- John R. Blakinger, Gyorgy Kepes: Undreaming the Bauhaus (Cambridge: MIT P, 2019)[11-12] I argue that Kepes developed a new and hitherto unrecognized paradigm for aesthetic practice: the artist as technocrat. This figure operated within rather than against a scientific establishment; seeking refuge, he retreated from the art studio to the relative safety of the research laboratory. As Marshall McLuhan explains, likely with Kepes in mind, “the artist tends now to move from the ivory tower to the control tower of society.” In this unusual context, the artist takes on a new role: preparing us all for the increasingly deleterious effects of scientific and technological change. The artist in the control tower, explains McLuhan, observes “technological challenge decades before its transforming impact occurs,” and, in response, constructs “models or Noah’s arks for facing the change that is at hand.” By preserving values from the past, the artist defends society against the effects of the future. This function required oddly antiquated roles. In his personal notebook, Kepes records the Latinate word for prophet: “Latin vates ‘soothsayer’ foresee + thus promote future.”Despite his association with advanced science and technology, Kepes was often described as a mystic or sage—Time magazine called him an “oracle.” One might imagine this control tower as a site of limitless panoptic power, but I argue that this technocratic figure was not entirely compromised by or fully complicit with the militaristic logic that governs this setting. He was not just the “organization man,” the “man in the gray flannel suit,” so characteristic of the era. I explore how Kepes instead navigated the Cold War university through an artful infiltration of its protocols, appropriation of its tools, and transformation of its discourses. Rather than complacent or co-opted, I see him as a subtle operator of this system. Kepes uniquely embodies the complicated negotiations required for agency in a highly pressured, highly charged context. I demonstrate how an individual can work against a dominant ideology even while inhabiting one of the most powerful institutions upholding that very same ideology. Kepes was, to draw from McLuhan, Noah before the Deluge, a prophet for the Cold War and an avatar of its anxieties. (Before the Cold War even began, Kepes would give voice to unease; his 1944 Language of Vision opens with the declaration: “Today we experience chaos.” Kepes included such language in nearly all of his subsequent writings from the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.)
- Benjamin Moser, Sontag: Her Life and Work (N.Y.: Ecco Press, 2019)
268-9 “The book [Against Interpretation] closed with an essay, ‘One Culture and the New Sensibility,” that gave a name to many of the shifts that characterized the age. Sontag’s opponents understood the ‘New Sensibility’ to mean an equation of high culture with low: a broader collapse of values, including sexual values, leading to promiscuity both intellectual and sexual. In an article about the media theorist Marshall McLuhan, for example, a journalist attacked McLuhan’s ‘function as prophet of the hippies and the flower children and Susan Sontag’s new sensibility, and all the other forms and formulas of disengagement, of withdrawal, of repudiation of the dominant culture’ [‘Media Man’s Mascot,’ Guardian 28 Sept. 1967]. Yet the essay made obvious that Sontag’s idea of ‘one culture’ was not to abolish distinctions between high and low but to propose a new alliance between the literary culture and the scientific culture to which it had traditionally been opposed. This meant dethroning literature as the greatest bulwark against mechanized dehumanization. … Sontag sensed that a new notion of art and science was necessary. … Science had absorbed many of the great creative energies that, in another age, might have been diverted into art, and so Sontag created an alternative canon of thinkers from fields other than fiction.
The primary feature of the new sensibility is that its model product is not the literary work, above all, the novel. … Some of the basic texts for this new cultural alignment are to be found in the writings of Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Antonin Artaud, C.S. Sherrington, Buckminster Fuller, Marshall McLuhan, John Cage, André Breton, Roland Barthes, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Siegfried Giedion, Norman Brown, and Gyorgy Kepes.
To understand a world shaped by a mysterious and often deleterious science, philosophers, playwrights, architects, musicians, anthropologists, psychoanalysts, and painters would take the scientific model as their basis.
