Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘culture’

17 FEBRUARY, 2012

Design Legend David Carson Brings Marshall McLuhan’s “Probes” to Life


One of the greatest living graphic designers reframes the greatest dead media theorist.

“McLuhan searches for semiotics beneath semiotics, levels of meaning beyond the messenger’s intent or the recipient’s awareness,” Philip B. Meggs once wrote. Though his most famous concept-catchphrases remain “the global village” and “the medium is the message”, Marshall McLuhan originated hundreds of other “probes” — cryptic aphorisms designed to push the reader or recipient into completing a thought process.

In The Book of Probes, Eric McLuhan, Marshall’s son, partners with media theorist William Kuhns and David Carson, considered by some the most influential graphic designer working today, to bring to life McLuhan’s sharpest probes culled from his books, speeches, classes, and various writings published between 1945 and 1980. Since McLuhan was as much a master of textual provocation as he was a co-conspirer in a new visual vernacular for the Information Age, Carson’s bold, thoughtful visual metaphors — all 400 gripping pages of them — present a powerful lens on McLuhan’s legacy that is at once completely fresh and completely befitting.

Terrance Gordon, author of the authorized biography Marshall Mcluhan: Escape Into Understanding, writes of the McLuhan-Carson pairing in one of the featured essays:

McLuhan’s words are about words, and Carson responds with a map about maps.


Unlike the spines of a cactus in their tidy rows, McLuhan’s prickly probes zigzag across a vast thoughtscape. Following him, keeping up with him, we have no time to rest or recognize a new location before he beckons us to move on. David Carson comes to our rescue. As translation into the local idiom and bearings for our current whereabouts, his art work roots us for a moment, even as McLuhan pulls us ahead. But Carson does not deliver comforting postcard views; his visual mosaics can leave us just as breathless as the punches of McLuhan’s prose. Snap and shoot, but no snapshots from either artist or writer.

The McLuhan-Carson partnership works constantly to turn symbiosis into synergy.”

The probes themselves, wrapped in Carson’s equally provocative and thought-provoking visual micro-narratives, reveal not one McLuhan but many — the social psychologist (“The content of new situations, both private and corporate, is typically the preceding situation.”), the linguist (“Languages are environments to which the child relates synesthetically.”), the artist (“Color is not so much a visual as a tactile medium.”), the scholar (“The content of new situations, both private and corporate, is typically the preceding situation.”), and a near-infinite number more

(Cue in Paola Antonelli on humanized technology.)

Kuhns points to four recurring keywords that define McLuhan’s probes: conditions (the idea that understanding hinges on the ability to remove oneself from a situation just enough to see the connections between various elements at play), space (the question of the human family’s confines and whether escape is even possible), resonant (the inescapability of our sound environment, which is a prison if we let it but an escape mechanism if we know what to listen for), and tribal drums (the concept of the resonant utterance, inspired by James Joyce’s vision for a western world retribalized by electric technology).

Other critical terms and themes also recur throughout McLuhan’s thinking and writing — the relationship between perception and conception (“Effects are perceived, whereas causes are conceived”), the interplay of figure and ground (“Ground cannot be dealt with conceptually or abstractly — it is ceaselessly changing, dynamic, discontinuous, and heterogeneous, a mosaic of intervals and contours”), semiotics and language (“The right word is not the one that names the thing but the word that gives the effect of the thing”).

Gordon observes in a featured essay:

All media of communications are clichés serving to enlarge man’s cope of actions, his patterns of association and awareness.”

(A note is due here on Gordon’s disappointing use of “man” and “his” to connote all of humanity — while the politics and semantic landscape of McLuhan’s era may have made such gender-skewed umbrella terms culturally acceptable, one would hope half a century of progress might demand a more balanced relationship with pronouns.)

The end of the book features 100 pages of selected precepts, fragments, and probes by McLuhan, including themes of intense timeliness and urgency:

The trouble with a cheap, specialized education is that you never stop paying for it.*

The print-made split between head and heart is the trauma that affects Europe from Machiavelli to the present.**

The media tycoons have a huge stake in old media by which they monopolize the new media.***

The amateur can afford to lose. The expert is the man who stays put.****

Symbolism consists in pulling out connections.*****

Candidates are now aware that all policies and objectives are obsolete. Perhaps there is some comfort to be derived from the fact that NASA scientists are in the same dilemma. While pursuing the Newtonian goals of outer space, they are quite aware that the inner dimensions of the atom are very much greater and more relevant to our century.”

