1. a. An instrument of any kind used in warfare or in combat to attack and overcome an enemy.
2. b. transf. Any part of the body (esp. of a bird or beast) which is or may be used as a means of attack or defense, as a claw, horn, tusk, or the like; in pl., the spurs of a game cock or hen.
Weapons are a universal concept familiar to most because of their power and the value placed upon them by society, however in the modern world, weapons lose their objecthood [See OBJECT] and become harder to define. The Oxford English Dictionary defines weapons in specific terms, as “An instrument” and in broad terms, as “[anything] which is or may be used as a means of attack or defense”. Because of their ubiquity in society, the origin of weapons is as hard to define as the origin of society. Linguistically, the word “weapon” can be traced back to early Germanic languages1 [See LANGUAGE], but its origin is unknown. Conceptually, weapons can be artifacts [See ARTIFACT], either manufactured or appropriated from the environment, physical parts of the body, such as teeth and claws, or intangible forces, such as words and influence.
A discussion of weapons as a medium focuses on a number of issues, namely the origin of weapons, the essentialness of weapons, and the future of weapons. Historically, there are those that believed the evolution of weapons mirrors the evolution of media in general. It can be said with upmost certainty that weapons are an essential (albeit unfortunate) part of the human experience. This notion is supported by childrens’ interpretation of weapon use amongst adults as a metaphor for power struggle. In the modern world especially, information [See INFORMATION] has become a weapon used by governments and people to further their causes.
Marshall McLuhan argues in “Understanding Media” that weapons are a medium of communication [See COMMUNICATION]. In addition, he asserts that the evolution of weapons matches the evolution of human culture [See CULTURE]. He posits that in the most primitive state of human media, “the arrow is an extension of the hand”2. These primitive weapons, which included swords, clubs, and other items of “hand to hand” combat, served as tools – simple extensions of biological appendages. In the literary era, McLuhan argues, weapons became ranged, and humanity adopted the gun as the dominant medium of aggression. McLuhan argues that the arrival of gunpowder occurred at the same time as perspective [See PERSPECTIVE] in the arts3 and that literacy is the means by which humans develop the ability to comprehend warfare that exists outside of their line of sight. The gun is an extension of the eyes, and with its invention, McLuhan believes, aggression was further externalized to the point where it no longer held symbolic [See SYMBOL] value. In the electronic era, with out central nervous system extended, nuclear weapons and information [See INFORMATION] emerge as weapons of mass control. The modern intersections between information warfare, propaganda [See PROPAGANDA], mass media [See MEDIA], and news media support McLuhan’s argument.
McLuhan’s analysis of weapons supports the assertion that, as a medium [See MEDIUM] of communication [See COMMUNICATION], modern weapons reflect modern modes of interaction. This is seen most clearly in children, where toy weapons and “play fighting” are a common activity. Harvard psychologist Catherine Garvey defined the purpose of children’s play as “finding out what things are, how they work, and what to do with them”4. For children, objects “provide a means by which a child can represent or express his feelings, concerns, or preoccupying interests”5. In this sense, American children’s preoccupation with toy guns reveals a great deal about the role they play in our culture. Penny Holland’s book “We Don’t Play with Guns Here” examines the way society has reacted to this phenomenon. Since 1970, government-sponsored childcare has had a firm policy against weapon-play of any type, most likely a result of the rise of feminism and the movement against violence against women6, suggesting a masculinization of the use of weapons. It was believed that one must “take away the gun because it already acts as an expression of male violence and confers power”7. Children act out the power struggles that they see in their everyday lives. For instance, the artist Martí Guixé created a “user manual” about the creation of toy weapons, in an attempt to examine the role that toy weapons play for children. All of his toy weapons are created out of clothes hangars, implying children conceive of weapons in a casual way. Guixé’s work is interesting in how it reveals the innocence of weapon-play, a fact supported by Holland and Garvey.
The conclusions that can be drawn from the work of Holland and Garvey relate to the way children interpret the environment in which they are raised. Weapon-play serves several functions for children: to establish otherness to oneself8, to “[develop] an understanding of symbolic substitution by playing with objects in a transformatory way”9, and to practice resolving conflicts10. Children rely on weapons because they are ubiquitous in mass media and they are incredibly efficient at communicating messages11. It is this specific conference of power that relates weapons to the study of media.
McLuhan supports the notion that modern weapons are no longer meant to communicate between two people, but rather, between two groups. On a national level, information [See INFORMATION] is used as a weapon in a variety of ways – economically, socially, and, most importantly, politically, in the form of propaganda. McLuhan argues: “the ‘hot’ wars of the past used weapons that knocked off the enemy, one by one… Electric persuasion by photo and movie and TV works, instead, by dunking entire populations into new imagery”12.
The contrast between information weapons and physical weapons is illuminated by Max Lerner’s work “Ideas are Weapons”. He claims: “There is an important distinction between thoughts and ideas. Men possess thoughts but ideas possess men”13. This demonstrates yet another aspect of modern weapons: they are the dominant device by which control is asserted over a population. Whether fear of nuclear attack, withholding of information, or the force of economics, governments and individuals in power use these weapons to control and subjugate those without power. Additionally, M. Lerner argues that “ideas have not only origins and internal consistency; they have also direction and consequence”14. It is the direction and consequence of ideas that become a weapon, for these have been the driving forces behind wars and power struggles throughout history.