- Artur Skweres, McLuhan’s Galaxies: Science Fiction Film Aesthetics in Light of Marshall McLuhan’s Thought (N.Y.: Springer, 2019)
- Yuk Hui, Recursivity and Contingency (London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2019)
- Cybernetics is a methodology for understanding the operation of being and society, but such understanding of society is realized in machinic and material terms. The problem with the idea of going back to nature is not that it was wrong but rather that it failed to see the irreversibility of the historical trajectory, something that Marshall McLuhan had already observed in the 1970s when he said that the end of nature is the birth of ecology. Ecology is very much based on the concept of the organism … which … constitutes a new condition of philosophizing since Kant. But this organic nature, which was considered by Kant to be the guarantee of perpetual peace, in that the universal history of humankind is understood as the realization of nature’s hidden plan, is directly challenged when ecology replaces such a concept of nature by taking up its organizational structure.
- We would like to invoke here an intriguing remark from an interview with Marshall McLuhan, conducted in the 1970s: “Sputnik created a new environment for the planet. For the first time the natural world was completely enclosed in a man-made container. At the moment that the Earth went inside this new artefact, Nature ended and Ecology was born. ‘Ecological’ thinking became inevitable as soon as the planet moved up into the status of a work of art” [Journal of Communication 1 . Ecology, in McLuhan’s view, is no longer about an economy of nature of which human beings are a part, like other plants and animals. Technology has elevated humanity to another level, as the microscope and telescope had done in the time of Kant, with the difference that human beings are still on the earth. With this elevation, the earth is no longer the ‘original ark’ in the sense of Edmund Husserl, but rather it is submitted to engineering. … Retrospectively we can see that McLuhan has predicted Latour, as well as many others (i.e. Timothy Morton) who argue for an ecology without nature. If the question of ecology is technological then we cannot avoid a direct confrontation with the question of technology. If we follow McLuhan’s verdict … we can see that the artificial earth was already underway during the time of the Idealists and was completed in the time of cybernetics.
- Henning Trüper, “Philological Scripts in Cold War Media Theory,” Javnost – The Public (23 July 2019)
The Canadian School of media theory, with Harold A. Innis and Marshall McLuhan as its founding figures, was something of a centre of the field during the Cold War era. Given its contexts and its ambitions of analysing contemporary issues of the 1940s and 50s, it is curious how prominently the school’s representatives were concerned with matters of Greek antiquity. Key to the Canadian project was the distinction between orality and literacy as markers of deep epochs of human history. The Cold War gained specific importance as a political surface phenomenon that responded to another epochal rupture, the mid-twentieth century shift toward electronic media technologies. The problem of periodisation retained a primary orienting function, and Cold War era North American media theory never appears to have been entirely unmoored from questions about epochs and stages of progress that signalled a debt to earlier philosophies of history.
The prime references for orality were Milman Parry’s study of the Homeric epics and the ethnographic fieldwork he did with rhapsodists in interwar period Yugoslavia; and Eric A. Havelock’s discussion of the supposed literacy threshold between the pre-Socratics and Plato. By belabouring these topics, media theorists inserted themselves into a research tradition that had been a staple of classical philology for more than a century. Especially the deconstruction of Homeric authorship in favour of oral tradition had been a hallmark project of the modernisation of philology around 1800, with Friedrich August Wolf’s 1795 Prolegomena ad Homerum as a symbolic starting point. In 1840 Wolf’s student Gottfried Hermann had already homed in on what Parry would also use, the famed epitheta ornantia, the recurrent adjectives that accompany personal names, in order to support the hypothesis about the originally oral nature of the Homeric epics (Hermann Gottfried. 1840. De iteratis apud Homerum. Leipzig: Staritz. Even in Ontario, New England, and California, then, the development of media theory retained a strange contiguity with core problems of philology that dated from the previous century.
