Literary/Aesthetic Cliché-Probes



The third to surf the post-McLuhan wave was Arthur Kroker (1945-). But with a double twist. As a counter-environment to both the Toronto school of media ecology and the New York school, there developed the Montreal school around the Canadian Journal of Political and Social Theory edited by Kroker.  Initially inspired by Donald Theall‘s book on McLuhan, THE MEDIUM IS THE REAR VIEW MIRROR:

Understanding McLuhan (1971) and his work at McGill University in the late sixties and early seventies – Theall having been McLuhan’s first Ph.D. graduate – this school targeted both ends of the McLuhan dialectic. Scanning past Baudrillard‘s notion of “theory fiction”, Kroker et al. foregrounded the incipient organicity of “technology” – the fact that the mediascape had come alive

(“The important thing is to realize that electric information systems are live environments in the full organic sense.”-

Marshall McLuhan [with Quentin Fiore],

WAR AND PEACE IN THE GLOBAL VILLAGE: An Inventory of Some of the Current Spastic Situations that Could Be Eliminated by More Feedforward, 1968, p.36).

If this appears as an approach perversely similar to science fiction, then it needs to be appreciated as entirely consistent with McLuhan’s artistic strategy, on one level, of a more sophisticated and complex invasion and critique of the popular genre as illustrated in a letter McLuhan wrote to his mother in 1952 after the publication of THE MECHANICAL BRIDE in 1951:

“The Mechanical Bride is really a new form of science fiction, with ads and comics cast as characters. Since my object is to show the community in action rather than *prove* anything, it can indeed be regarded as a new kind of novel.” –

LETTERS, p.217.

Kroker’s artistic agenda was to scratch the blackboard that displayed the iconic image of McLuhan as a technotopian created by Madison Avenue’s mediascape in the sixties. Kroker did this by stressing the political and creative implications of the principle (and McLuhan’s little-known aphorism)

“the user is the content”

that McLuhan had purposely suppressed in his art

(“When I say ‘the medium is the message’, I suppress the fact that the user or audience or cognitive agent is both the ‘content’ and maker of the experience, in order to highlight the *effects* of the medium, or the hidden environment or *ground* of the experience. The nineteenth century, as the first great consumer age, suppressed the function of the user and the public as cognitive agent and producer. The Pre-Raphaelites at least strove to overcome the passive consumer bias of an industrial time by stressing the role of *work* and crafts in art and society.” –

Ibid., p.443).

An example of an explicit statement of Kroker’s program apropos of McLuhan:

“To dismiss McLuhan as a technological determinist is to miss entirely the point of his intellectual contribution. McLuhan’s value as a theorist of culture and technology began just when he went over the hill to the side of the alien and surrealistic world of mass communications: the ‘real world’ of technology where the nervous system is exteriorised and everyone is videoated daily like sitting screens for television. Just because McLuhan sought *to see* the real world of technology, and even to celebrate technological reason as freedom, he could provide such superb, first-hand accounts of the new society of electronic technologies. McLuhan was fated to be trapped in the deterministic world of technology, indeed to become one of the intellectual servomechanisms of the machine-world, because his Catholicism failed to provide him with an adequate cultural theory by which to escape the hegemony of the abstract media systems that he had sought to explore. Paradoxically, however, it was just when McLuhan became most cynical and most deterministic, when he became fully aware of the nightmarish quality of the ‘medium as massage’, that his thought becomes most important as an entirely creative account of the great paradigm-shift now going on in twentieth-century experience. McLuhan was then, in the end, trapped in the ‘figure’ of his own making. His discourse could provide a brilliant understanding of the inner functioning of the technological media; but no illumination concerning how ‘creative freedom’ might be won through in the ‘age of anxiety, and dread’. In a fully tragic sense, McLuhan’s final legacy was this: he was the playful perpetrator, and then victim, of a sign-crime.” –

Arthur Kroker,
Innis/McLuhan/Grant, 1984, pp.85-86.

But Kroker was pursuing a valid posture for media ecology because the post-satellite and post-instant replay, digital environment of the eighties replayed a hologram that boiled at the speed of thought and simulated the individual autonomy evoked by the earlier environment of slower speed-of-light, mixed corporate-media that McLuhan parodied. In this later context, the role of theory fiction performed by the pentadic Menippean technoscape required the response of “panic writing”:

“In McLuhan’s terms, life in the simulacrum of the mediascape consists of a big reversal: the simulacrum of the image-system goes inside; consciousness is ablated. In the sightscape of television, just like before it in the soundscape of radio, the media function as a gigantic (and exteriorised) electronic nervous system, amplifying technologically our every sense, and playing sensory functions back to us in the processed form of *mutant* images and sounds. TV life? That’s television as a mutant society: the mediascape playing back to us our *own* distress as a simulated and hyperreal sign of life.” –

Arthur Kroker and David Cook,

THE POSTMODERN SCENE: Excremental Culture and Hyper-Aesthetics, 1986, p.277.

