framework of the universities; today they are provided by the publishing industry. Once it was the scientific milieu that suggested the publishers what to publish, according to the need of res earch and education; it was the academic milieu of a given country which discovered that, let us say, in another country was published an important research that had to be translated in order to make it available to the students; thus the universit y provided the agenda for the publishers. Today it is the publisher who discovers a foreign book, decides to translate it, and in doing so provides the agenda for the university.

Independently of the decisions of their professors, the students can choose among a large (sometimes too large) amount of exciting new texts - some of them still unknown to their professor. Thus the publishing industry offers the students multiple sour ces of information and enables them to fix the professor's agenda. The professor teaches Russell and the student reads Husserl instead. Once upon a time students asked their professors for a reliable bibliography in order to start a research and were fasc inated by their professor's wide knowledge; today they bring to their professor an impressive bibliography picked up on Intemet and are astonished in discovering how many titles their professors ignore. This may constitute a reason for panic. Professors c an no longer hide their lack of knowledge, and they bear responsibility, in a certain sense, for all the texts that the culture industry has put on the market.

It is the publishing industry which, by deciding which texts must be made available, republished or put out of the market, influences the subjects that will be studied in the following years. It can be argued that university professors (acting as advis ors for publishers) keep such a selective process under their control. But it so happens that a small group of privileged scholars, through their editorial choices, will influence or determine the educational choices of all the rest of their less famous c olleagues.

6. Mass media provides hot issues for the university. Many issues that are widely discussed in the universities today originated in the Academia, but have been received and accepted only as a result of media hype. Let me cite, for example, s uch issues as multiculturalism, gender-oriented criticism, political correctness, deconstruction and postmodernism. The problem is the following: Is there a change in scholarly standards when these issues move from the campus to the mass media? The answer is certainly affirmative. Should we be concerned about this transferring of issues from college campuses to the news media? Perhaps. Often we have complained that certain problems, important to society and to the public conscience, have remained c onfined to academic discourse, which has ultimately excluded the public at large. This current phenomenon of migrating issues requires that we exercise a critical vigilance so

that the issues are neither misunderstood nor rendered trivial. In other words, it requires that we take on the challenge of examining this phenomenon and its consequences.

Take for instance the bookstores: at one time they were a temple of culture, and are now subject to the laws of the media market. In the last twenty or thirty years, I have enjoyed observing the mass media´s changing attitudes toward culture, as d emonstrated in the variety of sections in American bookstores. In the early sixties, Marx, Freud, Structuralism, and Husserl - if one could even find them in bookstores - were all shelved together in the section on "Continental Philosophy." By the mid-six ties, these same books were in the section on "Structuralism," which included Marxism, Psychoanalysis, and Phenomenology. Then, in the seventies, these same authors and topics appeared in the section on "Poststructuralism" or "Semiotics, Cinema, and Femin ism" (as I noted in a bookstore on Saint Mark's Place in the East Village of New York City). Recently, in the Harvard Cooperative Bookstore, I found subjects such as semiotics, linguistics, neurology, psychology, and post-analytic philosophy classified un der "Cognitive Studies." In a commercial chain bookstore in New York City, Saint Augustine was shelved in the "New Age" section.

I could find the same division of subject matters both in the bookstores near the Columbia University and those close to New York University. This means that they were not the different departements that established these criteria, according to their o wn lines of thought, but a central marketing authority, which worked outside the academic milieu.

Shifting to Italy, the shelves that in the sixties and the seventies were occupied by books on marxism and revolution are now devoted to Occult and Oriental Thought. It is this commercial choice which can determine the cultural requests on the part of the students.

Can the universities remain isolated from these changing cultural fads? In Italy, more and more various departements of communication studies do not only analyze the media life-, they invite tv people as visiting professors. It is certainly inte resting to use these people as experts, to know better their communicational strategies, but there is always a difference between using a guinea pig for anatomical research and to appoint it as an anatomy professor.

7. The university exploits mass media techniques. The university may decide to utilize the mass media as an instrument to broaden its area of influence. The successful experiments of the Open University, an educational instituti on for adults and an alternative for working students, demonstrate how the coordinated use of printed booklets, tapes, video cassettes and today Cd-rom and material on fine may help to create a mass university circuit. But this excessive availabili ty of information may also have a paralyzing effect. Mass media are certainly indispensable in order to reach, above all, those who are excluded from the circle of cultural information, yet they cannot replace direct educational relationship and immediate interpersonal dialogue.