The media theoretical works of Friedrich Kittler, the best-known author among the more recent media theorists in (West) Germany, focused on technology with unprecedented radicalism. In the 1980s, he formulated his programme under the provocative and jocular title “exorcism of the spirit from the humanities” (Austreibung des Geistes aus den Geisteswissenschaften; Kittler, Friedrich A., ed. 1980. Austreibung des Geistes aus den Geisteswissenschaften: Programme des Poststrukturalismus. Paderborn: Schöningh). The Geist here was the idealist phantom of the subject, the individual human mind, endowed with reason and intentionality, accessing the world, and perceiving and shaping it in a circular bind. This bind was the crucial component of what was commonly perceived as the core formulation of the underlying principle of all humanities knowledge, namely hermeneutics. Kittler’s programme was an all-out attack on hermeneutics.
In French poststructuralism, the reception of which was formative for Kittler, this account of the semantics of text came under attack especially by Derrida, who challenged the Heideggerian tradition on its lack of understanding for the way in which meaning was co-constituted by “writing.” By this term Derrida understood everything that contributed to linguistic expression beyond the self-enclosed circuit of mind and oral utterance, which the entire philosophical tradition had supposedly treated as necessary and sufficient for the possibility of linguistic meaning. For him, there was no concept of text available that conformed to the standard of the autonomy of oral communication implied by the master-metaphor of dialogue. The fixation on the spoken word—logos—went along with a deleterious failure to understand the infirmity and flux of meanings, and with an over-estimation of the capacities of human reason—equally, logos. The critique of logocentrism in the form of “grammatology,” as Derrida labelled his programme, was a philosophy of the semantic significance of media, with writing as a cipher for all technical means that “supplemented” the mind and laid open its lack of self-sufficiency and autonomy (e.g. Derrida, Jacques. 1972, “La Pharmacie de Platon.” In La Dissémination, 77–214. Paris: Seuil.) The Canadian opposition of orality and writtenness could not any more supply a foundation for media theory if its two parts cohered in the manner Derrida suggested. The system of media as supplying epochal thresholds, along with its “linear” notion of historical time, broke down.
The basic script of nineteenth-century German philology was not, as Foucault (Foucault, Michel. 1966. Les Mots et les choses. Paris: Gallimard) held, comparative historical linguistics, an approach that increasingly seceded from philology at large and celebrated its sustained successes mostly in the Indo-European field. Rather, it was the antagonism of classicism and orientalism, grafted onto the traditional competition of Athens and Jerusalem. This competition marked the history of European references to antiquity—classical versus biblical—as competing sources of normativity.
As a consequence of hermeneutic amnesia the new German media theory has combined philological scripts from all sides of earlier antagonisms. The new “anti-ontological” and antihumanist positions merge elements from the philologies of things as well as of words. They seem to signal anti-classicism, yet they conjoin this preference with classicist recourse to Ancient Greece, as had been common in early North American media theory, too. Kittler, when he inscribes his own philosophical understanding of technology into Heidegger’s, in order to demonstrate the destruction of metaphysics across what Heidegger calls a “history of Being” (Seinsgeschichte), relies on historical features of Greek mathematics. Moreover, Kittler contrasts Greek geometrically dominated arithmetic (which lacked a concept of real number) with “Babylonian and Egyptian” arithmetic. Specifically, in Kittler’s view, the Pythagorean notion according to which all numbers, with the exception of 1, are even or uneven prefigures the digital transformation of the world after the Second World War (Kittler, Friedrich A.2013. “Martin Heidegger, Media, and the Gods of Greece: De-severance Heralds the Approach of the Gods.” In The Truth of the Technological World: Essays on the Genealogy of Presence, edited by Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, Translated by Erik Butler, ch. 22, 290–302. