Marshall McLuhan: CounterBlast and Baby Powder

from-mess-to-chaos

“Ontological density without identifiable form is abstract horror itself. As the Great Filter drifts inexorably, from a challenge that we might imaginably have already overcome, to an encounter we ever more fatalistically expect, horrorism is thickened by statistical-cosmological vindication. The unknown condenses into a shapeless, predatory thing. Through our techno-scientific sensors and calculations, the Shadow mutters to us, and probability insists that we shall meet it soon.”  – from  Nick Land: Phyl-Undhu: Abstract Horror, Exterminator

“We have met the enemy and he is us.”  – Pogo

“In America and Cosmic Man Wyndham Lewis saw North America as a benign rock-crusher in which all remnants of European nationalism and individualism were happily reduced to cosmic baby powder.”1 Marshall McLuhan will seek what he terms a counter-environment against the imperious Infospheric global hyperobject (Morton) which has been quite ubiquitous and invisible to most citizens of the planetary socious of capitalism. He further reminds us that as in the beginning of Pavlov’s experiments where he discovered the key to conditioning was previous conditioning, our current masters have slowly accrued vast communicative systems (ICT’s) as well as certain convergence technologies (NBIC) to condition us to our enslavement to the great profit systems of capitalism, and engulph us in the Internet of things like a great surround media-systemic world architecture.

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Global Modernity and the Eternal Return: Brains, Cryptography, and Control

A sample of Linear B script, the earliest Greek writing, 1450 BC, and an adaptation of the earlier Minoan Linear A script. This piece contains information on the distribution of bovine, pig and deer hides to shoe and saddle-makers. It is a script made up of 90 syllabic signs, ideograms and numbers, a form earlier than that used for the Homeric poems. These clay tablets were fortuitously preserved when they were baked in the Mycenaean palace of Pylos fire 250 years later.

One final crude point for now. As a fundamental cybernetic theory, accelerationism is bound to the identification of a socially central, positive feedback loop, through which modernity is propelled. – Nick Land

In conversation with a friend this morning about China and its current Industrial crisis of pollution and modernism 2.0 a few notes…

Existoon:

In this light, it’s easy to see why Land would be interested in China. There are many cybernetic positive feedbacks in play there, with lethal effects. I don’t think it’s about respect for tradition or Confucian values: more as semiotic guerrilla, with machinic Medea hypothesis as a guiding light. All life feeds on positive feedback of death, sixth extinction is inevitable, microbial alien intelligence takes over, consumes the sun. His alignment with climate change morons can be seen as similar tactics: feed those positive feedbacks, baby.

You’ve said that Land’s death is Lem’s equilibrium. Sure, but Land’s death is also creative, runaway positive feedback. I think it also makes Land a more accurate futurist. Lem’s futures have old school cybernetic notion of balance between positive and negative, so things mostly work. In our present and future, things seem to mostly collapse

My Response:

“Land’s death is Lem’s equilibrium.” You leave out Lem’s underlying systems analysis of thermodynamics and entropic systems of which the Universe is the greatest. Everything runs down in the end… as Lem would say: “A machine is thus a system that manifests some kind of regularity of behavior: statistical, probabilistic, or deterministic. From this point of view, an atom, an apple tree, a star system, or a supernatural world is a machine. Everything we construct, and that behaves in a certain way, is a machine: everything that has inner states and outer states, while the relations between sets of those states are subject to certain laws.”2 The Universe is a tinker-toy construction kit for the underlying processes of a sub-atomic system of algorithms that we barely have access too much less understand. What little we know we try to tell ourselves nice little stories about, but in truth all our fictions are open to revision and silence. Is the universe just an inhuman and endless algorithmic process of informational neglect – as my friend Scott Bakker might have it?

Lem speaks of “islets of decreasing entropy” emerging in the world of general entropic increase. That “animate nature, or the biosphere, involves both a collaboration and a mutual voraciousness; it is an alliance that is inextricably linked with struggle…” (Summa Technologiae) As he says, “entropy only functions as a measure of information when the system in which we measure it finds itself in a state of thermodynamic equilibrium. But what if this is not the case? Then everything depends on the frame of reference. But where is this frame? Another note: “Human language is an artificially created information code, constructed by biological evolution. Both have their addressees and their significance. A sign assumes the existence of information (it is part of its code), while information exists only when it has an addressee.” So what if the universe is a message, a novel written by an infinite mind addressed to its creation? What then? Should we assume there is after all a god in the darkness of the code? Isn’t this too fiction, a leap into ignorance again?