Moreover, the university establishment frequently utilizes mass media as an influential tool in academic controversies. The scientific debates carried on in newspapers are not a novelty of this century. What is certainly new is the role of television d ebates in influencing opinions regarding important scientific policy decisions, such as the use or the rejection of nuclear power. Within such a framework-, I detect some preoccupying new trends.

A typical example of the usage of mass media for an academic controversy, in the United States (some years ago), was the alleged discovery of Heidegger's Nazism. That Heidegger was sympathetic to Nazism has been a well-known fact since the fifties. In the early sixties Dagobert Runes, in the United States, translated and commented Heidegger's political speeches. Every serious scholar knew this dark side of Heidegger's personal life and was aware of the philosophical problem of whether or not his philos ophy was dependent on (or determined by) his political positions. I am not a Heidegger fan, but I find dangerous such an attempt to dismantle someone's philosophy on the simple basis of biographical events. We cannot deny the importance of Voltaire's role in the development of Western thought simply because he invested part of his financial holdings in the slave market.

In the course of a university seminar one can carefully discuss the links between Heidegger's thought and his political choices. But some years ago the argument about Heidegger's political ideas was used by a group of American scholars to dicredit some of their colleagues, and the fight was fought via mass media. A big scandal followed, such as to dismantle certain departements, by obliging certain scholars to migrate to other universities- My impression is that a given academic group used the m ass media to provoke an alleged scoop - which looked as a scoop for the media audience, but which was not so for the academic world - in order to settle this way an argument that should have been debated in a more philosophical mood. Thus, the university frequently uses mass media as a weapon.

8. The university becomes a victim of the star system. The mass media has also brought the university into the star system, and we often ask ourselves if the fame of certain scholars is truly linked to their scientific ac complishments or, instead, merely to their images as created by television and glossy magazines. The media system is so powerful that it successfully makes news not only of the impudence of those who appear every day on television, but also of the privacy of those who have retired from the public eye. Even absences are transformed into news by the celebrity press. Not only those who publish a book per year make the news, but also those who never publish anything at all. There are scholars who can make the ir silence speak, and if they do not succeed at this, a good reporter will help them. Some publishing houses specialize in making famous those who have never published a line in the course of their lives, and perhaps the greatest prospects are give n to those who have left not even a single manuscript.

Equally embarrassing is the influence of the mass media on students. The 1968 student demonstrations were influenced by the intervention of mass media, which encouraged their almost simultaneous spreading to different countries, and resulted in protest s with similar patterns. Yet, although we might consider the major 1968 demonstrations as an inevitable historical phenomenon, this is not true of many subsequent, smaller-scale demonstrations. These later protests often occurred because various groups of students aimed at copying the image of those portrayed by the mass media. In Italy, at least until this decade, it was enough that, after a minor riot in a minor university, a nation-wide newspaper printed a title saying "A new 68?" and the n in many other universities the students started rioting only to comply with the media agenda. In this sense the media do not report university events, they do produce and provoke them.

Finally, mass media have a tendency to transform university life into a show. The announcement of a study in progress is presented as a final discovery, a cautious experiment is advertised as the achievement of a universal panacea. Let me recall the ep isodes of the Utah cold fusion, or the debates between French and American scientists on AIDS - where interesting working hypotheses, still to be carefully and prudently -verified, became a matter for an irresponsible show, more akin to Science Fiction th an to science. Needless to say, serious scholars should try to avoid such celebrity performances. They will, however, inevitably become victims of the media system; frequently, the more scholars have remained far from the media experience, the more vulner able they will be at their first impact with them. A "yes", or even a "it may be", imprudently uttered in the course of an informal interview will be transformed into a formal announcement. At this point, the scholars become prisoners of the false scoop t hat they have, if not invented, at least encouraged.

9. The media technology jeopardizes the research. The tremendous ease of publishing, producing preprints, printing by computers, and sending by Intemet one's own work one or two years before it will actually be printed (and often when no one would be willing to print it) is causing an obstruction in scientific communication. This exponential growth of available scientific material is dramatically affecting the division of knowledge. When a scholar receives, daily, hundreds of pages reg arding his scientific research, he will surely remain in the dark about studies in other related fields. Unfortunately, it has now become impossible for scholars to follow even the contributions in their own area of specialization, which has resulted in t he production and the consumption of abstracts.

