The civility that is meant to be the foundation of civilization has become an antiquated thing of the past. Our new culture is not so much postmodern as postcivilized, and this cultural shift involves not a step forward but an electronic meltdown of civilization in which barbarism and savagery boil up to the surface once again. As James Joyce prophesied in Finnegans Wake: “Television kills telephony in brothers’ broil.”
At each stage in the cultural evolution of humanity, a new medium of communication comes forth, and the medium then effects a shift to a new form of polity. We begin with the origins of language in the African savanna, and we end up with the disintegration of literature on the Internet.
With the rise of the new postwar forms of electronic communication, philosophy and reasoned discourse could no longer hold together in the supersaturated solution of the global media. Democracy was replaced by mediocracy; citizen was replaced by media subject. Vast electronic latifundia took control of sports, entertainment, politics, journalism, and education; in fact, all forms of culture simply became variants of the entertainment industry. In the hands of a few giants of industry, new mergers created new global streams of techno-swill in which the believing subject was fed like cattle in feedlots.
The citizen who is “morphing” into the loyal subject of the media demands participation in the pageantry. He or she too wishes to become a celebrity and go on television. People will do anything or say anything to go on afternoon talk shows. Good taste and decorum are expressions of the vanished civilization. Television becomes, in fact, a new kind of human sacrifice. Rather than an Aztec ripping out of the heart from a living body and a tumbling of the bloody corpse down the pyramid steps before an awe-inspired multitude, we have a new form of evisceration in which the heart of the individual’s life is ripped out. Each spectator of the pageantry of the media tries to become his or her own spectacle. Fast-fame takeouts litter the information superhighway strips of the new electronic America. The media acolytes seek to attack the White House to gain attention, verbally expose themselves sexually on afternoon talk shows, or form a congregation around their personal obsessions.
If talk show hosts and radio commentators gain attention and become rich only to the degree that they are intellectually pornographic, why shouldn’t the average subject of the mediocracy aspire to his or her own fabrications of cultural history: that the holocaust never happened, that NASA never went to the moon and that the moon landing was all done in a television studio, that the Rockefellers are planning to set off a thermonuclear war and shift their headquarters from New York to Crestone, Colorado.
The representational government of the traditional literate nation-state undergoes an electronic meltdown in which archaic forms surface in new formations. Reasoned discourse in parliaments and senates is replaced by celebrity management for the new masses of the electronic mediocracy. As politics and sports create the Superbowl of the permanent presidential campaign, civilized discourse is displaced to the academy, but as reason is now powerless to counter either the economy of late capitalism or electronic media’s power to swamp literacy, “discourse” becomes an object of academic analysis, and violence becomes the virtual mode of discourse. As McLuhan said, “the sloughed-off environment becomes a work of art in the new and invisible environment.” The new and invisible environment is the shift from natural selection through the vehicle of the human animal body by cultural intrusion. In suburban culture, with rifles and family values, we have the ghost dance of the rednecks. In urban postmodern culture, however, the body is the sloughed-off environment, so it is being painted, sculpted, pierced, lifted, and tucked. Since sex is no longer the agency of natural selection, sexual words become the punctuation marks in the new discourse of violence. “Fuck” and “bitch” are not tropes in the traditional sense of poetic discourse; they are cries in a sociobiological agon and part of the male display of conflict.
For the epoch of biological evolution, the human body had its own forms of signaling when to start and when to stop violent conflict. But because of what McLuhan termed “the media extensions of man,” the evolutionary system of inhibition expressed in the body and its forms of body language is short-circuited. Consider the fact that if we bump into someone around the corner, we back off and courteously excuse ourselves. But if someone cuts in front of us on the highway in an automobile, we shout out our obscenities in a steel-encased rage. We lose the system of check and balances expressed in the physical body with its biological systems for dealing with and containing aggression. Consider again how people on talk radio will become enraged over the day’s news, or how people who live in the cyberspace of electronic bulletin boards will “go up in flames.” There are no bodies in these modes of communication, so as we shift to out-of-body forms of projection into cyberspace networks, it is not surprising that the astral plane takes us over as we become possessed by those noetic parasites that older cultures liked to call demons.
—Coming Into Being, William Irwin Thompson