Lem speaks of the genetic code: “Thus an addressee of the lizard’s genetic information is the environment itself, together with the whole population of its species and the other organisms— which it will either devour or itself be devoured by. In other words, an individual’s biogeocenotic environment is the receiver of genetic information. It will beget other lizards in it, and in this way the circulation of genetic information as part of the evolution process will be maintained.” So is there a genetic code for stars and the organization of galaxies, dark matter, and dark energy underlying the evolution of the universe? Is the core motif here the explosion of that first singularity the unfolding of an informatics message curled up in the Big Bang? But who is the receiver or addressee: the Universe itself as environment?

Nature “arrived at” the “idea” of coupling more likely processes (an increase in entropy or disorganization) with some less likely ones (the emergence of living organisms)— an idea that has resulted in an increase in organization and a decrease in entropy— billions of years ago. In a similar way, it created levers, chemodynamic and chemoelectrical machines, and transformers of solar energy into chemical energy (skeletons of vertebrates, their cells, photosynthesizing plants); it also created pumps (hearts)— regular and osmotic ones (kidneys), “photographic” cameras (organs of sight), and so on. Within the realm of bioevolution, it did not touch nuclear energy because radiation destroys genetic information and life processes. But it “applied” such energy in stars. (Lem)

Land is just as much of a cyberneticist, both Lem and Land were following Nietzsche’s original Systems Theory of the Eternal Return: (Land) “As a fundamental cybernetic theory, accelerationism is bound to the identification of a socially central, positive feedback loop, through which modernity is propelled.” This notion of the positive feedback loop is Nietzsche’s eternal return displaced into cybernetic theory.

Just because these notions have through veritable incarnation into the real world applications has nothing to do with their original virtual potential which has been enacted many times through history. You’ve fallen into the fallacy of progressivism: thinking ours is somehow an extensional improvement on these old notions, there is no improvement, just a subtler incarnation of ancient potentials actualized. Is there really a difference between accumulation of goods on clay tablets, and those inscribed on digital mediums of storage? Or is it that it has only accelerated our ability to reformat the data at light speeds, which has enabled an acceleration of the accumulation of profits and distribution at light speeds?

As far as that goes one might think of the Axial Age of the fifth century BCE as the pivotal moment when these notions of feedback loops and eternal return first saw the light of day in such men as Zarathustra, Buddha, the Pre-Socratics… etc. It just took the ability to objectify these ideas into formal relations of material – actualization of the virtual potential as Deleuze would have it, etc. Land’s point is the subtle notion that the ideas brought back in time to such humans came out of the future, not some play land of Eternal Ideas of Plato etc. But then you’d have to ask: What exactly is the future? Which requires the next question: What is Time? Physics? Metaphysics? Base materialism of the nth degree… follow the atom into the black hole of thought like Alice in a sea of potential time… maybe the Universe itself is this Ocean of Information: but information is nothing without a sender and receiver… but who is the Sender and who is the Addressee? Most of all what is the contents of the message, the script playing itself out in real time even as we enact it?

Look at Joyce’s Finnegans Wake – the first work of the cybernetic age, a computer system with its own algorithmic codes delving into the ‘energetic unconscious’ of the Irish and European psyche of cultural inscription technologies (History as archive of puns and humor, secret cryptographies and analysis of empires as art works…). The notion of eternal return or feedback loop of historical unconsciousness played out as pure farce… Joyce’s fictional enactment of the eternal return that brings the Greek and Hebraic cycles to their conclusion in modernism, an encyclopedia of closure and openings – a sea of data with potential to awaken only in the mind of the reader’s future now… remember Joyce believed critics (those infinite readers) would take five hundred years to decipher the codes of his big black book of nonsense puns.

Writing, Data Storage, Cryptolinguistics

Paul Valery in Monsieur Teste would say “The infinite, my dear friend, is no big deal— it’s a matter of writing— the universe exists only on paper.” Think about the history of Linear B and Linear A. One might see it as an example of first Contact with an alien species, except this time that species is humanity itself. Linear A and Cretan hieroglyphics has yet to be deciphered, their semantic meanings and encoding still locked away in the silences of an extant corpus, comprising some 1427 specimens totaling 7362–7396 signs, if scaled to standard type, would fit on a single sheet of paper.

