Looking into McLuhan’s Lightbulb: Levinasian Ethics in Video Calling OR Why You Don’t Like Skype

I use Skype a bit. Some people really don’t like using Skype. I’ve had conversations with people along the lines of “it’s weird”, “it’s not real”, “it makes me feel uncomfortable”. What is the nature of these problems? I suggest it’s not just “tech bad”. Part of it stems from from idealized advertising images of Facetime etc which are, after all, experienced from a third person perspective. When someone – generally a loved one – is looking at you via the interface while you use the interface and talk to them, it’s not the experience of the smiling-beautiful-laughing people. But I don’t really want to talk about that – I want to go the other way. I want to say that if Skype makes you uncomfortable, or you don’t really like it, or there’s something weird in it, it’s because of something really important. It’s because it is a mediated but vital encounter with another person. This is what Emmanuel Levinas says is the most important thing in existence, that we only understand ourselves through our encounter with the other. Now, I suggest that the mediated encounter, in this case the Skype video call, is not artificial or simulated but contains the call of the other which Levinas says is so important. And that this is the thing which makes you feel weird about it. Furthermore, exploring this idea, thinking about the ethical proportions of the Skype interaction, leads us to rejecting rethinking Marshall McLuhan’s founding concept from Understanding Media… ALTOGETHER NOW #the medium is the message!#

Quickly, and recklessly, let me describe a big premise which underlies all this, one that I’m not going to go into properly here (mainly cause I’m still sorting it out). It’s to do with online interaction as being not different, or lesser, or worse than face-to-face embodied interaction. Digital dualism – the distinction between “online” and the “real world”, man, is no longer a thing. This is because (very very very simply, and recklessly again) the interface is language. The face of the other, in a Levinasian sense – i.e. as the starting event, situation of all ethics – is thus present in the interface. The interface is not a copy or a simulation or “unreal”. It’s immaterial, sure. But it’s not a “version” of the other. We do not live science fiction. The other is brought forth, appears, in language, in a way which is ethically commensurate to material face-to-face interaction. I’m going to perhaps confuse all this by taking about the face as it appears in the interface visually, but just bear in mind that really “the face” is a metaphor in Levinas for the body/skin/words of the other person.

So Skype. You don’t like it, it’s weird. But you use it. You have at least once used a video call. You still do (occasionally). Why not just phone? Economy/ease of access, sure. But undeniably, video calling provides the possibility of the face in a way which is more challenging than the phone call, because it is able to accommodate the sense that the self is created and questioned by the other. The problem of Skype, then, is actually to do with ethical responsibility. We have to acknowledge the immediacy of the face, of the other. We don’t always do this in the same way in face-to-face interaction. In fact, I’d go so far as to say face-to-face is a misnomer. I mean that face-to-face interaction doesn’t involve acknowledging the face – in this instance, the visage, the eyes and mouth on the front of the head – looking into it, seeing it, understanding that there is the other person – in the way that a video call privileges and establishes the command of the face. Sure, we can control the off/on of the encounter, but we can do that in a face-to-face encounter too (I can leave, not look you in the eye, make my excuses, put my fingers in my ears and run away.)

A video call on a laptop is an ethical moment because of the immediacy of the face and the ethical command it establishes. We are interpellated by the other in the mechanism of the interface. The relation of the two people in the encounter is granted an asymmetry which the phone call doesn’t retain, because of the distinction the interface provides between the person you have called and you. Think about it this way: you are smaller, in the corner of the screen, or non-existent. The picture of the other is huge, covers your whole screen. This is not the appearance of an image, but works as the primordial call of the other. The face moves, speaks, gestures. It says “Here I Am”. It is an instance of the ethical relation. The movements of the other onscreen are the call of the other, not the fixed image of an avatar. The other in the interface is always in the process of expression.

So that’s why you don’t really like Skype, but you want to use it. Because it provides the possibility of the face – that is, the ethical force of the other, calling to you, saying “you have a responsibility to me” – in all its immediacy. When you initiate a video call with someone, you sacrifice yourself to their presence, because you understand that you will be interpellated by them, by their gaze and their call. It is perhaps the very veracity of their being, not in terms of their audiovisual make up but as an ethical presence, which is what gets under our skin. It’s an apprehension of the oncoming breach of our comfortable sense of ego by the Other. In this way, Skyping is an ethical medium of communication which challenges the conception of the ego and the self in the most essential way.

What’s this got to do with McLuhan? I snuck the word medium in there just now. I’ve been wanting for a while to complain about address the ubiquity of McLuhan’s “the medium is the message”. As McLuhan draws attention to the idea that the form of media communication is important, he flattens the experience of communication. If an analysis is concentrated on the idea that the medium tells us what we need to know about the shape of society (*cough* Heidegger *cough*) then there is no room or possibility for the analysis of what goes on within, above and around the medium. In Levinasian terms, the relationship between sociality and the medium is fixed into a said (knowledge, content), despite apparently emphasizing the saying (performance, gesture). While McLuhan moves us away from being concerned with content, I suggest his argument does not in fact accommodate a suitable ethics for contemporary communication:

The content or uses of such media are as diverse as they are ineffectual in shaping the form of human association. Indeed, it is only too typical that the “content” of any medium blinds us to the character of the medium.

