Thursday, May 31, 2012

Man Becomes the Sex Organs of the Machine World: Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media.

Electric speeds create centres everywhere. Margins cease to exist on this planet.

(Understand Media, 1964.)

Marshall McLuhan remains essential reading today primarily for two reasons. The first, of course, is that he was writing for and about today way back – worlds of past tense away – in the 60s and 70s. That is to say that McLuhan, in his philosophical examination of media and technology in the age of television and space exploration, seemed to extrapolate or intuit the effects, or emotional and sociological contours and lines of force, of our current internet epoch:

In the age of instant information man ends his job of fragmented specializing and assumes the role of information gathering. Today information gathering resumes the inclusive concept of “culture”, exactly as the primitive food-gather worked in equilibrium with his entire environment. Our quarry now, in this new nomadic and “workless” world, is knowledge and insight into the creative processes of life and society.

If the work of the city is the remaking or translating of man into a more suitable form than his nomadic ancestors achieved, then might not our current translation of our entire lives into the spiritual form of information seem to make of the entire globe, and of the human family, a single consciousness?

That many passages in McLuhan seem almost uncannily to pre-empt the concerns and character of post-internet culture is a fact no less remarkable for the frequency with which it has been noted, particularly when one considers that many of us today have the sense of living in a world wholly altered from that of a mere decade or two ago. This degree of prophetic insight, not into the specific nature of the technologies themselves, but rather of the subtler social and emotional reconstituting of human nature engendered by them, is traditionally the preserve of the artist, as McLuhan himself points out:

In the history of human culture there is no example of a conscious adjustment of the various factors of personal and social life to new extensions except in the puny and peripheral effects of artists. The artist picks up the message of cultural and technological challenge decades before its transformative impact occurs. He, then, builds models or Noah’s arks for facing the change that is at hand.

Art retains some essential link to its deep historical or pre-historical roots, where its function was magical, visionary, and oracular. The artist, or at any rate the artist accomplished enough to warrant the mantle, actively cultivates the still mysterious skill of heightened and passive receptivity, the ability to cultivate an intuition of things distant in time and space which resembles a cultural equivalent to the “spooky action at a distance” of the new physics that perturbed Einstein so much. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from the poetry of the era or eras which directly precede it. This is perhaps why McLuhan chose a mode of writing which was as much poetic in character as analytic; here, he adopts a striking image from Samuel Butler’s satirical utopia Erewhon: Or, Over the Range:

Physiologically, man in the normal use of technology (or his variously extended body) is perpetually modified by it and in turn finds new ways of modifying his technology. Man becomes, as it were, the sex organs of the machine world, as the bee of the plant world, enabling it to fecundate and evolve ever new forms.

McLuhan understood that electrical communication technologies were transforming the essential modes of human production and social activity into the instantaneous transfer of increasingly overwhelming volumes of visual, aural, textual, and tactile information – and that this transformation would utterly change the world in which we live – not merely in the obvious sense of altering the physical or social contours of the world, but rather in the far more profound and less visible sense of changing the dominant metaphors, sense ratios, and whole panoply of perceptual tools by which we experience, interpret, and hence define that world. McLuhan’s most significant and enduring achievement was thus not concerned simply with man’s relationship to media in the modern electrical age, but rather with our on-going relationship with tools, technology, and all mediums by which commodities, particularly ideas and information, are exchanged.

The boldness of his writing lay in its assertion these tools and media were not merely convenient adjuncts and servants to a lofty and autonomous human nature; rather, the tools and media themselves were an integral part of the crucible wherein that human nature and its underlying worldviews were formed. Beginning with language itself, no medium is the world, or even describes or represents the world in any kind of innocent or uncomplicated fashion. A speech, a painting, or a moving cine-camera, do not describe or represent the world according to some universal standard of fidelity or accuracy; rather each medium translates, limits, and alters its given subject according to certain properties intrinsic to itself. As each medium prioritises a certain sense, or a certain ratio of sense usage, it subtly engenders certain habits of mind and ways of viewing the world:

In this book, we are concerned with all forms of transport of goods and information, both as metaphor and exchange. Each form of transport not only carries, but translates and transforms, the sender, the receiver, and the message. The use of any kind of extension alters the pattern of interdependence among people, as it alters the ratios among our senses.

