Friday, 16 March 2012

Postumous human


I am outside lecture room EBG08 – this translates as East Building ground floor room 08 – I am there for a book launch. The invite says it’s between 3.30 and 5 so I think 4 is probably an okay time to arrive but it seems I have come in mid way through the guest speakers speech. Suddenly I feel like an aberrant student. Still I quickly squirrel myself away in a seat at the edge of the front row and keep a low profile. I don’t make a habit of going to lectures in other departments but something about the blurb on the polite invitation drew me in. It’s all about post humanism and escaping the strictures of Newtonian analysis (although here I am already embellishing their copy). The guest speaker is talking about how innovation comes about not through individuals but through groups of ideas happening at the same time and somehow coalescing over time to make a new system that makes the old system obsolete. He is clearly tickled, as am I, by the metaphor of the fax-machine that once ruled the office but is now an historical anomaly. He talks also about how the system of the motorcar came into being at pretty much the same time that the first gusher was unplugged in Texas. We had this idea of limitless cheap fuel and suddenly the world was our oyster. Virginia Woolf, we are told, was very fond of cars and found it hard to believe we could ever go back to a time without them. Her observation that the automobile allows us to happen “upon scenes which would have gone on, have always gone on, will go on, unrecorded, save for this chance glimpse.” reminds me of the genre of American photography that explores the world through the car windscreen. What she saw as a liberating vessel McLuhan later saw as a carapace that distances us from our environment. I have a feeling that the guest speaker is not really into McLuhan. When he was at college I bet McLuhan was distinctly old fashioned. Still in the brief Q&A I do say “erm… do you know much about Buckminster Fuller and the innovative ideas he had possibly being suppressed because they didn’t fit in with the oil based economy?” No he does not know any more than I have just mentioned but oddly what I have asked reminds him of a quote he has. “It’s like a set up,” he jokes reaching for a sheet of paper and finding a quote about how in order to innovate you should not undermine the existing system but make something that renders it obsolete. I am of course summarising. Anyway the guest speaker is done (he’s now pulling strange faces and I get a feeling that I’ve upset him by revealing a blind spot in front of his specialist acolytes) and now the tutors from the University where I work get a chance to talk about their post-humanism book. It’s interesting but something’s not grabbing me. It’s all a bit flat. Why is this? The guest speaker had a fire – that feeling that he was on the cusp of something but these guys are just, you know, more like librarians shuffling ideas from other people and naming them. Perhaps I’m being too harsh and besides I have a certain amount of professional jealousy in play because they have a book published and after all escaping Newtonian strictures is very much my bag. I stay a little afterwards so I can have a brief chat. Okay. I introduce myself to Dr/Prof/Mr (?) Holden “I really like your ideas… I mean the invite really piqued my interest. The whole post-Newtonian Thing…” he’s looking placid and I read this as smug… “ You know it reminded me of Montaigne and the idea that his cat is playing with him rather than visa versa.” I know what I’m doing here is trying to get him to connect but he’s not having it. I pull out a big gun, “do you know the book The Master and his Emissary?” its all about, and now don’t balk, the right and left brain split. I mean you talk about the systems but I just thought that systems are what make us unique as animals but there is a bigger picture. I think I’ve got through. It’s sort of like a poison dart entered his chest. You see he is all about systems. He’s an academic. A social-scientist. Love your label as yourself (McLuhan). I'm thinking that the problem with seeking a unified system is the inherent conflict within trying to explain things coherently. I tell him that freeing ourselves from hierarchies is an idea running throughout art history and he suggests that we collaborate (no nor really) on something to do with hierarchies. Mmm. Thanks but no thanks I think shuffling over to his co author whom I tell that the phrase post humanism is just the same as post modernism in that post words are about trying to regain the part of ourselves we lost when the root word came into being. Modernism wasn’t so long ago and in fact is a development of humanism. Dr/Mr/Prof Holden had told me that humanism was species specific but this then to me is the conundrum, it remains species specific to remain talking about species. Okay we could say yeah lets learn from the systems of nature but its still humans that apply systems as a way of seeing. Now at a later date I will place a quote from the book When East meets West but until then I shall just say we have allowed ourselves to become permanent objectifiers. In order to analyse systematically we are like the white-coated professor viewing the world through a microscope. The problem is we skew the results because we have removed ourselves from all the equations (double slit test anyone?). We’re like articulated calibration machines. God I mean just look up at Spirit of Our Times by Raoul Hausmann. In the afore-mentioned book there is a really neat diagram explaining how when we perceive we could factor ourselves back into the object. The author explains how perceiving is more physical than we allow ourselves to believe and therefore as we are physical phenomena we are part of the thing we are perceiving. So the long and short of it is that in order to be truly post human we need to recognise that systems are like libraries (Dewey decimal) and not the thing itself.

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