Digital Materiality: Technical Revolution

Material, substance may be infinite, or unimaginably, inarticulably extensive, but materiality, that which crosses into the domain of human affairs is certainly much less extensive. Predicating Spinoza’s “substance” and Feuerbach’s materializing “love”, is a crisis from which the western world is still recovering today: a technological revolution brought on by a technical development, a technology which drove a wedge to split apart what had once been one, the body and mind, material and spirit.

Ancient Greek philosophy is first and foremost a record of the onset of that crisis. What we know of Ancient Greek philosophy begins with texts, most famously through Plato and his student Aristotle, who used the radical new technology of the Alphabet to record the philosophical practices, allegories and debates of the foregoing generations. Those born into the textual world were presented with the immensity of the the preliterate world, its oral histories and holistic practices as subject matter to be de-scribed and recorded, translated into textual words, words which, composed of meaningless and silent symbolic codes, had become unhinged from what they de-scribed.

Translating the unified world of corporal sensations and thought into the silent world of ideas produced the first notions of authorship, of criticism and truth in the modern sense. Texts completely disrupted the old ways of life. This crisis, paradigmatic for all social upheaval that was to come, described, debated and recorded in the writings of Plato and Aristotles, is why their writing is still so pertinent and revered today.

What happens that is so revolutionary about the alphabet? In “Preface to Plato” Eric Havelock claims that the introduction of the phonetic alphabet produced the “power of abstraction” which distinguishes classical Greek Philosophy from its historical origins. Plato’s famous ‘banning’ of the poets from his ideal Republic, Havelock argues, should be read as indicating Plato’s intention to innovate the university away from the old oral philosophical traditions of allegory towards the abstract thinking afforded by the silent storage of text in alphabetic codes. Walter Ong notes how the notion of “studying” was completely transformed by the alphabet, rhetoric became a visual composition of texts (textures). The abstraction from fully lived experience into sequences of (themselves) meaningless glyphs, meant ideas began to take precedence over materials. (the materiality of writing is not considered esential to its semantic function).

Alphabetic codes rip spoken language out of the ephemeral embodied lived context of expression, depositing them in permanent silent scripts. At once we have certain socio-cultural consequences: no more must knowledge be passed down from wise master to acolyte, immutable authoritative texts will henceforth be available which can be copied and distributed silently.  Removing the voice of the speaker means that arguments must first and foremost be rational, rationally grounded, and self-contained (i.e. not depending on other contextual information). Since the meaning of the text can be autonomous of the culture or tradition which produced it, we see a new notion of human universality. At the same time , the alphabet has a standardizing effect on language, generating abstract grammatical rules which are then imposed on language learning. A patchwork of dialects are homogenized into ‘national’ languages.

Another thinker who places epochal importance on the introduction of alphabetic scripts was Vilém Flusser. In Flusser’s understanding of cultural transformation, pre-literate humanity lived in the domain of magicians, who wielded the ritual power of images. These pre-literate images did not represent things at any remove, they were part of a cyclical understanding of life within which all meaning is foreclosed. The tyranny of the ancient images of the magicians, was assailed, according to Flusser, by the creators of the alphabet. Alphabetical text “unrolled” the totality of ancient images into sequential lines of text. These lines, which, unlike images, needed to be read in a particular direction and order, generated what Flusser called “causal, historical thinking” which eventually led to Enlightenment science and early modernity. The interdiction of images in early jewish thought may be a similar philosophical position to Plato’s interdiction of poetry in the Republic.

The notion that images can have an all-at-once expansive effect similar to sounds was developed intensively by Marshall McLuhan. McLuhan followed Havelock in understanding that the silent abstraction of uniform texts from the heterogenous, all-at-once, pre-literate world, created a cultural crisis from which we are still recovering today. Flusser said “every revolution is a technical revolution”, for McLuhan the revolution of literacy reached an apotheosis once the residual embodied-ness of calligraphic script was abstracted comprehensively by the invention of Gutenberg’s moveable-type printing press. Texts dissolve integral organic Nature into repeatable modular processes, a deductive mechanical model which promises to make universally available, at the disposal of all humanity, Its secrets. With Gutenberg we enter the epoch of the mass-reproduction of abstract human ideas. Finally stripping away the last vestages of historical social bias of the scribe, uniform text blocks subjected societies to a completely desacralized and profane, explicitly technical analysis for the first time. Standardized mass-produced texts produced the modern nation, French produced France, and standardized German “Hochdeutsch” produced Germany.

