Media and messages


Confusing the medium and the message takes various forms. It is a human error to kill the messenger, to sack the whistleblower, or to brand as a troublemaker someone who identifies things that need improving.

There are a few teachers of less than strong intellect ­who feel impelled to modify the content of their teaching to accommodate the latest gimmick or gizmo.

Juvenal in Satire Ten draws attention to the recurrent mistake of missing the point, which is ironic because Juvenal himself is an interesting case study in the relation between medium and message.

Once, after consenting to doing the Satire topic in an A-level Class Civ course, I found myself with a group reading two of Juvenal’s Satires in translation. It was appalling to find that in English, they were a flop. I remembered reading Juvenal in the Sixth Form and being dazzled, enchanted, by the wit, the words, and the way a commonplace narrative was spiced into something memorable.

But who can translate something like this?

hospite venturo cessabit nemo tuorum.
“verre pavimentum, nitidas ostende columnas,
arida cum tota descendat aranea tela;
hic leve argentum, vasa aspera tergeat alter”:
vox domini furit instantis virgamque tenentis.
Satire XIV

With Juvenal, has the medium become the message? Perhaps rather the medium is the distraction, devised to entertain while the message bubbles away below. Juvenal was trained in rhetoric, and Professor Walter Nash* says:
‘There are many ways in which rhetoric is pleasurable for its own sake. It distracts, it teases, it flirts with the language, it is an unabashed show-off… It is allusive and oblique in method, constantly generating analogies and comparisons; in expression it deceives simple expectations and deflects enquiry with tropes, hyperboles, figures of antithesis, gradation, recursion…’

But is this all? Nash asks. Perhaps also ‘it lies within the capacity of rhetoric to illuminate even as it distracts.’

This may be a good description of Juvenal.

*Walter Nash (1989). Rhetoric. Blackwell pp 74-75.

Next post: More about Juvenal.

One thought on “Media and messages

  1. Rhetoric can be used for good or for evil. St Augustine found the oratory of Ambrose more compelling than that of others. Ambrose’s sermons were often modelled on Cicero and he borrowed frequently from pagan authors. Yet all was re-worked, re-cast, re-directed for Christian purposes. Thomas Mann in his 1929 novella ‘Mario and the Magician’ (Mario und der Zauberer) tells the story of a magician, Cipolla, who mesmerised his audiences with his tricks and hypnosis, turning his rapt listeners into putty in his hands. This was an allegory of fascism in Italy at the time, with reference also to Stalin and to Hitler’s increasing popularity, and of how fascist dictators learned to control and manipulate or brow-beat their audiences through word-conjuring. The medium, for better or for worse, always conveys a message. The object of education is to enable us to see that for what it is.

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