Dewey’s cosmic traffic


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Given the appearance and reappearance of this notion of transaction, interaction and communication across his writings, Dewey can be said to be an important and early contributor to discourses on “traffic” as an event and as a medium. His wide-ranging and gradually evolving thought offers an opportunity to see how various issues can be configured in terms of dynamic flow and circulation. These issues include the development of technical media that were profoundly reshaping nearly all aspects of everyday reality in Dewey’s time. Among these technical media are the railway and telephone, as well as the mass media of radio, film, newspaper and other print forms. As one would expect, Dewey frequently portrayed these as facilitating ever an ever-widening gyre in a larger, generative economy or medium.

At the same time though, Dewey was forced to address far-reaching critiques of communication in the political arena, which saw new media as distorting and blocking effective communication. In this presentation, I focus on Dewey’s remarks on media and circulation in both his 1927 book, The Public and its Problems, and in two early works, “The Primary-Education Fetich [sic]” and “Lectures vs. Recitations: A Symposium.” As McLuhan perceptively noted, “Dewey” was in effect “reacting against passive print culture [and thus] surf boarding along on the new electronic wave.” Through this examination, I show how Dewey is indeed, and perhaps unwittingly, riding along an electronic wave that was just beginning to well up in the first half of the twentieth century.

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Dewey’s cosmic traffic

  1. 1. Dewey’s Cosmic Traffic: Politicsand Pedagogy asCommunication Norm Friesen March 31, 2012
  2. 2. The comparison of thinking withcommerce is no forced analogy.There is but one commerce: Themeeting of Mind and Reality.Sometimes the meeting is of onekind and we call it Thought;sometimes it is of another and wecall it Language; sometimes anotherand we call it Art; sometimesanother and we call it Justice,Rightness; sometimes another andwe call it Trade. ...There is only oneeconomy in the universe; and of this,logic, political economy, and themovements of molecules are equallyphases. (1891)
  3. 3. Events that are objects or significantexist in a context where they acquirenew ways of operation and newproperties. Words are spoken of ascoins and money... As a substitute,money not merely facilitates exchangeof ...commodities... but it revolutionizesas well production and consumption ofall commodities, because it brings intobeing new transactions, forming newhistories and affairs. Exchange is not anevent that can be isolated. It marks theemergence of production and consump-tion into a new medium and contextwherein they acquire new properties.(1925, pp. 173-174)
  4. 4. “reacting against passiveprint culture, Dewey wassurf boarding along on thenew electronic wave.” - M. McLuhan, 1962
  5. 5. various remedies, eugenic,educational, ethical, populistand socialist, all assume thateither the voters areinherently competent todirect the course of affairs orthat they are makingprogress toward such anideal. I think it is a falseideal. I do not mean anundesirable ideal. I mean anunattainable ideal, bad onlyin the sense that it is bad fora fat man to try to be a balletdancer. (pp. 28-29)
  6. 6. A technical high-brow presentation wouldappeal only to those technically high-brow; it would not be news to themasses. Presentation is fundamentallyimportant, and presentation is a questionof art... The freeing of the artist inliterary presentation, in other words, is asmuch a precondition of the desirablecreation of adequate opinion on publicmatters as is the freeing of socialinquiry... Artists have always been thereal purveyors of news, for it is not theoutward happening in itself which is new,but the kindling by it of emotion,perception and appreciation. (183-184)
  7. 7. A “subtle, delicate,vivid and responsive art of communica- tion must take possession of the physical machineryof transmission and circulation andbreathe life into it.”
  8. 8. Mens conscious life of opinion andjudgment often proceeds on asuperficial and trivial plane. Buttheir lives reach a deeper level. Thefunction of art has always been tobreak through the crust ofconventionalized and routineconsciousness. Common things, aflower, a gleam of moonlight, thesong of a bird, not things rare andremote, are means with which thedeeper levels of life are touched sothat they spring up as desire andthought. This process is art.
  9. 9. Publication is partial and thepublic which results is partiallyinformed and formed until themeanings it purveys pass frommouth to mouth... We lie, asEMERSON said, in the lap of animmense intelligence. But thatintelligence is dormant and itscommunications are broken,inarticulate and faint until itpossesses the local community asits medium.
  10. 10. The capital handed down from pastgenerations, and upon whosetransmission the integrity ofcivilization depends, is no longeramassed in those banks termedbooks, but is in active and generalcirculation, at an extremely low rateof interest. ...The significanceattaching to reading and writing, asprimary and fundamental instru-ments of culture, has shrunkproportionately as the immanentintellectual life of society hasquickened and multiplied.
  11. 11. The significance attaching to readingand writing, as primary andfundamental instruments of culture,has shrunk proportionately as theimmanent intellectual life of societyhas quickened and multiplied. Theresult is that these studies [inreading and writing] lose theirmotive and motor force. They havebecome mechanical and formal, andout of relation—when madedominant—to the rest of life.
  12. 12. It has, wherever introduced, de-stroyed, once for all, the superstit-ion that the text-book is the sumand end of learning; it has helpeddispel those vicious methods of rotestudy which that superstition foster-ed; it has compelled the instructorhimself to broaden and freshen his knowledge...
  13. 13. “postal principle” or“dissemination:” a“kind of trans-mission that can bedescribed as asym-metrical and uni-directional. The m-edium” in thiscontext, asKraemer explains,“bridges a distancewithout annullingit.”
  14. 14. Multiply and disribute; but don’t subtract.
  15. 15. The aim of communication [accordingto this principle] is not connection, butreunification. Via communication,speakers transform heterogeneity intohomogeneity, difference into identity,achieving a kind of unification as a‘single voice.’ ...The erotic principleunderstands communication as aconcurrence of separate halves; itannuls difference. Its normativity isderived from dialog. ...from the eroticperspective media constitute a formof disturbance since unification of thedisjointed fractions tolerates no middle space.”
  16. 16. Educational tracts and primers writtenexplicitly for mothers obliterated their owntextuality for the sake of their addressees.Books disappeared in a Mother’s Mouthwhose original self-exploratory experiencehad been instituted by those very books.
  17. 17. Dewey... is the perfect foil toRamus in his striving to dislodge the school from the fantasticRamist idea of it as immediateadjunct to the press and as the supreme processer or hopper through which the young and all their experience must pass in order to be available for "use."