Plato’s Phaedrus and McLuhan’s Understanding Media

Part 2

Plato’s Phaedrus both predates and parallels Marshall McLuhan’s criticisms of new media environments in Understanding Media by using old media formats to build authority around a critical consciousness towards developing media environments.

McLuhan’s approach to media involves a careful process of triangulation between different media forms, using the ‘hybrid energy’ of colliding media environments (McLuhan 1964 p. 48-55) to draw out specific qualities of each medium.  A collision of media environments leads to a consciousness of different forms, and McLuhan seeks to identify the strengths, weaknesses and dangers of different mediums to understand “contours of our own extended beings in our technologies, seeking the principle of intelligibility in each of them” (McLuhan, 1964 p. 6).  Plato also seeks to discover ‘intelligibility’ in his contemporary media environment, a blending of oral and chirographic mediums.  Plato subjects this environment to scrutiny through a written dialog in Phaedrus, a creative blending of two media forms at a point of transition.

Ambivalence is at the core of McLuhan’s argument, and ambivalence about new media forms appears in Phaedrus as both skepticism about the utility of writing, and concerns about the properness of certain types of speeches.  At 258D, Socrates and Phaedrus engage in a discussion of what is a good speech and a bad speech in terms of the form it takes; this discussion of the good qualities of a speech at least indirectly provides an argument about what is good about speaking in the first place, a question about media forms at the core of Understanding Media. Another significant connection between Phaedrus and Understanding Media is the use of a hybrid form that employs an authoritative form (print for McLuhan, dialog for Plato) to confer legitimacy on a newer, less legitimate medium.  McLuhan unabashedly adopts a televisual, probing means of communication, written into the authoritative manifestation of a book – my argument is that Phaedrus should be similarly read as a chirographic text that adopts a dialogic form to confer authority on the newer, more contested written form of thought.

Throughout Phaedrus, Plato demonstrates the chirographic foundations of his thought, even as he uses hybrid forms of persuasion.  Socrates’ running concern for knowing the soul of a speaker’s audience suggests that Plato would have accounted for the dispositions of his potential readers, and perhaps recognized a bias towards arguments presented dialogically, rather than in a straightforward argument written in the voice of the author. Still, Plato’s text seems to defend a form of thought more appropriate to a chirographic culture than an oral culture. The rhetorical form which Phaedrus and Socrates agree upon as superior almost requires writing: it demands that speakers carefully define their subject, dividing it out carefully from other subjects, and knowing the exact qualities of the audience the speaker wishes to reach with the message (277C).  At 264C, Socrates gives a basic summary of how to approach speeches, which includes following a set numbered order; and at 265E, he describes the process of collecting all together into groups, then dividing them apart, the essential process of deciding their truth required to successfully argue about them. Following Socrates’ guidelines for good speaking seems to almost require writing: none of these methods seem particularly viable outside of the context of written communication that would allow the careful mental cataloging necessary to meet these goals.

Additionally, Socrates defends a chirographic form of thought in his second speech on love, which should be treated as his (and Plato’s) authoritative opinion on the matter of love.  Indeed, it should be considered such precisely because it squares with the un-contradicted conclusions about rhetoric presented later in the work: here Socrates defends loving the essential beautiful truth of a boy as a pathway towards higher enlightenment (250C), in the same way he defends knowing the essential truth of a subject as the path to effective, ethical persuasion.  In this same vein, the form of love in Socrates’ first speech, or Lysias’ speech would be mere sophistry, pandering to the short term wishes of both parties without regard for the truth -or an authentic love that must be known, and lie at the core of any relationship.

Despite this embrace of chirographic thought and forms, Plato clearly makes an effort to use the hybrid energy of a written dialog to identify the risks associated with a new media form.  Plato seems keen on preventing the emergence of a singularly authoritative text, and would prefer that writing be submitted to a process of discussion and debate.  Socrates identifies risks of the writing technology circulating into places where no one will have the experience to know the truth of claims made by written documents (275E).  Socrates’ idea of a proper speaker is one who encourages “questioning and explanation” of a text (278A), while still producing conviction in a listener. He wants to make sure that speech is done for the “sake of understanding and learning” (278C) rather than mere titillation – the same standard he applies to his notion of ‘good writing.’ In placing these conclusions within a ‘dialog’ between Socrates and Phaedrus, Plato gestures towards the conventions of interrogation he would like to see employed by speakers, readers and listeners more generally. By placing his written, chirographic discourse into a mimesis of a dialog, Plato shows a commitment to triangulating between two media forms in the hope of identifying the strengths and dangers of both.  Socrates’ stated description of an ideal printed work seems to be one subjected to the standards of proof inherent within face to face oral communication, whereby a speaker would be available for interrogation and questioning.  This conclusion reveals how Plato straddles the two mediums in a productive way, preserving the logical, structured thought process of written communication, while allowing a dialogic call and response.

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