Monday, February 07, 2005

Cup 66: Nihilism

Originally uploaded by matt_leclair.
Where: Lengyl Lab, Lengyl Gym, Univesity of Maine, Orono
When: 7:30 -10:30 am Feb 7th
Who: a bunch of students
Coffee: Green Mountain Coffee Organic
Mood: supersmart

I've been trying hard to be environmentally friendly, using my portable mug as much as possible and so on, but you know what I've realized? Coffee on the go only tastes decent in a paper cup. Plastic takes on the taste of everything it contains. Steel seems to react with coffee making it taste sub-par. Ceramic is ideal, but it is hardly portable. Only paper does the trick. I should just buy a bunch of to-go cups, but I know I will always forget. My friend Donnie has the right idea. He married Lisa, probably the only woman in the world who could balance out his unique character traits. Not only does she buy the coffee cups, but actually thinks to pre-punch airholes in the lids. And she does the whole coffee maker timer thing. I've got one, but it just flashes 12:00... I keep intending to set it, but I just forget... But they have fresh coffee waiting for them when they get up in the morning!

Donnie and I were in LA a few years back, visiting Lynda Weinmann and she actually had a housekeeper who brought us coffee before we'd even gotten up in the morning! That is what I really want. Might even be more cost effective than having a wife to take care of my coffee needs!

But anyway, the morning's coffee was Green Mountain Organic, and it was a damn fine cup of coffee, coming, not from a gas station but from a store in Orono called The Store where they actually have proper coffee making equipment and people who know how to work it. I stopped there and spent a buck something for coffee even though I have tons of coffee at home because I wanted my coffee in a paper cup so I could enjoy it to its fullest, because at 8 am on a Monday morning I was giving a lecture on very dense material, and needed the backup.

The lecture was on the nature of media. The questions that get asked a lot both of Art and New Media majors are: What is Art? What is New Media?

I turn to Marshall McLuhan for my answers: Art is whatever you can get away with. That's easy. New Media is a little trickier, because I think it is really kind of a misprint. Not New Media but New Medium, as in The Medium is the Massage (or message, or mass-age since McLuhan loved the Joyceian/Shakespearian multiple simultaneous definitions for a single word). Anyhoo... Medium is the technology carries the information. "New Media" to me is just whatever the latest technology is that is used to get ideas and information from one brain to another.

A more important point of investigation is this: Yes, the medium is the message. That is to say, the thing that is the mode of transportation for information as it travels out of your brain and into others determines what can be transmitted and recieved. Each different medium has different ways in which it transforms the message. How? That is the important question.

When you start examining the medium-- any medium, you reach the inescapable conclusion that you are being lied to.

Take what we recognize as news. Most people think of the news as a reliable account of what happened on any given day. This is, of course, a complete fantasy. There are more than 6 billion people on this planet and (with the exception of those who are mentally ill, or too young) every single one of them would think that their lives are significant. To distil every significant thing that happened on the planet during one day into a half-hour news broadcast and expect it to reflect any sort of truth is just ridiculous. Choices need to be made on what to cut from the broadcast. Even were one to strive for unbiased, balanced reporting it is just plain impossible to have an unbiased broadcast. The American news media's decisions are influenced by a number of forces. Economics: the majority of news is paid for by advertising. Higher ratings = more money, and sex and scandal attract higher ratings than real news. You can get morally outraged by this or not. Broadcast news is going to do what makes good business sense, not what is morally right. Really, what would you do? And then there's the question of ownership. Arch conservative Rupert Murdoch's news stations get daily memos with instruction on how to spin the news to favor Murdoch's views. Morally reprehensible? Maybe, but then again, it is his station. The big issue for me is when Fox uses slogans like "fair and balanced" when it is neither. Murdoch is the most blatant about it, but the fact is, every new broadcast is going to be slanted by who is creating it. In fact, everything that you personally have not experienced first hand is going to be filtered through the lens of whoever is communicating that information to you, and again, through the medium they are using to communicate through.

The inescapable conclusion is: you are being lied to. Everything you know is wrong, other than what you personally experienced first hand.

There are several reactions to this:

Solipsism: You yourself are the only thing that can be known or verified. Everything that didn't happen to you may or may not happen. In fact, the whole world may not exist outside your own brain. Cogito ergo sum means I exist, but just because I think you are thinking too doesn't mean you really do.

Nihilism: Everything is meaningless, even you. The only lesson we learn from history is that there is nothing to be learned from history. You reject everything. Nothing can be known or communicated.

Totalitarianism: There is a truth and there are facts and you believe in them to spite all evidence to the contrary. You believe with religious zeal anyone who tells you anything that confirms the truth that you believe you have found, and insult, pass laws against, or kill anyone or anything that tries to contradict these beliefs.

Existentialism: Everything is a lie, unless it is true. Do such distinctions really matter, though when you really can't prove either way? Thus we are free to decide for ourselves what we believe, what we do. With this complete freedom comes complete responsibility, though. We have no one to blame but ourselves if things go badly.

On good days I am an existentialist. On bad days I'm a nihilst.

So this is about a quarter of the lecture, and I'm writing it out to find out something. I have to turn this class into a completely online version and I'm realizing the real challenge is going to be finding a way to convert the content of the lectures. It has taken way to long just to put that little bit into words, so I'm not sure this is going to be an option. I'm not really wanting to tape the lectures though. Maybe if I could get Edward James Olmos to speak them or something, then it would be bearable... hmmmm.... what would a Constructionist do?

No comments: