Sunday, March 26, 2023

Haptic Happiness: Analog as Allegory

“Ever since Adam, who has really gotten the meaning of this great allegory—the world?”
– Herman Melville, 1851

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
– Arthur C. Clarke, 1968

In “The Machine Stops,” a short story written by E.M. Forster in 1909, the famed novelist surprised the many lovers of his compelling but still conventional fiction, highly regarded tomes such as A Room With a View, A Passage to India, Maurice, and Howards End, by taking a radical detour into the kind of speculative fiction most often associated with science and its limits. He went on a similar jaunt in 1914 with his collection of stories called The Eternal Moment, which explored parallel science fiction themes and supernatural speculations. Throughout his lengthy writing career, during which he lived long enough to witness humans landing on the moon, he frequently alternated between entertaining social observation writing and the vividly imaginative ideas he explored in his wildly cerebral Celestial Omnibus. In fact, “The Machine Stops was so utterly astonishing largely due to its surmise, nearly a century before the internet even existed as a concept, that we might eventually occupy, via technics (the original and official word for technology), a world where we are interconnected through a threshold-breaking mechanical means which starts out as a benevolent helper but invariably ends up virtually colonizing our very definition of reality.

I have long been a proponent of analog forms of art and entertainment, and even bemoan to friends what we have lost from the 20th-century formats and motifs which are receding ever faster in the rear-view mirror as we hurtle full throttle into a future commandeered, and even to some extent HR-managed, by machines with continually more sophisticated delivery systems for their content. So much so that we can often lose sight of the fact that the actual aesthetic content, which is most often expressions of human longing or regret, hasn’t really changed that much over generations or systems of delivery and only the digital platter on which the sensory information is being served has altered. For example, the core melody of Bach’s Minuet in G Major from 1725 morphed brilliantly into the still analog pop domain of Sandy Linzer when he penned the fabulous tune “Lover’s Concerto” in 1966 for the Supremes-like girl group The Toys, and then that same minuet glides seamlessly and almost indiscernibly into a 21st-century digital electronic dance pop tune channeled by the otherworldly talent of Moby. I suspect it will still be being transmuted into the 22nd century, although probably mashed into a new sonic style format by some audacious new Artificial Intelligence vehicle or other.

So I was delighted to encounter two interlinked books from MIT Press at the same time, in a manner which accidentally but astutely clarified the nostalgic dilemma I often embrace, and with such subliminal and even subterranean subjects and themes that their coming together onto my writing desk sometimes seems like karma, if not at least a revealing synchronicity. Analog by Robert Hassan is an entry in MIT’s Essential Knowledge series in which the author asks us to consider a salient question: “Why, surrounded by screens and smart devices, do we feel a deep connection to the analog form, to books, vinyl records, fountain pens, Kodak film, and other nondigital tools?” And This Great Allegory by Gerhard Richter (not the painter) explores the relation between two worlds: the world in which an artwork is created, a world which over time perishes due to entropy beyond interpretive understanding, and the new, almost permanent world that the artwork opens up for us to live in, however briefly.

This was the context in which I was also propitiously reminded of that great but underappreciated Forster story “The Machine Stops,” when yet another pertinent tangent was gifted to me by David Sax (author of The Future is Analog) in an article in The Globe and Mail in November of 2022. In it he observed, “The digital future, we’re assured, is only a matter of time. But we become lost when we try to replace the human with the digital. The full-body roller coaster that is human existence on planet earth: when we try to replace that reality with a digital facsimile, we are lost. The future is analog, because we are analog.” To a large degree, this was the dangerous potential for intentional oblivion that Forster was presciently forecasting way back in 1909, long before computers even existed, when he imagined an automated world governed by the Machine. It is also the realm of both artistic and sociological reflection being explored, each in their own distinctive manner, in both Hassan’s Analog and Richter’s This Great Allegory.

In “The Machine Stops,” people all live safe and secure, if truncated, lives in underground pods protected from any elements at all other than electronic. All of their usual needs, food, recreation, education, entertainment, and medical health, are managed by a spookily internet-like Machine, which may as well be considered a God, since they practically worship it as such (via a ‘religion’ scarily called Technopoly). But the chief protagonist in Forster’s grim narrative, a character named Kuno, laments what has been lost, especially in long-distance flickering-screen conversations with his mother, whom he never actually meets, and to whom he complains that rather than eliminating space and distance it is only the sense of space and distance they/we have obliterated. “But we also have lost a part of ourselves,” Kuno complains. Indeed, as Sax emphasizes, a digital encounter is not quite the same as a real haptic conversation in a real room. The rest of Forster’s story is an ominous, and possibly visionary, exploration of what might happen if the technology we become totally dependent upon one day simply stops functioning.

