Back at it with Adam Robbert and Jesse Estrin
Thanks to Jeremy for hosting a great conversation!
Below is a draft of a paper I’ll offer at the MEA Convention in a few weeks. I share it here in the hopes that my readers may provide feedback that helps me improve it. I have something like 15 minutes to present as part of a panel on “Philosophical Perspectives,” so I’ll only be able to extemporaneously summarize the text below. I hope to submit some version of this paper to the Explorations in Media Ecology journal.
A Panel Presentation for the 18th Annual Convention of the Media Ecology Association
Convention theme: “Technology, Spirituality, Ecology”
Title: Toward A Communicative Cosmos: Whitehead and Media Ecology
Author: Matthew T. Segall, PhD
Affiliation: California Institute of Integral Studies
“…it is not to be wondered at, that there is nothing attributed unto Pan concerning loves, but only of his marriage with Echo. For the world or nature doth enjoy itself…but where there is enough there is no place left to desire. Therefore there can be no wanton love in Pan or the world, nor desire to obtain anything (seeing he is contented with himself) but only speeches…It is an excellent invention that Pan or the world is said to make choice of Echo only (above all other speeches or voices) for his wife: for that alone is true philosophy, which doth faithfully render the very words of the world; and it is written no otherwise than the world doth dictate, it being nothing else but the image or reflection of it, not adding anything of its own, but only iterates and resounds”
—Francis Bacon (The Essays, Or Councils, Civil and Moral , 18)
“Not all communication is human communication. Animals and machines, atoms and the earth, the seas and the stars are themselves full of curious communications, and our efforts to have intelligence with such entities reform our own practices as well. A vision of communication committed to democracy cannot foreclose on entering into intelligence with radical otherness, including the earth, other species, machines, or extraterrestrial life.”
—John Durham Peters (“Space, Time, and Communication Theory”)
“We find ourselves in a buzzing world, amid a democracy of fellow creatures.”
—Alfred North Whitehead (PR, 50)
In what follows, I draw upon Alfred North Whitehead’s organic cosmology in an attempt to expand the scope of media ecology beyond its ordinarily humanistic horizon. Neil Postman defined media ecology as the critical study of how media technologies envelope and form cultures. As McLuhan famously put it, “Man is an extension of nature that re-makes the nature that makes the man” (Take Today: The Executive as Dropout, 66). This definition of media ecology is premised on the idea that human beings have a foot in two different worlds: a natural or physical environment that includes our own living bodies, and a media environment that extends our embodied expressions into a non-material space of meaning. Each form of communication technology (e.g., speech, the alphabet, the printing press, radio, TV, the Internet, etc.) creates a surrogate nature, an artificial environment within which new cultures grow, sometimes deformed due to their alienation from and lack of resonance with original nature. Today, largely because of a lack of resonance, we find ourselves the late capitalist denizens of a planet in crisis. Geologists and Gaian physiologists tell us that we have entered the Anthropocene. Technological civilization, in its rush to establish a new and improved second nature on top of the first, has neglected to consider that first nature—the Earth—is not a mere stockpile of raw material waiting to fuel the growth and innovation of the human economy, but a complex and highly differentiated ecopoietic superorganism (see Mind in Life by Evan Thompson, 120-122). The planetary ecological crisis has made the modern theory of a bifurcated nature obsolete. Cultural productions and physical processes, perhaps once separable in thought, are now irrevocably entangled at a geochemical level. Our ability to understand and respond to the planetary ecological crisis may be aided by a truly ecological media ecology; by the idea, that is, that there is not just an analogical resonance between natural ecologies and media ecologies, but a cosmological community.♣ Whitehead’s organic cosmology allows us to generalize media ecology’s focus on the medium instead of the message, such that the world itself is brought into view as a medium of communication. Perhaps such an imaginative generalization of media ecology into an ecological metaphysics or metaphysics of the medium can sensitize us to the primal logos of the cosmos.
This work is already well underway, carried forward by theorists including Jussi Parikka, John D. Peters, Mark B. N. Hansen, Adam Robbert, and Andrew Murphie. They each (especially the latter three) turn to Whitehead’s process-relational metaphysics in search of a more cosmological media ecology. Recognizing that humans represent only one of the cosmos’ many forms of communicative being, and that the storage, transmission, and transformation of meaning occurs at every scale from the quantum to the geological to the galactic, opens up new theoretical perspectives on and practical interventions into the study of media as environment and environment as media. In alignment with this conference’s theme, becoming conscious of a communicative cosmos has profound technological, ecological, and theological implications.
Part 1 makes the case for cosmologizing media theory beyond the study of human communication. Part 2 engages more specifically with Mark Hansen’s Feed Forward, arguing that his “inversion” of Whitehead is an unnecessary radicalization of an already radical theory of perception.
McLuhan and Postman theorized media largely from an anthropocentric perspective (i.e., media as “extensions of man”). There is much to be learned from such a perspective. But it is not the only perspective from which to study media. Unlike Postman, with his prophet-like criticisms of new media’s deleterious effect on contemporary culture♥, McLuhan’s Catholic faith sometimes led him to offer a more theologically charged take on electronic media. He went so far as to suggest that what we now call the Internet may be the technological incarnation of the mystical body of Christ (of course, he also worried that electronic media were just Satan’s latest temptation). God has an important role to play in Whitehead’s media theory, as well, though less as a subject of religious worship than as a metaphysical principle providing coherence to his cosmological scheme. For Whitehead, God is that infinite actuality which introduces an ideal harmony or aesthetic order into the world, making cosmos out of chaos by providing the initial aim or erotic lure conditioning every creative act: God “is the mirror which discloses to every creature its own greatness” (RM, 139). Whitehead’s is an aesthetic theory of Being wherein God is the poet of the world.