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 177f.). This analysis is an instance of a dichotomy of Athens and Jerusalem, with the “Orient” (Babylon, Egypt) as a stand-in for the latter. Kittler’s juxtaposition follows from the philological script, whose metaphysical underpinnings proliferate in the Seinsgeschichte that, as in Heidegger, emanates purely from Greece, after “Jerusalem” has been dismissed as a source of knowledge in any conceivable capacity. (Kittler, Friedrich A.2013. “Martin Heidegger, Media, and the Gods of Greece: De-severance Heralds the Approach of the Gods.” In The Truth of the Technological World: Essays on the Genealogy of Presence, edited by Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, Translated by Erik Butler, ch. 22, 290–302. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 172) insists on pointing out that “our thinking simply owes nothing” to “Jews, Christians, and Muslims,” with a gesture of ironical hyperbole that nonetheless fails to equally apply to the classicist tradition. For Kittler, even the Greek alphabet is meant, on account of its vowel signs, to represent a categorical rupture with the “north Syrian system of consonantal notation” (not even a proper alphabet, he seems to suggest) that preceded it. And:
Once the travails and triumphs at Troy no longer stood engraved on the stelae of despots who commanded writing—as had been the case in the Near East—they sounded forth, read aloud in mortals’ offerings to Muses and Gods. (Kittler, Friedrich A. 2013. “Homer and Writing.” In The Truth of the Technological World: Essays on the Genealogy of Presence, edited by Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, Translated by Erik Butler, ch. 19, 259–266. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.)
The charge of “despotism,” needless to say, is one of the most widespread derogatory orientalist tropes (in Edward Said’s sense). Its contrasting with the foundational media theoretical site of Homeric song is an ironical gesture on Kittler’s part, but makes use of a possibility built into the trope by courtesy of the nineteenth-century script of philology.
- Simeon Wade, Foucault in California: A True Story—Wherein the Great French Philosopher Drops Acid in the Valley of Death, with a foreword by Heather Dundas (Berkeley: Heyday, 2019 )128-9: “’So you do not underestimate the power of the media?’ asked David?‘On the contrary,’ said Foucault. ‘We live in two worlds: the inner world, the personal world, which is made up of our immediate, sensible experience, and the outer world, which we are not directly able to communicate with. It is communicated to us by the media—the newspapers, television, and the like. But it is communicated in a very distorted way.’‘For example,’ Foucault continued, ‘not long ago I saw a copy of Time magazine from the year 1945. I lived through the events that Time magazine purported to represent. But the events were completely distorted by the Time editors. All you have to do is to live through what the story is supposed to be about, then read the story, and you will get a good idea of the distortions. We have to be able to convey our own story, to record and communicate the stories from our childhood, our life. In this way we can overcome the distortion of the outer world foisted upon us by the media.’‘But how can we avoid depending so much on television for our stories?’ inquired Mike.
‘Take advantage of the latest technology. With the VCR and the video camers you can make your own shows, tell your own stories, and exchange them with your friends.’
- Elizabeth Weil, “All My Selves are My Favorite,” The New York Times Magazine (17 November 2019) 84-9086: “[B]eing a depressed kid alone in your room is not what it used to be. … That is to say, to be a gender-bending kid alone [like Antonio] in your room making videos that capture exactly what it feels like to be a teenager right now, the whole multi-polar mess of humanity deep inside your own brain, and then post those videos to YouTube even though what you’ve just expressed to your smartphone you probably would not say to your mother in the kitchen and definitely would not say to your classmates, all of whom (you believe, wrongly) think you’re really weird.”86: “By the time school re-opened for Antonio’s sophomore year, she had a million YouTube subscribers [currently 3.67 million; curator’s note], and it was basically impossible for her to attend.”
87: “My daughter’s entertainment philosophy—not incorrect—was, and still is, that TV is primarily made by old people for old people and thus is irrelevant to her. YouTube, on the other hand, at least the part of it that she sees, is made by teenagers for teenagers. And not just that, it’s made by teenagers talking to themselves in private, broadcasting their boredom-laced secret diaries, promising (and at moments, delivering) remote intimacy. … My daughter … found Antonio ‘relatable,’ a huge buzzword among teenage YouTube subscribers these days. ‘Is this what your brain feels like?’ I asked. She said yes. The she added, more knowingly than I might have liked: ‘You don’t think in one constant line of thought.’ She meant both me and humans in general. ‘My brain could never.’”
