Henri Wald

Mass Media and Creative Thinking

The permanent necessary conditions of thinking have not only been brains and a social environment, but also material, physical, sensuous and recurrent elements, without which human moods cannot become thought. Sensations, perceptions, representations, as well as emotions, sentiments, passions, become “symbols” (“signifieds”), only when they are connected with “signs” (“signifiants”). The main natural signs of human symbols have always been, and still are, images and sounds. That is why the primary senses of man we aim at regarding thought’s genesis and progress are sight and hearing, looking and listening. Smell, taste, and touch are too immediately linked to the functions of the biological organism to enable a detachment by man from nature, to enable an embarking upon the infinite evolution of culture. Nevertheless, sight is able to retain images reflected by bodies and colors, thus paving the way for the process of abstraction and generalization, which is the starting point of the history of culture. Representations and feelings become symbols only after memory has also forgotten images, retaining only the reflection of the general, recurring features of things. Since it is an abstraction, the symbol can only be formed after memory has been detached from the concrete. In fact, this is the creative function of forgetfulness.

Though they refer to reality, symbols are ideas and not things, spiritual not material, temporal not spatial, intelligible not sensuous. A symbol reflects the general and the recurrent, reality providing the content, viz. the image and the sound. Reality is both the means of signifying and its goal.

One can speak of man the moment anthropoids began using parts of nature as tools to subdue the rest of nature. For this very reason, the symbol is not part of reality. It was born out of man’s revolt against reality, out of the doubt and discontent nature brought him. Aiming at the future and essential, the symbol (the signified) permanently outdistances reality. By means of the signified man submits to laws to enable himself to subdue events. Man’s destiny is to construct symbols. His most human act is the distinction between phenomenon and essence. In the final analysis, culture's whole history is to be found in matching the gap between phenomenon and essence by widening the distance between sign and symbol. The power man has over nature is directly proportional to the cultural field situated between signs and symbols. The distance achieved between phenomenon and essence of


today’s space rocket culture is incomparably greater than that covered by the manipulators of uncut stone. The distance between sign and symbol of uncut stone can be instantly covered, while in the context of the space rocket culture, it is much more difficult to pass from the perceived to the known, from “perception” to “understanding”.

The limits of human resourcefulness are historical, not logical, because of this field’s extensibility. The less dependent the symbol is upon the sign, the greater the extensibility of the cultural field becomes, the cognitive leap from the sensuous reflection of the phenomenon to the rational reflection of essence being completed in transcending images by means of vocal sounds.

Speech is the least corporeal sign. The sonorous substance of speech is almost immaterial. Speech occurs in time to a greater extent than in space, enriching our inner life more profoundly than our outer life. In this interior monologue, when even sonority disappears, speech is to be identified with consciousness itself. Thus speech is the main instrument in the construction of symbols.

Being made up of the most “spiritual” matter, the verbal sign most appropriately designates symbols; it is further and further removed from the phenomenon, but ever closer to essence. Speech is therefore the fundamental signifier. While sight is linked more to practical operations, hearing attaches to more theoretical ones. Man’s actual knowledge of the world began the moment he succeeded in referring to an object by naming it, rather than pointing to it. By listening to their own speech, men can think of that which cannot be seen: the essential and the future. With the help of speech, man frees himself from the concrete, allowing his thought an ever more intensive, creative activity.

Hearing is therefore man’s most important sense. Sight has been and still is its subordinate. From the very beginning writing has been a transcription of speech to a greater extent than a description of nature.

The creative activity of thinking is threatened, whenever the visual is considered to be of greater importance than the auditive; escaping from the supervision of the auditive, the visual tends to degrade ideas into images, and, little by little, to annul the critical distance between sign and symbol. This is the beginning of the hypertrophying of the outer life, to the detriment of the inner life, of production to the detriment of creation, of material needs at the cost of spiritual ones, of experience against reason, the present against the future.

Thus the world loses its dimension of depth, which asks to be thought over, remaining a mere surface dimension asking only to be looked at. From the philosophical point of view, Neo-Positivism and Structuralism mark the beginning and end of this epoch.


