A response to Sven Birkerts, “Terminal Reading.”

It’s happened to anyone who pays attention to the news. You begin to follow a story–say, the ethnic tensions in Yugoslavia–from its early appearance in the news pages. You try to learn the various factions and the matters in dispute. Each week brings new developments, which you fit into a mental schema taking shape in your head. “What’s going on in Yugoslavia” becomes one of the territories you regularly visit through the news. With each visit you make revisions in your understanding and speculate about what might happen next. And then, for one reason or another, it gets to be too much. Perhaps you go off on vacation and miss the newspaper for a week or two, or some other story captures your attention. Or you simply determine that it’s not worth the effort. You give up on Yugoslavia. You are no longer “following the story.”

But that’s not the end of it, for the story will follow you. A headline here, a radio bulletin there, an occasional glance at the images on the evening news: without conscious effort you remain vaguely aware that “something’s going on in Yugoslavia,” and that it now involves planes and guns. Note the location of this awareness. Since the story is following you, it enters consciousness from the rear, lodging itself in what we usually call “the back” of the mind. This is the media’s storage bin. It is the place where pop songs register their prevalence, celebrities edge into view, headlines leave a hazy impression, and ad jingles get stuck.

In the suburban housing tract where I grew up, the front yards were separated by driveways, but the backyards were not. The houses proclaimed their separateness in facing the street, but as you got deeper into each private lot the space suddenly changed character and became public. Without fences or driveways, the backyards formed a kids’ commons, privately owned but publicly traveled.

“Linked at the back, separated at the front”–here is an image that could describe the state of our minds in an age of electronic communication. As you go deeper into each private mind, you suddenly come upon a brightly-lit public space–the electronic commons, where the brand names, pop tunes, and video icons roam. In our search for the meaning of the electronic age, we would do well to begin here.


When Marshall McLuhan wrote the most famous words in media studies, “The medium is the message,” he directed our attention away from content of communication to certain formal qualities of the media themselves. He wanted us to think about the nature of the spoken word vs. the nature of written texts, the nature of print vs. the nature of TV. McLuhan’s conceit was his claim to deduce the “effects” of a given medium through extremely abstract statements about its form. Thus, if print is a linear, one-thing-at-a-time medium, then its effect must be to enforce linear, one-thing-at-a-time thinking.

It was useful to think about print this way, but far more useful was the habit of thinking about “media” at all. That the media themselves have effects, that they constitute a new kind of environment, that this environment produces its own messages–these are McLuhan’s real contributions. His generalizations about individual media remain fascinating but often useless. TV, he said, gives us “light through” the screen, whereas with cinema we get “light on.” Neat, but so what?

McLuhan’s Delphic pronouncements influenced many bright people during the 1960s, including a political consultant and ad man named Tony Schwartz. In 1973, Schwartz published The Responsive Chord, a forgotten classic of media prophecy. The book argued that common sense notions about communication are inadequate for understanding the way the media work today. Schwartz was especially hostile to “transportation” metaphors, which suggest that the purpose of communication is to transmit a message (“information”) from one point to another, from a sender to a receiver. In an electronic environment, where everyone is saturated with messages, transmission is hardly at issue. In somewhat overly-technical prose, Schwartz observed:

A listener or viewer brings far more information to the communication event than a communicator can put into his program, commercial or message. The communicator’s problem, then, is not to get stimuli across, or even to package his stimuli so they can be understood and absorbed. Rather, he must deeply understand the kinds of information and experiences stored in his audience, the patterning of this information, and the interactive resonance process whereby stimuli evoke this stored information.

The advice is not banal. Schwartz is not saying, “Know the audience you want to reach.” He’s saying, “Forget about ‘reaching’ the audience at all.” The point is not to deposit your message in the other person’s mind, but to somehow activate the layers of meaning already deposited there by the media. Schwartz notes that ‘”the listener’s or viewer’s brain is an indispensable component of the total communication system. He adds that “much of the material stored in the brains of the audience is also stored in the brain of the communicator–by virtue of our shared media environment.”

In other words, the audience isn’t really “out there” at all. The goal can’t be to “reach” it because there really is no territory to reach across. Our minds are no longer separate cognitive spaces. They are each a part of the electronic commons–joined at the reader, privately-held but publicly-traveled. They way you communicate through this space is not to send messages (or compose texts). Instead, you fashion a “package of stimuli” that will “resonate” with what is already and continuously communicated. Not expression, then, but the return of the expressed becomes the savvy communicator’s aim. Schwartz writes:


In communicating at electronic speed, we no longer direct information into an audience, but try to evoke stored information out of them, in a patterned way….A “message” is not the starting point for communicating. It is the final product arrived at after considering the effect we hope to achieve and the communication environment where people will experience our stimuli.



It is Schwartz, I think, who comes closest to understanding the shift that so concerns us today. It is not that print is dying, and with it abstract, sequential thought. It is not that the image is triumphing over the word. These statements are true but not quite true enough. they fail to notice what else is happening: in the media, in politics, and even in intellectual life, the search for the “responsive chord” is crowding out all other impulses. Neither public discourse nor private expression can survive such a shift. Schwartz gets nearer than anyone else has gotten to the ascendant principle when he writes that “we no longer direct information into an audience, but try to evoke stored information out of them.”