Just as the alphabet ‘produced’ Greek philosophy, Plato and Aristotle, the Gutenberg press ‘produced’ Shakespeare. Marshall McLuhan in the “Gutenberg Galaxy” elucidates how Shakespeare emerged into a world where human language was laid bare as a technical process to be industrialized. Shakespeare emerges to record and elucidate the crisis brought on by the mechanization and automization of thought, like Plato did thought’s description and abstraction at his time. In both cases, language is both a technical agent of transformation and the means by which we know about it.

The social transformations which emerge with the introduction of new technologies can be understood, according to McLuhan, by attending to how the new technology re-organizes the “sense ratios” of its users. The silent visual alphabet thus inaugurates a period of “visual bias” where science based on observation transforms the world into something that is meant to be read. Literacy is one of the early de- or trans-materialization technologies, with its alchemical capacity to (re-)consititue reality from its codes.

The alphabet provided the basis for what would come to be called ‘Intellectual property’. The endless flow of language like the endless rush of the waves once abstracted from holistic unity in Nature become silent commodities the most plastic raw materials. This transformation has taken more time, 250 years after the beginning of the mass-production of literature, and shortly before the industrialization of the technology, the 1710 Statute of Anne modernized copyright law and inaugurated the IP regime we still have today, making universal ideas into commodities for private consumption and owndership (thus also speculation) through the medium of alphabetic text.

The notion of privacy in this context takes much importance in the works of Flusser and McLuhan.  Before the written world, all language was, of course, shared, even secrets must be shared. After literacy a silent private world was produced which could provide a consummate escape from the world of human affairs, and deliniated the realm of ‘politics’ as a public forum. For Flusser, the sequential linear structure of writing generated the notion of history itself. From then on, events did not cycle it a ritual whole but ‘progressed’ and thereby produced a linear history.

The chemical and electrical technologies in the 19th century, all based on science derived from causal, deductive thinking, brought on a new fundamental crisis. The texts, encoded in the technical things of the world became far too small and dense to decipher. They began to produce effects which belied their textual basis, the world became whole again in instantaneous communication. Today, we live in a world increasingly determined by written thinking encoded in linear processes which produce effects at the speed of light. This speed of light communication, according to McLuhan, tilts the sense ratios again and produces a tactile and acoustic field. Even though the principles at play inside the apparatus are fundamentally visual, the skewed sensibility produces tactile affinities which, unlike the atomizing and individualizing effects of text, generate inclusive and involving social effects.

For Flusser, the alphabet created historical thinking, splitting us out of cyclical rituals “of the seasons and feasts”. However, the scientific accomplishments in chemistry and physics provided new aesthetic materials and practices. Photography and the following technical images, like film, video, television and now synthetic computer images, all these images are meant to render the world imaginable again.

Today, with technical images, generated and communicating at the speed of light, we have a return to the universal appeal of iconic images, except now, they are not images in the ancient sense, they are projections of linear texts.

“You know, photography was invented to give an objective image, but since the camera is coded, it is even less objective then is a painting.”- Vilém Flusser

The Alphabet was a pivotal technical revolution, we are still metabolising today. The alphabet split pre-literate human beings out of their context and into a world of abstract and rational thinking. By decomposing language into silent standardized abstract signs which, themselves, are recomposable to language, the alphabet produced a system where science became divorced from philosophy. Philosophy became the domain of ontology and epistemology, and science became the practice of understanding towards reliably controlling behaviours of materials. The alphabet broke apart the holistic synthetic experience of the universe and generated a mechanical model divided up into recomposable, standardized parts. Mind was divorced from the body, as text is divorced from the surface on which it appears.