Archive for the ‘Marshall McLuhan’ Category

Heating up: the transmutations of media-beings: Part 2

November 19, 2009

In my previous post I experimented with a tetrad-fourfold hybrid analysis of media and discovered that the tetrad could be used to look at non-human specific media. Laws of Media (LOM) was a fascinating read that has encouraged me to seek out some more McLuhan. This post brings together insights from The Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media, of which I can report that there is a lot more to  them than this simple tetrad. This article aims to outline many of the arguments from LOM towards a questioning consideration of Heidegger and technology.

One of the many surprises from reading the McLuhan’s LOM, is their reading of Heidegger and the phenomenological tradition. Firstly, they are aware of the importance of the ground/figure relationship for Heidegger and the limitations of his approach. The McLuhan’s want to not only recognize the ground/figure dif-ference, but the figure is the ground and visa versa: ‘[Heidegger] has not noted that the ground is formed as a mosaic, structured acoustically, nor that its structure is entirely due to its interface with figures’ (LOM, p.63). Essentially, the McLuhan’s critique the notion of thinking being beyond beings. For the McLuhan’s, Graham Harman and Levinas, this is impossible.

LOM is not the only place the McLuhan (senior) has commented on Heidegger. In The Gutemberg Galaxy (TGG), he makes the claim that “Heidegger surf-boards along on the electronic wave as triumphantly as Descartes rode the mechanical wave” (TGG, p.248). Heidegger claims that technology is a mode of enframing, which as the McLuhan’s explain “is not a batch of concepts, but a special technique of perception that reveals the ground” (LOM, p.63). Heidegger understands this in the negative as ‘fleeing from the question of being’. It is in the notion of ‘question’ that we must question. If we no longer question being, then we no longer respond to the absent gods as they beacon us to wonder at being. Put simply, if there is no longer an absence that brings us to question the relation with beings, we have lost the RTH and have become PAH automatons. Thus, Heidegger’s favourite philosophical demon (not daimon), Descartes, whose mechanical and mathematical metaphysics of presence, is the main culprit for our modern ontologically degenerate forgetting of the question. Or so he thinks.

Descartes championed the mechanical which was then repeated by Newton. McLuhan comments with wonderfully dry whit in Understanding Media that Newton “in an age of clocks, managed to present the physical universe in the image of a clock”. Whilst “Blake spoke of the need to be delivered “from single vision and Newton’s sleep,” knowing very well that Newton’s response to the challenge of the new mechanism was itself merely a mechanical repetition of the challenge”. Concurrent to Blake, it would be an understatement to say that Heidegger was not fond of mechanization. However, McLuhan notes that Heidegger champions the electrical. McLuhan makes the claim that Heidegger has a non-literate bias in his philosophy and language. Heidegger wants to ‘turn’ the being of Dasein towards the ground of being, the RTH withdrawn essence in contradistinction to the PAH revealed relations of scientific and mathematical representation. In LOM we learn that media which focus to the figures of visual space are conceptual, while acoustic space brings focus to the ground. It is in this acoustic space that Heidegger sees the no-thing which characterizes Eastern oral traditions of the non-literate. This turning towards the acoustic is hampered by the medium Heidegger’s work circulates within: the phonetic [orthographic] alphabet.

‘The interiorization of the technology of the phonetic alphabet translates man from the magical world of the ear to the neutral visual world.’ (TGG, p.21). The manner of his work is abstract and visual, even though he is trying to ‘explore the occult (hidden) area’ of beings (LOM, p.63). In McLuhan’s terms, Heidegger’s concern for the essence and saving power of technology is a response to the ‘left brained’ visual/conceptual logos interpreted as logic which characterized western philosophy since the instantiation of metaphysics with Plato amplified by Descartes and culminating with Nietzsche. Graphocentricism followed in the 17th century, which is why Heidegger re-enacts the pre-Socratic logos of Heraclitus, a logos of the oral tradition of beings gathered by speech. Heidegger’s turn towards poetry exemplifies the ‘right brained’ acoustic/perceptual spiritual line of flight away from the PAH, towards a ‘hearkening’, a hearing beyond sound and tone, that indicates a deeper dense of perception of an openness to the simultaneous withdrawing and the taking place (On the Essence of Language, p.88).It is this ‘hearkening’ to acoustic space that Heidegger’s ideas can ”surf’ along the electronic technological revolution commanded by the mosaic image of the television and visual display unit, while simultaneously, his message is replicated through the medium of the printed page, the flat visual space Heidegger despises. To compromise, he turns to poetry.