Michael Schudson has made a related observation in discussing the rise of modern advertising. “Selling,” Schudson writes, “is trying to get the consumer to buy what you have. Marketing is trying to have what the consumer wants.” Consider this remark from the point of view of an author. Suppose I feel that I have “something to say” and I want to write a book that says it. I also want this book to sell, or at least to reach those who might find its message relevant. There are many ways of undertaking a selling effort, the most basic of which is the choice of style. Thus, I try to write my book in a style that will “reach” the right readers while at the same time conveying my meaning.

All this belongs to the past, says Schwartz. Instead of trying to sell the book I have in mind, I should have in mind the book that sells. Instead of starting with “something to say” and trying to “get my message across,” I should begin with the messages that already criss-cross the electronic commons. What I will “say” is determined solely by the search for what Schwartz calls “the responsive chord,” the mix of signals that will resonate with material already stored in the audience. In a radical sense, the text I produce is arbitrary. Its only function is to activate the return of the expressed.

This is an approach Madonna understands. Everyone who has remarked on her has pointed out how often she’s changed her image in order to keep selling records and videos. It’s true of course, but Madonna is not concerned with selling herself. She’s a marketing whiz. Rather than sell the image she has, she wants to have the image that sells. But it’s not really “her” image; it originates at the point where the audience’s awareness of itself and her awareness of the audience meet. It’s “theirs,” or “ours” more than it’s “hers.” This sort of self-marketing requires a thin commitment to any one image–indeed, it requires a thin self–but it also takes an extraordinary feel for the pulsations of the media environment. The thin self, the extraordinary feel–Andy Warhol had both, which is why we consider him one of the geniuses of the electronic age.

Consider the same phenomenon in the political realm. The Willie Horton ads during the 1988 campaign have been denounced as racist by almost everyone. But they were worst than racist–they were arbitrary. Designed as a package of stimuli for the sole purpose of winning the election, they expressed, not the racist ideology of the Republican Party or the Bush campaign, but the complete indifference to content that a politics of the “responsive chord” demands. George Bush is a dangerous man on the campaign trail because, lacking a political self, he is willing to say anything. Reducing his campaign to a package of stimuli disturbs him not at all.

Three years ago, the scandal surrounding Bush’s selection of Dan Quayle as a running mate emphasized Quayle’s privileged background and draft-dodging. But the real scandal was the arbitrariness of Bush’s selection. No one in the Bush camp cared very much about Quayle, his views, or his background. He was just another package of stimuli. Young and telegenic, he seemed likely to appeal to women voters, an important bloc. That belief was mistaken, but today, after three years of Quayle jokes, the joke is on those who focused on Quayle, when they should have been worrying about Bush and his vicious indifference to a politics with content.

The Democrats think they’re scoring points when they complain that Bush has “no domestic agenda,” a phrase we’ll hear more and more of in 1992. The Democrats should read Tony Schwartz. Having no agenda may seem like a vulnerable political strategy, but it is an excellent communication strategy, for it affords you the flexibility you need to keep striking the responsive chord. (Madonna, one might say, has “no domestic agenda.”)

The “Education President,” the “Environmental President”–Bush seeks these labels the way Barry Manilow seeks the right chords for a new song he’s writing. Manilow’s songs are never really “new.” They track over the memory of his previous songs. When you hear one for the first time, you think that maybe you’re remembering it. The chords Manilow tries to hear are not “his” chords; they’re the responsive chords. This is the way Bush plays politics: he tries to hammer out the chords that will resonate with enough voters to keep him in office. It’s not even correct to say that he’s a man without principles, for he believes in a principle that reduces “reality” to a quaint concern of the weak-minded. Schwartz calls it the resonance principle: “That which we put into the communication has no meaning in itself. The meaning of our communication is what a listener or viewer gets out of his experience with the communicator’s stimuli.


Ultimately, this is the shift that should worry us. Not the waning of print and the rise of television, not the triumph of visual imagery over the word, but the victory of the resonance principle over the reality principle, the substitution of an electronic commons for the world we actually have in common–the world where bridges decay, people suffer, economies collapse, and ozones evaporate. It is certainly true that without literate habits of mind we cannot understand this world, or organize ourselves to repair and improve it. But it is also true that within the realm of the literati, the resonance principle operates just as effectively. For increasing numbers of academics, the path to success, or at least comfort, is to find a constituency of other academics (including a healthy portion of graduate students) whose buttons you learn to push. To progress in your career means to keep on pushing. The insularity of so much discourse in the academy, the unwillingness to engage in debate across ideological divides, the mind-numbing mantra of “race, gender and class” that dooms to banality the typical academic conference–these are signs of the resonance principle at work. Intellectual life is reduced to a marketing strategy: don’t try to sell the ideas you don’t have; try to have the ideas that sell. Of course, the “buyers” are pitifully small in number, and their real influence in the culture is almost nil, but these, after all, are badges of honor among the textually advanced.

In mass politics and the mass media, the audience is far bigger, but the aim is just as narrow: to get the mix of signals right, to find the formula that fits with the existing tendencies in the audience, to strike the chords that will resonate with what has worked in the past. Our hope must be that people will get tired of the endless playback, in culture, in politics, and in academic life. Although the new resonance principle works by the law of desire–it assumes that you’ll want now what you’ve wanted before–the one desire the law can’t cover is the urge to be free of recycled desires.

Every semester I have students who are passionate about their music. They usually prefer bands whose sound resonates so poorly it can only be heard on college radio. These students give me hope.

Originally published in the February 1992 issue of Boston Review.