This organic mutantscape thus left the global audience free to create new networks on the imaginary sidelines:

“In mathematized space, the body is only understandable cabalistically: a topographical filiation *en abyme*, a perspectival simulacrum, a fractal figure with no (hyperreal) existence except as part of a large holographic pattern, the product of the folded space of culture as a fuzzy set without depth.” –

Arthur Kroker,
Panic Value: Bacon, Colville, Baudrillard and the Aesthetics of Deprivation in LIFE AFTER POSTMODERNISM: Essays on Value and Culture, 1987(edited and introduced by John Fekete), p.187.

Via Kroker, his wife, Marilouise Kroker, and David Cook, the Montreal school produced five books in the eighties:



    Excremental Culture and Hyper-Aesthetics


    Essays on Value and Culture

(1987, edited and introduced by John Fekete),

    panic sex in America

(1987), and

    the definitive guide to the postmodern scene


An ex-seminarian, Kroker retrieved the probes of Nietzsche for his refusal of the Toronto school:

“Nietzsche is, then, the limit and possibility of the postmodern condition. He is the *limit* of postmodernism because, as a thinker who was so deeply fixated by the death of the grand referent of God, Nietzsche was the last and best of all the modernists. In The Will to Power, the postmodernist critique of representation achieves its most searing expression and, in Nietzsche’s understanding of the will as a ‘perspectival simulation’, the fate of postmodernity as a melancholy descent into the violence of the death of the social is anticipated. And Nietzsche is the *possibility* of the postmodern scene because the double-reversal which is everywhere in his thought and nowhere more so than in his vision of artistic practice as the release of the ‘dancing star’ of the body as a *solar system* is, from the beginning of time, the negative cue, the ‘expanding field’ of the postmodern condition.

Nietzsche’s legacy for the *fin-de-millenium* mood of the postmodern scene is that we are living on the violent edge between ecstasy and decay; between the melancholy lament of postmodernism over the death of the grand signifiers of modernity – consciousness, truth, sex, capital, power – and the ecstatic nihilism of ultramodernism; between the body as a torture-chamber and pleasure-palace; between fascination and lament. But this is to say that postmodernism comes directly out of the bleeding tissues of the body – out of the body’s fateful oscillation between the finality of ‘time’s it was’ (the body as death trap) and the possibility of experiencing the body (*au-dela* of Nietzsche) as a ‘solar system’ – a dancing star yes, but also a black hole – which is the source of the hyper-nihilism of the flesh of the postmodern kind.” –

Arthur Kroker,

And retrieved St. Augustine (see Arthur Kroker, THE POSTMODERN SCENE, pp.35-72) for his refusal of Lotringer’s New York school:

“This is *imaging* to such a degree of hyper-abstraction that Jean Baudrillard’s insight in Simulations that the ‘real is that of which it is possible to give an equivalent reproduction’ is now rendered obsolescent by the actual transformation of the simulacrum with its hyperreality effects into its opposite: a *virtual* technology mediated with designer bodies processed through computerized imaging-systems. When technology in its ultramodernist phase connects again with the primitivism of mythic fear turned radical, it’s no longer the Baudrillardian world of the simulacrum and hyperrealism, but a whole new scene of *virtual* technology and the end of the fantasy of the Real. Electronic art is the limit of postmodern aesthetics.” –

Ibid., p.15.

Kroker was correctly intuiting that the ultramodernist phase required perception of the suiciding of the Menippean media-dance:

“And likewise with Colville’s Man, Woman and Boat and Four Figures on a Wharf. These paintings (reminiscent of de Chirico’s Turin meditations) are metaphysical because they illustrate the ontology of hyperrealism: our disappearance into the fascinating, and relational, topology of a measured and calculative universe. Here, everything has been reduced to perspectival relations of spatial contiguity (the mummy-like figures of Man, Woman and the symmetry of the classical statuary); the water, in both paintings, does not represent an edge, but the opposite – the dissolution of all borders; the mapping of which is sidereal and topographical. We might say, in fact, that these paintings figure the double liquidation of classical mythological space (Four Figures on a Wharf is a hologram for the world as a fuzzy set), and modern panoptic space (for there is no disappearing viewpoint in Man, Woman and Boat). As the immolation of classical and panoptic space, they also work to provide the internal grammatical rules of the intensely mathematized space of ultramodernism: folded in time, more real than the real, always topological and fractal. Consequently, the ultra-symmetry of colours, figures, and textures in Man, Woman and Boat and Four Figures on a Wharf are real because their very perfection indicates their *hyperreal* existence as sliding signifiers in a topographical and aestheticized surface of events. In space as a designer, mathematical construct, the boat floats on the water, the classical statuary is geometrically abstracted, and the designer environment is superior to any original because its ontology is that of excessive *hyper-nature*.” –

Arthur Kroker,

Panic Value: Bacon, Colville, Baudrillard and the Aesthetics of Deprivation in LIFE AFTER POSTMODERNISM: Essays on Value and Culture, 1987 (edited and introduced by John Fekete), p.187.

