Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

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Thursday, January 28, 2010

Mediation vs. Connection

I mentioned Alf Seegert's essay in the Journal of Ecocriticism, and I want to raise a few questions about it. What follows won't mean a whole lot except in the context of a response to that paper, so interested people should read that first. My remarks do not specifically pertain to his reading of Forster's story (though I recommend both story and reading); I am largely in agreement with this. But I have a few questions about how Alf critiques an implicit distinction that Forster draws and relies upon, between the technological and the "natural."

These terms frequently determine the way the ecological debate is generally drawn, and while it's true there are more sophisticated approaches out there, it is surprising to me how often one still encounters this too-simple dichotomy. It's not that the argument is polarized between Luddites and Technophiles; but there's still a curious hankering for some kind of "authentic" experience that, it's suggested, our technology has "cut us off" from. The contrast, or apparent contrast, here is between "immediate" contact (say, skin-to-skin, or being-in-the-same-room) and somehow "mediated" interaction (looking at a picture on a screen, or "reading about," and so on).

The notion here extrapolates from the fact that, for instance, watching a documentary about the Grand Canyon is an
undeniably mediated experience, to the unwarranted conclusion that there is something unmediated about actually riding a donkey down the trail on the Canyon wall. This then serves as the basis for any number of moves in ecological critique, always commending the unmediated over mediation. The danger of course is that if mediation should prove to be ubiquitous, the whole project fails. And one does not need to be an incorrigible deconstructionist to suspect that there is something problematic about "unmediated access." In fact, one of the remarkable things about Harman's Object-Oriented approach is that despite his being a hardline realist about objects, he too maintains that one's "access" to any object at all is always mediated.

As with "immediacy," so with "nature" When plastic or nuclear power is denounced as "unnatural", it is as though a wooden table or a waterwheel was somehow a spontaneously occurring phenomenon. The pacific garbage patch is as 'natural' as the gulf stream, and if human beings one day wipe out the whole damn biosphere, this will be only one more natural event, every bit as natural as solar flares, volcanoes, or indeed as the beginning of life on earth.

So I can't but agree with Alf when he suggests that a tennis-shoe-clad foot, or a foot on the gas pedal, has no more (or less) 'mediated' an encounter with the earth than a bare foot or a hoof.
When Forster describes the final catastrophe (the collapse of the technological utopia and the destruction of the human life that had come to depend upon it), his narrator waxes eloquent:

Man, the flower of all flesh, the noblest of all creatures visible, man who had once made god in his image, and had mirrored his strength on the constellations, beautiful naked man was dying, strangled in the garments that he had woven. Century after century had he toiled, and here was his reward. Truly the garment had seemed heavenly at first, shot with colours of culture, sewn with the threads of self-denial. And heavenly it had been so long as man could shed it at will and live by the essence that is his soul, and the essence, equally divine, that is his body.

As Alf rather ingeniously points out, the nakedness of Forster's "beautiful naked man" is in fact an index of his technological co-evolution, not the sign of its absence; human beings look as they do naked because of the technology of clothes. "Naked man" is not unmediated man. In the same way as Kuno, in Forster's story, can't breathe the natural air on the Earth's surface, neither could Captain Scott have withstood the Antarctic winds if he faced them the way he was born.

Nonetheless, I have some reservations about the enthusiastic tossing-out of "mediation" as a term of distinction. If everything is mediated, then the term becomes meaningless, and this I think leads to places Alf doesn't want to go. This makes his next steps hard for me to "get;" though I understand (I think) each step, the whole shape of his approach feels a little vague.
(To be fair, I should point out that this essay of Alf's is part of a chapter in his dissertation, so the argument might be more balanced and easier in the context of the whole work.) Having spent a great deal of energy problematizing the categories on which the critics of technology want to rely, he nonetheless suggest (as I certainly want to also) that some mediations are more equal than others. And here I don't fully understand the criteria to which he is referring.

Alf asks: "is the problem with “mediated nature” the simple fact that it is mediated (an inescapable condition always at some level), or rather that with certain types of mediation comes a loss of connection with the Other...?" But I wonder how we are supposed to tell the difference between one type of mediation and another type. I find myself wanting to argue back that the critique that points out mediation is actually more to the point. When McLuhan (upon whom Alf is relying here) points out the threat that technological mediation poses to alterity (or rather, to the recognition of alterity) this is because precisely here, mediation is disguised and concealed. Alf argues that the question to ask is not whether a connection is "authentic," but rather, with what or who does it connect us? But already it really is possible to believe, in a kind of automatic unthinking way, that one "knows" the Grand Canyon or the Northern Lights from having seen a movie. One day very soon it will be possible to emerge from a V.R. theatre and say it with absolute conviction. And yet, I insist, one has a crazy-making intuition that such conviction will be wrong.

So how can one do justice to both the critique of the mediation/unmediated distinction, and to the intuition that a perfect planetarium show does not show you the real sky? I think the (only? best?) way to argue this is to say that the so-called "connection" in this case is ersatz.