Abstracts are a media service; an abstract is a text that has been interpreted and summarized by a gate-keeper. Thus, the scholar's foremost responsibility of reading, interpreting, and judging a text is passed on to an editor of abstracts.

Next to the dictatorship of the abstract there is the threat of complete bibliographies on any topic, which can now be acquired through information networks.

An actual bibliography is something that must be conquered step by step, with painful and deliberate effort. A complete bibliography of 10,000 titles on the same subject is worth nothing because it cannot be consulted. The scholars who, by pressing a k ey, receive such a bibliography, not only will be unable to read all the books listed: they will be surely unable to read all the titles.

Signs of this crisis appear in many publications of recent years from countries that consider themselves to be in the vanguard of innovative research: there, no bibliography includes titles that are over ten years old. While this criterion is justifiab le for sorne disciplines that undergo constant change, it raises concern for studies in the humanities, which are cumulative by nature. I have recently read in a paper, written by an outstanding linguist, that a certain idea had been probably already prop osed by Immanuel Kant; the footnote read "see Brown 1987".

8. The suicide of mass media. Mass-media technologies are threatened by an incurable disease - the short-life of the material supports of information. The video tapes, the recordings on magnetic discs, and the photocopied pages are all perish able. Even the book, the principal instrument for the dissemination of knowledge, has become perishable. All the books published after the second half of the last century, when we went from rag paper to wood paper, are destined to become dust within a per iod lasting from thirty to seventy years at most. Mass media have allowed the proliferation and circulation of books which will not survive their authors. All the methods (microfilm, reprinting on acid-free paper, chemical protection) that have been appli ed in order to avoid this tragic inconvenience, will only be able to save part of the testimonies of our culture.

One of the historical responsibilities of the university for decades to come will be to select which books are to receive privileged treatment and which books are to disappear. This is a tremendous responsibility, and I would not like to belong to any committee appointed to make such a decision.

Conclusion. I realize that I have offered the image of an ill-defined and tormented situation, in which the one who claims to be pure lies, and in which everyone must take responsibility for his own unstable equilibrium. In a mass med ia civilization there is no longer any ivory tower. Facing the mass media, the academia must acknowledge their inevitable influence,, counteract their negative influence and exploit their possibilities.

Let me conclude by a shade of optimism. The university can resist the pernicious influence of the mass media by exploiting its very weaknesses.

If we define the value of information in terms of unexpected knowledge, then mass media may inform with regard to facts, but not with regard to concepts and the interpretation of facts. Mass media tell us that so-and-so is dead, that a plane has crashe d, that the dollar has fallen, or that a political crisis has erupted. Even in cases like these, I doubt that the information is truly so unexpected.

For example, during the last decade, mass media discovered that we are entering a civilization of images. It was not a shocking discovery, because this phenomenon was discussed by sociologists and semioticians some forty years ago - think for instance of McLuhan. The interesting problem is rather that our societies, after the diffusion of the computer, are returning to an alphabetic stage, that is, to the Gutenberg galaxy. If the tv screen) was offering us more image than written words, a computer scre en is today a tool that can be used only by literate people, since it contains words, words, words. The real question is the one about the future and the quality of such a new literacy.

Mass media, however, cannot report this because people would not believe it. People have had to face too many difficulties in order finally to accept the idea that we live in a civilization of images; the public can no longer renounce what has now beco me a cliché due to the great effort by which it was attained.

Mass media can report the news of a study of a certain particle in a specific laboratory, but they cannot offer a suitable interpretation of that event. In the area of facts, mass media report what is happening now, but in the area of interpretation, t hey can only say what was already expected twenty years ago.

Culture, knowledge, and theories generated by the university find their proper place within this gap of twenty years. What the university studies today is what the media will incorporate into their agenda, into their system of accepted assumptions, twe nty years from now.

I believe that students still come into our lecture halls because they realize that there is something being discussed which mass media have not yet encountered. When mass media eventually get around to reporting it, the university will a lready be discussing something else.

If we are able to maintain this gap, we willstill have a role to play, and indeed an invaluable one.