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Media

Alberta, Canada, 1966. Vintage photo from National Geographic Archive. Source: https://m.forocoches.com Author: JAMES L. STANFIELD. © National Geographic Creative

I would like to pick up discussion from my last post about McLuhan’s “medium.” I realize that by pointing out the twofold perspective on “media” I do not address their importance to try to verify the applicability of the famous imperative “the Medium is the Message.”  Objectivity of the physical medium and cultural media does not simultaneously stress their importance. Important for whom, when?

The 21st century, and notably, the second decade of it has really started to take the Western world out of its comfort zone. And one of the questions is about the kind of cultural practice we need. We live in time of ongoing wars and anticipation of catastrophe – whether ecological or economic, when we can visually correlate all these phenomena – wars, capitalism, environmental destruction. This time is filled with a lot of confusion but also thinking, and reconsideration of values. I will not discuss here the new wave revolving around the theme of climate change that we hear in cultural institutions on daily basis; more interesting is the question about what should now be the philosophical formula for art if it is considered as cultural work.

This formula, in my opinion is a balancing act. This means a cross-over of philosophical perspectives. If we go back to McLuhans medium as total interconnected world – even if it may not be necessarily interesting or even immediately relevant from the position of subjective experience we need the view of objective world to start understanding the relationship between the human and environment: to seriously address the stakes for sustainability. Environment which is physical and cultural as McLuhan’s media. On the other hand, contemporary art has been traditionally, in the postmodern era, getting its inspiration from phenomenology, linguistics, structuralism. I believe that the idea of “the extensions of man” in McLuhan’s sense has something in common with phenomenology / studies of perception but they seem to have different purposes or perhaps practical implications.

The balancing act seems to be needed between the subjective and objective in order to be able to extract meaning, the particular meaning which works in current conditions. I cannot resist mentioning the politics of media art and fine art that have built two different camps for art histories. One of these camps is new media art, which through the means of technology or social practice, considers and confronts environment – physical and digital. Until recently this has been perhaps too “unhuman” for the governing mindset in fine art. Of course, in fine art also the artists have played with the “absence of subject” as something that has been produced by the Anthropocene condition (see my earlier post about art in the Anthropocene). My point is that the aspect of objectivity-as-environment (although imperceptible at its extreme) is required for the subject to mirror oneself or mark a distance – impossible as it seems – necessary for reassessing the values.

If we consider the interrelation – human-environment then “subjectivity” which was the focus of Félix Guattari, indicates this dynamics and possibilities for practice. Guattari purposefully excluded the term “subject” from his theory – and dedicated his whole attention to the matter of subjectivity production. It was about mutation, shifts and imagination, which pushed human existence out of scientific reference system towards other ecological horizons [1]. And finally McKenzie Wark has been expressing a similar thought to what I mean by balancing between philosophical perspectives and inclusion of the aspect of objectivity-as-environment. In Molecular Red: Theory for the Anthropocene he suggests that the early 21st century critical thought has desire for life in two main ways: one is a kind of “revolutionary subjectivity” – the other is a kind of “speculative absolute, a theory purified of any merely human phenomenal dimension” – in other words, radicalized subject and absolutized object; yet he further seeks the middle cut, the media which mediates between and delineates object from subject [2].

 

Image: Alberta, Canada, 1966. Vintage photo from National Geographic Archive. Source: https://m.forocoches.com Author: JAMES L. STANFIELD. © National Geographic Creative.

[1] See – Guattari, Félix. Chaosmosis: an Ethico-Aesthetic Paradigm, 1992 [translated by Paul Bains and Julian Pefanis]. Sydney: Power Publications, 2006.

[2] McKenzie Wark. Molecular Red: Theory for the Anthropocene, 2015. London, New York: Verso, 2016, 122.

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Queenscliff Lighthouse (Queenscliff, Australia) by Lachlan Manley Photography. Sourced: Pinterest

During the year that has just reached its conclusion (2017) I had come to think that I would not need Marshall McLuhan in my priority reading. He seems to have become, in the world of media studies, old-fashioned. It feels that the sound of “technological determinism” is rather sickening for many critical thinkers in humanities because the image of technology is full of neoliberal spectacle and its ghosts of exploitation.

But in the last days I have picked up again his well-known Understanding Media. The Extensions of Man (the 1964 version). McLuhan’s texts are first of all texts of great confidence as he speaks from the positions of arts and cultural studies, but this confidence is not in vogue today. We rather think in terms of resistance, interventions, “hacking” and so on. As McLuhan admitted, his book was written in the faith – “a faith that concerns the ultimate harmony of all being” [1].

