Life as an Extreme Sport

Vision Does Not Require Technology

A large part of the charm in Vannevar Bush’s paper As We May Think is reading a 60-odd year old article and identifying the technology he predicted. Polaroid and digital cameras, virtual reality glasses, the TCP/IP protocol, cochlear implants, hard drives and eBook readers are a sample of ideas that could be read and extracted out to what we have today. (For example, take this passage:

Is it not possible that we may learn to introduce them [sounds into the nerve channels of the deaf] without the present cumbersomness of first transforming electrical vibrations to mechanical ones, which the human mechanism promptly turns back to the electrical form? With a couple of electrodes on the skull…

It is an abstract of cochlear implants.)

What really struck me about Bush’s article was not so much the ability to predict technology, (science fiction has done that for years), but that it clarified something that has been floating in the back of my head for a while now: technology is always behind ideas. To really illustrate what I mean, I’m going to switch over to a brief history of the microscope and germ theory.

Glass grinding for lenses reached a crucial point of advancement in the late 17th century, and people were able to take magnifying glasses to the next level, that of microscope. And as soon as people began looking under the microscope, it became clear that smaller things existed. What were these smaller things? Animacules? Were they alive? What did they do? Were there things smaller than the flea, pet of early microscopic viewing? Some people began to speculate on this, and advanced a theory that these smaller than the naked eye animacules were really the cause of disease, instead of internal putrifaction or devils-as-punishment. But although it was possible to see some things, it wasn’t possible to see down to the level of viruses and bacteria. So although the ideas of germ theory and contagion were first proposed in the 1600s, it took another 200 years for the idea to really catch hold and be advanced.

Why 200 years? Because that’s how long it took to advance optics to the point of being able to see viruses and bacteria.

What we see in Vannevar Bush’s article is that ideas are able to be dreamt up long before the technology is actually in place to make the idea real. Much like Star Trek’s communicators laid down the path for cell phones some 40 years later, As We May Think laid the tracks for many different technologies to come. Bush was still limited in his vision by the constraints of his time (imagining that large rooms of women and punchcards would manipulate these mega-machines, for example), but much like those early micrologists who saw the first glimmer of possibility in the microscopic eye, he was able to take the limits of the time and extrapolate out to the possibility of the future.

A New Type of Work, An Old Type of Man

The socialization of the worker to the condition of capitalist production entails the social control of physical and mental power on a very broad basis. Education, training, persuasion, the mobilization of certain social sentiments… and psychological propensities… all play a role and one plainly mixed with the formation of dominant ideologies cultivated by the mass media, religious and educational institutions, and the various arms of the state…

It’s long been a criticism of our public education system that its function is primarily to create highly socialized factory drones. Following a Fordist model, children are raised to be comfortable in warehouse-like settings that accustom the child to working in factory life. Taking direction from the teacher easily translates into taking direction from a foreman, and the indoctrination of school pride (often played out via support for sports teams) can be seen as conditioning to support the company and instill habits of loyalty.

The probelm is, the structure of our public education system was set up during a very modernist period largely dominated by Fordism and scientific management. It was expected, as recently as 30 yeras ago, that you would work for a single corporation your entire life. You socialized with those you worked with, worked together, commuted together, attended church and backyard BBQs together. There was a very specific and distinctly modernist taste to life; your work and life were compartmentalized for maximum functionality. But today, the average person will change careers – not just jobs, but careers – something like seven to twelve times. Being a jack of all trades and master of none is becoming not merely a marketable job skill but the marketable job skill. Company loyalty is out the window – you look after your interests and the company looks after their own. Even IBM lays people off now*.

Our work environment and by extension our social environment has changed, but our educational system has not changed to keep up. There are certainly small attempts here and there – magnet schools, cooperative learning environments – but for the most part children are being educated in an environment that no longer prepares tehm for or even matches the postmodern working world that awaits them.

It was certainly possible to distribute and de-centralize the working world. Will it be possible to do the same to classroom environments so that children are actually being prepared for the world they’ll be lived in, and perhaps more importantantly, what will entail a postmodernist educational system?

Or, largely to humour Phillip – are we beyond consideration of a postmodernist classroom and towards a hyperreal or post-postmodern?

