Manipulate is a term so tightly knit with what the conception of media is, that it is often assumed more than applied in theoretical discourse. In popular jargon that deals with media (particularly mass media), it is used to such an extent that it is has become a cliche: "we are being manipulated by the media" or "the media has been manipulated." Manipulate is the active verb for media; it describes what is done to and through any given medium. The central dialectic that works through the word is one of power or mastery; both the desire to have mastery and the fear of being mastered. In order to better understand what it means to manipulate, it is crucial to examine where the word is derived from.

The word manipulate comes from the Italian manipulare: to grip with the hands. According to the OED, manipulate is defined in the following manner: "to handle, esp. with skill or dexterity; to turn, reposition, reshape, etc. manually or by means of a tool or a machine" or to "to process, organize, or operate on mentally or logically, to handle with mental or intellectual skill," and finally "to manage, control or influence in a devious or underhanded manner."1 All three senses of the word connote various forms of control over distinct, but permeable realms of the physical, the mental, and the social.

Perhaps one of the seminal moments that informs our current understanding of the concept of the word manipulate stems from the Bible in Genesis II (KJV), "And the Lord God formed man of the slime of the earth, and breathed into his face the breath of life, and Man became a living soul." This event is famously illustrated in the mural on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, where God and Adam's hands touch at the moment of creation. The name Adam itself has its roots in the Hebrew word for clay.2 Giorgio Vasari points out that "The material in which God worked to fashion the first man was a lump of clay."3 In this sense, God is the prime manipulator or as the character Gas in David Cronenberg's film Existenz says "God the mechanic"4. God manipulates human life in much the same way as a sculptor would create a figurative clay sculpture. This example serves to elucidate the first definition of the word manipulate, which would be a mastery over some medium through the hand, in this instance; clay.

It is in The Republic of Plato, specifically the Allegory of the Cave, where all three meanings given in the OED of the word manipulate are shown to be in relation to each other. In the cave, shadow puppets (a medium that combines both the art of sculpture and theater) are manipulated to cast shadows on the wall at which the prisoner's vision is directed. It is through the shadow puppets that the prisoners' minds are manipulated into taking shadow for reality. It is the philosopher's aim for Plato to come out of the world of false shadows and see the puppeteers for what they really are: manipulators of the people in the cave. In this allegory, we see how the mastery of the hand passes over to the manipulation of minds through the use of shadow images with the social implications of manipulation, which is to exercise control over people through deception.

Oddly enough, it was through the visual arts of painting and sculpture (visual artists weren't admitted into Plato's Republic) that Plato's philosophy found its greatest expression in the Renaissance with the bourgeoning of Neo-Platonism. In the Symbolic Image, art historian E.H. Gombrich details the influence of Marsilio Ficino, the chief exponent of Neo-Platonic philosophy in Renaissance Florence.5 Gohmbrich goes to great length to show the connection between Ficino's philosophy and the art work of the painter Sandro Botticelli and other artists of the period. Gohmbrich postulates that while the art work didn't illustrate the Platonic forms per se, it enacted them, in so much as, "...the idea itself conceived as an entity, which through these images tries to signal us and thus penetrate through our eyes into our minds."6 The symbolic image was used to manipulate the viewer in order to reinforce state power and church doctrine.7

Moving from ancient and Renaissance examples of manipulation to modern ones, we still find the conflicting impulse to master or manipulate through or by the hand both physically and metaphorically. Martin Heidegger tells us that, "Man himself acts [handelt] through the hand [Hand]; for the hand is, together with the word, the essential distinction of man. Only a being which, like man, "has" the word, can and must "have" the "hand." Through the hand occurs both prayer and murder, greeting and thanks, oath and signal, and also the "work" of the hand, the "hand-work", and the tool."8

The hand for Heidegger is a positive aspect of being in the world. It is through the hand's manipulation of things that are "ready-to-hand" that being acts. What is "ready-to-hand" is a medium (in the material sense of the word) that can be manipulated and is only ready-to-hand as it relates to doing work. That which can be manipulated, Heidegger refers to as "equipment." For Heidegger, equipment are things that serve a function which moves out past itself. As he states in Being and Time, "Equipment is essentially 'something-in-order to do'".9 For equipment to be equipment, it must serve a function. These expressions for Heidegger, "equipment" and things "ready-to-hand" are used in the service of work each of which becomes authentic (see authenticity) for Heidegger when they are put into action. In much of his writing there is a desire to take hold and grasp. Through this grasping, he postulates we can better understand being. In the essay The Age of the World Picture he writes about the world that can be grasped like a picture.10 In this sense, Heidegger is aligned with Plato in so much as Plato wanted to "rise out of the sea of change and lay hold of true being..."11