Elsewhere, McLuhan uses the myth of Midas to illustrate the degree to which technological mediums inevitable alter the messages that they transmit according to their own nature:

The classic curse of Midas, his power of translating all he touched into gold, is in some degree the character of any medium, including language. This myth draws attention to a magic aspect of all extensions of human sense and body; that is, to all technology whatever. All technology has the Midas touch.

This was the meaning of McLuhan’s iconic and controversial axiom THE MEDIUM IS THE MESSAGE. The idea that form can have a more profound impact on our minds than content is an idea that western intellectual culture is deeply resistant to. It does not sit well with our sense of ourselves as rational, self-determining beings that size up and coolly appraise the world, in full possession, in William Burroughs’ synonym for paranoia, of all the facts. We are extremely content-orientated, because the content is that which our rational, conscious faculties take direct cognisance of, and this gives us a heightened sense of control and self-determination. It is for this reason that we are reluctant to acknowledge in polite discourse the power that physical, rather than emotional or intellectual, attraction exerts over our lives. McLuhan, however, made bold to argue that the form of our technological mediums, like the world of advertising and physical attraction, contain a latent message, a twilight language, which operates below the threshold of our conscious and rational calculations. The oracular or prophetic artist channels this twilight language by instinct; the student of media attempts to study and articulate it at the level of conscious awareness.

McLuhan thus argued that the latent message of the phonetic alphabet and the printing press had effectively created the worldview of the pre-electrical, mechanical age. It had drawn human psychology out of the collectivist, organic, animistic consciousness of the tribe, and ushered it gradually into the perspective of the individual and specialist; the nature of the alphabet and the printing press being to engender a view of reality that stresses its linearity and capacity to be broken down into individual component stages. Hence, from these habits of mind, the scientist acquires his tendency to privilege reductionism and repeatability, and the age of the machine acquires the assembly line and its presiding metaphor of nature as a mechanism. But in the subtly utopian narrative that underlies Understanding Media’s mosaic of ideas and epigrams, man is returning, by the paradoxical route of electrical high technology, back to the interdependent, organicist consciousness of the tribal village:

Now in the electric age of decentralized power and information we begin to chafe under the uniformity of clock-time. In this age of space time we seek multiplicity, rather than repeatability, of rhythms. This is the difference between marching soldiers and ballet……In our electric century the mechanical time-kept city looks like an aggregation of somnambulists and zombies, made familiar in the early part of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.

At present the mechanical begins to yield to organic unity under conditions of electric speeds. Man now can back at two or three thousand years of varying degrees of mechanization with full awareness of the mechanical as an interlude between two great organic periods of culture. In 1911 the Italian sculptor Boccioni said, “We are primitives of an unknown culture”.

The Jesuit philosopher and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin speculated that human consciousness would gradually become more and more interconnected, until the point where it formed a fully unified film of collective consciousness that enveloped the entire globe. De Chardin called this group mind the noosphere. The noosphere must have seemed like one of the more exotic aspects of de Chardin’s attempt to synthesize Christian eschatology and evolutionary theory in its own time; today it is another spooky reflection at a distance of the internet. McLuhan’s utopian optimism similarly pointed towards a mystical union or collectivisation of human consciousness:

It is equally conceivable that the electric extension of the process of collective consciousness, in making consciousness-without-walls, might render language walls obsolescent. Languages are stuttering extensions of our five senses, in varying ratios and wavelengths. An immediate simulation of consciousness would by-pass speech in a kind of massive extrasensory perception, just as global thermostats could by-pass those extensions of skin and body that we call houses.

In is with this spirit of utopian optimism that we address the primary value of reading McLuhan today. Much of what he wrote in the sixties that appeared addressed perhaps in a spirit of rhetorical amplification, or even, in the preferred expression of that time, an outright put-on, seems self-evident and even tame today. The mind-altering and worldview transforming nature of our on-going symbiosis with technology has become an unavoidable daylight language; and yet its future effects, or where precisely it is taking us, remains deep below the conscious threshold. The power of the medium over the message is readily apparent, in a decidedly negative light, to all of us who have lost days of our lives clicking beyond all meaningful engagement with content. De Chardin’s extended planetary consciousness and McLuhan’s consciousness-without-walls are a reality; the group mind exists, and we are making it, just as surely as it is making us. Within this particularly intense period of technological hybridisation, various utopian and dystopian possibilities assert themselves as reflections at a distance of a future perhaps already immanent in our current technological interactions. We see the contours of a saner, more inclusive, interconnected, and voluntary collectivism emerging in the subversive practise of indiscriminately sharing things with strangers. Yet, at the same time, we see spiralling addiction, trivia, and numbness; increased surveillance from governments, and from corporations a very unnerving attempt to harvest the individual’s stream of consciousness, as concretised by its search engine history. We are, as McLuhan asserted, translating our entire lives into the spiritual medium of information; but whether that spiritual information will ultimately be reduced into a series of points and vectors in a decidedly profane market-place remains to be seen.