*I actually remember this massive lay-off; several of my parents friends were laid off, and I remember their loyalty extending well beyond working there. They had serious conviction that they would be hired back quickly, as soon as things turned around for the company. Some of them refused to look for work, they were so convinced the lay-off was temporary.

If Postmodernists Are Reacting Against Modernity, Are Fundamentalists Postmodern?

No one exactly agrees as to what is meant by the term, except, perhaps, that ‘postmodernism’ represents some kind of reaction to, or departure from, ‘modernism’.
– David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity

If modernity/modernism can be defined as a result of the Enlightenment and characterized by a seriousness of scientificism and rationality (empiricism), then literary critic Terry Eagleton’s definition of a playful and self-ironizing postmodernsim would play very nicely into the idea of postmodernism as a secular reaction to modernity, the flip side to the 1910s-1920s development of fundamentalism as the religious response to modernization. The editors of the PRECIS 6 architectural journal certainly plays into this idea of postmodernism “as a legitimate reaction to the ‘monotony’ of universal modernism’s vision of the world’ (Harvey 9). If modernism is an embodiment of the scientific revolution, “with the belief in linear progress, absolute truths, the rational planning of ideal social orders, and the standardization of knowledge and production” and postmodernism rejects this meta-narrative, could we place the fundamentalism movement (restricted primarily to Christianity for this thought-process, as it’s the one that primarily developed within the sphere of modernity) as a sister-movement to postmodernism? This “neither likes modernity” is also seen in the significant mistrust both ways of thinking have for scientific rationalism. (One actually has to wonder if the rise in postmodern thought in the 1970s and 1980s, combined with a huge upswing in fundamental Christianity is what has caused the growing lack of faith in our society, and the concurrent rise in strong belief in the Weekly World News and other such tabloid fair and bad science.)

Modernity seems to have done away with any real conception of religion/spirituality; Harvey notes on page 34 that during “the inter-war years there was something desperate about the search for a mythology that could somehow straighten society out in such troubled times.” Harvey goes on to talk about Sorel’s conception of inventing myth (first pointed out in 1908, which is interesting, as 1912ish is when you first hear about the ‘return to fundamentals’ movement); this also seems to be a corollary to what the fundamentalists did. They were searching for and inventing myths out of their literal reading of mythos; Karen Armstrong goes into beautiful detail of the concept of mythos and logos and the fracturing of the two that modernity caused in her book The Battle for God: A History of Fundamentalism.

I’m really interested in this idea of postmodernity being the secular sister of fundamentalism; it would have interesting implications, at least academically if not socially. It would also almost remove postmodernity from being postmodernity (or modernity from itself); while you can argue that Fundamentalism with a capital “F” originated at the turn of the 20th century as a reaction to modernity, there are older fundamentalist movements that are also reactionary movements that arise out of some need to protest, separate, or distinguish from the dominant culture of the day. If we can link fundamentalism and postmodernity together, could we go back to earlier eras of noted fundamentalism and find corresponding secular reactionary movements against the dominant paradigm? And if we can do that, does it play into Latour’s assertion that we have never been modern?

This is all very interesting, and bears further musings while I read the remainder of Harvey.

modernity and the war on drugs

A quick entry (although I have a backlog of topics to write on, lucky me) before I lose the thought to my fried short term memory:

One of the reasons the so-called war on drugs never achieved its goals of stopping drug use is that it was fighting a war without an opponent. This is not to say that there was no opposition, but that those dealing in the drug trade were operating on such a different level than the government, the analogy of books and pages and even libraries becomes meaningless. The government’s war on drugs is a decidedly modernist conception, a vertical column of rigid infrastructure that they expected their opposition to also adhere to. By contrast, those trading in drugs are following a more horizontal organizational style, focusing on distributed systems and cell based communications – all very postmodern. By framing their offensive on a modernist conception of reality, the government locked itself in to a method of behaviour that virtually guaranteed failure.