Heidegger also traces our understanding of the word manipulate from the power of the hand to the second definition given in the OED which has to do with how things are manipulated in the mind; something he is very suspicious of. The further people are abstracted from the body, the more anxious he becomes in regard to media. This can be seen in his essay on the typewriter which he refers to as a "signless cloud" which creates a homogenized writing public as opposed to writing that is done with the hand.12 Heidegger is therefore a very 'hands-on' thinker. He is dubious of any type of thinking that loses touch with the phenomenal world, as he laments in this passage of Being and Time:

"What is decisive in the 'emergence' of the theoretical attitude would then lie in the disappearance of praxis. So, if one posits 'practical' concern as the primary and predominant kind of Being which factical Dasein possesses, the ontological possibility of 'theory' will be due to the absence of praxis - that is, privation. But the discontinuance of a specific manipulation in our concernful dealings does not simply leave the guiding circumspection behind as a remainder. Rather, our concern then diverts itself specifically into just-looking-around."(Heidegger, 409)13

Heidegger prizes a way of understanding that is gotten through "concernful manipulation." In essence, he advocates a way of philosophizing that will lay hold of being and not just look at it. He, in fact, disparages the "just-looking-around" because it indicates an out of touch-ness (see touch) to the phenomenal world he so values.

If the hand symbolizes the positive aspect of manipulation in the world for Heidegger, it has the opposite import for Emmanuel Levinas. The hand for Levinas stands for possession and control. It is what needs to be worked against to have freedom. If for Heidegger the verb manipulate was a means of access to freedom in a world that could deceive the eyes, then for Levinas it is the hand which deceives and controls. In terms of the OED's definition, Levinas works out of the third definition in his metaphoric rendering of the hand. In the chapter Possession and Labor in his book Totality and Infinity, he levels a litany of charges against the hand as the symbol of manipulation which more or less reads as follows: "The hand is the organ of grasping and taking, the first and blind grasping in the teeming mass: it relates to me, to my egoist ends, things drawn from the element, which, beginningless and endless, bathes and inundates the separated being."(Levinas, 159)14 The hand, therefore, is an agent of manipulation of the other. It is through possession that we are separated or mediated from the other. The symbol for Levinas that bridges the gap to the other is the face because, as he writes "The face speaks to me and invites me to a revelation incommensurate with power exercised, be it enjoyment or knowledge."15

In Understanding Media by Marshall McLuhan, the concept of manipulation also works along the axis that has been discussed in the philosophies of Levinas and Heidegger. McLuhan's theories on the extensions of man deal with various forms of manipulation in a similar way to that in which Heidegger talks about equipment. Each extension serves to make people more efficient and better able to cope with the world in which they dwell. While cataloging the various ways of mastery/extension over the world through media, he is also aware of the ramifications of new found methods of manipulation when he warns, "Once we have surrendered our senses and nervous systems to the private manipulation of those who would try to benefit from taking a lease on our eyes and ears and nerves, we don't really have any rights left."(McLuhan, 68)16

Manipulation is also deployed as a term in Lev Manovich's, What is New Media? In his essay he refers to the computer as a media "manipulator" because of its ability to manipulate old analog based media through numerical computation.17 This aspect of the computer would be in line with our first definition, in so much as the computer functions as a hand to work with various mediums. Manovich also uses manipulate in terms of the second and third definitions found in the OED in his critique of the interactive process. He likens the interactive process in its power over people's minds to follow the "mental trajectory of a new media designer" to how people who watch movies try to shape their bodies to that of the on-screen movie stars.18 Put succinctly, Manovich says that through interactive computer design "we are asked to mistake the structure of somebody else's mind for our own."19(Manovich, 61)

There is of course, no end to the ways in which the word manipulate is interwoven with media. The problem of manipulation in media discourse may be boiled down to simply a problem of "hand-eye coordination" or more appropriately "hand-mind" coordination. It is through the hand literally or figuratively that media is manipulated and is made to impress the senses of the other. These impressions are used to mobilize the receptor of media in the desired direction of the one who manipulates.

Zachary Cahill
The University of Chicago :: Theories of Media :: Keywords Glossary ::  manipulate