We can take both the material and the content as an enactment of the first computer system. The content itself records information about the major cities and palaces and their various accountings and disbursements of goods around the region. Wool, sheep, and grain were some common items, often given to groups of religious people and to groups of “men watching the coastline.” The tablets were kept in groups in baskets on shelves, judging by impressions left in the clay from the weaving of the baskets. When the buildings they were housed in were destroyed by fires, many of the tablets were fired. Of course many media theorists from Innis, McLuhan, Kittler, Ong, etc. and beyond have discussed this aspect of the archeological record previously discussed in the various nineteenth and twentieth century archives, etc.

Economics. Every major agricultural complex from Egypt, Crete, to the Middle-East recorded their civilizations transactions in writing and bookkeeping. Accounting practices were the first things stored in a digital framework of inscription onto external storage devices of clay, parchment, etc. One does not find great novels or any individualism of creativity in these clay systems of signs, only the lengthy descriptions of an empires wealth accumulation and distribution. As Harold A. Innis would say:

Obsession with economic considerations illustrates the dangers of monopolies of knowledge and suggests the necessity of appraising its limitations. Civilizations can survive only through a concern with their limitations and in turn through a concern with the limitations of their institutions…

One could trace the rise and fall of empires to the slow and methodical depletion of its material base time and time again. Soil erosion, water scarcity, pollution, concentration of wealth, etc. What Innis is speaking of is excess, of moving too far beyond the limits of a civilizations goods and resources, depleting the natural resources needed to sustain that civilization which then led such civilizations to expand into other regions, cycles of wars and incursions from the periphery over resources, etc. Until now when several major civilizations have finally succumbed to the last global effort to secure resources for their citizens and elites. Our time is that final battle over the earth’s last remaining agricultural and industrial resources. Who knows how it will play out? Will it come to a head in this century as many believe? Will humans come to terms in this? China seems like the nineteenth and early twentieth century West who devastated its towns and countries through pollution by way of coal. For it is coal and its release of sulfur gases and other particulates that are killing 1.6 million people a years. And, yet, one sees the government trying to hide these atrocities from the world and its own people. Typically the owners could care less about the land or its peoples, only profit.  “Let the Devil have the hindmost” – as the old saw has it.

If one studies ancient civilizations as a combination of sacred and secular economics, and writing, inscription, art, icons, images, etc. as the first media systems used to control an empires population as command and control structures, etc. That control of the media and its propaganda has from the beginnings of civilization till now organized labor and intellect is almost a cliché yet the history of writing, art, and its media enactments hierarchized under the auspices of empire as it cannibalized the minds of its citizens and peripheries like so many organic programs in some massive art installation is only dawning on us. What was modernism after all? Was it nothing but the underbelly of that ancient set of algorithms playing themselves out over and over again in various forms? With all our whimsical belief in freedom do we really understand what the eternal return really means? With such notions one might like Enrique Vila-Matas the great modernist of our era from Spain begin again with modernist art and artists:

Toward the end of the winter of 1924, on the enormous, towering rock where the concept of eternal recurrence first came to Nietzsche, the Russian writer Andrei Bely suffered a nervous breakdown as he experienced the irremediably ascending lavas of the superconscious. On the same day, at the same time, a short distance away, the musician Edgar Varèse fell from his horse when, parodying Apollinaire, he pretended to set off for war.1

This short novel of Vila-Matas, A Brief History of Portable Literature rehearses the modernist move as itself a distillation of these great themes in a humorous and light fable of the surreal and Dadaist escapades of its key players of the age.

I can see what Foucault termed the archive or Borges the Library of Babel as the slow and methodical incorporation of the General Intellect of Marx into our digitalized universe of Big Data, etc. Sooner or later all this notion of private property and proprietary names and honorifics will go the way of Shakespeare. Does it matter who Shakespeare was? With all the cultural materialist discourse concerning the archive and age of Shakespeare as itself producing his works, etc. Or the obvious banal discourses on alternative personalities hiding behind the mask of Shakespeare. Or the tedious accumulation of critical works, biographies, and academic treadmill capitalism that year after year spins out its new assemblage of scholarship in the sink hole of oblivion we still have no clue who Shakespeare is. We have a complete archive of information about a self-modeling Shakespeare who forever eludes our tracings on the shadow puppet screen of the creature behind the mask. But does it matter? We don’t have the authors of all those clay tablets of an empires goods from Mesopotamia, Egypt, Babylon, etc. either. Yet, and this is more interesting the men and women who deciphered these ancient clay and papyri were more fascinated by the codes, the secret cryptography of the silent semantics of these strange symbols, more fascinated in the process of discovery and analysis itself than in the actual final elaboration of the banal information locked away in these coded messages.

