Monday, October 10, 2011

On media as milieu

In medias res
How to begin? A meaningless question... You have already begun. You have always already begun, and not even by yourself. Thinking begins in medias res, in the midst of an existence that has been going on for a long time and that apparently provides food for thought. During the course of things one comes to self-awareness. Like a sleepwalker wakes up during his walk as he bumps up against something. Or worse...

“During the course of things one comes to self-awareness.” Can I put it in even more impersonal terms? Whereas the consequence is precisely that thinking is always personal, or more accurately formulated: tied to the concrete situation of a person's position in the world, in life. Thinking emerges from that personal situation and expresses it. In Marxist terms: thinking is an expression of a concrete interest – where “interest” has two related meanings. Firstly the obvious sense of importance, of having an interest in someone or something. Second, the literal meaning of being in-between (Latin: “inter” = between, “esse” is being). The situatedness of the thinking subject is his being in-between, his position among things, among people, surrounded by society, embedded in matter. In that sense thinking is an expression of a milieu – literally, a place in the middle (French: “mi” = middle, “lieu” = place), a place surrounded by everything.

Chiasm #1: Language in man, man in language
The milieu in which man moves – is this not first and foremost: language? Man is distinguished from the (other) animals through – among other things – his use of self-made instruments and media: weapons, fire, technology, clothing, housing, music, drugs... Thus man mediates his relationship to nature and his own development as a human being. Man is homo mediator, the media wielding primate. Of these instruments, however, the most important one – the most human instrument – is no doubt language. Social organization – and the cooperation to which man owes his productivity (Marx) – would be impossible without language. In this sense, language is the primary means of social production. And this social organization forms man in the capillaries of his consciousness. Man becomes self-aware through his relation to other people: as they look at him, so he learns to look at himself. Self-awareness is an internalization of social relationships (G.H. Mead, Hegel). In that sense, language as the medium of social organization is also the medium of self-awareness. Man hears his own voice. By speaking to others, man discovers his own thoughts and learns how to control them, how to think consciously. Thinking develops through language from thinking aloud to “silent inner speech” (Vygotsky). The grammatical structure of language forms the categorical structures of consciousness. We ‘see’ the world through the ‘spectacles’ of language (Sapir-Whorf hypothesis). Language opens up the world to us. What Chomsky has called the “generativity of language” plays a major role here: language enables us to create an infinite number of words and phrases from a finite number of elements (most obviously: the alphabet) – a potential infinity thanks to which our experience of the world is basically unlimited. Thanks to language, man is not tied to an Umwelt – as each animal is adapted to a particular Umwelt (environment) – but he is weltoffen, open to a world with indefinite horizons (Heidegger).

Language is our element, we move in language as fish in water, birds in the air or moles in the earth. This is a paradoxical relationship: we are in language, yet at the same time language is within us and between us. Language is our means, we have it and produce it by speaking and writing. In this sense, language is our expression, our externalization, our reflection. As a medium of communication (Latin: “medium” = middle) language exists only between us, in our interaction. At the same time, that medium is our milieu, the element in which we live. The relationship between man and language is therefore a relation of mutual implication: humans in language, language in humans. This chiasm is perhaps strange and paradoxical, yet it gives an extra dimension of meaning to the term “milieu”. The milieu of language is not just a ‘middle place’ in the sense that we live in the middle of it, but also in the sense that language is our medium and as such lives only as the middle between us. The fact that language is our milieu then means something like: we are right in the middle of the middle that connects us.

Chiasm #2: Medium as milieu, milieu as medium
Of course, language is not
our only medium. We relate to others by means of numerous media, from the light that allows us to see and be seen to the clothes through which we express our public personalities, from the music that synchronizes dancers to money as a medium of exchange between individuals... In this respect, the postmodern, mediatized network society is nothing new. Digial media are merely the high-tech continuation of the typically human, mediated relation to the other. As embodied, sensory beings, we need to rely on material means in our dealings with others. This contact is never direct, never im-mediate: there is no telepathy. The communication of ‘spiritual’ contents (meanings, intentions) is always materially mediated. The only direct contact possible for us is exactly the contact with the material means or medium through which we reach for something or someone else. The contact with the medium itself cannot be mediated, at the risk of an infinite regression of media (which would make mediated contact with something else entirely impossible). Marx formulates this insight with respect to the technical means of production as follows: “The object of which the laborer takes immediate control [during the proces if production, PS] is not the worked upon object [Arbeitsgegenstand], but the means of production [Arbeitsmittel].”[1] In this sense we can speak of the immediacy of technology to humans.  

