Embedded Critical Thought III: Entangling Our Knowledge and Critique, 15/01/2015

Continued from last post . . . Marshall McLuhan’s work was revolutionary because, at least in part, of how he studied the media in terms of its affectivity. This is literally how the physicality of the medium itself engaged us as consumers. Particular forms of media required corresponding specific activity on the consumer’s part. How we have to engage physically with a medium of information transmission conditions is a separate issue from how we can engage mentally with its content. 

The problem of engaging with media through an acoustic epistemic space is that it enraptures us. The McLuhans’ central example in these first sections of Laws of Media is the poetic recitation. Recitation is how ancient Greeks learned their culture’s history, the founding myths of their nations, and the most profound ontological insights of their philosophical mysticism.

Alphabetic writing is the gateway to abstraction in thinking, to detachment from the flow of spoken and sung words. This is the transition from worshipful reflection on the spoken words of sages to the quiet, thoughtful meditation on the written words of philosophers.* Public performance is replaced by private reading. Not entirely at once, of course, but the transition begins with the adoption of alphabetic writing. Then the first great artists of the silent written art emerge. We can read the dialogues of Plato, brilliant enough compositions that they are. The dialogues of Aristotle are lost, and we are left only with his dry, meticulous lecture notes. 

* Socrates, as fits his nature, is an aberration. His philosophizing was an oral practice, but he demanded that his audience be his partners, accosting people on the street and asking them profound questions about the nature of justice, truth, piety, etc. Think of him as the first person (at least in our familiar story of ancient Greek philosophy, if not its messier truth) to push abstract thought into public life. Reactions were so hostile because his medium, speech and sound, assaulted people with his words instead of seducing them, as words do when they're sung, as well as on pages and screens.

The Socrates most of us know is a creature of pure myth.
McLuhan calls the abstract, detached engagement with the world an epistemically visual character. The world is laid before you in your thinking as a field from which you’re distant, a step back. The trajectory of its development leads to what Thomas Nagel called the view from nowhere, the God’s eye view of the world.

The problem with this is that we’re not gods. The notion of total objectivity in human knowledge is a lie. We can map partial perspectives and views in context, always improving how we understand their relations to each other. A metallurgist can’t really think the same way a physicist does, and certainly not how a historian of literature or a medical doctor would. 

But we can understand how each of these knowledge disciplines approach the world, find their areas of overlap, or at least relate the ideas and guiding notions of each to the other. There is no overarching theory of everything, as the cliché goes. Knowledge is multifaceted. Our ability to abstract and theorize helps us investigate and systematize all the subjects, facts, and ideas in our different knowledge disciplines. The objectivity of knowledge required to build these disciplines and practices is an important advantage to the visual mode of experience and thought.

The McLuhans examine the new media of the 20th century in terms of its return to the acoustic character that defines most of our transmission-based audio-visual media. We now encounter phone calls and radio broadcasts, movies and television, all unfolding before us through voice. The television is a recitation, spilling out word by word and sound by sound. Although we haven’t exactly stopped reading, the new media is shifting the character of our experiences.

So they consider seriously the possibility that our senses of individuality and subjectivity will begin to melt away as our media takes on a more acoustic character. But even if I grant them (which I’m hesitant to do) the notion that abstraction itself is a Greek invention, a by-product of alphabetic thinking, the growing immediacy of our media experiences won’t return us to the Greek model.

The power to abstract your thinking doesn’t go away once it’s been developed. Marshall McLuhan’s originality lay in how he analyzed the media for its physical affects, literally how language, sounds, and images hit us as a function of the physical possible movements of their media. But thought plays an equal role in our experience of media. Content runs parallel to affect, but content itself is still an affect. It’s just cognitive rather than visceral.

An image that I feel inspired David Cronenberg's Brian O'Blivion.
Here’s where the lesson for professional communicators appears, days after I first teased it. How we understand our media products and how media affect us viscerally and cognitively is now part of those affects and experiences. McLuhan’s own role as a media educator helps open acoustically experienced media to abstract analysis simply by having written educational books about the media. We absorb those ideas, and they become part of the mental frameworks for our experience of all media.

So there will always be some kernel of truth to McLuhan’s analysis. People will be more disposed to believe a charismatic speech or performance in front of them or on video than they will to read an email or argument to convince them of the same thing. The spoken word will always have the power to enrapture, and the written word will always permit the reader to stand in critical detachment.

But I feel as though McLuhan has partially invalidated some of his own conclusions by having been such a popular and effective media educator. We can bring the habits of thinking that we learn in an abstract perspective to understand what engaging media that unfolds verbally and viscerally in real time does to us. 

Becoming self-conscious of our consciousnesses, which McLuhan in considerable part has taught our civilization to do, disrupts us from falling into the easy habits of passive rapture. Communicators must write to the form of their media, and write for an audience of potential media critics. That’s what we all are now.

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