Digital Materiality: Anaesthetics

“by the middle of the fourth century the silent revolution had been accomplished, and that the cultivated Greek public had become a community of readers.” [1]

Here is a civilisation on the cusp of literacy with all the realizations that this affords. Literacy for the first time strips human being of its origins, so that these may be freely recomposed. Freedom and individuality become for the first time possible, and thus for some like Plato, the harbinger of virtue and true destiny of humanity, while others pined the loss of the involving mythical world from which they are forced to emerge.

“Thus the autonomous subject who no longer recalls and feels, but knows, can now be confronted with a thousand abstracted laws, principles, topics,and formulas which become the objects of his knowledge. “ [2]

The demos of Plato’s and our notion of democracy was always a literate elite, distinguished by their individualizing reading habits from the great mass of productive humanity. The demos believed in the power of words and propagated a world of abstract written laws in order to supplant the power of the priests and their superstitious and mystifying moral commandments. Vibrant lived experience became silent knowledge. Information acquired through integrated sense perception was disparaged in favour of “facts” from book learning. The body was shed of the thinking spirit and the stage was laid for a Christian revolution.

“For Plato, reality is rational,scientific and logical, or it is nothing. The poetic medium, so far from disclosing the true relations of things or the true definitions of the moral virtues, forms a kind of refracting screen which disguises and distorts reality and at the same time distracts us and plays tricks with us by appealing to the shallowest of our sensibilities.” [3]

Studied, detached observation and intellection, “description”  became the only correct manner to scientifically encounter the world. This instruction is notable in the academic tradition to this day where the typical academic presentation of ideas is an extremely dry affair, with the monotonous reading of disinterested description. Havelock distinguishes Plato’s rejection of poetry as being the primarily pedagogical concern of how to bring up free-thinkers.  The problem was not the poets involving affect per se, but the pre-literate oral knowledge traditions in which poets and priests played a central role

With visual hypertrophy, the other senses went sub-culture.

The Polis was order, command and civil peace. Exiled to the garbage heaps at the fringes of society were the blind perceptions of the rest of the body.  Silent observation replaced immersive listening. McLuhan notes that every new media produces a shift in the “sense-ratios” [4]. When literate visual aesthetics dominate, the other perceptions must subsist in iniquity, acquiring all the illicit power of the “unconscious”.

Aesthetics is merely the realm of perceptions. Anaesthetics is a metaphysical aesthetics whereby the unrepresentable is converted to conservative human aesthetic conventions, where the phenomena are not only mediated but are transposed in a register that they can be perceived by human senses. For example, the actions of molecules at infinitesimal scale are depicted in the realm of visible light we can perceive. Anaesthetics always implies some additional technical materiality in the communication process. In the case of HEP or astrophysics the material apparatus is enormous. It takes the biggest camera in the world to image the smallest particles.

Aesthetic media technologies like the Grammophone or photograph were devised to be “Nature’s Pencil” allowing the world to inscribe itself instrumentally for our study, obviating the subjectivity of the scientist.   However images of blood cells and nano-tech robots to Voyageur images at the end of our solar system, produced from invisible information, as Flusser cajoles, are “even less objective then is a painting.”  The images are interpretive. The shapes and colours which appear there should help support the narrative they belong to. Despite providing theories of spaces where no human could exist,  for example subatomic or intergalactic spaces, we are presented with anthropomorphically sublimated information.

Measurement, especially the measurement of weight, is one form of numerical abstraction which goes back to the earliest civilizations. Through weighing, early chemists were able to make precise recipes using the properties or components of chemicals they could not see . Using a finely crafted astrolabe, ancient astronomers were able measure angles between distant stars to calculate unimaginable distances and produce almanachs to guide agricultural production, and help travellers navigate deserts and open seas.[5]

Literate visual bias meant that measurements of the early scientists were converted to forms still in use today, the chart and table, the diagram.  As the measurement apparatus begins to produce its information in homogenous re-interpretable digital data, it is customary to generate technical images with are viualisations of this invisible data. A stand-in for perception becomes the image of the phenomenon itself.