McLuhan said of all media prior to electronic technologies that they were “extensions” or “prostheses” of the human being, but with the emergence of digital media and the Internet, an uncanny reversal seems to be occurring: the human is becoming an extension of media. According to McLuhan, we are ourselves being “translated into information” (UM, 57). Digital media have been characterized as “environmental,” “elemental,” and “atmospheric” because they surround and dissolve our classical conception of human agency. Data is now the most powerful weapon in the world, as the governments, corporations, and anonymous hackers who wield it have the ability to shape our collective perceptions and actions, even while we continue to believe we are individuals thinking for ourselves. The situation is decidedly double-edged: we have instantaneous access to more information about each other and the world than ever before in human history, but this information also has access to us.
Whether we call it the informational revolution, the technozoic era, or the Anthropocene, it is clear that our species has become a planetary force on par with supervolcanoes and meteorites. Just as this realization begins to dawn on us, media theorists are articulating a “non-anthropocentric, non-prosthetic, and radically environmental theory of media” (Hansen, FF, 250). Hansen, Murphie, and Robbert turn to Whitehead’s panpsychism in order to re-imagine the ontology of media as part of an effort to overcome the modern bifurcation of nature. The bifurcated theory of nature has it that nature is a soundless, scentless, colorless affair, with all experience and interpretation, all emotion and purpose, all value and agency, reserved for the human or at most the animal (and for some, for God). Media theory has tended to treat human perception as though it existed in an ontologically unique domain outside and above mere material existence: humans and their technologies do the mediating, while nature itself remains passively mediated. In protest against the bifurcation of nature, Whitehead articulated a radical account of perception, whereby the affective inheritance of our own just past bodily experience becomes analogous to all of nature’s causal transactions. Human temporality, even if stretched and intricately folded, is still continuous with cosmic temporality. For Whitehead, the ultimate concrete facts composing nature are non-conscious acts of perceptivity: to be actual is to be the achievement of a specific form of feeling, or what Whitehead refers to as a “prehension” (RM, 88, 91). Causal efficacy in nature is the transmission of an occasion of feeling from the settled past into the cresting wave of the present. Once an actual occasion’s present form has reached completion, its perceptivity perishes and it offers itself as an expression feeding the emergence of subsequent prehensive actualities. “Expression,” says Whitehead, “is the one fundamental sacrament…the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace…the recipient extends his apprehension of the ordered universe by penetrating into the inward nature of the originator of the expression. There is then a community of intuition by reason of the sacrament of expression proffered by one and received by the other” (RM, 118). Where McLuhan described the “miracle” whereby “in ordinary perception we incarnate the exterior world, because human perception is literally incarnation” (“Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters,” 82), Whitehead goes further by arguing that “Every event on its finer side introduces God into the world,” such that “the world lives by its incarnation of God in itself” (RM, 140). Expression and prehension are the systole and diastole movements of cosmic creativity, the call and response between God and the world. Every creature, whether atomic, galactic, biotic, or anthropic, is privy in various degrees to this conversation. McLuhan’s theological intuitions already offer media ecology one way beyond its ordinarily anthropocentric charter. But by accepting some version of the bifurcation of Nature, McLuhan falls short of the “becoming-cosmological of media” (Hansen, FF, 244) that is achieved by Whitehead. Media theory’s founding insight, that “the medium is the message,” must be translated into cosmology.
Adam Robbert offers one translation in the form of a “geocentric media ecology”: “Organisms are media ecologists enveloped by the media ecologies of other organisms…the Earth itself is not a passive ground upon which events unfold, but a medium that constrains and conditions the energetic cascade of organismic and ecosystemic development” (“Earth Aesthetics: Knowledge and Media Ecologies,” 6). Along similar lines, Jussi Parikka suggests that “the Earth as living creature communicates via the assembled resources it fashions and provides” (“The Geology of Media,” The Atlantic [Oct 11, 2013]). Parikka offers his own translation of “the medium is the message” into cosmology via a psychogeophysical inquiry into the memories of rocks, raising a dilemma “anyone deep into Alfred North Whitehead would find attractive”: “how do the soil, the crust, the rocks, and the geological world sense?” (A Geology of Media, 62-65. Emphasis mine). Such questions may seem odd at first, but they are an invitation to consider anew the ontological implications of the way natural sciences like geology and astronomy have taught us so much about the cosmos by treating it as a kind of recording medium.
In The Marvelous Clouds, John Durham Peters asks: “What if we took nature as the epitome of meaning rather than mind? What if the fecundity of meaning in nature provided our model of communication?” (MC, 380). Peters approaches the cosmologization of media theory by calling for an “infrastructural aesthetics” to replace both structuralism (the ambition to “explain the principles of thought…by way of a combinatorics of meaning”) and post-structuralism (“with its love of gaps, aporias, and impossibilities, its celebration of breakdown, yearning, and failure, its relish for preposterous categories of all kinds and love of breathless syntax”) (MC, 33). Infrastructural aesthetics lifts the taken for granted background of our human living and dying into the foreground, bringing that which habitual use and abuse has made imperceptible out from behind the veil and into view. Whitehead’s method of speculative philosophy could be described likewise, as for him metaphysics is the pursuit of those generalities so finely woven into the texture of our everyday experience that they become “obscured by their persistent exemplification” (PR, 5). “It requires a very unusual mind to undertake an analysis of the obvious” (SMW, 4), which perhaps explains why philosophy is such a rare vocation. But for Whitehead, philosophy must not become the enemy of habitual commonsense. Infrastructural ignorance has been an essential component of our species’ uniquely powerful form of intelligence: “Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them” (Intro to Math, 61). Instead, philosophy must deploy the method of “imaginative rationalization” (PR, 5) to seek out and make explicit the unacknowledged cosmological presuppositions that provide justification for our civilized commonsense. Infrastructural aesthetics is the effort to bring to light the vibrant materiality of the medium underlying the ephemerality of the messages it conveys. It is the effort to unearth the way the ground we walk on supports and enables our understanding of media, our communicative capacity, our consciousness, and our very being: “Ontology, whatever else it is,” says Peters, “is usually just forgotten infrastructure” (MC, 38). In a discussion of Einsteinian cosmology, Peters refers to the way “infrastructural warps can be embraced as epistemic sources” (MC, 364). In other words, the red shift and gravity lensing detected in ancient/distant light signals tells us something important about the universe. Distortions in these cosmic messages, far from ruining our ability to decipher their meaning, communicate something significant to us about the medium of space-time itself: “…light is not simply a signal carrier, but the basis of the universe’s structure—not just message but being…Time, the universe’s key dimension, is tied to signal velocity, and ontology is bound by the finitude of communication” (MC, 366, 368).