There is also the issue of the
seductiveness of certain kinds of mediation. I remember a trip to the zoo where I saw hosts of children flock to a TV monitor playing an "instructional video" about an orangutan, oblivious to the real orangutan who was playing and looking curiously through the glass at them a yard away. What I mean by seductiveness is not really the providing of pleasure, but simply the providing of a good substitute for what used to give pleasure, without the cost in pain or (what increasingly is regarded as the same thing) inconvenience. The children at the zoo, were I think, seduced by the form of TV; it didn't give them more excitement than the unpredictable real animal; but everything in their previous experience had already trained them to prefer it. Why?

I prefer to see a shark through a big plate glass window than in 'unmediated' proximity in the water, and in fact there's a part of me that prefers a shark on TV to a shark in the aquarium. Likewise, I prefer sterile surgery with anesthetic to some of the more "authentic" alternatives. These preferences of mine are based on a disinclination to experience pain--based, in sum, on fear. It need not be an irrational fear. But I wonder if we are not close here to the root of the problem. It is a short step, perhaps, from rational fear to irrational aversion, and from this to mere laziness (a disinclination to effort is also an aversion to pain).

I don't think that we can either correct this, or even really correctly analyze it, via a kind of utilitarian calculus of pleasure and pain or cost/benefit analysis. But my guess is that there is something here that is pertinent, not primarily about pain and pleasure but about fear and whatever one will oppose to it; courage, or interestedness, or love.


  1. Wow, what a beautifully written commentary. I'm honored--thx.

    Yes, the dissertation helps to contextualize these questions better (the E.M. Forster is wrapped up with a discussion of D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, which I think does a better job of addressing concerns over amputated feeling, surrogates for fleshly connection, and lost experiences of alterity).

    To clarify: although I believe that the question of *authenticity* is simply not useful in this context, you're right that there are still crucial distinctions to be made based on modes of mediation we engage with. Specifically, I see both *phenomenological* and *ethical* concerns appearing that make certain modes of interaction with the landscape more (or less) ecologically promising.

    I'm writing on the film AVATAR right now and discussing how there is a huge (moral and phenomenological) difference between the two main technological prostheses represented in the film. On the one hand, you have Jake's fleshly avatar that allows him to actually FEEL the landscape around him; on the other, you have Col. Quaritch's AMP exoskeleton, which is a twelve-foot high mass of metal that can't feel anything that it encounters as it tramples the landscape and chews through the wildlife and natives with its action-at-a-distance weaponry. It is thus an AMP that (in McLuhan's lexicon) not only amplifies, but amputates. But I don't think the exoskeleton is any less "authentic" because I'm with NK Hayles on considering the notion of the "original body" unhelpful--if anything the body is at best only the "original prosthesis." But again, ecologically, our choice of interface will nonetheless matter hugely because different relationships emerge (or vanish) based on different modes of mediation.

  2. A response to your point about ersatz connection and the planetarium--and I love planetariums, esp. as one who stared astonished at the old machinic star projectors as a child and as one who went on delightedly to work at a planetarium.

    I think planetariums work a lot like zoos do, and like the film AVATAR does. Despite their ersatz quality, such virtualized modes of connection still create the possibilities for cultivating passion and compassion. I can't abide zoos now but I loved them as a child and I know that they can help children learn to love and care for animals. We've generated so much of our own light that we can't even SEE the stars without virtuality showing them to us. I like what Richard Dawkins says here: to cultivate a sense of wonder we must shrug off the "anaesthetic of familiarity." Virtualized modes of connection let us see what we couldn't see otherwise. Sure, lots of it is effectively nature channel ecoporn, but esp. for children it helps cultivate a sense of connection, fictively rooted or no.

    Such halting representations might all be kind of like the role of beautiful bodies in Plato's Symposium: they help as way stations for bringing you (in his estimation) to Beauty itself.

    Which might sound like a complete backpedaling from my point in the essay about mediations being inevitable. No, I don't think we can ever attain full presence or complete communication or anything like that. BUT unless we PLAY at such things via ersatz connection, we won't necessarily be equipped to do them when there are other (Other) parties involved with whom actual *relationships* are possible.

    Yes, the seduction is to remain content with the image over the real (this "real" becoming under inspection becomes just another representation!) But developmental levels matter here. There might be no room for reciprocity or felt otherness in "mediated nature" via ersatz connections of TV and planetarium, but these might be useful fictions along the way that instill wonder and encourage one to love such creatures and wild places. (It's too much to ask that every mediation lead to a reciprocally felt encounter, though--sometimes profound indifference, like that of the stars, IS our answer.)

    What do you think?

  3. And yes, I think the criterion "possibility for pain," as you point out, is essential to connections being more-than-ersatz. It's also crucial to basic ecological awareness (again, as we see in Avatar with the Na'vi's neural interfaces). More on this in future, I hope.