What became “Science” was the collaborative product of philosophers and technicians. The technicians were required to produce the instruments the philosophers  needed to test their theories. These hand-made precision instruments were themselves works of art on the way to making sense or at least making some order of our world. Lavoisier’s isolation of hydrogen and oxygen as the two components of water was made possible by the precision vacuum flasks he used to trap and weigh the gases.

The philosophers eventually became professionalized after Lavoisier into what we call scientists today. But only a tiny elite of those involved in the  technicial production of “science” were so fortunate.  The technicians, called “banasos” (βάναυσος)  in ancient Greece, were exempted from the demos, and from political rights. According to Aristotle they were disqualified by the fact that they had to spend all day over their tools and thus did not have sufficient time to contemplate broader sociopolitical matters.[6] My book “A Political Economy of the Smallest Things” delves deeply into this problematic pedigree of science-sanctioned knowledge today, especially by extending out the “banausoic” function to include all labour contributions, paid and unpaid, necessary for the production and reproduction of this knowledge.

The instruments made by the hybrid of scientist, technician and labour, transformed unimaginable distances and infinitesimal weights into numbers, especially proportions. These numbers, at human scale, began to stand in for the material reality (and make an ellipse around the material labour conditions for the reproduction of this reality)  that was at play. Precision means “to pre-cut”. Precise measurements are always already foreclosed by the cosmology which allows the theory the scientist is trying to prove to be posited. Precision already preselects what is relevant phenomena, the rest of phenomena is then normally simply not measured or even perceived.

Today’s technology renders the infinitesimal and enormous alike into long numbers. This new intellectual hypertrophy of mathematical syntax produces, according to Flusser, the need for new Humanisms appropriate for each scale of technical knowledge.

“for each order of magnitude, there is a typical epistemology, ethics, and aesthetics that is effective, and that, in spite of the gray zones, abysses gape between the orders of magnitude. Thus, it is mischief to apply the geometry of what is perceptible by the senses to the astronomical order of magnitude or causal thinking to the order of magnitude of particles of atom nuclei. The specificity of each order of magnitude would have to enable the new humanism to call attention to the priority of the human order of magnitude. A Ptolemaic counterrevolution is required. “ [7]

Exotic realms sublimated in equivocal numbers produce an anaesthesis, a numbness to the world of our human-scale senses. But as we lapse today into Cartesian rational apoplexy we begin to submit even more to what Flusser describes as “technical” or “synthetic”  images. Anyone using SMS social media or microblogging will note the increasing preponderance of graphics in textual flow. As we enter an age overdetermined by invisible, non-human-readable sensor- and control-data we seem to have increasing need for recourse to sublimating images,especially that of the obsolescent human face.




[1] Havelock, Eric, (1963) Preface to Plato, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, p. 41

[2] ibid p.219

[3] ibid p.26

[4] ” If a technology is introduced either from within or from without a culture, and if it gives new stress or ascendancy to one or another of our senses, the ratio among all of our senses is altered. We no longer feel the same, nor do our eyes and ears and other senses remain the same. The interplay among our senses is perpetual save in conditions of anesthesia. But any sense when stepped up to high intensity can act as an anesthetic for other senses.”   McLuhan, Marshall (1963) Gutenberg Galaxy, U of Toronto Press, Toronto. p.24

[5] in “Objectivity” Zone Books 2007,  Peter Galison and Lorraine Daston pick apart the scientific tradition of objectivity in their book of the same name. Starting from 19th c Natural science “atlases” they examine how, for example, certain features of a specimen were represented because they were considered typical, whereas other features were left out when they were not considered germane.

[6] see Aristot. Pol. 1.1258b  βάναυσος is translated as technician, mechanic or artisan.

[7] Ströhl, Andreas ed. (2002) Writings, University of Minnesota Press, Minnesota, p. 164 Orders of Magnitude and Humanism