Part of the downside of being injured for awhile is that I had plenty of time to read and think, but not so much avenue to track my thinking here, cause sitting in a chair kind of hurt, and all. I’ve started to realise that in trying to express everything on my mind, I’ve skipped a lot of influences and progressions in my reasoning that may leave some people high and dry. So let’s wheel back a few steps and talk theory. Starting with the prophet of media himself, Marshall McLuhan.
The thing everyone remembers about McLuhan is ‘the medium is the message’ even if almost nobody seems to understand what it means, which is part of the point.
McLuhan’s whole work is predicated on the idea that consciousness is inherently seperate from the environment it travels in. It’s like a fluid that takes the shape of it’s container. If you pour consciousness into the medium of tv, it takes the shape of tv, if you pour it into phonetic alphabet, it takes the shape of the phonetic alphabet.
What he tried so hard to point out was, everyone tends to be obesessed with content, with what you do with the media, and what your put in your consciousness after you adopt it. But what he showed was that the almost invisible shape changing of consciousness itself was by far more meaningfull and important than anything you did with it afterword.
That changing of shape, that alteration in the use of the senses, was like the water to fish. It affects everything, but it becomes so pervasive that you can’t see it after awhile. It’s the ground to the figure, when we tend to be fixated on the figure, and ignore the ground.
If we start with language it’s easy to see. In preverbal humanoids, everything was mediated by touch. Scratching, petting, grooming, hitting, slapping. All our inner and outer experiences had to be translated largely through touch. Anything we wanted to share with another human had to pass through the filter of tactility, and our minds were shaped almost exclusively by that, and hence it was invisible to us. When everything is translated through the surface of the skin alone, there is no room for abstraction, for example.
When we adopted language however, this went into upheaval. Suddenly the tactile consciousness was forced into an abstacted verbal medium. Suddenly, most everything was being carried in the form of sounds. The mind takes the shape of auditory resonance: the song, the echo, the tonal nuance. This had such a profound effect on us that it created the gap between us and the rest of nature. And this too, quickly became invisible to us, to the point that most auditory cultures truly believe that song created the world.
And when we made the medium shift to writing, the gap turned into a full-blown rupture, not just with nature, but from preliterate humans as well. The auditory world was again violently translated into a more visualised mode. Experience was locked into the time-binding symbolism of visual script. This resulted not just in a change in the way we use our senses, but in the speed of our whole society. When consciousness takes a eye-biased form, it becomes possible to abstract things like history, geometry, architecture, mathematics, linear extension and speed markers. Pushed to the highest level by the printing press, this makes it possible to turn the entire universe into a linear visual metaphor of shaped spaces.
McLuhan resisted the temptation to make value judgements that might distort his perceptions, but he was quite clear that to move from one medium to the next unconsciously was potentially disastrous. Like stumbling from one dream to another with no inkling or sense of awareness. Our minds twisted by ouruncriticised media into forms we could not even see, or recognise.
In this, it’s clear that McLuhan adopted the concerns of the subject of his earliest scholarship, none other than James Joyce, and specifically, Finnegans Wake.
Much can be said about the Wake, but it is generally agreed that the book is a kind of oral history of human consciousness transcribed into print, in that it represents a bridge between the oral and visual words. It takes the form of a cyclical dream of constantly changing, but ever the same, archetypes, acting out the same themes over and over again, but always asleep. Chieftains become kings become fathers. From cave painting to advertisements and back again, locked ever in this dream. But Joyce pushes the cycles so closely up against themselves that the dreamer, unnamed, struggles to awaken. In some sense Joyce strives to awaken the reader, to lift us out of the sleep of unconscious cycles again and again. Or, alluding to the title: ‘finn… again and again’.
McLuhan carries that mandate into his own work, and in his own way sees humanity pushing itself faster and faster through these cycles of sleeping, nearly waking and then plunging below the water of the unconscious, again and again. Lost in the endless speed-up of our media until time and history threaten to dissolve back into the primoridal dream of tribal consciousness, which is not so terrible in and of itself, but that we are doing it robotically. uncritically.
I’ll pick this idea up again soon, but let talk a little more about ‘electric retribalisation’.
Essentially what this means is that with the advent of electric media like the telegraph, where information can be moved at instantanous speeds, it eliminates a sense of time in relation to experience. If everything can be known at a keystroke, then nothing is ever really distant from you, and hence time loses one of it’s cornerstones. Certainly telecommunications,webcams and instant messaging accentuate this.
One of the hallmarks of visual cultures is that they have the sense of perspective, of vanishing points in the distance. It’s a kind of filing system for information arrainged visualy. Such a thing revolutionised the arts, in the renaissance. What instantaneous speed does is that it retrieves the kind of time sense that existed in oral cultures, where everything is right next to you, at all times. You are immersed in the proverbial ‘echo chamber’ of resonant information. When consciousness takes that shape it starts to dissolve the biases of linear extension, detatchment, past and future, and perspective. McLuhan said that while this would not litteraly plunge our society back into the material conditions of tribalism, ( at least not by itself) it would, if absorbed unconsciously, take our minds back to that same place, and hence open the way for all the manifestations of that consciousness to come back as well. Some of these are desirable, like empathy, depth involvement, oral culture and storytelling, and a sense of community. But bundled with that, if we take it all uncritically, are race hatreds, tribal warfare, xenophobia, illiteracy, sexism, and superstitious obesession with resonance ( astrology and the new age, anyone? )
So that’s the short primer on the father of media studies. You may or may not see how that folds into my recent timeline so far.
But that’s not all: imagine my suprise when this line of thinking led me to the solution to my very first obsession; or, at least, the very first obesession that impelled me to start up AB. No hints just yet, except the title:
Next: Dreaming Saturn