Future, Present, & Past:
Speculative~~ 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.
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?
Well, 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.