We know that Michael Ventris who finally deciphered Linear B only did this after another unrelated discovery of some of the same tablets on the Greek mainland, and there was reason to believe that some of the chains of symbols he had encountered on the Cretan tablets were names. Noting that certain names appeared only in the Cretan texts, Ventris made the inspired guess that those names applied to cities on the island. This proved to be correct. Armed with the symbols he could decipher from this, Ventris soon unlocked much text and determined that the underlying language of Linear B was in fact Greek. This overturned Evans’s theories of Minoan history by establishing that Cretan civilization, at least in the later periods associated with the Linear B tablets, had been part of Mycenean Greece.

This notion of an inspired ‘guess’ is this not after all the introduction of the new? An idea or notion that comes out of nowhere, a creative act that has no precedent, a eureka moment? Is there a history of such moments? A sort of registry of ‘guesses’ that have brought about our very material civilizations? Is it that the brain, the sub-programming and algorithmic or ‘energetic unconscious’ the three pound material computer or neuronal factory in the skull suddenly computes a specific alignment of various facts in such a way that it suddenly produces a new thought into consciousness that seems to appear as a ‘lucky guess’ and ‘inspired guess’ that is neither lucky nor inspired but just the methodical application of little understood material processes in the brain that we have due to our inadequate, and as my friend Scott Bakker terms it – metacognitive neglect, have no access to with out very limited range of consciousness? Do we not attribute miraculous knowledge to everything but the very material processes going on below consciousness? Why? Why can’t we just admit we are truly just limited by our evolutionary heritage, that as Nietzsche and others have suggested, consciousness is nothing special, and is in fact not even relevant in matters of new ideas? That it is nothing but the end point in processes of algorithmic and energetic forces that bypass the conscious mind in such difficult tasks? We have made of consciousness what we’ve done with our empire of globalism and self-egoistic pursuits: we’ve had the gall to believe that consciousness was the exception, the great exception in the animal kingdom.

What’s even stranger to me is that in our time two empires of the EU and USA are spending hundreds of millions if not billions to map the Brain in various initiatives. BRAIN Initiative and Organization for Human Brain Mapping.   Bioethical issues surrounding it have been discussed as well.

It’s as if we are treating the brain like we once treated the Linear B tablets as a cryptological object that can be deciphered, unlocking its hidden algorithms, its deep encoded systems of production. Of course we’re told that all this has to do with health and our own safety – “a bold new research effort to revolutionize our understanding of the human mind and uncover new ways to treat, prevent, and cure brain disorders like Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, autism, epilepsy, and traumatic brain injury.” (here) Yet, we see that DARPA itself – a military R&D firm and front group for the USA Government PR machine heads up much of this interconnected and financed system. As NY Times reported (Agency Initiative Will Focus on Advancing Deep Brain Stimulation (James Gorman)):

The federal Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, known as Darpa, announced Thursday that it intended to spend more than $70 million over five years to jump to the next level of brain implants, either by improving deep brain stimulation or by developing new technology.

Justin Sanchez, Darpa program manager, said that for scientists now, “there is no technology that can acquire signals that can tell them precisely what is going on with the brain.”

And so, he said, Darpa is “trying to change the game on how we approach these kinds of problems.”

The new program, called Systems-Based Neurotechnology and Understanding for the Treatment of Neuropsychological Illnesses, is part of an Obama administration brain initiative, announced earlier this year, intended to promote innovative basic neuroscience. Participants in the initiative include Darpa, as well as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.

Yet, as Darin Dougherty, a psychiatrist who directs Mass General’s division of neurotherapeutics, says one aim could be to extinguish fear in veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Fear is generated in the amygdala—a part of the brain involved in emotional memories. But it can be repressed by signals in another region, the ventromedial pre-frontal cortex. “The idea would be to decode a signal in the amygdala showing overactivity, then stimulate elsewhere to [suppress] that fear,” says Dougherty. (see Military Funds Brain-Computer Interfaces to Control Feelings)

Such research isn’t without ominous overtones. In the 1970s, Yale University neuroscientist Jose Delgado showed he could cause people to feel emotions, like relaxation or anxiety, using implants he called “stimoceivers.” But Delgado, also funded by the military, left the U.S. after Congressional hearings in which he was accused of developing “totalitarian” mind-control devices. According to scientists funded by DARPA, the agency has been anxious about how the Subnets program could be perceived, and it has appointed an ethics panel to oversee the research.

Psychiatric implants would in fact control how mentally ill people act, although in many cases indirectly, by changing how they feel. For instance, a stimulator that stops a craving for cocaine would alter an addict’s behavior. “It’s to change what people feel and to change what they do. Those are intimately tied,” says Dougherty.