The poetry of Trakl, Holderlin and Rilke (and Heidegger himself) is a ‘cool’ medium that requires participation. Like Nietzschian aphorisms, which signal an incomplete reasoning, poetry presents a gap which forces the reader to think instead of swallowing a complete package or method of thought. This is in contrast to Heidegger’s ‘Being and Time’ (B&T), which is hot in it’s attempt at an exhaustive deconstruction of the meaning of being. The fact that B&T was never finished, party shows the movement from hot prose to cool poetry that would characterize his later work. Although, in essence, his tool analysis fourfold was present as early as 1919, B&T was a product of the hot medium of phenomenological analysis, whose practice of the epoché created mountains of paper analysis in the name of phenomenological ‘seeing’. Thus the momentum and style of Husserlian phenomenology was still in top gear as Heidegger was writing B&T, only later to ease off the accelerator and take the fourfold’s cool structure seriously.

There is no essence of Dasein that needs protecting and saving through the poetic return of the gods: McLuhan stresses that “the acoustic power available to the poetic establishment that Plato warned against was puny by comparison to the sensory stress exerted by any one of our technologies and its grounds” (LOM, p64). The human essence is always already a fluctuating media-being through the facticity of worldly equipmentality. There is no ‘clearing’ (lichtung) which sets the horizon of meaning, as human Dasein’s worlded horizon changes according to newly acquired media practices. Heidegger fails to notice that new media all always demonized before they are normalized. As McLuhan observes in TGG, there was ‘considerable alarm and revulsion’ at the mounting use of of books in the late 17th century which contrasts with the modern concern for the ‘end of the book’. Technology itself does not have a moral dimension, but provokes a moral response because of its transformative powers: technology is not itself a disaster, only the myopia of being unprepared for the fundamental changes to human perceptions, habits, values they could bring.

NB – Heidegger’s logocentricism was deconstructed by Derrida, who, through McLuhan’s eyes, was responding the hypocrisy of Heidegger surfing the electric (i.e. the visual space of writing) while promoting the acoustic space of speaking. Heidegger was in neglect of the arch-writing that makes speech possible and thus Heidegger remains committed to a metaphysics of presence: as writing involves the absence of the speaker, whereas the speaker is always present to the listener. Derrida’s archi-writing seems to not only recognize speech and writing as modes of signification, but that neither is subordinate to the other when seeking being qua being. McLuhan knowingly  deconstructs himself when he notes that contained in the fourfold structure of the self proclaimed amazing revolutionary thought of the tetrad itself is its reversal into ‘the external logical method’: hardware (the physical stuff of the world) becomes software (word), “thereby losing their murky, non-linguistic materiality” as Harman writes in his article ‘Phenomenology and the tetrad’. He wants to make us aware of the acute workings and transformations of media, just as Derrida wants to engage in inter-textual deconstruction while making us aware of the impossibility of the end of his task.

This is a particularly interesting clip of Heidegger’s. Most people use TV’s and Radio’s yet have no idea how they work, except for a few technically minded people,  in the same way, most people think they are thinking, yet only a few people actually know what it means to think. For Heidegger. what we think is thought is the message which hides a medium which enframes how we think. This analytic visual space prioritizes being expressed through its presence in visual space. Thus, beings forget the acoustic space of being.

In my previous post I experimented with a tetrad-fourfold hybrid analysis of media and discovered that the tetrad could be used to look at non-human specific media. However, I have now finished Laws of Media (LOM), about which I can report that there is a lot more to it than this simple tetradic structure. This article aims to outline many of the arguments from LOM and correspond them to developments in object-oriented philosophy (OOP).