  4. Let me throw my hat in here. I've just read a short story about an imagining, an essay about that short story, and now commentary on the essay all through my monitor. I'm feeling a little mediated right now.

    To me the difference between a "mediated" and an "authentic" experience is whether or not you can write a Haiku about it. I actually have written a Haiku once about an IM conversation but I won't bore you with it here. In general it has to be something surprising, a real-ization that catches you off guard. If you go to the mountains expecting to have a special experience you may be disappointed by how ordinary they are. At the same time I've been blown away by art of all sorts and art by definition is mediated in many ways. I guess it boils down to a sense of wonder which unfortunantly never abides. We would all like to bottle it up so we could have it on demand at any time but it always seems to slip through our fingers. The much lower bandwidth we get through an electronically mediated experience probably makes it more difficult for something "special" to happen. That is once we get over the awesomeness of electronically mediated experience itself.

  5. to di0genes, I'd say that the haiku litmus-test strikes me as a very good index; I like how it opens the question of the relation between philosophy & poetry. The reference to surprise & to "something special" happening is exactly to the point. No, one cannot bottle wonder. I think one can only cultivate an *openness* to such experiences, & to this end there are specific techniques that the great spiritual traditions have tried to safeguard hand on. Like all human things, these traditions are faulty transmitting devices & the practices easily become moribund. But as you note, the electronically mediated experiences have a low bandwidth that works against such things. The difficulty is (I think) that such media also shape -- & lower-- our expectations. My worry is that after a lifetime of TV, the real world becomes actually too 'harsh'-- or, on the other hand, too bland. It's as if our neurotransmitters are unable to lock on to any of the keys the real world offers.

  6. to Alf,

    When I consider here the desire to avoid discomfort, I'm reminded of recent exchanges on this blog (& in some email) about nihilism & tradition. The cliche about technology is that it makes us 'soft'--unable to do what our ancestors did, unable work, even to bear even marginal discomfort. "Decadent" is the Nietzschean accusation-- a label I imagine was in Forster's mind-- & the other Nietzschean connotation is of course that pain is somehow construed as an objection to existence. This is specifically related by N. to his critique of Christianity. One thing I think you don't treat much in your essay, Alf, is Forster's suggestion that the Machine is the object of *religious* adoration. This is something that Lanier is quite explicitly out to rebuff, because he sees an irrational devotion to the expected upcoming Singularity (the "cybernetic totalist version of the rapture") when we will all upload our consciousness & live for ever. One does not need to go all the way with Kurzweil (who seems to expect the Singularity any day now) or with Deutsch or Tippler (who take a much longer view but both of whom expect VR to be the eventual end of the world), to fall prey to a kind of techno-soteriology. But the issue is far subtler than expecting to have a nano-version of oneself preserved from the Big Crunch. I think it's bound up with the nexus of technology & convenience. I'm often struck by the story of Kierkegaard realizing that his vocation might be to run against the current of his day & endeavor to make things more *difficult*.

    I very much like in your essay the fact that it points to a convergence between these 'worldview' questions & very specific issues of ecology & ethics. The matter is not academic. I speculate that the growing (increasing?) dependence on media, & media-w/o-feedback, is a symptom of the ongoing cycle of aversion to suffering. What is fascinating to me is the way that this issue of media, feedback, & relationship pitches us headlong into the oldest theological question in the world: the problem of evil.

    In CS Lewis' little book 'The Great Divorce', souls in purgatory make a journey into the heartland of Heaven; many of them find they can't stand the effort, because every step hurts. As mere shades, they can't bear the impact of the *reality* of Heaven-- even the grass pierces their feet. It is only with progress in that they become 'real' enough to match the reality they are encountering. The grave danger-- & I do think it is a real danger, & a spiritual one-- is that in our fixation upon virtual worlds of our own making (I am not speaking only of computers, or even of modern media), we actually make ourselves into phantoms-- the 'strange loops' of ourselves get smaller & smaller.

    I concur that a zoo or planetarium can be a good set of training wheels-- so too can the Discover channel. & I am very, very grateful to be able to read your words here on the screen. But it matters very much that they are words coming from real people, about real questions.

    My two comments should be read together-- they are only split up bec. of the #-of-characters-limit.

  7. Wow, beautiful notion of Haiku as an index of the real. I like that. Thanks dy0genes!

    Thanks, too Skholiast--you are spot-on I think re: constricting loops of smallness in our attempted escape from suffering. The Great Divorce is my ur-text in thinking about exactly these questions (think how "virtual" the grey city is in that book!). I see Avatar (or specifically, Pandora) very much in the light of The Great Divorce, too--Jake has to "grow calluses" (and then some) to inhabit the wild landscape of the real. And look how feeble the humans look when cradled by the Na'vi! Really beautiful I think.

    Re: suffering and technology, have you seen the Hedonistic Imperative? http://www.hedweb.com