Mass media cultural communication has created mass-culture, the symbol being brought back to the sign, cultural signification tending to become natural signalization once more. “Mass culture,” Edgar Morin writes, “is the product of a dialogue between production and consumption. Yet this dialogue is not mutual.... The consumer, the spectator, responds only by Pavlovian signals: yes and no, success or failure. The consumer never speaks. He listens, sees or refuses to listen or to see.” [1]

After having found that the “great common unifying theme is that of private life, of the empirical present, of phenomenal reality”, [2] Edgar Morin states, “The camera, the microphone, which catch and transmit whatever is instantaneous, are the predestined instruments of a culture adhering to immediate reality.” [3] The products of mass culture are meant to intensify emotional life and not to stimulate creative thinking. We are supposed to deal with “creations worked out not for meditative silence, but for man’s adherence to the great rhythm, frantic and exteriorized, of the spirit of the age.” [4]

Speaking of today’s audio-visual mass-culture, the typographical culture of past centuries, and the oral cultures of primal history, Morin states: “The printed work is an abstract sign: the printed picture is motionless; whereas film, television, and radio directly render life in its real movement.” [5] And later, he adds, “man is replaced by what we call ‘public’, ‘audience’, ‘spectators’.” [6]

While oral culture brings about a total and undifferentiated world-view (pragmatic, emotional, and rational simultaneously), and script culture generates an analytical and a specialized world outlook, predominantly rational, the audio-visual mass-culture results again in a total, synchronic, and kaleidoscopic Weltanschauung. The only difference this makes is that the electronic means of information, in contrast to what Rousseau hoped and Marshall McLuhan thinks, will by no means bring us back to nature; but will lead us to an ever higher degree of culture. McLuhan looks upon the great culture of alphabetic writing as an unfortunate break into oral culture. Man, he asserts in Understanding Media, can look back now and clearly see that the two or three millennia of more or less developed mechanization have been only an intermezzo between two great periods of organic culture. It is as though the dogmatization of symbols were due to their

1. Edgar Morin, L'Esprit du temps, Grasset, Paris, 1962, p. 56.

2. Ibid., pp. 174-175.

3. Ibid., p. 244.

4. Ibid., p. 249.

5. Ibid., p. 77.

6. Ibid., p. 78.


being ever further removed from signs (signifiants), as if the de-dogmatization of symbols could be carried out only by annulling this distance, annihilating the distance between sensuousness and reason.

McLuhan suggests in Mutations that, education will be focussed in the future on developing and refining sensitivity of perception to a greater extent than on “brain-stuffing”. Further it is said that this will not be a loss to the intellect.

First and foremost, man’s humanity expresses itself by its capacity of examining the sensuous presence in order to signify intelligible absence: the absent cause of a present effect, or the absent effect of a present cause. In such a way both Myth and Theory came into being. The destruction of the distance between sign and symbol would lead human thinking back to a pre-mythic epoch. The Westerners have already started replacing myths: “What is characteristic of the Occidental is its setting both within epic and genetic time (the beginnings of civilization) and within historic, realistic, and recent time (the end of the 19th century).”7 Shortly, the Occidental will become only a conditioned reflex or an elementary feed-back within the huge cultural field, covering the distance between sign and symbol. Already nowadays, “there are no longer any mythological flights, as we find in the religions and epics; there is only a glide along the earth’s surface.”8 “Gods are turned into film stars, the future reduces to the weekend, essence is replaced by structure, and explanation by description. No doubt, we shall have to protect this necessary evolution from the danger of confusion-making between the real and the spectacular, and also from the danger of sacrifice-making to the immediate and concrete, thus taking away thought’s aspiration for the universal.”9

Though regretting the disasters brought about by alphabetism and welcoming the benefices of world re-tribalization, McLuhan himself is not hostile to the contemporary trend of also exploring the human self’s inner world. Since written and printed languages isolated man and snatched him from the security of the group, without either warning or preparation, McLuhan has voiced his satisfaction that the coming of the electronic era brought together all of humanity into one planetary tribe. In his opinion, however, the most serious drawback of alphabetic writing is the exacerbation of sight to the detriment of the other senses. He continues by insisting that peoples having no written language found it unnecessary to develop one sense more than another; they lived harmoniously in their total perceptions, while civilized man preferred promoting visual perception only.