Ultimately, The Book of Probes offers a prescient perspective on the present through the cerebral alchemy of McLuhan’s past-future. Kuhn concludes:

We cannot avoid being inundated by the powerful forces of the culture and technology that make up our environment, but we can look at their different effects and form strategies for controlling our destiny in the midst of the electric maelstrom. When we are faced with information overload, McLuhan tells us, the key to understanding is pattern recognition. The Book of Probes offers us that key.”

* See A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change.

** See David Brooks on the dangerous and artificial divide between reason and emotion and Einstein, Steve Jobs, and Anne Lamott on intuition vs. rationality.

*** See this 1923 critique of everything that’s wrong with modern media in a media equation where the “circulation manager” (once of newspapers, now of pageviews) has replaced the editor.

**** See Steve Jobs and other famous creators on the fear of failure.

***** See famous authors on the power and meaning of symbolism.

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17 FEBRUARY, 2012

Everything is a Remix Part 4: System Failure


A brief history of intellectual property, or why 1790 was more culturally progressive than 2012.

For the past year, Kirby Ferguson has been tracing the history and evolution of remix culture in his fantastic ongoing series Everything Is A Remix, with each episode tackling a different facet of collaborative creation. This week, the fourth and last part of the series, titled System Failure, finally makes its timely debut in the aftermath of SOPA and the peak of the ACTA debates.

From the origin of “intellectual property,” which suddenly transformed shared ideas into owned artifacts, to the psychological paradoxes of how we justify doing the copying but resent being copied, to the dirty business of opportunistic litigation, the film explores the aberrations of copyright and reminds us that the original Copyright Act of 1790 was entitled “An Act for the encouragement of learning” and the Patent Act of the same year was “An Act to promote the progress of the useful Arts,” upholding an ideal of a rich public domain with shared knowledge open to everyone.

Our system of law doesn’t acknowledge the derivative nature of creativity. Instead, ideas are regarded as property, as unique and original lots with distinct boundaries. But ideas aren’t so tidy. They’re layered, they’re interwoven, they’re tangled. And when the system conflicts with the reality… the system starts to fail.

The closing lines capture the urgency of the issue with remarkable eloquence:

We live in an age with daunting problems. We need the best ideas possible, we need them now, we need them to spread fast.

(As an evangelist of combinatorial creativity, Part 3 remains my favorite — do check it out.)

Kirby’s new project is called This Is Not A Conspiracy Theory and will do for politics what Everything Is A Remix did for remix culture. It’s currently raising funds on Kickstarter — I’m supporting it wholeheartedly, are you?

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17 FEBRUARY, 2012

All the Time in the World


What a charred ancient tree can teach us about impermanence, deep time, and our place in the universe.

The tree had been on fire for over a week before anyone noticed. The Senator, one of the oldest Cypress trees in the world, was killed when a smoldering ignition from an errant lightning strike slowly transformed it into a towering chimney and fuel source in one. Or maybe it didn’t happen like that at all. Perhaps it was an errant cigarette, or a sinister match strategically placed in its hollow berth. The mystery endures, but the fact remains: on January 16, 2012 The Senator collapsed and died, engulfed in flames. It was 3,500 years old.

The Senator; Bald Cypress #0907-0107

3,500 years old; Seminole County, Florida

Back in 2007, I went to Orlando to photograph The Senator as part of The Oldest Living Things in the World, my art and science project consisting of continuously living organisms 2,000 years old and older. I had recently returned home from Africa, where I’d driven around the Limpopo in search of ancient Baobab trees, visited an underground forest in Pretoria amidst a morning threat of ‘smash and grabs,’ and taken a road trip from Cape Town up through Namibia to find the genuinely odd Welwitschia Mirabilis, which looked more like a science fictional sea creature than a primitive conifer punctuating the vast and empty Namib Naukluft. And then I flew to Orlando.

Welwitschia Mirabilis #0707-22411

2,000 years old; Namib Naukluft Desert, Namibia

The Senator was the primary attraction at the aptly named Big Tree Park, just twenty minutes worth of strip malls from downtown Orlando. In fact, it was the original Orlando attraction, BD (‘Before Disney’, if you will), visited via horse and carriage. I drove with a friend in her family car. We parked in an orderly lot, walked a quarter-mile on a planked path through the once-swampy woodland, and arrived at the tree just like that. Named for Senator M.O. Overstreet in 1927, it was impressively tall and robust while not overly gnarly, and kept company with Lady Liberty, which at 2,000 years and a noticeably svelter silhouette – save for a knotty eye-level north side bustle – made for a May-December pairing. Families with cameras looked up and strolled between the two, the children quickly bored and retreating to the playground.

