Monday, October 17, 2011

Whitehead’s Media Theory—a beginning

Adventures in Jutland

Whitehead’s Media Theory—a beginning


(Alfred North for those not living in the 1930s) Whitehead presents a little remarked upon but comprehensive ‘media theory’ that resituates media in the world, not “bifurcated” from a large slice of it. This theory is arguably more complete, if similar to, and yet predating, McLuhan’s. Indeed McLuhan read Whitehead extensively (see Douglas Coupland, Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work! 45, 59). In Whitehead’s theory of media there is no “bifurcation” between different types of signal (technical or natural, for example). Thus Whitehead’s philosophy becomes one in which the complexity of signal at the level of the world is paramount. Signals become “vectors of transmission” for the (“prehension” of) feeling which is central to his account of process. The world is a medium (Whitehead, Process and Reality, 286)—or a multiplicity of worlds (284) are mediums—for such vectors. For “the philosophy of organism the primary relationship of physical occasions is extensive connection,” (288) not simple extension of previously existing “things” (such as “us”).

Whitehead also preempts the very basis of both McLuhan’s thought–“the medium is the message.” He writes, “These extensive relations do not make determinate what is transmitted; but they do determine conditions to which all transmission must conform” (ibid.–see also Steven Shaviro, Without Criteria: Kant, Whitehead, Deleuze, and Aesthetics, 52). In a similar but again perhaps more comprehensive manner than McLuhan, Whitehead further understands the “the human body” as a kind of signal transducer or modulator, “…as a complex ‘amplifier’–to use the language of the technology of electromagnetism” (119). Even more than this,  “the predominant basis of perception is perception of the various bodily organs, as passing on their experiences by channels of transmission and of enhancement” (119).

There is more to say on this on another occasion. Here I will just point once again to the undoing of the bifurcation of nature within Whitehead’s philosophy with regard to signal.

Douglas Coupland, Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work! [New York: Atlas, 2010]

Steven Shaviro, Without Criteria: Kant, Whitehead, Deleuze, and Aesthetics [Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009]

Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality [New York: The Free Press, 1978]

Andrew Murphie's take on Whitehead and McLuhan's media theory is very succinct. McLuhan has become popular again but close examination of his work reveals sources including Whitehead and Innis, both of whom have more depth to their theories. Whitehead's process philosophy seems increasingly relevant in understanding a world where the 'original' separations between animate and inanimate, human and non-human are shifting and "the relation is the smallest unit of being and of analysis"(Haraway 2008:156).
I don't know why Andrew Murphie's blog is called Adventures in Jutland. More reading is called for.

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