We should not dismiss McLuhan’s work because it continues to be a revealing, stimulating, and yes, creative and liberating worldview – useful for cultural practice. What I can gather from McLuhan’s politico-cultural analysis is two translations that expand the very approach to “media” while, of course, he is associated with “media” and while it has – also – become a widespread everyday notion. Knowing his formula: the Medium is the Message, how to understand the implied importance of medium/ media?

Firstly, “media” as totality of everything. This is the ecological and unitary medium of all forms of existence. Indeed, that vision of “harmony” must be linked to the aspiration for embracing the medium, the aspiration for comprehension. It comes to mind how exhilarating was the perception of technological audio-visual communication media by artists in the 1960s and 70s. That was an experience of “the life” itself – technological abilities were about tapping into the energy. A couple of years of ago I looked into Bush Video (1973-1975) artists’ memories which showed  – for them this energy was somewhat mystic, but therefore also enormously attractive and potent.

Alas, the human experience gets trapped in the focus on technology, its specifics, parameters, updates, and (new) limitations. But everything IS connected. McLuhan has famously pictured the electronic epoch of culture: “as electrically contracted, the globe is no more than a village” [2] – but what if we think about the connectedness that ultimately reveals how “small” our world is, and the supremacy of what is Nature? As Paul Davies explains in Other Worlds, the electromagnetic force is the one that determines all forms of chemical life for us (there are also gravity, and two nuclear forces: weak and strong yet these are not sufficient for life); this is just our definition of “life” [3]. Besides, as he noted – “living systems are examples of organised matter and energy at extreme levels of complexity, but no boundary exists between the living and non-living” [4].

So it is reasonable to avoid drawing separation within understanding of life. One example is chaos theory which goes beyond studying the “living systems.” It appears that “the extensions of man” – for McLuhan – are intentional processes for locating this wider physical space on individual and group level of consciousness, primarily, as this connectedness is echoed with modern “electric technology.” That was an aspiration for the state of empathy.

Secondly, “media” as multiplicity. This is the question of a medium, especially in relation to the social sphere, here – everything is media. The whole book Understanding Media was basically looking at various examples of cultural media (also to be understood as technologies) – clothing, housing, ads, weapons, television, radio, games, movies, comics and others. For McLuhan, media is not about content. These appear as concepts. And it feels that it is important for the understanding of media to clear it from the contents of “good” or “bad” criticisms. “For electric light and power are separate from their uses,” he wrote [5]. This understanding should rather place the focus on the effects of a medium and then – scrutiny and/or instrumentalization.

McLuhan’s analysis – his somewhat quirky narratives of these various media in human history – liberates one from the tension, the materiality of negativity and it becomes interesting to explore: what is a particular form of media (McLuhan’s own list is only a small selection for potential analysis), and then, what can be done with a particular concept?

Interesting parallels can emerge. Art and sport – both as social / group practices. Linked through the concept of games, sport is popular games, art is like games. McLuhan wrote: “Art and games need rules, conventions, and spectators. They must stand forth from the over-all situation as models of it in order for the quality of play to persist;” and continued: artistic play modeled situations that were not yet matured, and thus it was “ahead of its time.” [8]. McLuhan  sought to emphasize the study of media patterns – the opposite to their contents, the importance of / differences in the senses and means employed. In the context of this approach we have to address art as a social technique rather than “artworlds;” it is necessary to look at it through the possibilities as a medium.

Image: Queenscliff Lighthouse (Queenscliff, Australia) by Lachlan Manley Photography. Sourced: Pinterest

[1] Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media. The Extensions of Man (1964), critical edition, edited by W. Terrence Gordon (2003), Berkeley, CA: Ginko Press, 2015, 7.

[2] Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media. The Extensions of Man (1964), critical edition, edited by W. Terrence Gordon, Berkeley (2003), CA: Ginko Press, 2015, 6.

[3] Paul Davies, Other Worlds: Space, Superspace and the Quantum Universe (1980), London: Penguin Books, 1988, 148.

[4] Paul Davies, Other Worlds: Space, Superspace and the Quantum Universe (1980), London: Penguin Books, 1988, 147

[5] Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media. The Extensions of Man (1964), critical edition, edited by W. Terrence Gordon, Berkeley (2003), CA: Ginko Press, 2015, 21.

[6] Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media. The Extensions of Man (1964), critical edition, edited by W. Terrence Gordon, Berkeley (2003), CA: Ginko Press, 2015, 324.

[7] Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media. The Extensions of Man (1964), critical edition, edited by W. Terrence Gordon, Berkeley (2003), CA: Ginko Press, 2015, 324.

[8] Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media. The Extensions of Man (1964), critical edition, edited by W. Terrence Gordon, Berkeley (2003), CA: Ginko Press, 2015, 322, 325.