Whitehead’s philosophy of organism allows a radical new possibility to become thinkable, that the world can be re-imagined as a medium because the cosmos is itself composed of communicative processes at every scale. The world itself has always been, in Whitehead’s terms, “a medium for the transmission of influences” (PR, 286). “Ironically,” writes Andrew Murphie, “the idea that there’s too much mediation (a world over-run by media which would otherwise run smoothly) leads media theory and practice astray,” since, as Whitehead’s philosophy reveals, “We have too small a concept of mediation” (“The World as Medium,” 11n11).
Cosmologizing media theory means finally, decisively, letting go of the Cartesian-Kantian framework that extends mere matter forever beyond a meaning intending mind. “Nature abounds in meaning,” says Peters, “most of which we have no idea how to read or even acknowledge that it is there. There is an exquisite pattern in DNA and the neurons of sea slugs, in photons and the red shift, in the bonds of the carbon atom and the fortuitously odd behavior of water…There is clear intelligence of some kind in planetary, physiological, and genetic feedback loops. We…should understand intelligence at all scales, as the dynamic, restless, inarticulate genius of life-forms evolving in their environments…with human brain intelligence just one glorious outpost of organic evolution” (MC, 381).
Such a scale-free conception of intelligence requires a more general theory of communication (indeed, a more general general semantics!) than that which supposes the paradigm case of communication is one human mind trying to convey a thought to another. With a truly (and not just metaphorically) ecologized media theory, we can come to see the prehuman world was always already a medium for the transmission of “data.” Humans are not just now being transformed into information by digital media; like the universe, we were always already made of self-interpreting information. For Whitehead, a bit of information, a datum, is a “potential for feeling” (PR, 88), and every potential seeks satisfaction through actualization in an occasion of experience.
There is much that remains to be unpacked, but my time is short. I can only end by offering a plea to media theorists to join Whitehead’s protest against the bifurcation of nature. Contrary to McLuhan’s argument that languaging humans are unique among biological organisms in that we “[possess] an apparatus of transmission and transformation based on [our] power to store experience” (UM, 59), Whitehead’s organic cosmology invites us to recognize that the transmission and transformation of experience is the very basis of causal connection throughout the universe. Human language is just a further, loopier elaboration upon this cosmic capacity for communicative transaction. So to McLuhan I say, yes, there is a logos in the anthropos, there is a living God at the heart of our human perception and symbolism: a Spirit runneth through our alphabetic letters. But there is another logos: a logos of the cosmos. Thus the need for a cosmological media theory, not just an anthropological or theological one.
Mark Hansen’s Feed Forward: On the Future of 21st Century Media (2015) is densely argued and full of important correctives to the anti- and post-human tendencies of many contemporary theorists. While he accepts the call for an anthrodecentric philosophy, Hansen does not seek to “eschew contact with humans” entirely, as though ontology could ever be completely purified of our existence (FF, 15). Rather, he aims to “resituate,” “intensify,” and even “enhance” human experience by bringing it back into contact with the “causally efficacious lineages that have produced it” (FF, 9, 15). As we become increasingly immersed in and saturated by new forms of digital media, Hansen fears that our species is at risk of being drowned by data: “…in a world linked together by…computational networks and increasingly populated with intelligent sensing technologies ranging from environmental sensors to the smart phones…we now carry with us as a matter of course, experience simply is not what it used to be: far more of what goes on in our daily lives is carried out by machines functioning at their own timescales, meaning outside of our direct perceptual grasp but in ways that do significantly affect our activity” (FF, 23). Hansen argues that Whitehead’s re-embedding of human perception in a cosmic vibratory continuum provides a radical corrective to bifurcated Cartesian-Kantian accounts of the relationship between physical processes and human consciousness, a corrective that may help us meet the challenges posed by 21st century digital media.
But Hansen’s reading of Whitehead, assisted by Judith Jones’ beautiful book Intensity (1998), positions itself as an “inversion” of Whitehead’s ontology, which Hansen argues is still residually anthropocentric. Much of what Hansen proposes leans heavily on Jones, even though she herself only claims to be offering a slight revision and reemphasization of concepts already present in Whitehead’s texts (I, x). Hansen summarizes the reasons for his “inversion” of Whitehead’s ontology:
“The canonical interpretation of Whitehead, which is largely justified by his own writings, holds that only concrescence is creative because it is only in concrescence that actualities wield their subjective power; once they ‘perish,’ undergo transition, and enter the settled world, actualities become merely objective (or superjectal), meaning that they become passive and inert and can only become creative again if they are taken up by future concrescences of new actual entities” (FF, 13).
This is, to put it generously, a misleading reading of the role of concrescence and transition in Whitehead’s process-relational ontology. In Adventures of Ideas, Whitehead clearly characterizes objects as antecedent and given to newly concrescing occasions, but definitely “not…generated in that occasion.” The new occasion “does not create the objects which it receives.” Actual occasions do not “[arise] out of a passive situation which is a mere welter of many data.” “The exact contrary is the case,” Whitehead tells us, “[since] the initial situation includes a factor of activity which is the reason for the origin [of the new] occasion of experience” (AI, 179; emphasis mine). Objects are not inert, left to die into the past, but have an expressive capacity that itself serves as the primary phase of each new occasion’s entrance into the present. “The creative process is thus to be discerned in that transition by which one occasion, already actual, enters into the birth of another instance of experienced value” (RM, 99).