After developing a series of mechanical ailments and flaws which no one is able to repair because they never had to do so, the Machine shudders into silence and finally collapses altogether, bringing an over- dependent humanity down with it. Sadly, before they become extinct, people realize that humanity and its connection to the natural world are what really matters and that it will require the “surface-dwellers” above the electric cave-pods to re-establish civilization and prevent the errors embedded in The Machine’s power over them from ever being repeated in the future, if there is one. Echoing Forster, Sax put it in The Future is Analog:  “Humans have genuine social needs and if those needs aren’t met, we will actually perish. For the past few years we have overdosed on digital. Now, we’re reckoning with an epic hangover. We face a choice, strap on our headsets, double down, and plunge deeper into the metaverse. Or step back, reconnect to our bodies and the world and find a way to build a more human future.”

This somewhat melancholy Forster-esque frame of mind was the ideal one, I suddenly realized, in which to ruminate on both of these superb books from MIT Press, and in Analog, Hassan invites us along on his highly accessible and entertainingly concise guided tour of how we got to where we are and why we need to actively appreciate more cogently what the analog domain really was, and still is, rather than pompously imagining it as something antique to be left behind. Because it isn’t, because we are still analog, despite the latest technics and tools we’ve devised or inherited, and at the very least we might contemplate how the binary realms of nature, including all of us, are merely being replicated numerically via the digital Janus codes of zeroes and ones in the computerized simulacrum. This is obviously the case, or else there would be no clear way to adequately comprehend or communicate the everyday miracles of natural reciprocal maintenance via the balance of opposites resulting in the proportional harmonies we recognize in seashells, snowflakes, cabbages, oranges, butterfly wings or galaxies, which all share precisely the same basic ratio relationships and design structures. (And Gyorgy Doczi has done just that in his sterling 1980 tome called The Power of Limits: Proportional Harmonies in Nature, Art and Architecture.)

MIT Press, 2023; MIT Press, 2022.

Robert Hassan is Professor of Media and Communications at the University of Melbourne and has authored some eleven books, among them the charmingly titled Uncontained: Digital Detox and the Experience of Time. That title alone, holding out the promise of a therapeutic way out of our techno cul de sac, is an instant indicator of how he goes about approaching heavy-duty subjects and themes in a way that any relatively normal mortal can absorb. His writing has the extremely desirable advantage of being accessible and non-specialist or cumbersomely academic in tone, though the reader also knows at once that this author is impressively erudite but is not prone to demonstrating his knowledge base to other experts. Instead, and in keeping with MIT’s Essential Knowledge series of pocket-size snapshots of our shared reality, he talks to us directly as a leading thinker in the field of cultural politics but in a manner you might hope for in a sotto voce conversation at a fascinating cocktail party. Analog is an expert overview, yes, but it is also an easy to use (in the best sense of that phrase) tool with which to encounter the foundational knowledge that informs a principled understanding of the world we live in. As such, when it does touch upon other thinkers such as the great Walter Benjamin and Marshall McLuhan, which is frequently, it does so in a way that feels like they too are attending that same cocktail party.

 “We need to know analog better.” Hassan explains.

We need to be able to identify the analog gap in our lives that comes from an inability to understand he human-technology relationship, especially now, in the context of domination by digital. The human relationship with technology is our very earliest connection. It was what made us Homo sapiens, the self-proclaimed wise creatures who evolved with tools to dominate all other species. And until the emergence of digital these tools were always analog.
In other words, they were haptic, continuous and parallel to our senses, and thus “the happy frisson we may feel when we see, touch or use an analog technology is not just nostalgia, but is recognition also.” And then he comfortably defines analog as “relating to or using signals or information represented by a continuously variable physical quality such as spatial position, voltage or frequency.” Whereas digital tech, as Hassan’s super-valuable glossary outlines it, refers to machine processes and forms of logic that are based on the principle of discrete or discontinuous data values, the primary logic of computation. It is best contextualized here as the opposite of analog processes that are based on principles of continuity and flow.