7. Ibid., p. 149.

8. Ibid., p. 144.

9. Jean Cazeneuve, “Communication de masse et mutations culturelles”. In Cahiers intern. de sociologie, Janvier-Juin, 1969, p. 25.


McLuhan predicts that the predominance of outer life in the future’s society will not preclude the investigation of the self: The “Electric Age” with its multiplicity of communications, while extending man’s nervous system beyond his body, at the same time creates a new desire for exploring the inner self.

How does one penetrate into the inner life? There is only one way, an interior monologue. And the interior monologue is nothing else but written language converted into solitary meditation. The interior monologue is reading without a text. In contrast with McLuhan, I think that alphabetic writing is auditory to a greater extent than visual, as when reading we convert the auditory into interior speech. McLuhan observes only the negative effects of the fact that writing (and primarily alphabetic writing) concentrated the whole Western culture upon Reason, by means of linearization, sequentialization, and standardization. The logocentrism of European culture is remediable, but man’s capacity of abstraction and generalization, of analysis and synthesis, of lifting to an ever greater extent the symbol from its domination by the sign, has been the tremendous treasure transmitted by the practice of alphabetic writing.

Without abstractions culture would have remained close to nature, and throughout the centuries man would have stayed an animal, possibly cleverer than others, but not a creator. For creation springs out of the tension developed between individualizing sensibility and generalizing reason. By means of its written language, society rationalizes individual sensibility, while individuality sensitizes social reason. Originality comes out of the short- circuit made between the individual and the social, between sensibility and reason, between experience and theory. Written language expresses not only the logical forms which help to organize a common reflection of the object’s nature, but also the infralogical forms that help to keep manifest the original attitude of the subject. Without his alphabetic writing man would not have succeeded in sufficiently widening the distance between symbol and sign, which enables him to establish his rule over nature.

Man’s ultimate superiority to all other beings consists in his freedom of combining an infinite number of monemes and syntagms, having at his disposal a finite number of phonemes and grammatical rules. Man is a creative being, not merely a reflex of social intercourse. The means of communication are not only instruments of information transfer, but also direct participants in the very structuring of information. By the aid of the means of communication, man achieves an increasing freedom of invention. How man thinks depends on the social means of communication, but what he thinks comes from his original individuality. The form and “formal contents” of the means of communication are the products of society, but the new ideas are products of individuals. McLuhan is probably right when he


distinguishes between utterance which records and engages, and printed alphabetic writing which fragmentizes and neutralizes; man, however, employs these forms of communication in order to grasp the very dialectics of reality. Moreover, the formal contents reflect the most general features of the real: part and whole, individual and general.

In the past the masses were producers and the elite were consumers; in the future, when machines produce and men consume, the masses will consume and an ever numerous elite will create. For our present period, modern engineering frees men from the domination of their material needs, but at the same time their spiritual needs become ever more superficial and standardized. The critical spirit is in danger. The very power of creation is thus menaced.

The great claims of the future will no longer be economic, but cultural: freedom of creation, right to originality, struggle for the promotion of the new. Spiritual necessities will be brought to the forefront of human activity. The time will come when the thinkers who transformed the world will be again called to contemplate it. ...

We must prepare ourselves for a society where the spectacular will be less photography of given data, and more an outline of a new project.

In spite of all the gloomy prognostications about the dissolution of the self (M. Foucault), about re-tribalization (McLuhan), about the Niagara of increasing entropy (N. Wiener), I remained convinced that men are able to move towards a society capable of developing an ever greater number of creative individuals.

