In the spirit of reflection that often accompanies the turn to the new year, I’ve decided to cannibalize my blog and repost several writings—one from each year beginning in 2004. I created my first website with a blog just as I was finishing my graduate thesis in the fall of 2002. The fourth writing I’ve selected, titled “What (Where) Is An Unmediated Space?”, was posted on November 12, 2007, and was written during my first semester teaching at The University of the Arts. At the time, I was teaching a web design studio and assignment the students to explore the urban environment and translate that experience into a web-based project. The film referenced in the post has been a key prompt for getting students to think about their relationship to urban space.
We know this to be the case: “In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation” (Debord, The Society of the Spectacle).
I recently watched The Cruise again, the near perfect showing of a nearly unmediated (yet crafted, I think) experience of New York City as performed by Timothy “Speed” Levitch. Then, I watched it again (twice, for good measure). In one particular scene, Speed embraces — unfolds himself upon — one of the great stone piers of the Brooklyn Bridge, gently patting it, touching his forehead to it, communing with it. (Years ago we talked about licking buildings in architecture school. I think Hillary actually did it.) There’s something about the way he settles into the city, the restless comfort, the awkward sensuality, that confounds a mediated relationship to his world. Watching it now, I feel that that moment must have passed and he can no longer relate to the place in that way.
Aaron (aka Director of the Dept. for the Investigation of ReHumanization) has described his experience as a soldier in the Iraq war as being unmediated — or at least as close to unmediated as he has ever witnessed. It follows, then, that the shock and stress (often diagnosed as PTSD) which soldiers feel upon their return home has everything to do with the transition back into the mediated existence of our “civilization.”
Is mediation a buffer from trauma? Is mediation a barrier to being fully human? I’m curious about the relationship between mediation and dehumanization. Here’s Paulo Freire in the opening chapter of The Pedagogy of the Oppressed:
Concern for humanization leads at once to the recognition of dehumanization, not only as an ontological possibility but as a historical reality. And as an individual perceives the extent of dehumanization, he or she may ask if humanization is a viable possibility. Within history, in concrete, objective contexts, both humanization and dehumanization are possibilities for a person as an uncompleted being conscious of their incompletion.
Mediation implies a distance, the “separation” that Debord finds perfected in modern industrialized societies. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.There must be gradations embedded in this notion of mediation. Can a distinction between mediation (ontological) and media (technological) be discerned? Does the latter necessarily determine the former? Is there any essential difference between a jug and a handheld computer, both technologies of utility which mediate our experience of the world? Gradations and scale (hello McCluhan) present complications…
Is there a post-spectacle society? Within this paradigm, are we unable to imagine something beyond Debord’s critique? And to what degree is Debord’s critique dependent on teleological, historically and technologically determined trajectories of human evolution? Is there a post-mediated existence? (Is there a proto-mediated existence, for that matter?) Not an existence without mediation, but an existence absorbed fully by mediation? Such a prediction feels apocalyptic, dystopian. It suggests a time of post-feeling, post-human, a world populated by cyborgs whose dreams are filled with memories of archived material pulled from the master database of text, images, sounds, and videos that we are now building on the Net.
The image of Speed Levitch persists: he hurriedly crosses a street and enters an urban plaza space. He spins around several times, arms outstretched until dizzy. He lies down on his back, equidistant between the two World Trade Center towers, and carefully extends his right leg up and out, as if maintaining equilbirium between himself and the buildings. “The buildings look like they’re falling down,” he muses. (A few years later, they would say that watching the towers implode and collapse was like watching a movie.) The Cruise reminds me of the angst of mediation, of being less than fully—. Of being behind the lens, behind the glass, separate. It reminds me to go outside and be there.