Architecture is the Choreography of Our Connectivity

Phillip Thurtle, (the last time you will probably see me use his last name), can take pleasure in knowing at least one person actually listened when he said “someone should write that down, that was good!” – someone did, and it was good, if obscure out of context, and has now been immortalized on the glorious internet as the title of my first “serious” post. After my original, and if I do say, quite charming, post, I’ve hit a bit of writer’s block. There is, after all, serious pressure on my part to live up to the clever wit I demonstrated. Then again, this is what has kept me from writing a few papers that are at this point well overdue – the basic fear (or knowledge, take your pick) that I can’t top something, be it myself or expectation, and so why bother.

That insecurity out of the way, let’s get started on 370. I’ve spent most of today reading the first few chapters of David Harvey’s The Condition of Postmodernity, and will have two posts following this (not immediately, but at some point) solely on that subject. This post, however, will find us backtracking to last Wednesday and the first day of class.

Phillip spent the first class introducing us to his method of teaching (energic, especially with the consumption of an energy bar prior to class), the idea of reading as an extreme sport (a-ha, you note the homage now), and an introduction to the idea of postmodernity through definition of modernity and the odd use of Jeff Koons’ porcelain, gold-gilt, life-sized sculpture of Michael Jackson and Bubbles, which resides in San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art. Phillip used this gold giver-of-nightmares to start off a discussion on modernity and postmodernity because if we think that this is a serious, stern piece of art, it’s rather scary and something of an abomination. But if we tilt our head to the side and take a step back, perhaps unfocusing our eyes a little in the process, the sculpture turns into an ironic commentary on both Michael Jackson and our culture as a whole. It goes from being a looming horror to something accessible through irony and humour, which could be a direct corrollary to how post-modernity sees itself in relation to modernity. Using a medium traditionally relegated to a grandmother’s collection of kitsch simply emphasizes the surface nature of the piece; there is no depth, nothing substantial. It’s merely a reproduction, although a reproduction of what is a valid question to ask.

The slideshow moved on to pictures by photographer Cindy Sherman, who’s probably best known for her artistic, photographic reproductions of movie stills. She accurately recreates a still scene from a movie, and then places herself in the role, pose, position of the star she’s mimicing. It’s another take on the concept of art and reproduction, and she goes from glamour-puss to pin-up to images that are truly not work safe (so clickylinky at your own risk).

Two other artists were also shown in the slideshow, and I wanted to mention (of all of them) Mark Tansey for his truly amazing art that’s stayed with me since class. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find either of the pictures shown in class, which is a pity as they were really fascinating. The one that’s been somewhat glued to my mental projection screen was one of a man walking into, being absorbed by, a blue-black wall of text; all that’s left is a bit of calf and foot. Phillip rather accurately used this image to describe what going into any class heavy on literary theory and historicism is like – you’re being eaten alive by a conversation that was started fifteen years and innumerable beers before you, and you’ve to catch up and make your contribution in a short span of weeks. It’s what 390 felt like over the summer, as a matter of fact… anyhow, it was a great image. Alas, I couldn’t find it. But I did find this, Derrida Queries De Man, which I find almost as engrossing, and quite a bit funnier.

I hadn’t meant this to turn into an art criticism and explanation post; as a matter of fact, I had wanted to talk a bit about some notes I took on nature being considered “the other,” and how by creating that other the whole of the Enlightenment can be defined. By giving a singular, umbrella name to a gloriously broad and diverse concept, Enlightenment thinkers anthropomorphized and created a foe for Man; Man was defined as against this other of Nature. Which, I think, is an interesting idea, although I would be pressed to argue that the anthropomorphization of Nature existed long before the Enlightenment; we can see it in many aboriginal religions. The difference with the Enlightenment thinkers was their desire to place Man above and in opposition to Nature; she was a force to be tamed (and I don’t believe it coincidence that Nature is portrayed as a she). But, and partly related to this last sidenote, I think it important to remember that the Enlightenment thinkers were attempting to step out of and move past the shadow of religion, and religion very much held that man dominated nature. I think it was less so in so-called premodern times, especially compared to the fundamentalist sects of today, but the idea existed. The Enlightenment thinkers, those who existed in the era we begin defining as modern (largely by their works), were looking for a way to justify their position in the “natural order” without relying on theology to do so. There was no reason to discard the concept of man being separate from nature as a controlling factor in religion, merely to remove religion from holding the reigns of control. So while Man might be a concept formed against Nature, I do not believe Nature was a concept formed against Man.