One of the many surprises from reading the McLuhan’s LOM, is their reading of Heidegger and the phenomenological tradition. Firstly, they are aware of the importance of the ground/figure relationship for Heidegger and the limitations of his approach. The McLuhan’s want to not only recognise the ground/figure dif-ference, but the figure is the ground and visa versa: ‘[Heidegger] has not noted that the ground is formed as a mosaic, structured acoustically, nor that its structure is entirely due to its interface with figures’ (LOM, p.63). Essentially, the McLuhan’s critique the notion of thinking being beyond beings. For the McLuhan’s, Graham Harman and Levinas, this is impossible.

LOM is not the only place the McLuhan (senior) has commented on Heidegger. In The Guttemburg Galaxy (TGG), he makes the claim that “Heidegger surf-boards along on the electronic wave as triumphantly as Descartes rode the mechanical wave” (TGG, p.248). Heidegger claims that technology is a mode of enframing, yet understands this in the negative as ‘fleeing from the question of being’. It is in the notion of ‘question’ that we must question. If we not longer question being, then we no longer respond to the absent gods as they beacon us to wonder at being. Put simply, if there is no longer an absence that brings us to question the relation with beings, we have lost the RTH and have become PAH automatons. Thus, Heidegger’s favourite philosophical demon (not daimon), Descartes, whose mechanical and mathematical metaphysics of presence, is the main culprit for our modern ontologically degenerate forgetting of the question.

Descartes championed the mechanical which was then repeated by Newton. McLuhan comments with wonderfully dry whit in Understanding Media that Newton “in an age of clocks, managed to present the physical universe in the image of a clock”. Whilst “Blake spoke of the need to be delivered “from single vision and Newton’s sleep,” knowing very well that Newton’s response to the challenge of the new mechanism was itself merely a mechanical repetition of the challenge”. It would be an understamemnt to say that Heidegger was not fond of mechanization. However, McLuhan notes that Heidegger champions the electrical. McLuhan makes the claim that Heidegger has a non-literate bias in his philosophy and language. Heidegger wants to ‘turn’ the being of Dasein towards the ground of being, the RTH withdrawn essence in contradistinction to the PAH revealed relations of scientific and mathematical representation. In LOM we learn that media which focus to the figures of visual space are conceptual, while acoustic space brings focus to the ground. It is in this acoustic space that Heidegger sees the no-thing which characterizes Eastern oral traditions of the non-literate. This turning towards the acoustic is hampered by the medium Heidegger’s work circulates within: the phonetic alphabet. ‘The interiorization of the technology of the phonetic alphabet translates man from the magical world of the ear to the neutral visual world.’ (TGG, p.21). The manner of his work is abstract and visual, even though he is trying to ‘explore the occult (hidden) area’ of beings (LOM, p.63). In McLuhan’s terms, Heidegger’s concern for the essence and saving power of technology is a response to the ‘left brained’ visual/conceptual logocentricism of western philosophy since the instantiation of metaphysics with Plato amplified by Descartes and culminating with Nietzsche. Heidegger’s turn towards poetry exemplifies the ‘right brained’ acoustic/perceptual spiritual line of flight away from the PAH, towards a ‘hearkening’, a hearing beyond sound and tone, that indicates a deeper dense of perception of an openness to the simultaneous withdrawing and the taking place (On the Essence of Language, p.88).

The poetry of Track, Holderlin and Rilke (and Heidegger himself) is a ‘cool’ medium that requires participation. Like Nietzschian aphorisms, which signal an incomplete reasoning, poetry presents a gap which forces the reader to think instead of swallowing a complete package or method of thoughts. This is in contrast to Heidegger’s ‘Being and Time’ (B&T), which is hot in it’s attempt at an exhaustive deconstruction of the meaning of being. The fact that B&T was never finished, party shows the movement from hot prose to cool poetry that would characterize his later work. Although, in essence, his tool analysis fourfold was present as early as 1919, B&T was a product of the hot medium of phenomenological analysis, whose practice of the epoché created mountains of paper analysis in the name of phenomenological ‘seeing’. Thus the momentum and style of Husserlian phenomenology was still in top gear as Heidegger was writing B&T, only later to ease off the accelerator and take the fourfold’s cool structure seriously.

