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Amor Technologiae. Marshall McLuhan as Philosopher of Technology - Steps Toward a Philosophy of Human-Media Relationships

Thursday, 26 April, 2012 - 15:00
Campus: Brussels Humanities, Sciences & Engineering campus
Faculty: Arts and Philosophy
Yoni Van Den Eede
phd defence

This work’s aim is twofold: first, to analyze the use of media and technologies
from the perspective of not just our relation to but our “loving” relationship
with them – a “bond” that affects all areas of contemporary life – and second,
to make in the process a substantial attempt at reformulating the ideas of
media theorist Marshall McLuhan in the context of a systematic “philosophy
of media.” We do this, practically, by synthesizing his approach with that of
contemporary philosophers of technology, hence constituting a crucial overall
link, largely missing up to this point, between the disciplines of Media
Ecology and contemporary philosophy of technology (PhilTech). Both
traditions have in their own way sought to mitigate the all-too strict
dichotomy between technophilia and technophobia; but this tension persists
in theory as well as in cultural practice, and the general disregard for what is
to be seen as the fundamental ambivalence of technology may basically root
in the neglect of the relationship-like character of our involvement with media
and technologies. In order to break the pattern, we propose to (re)frame the
issue in terms of a bond that goes beyond mere matters of for instance
efficiency or ideology, and instead incorporates all of these.

Methodologically, we proceed by deploying a few central heuristics
that serve as various perspectives through which we seek to get that bond in
view. First, we introduce the notion of the relationship triad. Our interaction
with media and technologies can be said to take place, at base level, along
three components: a lover, a love, and a beloved object. These correspond
with the general philosophical outlooks that we characterize as philosophical
anthropology, relational ontology, and substantivist ontology, respectively.
Second, we elaborate the concepts of technological blindness and
technological ambivalence. In all of our dealings with technology, something
eludes us, our perception, and our understanding – and that something is
exactly the potential but basal defectedness that grounds all technological
endeavors. Yet, third, both these phenomena, as we find through our
investigation of them, appear to come about on two different and even
mutually exclusive planes: the “structural” and the “historical” level. These
are to be perceived not so much as depictions of some reality or situation, but
as representations of “attitudes” – ways of looking. At the “structural” or
abstract or singular level, only one relationship is considered, statically frozen
in time. The “historical” or concrete or multiple level, conversely, integrates
many relationships making, in and through their multiplicity, for change
through time and space.

By way of the deployment of these interlocking heuristic principles,
that we introduce in Part 0, we then engage into several comparative analyses
that link up McLuhan’s framework to diverse approaches within PhilTech.
Using the technique of superposition, we separately but combinedly
investigate the “lover,” “love,” and “beloved” components of the relationship
triad (Chapters 6 and 10, 7 and 11, 8 and 12, respectively) at the two levels
(Parts I and II, respectively). “Structurally,” the lover must be seen as that
what makes ‘extensions’ of itself, in McLuhan’s sense. “The human,” through
media and technologies, seeks to compensate for its defects, heighten its
powers. Yet “historically,” this singular lover becomes engrossed in multiplex
constellations, and here extension takes the form of power imbalances veiled
in the technical forms that technologies take, i.e., as ideology materialized.
This we demonstrate by way of the work of Andrew Feenberg. The love, in
turn, at the “structural” level manifests itself first and foremost as relation or
mediation. This relation can be identified with the subliminal and possibly
harmful effects instigated by media and media environments – an idea we
drive home by way of an analysis of McLuhan’s ‘the medium is the message’
aphorism and several related key ideas in (post)phenomenology. On the
“historical” plane, this mediation takes the shape of what we call “mediationof-
mediation,” the countless (global) setups of relational balances making for
historical epochs and watersheds as we commonly know them; here
McLuhan’s ‘hot’ and ‘cool’ notions are scrutinized. The beloved object, then,
“structurally” eludes us “by nature,” as we attempt to show by way of the
work and McLuhan interpretation of Graham Harman. An imperceptible
substantive ‘core’ works its way across a ‘void’; each medium – as object –
holds something back behind and beneath its relations, something that makes
for unpredictable change. And so “historically,” the multiple elusive
substances get together to make for media dynamics, evolutionary in
character – as demonstrated by way of, among others, Paul Levinson – that
should therefore be fully included in what we term to be politics, as McLuhan
implicitly, and Bruno Latour explicitly propose.

Eventually, throughout these travails, notwithstanding the fact that we
start out from relatively common sense concepts of “media” and
“technologies,” we discover that media in fact potentially encompass all
entities, material as well as immaterial, real as well as imaginary. We so
identify the real scope of the relationship triad: “structurally” it describes a
pan-medial ontology (Chapter 9), “historically” it points at a pan-medial
cosmology (Chapter 13). All things – with the proviso of our very own
situatedness, a stance which we call “subversive anthropocentrism” – are
what we dub medial nodes that may be seen to exist, interact, and clash on both
planes. In “everyday life,” then, these clashes take the shape of an existential,
practical task posed to us, more precisely of balancing the two levels – of
stasis and change – and of mitigating the tensions possibly arising between
them. Through Part III, at last, we inquire into how this can be done, once
more keeping to the three-component subdivision (Chapters 14, 15, 16). We
find here that lately, mostly due to a phenomenon that McLuhan calls ‘speedup,’
there may have emerged a tendency to overly emphasize the “structural”
and even negate the “historical.” We make a plea, by way of ideas in
McLuhan, Richard Rorty, and Gregory Bateson, for a self-reflexive
conversationalist way of doing, based on the awareness of a “grounding”
defect and blindness, that seeks to creatively juggle the respective forces and
effects in and at the aforesaid components and levels (Chapter 17).

In sum: our “Amor Technologiae” thus turns out to be a
comprehensive state characterizing our human condition as such; media and
technologies, in the proposed broad sense, appear as multifaceted,
unpredictable building blocks of all our dealings with the world; and
McLuhan, finally, lays the groundwork for a full-blown philosophy in general
and a philosophy of human-technology relationships in particular.