Three Ecologies and the Composition of Space
by Adam Robbert
I’ve been revisiting Eric and Marshall Mcluhan’s Laws of Media: The New Science. Its my first return to the work since I steeped myself in all things media ecology last summer. In particular, I’ve found myself gripped by the Mcluhan’s commentary on what they call “Post-Euclidean Acoustic Space,” a meditation on the construction of space as a concept. Space, for media ecologists like the Mcluhans is not a given artifact of existence, but is rather a particular abstraction, or way of organizing human experience, that emerges in Greece (and probably elsewhere too) as the result of both the development of alphabetic language, and later by a geometrical conception of reality as extended space, exemplified by Descartes’ formulation that “brought the physical world, as an abstract machine, into line with geometrical space” (p. 27).
In the early 20th century, it seemed that scientists would have to look back upon history and explore how it is that “space” and “reality” became synonymous concepts, since it appeared that Einstein et al had greatly complexified the understanding of both space and time. The McLuhan’s write: “When the consonant was invented as a meaningless abstraction, vision detached itself from the other senses and visual space began to form” (p. 13), This view of human experience as centered on visual perception, which separated out the integrative functioning of other senses such as hearing and tactility, coupled with the conceptual understanding of “space” as a literal ontological structure, rather than as an abstract construction of human consciousness, is precisely what led to the difficulties, and counterintuitive nature of understanding the curved and enfolded quality of Einstein’s then emerging cosmology.
Space, it seemed from a post-Einsteinian perspective, was an untenable hypothesis. What does this mean exactly? That space itself is historically situated and constructed? That “reality” is a construct of human cultures and societies? Yes and no I think are both good answers. Yes, because it seems clear that the idea of “space” as an absolute is unnecessary since, if we follow the Mcluhan’s assessment (and others such as Walter Ong or Eric Havelock), space appears to have emerged as a concept at a particular moment in history and is contingent upon the creation of certain media ecologies (the alphabet, writing and geometry in this case). No, because to reduce reality to human interpretations of it precisely misses the point of what is so interesting about media ecology, namely the role nonhuman artifacts and environments play in the construction of “the real.” Media ecology is about diverse interactions and compositions of perspectives and mediums, not just anthropocentric subjectivities.
I have been interested in these questions for a long time and feel again affirmed that the notion of ecology as a general principle of relationships, rather than a strict definition of organisms and environments, lends itself to exploring the complexities of such problems. So far I have delineated three ecological domains: natural ecology, media ecology, and knowledge ecology. I wouldn’t want to give the impression that these three domains are bounded systems or unities of any sort, nor that one exists prior to the other. Rather, I see them as unbounded, open, and co-emergent (see the previous post on Unruly Complexity). Despite their messy entanglements, I do see good reason to consider these three ecologies as qualitatively different contexts.
Eric and Marshal Mcluhan focus on one of these domains: the media ecology. I’d like to suggest that in order to more adequately explore the issues of space and perception they are calling us to think through, we must also consider the natural and knowledge ecologies. The principles of all three ecologies are largely the same, they are: complex, recursive, evolutionary, contingent, and above all, ontologically concrete. Perception is situated not just in a media ecology, but in all three ecologies. I would argue that media ecologies are flanked on both sides by natural ecological components, and components of a knowledge ecology. This may sound like I am situating all three ecologies relative to human experience, but this is in fact not the case. Nonhumans also both contain and participate in the three ecologies. A horseshoe crab, for example, would have its own natural, media, and knowledge ecologies. I haven’t so far extended my thesis to living and nonliving actors (such as it seems Levi Bryant is poised to do), but the three ecologies do at least make the step towards accounting for the ontological and epistemological circumstances of all organisms, and not just humans.
Rethinking the transition from Euclidean Space to Einstenian Space (or “Post-Euclidean Space” as the Mcluhans would have it), in terms of these three interlocking ecologies is, I think, beneficial. It is not just the introduction of new media such as phonetic alphabets, mass printing, or mathematics that concerns us in the transformation of concepts like space. Rather, it is also the physical characteristics of the human body that allow it to link to letters and numbers visually that must also be considered. Furthermore, the media ecology of writing may enable activities like philosophical thought (writing is often linked to abstraction for meda ecologists), but the varieties of philosophical thought must also be considered, on a more subtle level, in terms of the ecologies of knowledge that are produced.
Space, then, can be ontologically real as an enacted composition, but also must be considered to be historical and contingent. In other words, space is ecologically situated within a more concrete cosmological picture. This to me is very interesting for they way it shows how knowledge systems are not just heuristic or epistemological devices that enabled certain modes of perception, but also that ecologies of knowledge are real in a dynamic, ontological sense. This is why I consider an ecology of knowledge as real from an ontological perspective as a natural or media ecology.Thinking of space and perception in this way, I think, also makes sense from on object-oriented perspective, since we are in fact positioning objects (or whole ecologies of objects) prior to space and time. OOO is pretty consilient with the Einstenian view at the end of the day.