Hansen develops a non-prosthetic account of digital media in terms of what he calls “worldly sensibility.” Rather than attributing all agency and creativity to human consciousness, Hansen attributes a kind of sensitivity to data itself, a “datasense,” “[thereby positioning] data-gathering as an independent producer of sensibility (causal efficacy) in its own right” (FF, 149). Hansen claims his project involves a radicalization of Whitehead’s theory of perception, in that Whitehead’s account of concrescence still over-privileges the subject-pole, and thus by extension the humanness, of experience. Hansen instead emphasizes superjective transition over subjective concrescence, and similarly seeks to heighten the distinction between what he describes as the “empirical” and “speculative” aspects of Whitehead’s scheme. But Whitehead does not privilege concrescence over transition, or subjective prehension over superjective expression. His cosmological scheme is an attempt at harmonizing the two principles characterizing reality’s process, and his analogization of philosophic method with the flight of an airplane suggests he also sought a harmonization between speculative and empirical methods (PR, 5). Whitehead is not a phenomenologist; he is, like Schelling, an organic realist.♦ Experience, in the most general or metaphysical terms, is an “oscillation between concrescence and transition of actual entities…or ‘societies’…ranging from the most ‘micro’-level phenomena, for example, quantum decoherence, to the most ‘macro’-level phenomena, for example, geological and cosmological processes” (FF, 14). Here, Whitehead and Hansen are in complete agreement.
Hansen claims he needs to to “radicalize” Whitehead because he sees the latter as still too centered on human consciousness. Whitehead betrays an anthropocentric residue, according to Hansen, when he defines causal efficacy merely in reference to the last tenth of a second of our human experience: “Whitehead’s…reductive rechristening of perception qua causal efficacy as ‘nonsensuous perception’…jettisons the crucial ‘vector character’ of perception, the way lineages of causal efficacy stretch far into the background of perception, and not just to its most immediate just-past” (FF, 20-21); “Whitehead effectively identifies causally efficacious perception with—and, I would argue, limits it to—the immediate past of sensory perception” (FF, 24). But Whitehead is merely using our human experience of causal efficacy as a specific example of the way superjective expressions transition into subjective prehensions, an example close to home: “In human experience, the most compelling example of non-sensuous perception is our knowledge of our own immediate past” (AoI, 178). But in the context of his metaphysics, the example is generalized as an account of causal relations as such; that is, our nonsensuous perception of our own immediate past is imaginatively extended so as to characterize the becoming of actual occasions at every scale. And it is not clear to me that causal efficacy of the sort Hansen refers to as “worldly sensibility” is completely beyond human perception, as he claims: we may have access to it in certain extreme states (psychedelics, NDEs, flow states, etc.). On the other hand, it could be that we become other-than-human during such extreme experiential episodes.
Early in his book, Hansen puts a definitional stake in the ground by referencing Husserl’s distinction between sensation and perception: “sensation [is] the nonintentional material on which perception, and intentionality, is erected” (note 3, p. 271). Hansen argues that Whitehead’s account of “nonsensuous perception” must be replaced with an account of “non-perceptual sensation” (p. 19), but I have a feeling this is a merely a definitional issue having to do with a difference in how Husserlian phenomenologists demarcate “sensation” vs. “perception.” Whitehead explicitly acknowledges the lack of consistency in the philosophical tradition’s various definitions of “perception”: Sensationalist doctrine suggests that perception is always through stimulation of the various sense-organs, but Whitehead argues that “there is a wider meaning” beyond this limited use of the term (AoI, 178). “Tacit identification of perception with sense-perception must be a fatal error barring the advance of systematic metaphysics” (AoI, 180). Below I excerpt two sections of my dissertation that unpack Whitehead’s account of the two pure modes of perception (which I also refer to as “aesthesis”), causal efficacy and presentational immediacy, which I believe makes clear there is no need for the “inversion” Hansen has attempted.
Analysis of prehensionality from my dissertation (pgs. 132-143): It is all too easy to define aesthesis according to the misplaced concreteness, so prevalent among modern philosophers of both the empiricist and rationalist schools, which has it that our primary form of sensory experience is of bare patches of qualia free of all relations. Whitehead called this mode of perception “presentational immediacy” or “sense-perception,” contrasting it with the more primordial mode of “causal efficacy” or “sense-reception.” The latter mode of perception, as its name suggests, directly links our experience to that of other actualities in our causal lineage. That human experience is linked to other actualities by such lineages contradicts the Kantian paradigm, for which perception is “mere appearance” and so causally epiphenomenal. From Whitehead’s perspective, “experience has been explained [by modern philosophers] in a thoroughly topsy-turvy fashion, the wrong end first”: because presentational immediacy (i.e., derivative appearances in the subject) provides us with clear and distinct ideas that are accessible to conceptualization by the understanding, it has been given genetic priority, when in fact, causal efficacy (i.e., primordial feelings of objects) deserves this honor (PR, 162.). “The philosophy of organism is the inversion of Kant’s philosophy,” according to Whitehead, in that while Kant endeavors to construe experience as a process whereby “subjective data pass into the appearance of an objective world,” Whitehead’s philosophy of organism describes experience as a process whereby the order of the objectively felt data pass into and provide intensity for the realization of a subject (PR, 88). In short, in Kant’s philosophy “the world emerges from the subject,” while “for the philosophy of organism, the subject emerges from the world” (PR, 88).
Rather than treating the objective world as an appearance constructed by subjective activity, as Kant and most other modern thinkers do, Whitehead reverses the direction of the process of perception such that each subject is described as arising from its feelings of other objectified subjects, or superjects (PR, 156). “In the place of the Hegelian [or Kantian] hierarchy of categories of thought,” writes Whitehead, “the philosophy of organism finds a hierarchy of feeling” (PR, 166).
