The Genes of Culture

Towards a Theory of Symbols, Meaning, and Media, Volume 2

by Christine L. Nystrom (Author) Carolyn Wiebe (Volume editor) Susan Maushart (Volume editor)
©2022 Textbook XXII, 220 Pages
Series: Understanding Media Ecology, Volume 7


Volume 2 of The Genes of Culture continues Christine Nystrom’s exploration into the ecology of symbol systems and the evolution of media, mind and culture. Part One, Human Symbolic Evolution, delivers nothing less than a grand unified theory of humankind. For Nystrom, the prehistoric creative explosion that gave rise to language -- a metaphorical Big Bang -- explains our species’ survival. A felicitous if somewhat ignoble story, it begins with "The Incompetent Ape" who would never have made the evolutionary cut without developing the social capabilities made possible through symbolic language. And human communication, an inevitable source of problems, is the driving force behind this most peculiar of adventures: the birth of self-consciousness, tools and technologies, pratfalls of memory, awareness of our own mortality, art, knowledge, civilization, discontent, and so on. And so on, that is, if we don’t bring our story to an end.
In Part Two, a series of astute and provokingly prescient lectures, Tales, Tools, Technopoly, Nystrom addresses our social and moral responsibility in cultivating the narrative of our future. Straightforward and ruthlessly critical of contemporary notions of "growth" and "progress," it concludes this volume with an alternative that is also a challenge -- an appeal to our better nature to do right by our species and the planet.
A seminal text for students of media and communication, The Genes of Culture, Vol. 2 is at once readable and profound, comprehensive in its erudition and bold in its conclusions. In the spirit of Media Ecology, it invites argument, and merits acclaim.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Prologue
  • Part I: Human Symbolic Evolution: A Study of Tales, Tools and Social Change
  • Chapter One: Language: The Monkeys’ Tale
  • Chapter Two: The Children’s Tale
  • Chapter Three: From Signal to Speech
  • Chapter Four: Language and the Birth of Self
  • Chapter Five: Narrative
  • Chapter Six: Metaphor, Explanation, and Tales of the Self
  • Chapter Seven: Connections: Tribal Tales
  • Chapter Eight: Transitions and Transformations: The City, the Self, and the Sacred
  • Chapter Nine: Sounds of Silence: The Evolution of Writing
  • Chapter Ten: Kings, Consciousness, and Intimations of Immortality
  • Selected Bibliography
  • Part II: Tales, Tools, Technopoly
  • Lecture One: On Narrative
  • Lecture Two: On Technopoly
  • Lecture Three: Alternative Narratives
  • Final Tidbit: Nystrom’s Nuggets of Wisdom
  • Reading List
  • Addendum: Remembrances
  • Series index

←x | xi→


First off, because “30 years as a teacher” does not adequately capture the impact Chris had on so many of us, we’d like to thank all of Chris’s former students who encouraged us and shared their memories. (See the “Remembrances” section p. 229). Robert Albrecht, Missy Alexander, Mary Ann Allison, Susan Barnes, Eva Berger, Bob Blechman, Moshe Botwinick, Peggy Cassidy, Renee Chow, Brian Cogan, Sal Fallica, Peter Fallon, Stephanie Gibson, Michael Grabowski, Paul Levinson, David Linton, Joshua Meyrowitz, Casey Lum, William Petankas, Devon Powers, MJ Robinson, Maria Simpson, Jonathan Slater, Lance Strate, and Toni Urbano. And, most especially, we’d like to thank Chris’s brother, Peter Nystrom. His kind words, remarkable patience and generosity certainly helped make this over-long task feel worthwhile.

For this volume specifically, we would like to acknowledge the remarkably efficient and cheerful assistance of Leah Edelman, outreach archivist at The Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary, in arranging access to the tape recordings of Chris’s Australian lecture series. How those tapes ended up traveling from Perth, Western Australia to an archive at Columbia University in New York City is a long, unlikely bi-hemispheric tale for another day. For now, suffice it to say we are indebted too to the meticulous record-keeping of Chris’s friend and fellow traveler, Christopher Morse, Professor Emeritus of Theology and Ethics at Union Seminary.←xi | xii→

For the generous help of the kind one only asks of a sibling, Thomas Wiebe was of invaluable technical assistance. Other siblings—Margaret Wiebe and Frank Wiebe—read large swaths of these volumes. Their assurance that, yes, Chris’s work is not only readable but of interest to people who neither study media nor work in education, was genuinely encouraging.

Finally, we’d like to acknowledge thanks to Margarethe Hubauer, and especially to Michael Sowa for the existence of and then generous permission to use that most joyous image, Koehler’s pig.