What Heidegger failed to see, was how technologies are not simply inventions which people employ but are the means by which people are re-invented. There is no essence of Dasein that needs protecting and saving through the poetic return of the gods: the human essence is always already a fluctuating media-being through the facticity of worldly equipmentality. There is no ‘clearing’ (lichtung) which sets the horizon of meaning, as human Dasein’s worlded horizon changes according to newly acquired media practises. New media all always demonized before they are normalized. As McLuhan observes in TGG, there was ‘considerable alarm and revulsion’ at the mounting use of of books in the late 17th century which contrasts with the modern concern for the ‘end of the book’. Technology itself does not have a moral dimension, but provokes a moral response because of its transformative powers: technology is not itself a disaster, only the myopia of being unprepared for the fundamental changes to human perceptions, habits, values they could bring.

Heating up: the transmutations of media-beings: Part 1

October 28, 2009

energy-bulb-615Graham Harman’s fourfold is very different to the tetrad of McLuhan, but there is a firm link between the two: each has fours poles intersected by two dualisms; the poles interrelate and transform each other; each part exists together simultaneously; they could be universal. Thus, Harman’s fourfold, which is largely inspired by Heidegger’s fourfold [das geviert] needs supplementing with McLuhan’s tetrad. As he explains, “All that is lacking is a detailed account of the mechanics of how the four poles [gods, mortals, earth, sky] interact with one another. Such an account is found only in ‘Laws of Media’. I believe that Harman will cross-pollinate these two fourfolds in his upcoming ‘The Quadruple Object’ and which is already hinted at in his articles ‘The McLuhans and Metaphysics’ and ‘The Tetrad and Phenomenology’.

First of all I will review Harman’s fourfold and then look to see how this intersects with McLuhan’s tetrad. Harman’s fourfold consists of these interlinking features: time, space, essence, eidos.

    Essence is that which ontologically withdraws from view (in Heideggerese, the ready-to-hand, RTH). It is the absence at the heart of the object which cannot be reduced to a relation. It is that part of the object which stays the same from one moment to the next (the persistence of a unity of multiple parts). It is the Real object. It cannot be exhausted by any number of ‘notes’ (to use Zibiri’s terms): complete description is impossible.

    The eidos is that which presents itself in ontic relations (the present-a-hand, PAH). It is that which is made manifest to us and other objects. It is the relational usefulness of an object.

    Time and space are not a continuum (i.e. two structuring principles that support all beings in them and beyond), but a by product of the tension between the essence and the eidos of objects. The changes in relations give the impression of movement in time. Objects are not in time, they are through time. Objects are time-space. But it is only because objects have both related and withdrawn sides (one could say light and dark, or chiaroscuro), that time is possible at all. Thus because all objects (semiotic, non-semiotic, material or imaginary) have both relating and non-relating parts, we cannot ontologically prioritize one over they other. Each object is a real event which unfolds as time.

The tetrad of McLuhan relies on a similar dualism of relational/withdrawn objects via his well known maxim of ‘the medium is the message’. This means that the medium not its content is the vehicle for the message of the object. The real object and its essence is the medium which is withdrawn from view. The content of the medium is the relational eidos, the RTH which engages vicariously with other objects. However, the McLuhan’s remain staunch correlationists who insist that their tetrad is only applicable to human related media. To support their anthropocentricism they bring in Fritjof Capra and quote from his ‘The Tao of Physics’, which explains that ‘all things and events we perceive are creations of the mind’ (cited in McLuhans and Metaphysics, p.107). Harman shuns this modest claim seeing the tetrad as having implications beyond the idealism of the internal world of the human mind and a powerful axis within a robust realism. How then does the tetrad account for object-object relations?

I’ll try to experiment here using pollen as my medium:

tetrad pollen

Primitive plants reproduce using flagellated sperm which must swim through water to find and then fertilize ova [obsolese]. This obviously puts great limitations on where a plant might live and still reproduce. The solution is the development of a desiccation-resistant capsule that is capable of transporting sperm through the air [enhance]. This innovation we call pollen. Pollen consists of the male gametophyte and the haploid mitotic product of that gametophyte: sperm nuclei [retrieve]. Mcrospores develop into pollen grains, which mature to become the male gametophytes of seed plants. The pollen grains can be carried away by wind or animals after their release from the microsporangium. In seed plants, the use of resistant, far-traveling, airborne pollen to bring gametes together is a terrestrial adaptation that led to even greater success and diversity of plants on land [reverse] (p. 600, in Biology by Campbell & Reece, 2008).