Thinking is the activity that enables man to structure his practical and emotional inventions into ideas and to combine these ideas; at the same time, society provides him with the main instrument of building up ideas: language. Without this man would never have succeeded in postponing his present reactions, in planning them, thus detaching himself from the immediate. Thinking appeared the very moment that man succeeded, on the one hand, in employing one thing in order to make another thing, and, on the other hand, in utilizing one thing in order to signify another thing. This is the way the means of production and of communication appeared. In this manner, it became possible for the future (still absent) to take part in carrying out present work. Again, this is the way the distance began to widen between sign and symbol. Moving away from the phenomenon and approaching the essence became possible when man discovered that he could use phenomena in order to signify essences, that phenomena were not only consumers' goods, but also means of production and communication.

The fundamental opposition between society and nature maintains permanently the negating force of thought. By means of the improvement of tools, language and inter-individual relationships, men no longer adapt


themselves to nature, but adapt nature to themselves. The unity between man and nature makes the objectivity of knowledge possible, yet knowledge starts from the opposition between man and nature.

The increasing entropy of nature has only one serious antagonist: the non-entropy of human thinking. Man’s thought opposes the ruinous tendencies of nature, designing new forms of material organization. Thinking is an act of revolt. Thinking is a denial. By reflecting on essence, man refuses to remain at the stage of sensuous mirroring of phenomena; he builds ever higher abstractions, refusing to submit to the concrete, looking ever more deeply into the future, refusing to live in the present. Thinking refuses to stop at acquired knowledge and past achievements.

In terms of its essence and origin, thinking is a polemical act, heretical, negating, creative. This is also why thinking is not an absolute denial, only a relative one. When negative, thinking is in fact affirmative. Without positivity, negative thought would degenerate into negativism. Thinking cannot consider nothingness, only transcendence. The non-existence of thought is possible, but thinking of non-existence is impossible. Thinking expresses man’s permanent disagreement with his surrounding environment; practice is only the positive outcome of this discontent.

Society is nevertheless the only medium that makes thinking possible, as it is the only medium where human individuality can appear and evolve. Thinking is not possible outside society, yet it is not society that thinks, but the individual man. Ideas are not formed in the social field which is to be found “between” men, but only in the individual field which is to be found between each man’s sensibility and reason. Determinism in nature and society is turned into individual freedom of creation through the tension between sensibility and reason. Through reason society comes to be expressed in each individual, and through his sensibility the individual, developing his personality, contributes to the whole society’s progress. The wider the distance between sensibility and reason the greater the relative independence of the individual from nature and from the collectivity in which he lives. The shorter the distance between sensibility and reason the tighter are the relations with his natural and social milieux, and the poorer his contribution to progress.

Human personality is the outcome of the dialectical contradiction between society and individuality, between sensibility and reason, between determinism and freedom. Society advances by means of the development of its individuals. While the social was dominant, society could not transcend the stage of gregariousness. That society is superior to another which succeeds in ensuring a greater amount of freedom to its individuals. The appearance of human individuality is the highest achievement in the evolution of society.


Men are not samples of the species: they are uniques of a collection. The supreme aim of society should be the development of the human personality. Gregariousness prevents the development of those qualities by which men are distinguishable among one another, by which they are successful in discovering what is not yet known, in designing what is yet non-existent; gregariousness prevents doubt, controversy, phantasy. Without personality nothing new can appear. Nature does not exert an influence on our lives directly, but rather through the agency of society; at the same time, society reaches consciousness of the direction of its progress via individual consciousness. Individual consciousness is the expression of social consciousness, and it is the only thing capable of enriching it.