87: “Later in the summer, this same child introduced me to JoJo Siwa, another 16-year-old denizen of the internet. … While Antonio circumscribes vast swaths of the human experience pinballing around her six-dimensional universe—guileless/sophisticated; earnest/glib; confident/troubled; boyish/girlish; accomplished/bumbling; thriving/morose—JoJo seems to emerge from a deep youth internet mind-set that we’re all Bitmoji-ed, filtered and served up on tiny screens anyway, so why even bother pretending you’re warm-blooded and whole?”
88: “Jeffree Star, a sort of adult male goth drag version of JoJo … joined YouTube in 2006 and currently sells $100 million worth of his cosmetics annually, and whose own identity is such a deliberately plastic work of self-creation that he has had injections, surgery and other procedures on his lips, forehead, nose, teeth and hair.”
88: “I found this vertigo-inducing unless I viewed it as campy. … But to my daughter it was a relief: … Star offered [his] fans the knowledge that you could put on just about any persona you wanted with little or no risk, as with a costume change and some cosmetics-removing wipes, you could simply make that persona go away.”
90: “In response to her sudden fame, Antonio gave up a little—on looks, on life—and started wearing almost no makeup to school except fake eyelashes. … Holed up in her room for even more hours a day, Antonio kept making videos. … The dramas are grand, banal, earnest and unapologetically boring. Antonio then edits them with frantic cuts, subtitles introducing bald sincerity (‘I am not O.K.’), X-ray filters, horror genre music and satirical product placement that is also product placement. ‘I’m like, Oh, this is what happens when someone is raised on the internet,’ one 23-year old friend said to me when I asked him to explain, ‘like this person grew up thinking in GIFs.’”
90: “Part of the terror of the internet, for the olds, is that this technology exploits flaws in our thinking. Pre-internet, the prevailing belief was that we had real selves and fake selves, and we cast judgment on the fakes. We took for granted that we should at least try to present ourselves to the world as coherent people with unified personalities. An avatar could only mean trouble (and often did): an alter ego, an outlet, for the excised bits; a convenient, nearly irresistible portal for the parts of ourselves we had repressed. This foundational (maybe Puritan?) belief in the integrated self has been helpful, even necessary, in real life, because in real life we need to deal with one another in time and space. … And yet, at the same time, we know it’s a ruse. We are, all of us, deeply, inalienably contradictory and chaotic. … This chaos—this cubism, this unleashing of our multiple selves—is a feature, not a bug, of the online world. It’s arguably its defining characteristic for those who grew up there. You could attribute all the jump cuts, all the endlessly iterating memes, to a destroyed attention span. But it’s also evidence of something deeper, a mind-set people are just trying to name. The Dutch cultural theorists Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker settled on the term metamodernism, a cultural position they claim is defined by neither modernism’s essential optimism nor postmodernism’s irony and mistrust, but as an ‘oscillation, an unsuccessful negotiation, between two opposite poles.’ The sensibility is, as Luke Turner, a British artist and the author of ‘The Metamodernist Manifesto,’ puts it, ‘a kind of informed naïveté, a pragmatic idealism, a moderate fanaticism, oscillating between sincerity and irony, deconstruction and construction, apathy and affect, attempting to attain some sort of transcendental position, as if such a thing were within our grasp.’ It is nostalgic and cynical, knowing and naïve, manipulative, manipulated and spontaneous. Arguably it is the dominant postapocalyptic vision of our digital times, the internet’s McLuhan moment, brought to us by teenagers who, as such, spend their days feeling like 10 different people at once and believe they can, and should, express them all. We all contain multitudes. The kids seem to know that’s all right.”