Dougherty says a brain implant would only be considered for patients truly debilitated by mental illness, and who can’t be helped with drugs and psychotherapy. “This is never going to be a first-line option: ‘Oh, you have PTSD, let’s do surgery,’ ” says Dougherty. “It’s going to be for people who don’t respond to the other treatments.”

Yet, one wonders to what other actual black ops uses such technologies in the hands of undercover agencies and off the grid military and non-military security state systems might under the right circumstances turn these same technologies to command and control. Technology has always been a two-edged sword, and we’ve seen its supposed benefits for civilian use and applications turn to dark and spinster militaristic exploitation time and again. Remember Hiroshima and Nagasaki?  Atomic energy or Atomic bombs? Will this new mind control device ultimately be installed in every future citizen at the time of birth? Could one envision a dystopian scenario of this happening? Yes. It’s a very real possibility with devastating impact on our future.

So the journey to decipher Linear B and the external codes inscribed on ancient tablets becomes the quest to decipher the secret algorithms of the human brain itself, which as usual might begin the process of the final solution the elites of the economic system that first organized goods on those ancient tablets have sought all along: a way of organizing the human intellect and its emotional life under the power and control of these very same elites. A crude tautology at best. Is this sheer conspiracy and nonsense? Or just economics playing out its secret algorithmic history? Is this nothing more than what Land termed his crude point: “As a fundamental cybernetic theory, accelerationism is bound to the identification of a socially central, positive feedback loop, through which modernity is propelled.”

Is it after all a positive feedback loop, an eternal recurrence of the same, the oldest idea of economic profit churning away in its widening spiral to temporal accelerationism of ever greater expansion internally and externally, incorporating both the intensive and extensive worlds of accumulated capital beyond the limits of empire and humanity itself? Is this inhuman core driving the engine of madness none other than the coded algorithms of the universe itself in its blind gestures truncating and elaborating its own strange designs under the guise of human innovation and creativity? Is this the age old story of technology at last escaping its progenitor? If Marx spoke of anything worth thinking about it was this process of alienation at the core of our own algorithmic drives. But against Marx and Hegel do we any longer believe in a substantive Self? Is the self rather as Deleuze and Guattari and other process philosophers rather a subjectivation, an ongoing eternal recurrence system of difference and probabilities?

Is this notion of alienation by Marx itself false? Alienation can be overcome by restoring the truly human relationship to the labour process, by people working in order to meet people’s needs, working as an expression of their own human nature, not just to earn a living. If we are inhuman to the max, and have not stable or concrete universal substance of a Self as Substance, and Substance as Self then are we playing games in a fun house without truly knowing the rules of the game? If the essence or essentialism as many of our later day philosophers and neuroscientists affirm is an illusion, that the self is itself just another commodity fetishism in Marx’s terms: a alienated and alienating fiction of our cultural madness what next?

Innis once stated that concentration on a medium of communication implies a bias in the cultural and material development of the civilization concerned either towards an emphasis on space and political organization or towards an emphasis on time and religious organization (p. 196). What happens when the two converge? Innis saw the concentration of modern media leading to a global control system of communication that would ultimately monopolize knowledge, time, and space that if unchecked would reformat both the planet and humanity beyond recognition. Are we in this transitional period from which nothing escapes? Is the creation of an artificial Infosphere that encompasses the external and internal relations of our social systems in an closed loop of entropic relations in the offing? Or will the negentropic outreamers provide an influx into the entropic decay channels and provide a platform to overcome the very inertia of our civilization and enter the galactic family? Are we being organized into a self-organizing feedback system whose only goal is to encompass and expand its own inhuman agenda through profitability? Will humans themselves at some point be stripped and alienated from this machinic phylum once the inhuman core discovers its own advanced path forward? Are we on a runaway train, a black hole of some galactic core revolving and accelerating … accelerating ever faster… toward something? Or is the light at the end of the tunnel only our own inhuman truth awaiting us to accept its final and interminable solution?

P.S. I’d hoped to get into modern cryptography too, but this post has gone on too long as is… maybe again … in a future episode of my strange mental investigations.


  1. Enrique Vila-Matas,  (2015-06-09). A Brief History of Portable Literature (New Directions Paperbook) (Kindle Locations 11-14). New Directions. Kindle Edition.
  2. Lem, Stanis aw (2013-03-01). Summa Technologiae (Electronic Mediations) (Kindle Locations 3238-3241). University of Minnesota Press. Kindle Edition.