Saturday, October 08, 2011

Dude, You Can See, Like, Everything!

". . . the Brain, in its natural position and State of Serenity, disposeth its Owner to pass his Life in the common Forms, without any Thought of subduing Multitudes to his own Power, his Reasons, or his Visions. . . . " -- Jonathan Swift, A Tale of a Tub
I make no secret of the fact that I am working on a time machine solely for the purpose of going back in time to shoot the inventor of the cell phone. Mr. Motorola and his wife, Nokia, are in my sights, in the past. The dim glow neighbors see coming from my bedroom at night must be understood to be such lucubrations.  The main hindrance to my plan is not any dictate from Dr. Einstein, as, like all creative types, I do not respect his right to make a rule binding on the future, especially now that he has been shown to be a party pooper, but rather the difficulty of finding the moment of creation for the infernal machine. Therefore, I have a fall back position. I will go back to kill, or have the dewclaw removed from, the inventor of SIP.

I have many reasons for this work, but there is a a mission to it. This is a vendetta. All teachers feel the hatred, I know, and college teachers feel the special rage, when the cell phone appears. All those little thumbs diddling themselves to bliss as an alternative to education or responding to the class are infuriating. We liked it better when they whispered to each other all class. Now, they still do, but with their thumbs, and they're whispering to whomever, wherever. That would be enough, but it is not what has given my madness genius.

I have recently acquired "Mcluhan's Wake," and I give it a 5 star review. Phillistines above all others should watch it, but every conscious or semi-conscious being should watch it. The philosopher's books are very, very dense, and this movie makes his thought comprehensible to any audience. McLuhan predicted that there would be a transformation/recreation in media, whereby there would be the recreation (in a transformed way) of the village as we lose our village. Because technology is unexamined, we are destroyed by it. This is the "global village" that McLuhan coined (one of the few things people can quote of his). He was not really predicting, there. He was describing. He was saying that we have already externalized our nervous system (perceptions) in external eyes and ears with television and radio, and that means that someone else now owns parts of the ego. His prediction was the global theater.

Welcome to that, but also to what, in a way, McLuhan never saw.

After McLuhan's books, some people grabbed hold of Walter Ong's Orality and Literacy and combined it with him to make observations about the process of the invention of the subjective self. These critics and scholars tended to follow McLuhan in locating it in the Elizabethan age, too, even though that locus is pretty arbitrary. What fewer scholars have followed is that next, tragic element of McLuhan's analysis -- mainly because no one wants to be caught dead speaking future tense in a scholarly article (and the dead rarely speak of the future), the transformation to global theater.

Yeah, it's a photo. I took it.

My students report to me, quite frequently, that they "never go on the Internet." Instead, they "just go to Facebook." Similarly, many will tell me that they do not use web browsers or any of that. They have no opinion on those matters, because they only chat and "Facebook" (v.) -- and neither one involves the Internet. At the same time, they are increasingly finding reading five pages from the textbook "too long." While it's true that students in 1989 complained about any reading, too, they tended, back then, to simply complain at the outrage that freshman English required any of their time, where today students are complaining that five pages are wearying.

Their complaints are false to some degree, incidentally. The same length, more or less (which is to say, very, very short), is tolerable for them if there are pictures. The textbooks they have grown up with have as many photo inset boxes, illustrations, and break-ins as commas. 

They expect a literature book to come with an audio CD, a Chemistry book to have a DVD-ROM. They are not on the Internet. Take each of these incidents of "misprision" at face value and look at them analytically rather than satirically.

Students, if not "people today," have gone that next mile toward a visual addiction. A long time ago, people were weeping that "kids today" would soon speak a purely pictographic language (heard that in 1988). A full generation later, and that prediction has not come true. Instead, what we see is a pictography rather than a visual language. I would argue that the cell phone is emblematic of why the visual reliance of people today, and young people in particular, is not pictographic, but insensible.

[They say my essays are hard to understand because of the digressions. I say that that's part of the subject under discussion in this essay.]

When I was living in the Bronx, the god of wealth, Pluto, sent out a new plague as a way of marking the flesh and scarring the soul of the poor. We had the appearance of "push to talk" phones. These are a way of turning one's cell phone into a very nasty walkie-talkie. Most importantly, they sound out each transmission with a loud beep. In a dense urban mass, the purpose and evil of this "feature" was quite clear.

