The Genes of Culture

Towards a Theory of Symbols, Meaning, and Media, Volume 1

by Christine L. Nystrom (Author) Carolyn Wiebe (Volume editor) Susan Maushart (Volume editor)
©2021 Textbook XIV, 186 Pages
Series: Understanding Media Ecology, Volume 6


Christine L. Nystrom’s provocative work offers up a fresh approach to ongoing—and increasingly urgent—questions about the role of symbols and technology in shaping human experience. In lucid, lively, and always-accessible prose, she examines an eclectic range of topics—from Hopi grammar to the etiquette of beach-going to the primal allure of the horror film—to uncover the principles that structure the way we make meaning of our world. A cross-disciplinary tour de force, The Genes of Culture integrates insights from philosophy, the physical sciences, social psychology, and cultural criticism to pose challenging questions for today’s students of media. This book is an exemplary foundation reader for graduates or undergraduates in communication and media studies.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Foreword
  • Introduction
  • Prologue
  • Narrative: The Ecology of Tales, Tools, and Social Change
  • On Science and Truth: An Antic Dialogue
  • Part I— Meaning
  • Language and Symbol Systems
  • Media, Self, and Society: Notes on George Herbert Mead
  • From Cry to Speech: The Shift from Signalic to Symbolic Functions of Signs in Human Evolution
  • Information Theory
  • Information Theory: Some Terms and Definitions
  • Supplementary Notes on Norbert Wiener, Information, and Relativism
  • The Shannon-Weaver Model of Communication, Information, Predictability, and Knowledge
  • Ideas I Find Particularly Useful from Information Theory/Cybernetics
  • Media, Meaning, and Behavior
  • Chapter 1: Environments, Ecology, and Evolution
  • Chapter 2: The Structure of Situations
  • Chapter 3: Exploring Space
  • Epilogue: The Semanticist’s Joke
  • The Genes of Culture
  • Attention Universe!
  • Steps to an Ecology of Learning
  • What We Say, and What We Do: A Case of Bad Form
  • Symbols, Thought, and Reality: The Contributions of Benjamin Lee Whorf and Susanne K. Langer to Media Ecology
  • You Are Who You Eat: Monsters and Meanings
  • Part II— Media Ecology
  • From Symbol to Medium
  • Some Characteristics of Media
  • Some Generalizations about the Biases of Media
  • Nystrom’s Laws of Media Change
  • Some New Generalizations
  • Media Environments
  • Immediate Man: The Symbolic Environment of Fanaticism
  • Television and Truth
  • What Television Teaches about Sex
  • Literacy as Deviance
  • The Crisis of Narrative
  • Series index

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Many people made this long-overdue volume possible. First, we’d like to thank Peter Nystrom, Chris’s brother, for giving us permission to publish her work. From the starting line of this project—nearly a decade ago!—he has been supportive and helpful.

Anne Garfinkel, Chris’s good friend and neighbor, had to foresight to save the wonderful prologue to this volume from Chris’s trashbin. Her close friend and colleague, Henry Perkinson, put us on to The Gadfly, an old NYU newspaper. JoEllen Fisherkeller, her successor in the Media Ecology PhD program, generously shared the files Chris had given her at handover. Martin Levinson and Ben Hauck shared zip files of the many pieces Chris wrote for ETC, and freely gave permission to reprint.

The remaining contributors were all, at different times, Chris’s students. Margaret Cassidy and Sue Barnes sent boxes containing vintage Nystrom handouts and notes. Bob Blechman emailed copies of her early Media Ecology Conference presentations. Eva Berger even had a piece from an Israeli news interview translated for us.

Other students who helped move things along were Brian Cogan, Peter Fallon, David Linton, Robert Albrecht, M.J. Robinson, Casey Lum, Josh Meyrowitz, Paul Levinson, Stephanie Gibson, and Ed Wachtel—providing publishing advice, missing bibliographic information and ideas, and help securing permissions. Lance ←ix | x→Strate accepted with alacrity our proposal for publication in the Media Ecology Series he edits for Peter Lang. And our editor Erika Hendrix has been the epitome of publishing patience and fortitude.