On Whitehead’s reading, Kant privileges perception in the mode of “presentational immediacy” and ignores or at least marginalizes the deeper and more ontologically relevant perceptual mode of “causal efficacy.” “Presentational immediacy” displays reality in a way amenable to representational analysis, showing only the more or less clear and distinct surfaces of the world as they are presented to a reflective subject here and now. It is the end product of a complex process of unconscious prehensive unification accomplished by the society of actual occasions composing our organism and nervous system. “Causal efficacy” unfolds behind the scenes of the Cartesian theater of presentational immediacy, hidden in the unrepresentable depths of reality, carrying vague emotional vectors from the past into the present. Perception in the mode of presentational immediacy is punctual (hence its relative clarity and distinctness), while perception in the mode of causal efficacy is transitional (hence its vagueness). Presentational immediacy allows for intentional consciousness, the subjective capacity for attentional directedness toward the eidos of objects. Causal efficacy is prehensional, the presubjective capacity to inherit the affective influences of objects. The former mode requires that a mind remain at a distance from things, sensing their essence rather than prehending their causal presence, while the latter implies the interpenetration of things, the transition from the superjective beings of the past into the subjective becoming of the present. Whitehead’s alchemical distillation of consciousness reveals an experiential structure even deeper than conceptuality, an ontologically primordial mode of experience shared in by every actuality in the cosmos. If anything is a priori, it is not the transcendental structures of human conceptuality as Kant argued, but the descendental processes of cosmic prehensionality.
(pgs. 156-159): Prehension should not be thought of as resulting in an actual occasion “having” experience of other occasions, as though an occasion were “the unchanging subject of change” (PR, 29). This would inevitably lead back to the classical bifurcated conception of substantial minds qualified by their private representations of supposedly public material objects. For the philosophy of organism, an actual occasion is not a pre-existent subject qualified by its representations of ready-made objects. Instead, actual occasions are re-imagined as dipolar “subject-superjects” (PR, 29). The “subject” phase of a concrescing occasion emerges from the prehensions of antecedent occasions which it unifies, while in the “superject” phase the occasion, having attained satisfaction as a unified drop of decisively patterned experience, perishes into “objective immortality,” which then initiates another round of prehension by a subsequently concrescing actual occasion. Whitehead expresses the perpetual perishing of subjective immediacy into objective immortality in terms of his “principle of relativity,” such that “it belongs to the nature of a ‘being’ that it is a potential for every ‘becoming’” (PR, 22). Actual occasions are thus describable in two ways: as “being” and as “becoming.” These ontological designations are not separable, since, according to Whitehead’s correlative “principle of process,” an occasion’s “being” arises from its “becoming”: “how an actual [occasion] becomes constitutes what that actual [occasion] is” (PR, 23). The description of an occasion according to its genetic “becoming” provides an account of the occasion’s own subjective aim (i.e., its final cause), while the description according to its extensive “being” provides an account of its superjective effect as prehended by other occasions beyond itself (i.e., as efficient cause). Creative process is said to manifest in two ways, as the concrescence of each individual entity, and as the transition from one occasion to the next. Concrescence describes “the real internal constitution of a particular existent,” while transition describes the perishing of a particular existent’s process, thereby “constituting that existent as an original element in the constitutions of other particular existences elicited by repetitions of process” (PR, 210). “The transition is real, and the achievement is real,” writes Whitehead. “The difficulty is for language to express one of them without explaining away the other” (Modes of Thought, 102).
♠ Also quoted by Marshall McLuhan (Understanding Media, 60).
♣ Or perhaps this assumes too shallow an understanding of analogy, which is plenty cosmological (in the Whiteheadian aesthetic sense) already if, like McLuhan, we adopt the Thomist theory of analogical perception, wherein “the sensory order resonates with the divine Logos.…Analogy is not concept. It is community. It is resonance. It is inclusive. It is the cognitive process itself. That is the analogy of the divine Logos. … [I]mmediate analogical awareness … begins in the senses and is derailed by concepts or ideas” (McLuhan to John W. Mole, 18 April 1969). In other words, perhaps analogical reasoning links us via perception/aesthesis to the cosmic logos.
♥ E.g., consider how Postman criticisms of modern technology resemble the prophet Isaiah: “Their land is filled with idols; they bow down to the work of their hands” (Isaiah 2:8); or the prophet Jeremiah: “They burned incense to other gods and worshipped the works of their hands” (Jeremiah 1:16).
♦ See my dissertation for more on the convergence of Whitehead and Schelling’s process philosophies: Cosmotheanthropic Imagination in the Post-Kantian Process Philosophy of Schelling and Whitehead (2016). A media determinist might argue that in my attempt to cosmologize media theory, I am simply mistaking the meaning created by words for meaning discovered in the world. That alphabetic literacy serves as the media a priori for cosmological speculation I do not doubt. But Schelling’s philosophy of language reveals the way alphabetic consciousness, like the mythic consciousness which preceded it, is only an intensification of potencies already present in nature. Schelling’s Naturphilosophie allowed him to “cognize the physical in language,” and to “arrange…the history of…language…in analogy to the geological” (Schelling, Werke, vol. 8, 452-453). Do humans make sense of the Earth, or are humans the Earth making sense of itself? From Schelling’s point of view, the philosophy of nature is nature itself philosophizing, Autophusis philosophia. For more on the way human myth and language can be read as expressions of the Earth, see “Logos of a Living Earth: Toward a New Marriage of Science and Myth for Our Planetary Future” in World Futures, vol. 68 , Iss. 2, 2012.
I’m reading McLuhan’s classic Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964) as I prepare a paper for the Media Ecology Association conference this summer. I’m struck by his prophetic insights into the effect of “electronic media” on the human condition. My MEA conference paper will challenge some of his basic assumptions from a (surprise, surprise) Whiteheadian panexperiential and anthrodecentric perspective. But for now, I just wanted to share some excerpts and brief commentary.