Therefore, we can recognize analog’s embodied meanings because they are echoes of our own physical embodiment. It may surprise some people to learn that the mono recordings of brilliant pop/rock music produced by The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Brian Wilson’s Beach Boys, or early Bob Dylan masterpieces, all prior to the invention of stereo, are so superior to the marketing gimmick of artificial division of stereophonic sound that they are beyond compare. The music takes place in the centre of your head, rather than banished arbitrarily to a left channel and a right channel: “The Beatles’ White Album and the LAMY fountain pen are material things that connect us to the material world we occupy, and ultimately to nature and to the cosmos.” I would also add the proviso that this is especially the case when it comes to the (in)famous composition by LennOno called “Revolution #9,” whose magic is stunningly delivered solely via analog tape loops. No doubt digital also has a kind of magic prowess of its own, mostly due to data storage, speed and hyper-accuracy, the qualities that prompted science fiction master Arthur C. Clarke to declare that advanced techno-logical knowledge is indistinguishable from magic.

This image is what the real world of information and knowledge used to look like, and I readily admit to missing its seductive appeal, especially since it hasn’t yet vanished and is still available to lovers of the haptic domain. You can almost smell the aroma of this environment. Just as you can still smell the aroma of visual reveries being fabricated in the art studio of contemporary painters, even in this drastically flickering 21st century of ours. And the manner in which our actual haptic world is naturally prone to entropy and decay, even to recurring extinctions altogether, is explored in the other truly mind-boggling MIT book (literally) sitting on my desk in front of me next to my Lamy fountain pens and moleskin notebooks. Therein lies a tale of accidental discovery, in my case, and an appreciation for a kind of serendipity so deeply operating at some sort of archetypal level as to warrant the name synchroncity, which is what Professor Jung called meaningful coincidence. I was unfamiliar with the actual author of this other MIT Press book This Great Allegory: On World-Decay and World-Opening in the Work of Art, Gerhard Richter, largely because as an art critic I was so familiar with the raucously messy analog paintings of another Gerhard Richter, whose large-scale blurred and scraped pictures, both hyper-realist and super-abstract (in addition to his photographs and films), have garnered him well-earned attention as one of the most important postmodern artists in the world. When I saw his name in the publisher’s new catalogue, I presumed I was requesting the ruminations of a favourite painter of mine. The happy accident of a haptically fixated critic perhaps.

There always a frisson of some subtlety when one discovers, or comes upon, or stumbles into by sheer chance, a writer who shares one’s appreciation for certain authors, artists and philosophers, even if he expresses his ideas about their works in quite a different manner from oneself. So it is with the author Gerhard Richter, whose new book is crammed with riches of the highest order, as long as one has the patience or leisure to successfully navigate the source material and the awesome erudition of his delivery. Fortunately for me, I do. And also, I’m enough of a superstitious sort to once again share my adage, “Chance is the fool’s name for fate”. Richter is the Ballou University Professor of German Studies and Comparative Literature at Brown University. He is also the author of too many books to name, including the singularly insightful Thinking with Adorno: The Uncoercive Gaze, as well as Uncontainable Legacies: Theses on Cultural Inheritance, a title that strikes a distinctive chord most crucially from my perspective as a synchronicity fanatic and grateful reader of Hassan’s The Uncontained: Digital Detox. His powerful and compelling study This Great Allegory is the kind of book that one can continue reading (excavating, really) for years, due to the manifold tendrils and interconnected poets, writers, musicians, artists and philosophers it sweeps into its scholarly embrace.

Even the most straightforward outline of those tendrils is rather breathtaking: Heidegger, Hölderlin, Blanchot, Bataille, Herzog, Celan, Schoenberg, Adorno, Benjamin, Nietzsche and Kafka... all of whom just happen to be among my favourite thinkers and writers, in addition to a tidal wave of favourite visual artists as well, among them: Pablo Picasso, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Jasper Johns, Cy Twombly, and yes, perhaps most propitiously for me, his namesake Gerhard Richter, whose fascination with the colour gray as a valid and important pivot point in modern and postmodern art is explored in a wide arc of appreciation for his contention that “the truth is always gray.” That grayness is introduced almost immediately in Richter’s Introduction, “The Work of Art and the Notion of a World,” in which he delivers the source of his cryptic book title in a letter from Herman Melville to fellow novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1851 just after the publication of Moby Dick.

