03 June 2021

[sc]airquotes (viii)—The Determinist Connexion

"The new media and technologies by which we amplify and extend ourselves constitute huge collective surgery carried out on the social body with complete disregard for antiseptics. If the operations are needed, the inevitability of infecting the whole system during the operation has to be considered. For in operating on society with a new technology, it is not the incised area that is most affected. The area of impact and incision is numb. It is the entire system that is changed. The effect of radio is visual, the effect of the photo is auditory. Each new impact shifts the ratios among all the senses. What we seek today is either a means of controlling these shifts in the sense-ratios of the psychic and social outlook, or a means of avoiding them altogether. To have a disease without its symptoms is to be immune. No society has ever known enough about its actions to have developed immunity to its new extensions or technologies. Today we have begun to sense that art may be able to provide such immunity."
(McLuhan, Understanding Media, 64)
To have a disease without its symptoms is to be immune.

Sounds like a pretty good epigram for my blog, ca. 2021.

Does anyone else find it funny that in a mere coupla pages we have gone from
starting with the effect and then inventing a poem, painting, or building that would have just that effect and no other
all the way to
No society has ever known enough about its actions to have developed immunity to its new extensions or technologies
?

Is this not to obliquely concede that those nineteenth-century conceptualists evinced a rather spectacular
epistemic arrogance
in their disregard for the
limitations that prevent us from unfrying an egg
?

Is it not pretty f*ing weird to propose that
art may be able to provide such immunity
by
controlling these shifts in the sense-ratios
if the artist cannot even control the
effect

of a work of art on any particular recipient

?

It's not a totally crazy idea, actually, but it is extremely blunt, majoritarian, and intolerant.

Absolute control over the reception of a work might be labelled a problem of organized complexity whereas the sense-ratio issue, being a bird's eye view concern and hence less-than-absolute in conceit, can be reduced to a problem of disorganized complexity. I'm borrowing from Jane Jacobs here, who borrowed thusly from Dr. Warren Weaver:

"The classical dynamics of the nineteenth century was well suited for analyzing and predicting the motion of a single ivory ball as it moves about on a billiard table . . . One can, but with a surprising increase in difficulty, analyze the motion of two or even three balls . . . But as soon as one tries to analyze the motion of ten or fifteen balls on the table at once, as in pool, the problem becomes unmanageable, not because there is any theoretical difficulty, but just because the actual labor of dealing in specific detail with so many variables turns out to be impractical.

"Imagine, however, a large billiard table with millions of balls flying about on its surface . . . The great surprise is that the problem now becomes easier: the methods of statistical mechanics are now applicable. One cannot trace the detailed history of one special ball, to be sure; but there can be answered with useful precision such important questions as: On the average how many balls per second hit a given stretch of rail? On the average how far does a ball move before it is hit by some other ball? . . .

" . . . The word 'disorganized' [applies] to the large billiard table with the many balls . . . because the balls are distributed, in their positions and motions, in a helter-skelter way . . . but in spite of this helter-skelter or unknown behavior of all the individual variables, the system as a whole posesses certain orderly and analyzable average properties."

(The Death and Life of
Great American Cities, 430-431)

certain orderly and analyzable average properties


So what are the orderly and analyzable average properties of a minimally-regulated marketplace of rational first-world art consumers?

What are the orderly and analyzable average properties of Southern California day laborers vis-a-vis instrumental music consisting entirely of dissonant counterpoint?

What are the orderly and analyzable average properties of holders of graduate jazz performance degrees while playing from an unmetered performance score with a high degree of independence among the parts, and how does this first set of orderly and analyzable average properties compare with those of the same cohort when playing from The Real Book (Fifth Edition, in C)?

As matters of disorganized complexity these questions are child's play. In each case many of us have a pretty solid depth and breadth of experience from which to make strong inferences vis-a-vis the system as a whole, be that the marketplace system, the day laborer system, or the graduate jazz accreditation system.

But

as soon as one tries to analyze the motion of ten or fifteen people within a marketplace, an audience, or (this is the real pisser) a band, then things get rather dicey.

I want to suggest that the limits of McLuhan's "determinism" as a policy or platform are shown up by this exercise. As a matter of system-level intervention it may be possible to achieve some degree of foresight, some "orchestration" of media which optimizes some system-level trait. But this has political implications for any special balls who don't fit the analyzable average. (Listen to me getting all intersectional and libertarian at the same time.) These units may well be driven batty by the orchestration which cools off the more strictly average among their cohort. "Technological determinism" (if that's what it is) either assumes uniformity in the population or it pleads ignorance of diversity. McLuhan fruitfully identifies some new problems, but there is a very old problem here too.

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