First, poor people were monitored by their bosses.
BEEP-Salvatore! You need to go down to Queens after you're done to see about another job.-BEEP! 
No one ever saw the crowd at Lincoln Center BEEPing at their families, and no one heard Bloomberg BEEPing his way toward elected office. Second, it took the natural horrors hidden in the clam shell of the cell phone and amplified them among those fell in love with the tool.

  • The evil of the cell phone as a cell phone is that it removes context. 
The wall of "home" falls, and the power wall, ideological locus, of "work" evaporates. The worker can be obtained any time and any place, thanks to the cell phone, but, also, the people who choose to use cell phones have no knowledge or acknowledgement of when and how they are at home or work. The push-to-talk phone thus took the old problem of people saying, aloud, in public, their halves of a private conversation ("private" being a cultural category developed after literacy and industrialism) and added the other side of the conversation and, just in case you had managed to hurry down the street without noticing, an ear-splitting BEEP! to announce each.

BEEP! [female voice] I don't know, Sheila. He says that he's out with Ray. BEEP!
[Woman standing in doorway of her apartment] Well, you tell moy so-called husband that he can shove it up his Aasss!
BEEP!I know, right? I can tell you this much, if moy husband thinks he's getting any....
At this point, your correspondent chose between only two options and, instead of rubbing his ear cartilage off on the sidewalk, ran away.

Think about it. The two women were reacting to the natural pressure of New York City, which is to erode personal space and to daily attack the concept of the private, and then were numbed by technology's novelty. The telephone assures one of a private, personal conversation, but the cell phone erases the location. The push-to-talk was simply another disguise for the cell phone, and so the two women were willing to speak of providing sexual access to their husbands and the states of their marriages to the street.

"If Jesus Christ were to come to-day, people would not even crucify him. They would ask him to dinner, and hear what he had to say, and make fun of it." -- Thomas Carlyle, Table Talk.

Carlyle is commenting on the high point of privacy, when decorum demanded dissembling in all places. Today, either Joe Wilson would scream "You lie!" or an audience member would shout "Let him die!" but the reaction would be ejaculatory.

I should go back to wipe out the cell phone for its assault on the hearth, if nothing else. However, it, along with the world wide web, demolished the sense of location and distance, including the very concept of "access" and "inaccessible." The most common personal question I have had to answer this semester has been, "Why do you buy CD's."  I'm serious. Earnest, Christian youngsters cannot understand why I buy CD's. This marks a complete switch in the debate, does it not?

The RIAA has continued its terror tactics. Cato would be pleased. However, ten years ago, students would argue with me that they were not criminals for downloading music, and now students argue with me asking me to justify why I am not a cultural criminal for not downloading music. Similarly, the talk among the young is not -- spectacularly not -- for the first time in human history not -- bare flesh.

I cannot tell you how amazing this last is.

Let's add the two together, though. Flesh is available on the Internet -- upon which the young do not know that they have been, and so they do not need to seek or visit pornographic magazines, pornographic movies, or anything like that, because friends have e-mailed them all of these. Therefore, they are still looking, but there is no challenge. In fact, there is so little challenge that there is no awareness that there could be a challenge. The same is true of music. Music simply is. Musicians similarly just are. Instead of only an eternal "now," there is an eternal "here."

What began with the destruction of location has become the destruction of all locations. The world wide web and the free market desire to make each website "your one stop on the Internet" have combined with this, and with Facebook's rape of the American youth, to lead to the vanishing of context. I do not mean the context of this or that, but context itself.

Why are kids not hot to go here or there, saying you can see her ___? Because seeing her ___ is going to be an e-mail attachment, or a flash picture. Why not concentrate on pictures and what they mean (becoming the foretold pictographic language)? Because that would mean that pictures must either mean in isolation or must combine for a semantic stream. Such streams must have a grammar. A grammar, even a pictorial one, implies rules of relationships, and the coherence of single experiences and disparity of separate experiences means that no one has the right to create a rule and no one will ask for it to be obeyed. Why do pictures make five whole, long pages easier to read? They break that difficult (really) tendency of the work to demand setting up a set of walls (past, future; expectation, memory; reference, instruction) necessary for context.

So, if you see me working on my time machine, please don't Friend it or Like it or Tumblr it. Just let me go and find some context.

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