on mediation

Here’s part of one of my comments on a debate between Nathan Jurgenson and Nick Carr, here:

I would say that all our experience is indeed mediated, but mediated in a wide range of ways. Perception itself, neural activity itself, is a mediating activity. I often think of this passage from Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek:

Peeping through my keyhole I see within the range of only about thirty percent of the light that comes from the sun; the rest is infrared and some little ultraviolet, perfectly apparent to many animals, but invisible to me. A nightmare network of ganglia, charged and firing without my knowledge, cuts and splices what I do see, editing it for my brain. Donald E. Carr points out that the sense impressions of one-celled animals are not edited for the brain: “This is philosophically interesting in a rather mournful way, since it means that only the simplest animals perceive the universe as it is.”

So we really don’t have a choice between mediated and unmediated experience. The choices are always among various forms of mediation. I don’t think Heidegger fully realized this, which is why he could speak of writing with a pen as something you do with your hand but typewriting as something alienated from the hand — never acknowledging that we type with our hands too.

Now, if someone wants to argue that the mediation of the pen involves our body in more intimate ways than the mediation of the typewriter, in that (for instance) in writing with a pen we shape the individual letters instead of just striking keys with a uniform motion, I’m ready to listen — as long as it’s okay to point out that writing with my finger on an iPad screen is more intimate still!

Analogically, consider Walker Percy’s great essay “The Loss of the Creature,” in which he points out that our cultural formation makes it impossible for anyone actually to see the Grand Canyon: only some immense dislocation of our expectations can make is truly visible to us. It is at least possible that some technological mediations could help us achieve that valuable dislocation.

In short, we need fewer binary distinctions and more attention to the detailed phenomenology of particular technologies and their interactions with the mediating powers of our perceptual apparatus.