Finally, our profound gratitude to Sal Fallica who, early on—he’s probably forgotten this by now—offered perhaps the most encouraging words of all, “Do you need money?”

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In the Age of the Internet, where screen-time increasingly mediates all that we see and do and think, the task of interrogating our symbolic environment has never been more relevant, or more urgent. And Christine Nystrom, as these pages will indisputably attest, was a sublime and ruthless interrogator.

“All that we know,” observed theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg, “is a result of the questions we ask.” He was one of Nystrom’s intellectual heroes—students will remember her office door at NYU bore what is surely the world’s nerdiest bumper sticker: “Heisenberg may have slept here”—and like him she had a genius for formulating questions.

For Nystrom, many of those questions were about change. She was fascinated with the implacable churn of human experience across time and space—from the dawning of consciousness to the twilight of the Gutenberg Galaxy, and the deep, unnavigable darkness beyond. And the questions she returned to again and again sought to crack the code of human symbolic evolution—whether by examining how new technologies arise, or why babies babble, or the respects in which literacy is a form of deviance.

At once philosophical and refreshingly pragmatic, Nystrom’s work in communication studies brings together ideas about the self, symbols and culture in strikingly clear and original ways. Alongside her internationally acclaimed colleague, friend and collaborator Neil Postman, Nystrom was one of the founders ←xi | xii→of the discipline of media ecology—in important respects, the founder, for it was she who first articulated a coherent theoretical framework for the discipline she defined simply as the study of “the complex relationships between communication environments and human values, perceptions, feelings, and behavior.”

Unlike Postman, whose hugely influential works layered story, anecdote and example to build memorable social commentary and cultural criticism, Nystrom’s thought is unerringly systematic and scrupulously logical. Her scientific background—including, perhaps surprisingly, an undergraduate degree in chemistry—informed this approach. And her acuity in discerning patterns and articulating organizing principles is perhaps her greatest contributions to the field—see, for example, her “Laws” of media change (p. 26). (I once accused Nystrom of suffering from “physics envy.” She snorted with a mixture of derision and delight … but did not deny it.) At the same time, she was acutely aware of the limitations of a strictly scientific approach to human affairs—as evidenced in one of her most powerful essays, “An Antic Dialogue” in which two thoughtful ants debate the origins of the many unexplained phenomena of their world.

As with Nystrom’s admired colleagues—luminaries ranging Marshall McLuhan and Lewis Mumford to Eric Havelock and Elizabeth Eisenstein—her work has had a resounding influence on the modern field of media studies, and informs many of its contemporary sub-fields and adjacent disciplines. Her impact, so disproportional to her published output, is palpable in the pages of today’s media scholars, many of whom were her students. For Postman, with whom she taught at NYU for over 30 years, she was a collaborator, critic, and crap-detector. They were, intellectually, a single unit. In important respects his work was also their work, as he was always the first to acknowledge. He admired and deferred to her as to no other. In some ways, Nystrom was the Socrates to Postman’s Plato, shunning the limelight of publication and publicity, content, mostly, to make her intellectual mark as a brilliant teacher, adviser and conversationalist.

As a result, her published work—until now—was scattered in obscure journals, and her very best writing stayed in the proverbial desk drawer. In this she was like another of her intellectual heroes, the social psychologist George Herbert Mead, whose stature was the direct result of his students publishing his work, much of it from classroom notes, posthumously. Fortunately (for you)—unlike Mead—Nystrom was an extravagantly gifted writer. Her prose is always lively, accessible and succinct. She abhorred jargon. And her sense of humor, her irrepressibility as a thinker, fairly leaps off the page.

As an aphorist, Nystrom at times rivals Thoreau, Wilde and Shaw, with axioms like “NOW is the byword of our age, and the present its only tense” or “Problems that history is powerless to inform, philosophy is powerless to solve” or “The ←xii | xiii→more we talk, the farther we get from what we wanted to say,” or, more playfully, “Cannibalism is the sincerest form of flattery.”

