Violence and Involvement: The Electric Dionysus – (Part 1)

“Your children will carry the burden of your failure
handing it on to their children
generation after generation
offending the Lord of Light
Lord of Reason
Bright Apollo
whose sanctuary you will destroy…

Now you believe.
Know and accept your fate.
Let others get wisdom
yours comes too late.” – Dionysus
(Euripides’ Bacchae – A New Version by Mike Poulton,pg. 88)

The Devolution of Reason

Against the backdrop of a disintegrating maths equation on a school blackboard, the teacher, Sangster, a man who cannot come to terms with the real and physical extensions of his own body, asserts the following:

“Reason, well… It’s too close to maths, and most of us are not good at arithmetic. In general I advise people steer clear of reason… People don’t want to be appealed to by reason anymore… Liberalism and humanism are a huge brake on society.” (Ballard, Kingdom Come, p.85-86)

Though Ballard suggests ‘people don’t want to be appealed to by reason anymore’, what is more plausible perhaps is that reason does not function in the same way for us anymore; that reason perhaps, distant from impulse, emotion and desire – a fragmented sense – finds itself too abstract in the electric age. It is experienced remotely and as something alien, consigned to an austere, product-less, unfictionalised past where the images of pleasure and happiness were less pervasive and seemed less exuberant than they do today. Modern happiness combines with the impulsive, the erotic and the excessive and rationality has no place here. As Sangster remarks: ‘Societies are happier when people spend, not save’ (Ballard, Kingdom Come,pg.86).

To better understand this possibility, it is worth considering McLuhan’s distinction between the Mechanical Age – an age of literacy, specialisation, regimentation and fragmentation – and the Electric Age – an age of increased involvement: sensual involvement, conceptual involvement and communal involvement. For McLuhan, when writing in the early 60s, the Mechanical Age was giving way to an Electric Age and likewise, a mechanical arrangement of our senses was giving way to an electric arrangement of our senses. The mechanical era was the technological result of literacy and the extension of the visual sense via the phonetic alphabet. Literacy would allow us to visualise and break up the world, allowing us to make it increasingly conceptual, allowing us greater distance in describing the world, allowing greater specialisation in knowledge and subjects and eventually resulting in the machinery of mass production, assembly lines and the universal subjection of man to abstract clock-time. Of this transition from the Mechanical to the Electric, McLuhan says:

“Our new electric technology is organic and non-mechanical in tendency because it extends, not our eyes, but our central nervous system as a planetary vesture. In the space-time world of electric technology the older mechanical time begins to feel unacceptable, if only because it is uniform” (McLuhan, Understanding Media,pg.201)

The Mechanical Age then is sequential and fragmented, the extension of a precisely defined process; by contrast, the Electric Age is instantaneous and abolishes sequence, space and time; it allows us to be constantly proximate, in constant contact with information and each other, it reduces our sense of sequence, the distance between ideas, concepts and emotions, it amplifies our feeling for instantaneity at the expense of diligence and logic. On the same page, McLuhan suggests ‘responsibility’ itself is a feature of mechanical reality. If our sense of duration and impatience are the result of abstract, uniform time (McLuhan, Understanding Media,pg.199) then the meaning of happiness through impulse in its binding of pleasure and instantaneity may be seen in an electric sensorium. As McLuhan states ‘clock-time could be defeated by speed’ (McLuhan, Understanding Media, pg.206), and by extending the same principle, the chaffing demands of reason and responsibility can be overcome by impulsive instantaneity and deepened nervous/sensual involvement.

Part Two
Part Three

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