Why are we here and why am I asking this question?

Marshall McLuhan Speaks, image by cea+. Sourced from Flickr, Creative Commons licensed.

Sunday night, on the 4th of February 2018, I could stay awake: at 5am in the morning (Melbourne time) I was still happily watching the streaming transmediale in Berlin. I was drawn to the last panel ‘Confronting Social Cybernetics’ due to its cultural angle and determination to revisit Marshall McLuhan. After a video fragment from McLuhan’s famous debate with public in the 70s Katerina Krtilova in the panel suggested: the same Luhan’s statement ‘the medium is the message’ is to be reformulated for today with the focus on ‘message’ rather than the medium. The shift is clearly expressed by words in the title of the panel (Confronting Social Cybernetics). But armed with this very claim for confrontation under the overarching trope/ McLuhan’s legacy – ‘technology is not neutral,’ the session turned into a self-critical transmediale.

Ewa Majewska put forward ‘counterpublics’ and passionately talked about the criteria – counterpublics is embedded and contextualised in the production. Jonathan Beller deliberately took a ‘negative’ world-view that resonated with the title of his newest book The Message is Murder: Substrates of Computational Capital (Pluto Press, 2017). Yet the provocation that was leading to forum and self-criticality came from the moderator: Baruch Gottlieb in his flexible and rather light style (with inspiration from McLuhan?) picked a mirror image by pointing to talks of ‘cocktail parties’ and scholarly circles who were ‘well-fed’ by the conference, and at the same time, he enquired into failures to ‘accomplish social change.’

Soon a voice from transmediale’s audience reflected upon alienation by the language and gathering of the agents of language who seemed to congratulate each other.  One participant wanted to do ‘stuff’ with people in the room and proposed to look for alternatives to the ‘aboutness’ of the discussion format. Another suggested being ‘present’ because the criticisms at transmediale, such as ‘one cannot see art’ stressed that we were too hung up on the form of something. Yet another participant insisted to forget about McLuhan and cited a couple of German news reports about transmediale that were predominantly interested in form:  not about medium-as-message, but the form in the festival – good-looking audience and hipsters. Then, another member of the audience appreciated that transmediale had put the chilling issues like current rise of fascism on the table so they can be addressed.

The commentary resembled the genius question to McLuhan included in the historic video that was played at the start of the session. In 1977, McLuhan debated live on Australian TV before a large audience; the lady featured in the video phrased her question this way: ‘If the medium is the message and it doesn’t matter what we say on TV, why are we all here tonight and why am I asking this question?’ (see Marshal McLuhan ‘The Medium is the Message’ Part I, Monday Conference on ABC TV, 27 June 1977  07:06).

This self-reflective point from public enquires into the value and meaning of social activity and agency when the social environment is shaped by media complexes. Even more so, the question started echoing the very theme of transmediale 2018 ‘face value.’ The notion ‘face value’ indicates the problem of misleading value perceptions, according to what is printed or what appears to be, and points to the invisible side of media systems from Wall street finance to extreme right-wing ‘counter-cultures.’ Is it also a question about what transmediale itself appears to be and is? And how it accomplishes the ‘message’ of confronting?

But there is more to say about the video, if you continue watching the compelling documentations of The McLuhan Project on abc site. McLuhan talked about the concept of violence. Violence as encounters and self-expressing quest for identity, and media as a massive way of identity making: ‘Today when you trigger these vast media that we use you are manipulating entire population’ (see Marshal McLuhan ‘The Medium is the Message’ Part I, Monday Conference on ABC TV, 27 June 1977  08:30).

Thus, violence is the principle of media activism and ‘counter’ movements for social change. Dealing with violence amounts to enforcements of (new) identity and shaping of ‘the message.’ Violence also characterises criticism. All instances of journalistic – including art – criticism and reviewing tend towards violence, and that is – expression of their identity through their particular perspective. I do not believe that Art Review (artworld’s flagship magazine) would be more empathetic in its approach to transmediale than German mainstream newspapers. When asked, McLuhan replied that the alternative to ‘violence’ is ‘dialogue’ [1]. If the logic of dialogue is replaced by media activism (confronting) and is rather hard for criticism, it should be the defining logic of social activity, and what the transmediale participant identified as the need for ‘being present.’

Image: Marshall McLuhan Speaks, image by cea+. Sourced from Flickr, Creative Commons licensed.

[1] Marshal McLuhan ‘The Medium is the Message’ Part I, Monday Conference on ABC TV, 27 June 1977

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