From language thought receives logical forms from society. Just as the temporary stability of things does not prevent the permanent movement of things, social forms of thinking do not annihilate the individual activity of thinking. There is always an element of relative stability in whatever is in movement. Furthermore, the moment of thought of the individual becomes possible because of the social stability of logical forms, otherwise, after the Fall of Babel, how could individual thinking have reflected and preserved the common and communicable properties of things without the social stability of its logical forms? The individual’s thought transforms incommunicable emotions into ideas communicable to all of society. Thought always searches for the invariant in the continuous variation of things. By means of these logical forms of language, thinking discovers the identical and socially necessary in things. Since they are formed in and by society, these logical structures naturally have a history of their own. Yet because they reflect reality in their cognitive content, they gradually become universally human. How men think depends on society, but what they think depends as well on themselves. Their freedom grows as they improve the means of production and communication. In the tribal epoch, rudimentary tools and oral speech was connected with thinking and acting in a mytho-magical way; whereas alphabetic writing and mechanical instruments allowed men to construct their own thoughts, to determine their own aims. For thinking minds language has an enormous heuristic value. Clichés, commonplaces, and trite expressions reflect others’ thinking and a lack of personal thinking. Certainly, truths known for a long time do not become errors, they become banalities. A truth which is a banality becomes less and less informative. Platitude is the natural end of any paradoxical truth. While platitude is a victory of natural entropy, paradox is a success of human non-entropy.

The paradox, however, flashes only through those minds capable of transcending the usual distance between knowledge’s two poles: sensibility and reason. It is affirming that the earth moves round the sun, though one sees that it is the sun that moves round the earth. Language itself sprang forth


in the form of paradox, in the very moment it signified an ideal by means of a material sign, a “metaphysical” signification from a “physical” sign. Paradox is surprising; it exhibits an idea which contradicts common sense, or good sense.

The appearance of new ideas becomes threatened, if society forces reason to come back to sensibility, keeping the symbol close to the sign, reducing the world to its sensuous dimension. A world without explainable depth is limited to describable surface. At this juncture, thinking is left only with an organizational mission, putting order into the flux of appearances. A world devoid of essences is one where thought is reduced to the manipulation of systems of signs. The very moment the objective existence of essences is contested thinking atrophies. Signs can also be combined by animals and automatic machines. One may in the end reach the conclusion that machine-thought is preferable to the human, since it is never bothered by the anxious moment when emotions become ideas. This view maintains that man should give up the illusion that he is qualitatively different from other systems of organization in nature. Man is conceived as nothing else than a system which sends forth and picks up messages via various signals.

But signification by language and signalling are altogether different. In the structure of the signal, the signified (the symbol) cannot get detached from the sign, and thereby thinking, as the capacity of abstraction and generalization, is impossible. The signal is always the same, always linked to an immediate circumstance, always univocal; another signal as an answer is never expected. Signalization is incompatible with questioning. The reduction of signification to signalization would mean the dehumanization of man. From being the only animal that commands nature, man would again become one among the many beings commanded by nature. The tendency of technocratic society to reconvert thoughts into pragmatic and affective reactions, making performances replace books and even pictographs replace letters, represents a real danger today.

The object takes revenge upon the subject. After Neo-Positivism called the subject to absorb the object. Structuralism now calls the object to absorb the subject. Subjectivism is turned into objectivism, abstractism into concretism, and utopian humanism into “scientific” anti-humanism. What should disappear, however, is not humanism, but its utopian character.

Socialism means scientific humanism. It means unity and not uniformity. Socialism signifies culture for all―at the same time culture for everyone. Liquidating social differences―between classes, between nationalities, between manual and intellectual work, between town and village―socialism means the development of individual differences, the free development of each and every man. By improving the means of production and communication, as well as individual relationships, socialism ensures all men the


same opportunity for developing their own personalities. Compared to achievements so far, the socialist order will be a society with a greater amount of thinking performed by a greater number of men and women, having become capable of mentally covering an increasing distance between the “perceived” and what can only be “understood”.



SOURCE: Wald, Henri. “Mass Media and Creative Thinking,” in East-West Dialogues: Foundations and Problems of Revolutionary Praxis, edited by Paul K. Crosser, David H. DeGrood, Dale Riepe (Amsterdam: B. R. Grüner N. V., 1973), pp. 87-96. (Philosophical Currents; vol. 5)

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Henri Wald’s Contribution to Romanian Culture and Philosophy
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Details, details! (From Marshall & Me blog)

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Wald, Henri
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East-West Dialogues
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