←xii | xiii→


The two works that comprise this volume display two different sides of Christine Nystrom’s scholarship. The first, Human Symbolic Evolution: A Study of Tales, Tools, and Social Change, is what we’ve fondly come to refer to as her magnum opus. Certainly, it was an ongoing project that reflects much of her life’s work. It displays the enormous scope and highly abstracted perspective—the long view—with which she approached the field of human communication. And yet also evident, despite the broad strokes of history and philosophy, is the careful and critical attentiveness typical of her intellectual rigor. The second work, a series of lectures given at an Anglican education conference in 1989 in Perth, Australia, suggests the other side of Nystrom’s work: contemporary social and moral criticism of notions of “development,” “efficiency,” and “progress” in a rampantly technological culture.

It was hard to decide which piece to put first. The lectures predate the final 1996 date we find on the various manuscripts of Human Symbolic Evolution. However, as close readers of Volume 1 of The Genes of Culture may detect, sections of the manuscript available to us were written at different points well before then. More to the point, the manuscript provides the groundwork for understanding and critically addressing the perspective offered in the lectures we have titled Tales, Tools, Technopoly. It is therefore logically, if not strictly chronologically, precedent.

Keep in mind, Human Symbolic Evolution frames the history of humanity as a story of the development of language, of symbol systems, of our ever-changing ←xiii | xiv→symbolic environments. The perspective Nystrom articulates—understanding media of communication within the framework of an ecology of mind—functioned as the foundational approach for the media program at New York University. Not surprisingly, large chunks of the manuscript were, and continued to be, widely assigned among graduate students.

These chapters are clearly part of what was originally conceptualized as a larger work; the prologue of volume 1 and the lectures give us a sense of where her tale was leading and what Nystrom intended to address. Studying the underlying patterns associated with large shifts in communications, she sees media not so much as agents of change, but as processes linked to solving the problems that inevitably arise out of prior stages of symbolic development—out of the fact that we communicate through symbol systems. Every “solution” adopted is itself necessarily flawed—and necessarily introduces further change. The result is a range of new challenges, which spark further change—and so on, ad infinitum. So long as humans survive, our history will continue to tell the story of new ways we try to solve the problems that arise out of our imperfect means of communicating.

Inadequacy and imperfection function therefore as both the engine of change and the inevitable result of change. When we deny that fallibility lies at the heart of what it means to be human and cling instead to the illusion of perfectibility, we risk falling prey to fanaticism—whether in a doomed pursuit of heaven on earth, or delusions of a master race, or dreams of some futuristic era of transhumanism arising out of the glory of new media technologies.

We can look at this notion of inexorable imperfection with a sense of gloom that we are destined to ongoing failure. Or we can embrace our fallibility, observing the human comedy of errors in good faith and with the optimism that things can in fact always be made better. While Nystrom embraced the latter perspective, she also recognized, with a sense of foreboding, the dismal possibility that humankind might be so strongly steeped in its own glories—the folly of our success, so to speak—as to lead us to our demise.

We may in fact be perilously close to the end. It all depends on where we take the story from here. My race across the past and territories not my own is not spurred by confidence but by dread. If we cannot get a clear view of what our story has been, and where it stands, and how to correct its course, my mistakes in this matter will not matter much.

Her goal “to assess where we stand just now in the living tale of our species—and of our tools—and identify the problems we must solve if we do not wish to end it” must have seemed increasingly futile. Or, perhaps, after the retirement of their colleague Henry Perkinson, and then the death of her great friend and collaborator ←xiv | xv→Neil Postman, the pursuit simply became less of an adventure and more of a cross to bear.

Nystrom sought to deepen our understanding of the interaction of narrative and media so as to bring to our attention and help solve the problems arising out of our relationship to our new and ever-consuming technologies. Tools and technologies, she argues, give rise to and are shaped by narrative, which situates their use and foretells their purpose. And where Marx, for instance, tells a story about what Nystrom calls “tools of doing,” of economics and the means of production, her focus stays squarely on “tools of knowing,” on people and the means of meaning.

