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Rock, Paper, Video: Ray Bradbury Interprets Fahrenheit 451

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In a recent interview in the LA Weekly News, speculative fiction master Ray Bradbury claimed that most people have misinterpreted his seminal classic Fahrenheit 451. According to Bradbury, F451 was not about censorship and the threat of a tyrannous government. It was about the way television will make us into a nation of non-readers, which means being non-reflective, hedonistic and conformist.

Bradbury now asserts that Montag and other readers in his future dystopia were pursued because they refused to conform to the television-induced stupor of the general population, not because they subverted book burning. Books were burned, not as an act of suppression, but because they were irrelevant.

As books are burned and reading becomes a crime, what do the literate rebels in Fahrenheit 451 do? They each memorize a book, and on their deathbeds they pass that work on orally to a descendant. Bradbury rightly intuited that as electronic media superseded print, the values and concerns of our culture would change. But, being literate himself, Bradbury couldn’t imagine that a society without literature could be anything but childish and shallow.

Borrowing from Northrop Frye, I would like to suggest that often the author of a work doesn’t always fully comprehend its significance, but I would like to go one step further. Sometimes, authors are more intuitive than they themselves realize. Fahrenheit 451 may or may not be a book about government censorship, but the more important idea that Bradbury offered way back in 1953 was that electronic media would return us to an oral culture, or as Walter J.Ong later termed it, a condition of secondary orality.

Media Ecologists identify three major eras in the development of human cultures: orality, literacy and secondary orality. Pure oral cultures existed before writing was invented and had to devise various tricks and mnemonic devices to pass hard-won knowledge from generation to generation. Rhymes, rhythms, parables and puns helped preserve oral culture. Personal skills that were valued included memory, voice and the ability to weave an encyclopedian epic from standard poetic pieces. "Rhapsodist" was Classical Greek for "weaver."

When writing was invented, information could be preserved outside of human memory, and essential cultural activities of orality like story telling and singing became pastimes. Reading, writing and ‘rithmetic became the tools to educate our children. It then became of concern which medium was used to preserve the writing. Durable media like stone were long lasting, but hard to carry around. Portable media like papyrus and later, paper were easy to transport, but didn’t last nearly as long. Writing not only allowed the preservation of culture, but also the distribution of that information far beyond its source of origination.

In secondary orality, the major institutions and beliefs of a culture are once again driven by modes of thought and practices based on oral communication, not literacy. Linear thinking gives way to gestalt thinking, logic is replace by intuition, and we begin to think with our “guts” rather than our heads. Computer hardware takes the place of human brain cells for information storage, but oral activities like singing return to center stage. The tools of cultural transmission may be the same as those of primary orality, but the arts are informed by a legacy of writing.

So, is Ray Bradbury an early Media Ecologist? One could say that all writers of speculative fiction are practicing speculative Media Ecology. In Bradbury’s case, he could predict the outcome of adopting a new media environment without fully grasping the influence of electronic media. It is significant that by the end of Fahrenheit 451, the TV-addicted culture has destroyed itself in war and the secondary orality rebels move to rebuild society. Their ultimate supremacy signifies the ascendancy of secondary orality, not its defeat.

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  • http://robertkblechman.blogspot.com Robert K. Blechman

    I’d like to add that Bradbury got it right from a Media Ecological perspective in his later work, The Martian Chronicles, where the Martian environment completely transforms human settlers into new Martians. It is not too far-fetched to claim that every new media environment transforms us into new human beings.

  • duane

    I don’t get it. Is secondary orality perceived as progress or a regression to a more primitive state? I doubt that the literate rebels preferred their lot over a library with actual books in it. Weren’t they desperate?

    Just wondering….

  • JC Mosquito

    Wasn’t Martian Chronicles also an allegory for the opening of the American West?

    Nice to see Northrop Frye’s name in print, and you distilled nicely his work in An Anatomy of Critcism & the Great Code so that I didn’t have to focus my full brainpower on it to understand it.

    I always felt the literate rebels in the book were hopeful, not desperate. However, their post- literate world didn’t have the internet, a powerful tool in today’s real world – but a tool that promotes literacy or a tool that promotes ignorance? Only time can tell.

    Thanx for the great article.

    Skeeter.

  • http://robertkblechman.blogspot.com Robert K. Blechman

    Thanks for your responses.

    I think that its important not to think of the various stages of culture as progressive or primitive. The label “primitive” betrays a literate, technological bias when applied to oral cultures that may have perservered for thousands of years in equilibrium, and may be far more sophisticated in many areas than we are.

    Claude Levi-Strauss has suggested that to fully understand the mythology of so-called “primitive” societies, the anthropologist should be an expert not just in kinship systems, but also biology, geology, botany, astronomy, anatomy and a host of other disciplines which natives master intuitively as part of learning about their environment.

    My point about Bradbury’s literate rebels is not that they wouldn’t prefer books. If they have been forced to memorize their literature, and if this situation has persisted for many years prior to Montag’s story, then they are in secondary orality, and have changed in subtle and not so subtle ways.

    You could argue that what Bradbury did in Fahrenheit 451 is contrast two possible conditions of secondary orality. The first is the state of the general population in Bradbury’s dystopia who have returned to a sort of pre-literate “dream” state. The contrasting state is that of the rebels who represent the possibilities of secondary orality in a positive light.

  • http://philobiblon.co.uk Natalie Bennett

    This article has been selected for syndication to Advance.net , which is affiliated with newspapers around the United States, and to Boston.com. Nice work!

  • Alec

    Robert – Good post. I agree with you that Bradbury has interpreted Farenheit 451 too narrowly. It’s also interesting to see that he commits the fallacy of thinking that literary culture has always been, or will always be, one of the prime movers of civilization.

    Oral culture not only preceded literary culture, but has more often than not been the norm of human culture, and has also often existed alongside literary culture. However, a distinction between linear and non-linear thinking is likely too narrow and just plain wrong. Also, visual communication has also existed alongside oral culture. We don’t know, for example, what early human language was like, but we do know that cave paintings, carving, and sculpture — which obviously conveyed ideas — existed in human societies tens of thousands of years ago, long before any written language.

    Lastly, some scientists have thrown off the narrow consideration of language as only either oral or written to consider whether sign language of some sort might have been used by some early human societies. Although it may be impossible to get direct evidence of this, studies of the evolution of human physiology and brain development may be of use here. For example, changes in the human brain might have led to early humans using signs and pictures before they were physically capable of speech.

    This suggests that the ability — and the need — to be reflective, to communicate, to ponder, to tell a story, is an old human trait, and is not dependent upon books or literary culture to flourish.

  • C. Ikehara

    According to the following recent article, reading is in decline.