“The principle of numbness comes into play with electric technology, as with any other. We have to numb our central nervous system when it is extended and exposed, or we will die. Thus the age of anxiety and of electric media is also the age of the unconscious and of apathy. But it is strikingly the age of consciousness and unconsciousness, in addition. With our central nervous system strategically numbed, the tasks of conscious awareness and order are transferred to the physical life of man, so that for the first time he has become aware of technology as an extension of his physical body. Apparently this could not have happened before the electric age gave us the means of instant, total field-awareness. With such awareness, the subliminal life, private and social, has been hoicked up into full view, with the result that we have ‘social consciousness’ presented to us as a cause of guilt-feelings. Existentialism offers a philosophy of structures, rather than categories, and of total social involvement instead of individual separateness or points of view. In the electric age we wear all mankind as our skin.” -McLuhan (UM, 47).
What he says about intensified social consciousness causing guilt-feelings seems to refer to the all too common phenomenon of mob-like social media shaming. E.g., the recent Tuvel Affair, or any number of recent anti-etc. protests where chants of “shame!, shame!, shame!” break out, each protestor with one hand clenched in a fist pumping in rhythm, while the other holds an iPhone to livestream themselves in the hopes of being retweeted by others equally #woke. I’m being cynical, since of course the problem is not being woke to the variety of oppressions infecting our late capitalist society, but the way resistance to these forms of oppression is all too easily co-opted by corporate-owned social media and transformed into a narcissistic celebration of identity rather than lasting political and institutional change.
Below, McLuhan seems uncharacteristically optimistic about the potential of electronic media to create a “global village,” a scenario that has not played out as we may have hoped:
“The immediate prospect for literate, fragmented Western man encountering the electric implosion within his own culture is his steady and rapid transformation into a complex and depth-structured person emotionally aware of his total interdependence with the rest of human society.” -McLuhan (UM, 50-51).
Below, McLuhan speaks to the way what we have come to call the Internet has extended our nervous system and consciousness far beyond the already arbitrary skin barrier. He also discusses the great speed of this new information superhighway. But I’m reminded of the Anthropocenic reversal or figure-ground shift discussed by Bruno Latour in his Gifford Lectures, and developed further by Eduardo Viveiros de Castro in a recent talk at UC Davis on the coming cosmopolitical war. Modernity defined itself by the bifurcation of Nature, whereby human agents charged themselves with achieving mastery over an inert nature largely passive before our historical projects. The rapidity of modernization has transformed the planet beyond recognition in only a few generations, such that our species is now recognized as a geological force. But just as we enter the Anthropocene, a shift in agency and in speed has occurred, such that, as de Castro cleverly put it, the glaciers are now melting faster than our social system can change its mode of production in order to mitigate said melting. It now seems that we humans are the passive and inert ones, while Gaia is waking up to her own catastrophic agency.
“By putting our physical bodies inside our extended nervous systems, by means of electric media, we set up a dynamic by which all previous technologies that are mere extensions of hands and feet and teeth and bodily heat-controls—all such extensions of our bodies, including cities—will be translated into information systems. Electromagnetic technology requires utter human docility and quiescence of mediation such as befits an organism that now wears its brain outside its skull and its nerves outside its hide. Man must serve his electric technology with the same servo-mechanistic fidelity with which he served his coracle, his canoe, his typography, and all other extensions of his physical organs. But there is this difference, that previous technologies were partial and fragmentary, and the electric is total and inclusive. An external consensus or conscience is now as necessary as private consciousness. With the new media, however, it is also possible to store and translate everything; and, as for speed, that is no problem. No further acceleration is possible this side of the light barrier.” -McLuhan (UM, 57-58).
Finally, McLuhan predicts Facebook’s business model a generation before Zuckerberg was even born.
“Electric technology is directly related to our central nervous systems, so it is ridiculous to talk of ‘what the public wants’ played over its own nerves…Once we have surrendered our senses and nervous systems to the private manipulation of those who would try to benefit from taking a lease on our eyes and ears and nerves, we don’t really have any rights left. Leasing our eyes and ears and nerves to commercial interests is like handing over the common speech to a private corporation, or like giving the earth’s atmosphere to a company as a monopoly. Something like this has already happened with outer space, for the same reasons that we have leased our central nervous systems to various corporations.” -McLuhan (UM, 68).
Later this month, St. Mary’s College of California will host the 18th Annual Convention of the Media Ecology Association. The conference theme is “Technology, Spirituality, Ecology.” My paper proposal was accepted. The abstract is below
Title: A Communicative Cosmos: Toward a Whiteheadian Media Ecology
Author: Matthew T. Segall, PhD
Affiliation: California Institute of Integral Studies
In this paper, I draw upon Alfred North Whitehead’s process philosophy in an attempt to expand the scope of media ecology beyond the exclusively humanistic charter given it by Neil Postman into more cosmic and divine waters. Postman defined media ecology as the critical study of how media technologies envelope and form cultures. He argued that human beings live in two different worlds: a natural environment and a media environment. At the dawn of the Anthropocene, such a bifurcation between nature and culture can no longer be taken for granted. If there ever was a salient distinction to be made between art and nature, advances in biotechnology and the severity of the ecological crisis have now irrevocably entangled cultural productions with physical processes. This paper builds on the process-relational cosmology of Whitehead, as well as recent work by media theorists including Mark B. N. Hansen, John D. Peters, and Andrew Murphie, to argue that the world itself is already a medium and thus can be conceived of as an evolving network of communicative processes in its own right. Recognizing that humans represent only one of the cosmos’ many forms of communicative being, and that basic semiotic processes (what Whitehead calls “prehensions”) operate even at the level of quantum events, opens up new theoretical perspectives on the study of media as environment and environment as media. Further, and relevant to this conference’s theme, becoming conscious of a communicative cosmos has profound technological, ecological, and perhaps even spiritual implications.
Grant wonders what I meant by referring to Tarnas’ archetypal cosmology as a “middle up” approach to transforming culture, and to Latour’s anthropology of the moderns as a “top down” approach to the same. I appreciate Grant’s use of Latour’s own network analysis to deconstruct my construal of the two thinker’s relative positions within academic and popular culture. Latour has been problematizing the politically enforced boundaries between natural science and folk psychology (i.e., between elite knowledge and mass opinion) for most of his 40-year career.