Often, the mistake is made of categorizing and associating weapons only with war, death, and international conflict. Most modern scholars who write on the subject agree that in today’s world, information, not radiation or bullets, is the most versatile and devastating weapon of control15. These weapons are those of assertion of power, rather than demonstration of power. Daniel Lerner writes in “Propaganda in War and Crisis” that the purpose of propaganda, which is categorized as an intelligence weapon16, is to use symbols [See SYMBOL] to promote policies17. He further argues that, “manipulation of the symbolic environment can itself produce major events in the political life of the world”18. The external signs of conflict (i.e. bombings or troop deployment) are a result of intellectual weapons already in use19. In fact, some argue that these weapons are all around us in the form of mass media [See MEDIA]. One aspect of globalization and the information age is the transmissibility of mass media 20. Even private media, which is not created by the government, can be used as a weapon of persuasion, as C. D. Jackson argues: “All private activities affecting public opinion abroad have, in effect, a propaganda aspect”21. In this sense, America’s strongest weapon is every fast food restaurant, television show, and website that is experienced by a foreign population.
The concept of terrorism is a direct challenge to information warfare: both the spread of American mass media and its usurpation of other cultures. It also stands against the theories of McLuhan and Holland who argue that weapons (or, in the case of Holland, play weapons) are used only by those with power. In Keywords, Raymond Williams points out that words like “violence” typically are used to describe acts of terrorism, while “force” typically refers to actions taken by an army or government22. As a medium, however, it is clear that both “violence” and “force” relate to the same thing – weapons being used as a medium for hostile communication [See COMMUNICATION]. Corman et al. acknowledge that one advantage of information [See INFORMATION] warfare is how universally it can be employed through new media. With breakthroughs like the Internet and social networking, anyone is capable of wielding information as a weapon, though with varying levels of efficacy.
Corman et al. argue that “this war of ideas is not… a clash of civilizations, but instead a clash of systems and cultures of communication”23. As a medium, then, weapons in the modern era are a direct means of communication between groups. It was widely reported that the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001 were intended to “send a message”, and while the cliché is overused in the media, it illustrates a point about the nature of communication. Bruce Clark asserts that: “information does not exist until an observing system (such as a mind) constructs it”24, which suggests that weapons, and information weapons especially, need an underlying reason to be deployed. Our society has been accustomed to the phrase “random acts of violence”, but a thorough understanding of weapons as a medium suggests such seemingly random acts are the result of a larger force at work. The perpetrators of street violence are typically members of the most underserved communities: racial minorities, those of low socioeconomic status or education, or all three25. A study of weapons as a medium suggest that these “random acts of violence” are part of a larger system of communication, where weapons communicate a desire for equality and social justice.
Weapons are at the hart of communicative media. They facilitate the communication of a clear and concise message amongst peoples. A consideration of weapons must include an understanding of their history, innateness, and future, and must assume that they are more than just physical objects. Weapons are the medium by which power is levied and aggression is shown. They are a system human beings have evolved to make this particularly ugly form of communication efficient. In the modern era, information has superseded the physical as the most preeminent form of weaponry. Simultaneously demonstrating power and serving as a means to acquire it, weapons are fundamental to an understanding of media.
13M. Lerner, p3
15M. Lerner, D. Lerner
17D. Lerner, pxiii
25Carter, volumes 1 and 2
Corman, Stephen R., Angela Trethewey, and H.L. Goodall, Jr., eds. Weapons of Mass Persuasion: Strategic Communication in the War of Ideas. New York: Peter Lang, 2008. Print.
Garvey, Catherine. Play. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard UP, 1990. Print.
Guixé, Martí. Toy Weapons: User Manual. First ed. Verona: Edixioni Corraini, 2005. Print.
Harper, Douglas. “Weapon” Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper, 2001. Web. 5 Feb. 2010. <http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=weapon>.
Holland, Penny. We Don’t Play with Guns Here: War, Weapon, and Superhero Play in the Early Years. Philadelphia: Open UP, 2003. Print.
Jackson, C. D. “Private Media and Public Policy.” 1949. Propaganda in war and crisis. New York: George W. Steward, 1951. 328-41. Print.
Keywords Glossary. The Chicago School of Media Theory, 2007. Web. 10 Jan. 2010. <http://csmt.uchicago.edu/projectsglossary.htm>.
Lerner, Daniel. Propaganda in war and crisis. New York: Arno, 1972. Print.
Lerner, Max. Ideas are Weapons: The History and uses of Ideas. New York: Viking, 1939. Print.
Marris, Paul, and Sue Thornham, eds. Media studies: A Reader. 2nd ed. New York: New York UP, 2000. Print.
McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: MIT, 1964. Print.
Mitchell, W.J.T., and Mark B.N. Hansen, eds. Critical Terms for Media Studies. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2010. Print.
“Weapon.” Oxford English Dictionary. Online ed. Print.
Williams, Raymond. Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. New York: Oxford UP, 1976. Print.