chapter  30
MEDIA STUDIES
ByMARK B.N. HANSEN
Pages 13

To the extent that each new medium of communication operates through a technology for exteriorizing some function of human cognition and memory, it involves both gain and loss. This fundamental duality of media innovation has often taken the form of myth. In the Protagoras, Plato himself deploys the Hesiodic myth of Prometheus and Epimetheus as a means of characterizing the singularity of the human, but also of grasping our fundamental dependence on technology. Let us recall the salient details of Plato’s account: charged with the task of equipping mortal creatures with suitable powers, Epimetheus makes his distribution following the principle of compensation, giving to each creature those capacities that will insure their survival. Not being particularly clever, Epimetheus used all of his available powers on the brute beasts, leaving the human race unprovided for, and so compelling the theft of fire by his more famous brother, Prometheus. Because of our Promethean legacy, so Plato’s myth recounts, we humans have had a share in the portion of the gods and have distinguished ourselves from all other animals through our use of the arts of fire, which is to say, of technologies. This use has resulted in the development of articulate speech and names, the invention of houses and clothes and shoes and bedding, and the introduction of agriculture. By changing the conditions for the production of experience, all media

technologies, when they are new, destabilize existing patterns of biological, psychical, and collective life at the same time as they furnish new facilities. This convergence of privation and supplementation already informs what many critics hold to be the primal scene of media innovation in Western thought: Plato’s meditation in the Phaedrus on the new medium of writing. There the issue is developed metaphorically through writing’s status as a pharmakon, at once a poison and its antidote, a threat to memory and its extension. The profound ambivalence of writing is clearly expressed in the

myth that Socrates recounts to Phaedrus of Theuth, the Egyptian God who invented writing:

But when it came to writing Theuth said [to the Egyptian king, Thamus], “Here, O king, is a branch of learning that will make the people of Egypt wiser and improve their memories; my discovery provides a recipe for memory and wisdom.” But the king answered and said, “O man full of arts, to one it is given to create the things of art, and to another to judge what measure of harm and of profit they have for those that shall employ them. And so it is that you, by reason of your tender regard for the writing that is your offspring, have declared the very opposite of its true effect. If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder. And it is no true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only its semblance.”