   The immediacy of technology à la Merleau-Ponty

But this unmediated contact’ with the medium makes it clear that an immediate contact is strictly speaking impossible. For in the unmediatedcontact’ with the medium, the medium itself is not the goal of the contact, i.e. the theme of the contact-seeking attention: this intended theme is the other to be reached through the medium. The medium itself is indeed immediately ‘given’ but it is also unthematically ‘given’ to the subject using the medium. The immediate contact with the medium remains unconscious. Conscious contact, however, is always materially mediated. Once the subject becomes aware of his contact with the medium, it no longer functions as a medium but as an object of conscious attention an object in turn given to consciousness through another medium. A blind man, for example, uses his cane to feel the environment,  and in that sense the canequa medium – is an extension of his feeling hand and arm, like an antenna, with which he has an immediate but unthematic contact. As soon as the blind man becomes aware of his cane, however, at that moment the immediate contact with it stops and his hand becomes the new medium through which he feels the cane. In turn, the hand stops being the sensitive medium as soon as the blind man tries to feel it with his other hand: the first hand becomes an object, the second hand becomes the feeling medium through which that object is given.[2] In this way one’s conscious contact with one's surroundings even with one’s own objectified body is always mediated by a more primary environment, an unthematically givenimmediate milieu” so to speak, namely the material medium through which we perceive and interact with others. In the first place that immediate environment that mediating milieu is the ek-static body, the unobjectified body that stands out toward the world (Greek: “ek” = out, “stasis” = stand). Our focus on the world – or rather on the other in the world always starts from the looking, feeling, tasting, smelling and hearing body. “Consciousness is”, as Merleau-Ponty writes, “being toward the thing through the intermediary of the body.”[3] As Merleau-Ponty has shown with abundant detail, that focus on the world through the body always involves a hiddenness, a retreat, a recess of the body”[4] in unconscious immediacy. The body as the primary medium is never object of conscious attention. As such the ek-static body underlies all the other media we use. Obviously, we use external media always through our bodies: we press our ear to the mobile phone, we move the mouse with our hand, we focus our eyes on the screen. In this sense we can say with McLuhan that media are extensions of our bodies, like the cane of the blind man is an extension of his hand scanning the environment.[5] This partly in the superficial sense that we greatly extend the reach of our bodies by using media: microscopes allow us to see the very small and near, telescopes allow us to see the very large and distant, cranes allow us to lift enormous weights, computers allow us to extend our memory and computing power...


Digital flesh: The Borg Queen from the Star Trek movie First Contact

But media are also extensions of our body in the more interesting sense that the unthematic immediacy of the ek-static body is passed on to the external media we use. The external media share in the unconsciousness of the medial body. The cane, with which the blind man scans his environment, is not itself thematically given but merges’ with the scanning hand. The mobile phone ‘merges’ with the ear through which we hear the other. The mouse merges’ with the hand with which we navigate the computer screen. Even the light, when we see objects, is an extension of the eye: as the medium of visibility, the light shares in the unthematic immediacy of the eye itself the light that makes everything visible, remains itself invisible and is dark’ so to speak. In this way we can understand Marx’s claim that the entire world as man’s means of living [Lebensmittel] is his inorganic body”.[6] Merleau-Ponty speaks in this regard of “the flesh of the world”, where “flesh” is synonymous with the unthematic immediacy of the ek-static body. In that sense, all the media through which we relate to an other – including light as the medium of visibility – are part of this flesh: the light is luminous flesh, the crane is mechanical flesh, the computer and the mobile phone and the iPad and such are digtal flesh… This ‘mediating flesh’ – the ‘meat of the medium’ – constitutes our immediate environment, our milieu. One could even argue that this is the correct definition of “milieu” as such, namely to be our mediating flesh. A milieu, after all, is an environment in which one is immersed, it surrounds and embeds. And the primary surrounding is the immediate environment, i.e. the flesh of the ek-static body and its mediating extensions. The milieu, then, is first and foremost the environment of media in which one is immersed. From this perspective, ​the statement above regarding language – that the medium is the milieu – can also be chiastically reversed: the milieu is essentially medium. The above formula of “mediating milieu” is therefore strictly speaking a pleonasm. The milieu is to repeat an earlier insight not just a middle position in that we live in the middle of it, but also in the sense that it is our medium and as such is the middle between us and the other. That we live in a milieu, then, means something like: we are right in the middle of the middle that connects us.

[1] Das Kapital I, MEW, p. 194.
[2] Both examples are inspired by Merleau-Ponty.
[3] Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of perception, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, p.138.
[4] Merleau-Ponty, The visible and the invisible, p.9.
[5] McLuhan (1964), Understanding media: The extensions of man, London.
[6] Ökonomisch-philosophische Manuskripte, MEW.

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