My vertical metaphor may have been misleading: I intended it as a reference to the size and shape of their respective audiences, not as a reference to the degree of their value or profundity. Tarnas’ bestselling Passion of the Western Mind has been read by hundreds of thousands of college educated people. It is bar none the most balanced, insightful, and well-written gateway into the long arc of Western intellectual history that I have ever come across. I characterized Tarnas’ impact on culture-at-large as “middle out” because Passion has succeeded in offering a coherent and carefully argued meta-narrative that many people can accept as basically true. The archetypal depth and conceptual clarity of its mythico-dialectical structure works like magic to compel its readers to accept the strength of the 2,500-year long thread of historical meaning it weaves from Socrates and Jesus through to Jung, Hillman, and Grof.
As for Latour, one 2007 study showed that he was the 10th most cited humanities author of the year. I presume the study included all languages, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Latour was also on the top of an Anglo-only list considering the important influence of post-war French thought on the American academy. If you feel like following that particular thread, check out Francois Cusset’s French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States (2008). What Cusset means by “intellectual life” in his title is a bit more concentrated than what I meant above by “college educated,” and by “concentrated” I mean in terms of the number of readers who are both capable of and interested in reading authors like Latour, Deleuze, or Derrida. Their work appeals to (relatively speaking) a very small number of highly educated graduate students, professors, and conceptual artists. Latour’s influence has been “top down” in the sense that it just isn’t accessible to many people (which is ironic considering his desire to make knowledge political–that is, to bring science to the people!).
A reviewer of Cusset’s book offers a story that is relevant enough to Grant and my discussion that I will quote it:
Artist and activist Jean-Jacques Lebel, who had imported beat poetry into France from the United States, once invited Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari to a 1975 concert held in Massachusetts, where the two had the opportunity to meet Bob Dylan and Joan Baez backstage. Somewhat unimpressed with the two French philoso- phers, the folksingers had not bothered to read Anti-Oedipus, and likewise the two theorists were unfortunately not interested in smoking marijuana: an inadvertent misalignment of social interests, creating a somewhat awkward encounter for all parties involved. This anecdote of an ill-conceived compatibility epitomizes the spirit of comprehending the objectives of French theory and prompts an inevitable query: have we on the U.S. side of the Atlantic been able to come to terms with the French, their traditions of intellectual thought and their philosophical legacy?
The reviewer (as well as Cusset) suggets that much of what the French have to offer to we American theorists has indeed been lost in translation. Latour is certainly easier to read than a Derrida or a Deleuze, but his writing is still full of stylistically rich ironies and affective potencies. In such a textual environment, sometimes creative misreadings are the only available option (I’ve been offering my own no doubt often erring reflections on Latour for a while on this blog). Nonetheless, in the spirit of moving the discussion forward in a productive way, I’m going to risk contesting Grant’s reading of Latour’s analysis of knowledge-networks as somehow purely horizontal. Grant writes:
I see academic power as a horizontal network of relations, though differing from Latour, it seems to me that there are central nodes and margins of that network determined by the number of connections and the intensity of influence of those connections.
I’ve noticed that Deleuze and Guattari’s related notion of the “rhizome,” developed in A Thousand Plateaus (transl. 1987), is also usually interpreted as though it were a purely horizontal structure. This despite the fact that the final pages of the introductory chapter on the rhizome read as follows:
If it is a question of showing that rhizomes have their own, even more rigid, despotism and hierarchy, then fine and good: for there is no dualism, no ontological dualism between here and there, no axiological dualism between good and bad, no blend or American synthesis. There are knots of arborescence in rhizomes…despotic formations…and channelization specific to rhizomes…(p. 20).
Latour has clearly been influenced by D & G’s account of the rhizome in his own analysis of networks. In Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers Through Society (1987), Latour first introduces his concept of the network to English-speakers:
If technoscience may be described as being so powerful and yet so small, so concentrated and so dilute, it means it has the characteristics of a network. The word network indicates that resources are concentrated in a few places–the knots and nodes–which are connected with one another–the links and the mesh: these connections transform the scattered resources into a net that may seem to extend everywhere. Telephone lines, for instance, are minute and fragile, so minute that they are invisible on a map and so fragile that each may be easily cut; nevertheless, the telephone network ‘covers’ the whole world. The notion of network will help us to reconcile the two contradictory aspects of technoscience and to understand how so few people may seem to cover the world. (180)
Latour’s analysis of networks finds in them precisely the sort of power distribution that Grant does. His goal has never been to relativize the natural or cultural power of certain concentrations of scientific or academic knowledge. He is fully cognizant of the forever advancing dialectic of discovery and invention underlying the technoscientific process of knowledge production. If he is arguing for any kind of relativism, it is that all knowledge (whether scientific or folk) is constructed out of what at first may be fragile relationships–relationships that are only gradually forged through repeated acts of translation between and among various sorts of human and nonhuman actors.