In order to understand evolution we had to stand apart from its normal or routine operations. We are not evolving according the pressures imposed by the environment alone, but rather according to a peculiar subset of the natural environment which we call culture and technology. We are cultural and technological mutants, involved, sometimes consciously but more often blindly, in the process of what we are to become. Understanding Media is foundational text for self-aware cultural mutants; it still has the power to lift a little of the scales from our eyes regarding the subtle power of our tools and mediums over their putative masters. This is an awareness which is very valuable for us to cultivate, in the words of the old media koan, NOW, MORE THAN EVER:

Cultures like ours, poised at the point of transformation, engender both tragic and comic awareness in great abundance. It is the maximal interplay of diverse forms of perception and experience that makes great the cultures of the fifth century, the sixteenth century, and the twentieth century. But few people have enjoyed living in these intense periods when all that ensures familiarity and security dissolves and is reconfigured in a few decades.

The McLuhan quotations are from Understanding Media, Routledge Classics edition, 2001. The pictures from The Medium is the Massage were found at:

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Can - Dizzy Dizzy (Live.)

Great clip of Can performing from 1977; don't know anything about the circumstances, other than that the audience are sedate to an almost surrealistic degree.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Not Really Now Anymore.

Part 1: The Myth of the Future.

Cycles and Stories.

Each era has a characteristic myth by which it conceptualizes and experiences time. Speaking very broadly, Western culture has developed three great mythic narratives of temporality: history as a cyclical process, as an eschatological process, and finally as a progressive one. Cyclical time incorporated the diurnal and seasonal rhythms that dominated the lives of tribal/agrarian communities, as well as the beautiful and ubiquitous myth of the World Age: Hesiod’s Ages of Man, the yugas, Kalpas, and so on. According to some cyclical models, we are trapped in an inexorable decline from some long past Golden Age. According to others, the fall from the Golden Age is itself part of a larger cycle that repeats itself through eternity. Golden ages will raise themselves up again, and decline again, and so on. Everything recurs eternally.

It’s reasonable to assume that that the myth of the World Age was a projection of diurnal and seasonal rhythms onto the vast canvas of cosmological time; alternatively, it may be that our ancestors intuited some intense, as-above-so-below fractal geometry of deep time that our primitive, atom-pulping shamans have yet to fathom. We can only wait and see.

Eschatological time, on the other hand, stressed the idea of temporality as a linear process, and history as the working out of a divinely ordained plan. The real juice underlying such a concept was the big lightshow it promised at the end of history: the redemptive, revelatory destruction of everything that exists, so that the righteous might ascend out of time and duration altogether, into the immeasurable and ineffable. Whereas cyclical time drew from the natural rhythms of the earth, eschatology was more grounded in abstract thought, and the mental habits accrued through writing: the linear form and structure of grammar, and the impulse towards narrative. The idea that history should be constructed with the cumulative, interlocking inevitability of a syllogism – that the universe should begin with the Word and End with a Bang – continues to work like a potent narcotic on the popular imagination today, fuelling visions as disparate as those of a Roland Emmerich or a Ray Kurzweil.

A noteworthy feature of both cyclical and eschatological time was that neither really conceptualized the future as something radically different from the present. In cyclical time, the same core elements ebb and flow, and repeat themselves endlessly. One age might be heroic and another ignoble, but each one is constituted by the same core elements, subject only to seasonal variation. According to Christian eschatology, the future was already irrevocably set out in God’s Providence and Foreknowledge; hence, futuristic speculation was at best superfluous, at worst meddlesome and heretical. In the Inferno, Dante punishes the futurologists in the eight circle of Hell by twisting their heads until they face permanently backwards, resulting in what is surely one of the most unforgettable images of pathos in all of literature:

If you would have God let you profit by

Your reading, reader, now consider for yourself

How I was able to keep my face dry

When right before me I saw the human image

So twisted, that tears coming from the eyes

Rolled down into the crack of the buttocks.