In Tales, Tools, Technopoly, we get an inkling of where Nystrom was probably going with her unfinished opus. Here, large swaths of history orient our attention to the central problems arising from the development of and changes in human communication. Oddly enough, because of our unique ability to represent, realize, and create “reality” through symbols, we need a way to control, structure, and contain the surfeit of information such representation provides. The Tale of Technopoly she introduces in these lectures is “the tale of technological progress with paradise to be regained, not in some misty hereafter, but here on earth, through the wonders of technology.” The content of this tale is, in large measure, the celebration of consumerism. The activity through which that tale progresses is the process of turning human behavior into technique. In the 1980s, when Nystrom was writing this account, she called our attention to the way all behaviors were relegated to experts—whether in psychology, education, economics, surgery, politics—and made quantifiable. And, indeed, our experts continue to diagnose and quantify our activities so as to determine whether a child should be given a behavior modification drug, whether a patient can get insurance coverage, whether a candidate and will win elections and so on. But today, her arguments against the tyranny of experts are complicated by the fact that we have incorporated their tools into our technologies, thereby making the mechanics of quantification invisible. Today, we look to our phones to find out whether we’ve done enough exercise or slept soundly or—irony of ironies!—used our phones too much. We don’t think about the premises upon which such tracking apps base their “scientific” output. Or even, simply, about how ridiculous it is that we might not be able to determine those things for ourselves.

Yet narrative has both form and content: its form has much to do with the media that carry it, which in turn gives shape to its content. The shifts in the forms through which narrative is given shape is perhaps the most problematic aspect of Nystrom’s lectures and of Postman’s later books and speeches. They both looked to the computer and saw the quantification of experience. They watched the rise ←xv | xvi→of image-oriented stories and with them the decline of reading and the habits of mind associated with it. They saw with chilling clarity the increasing emphasis on speed, the deterioration of language, the absence of subtlety, complexity, ambiguity in our discourse and, in turn, in our thinking. Thus it is not merely that the stories conveyed through new media distract us from contemplating the problems arising out of our dependence upon our technologies. Today the technologies themselves orient us to distraction—so that we struggle to sit still with our thoughts, let alone to muster up the critical faculties we associate with analysis and problem-solving.

In their various discussions of Technopoly, both Nystrom and Postman knew they were giving short shrift to the potential benefits of new and developing technologies. Neither were advocates of “back to nature,” or to orality (as the case may be), and Nystrom, in particular, resisted the nostalgia associated with an illusory Golden Age of print culture, where freedom and democracy and economic well-being reigned supreme. Both, however, were acutely aware of the selling power of new technologies—the glib boosterism, the tyranny of cheerfulness braying ceaselessly of improvement, speed, efficiency, productivity and, of course, profit. The way they saw it, new technologies did not need more or louder evangelists.

Both were aware of their own biases towards the written word. And they were also supremely aware of the limited capacity to fully appreciate all the potential consequences that developing technologies might bring. But, again, that was not the focus of their work.

They were committed instead to taking the longer view, the unfashionably darker perspective that would have us take stock of what was being put aside, left behind, forgotten.

For Nystrom and for Postman, the time had come for their human companions on this planet earth to look squarely at the problems brought on by the technologies they were using. These were large, moral, ecological concerns.

Anyone reading these pieces who is familiar with Nystrom’s work will come across bits and pieces they’ve read before—in course notes, conference speeches, published articles. There is little that is remarkable about that. However, the crossover between her work and Postman’s is. Certainly, her concerns with “narrative” overlap with his later publications and speeches (as in End of Education), as do her comments about problems and change (Building a Bridge to the 18th Century), and, most tellingly, her definition and explication of Technopoly (reiterated in his book of that name).

What deserves mention here is not who has the prior claim of authorship, but how closely and brilliantly—and how generously—they collaborated. Their intellectual camaraderie was a conversation in the very best sense of the word, by turns ←xvi | xvii→playful and pointed, inquisitive and declarative, tentative and audacious. It was a decades-long dialectic that brought out the best in each of them. And it has left an indelible intellectual mark on those of us who have had the privilege to listen in.

With all of this attention to her written work, it is easy to forget that Nystrom was, primarily, a teacher. For her, to work in education was to give—an act of social good; the intimation that one works for the betterment of all. For students, she was a ruthless critic, but this came out of a generosity that held us to flatteringly great expectations.

Her expectations for the field of Media Ecology helped promote an ethos of scholarship—an ethos that, alas, is rare in communication departments. For Nystrom, Media Ecology was not a sub-field of communications theory, but a meta-field that connected and explained ways of knowing—the function of symbol systems in the various categories of knowledge—from math and English to music and theology. As with Alfred North Whitehead and Susanne Langer, she saw the study of symbol systems as the dawning of a new age of philosophy, which gave rise to Media Ecology as the study of the means through which humans understood the world, created reality, and dreamed of the future.


XXII, 220
ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2022 (August)
symbols meaning meaning-making technology communication technology media ecology electronic media literacy social psychology cultural anthropology cultural criticism Christine L. Nystrom Carolyn Wiebe Susan Maushart The Genes of Culture Towards a theory of symbols, meaning and media media
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2022. XXII, 220 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
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244 pages