To be fair to Grant, Latour would seem to prefer a “multi-narrative” to a “meta-narrative” perspective on knowledge. This resistance to telling a simple story sometimes makes his ideas hard to track. Judging by the audience’s question after Latour’s first Gifford lecture on Gaia theory, it appears many of them were stunned, as Grant put it, “by a mixture of reverence and bafflement.” Grant wonders how many people actually grasped exactly what Latour was on about (the fellow who introduced him certainly didn’t seem to). Personally, I love his style, and I don’t think in this case aesthetics is just the icing on the conceptual cake. If, following Whitehead (as Latour does), aesthetics is first philosophy, then we should proceed carefully whenever we try to distill the pure logical essences of flowery rhetoric. We may find that much is lost in translation whenever the supposedly pure conceptual content of an argument is purified of the metaphors and imagery that originally delivered its meaning. Maybe I’ve read too much “post-modernism,” but I’ve come to understand philosophy as a kind of dramatic performance art. After reading Deleuze, I can’t help but notice the personalities of concepts. I agree with the object-oriented philosopher Graham Harman’s comments in an interview about the importance of style in philosophy:
there are immense pressures working on us at all times to shape us as if with cookie cutters. There are three or four readily available opinions on most issues, and at best we are usually only imaginative enough to choose the least common of those three or four options. But the sign of a genuine thinker is the ability to develop a new option, never heard of before. When this happens, the thinker has broken away from the robotic array of available opinions and made some sort of contact with the real. And how do you know when someone may have done this? You recognize it by a certain freshness in the style, a directness and honesty of testimony, a streak of the unexpected or original in the thinker’s voice… Arguments are secondary in philosophy; failure to realize this is the central flaw of the hegemonic school known as analytic philosophy. (The continental tradition has signature weaknesses of its own, of course.) You can refute Plato’s “weak arguments” twenty times per day, but Plato remains fascinating nonetheless. Why? Because his voice is unique and it speaks from the depths of the real, not just from the tabletop of refuted propositional claims. (the rest of Harman’s thoughts on style are here).
Another point of contention between Grant and I is the role of technology in the evolution of consciousness. While its true that technology needn’t necessarily disenchant (indeed, as I argued in my first response to Grant, it is itself a very powerful form of enchantment, whether mis-directed or not), I passionately reject the thesis that technology is in any way neutral. It’s precisely because I agree with Grant’s comparison of technology to psychedelics that I can’t accept their supposed neutrality. Like psychedelics, media technologies (which includes everything from the alphabet, to the printing press, radio, TV, PC, and smart phones) have radically called into question our understanding of human agency. Media theorists like McLuhan and Ong have shown that, for instance, the relationship between alphabetic print and literate consciousness cannot be understood in a linear way as though the print medium merely amplified the innate capacities of an already internally constituted rational individual. Media also amputate formerly endogenous capacities (Plato long ago realized the risks posed to memory and learning by writing). Media technologies are not neutral because our very sense of identity, and so also our values, have always already been shaped by the medium carrying the message. Technologies are actors in their own right with their own effects independent of what their human inventors or users intend. As I see it, consciousness is way too mixed up in a co-evolution with its media for us to pretend we can disentangle what is “me” and what is “media.” Someone with a more mystical leaning like Jean Gebser is going to privilege the agency of consciousness in its evolution, its ability to chose to use this or that technology in whatever way it sees fit, while a Marx or a Latour is going to try to reveal the way the evolution of consciousness through its magical, mythical, mental and post-modern/deficient phases has more to do with the widespread cultural shifts in material practices associated with humanity’s development through song and dance, hieroglyphic symbolism, alphabetic script, the printing press, and electronic screens. I wouldn’t want to dismiss Gebser’s more consciousness-centric position, but I think it is just as important to pay attention to the way seemingly external media technologies transform the very shape of our inner lives in powerful and often unacknowledged ways.
In closing, I definitely agree with Grant that the translation table Latour constructs to bring the religious people of God, the scientific people of Nature, and the Earth-bound people of Gaia into diplomatic conversation may benefit from a more archetypal sensibility like that offered in Tarnas’ Cosmos and Psyche. As I understand it, Tarnas is creatively carrying forward an ancient tradition dating back to Plato that looks to the meaningful motions of the stars and planets above for a universally available source of cultural and political orientation here below. I believe any future people of Gaia would benefit greatly in their struggle to find meaning in chaotic times by practicing the psychoplanetary therapy Tarnas has helped to birth.
My Muse’s ideas remain mute to the world until given voice by the poet who courts her. For this I use my mouth, my tongue, my teeth, and my lungs. As I inhale and prepare to name the world, it dawns on me that I have lost the ability to tell the difference between my thinking and my words.
A problematic statement: Thinking itself, the I behind the me I “use” language to call myself, cannot be written.
But then what did I just say? If my I cannot be predicated, if nothing at all can be said about it but what it says of itself as me, then what relation does my I bear to its body, other bodies, and the world?
An important confession: I cannot but think in media res. I am a bodying, a worlding. My thoughts are always already events in the world.
Language cannot be “used” like some kind of tool, because the me that is supposed to employ it is in fact (re)constructed in the act of speaking. Language is a technology, but in the ancient sense of techne, a craftwork or artwork, rather than the modern sense of tool or machine.
Is not language the Archetype itself most fully incarnated into the material dimension, the Word become almost fully flesh and bone? I speak, therefore I am, and in speaking I become mediated, my consciousness awakened from the dream of solipsism into the pulsing, breading, bleeding matrices of inter-bodily co-existence.
Because of a series of technological “advancements” and economic “developments,” I can now type my thinking into a laptop, which then teleports it around the world in an instant. Miniaturized by my laptop is the alphabet, an ancient technology still every bit as essential to our kind of consciousness as neurons and microchips. My mind accesses the meaning of this screen through the symbolic sounds my fingers have learned to play on the keyboard. My alphabetic computer becomes the condition for my thinking being heard (by myself and others). I think with it, and so my identity has hybridized with it. We are/I am a cyborg.
Whatever the Internet “is,” I think we can say with some assurance that it is already sutured into the human nervous system, and the planetary ecosystem, at a very deep level, so deep as to have fundamentally transformed what it means, materially and spiritually, to be an earthling. There is a computer consciousness binding the world together in an electrical co-presencing of faces and words, a digital concrescence of souls. Problem is these techno-human lines of communication are completely out of rhythm with the rest of the earthly and cosmic lines of force. Industrial civilization has turned up the volume of our technosphere’s speakers so loud, and so brightened the bulbs that light it, that the rest of the gaian ecosystem and galactic community can hardly be seen or heard anywhere on earth. At least not by human ears.
We are embedded, creatures within creation, each an individualized organ of world-perception, another unique example of the Cosmic Psyche’s desire to see deeper into a universe in which there is always more to see.
Think with the heart of the world, or there will be no earth worth living in.