“And so, postmodern culture in America is what is playing at your local theatre, TV set, office tower, or sex outlet. Not the beginning of anything new or the end of anything old, but the catastrophic, because fun, implosion of America into a whole series of panic scenes at the *fin-de-millenium*.

Panic God: This is Jimmy Bakker and what the press love to describe as the ‘heavily mascaraed Tammy Faye’. Not just TV evangelicals brought to ground by a double complicity – Jerry Falwell’s will to money and Jimmy Schwaggart’s will to power – but Jimmy and Tammy as the first, and perhaps the best, practitioners of the New American religious creed of *post-Godism*. TV evangelicism, then, is all about the creation of a postmodern God: not religion under the sign of panoptic power, but the hyper-God of all the TV evangelicals as so fascinating and so fungible, because this is where God has disappeared as a grand referent, and reappeared as an empty sign-system, waiting to be filled, indeed *demanding* to be filled, if contributions to the TV evangelicals are any measure, by all the waste, excess and sacrificial burnout of Heritage Park, U.S.A. An excremental God, therefore, for an American conservative culture disappearing into its own burnout, detritus, and decomposition. For Jimmy and Tammy’s disgrace is just a momentary *mise-en-scene* as the soap opera of a panic god reverses field on itself, and everyone waits for what is next in the salvation myth, American-style: Jimmy and Tammy in their struggle through a period of dark tribulations and hard trials on their way to asking forgiveness (on Ted Koppel’s Nightline show on ABC). As Jimmy Bakker once said: ‘In America, you have to be excessive to be successful’. Or, as Tammy likes to sign out all her TV shows: ‘Just remember. Jesus loves you. He *really, really* does’….

Panic TV: This is Max Headroom as a harbinger of the post-bourgeois individual of estheticized liberalism who actually vanishes into the simulacra of the information system, whose face can be digitalized and fractalized by computer imaging because Max is living out a panic conspiracy in TV as the real world, and whose moods are perfectly postmodern because they alternate between kitsch and dread, between the ecstasy of catastrophe and the terror of the simulacra. Max Headroom, then, is the first citizen of the end of the world.”

– Arthur and Marilouise Kroker, ‘Panic Sex in America’ in BODY INVADERS: panic sex in America, 1987, edited and introduced by Arthur and Marilouise Kroker, pp.17-19.

“In a postmodern culture typified by the disappearance of the Real and by the suffocation of natural contexts, fashion provides *aesthetic holograms* as moveable texts for the general economy of excess. Indeed, if fashion cycles now appear to oscillate with greater and greater speed, frenzy and intensity of circulation of all the signs, that is because fashion, in an era when the body is the inscribed surface of events, is like Brownian motion in physics: the greater the velocity and circulation of its surface features, the greater the internal movement towards stasis, immobility, and inertia. An entire postmodern scene, therefore, brought under the double sign of culture where, as Baudrillard has hinted, the secret of fashion is to introduce the *appearance* of radical novelty, while maintaining the *reality* of no substantial change. Or is it the opposite? Not fashion as a referent of the third (simulational) order of the real, but as itself the spectacular sign of a parasitical culture which, always anyway excessive, disaccumulative, and sacrificial, is drawn inexorably towards the ecstasy of catastrophe.

Consequently, the fashion scene, and the tattooed body with it, as a Bataillean piling up of the ‘groundless refuse of activity’. When the sign of the Real has vanished into its (own) appearance, then the order of fashion, like pornography before it, must also give the appearance of no substantive change, while camouflaging the *reality* of radical novelty in a surface aesthetics of deep sign-continuity. Fashion, therefore, is a conservative agent complicit in deflecting the eye from fractal subjectivity, cultural dyslexia, toxic bodies, and parallel processing as the social physics of late twentieth-century experience. Ultimately, the appearance of the tattooed body is a last seductive, ventilated remainder in the reality of the implosion of culture and society into what quantum physicists like to call the ‘world strip’, across which run indifferent rivulets of experience.”

– Arthur and Marilouise Kroker, ‘Fashion Holograms’ in BODY INVADERS: panic sex in America, 1987, edited and introduced by Arthur and Marilouise Kroker, p.45.