This is why you’ll find no shortage of medieval woodcuts depicting the Final Judgement, and surely none hypothesizing the KITCHENS OF THE FUTURE. The idea of the future as something unfamiliar, exotic, and substantially better than the present, was largely a product of the 18th century Enlightenment. Our last great mythic narrative of temporality was fuelled by the grand Idea of Progress. It rejected both eternal recurrence and the benevolent straightjacket of divine Providence, and offered instead the myth of modernity: the idea that humanity had achieved a condition of rational and scientific maturity which could continually improve itself into the future. If we only left aside the hamstrings of our superstitious past, we could continue to learn more, to make society better and happier. It has been extensively and persuasively argued that these myths of modernity and progress owed a great deal to the apocalyptic religious ideas that they supplanted; that they were, in essence, a secular eschatology. The mechanism of Divine Providence was replaced by the idea of cumulative Progress, and the heavenly New Jerusalem replaced by a rationally conceived Utopia here on earth.

Whereas Christian eschatology conceptualized heaven as residing ultimately outside the fallen and imperfect realm of history and time, the myth of progress attempted to immanentize the eschaton – to realize the final righting of all wrongs within the immanent world and within history itself. In doing this, it reconceptualised the future as an otherworldly repository for dreams of miraculous technological transformation and utopian social perfectibility. The future became a mythical new frontier, a new imaginary planet whose topographies were mapped out in the emerging literary landscape of science fiction. Of these fictions, the most crucial in understanding the myth of modernity and progress were the futuristic utopias and dystopias – our culture’s modern dreams and nightmares of the escape from history as an immanent historical event.

This new myth was powerful, and often stunning in its efficacy: the dream of the future really did transform the whole nature of the world, for both good and ill. But it was also a myth and a dream that was dying steadily from its inception. The idea of modernity itself was like a graft that never fully took, to the extent that the history of modernity is also to a large degree a history of anti-modernism. Romanticism, Theosophy and the Occult Revival, and more recently, the counterculture and the New Age, have all expressed, in alternatively sublime and risible terms, an intense nostalgia for the archaic and pre-scientific. The rise of science fiction and literary futurism was paralleled by the rise of fantasy, a literature suffused with a longing for the worldviews and ambience of the distant past. The idea that scientific progress might gradually improve the human ethical condition became starkly untenable in the aftermath of the World Wars.

But we still had the future. The dream of the future reached its apogee in the popular imagination during the Space Age, after which it fell rapidly into abeyance. Today, the nostalgia we feel for the Space Age is a nostalgia for a particular idea or myth of the future: the idea of the future as something radically different, and considerably better, than the present. I bring this up because it seems to me that we haven’t yet figured out, or properly articulated, what comes after the myth of modernity and progress. We know that progress didn’t ultimately ennoble the human spirit, and didn’t make paradise immanent here on earth. We’ve lost the future that we discovered during the giddy utopianism of the Space Age, because we have a sense that this future already happened, that it has been and gone, and now all that remains is for its miracle technologies to become smaller, more addictive, and more expensive. We’ve completely lost the idea of the future as a better world than the present one, for a variety of reasons. One crucial aspirational myth underlying the prosperity of the post-war years was the notion that if you worked hard enough, you could give your children a better life than your own. In the current era of rampant financial oligarchies and austerity, the message is more like: if you knuckle down and except less and less, maybe your grandchildren will see better days. And then there’s also the small matter of an apparent social, economic, and ecological meltdown parcelling out the apocalypse in almost interminable daily instalments: the emergence of the apocalypse not as a single event, but rather a historical condition of unspecified duration. The golden tomorrows that animated the social reformers of the Enlightenment and the Sci-Fi consumerist prophets of the Space Age have never seemed so distant and untenable, like a dream whose underlying logic has receded altogether in the harsh daylight.

So where, or precisely when, are we now? What myth underlies and structures our experience of temporality in these strange, jittery early years of the new century? This century that was supposed to be the Utopia of yesterday’s World Fairs and pulp magazine covers, but somehow morphed instead into a surreal and increasingly implausible disaster movie?