“Flogg: Flogg the Cryer here with a cave update. Recently Dak from the fifth cave to the left of the wooly mammoth skull, made a discovery that some are saying will revolutionize the world. Let’s go down to Mard, who has the story.
Mard: Yes, Flogg, some are saying Dak’s innovation could change the very nature and meaning of drawing pictures on cave walls. It all started by accidentally discovering a red plant in the woods, that when he mashed it up, it made a kind of liquid. Dak then had the idea to use this to draw on his wall instead of just the usual charcoal. Dak is here with us, why don’t you tell us about this revolutionary new technique.
Dak: I just got tired of only using black, and I felt like with something red, I might be able to further express myself, and say things about Tagun the Vulture God in different ways.
Mard: Now we go over to Jegmesh the Elder for some perspective.
Jegmesh: In all my years, I have never seen anything quite like this. The use of color opens entirely new ways of thinking and understanding. Also, to my knowledge Dak is the first person to make drawings that look like they are moving. All of this brings into question the very nature of reality.
Mard: Indeed, Dak’s drawings of cave lions in motion caused several of his cave mates to run away in fear. They mistook the cave drawings for actual cave lions. But, not everyone is impressed, especially High Priest Hakkon.
Hakkon: Tagun the Vulture God does not look upon this affront to decency, common sense, and the tree people with kindness. There will be war, and blood will flow. Also, the red colors are clearly bad for the eyes of children.
Flogg: Indeed. It will be interesting to see how this story develops. Now just a reminder the sun is going down, so go to sleep, and remember to seal your cave for protection against cave bears. Good night and good luck.”
-Written on a prehistoric cave wall. 30,000 BCE
In my readings of social theorists, I have often felt that most of them were very poor historians. They always seemed to just be building on the previous generations perceptions and philosophies (and therefore biases and blindpsots), but often failed to take into consideration the unifying strands that can be found in history. This is of course a generalization, but I do think it bears some exploration.
Asa Briggs and Peter Burke in A Social History of the Media: From Gutenberg to the Internet are careful to maintain some balance from the often extreme and excessive social theories that want to pigeonhole history and society into either deterministic processes or singular points of history changing radicalism. History and societal changes are of course much more complex.
What Briggs and Burke do elucidate is that at least within modern Europe, the use and influence of media within culture very much follows some set patterns that mirror our own present day reality. People need to communicate, and people need to be communicated to, therefore, much of Western (and for that matter human) enterprise is centered around the use and consumption of media. This has sped up and changed history as various junctures of innovation or progress. What ultimately was fascinating was the reality of how important communication through words and images has been throughout time. Often, we think of our time and our world as isolated in a time bubble, unique and singular in itself.
Briggs and Burke helped me remember the documentary The Cave of Forgotten Dreams by German director Werner Herzog. In the film, Herzog chronicles and films the oldest cave drawing known to humanity, some 30,000 years old. You can see the trailer here:
Watching the film, I had the same sensation as reading Briggs and Burke, astounded at the creativity of humanity to find ways to communicate, to explain, to stir the emotions, and even to entertain. It is not a leap in imagination to imagine the importance (religiously, communally, even politically?) of those paintings to the people who drew them and “consumed” them.
Running the gospels through this text, one also finds parallels of mass media. Jesus spoke in pithy sayings and stories, which scholars like Bauckham and Gerhardsson have pointed out were said with maximum effect for memory and the ability to be recited later. It is hard not to think of Jesus teaching on a hill in front of thousands as a spectacle of sorts. And even Pilate’s offer of freeing Jesus or Barrabas is indeed the creation of public sphere.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. To close, I would like to suggest some key points gleaned from Briggs and Burke.
1. Media is infused with meaning, and people need meaning. Whether it is religious, political, cultural, or even mundanely physical. People need to communicate meaning and receive meaning through communication. The visual image of course is the most potent way to communicate meaning, whether it is a sickle and hammer, a print of Martin Luther, a cross, or a picture of a lion.
2. Story is essential to human understanding. Humans have been telling stories, whether they are found in plays, novels, sermons, or even rumors. These narratives under gird cultures and nations, make important statements, and even inform the very forms of media that carry them.
3. Oral communication …is still alive and kicking. Scholars have often looked down on oral communication as an incomplete and unreliable way to communicate, probably because it does not necessarily stick around for careful examination. Yet, this is still probably one of the preferred and most effective ways to communicate, whether that is through face to face communication, storytelling, or song.
Yes, the printing press, and the steam engine and the internet have changed the world. However, my question is, have they really changed humanity, or are we really not that different from those prehistoric cave painters?