“The postmodern body is penetrated by power and marked by all the signs of ideology. Indeed, when power actually produces the body and when the body itself becomes conditional for the operation of a fully relational power, then the postmodern body is already only a virtual afterimage of its own simulated existence. Virtual sex, virtual eyes, virtual organs, virtual nervous system: that is the disappearing body now as the cynical site of its own exteriorization (and immolation) in the mediascape. And so, what follows is body writing for the end of the world. No longer writing *about* the body or even *from* the body, but robo-bodies writing the violent and excessive history of their (own) disappearance into the simulacrum. It’s Kathy Acker still in Haiti and Jean Baudrillard spitting on the Eiffel Tower as letters to excess for a hyper-modern time.”

– Arthur and Marilouise Kroker, ‘Body Writing’ in BODY INVADERS: panic sex in America, 1987, edited and introduced by Arthur and Marilouise Kroker, p.223.

“In the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan might have described television as a *cool medium*, but in the 1980s it’s the TV audience which has cooled down to degree absolute zero, to that point where the audience itself actually becomes a *superconductor*: a zone of absolute non-resistance and hyper-circulability of exchange for all the TV beams which pass through it.

Even postmodern babies, the latest wave of the TV generation, are now born as instant superconductors. Thus, for example, there was recently a televised report of some interesting mass media research which had to do with the seemingly remarkable ability of very young babies to recognize facial images on TV screens. The ideological object of the report was probably to provide comfort to working mothers by demonstrating the possibility of a new long-distance video relationship with their infants. And sure enough, when a little cooing baby, lying in a crib in the research lab, saw its mother’s face on the massive TV screen, it beamed, cooed, and gave every sign of mother recognition. However, when the TV reporter substituted herself for the mother, the baby’s eyes beamed just as much, and in its laughing noises and clapping hands, gave every sign that it wasn’t, perhaps, the mommy image which was the object of fascination, but *any* electroid, vibrating image being blasted out of that big TV screen. It seemed that the baby was responding less to the video face of its mother, than to any magnified human face which appeared on the TV screen. This was, after all, a postmodern baby who, like everyone else, might just have loved television.

And not just babies either, but if the wave of media hysteria and audience fascination with Ollie and Gorby is any indication, any hyped-up image passing through the TV ether zone streaks now through the cold mass of the audience superconductor: moving at hyper-speeds all the while and meeting absolutely no resistance.

Thus, the political curiousity of an American media audience which can, in the same TV season, go wild over Ollie and Gorby, arch-rivals perhaps in the ideological arena, but image-superconductors in the TV simulacrum where the cooled out mass of the audience is just like that postmodern baby, gurgling and clapping and beaming in fascinated seduction at all the spectral images.”

– Arthur Kroker [with Marilouise Kroker and David Cook], PANIC ENCYCLOPEDIA: the definitive guide to the postmodern scene, 1989, pp.57-58.

“The real truth of postmodern America is to be found in the machine ecstasy which is the driving force behind the production of cyber-bodies in the USA today.

It is not any longer the (American) body as quadriped as in prehistory nor even the body as a now obsolete modernist biped, but the postmodern American body (which is to say everyone’s body – since McLuhan was correct when he said that the USA is the world environment) entering a third stage of human evolution: the virtual body of ultramodern technology. Half-flesh, half-cyberspace, the virtual body of the third stage of human evolution is just what the physicists who gathered in Paris last winter predicted: a body fit for exiting Planet One with radiation-proof skin, large globular eyes for spatialized existence, and no legs (this is a floating body at zero gravity).

Recently, Scientific American described some pioneering research being done at NASA’s Ames Research Center where pilots, wearing designer helmets for ocular movement in cyberspace, can now put on wired hands (complete with photo sensors) which provide a graphic sense of tactility when touching objects in a virtual space which does not exist. And not just touching either, but if the scientists at Ames are to be believed, their dream is really about the creation of a William Gibson-like Neuromancer head where, when you wear a virtual helmet (at ultrasonic aerial speeds), the wired hand can be used to control body dimensions in the spatial environment: a clenched fist is the signal for movement around in cyberspace where suddenly vision moves outside its bodily referent and you look at yourself from any spatial referent; a Vulcan salute, in a parody of Star Trek, miniaturizes the body, and you find yourself with the sense of actually being any object in the immediate environment (research scientists at Apple Computer’s research laboratory in Hollywood are now at work developing simulations of the animal world where children can become sharks, dolphins, sea urchins, or even pebbles on the ocean floor). And in cyberspace, you can have multiple personalities: designer heads with wired hands interacting on a schizoid basis, with multiple personalities projected outwards simultaneously. Human beings, then, at the end of the world: chip nerves, spectral vision, with floating personalities fit for cyberspace as the third (technological) stage of human evolution.”

– Ibid., pp.78-79.

As the eighties ended with the perfect pitch of their Panic Encyclopedia, the Montreal school positioned themselves in the foremost assassin’s perch and awaited with consumate poise the approaching pentadic Ghost Dance of the seamless web of culture, technology and theory.

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