Note — Oct 11, 2020

Magic and the Machine

Sometimes I consider starting some kind of reading club, for books but also for worthy essays, this one would be a good pick. There are things that seem stretched or even wrong (would be useful to be a McLuhan scholar right about now), but it’s also a beautiful consideration and, I think, an important insight into this current dichotomy many of use feel; a wonder at the possibilities of technology and solutions some might bring, yet a dread and horror at what we and all of our technology are doing to the nature that surrounds us. Abram considers these two sentiments and explores the animistic view shared by so many cultures, how our alphabetized civilization as led us away from this animating of everything that surrounds us, how more and more of our technologies are embedded with pseudo voices and personalities, replacing the magical ones we used to perceive and imagine in nature.

As we increasingly surround ourselves with human-made techs, places, and landscape we are only ever in a manmade context and no longer truly inhabit the planet, even though we originally are off, from, and deeply entwined in nature. We stare at our technology for the otherness which already, and only, really exists outside of our creations.

Relates directly to the Russel Means speech and the piece on coupling the digital with nature from last week.

The coverage of news regarding the more-than-human natural world by modern media remains crazily minuscule relative to the coverage of exclusively human goings-on (of human violence and personal scandals), yet not even the most blinkered news organizations can avoid mentioning cyclones and runaway forest fires when these threaten large swaths of the human population. […]

The members of such cultures seemed to respond to their surroundings as though all things were alive and (at least potentially) aware. Further, from this animistic perspective, it seemed that all things were felt to be expressive; all things had the power of meaningful speech (although, of course, very few of them spoke in words). […]

Hence, far from enacting a clear break with animism, alphabetic literacy can be recognized as a particularly potent form of animism, one which shifts the locus of magic—or meaning—away from our interactions with the more-than-human surroundings to the relation between ourselves and our own signs. […]

Far from igniting a sense of wonder, these artifacts offer only a sham facsimile of wonder, and speaking with them draws one into an airless space where feeling falls away, a virtual and vapid zone where real wonder goes to die. […]

And so we remain transfixed by these tools, searching in and through our digital engagements for an encounter they seem to promise yet never really provide: the consummate encounter with otherness, with radical alterity, with styles of sensibility and intelligence that thoroughly exceed the limits of our own sentience.