Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Echo & Narcissus Redux - Time to Get Serious (Part I)

Having extended or translated our central nervous system into the electromagnetic technology , it is but a further stage to transfer our consciousness to the computer world as well. Then, at least, we shall be able to program consciousness in such wise that it cannot be numbed nor distracted by the Narcissus illusions of the entertainment world that beset mankind when he encounters himself extended in his own gimmickry.
(Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan 1964)
Everyone more or less knows the story of Narcissus - he was that legendary Greek nancy boy who fell in love with his own reflection. The infatuation was inflicted on him by the gods as a punishment for his egotistical ways.

Echo was a nymph who had the misfortune to fall in love with Narcissus, after she too had been visited with a spot of divine punishment. Infuriated either by Echo's insistence on always having the last word, or by her habit of completing other's sentences for them (the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive) Hera removed her voice, with the exception that she could only speak the last words of someone who had spoken before her.

In The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962), McLuhan declares:
Until now a culture has been a mechanical fate for societies, the automatic interiorization of their own technologies.
Implicit in that "until now" is the belief, or hope, that in 1962 things might be arranged differently - that it might be possible to resist, or forestall the automatic interiorisation of the new media technologies that created McLuhan's "global village". Though the phrase has acquired warm fuzzy tree-hugging hippy connotations thanks to chronic misuse and misunderstanding, McLuhan didn't necessarily endorse its emergence. He merely described it. It's unlikely that he would have written either of the two passages I quoted if he wholeheartedly approved of the global village or the way consciousness would develop if we remained numbed and distracted by the Narcissus illusions of the entertainment world that beset us when we encounter ourselves extended in our own gimmickry. That form of progress leads ultimately to tribalism.

Here's take it or leave it proposition from me: the village, as we think of it, occupies an uneasy middle position between tribal society and, let us say, the civitas. Athens, in the time of Socrates was a civitas; in Homeric times it was something else. At its peak, the nation state is a civitas; in decline it relapses into feudal thuggery or something worse. Along both the upward path, and the downward path, you'll find the village - neither fully tribal nor fully civil (assuming either of these two extremes are attainable).

Over the past couple of weeks, while I've been reading McLuhan, I've found myself a little detached from this interwebs thing, much less of a participant in the ideological fun and much more of an observer. What I've often seen, and occasionally illustrated, is the playing out of global village scandals, such as the recent furore over Josef Fritzl and his long term imprisonment and repeated rape of his daughter Elisabeth.

I'm sure that there are plenty of people outside the wholly wired world - where the Fritzl scandal is playing out - who have never heard of Josef and Elisabeth Fritzl, and are neither the better nor the worse for it. Their personal welfare and their stature within their communities is left unaffected by it. Inside the wholly wired world - in the dream world of them Telstra Big Pond homes - things are different. The story of Josef and Elisabeth Fritzl is news and news demands a response. In fact, it demands several responses.

The first response, dictated by the sensational nature of the story, is a public emotional one. The ambit of that response is limited by common decency which prescribes empathic sorrow and pity for Elisabeth Fritzl, outrage on her behalf and disgust at the monstrosity of Josef Fritzl's actions. As a global villager you may be as extroverted as you wish in expressing these emotions - indeed you must be as extroverted as you can since common decency is all that the village retains of extroverted, empathic tribal life. While your material welfare is clearly unaffected by the events in Austria, you might lose standing within your community (at home, at the office, in your personal sector of the WWW) if your emotional responses are found deficient - indecent.

It's worth noting, at this point, that you're not under any social obligation to respond to this story, a brief item that appeared on page 13 of The Age on Wednesday April 30th, next to half a page on the "Solid Austrian burgher [who] led a double life", including photos and graphics depiciting the inside of "the house of horror":

Child Abuse Arrest

LONDON. Police have arrested a 68-year-old man as part of an investigation of allegations of abuse at a former children's home on the English Channel island of Jersey.

The man was answering questions about a number of rapes and indecent assaults, according to Jersey police investigating alleged abuse over decades at the Haut la Gaurenne site.

About 100 former residents have alleged physical and sexual abuse over three decades from the 1960s. (hat tip to Zeppo Bakunin)

Below the Fritzl article, and the "In Brief" column beside it - where the Jersey report appears - there's a half-page advertisement for the Commonwealth Bank, which declares "Our Personal Relationship Banking Specialists in Melbourne are here to help" - a reminder that the real business of The Age, like any newspaper, is attention broking; that what gives the Fritzl story value as news is, in part, it's capacity to draw your attention to a half-page advertisement promoting the services of a bank. Should more details of the Jersey case become available, it might be promoted from filler and supplant the Fritzl story in the role of attention grabber for paid advertising space. (The ad's placement, by the way, is by no means bizarre - the bottom of the page is the first place your eyes would turn if your repugnance for the Fritzl story turned you off reading the latest instalment.)

Part 2 later this week, or early next week. Right now I'm feeling a bit shagged out with this topic.

No comments: