Embedded Critical Thought II: You Become a Mere Spectator, Research Time, 14/01/2015

Continued from last post . . . Philosophy romanticizes ancient Greek civilization. Anyone who’s been exposed to the discipline on a casual basis has seen this in some form. Myself, I’ve seen the romantic attitude toward the life of Socrates as a role model for philosophy, I’ve seen Plato described as having defined the core, eternal problems of the discipline. I’ve also read a good chunk of Heidegger, who considered the pre-Socratic ancient Greek sages as the paradigm philosophers. 

I find the McLuhans’ engagement with Greek culture and modes of experience more enlightening than a lot of what I’ve read in philosophy proper* because they’re critical of its shortcomings while also aware of its advantages. Their particular focus is on ancient Greek culture before the development of alphabetic writing, a form of abstraction in linguistic thought that they analyze as having begun a process of abstraction in how Western cultures approached knowledge.

My old philosophy department at McMaster taught a
communications course, but it was the ethics of
communications, discussing truthfulness, lying, privacy
rights, and the one-per-week discussion of general ethical
theories over the first five weeks. Not one hint of actual
ontological philosophy of communications media itself.
* I say philosophy proper because, even though McLuhan is widely regarded as a philosopher, especially in public discussion of his work, I was never actually taught his work in a philosophy department. This was the case for all the departments where I was a student, and any department that hosted a philosophy conference. The only academic conference I ever attended in my time as a university worker that dealt with McLuhan at all was the International Conference on the Book 2012. It was an interdisciplinary conference, with a hefty dose of media history and theory, that changed its location every year. The 2012 conference happened at University of Toronto, and in honour of its host, a couple of keynotes discussed the work of its favourite son. But you wouldn’t know it from looking at any of the research concentrations of its philosophy professors.

Alphabetic writing and its accompanying abstraction in thought was, in McLuhan’s account, the genesis of true self-consciousness. Its abstraction detached you from the visceral qualities of your encounters with language. I should say, linguistic affects; literally how spoken and written words smacked you around in the course of your daily life, and how the changing character of those constant smacks transformed how you thought about yourself.

While I find a lot of useful concepts and ideas in Laws of Media, their discussion of alphabetic abstraction as the literal foundation of self-consciousness has a little too much essentialism for my liking. Let me put it this way: they explain this idea, in chapter two of the book, through a contrast of Western modes of subjective experience with Asian ones. 

Yeah, it sounds a little racist. Now, I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt (the McLuhans are Torontonians, after all, which is one of the most multicultural cities in the world, even in the 1980s when Eric McLuhan finished this book), interpreting their discussion of this as referring to the streak of individualism in Western morality and conscious self-conceptions that isn’t really present in East Asian moralities.**

So about Ge'ez script, you guys?
** They make no mention of individualism in African or indigenous American moralities and self-conceptions. The cultures of those continents have a variety of writing systems: alphabets, syllabaries, pictographs, hieroglyphs, or no writing at all. And there doesn’t seem to be any analysis of any individualism that arises in Indian culture, which has used a popular alphabetic writing system for centuries. This is on top of the absence of Hebrew culture as the true origin of alphabetic writing in the Mediterranean.

But they actually write that Chinese people aren’t truly conscious of themselves as individuals, and that the Taiwan government’s state-administered mass adoption of an alphabetic shorthand script in the 1980s would transform their entire subjectivities within a couple of generations.

I work with a very different conception of the foundation of subjectivity in Ecology, Ethics, and The Future of Humanity, which is the autopoietic system generated from metabolic chemical reactions. It’s the simplest form of a physical membrane demarcating an inside and an outside, minimal physical discreteness. Being physically discrete and moving in the world as such a body is a more primal form of individuality than the McLuhans consider here. So as a physical phenomenon, individuality is fundamental to organic life.

So while McLuhan doesn’t always sound as if he’s talking about epistemic concepts, how we understand what we are, that’s what he’s talking about. Otherwise, he wouldn’t really make sense.*** Because there are epistemic advantages to our individualistic attitudes and the abstraction of our alphabetic thought processes. 

*** I sometimes think that this is why the more petty and dogmatic analytic philosophers I’ve encountered genuinely believe that Continental philosophy is nonsense and charlatanism. They presume that a discussion about knowledge which wouldn’t make sense if it were about reality is actually about reality.

The recitation media of the ancient Greek world required such constant attention as part of its engagement that you put so much effort into memorizing the words in real time and lose all your objectivity. You aren’t really able to judge or critique what’s told through recitation. 

This is why Plato’s vision of reason banned poets from the rational society. This is the kind of poetry he was talking about, epic recitation that sucked its audience in so deeply that it destroyed any ability to question or critique. The distance that abstract thought affords lets us question and investigate our cultural chroniclers. The McLuhans and I differ on whether electronic real-time media degrades our objectivity in the same way. To be continued. . . .

No comments:

Post a Comment