Bruno / McLuhan / Net

“Paul Levinson regards Bruno’s de-centered universe as the perfect model of cyberspace … Bruno’s universe, infinite in both space and time, has no “real” or absolute center, since wherever you cut a slice out of infinity, infinity remains. Thus every place an observer stands becomes a relative center for that observer.”
– Robert Anton Wilson, TSOG (from its end-pages preview of The Tale of The Tribe)

The above quote mentions Paul Levinson, author of Digital McLuhan (1999) – which Bob W. once recommended as one of the books that “everybody really needs to chew and digest before they can converse intelligently about the 21st Century”.* Levinson was a doctoral student of Neil Postman at New York University in the late 1970s, during which time he met and befriended Marshall McLuhan (a story I found engagingly told in From Media Theory to Space Odyssey: Petar Jandrić interviews Paul Levinson).

Since writing Digital McLuhan, Prof Levinson has updated his McLuhan-popularising ideas for current media (“social media”, Netflix, etc), and I’ll be commenting on this in later posts – but here I look at the notion of de-centred media/experience which RAW talks about in his tantalizing Tale of The Tribe preview.

Centres everywhere, margins nowhere

“So crucial to the well-being of humanity did the Roman Catholic Church hold the notion of the center—not necessarily the Earth as center, but something, somewhere, as center—that they burned Giordano Bruno at the stake in 1600.”
– Paul Levinson, Digital McLuhan

Under pressure from the church, Galileo had recanted his conclusion that the sun – not the Earth – was the centre of the universe. Giordano Bruno, though, took a more radical view, going way beyond the Copernican heliocentric theory that Galileo supported. Not only was the earth not the centre, neither was the sun:

“[Bruno] wondered if the myriad stars themselves might be suns, with planets around them, and thus each and every one its own center. A universe with an infinity of centers is of course a universe with no centers.”
– Paul Levinson, Digital McLuhan

Galileo substituted one absolute centre for another, but Bruno conceived of a limitless universe that could have no “real” centre.

No centre

“Cyberspace, an indefinite but ever-growing network, also has no absolute center. Every console becomes ‘the’ center for its user.”
– Robert Anton Wilson, TSOG (preview of TTOTT)

Today, we’re (mostly) not unsettled by the “no centre of existence” idea that Bruno apparently held (and which so disturbed the Roman Inquisition). Paul Levinson says this is perhaps partly because we “increasingly live in a centerless world, from the point of view of information.” Marshall McLuhan saw the beginnings of this “centrifugal” process of media decentralization (centrifugal: “fleeing from the centre”, from the Latin centrifugusfugere, ‘flee’) in the ages of print, radio and TV, and Levinson extends it to cyberspace.

Paul writes about the notion of “centers everywhere” as it relates to McLuhan’s concepts of the “global village”, “discarnate man”, “acoustic space” and “light-on/light-through”. He cites Edmund Carpenter, who “makes explicit the relationship of discarnate man to omnicentrality”. In his Oh, What a Blow that Phantom Gave Me! (1972/73), Carpenter notes that “Nixon on TV is everywhere at once. That is the neo-Platonic definition of God”. He describes God as “a Being whose center is everywhere, whose borders are nowhere.”

McLuhan put an equivalent notion in more humanistic terms – that to be discarnate (without a physical body, a material centre) “is” to be everywhere. Levinson says the invocation of “God” (“God’s Space”) seemed apt for radio and TV (since although the relative “centres” appear ‘everywhere’, eg in people’s living rooms, the broadcast has an origin/’centre’, and is one-way, to a ‘passive’ audience). “God”-metaphor obviously seems less apt for the more profound decentralization of personal computers, mobile devices and Internet.

Tale of the Tribe

“Korzybski’s mathematized language structures, like the Fenollosa/Pound emphasis on Chinese ideogram, helps us perceive/conceive Internet in alternative ways, not possible for those restricted to Indo-European semantic structures.”
– Robert Anton Wilson, TSOG (preview of TTOTT)

How do the “alternative ways” of perceiving/conceiving Internet, that RAW talks about here, mesh with extrapolations of McLuhan’s ideas on media, eg on “no centre”? From a semantics perspective, we can consider the conceptual metaphors that McLuhan and the cast of RAW’s ‘Tribe’ use…

As I noted in two previous posts (Inherent “physicality” and Borders & spatial relations), RAW wrote of “matter”, “space”/”time”, boundaries, etc, as fundamentally metaphoric stuff – as one of his ways to get us to “wake up” to our own (usually) unnoticed cognitive roles in constructing the realities we take for granted.

McLuhan’s highly metaphoric presentation drew people’s attention to the (normally) overlooked role that a medium itself has in communication. His metaphors and analogies (“hot” and “cool”, anyone?) dramatized previously unnoticed differences between media. McLuhan seemed to use metaphor in a strange, ‘contrary’ way – at the other end of the spectrum from what you could call conventional or “dead” metaphor (such as when we become so familiar with a given expression that we ‘forget’ its metaphoric origin. Prices don’t “go” “up” or “down”, except metaphorically). The new metaphors might seem counter-intuitive at first, but they get us to think and see in novel, different ways…

But how does this help the “soteriological” aims that RAW seemed committed to? What does “no centre” have to do with “no suffering” (or at least reduced suffering)? Why should we give a damn about McLuhan’s “acoustic space” or “discarnate man”, and how do they relate to RAW’s ideas?

All questions to be revisited in forthcoming posts…

* Digital McLuhan is listed on “R.A.W.’s Recommended Book List”, which you can see by scrolling down, here.

3 thoughts on “Bruno / McLuhan / Net

Add yours

  1. “..what you could call conventional or “dead” metaphor (as when we become so familiar with a given expression that we ‘forget’ its metaphoric origin. Prices don’t “go” “up” or “down”, except metaphorically). It gets us to think and see in novel, different ways…”

    We call that a cliched analogy. Go ahead. Take a stab at it. Keep blogging. I enjoyed this.


    1. You could call it a cliched analogy if you wanted, although a ‘dead metaphor’ refers to something else. An example would be, say, “groundbreaking” – where you don’t even think of it as analogy or metaphor, even though that’s its origin.


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