I’m not sure if this is a correct analysis, but it is the best I can do as of now.

The point, I think, for Harman in the quadruple object is not to merely bring these together but show how change occurs. With Levi Bryant’s onticology, object’s have endo-relations:  the aspect of an object eld in reserve in order to give the object consistency. It’s endo-relations give the conditions for the possibility of ex0-relations, thus endo-relations consist of affects, i.e. the capacity to act and be acted upon.  Exo-realtions are relations between objects. Exo-relations can, however, affect the endo-relations of objects. He calls his brand of speculative realism ‘onticology’ or object-oriented ontology. He wants to focus upon how the withdrawn (or barred, as he calls it, mimicking Lacan) ontological endo-relations of objectile’s form and entropy within networks (exo-relations) and to examine the process of their ‘genesis’. Whereas Harman is focused upon the ontico-ontological dif-ferance. This ontico-ontological moment requires an engine of change, to propel ‘vicarious causation’ into linking and translation between object assemblages. I think we will see Harman use the McLuhan’s concept of ‘heating’ for his own metaphysics.

Heating, for the McLuhan’s allows for change. ‘All change in the world occurs through some transmutation of an existing figure/ground relationship’ (McLuhans and Met, p.116). Media are now defined by a thermodynamic scale between hot and cold. A hot medium does not allows the relating object room for interpretive maneuver, whereas a cold medium does. In the last couple of years the TV has been reinvented. From the small black boxes that were fuzzy and blurry with analogue static, we now how large plasma screen HD TV’s with digital receivers and blu-ray DVD hyper-detailed movies. Thus what was once a cool medium (compared to the cinema which was a hot medium), has heated into the hot medium of the cinema (or ‘home cinema’, as we now call it). Although due to the possibilities opened up by digital broadcasting, there is now more scope for interaction, thus it becomes a cooler medium. The cinema which was previously hot, now gets even hotter with the introduction of hyper-immersion 3D movies and iMax mega-screen cinema complexes. In contrast to this, Ye Olde Shakespearian theatre (such as The Globe) is a cold medium, as it leaves a lot up to the imagiglobe4nation of the relating object: the viewing public (where the antiquated authenticity of the ‘experience’ becomes its main selling point – could this be an aspect of the reversal of both cinema and theatre?).

When a medium thrusts upon another object an over-abundance of information, the relating object cannot decipher all this info and thus abstracts it into a pattern: ‘data overload equals pattern recognition’ (p.117). The figure becomes the ground; the message becomes the medium. The hot hyper-details of ‘figures’ (message) in our day to day lives, over time, are cooled into a narrative ‘ground’ (medium) of phases and moments we remember with fondness or embarrassment. Using the TV and cinema example, the medium overheats when the demands on cinemas to get newer technology, equipment and regulations to keep up with the logic of consumer desire: more detail equals greater immersion and a better ‘experience’, so the advertising tag line exclaims. This ‘detail’ is another word for ‘information’. As the information levels get ramped up, the medium starts to heat up until it exposes the limitations of the medium itself and reverses into a new medium.

For cinema’s, Disney’s ‘Honey, I Shrunk the Audience!’ ride in Disney Land takes this immersion to a farcical level of ‘realism’ (water squirted in your face, air blasted at the back of your legs and giant 3D snakes leaping out from the screen). The heating of any medium takes work. To make and maintain this Disney Land ride takes a lot of work. So much work that very few places and people can replicate its model. It’s selling point is its unique ability to sustain its essence and eidos over time in a very few instances. If we look at this tedradically, then the logic of the cinema should reverse into a new medium which exploits the high definition immersion, but without the crippling limitation of the cost, size and work required to sustain these qualities. There may even be interactive elements.

I will try and expand upon this in the next few weeks with a new post which details further this flowering of ideas between McLhuan and Harman.