I snapped a digital shot for a couple who asked, out of proximity rather than expertise, that I take their picture in front of the tree. I then took out my medium format film camera and made some photographs of my own. I make large-scale fine art prints of my work, and feel that I get the best of both worlds by shooting film, and making high resolution scans of the negatives and making archival pigment prints. When I got the film back I knew I had missed my mark: there were some interesting compositions, but I hadn’t captured the spirit of this remarkable being. I was coming to see my subjects as individuals, and as such I wanted to make portraits of them rather than landscapes; to encourage anthropomorphism, and create a means to connect to Deep Time – thousands of years of a life distilled into 1/60th of a second.

And with that, I made an unceremonious decision to return to The Senator when opportunity allowed. In the intervening years I traveled to Greenland for lichens that grown only 1cm every hundred years, to Chile for the strange and wonderful Llareta plant growing at 15,000 feet and a desert-cousin of parsley, and to Western Australia for the stromatolites, tied to the oxygenation of the planet and the very beginnings of all life on Earth. I went to Tasmania in search of a 43,000-year-old shrub that is the last of its species left on earth, rending it both critically endangered and theoretically immortal. But in five years, even despite having visited Florida a couple of times to see family, I did not make it back to The Senator. It was too easy. It would always be there. Surely, if The Senator had been around for 3,500 years, it was going to be around for 3,505.

But it wasn’t.

La Llareta #0308-23B26

Up to 3,000 years old; Atacama Desert, Chile

Sagole Baobab #0707-1086

(2,000 years old; Limpopo Province, South Africa)

Extreme longevity can lull us into a false sense of permanence. We fall into a quotidian reality devoid of long-term thinking, certain that things which have been here “forever” will remain, unchanging. But being old is not the same as being immortal. Even second chances have expiration dates. The comparative ease of access and the seeming lack of urgency bred a certainly complacency in my return to The Senator.

On February 8, 2012, just days before I was to ship out for Antarctica in search of 5,500-year-old moss, I returned to what remained of the ancient tree.

I met Jim Duby, Program Manager of the Seminole County Natural Lands Program, at the locked gate of the park. Jim has been to the site every day since the fire. The investigation is considered ongoing, but after speaking with him, it was hard for me to consider the cause of death to be anything but human intention. There was no lightning recorded in the area during the weeks in question, and the tree had been newly fitted with a lightning rod. The idea that it had spontaneously combusted under its own auspices simply seemed absurd. On the other hand, the tree was visibly hollow before the fire, and an opening at the base of the trunk, once filled with concrete, was now large enough for a person to squeeze through and stand inside. Or to drop a match into, and run. The Senator was likely spared the long-ago ax of the logging industry because it was hollow, but the very same defect ultimately sparked its death.

Underground Forest #0707-10333

13,000 years old; Pretoria, South Africa; also deceased

Stromatolites #1211-0512

2,000 years old; Carbla Station, Western Australia

After spending over six years of my life researching, photographing, and traveling all over the world in search of ancient life, it has put my own mortality into perspective. I have a more immediate understanding of the briefness of a single human life in the face of the incomprehensible vastness of ‘forever,’ and at the same time, when standing in front of these organisms, I feel a connection to the moments, small as molecules, that shape a constantly unfolding narrative on both a micro and macro scale. Any given moment matters.

The charred remains of The Senator Tree, February 8, 2012.

For the Senator, there is a glimmering chance at a second life: clippings from the tree were taken years ago and successfully propagated in a nursery. The resulting trees are now 40 feet tall, and could ostensibly be transplanted into the very spot after a long and careful root-stabilization process. There are also seedlings at its base that, with a little paternity testing, could prove to be its clones rather than its progeny, or perhaps some new growth will be forced from the existing root system stimulated by the stress of the fire.

Only time will tell.

Rachel Sussman is a Brooklyn-based artist and photographer. Over the past six years, she has traveled the world to document Earth’s most ancient organisms in her project The Oldest Living Things in the World. Rachel has exhibited across the U.S. and Europe, received numerous awards, and spoken at TED. You can follow her global adventures on Twitter.

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