I said earlier that Nystrom had a genius for asking questions. As any of her former graduate students could tell you, her favorite one—of which we all lived in dread—consisted of just two simple words: “So” and “what?” Roughly translated as “why should I, or anybody else, care about your research question, dissertation topic or ‘problem in the field’?”—the “So what?” question was fired at generations of students with a cool and steely gaze that was vintage bad-cop Nystrom. (The good-cop was the Nystrom who routinely spent every vacation, weekend and sabbatical tirelessly annotating and editing those same students’ theses.)

As it applies to her own corpus, however, the “So what?” question is a no-brainer. Nystrom’s best work is indispensable for the student of media today because of the framework it offers for understanding symbolic activity across the entire sweep of human history, a framework that has never been equaled for breadth, elegance or tensile strength. She aimed to produce a Grand Unified Theory of human communication—one that placed symbolic activity at the core, within an ecological perspective informed by insights from particle physics, systems theory, and evolutionary biology. And if that sounds downright quixotic—well, it was in some ways. “Sorry to say,” she observed of her own work, with characteristic acerbity, “there is a price to be paid for a vision so broad. It is not given to mortals to see widely and intimately at the same time.” But that audacity of mind also yielded remarkable insights, many of them even more resonant today than during her own lifetime.

“The ultimate irony,” she wrote some 30-odd years ago, “is that we now stand at a point where the literate, digitalizing mind presents us with knowledge of the universe that our senses cannot fathom. We know more than we can understand.” And “How are we to prepare the young, whom we already scarcely know, for a future we cannot imagine, from a past that has been swept away?” (1987). “Like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” she noted elsewhere, employing an image later shared by Postman in Technopoly (1987) “we are awash in a flood of information. And all the sorcerer has left us is a broom.” Nystrom’s work offers a prophetic analysis of the challenge of evidentiary, “scientific” thinking in the information age—where almost nothing is directly experienced by our senses—prefiguring the specter of the Age of Fake News with chilling accuracy.

But if we come to use “eternal truth,” “subjective truth,” and “objective truth” all as synonyms, let “truth” slide into “authenticity,” “authenticity” into “consistency,” “consistency” into “credibility,” “credibility” into “effectiveness,” “effectiveness” into “popularity”—or worse, bury them all under an amorphous jelly called “entertainment” and “appeal”—we shall have battered our language to the bluntness of a shovel. And such an instrument can serve only to blunt our sensibilities and responses—to life and to art.

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Above all symbolic gifts, Nystrom prized language—for its poetry as much as its precision—and she looked with horror on the looming crisis of its fate in the digital age. “For what makes us human, in the end,” she wrote, “is the ‘words whirling around in our heads,’ and the price for ignoring them—or at least certain ones of them—is exile from the human community.” At the same time, she understood history well enough to apprehend that “peak literacy,” as she and her generation knew it, was a vestigial enterprise. “We are anomalies ourselves, transitional creatures, neither here nor there,” she wrote, “—cartoon figures trapped on a frail limb far from the main trunk of cultural evolution with the saw in our hands, looking back in the moment of realization that we have just hacked it through, before the limb falls.”

Along with another NYU colleague and friend, education philosopher Henry Perkinson, Nystrom was a fallibilist first and foremost. Indeed, the very idea of the inevitability of imperfection was at the core of both her scholarly thought (eventually encapsulated in her “Principle of Progressive Inadequacy”) and her private and deeply felt spirituality. Despite the boldness of her ideas, and the confidence with which they found expression, she saw “the courage to be wrong” to be among the greatest of intellectual gifts.

For Nystrom, thinking—whether about the psychology of cannibalism or Charlie’s Angels, the syntactic structure of Hopi or the etiquette of beachgoing—was more than an occupation. It was an artform, an extreme sport, and her favorite form of play. As she wrote in the introduction to a student text,


XIV, 186
ISBN (Softcover)
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (February)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2021. XIV, 186 pp.

Biographical notes

Christine L. Nystrom (Author) Carolyn Wiebe (Volume editor) Susan Maushart (Volume editor)

Christine L. Nystrom was a professor of media and communication in the Media Ecology program at New York University for over 30 years. She is regarded as one of the founders of that field, alongside her colleague Neil Postman.


Title: The Genes of Culture