It seems like an obscure rhetorical question at first, asking after the meaning of the allegory which is our actual world. The earth is an allegory, a metaphorical story already of itself, even before we humans pour into and over it the endless sagas of our own fabula, our allegories derived from that embodied inherently in the world as a physical fact, as an embodied meaning. But Melville, and then Richter, travels far afield in a shimmering tapestry woven from the wondrous nature of two thing: a finite and forever decaying planet, and an infinite and ever-evolving world of art and ideas. But how can the actual world be an allegory? Melville never makes this clear, and, truth be told, neither does Richter, but then that is not the mission statement here anyway. Like so much else in our culture, the word allegory derives from the Greek word allegorein, meaning to speak otherwise, and suggesting a connecting symbol, simile, synecdoche, metaphor, fable or parable.

And since the actual meaning of this great allegory of the world itself can never, or will never, be fully known or understood by us, despite all our clever projections, Richter suggests that we look to the most obvious place for a kind of lateral meaning: to the work of art. This edifice includes, poetry, comedy, tragedy, theatre, painting, music, film, photography, literature, and of course all of philosophy. As a fellow academic of his, Rebecca Comay, observes from her adjacent perch as Professor of Philosophy and Comparative Literature at the University of Toronto, “In the course of this investigation Richter makes a strong case for the centrality of the artwork (in determining the meaning of experiences) and for the seemingly infinite work of interpretation that every artwork solicits (from every reader or viewer).” We thus appear live in multifarious worlds, each one perpetually liberating itself from the limits of time and entropy (albeit if only temporarily). 

In addition to exploring this multiple reality motif through modern, postmodern and contemporary works of art, thankfully Richter also follows in the footsteps of another great cultural anthropologist Siegfried Gideon, author of Space, Time and Architecture, and The Eternal Present, and spends a considerable amount of his word count on the very first intentional works of art fund in Chauvet, Lascaux and a vast number of similar prehistoric cave sites throughout Europe dated to roughly 30,000 BCE. And Richter ably updates Gideon’s remarkable book-length cave study by including the German filmmaker Werner Herzog’s own enlightening descent into the depths of antiquity via his highly poetic cinematic meditation Cave of Forgotten Dreams. In that film, like most Herzog ventures, the director asks penetrating questions about what it means to be human, specifically wondering what motives compelled these primordial artists to leave behind astonishing works of painted art submerged in total darkness, as if knowing that someday, some vague ancestors might stumble upon them and marvel at how these artisans outlived the temporal limits of their world-decay and succeeded in creating a world-opening at least as spiritually riveting as the huge Guernica homage executed by Pablo Picasso in 1937.

Guernica, Pablo Picasso (Artsper)

In other words, every picture (or poem or music or book) tells a story, and every viewer, listener or reader sees and hears a different story, as if there are a multitude of worlds, not just one. And indeed, so there are, as Richter richly clarifies in his summing up:

Having queried the work of art in its relation to world-decay and world-opening by traveling through heterogeneous works from the realms of lyric poetry, painting, music, film, literature and photography, we are now in a position to hear the question with which we began: Melville’s “Who has gotten the meaning of this great allegory—the world?” in different modulated terms. The world out of which a work of art arises subsequently falls into decay, vanishing into the recesses of history. While that very same work of art sets up a new world according to its own terms. Situated in between word-decay and world-opening, a genuine aesthetic object reminds us in idiomatic ways that it is always our world that is at stake.

And that is precisely why certain gargantuan works of art, whether they be visual like Picasso’s Guernica and Richter’s Cage Series, or literary such as Cervantes’ Don Quixote and Melville’s Moby Dick, can never go out of style. Because they are beyond mere style: they are embodied meanings.

Painter Gerhard Richter working on a “Cage” painting in his Cologne studio in 2006. (Photo: Hubert Becker)

 Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the recent book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, as well as the biographies Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, 2018, and Tumult!: The Incredible Life and Music of Tina Turner2020, and a book on the life and art of the enigmatic Yoko Ono, Yoko Ono: An Artful Life, released in April 2022. His latest work in progress is a new book on family relative Charles Brackett's films made with his partner Billy Wilder, Double Solitaire: The Films of Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder.

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