I would take issue with the above when thinking about the example of Skype and the ethical appeal found therein. What is the “content” of the medium? Is it the words spoken by the other? Or is it the video of their face? Or is it our interaction as a whole, my sacrifice and their call? There is an essential difficulty of distinguishing between, or making the same, the medium and message in mediated communication if we consider it through a Levinasian ethics. The medium of Skype can only accommodate the face, it can never fix or thematize its effect. The face is a message which breaches the medium, because it is a message which cannot ever be fully known (and is itself the ultimate medium/unmedium?) The “content” of a Skype interaction does not blind us to the character of the medium, but rather accommodates the very thing that constantly challenges media – the face, the ethical challenge, familiar-but-defamiliarized other. It is a challenge, is a “Here I am!” which is framed by the medium, but whose ethical character is present in the very content that the medium tries to accommodate – the vulnerability of the face. To say that we should be concerned with the medium as the ontology which displaces the epistemology of the message is to ignore the excess of ethics, that which is beyond both ontology and epistemology.

I can put this in a different way using McLuhan’s own terms. McLuhan’s metaphor of the light bulb is used to demonstrate “the medium is the message” in the first chapter of Understanding Media. The lightbulb is, for McLuhan, “pure information”, a “medium without a message”:

Whether the light is being used for brain surgery or night baseball is a matter of indifference. It could be argued that these activities are in some way the “content” of the electric light, since they could not exist without the electric light. This fact merely underlines the point that “the medium is the message” because it is the medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action.

How does the metaphor of the light bulb work within my Levinasian challenge to McLuhan’s founding statement? If Skype is our lightbulb, and video images are content, then the face, the vulnerable outward looking face of the Other, formless alterity in the interface in front of us, is an excess which both incorporates and rejects the two. The ethical insistence of the face, the ethical moment, is irreducible to either medium or message. It is the very light of the light bulb that we look into. Sometimes accidentally we look into the light, where it irritates or concerns us; sometimes we look on purpose, a little mystified, knowing that it alters us. It produces spots in front of our eyes, an afterimage, a physiological effect of the light which is not its medium of pure information, nor is it the social conditions created by light. It is an embodied experience which breaches and temporarily interrupts our vision. The afterimage of staring into light is the excess, outside the medium of social functions which light allows and performs. The face in Skype, then, is the afterimage, made possible by the communication medium and the messages it circulates, but existing in an excessive space between, or above, these categories. When you Skype, you are staring into the light bulb, concerned by how bright it is, but willing to sacrifice, making the interruption into an act of responsibility, of ethics, of love.


McLuhan, M. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964)


“the breaking up of inwardness” – Knowledge, Dialogue and The Internet Meme as Saying

The process of internet memes might be described as follows (this is me improvising a bit). The circulation of images, gifs, screen caps, cartoons, animations occurs first of all as the sharing or repetition of a joke, and then as parody of the joke, then as more oblique and obscure self-reference. The meme then becomes the act of circulation as detached from recognisable signifiers of the original frame of reference. Meme culture is seeping into popular discourse, which means there are a lot people trying to “get” what memes do, when in fact the telos of a meme is the relational or circulatory structure of the meme itself.

I’ve been wanting to say this about memes for a while. Reading Levinas has led me to connect his conception of the”saying” with the concept of the meme. It was a particular quote used by Amit Pinchevski in his paper on Levinas and the ethics of communication that crystalized this thinking, and this piece is in debt to his excellent words which you can read here.

Levinas’s philosophy is quite intricate, almost web-like. It’s relational in both what it tries to do and how it does it. His phenomenology is much more like literature than other philosophers. This is because he was writing in a style which attempted to get away from the idea that you can and should fix communication as something like “getting across information” or “handing on knowledge” or “two people exchanging ideas”. For Levinas, communicating with an other is “an ultimate situation”, one which comprises the foundation stone for all ethical thinking. In the encounter with an other person, they address us and we respond. Importantly, however, this language must always retain a sense of the other person’s difference to us, their alterity.

Whenever we use language to mean in the world, it designates, becomes fixed. Levinas calls this designating of stuff in language the “said”. We can designate lots of things – we can explain that there is a particular set of rules for “right” or “wrong”; we can label someone; we can tell someone something we know. We can take what we think we know and understand and give it to someone else by fixing it in language. When things are in the “said”, you can know them, understand them – and you can also “thematize” them, own them. Imagine the “said” is a book – all the stuff in the book is fixed there on the page. It can’t be changed, it’s not in dialogue with someone else. This means other people can be made subject to that knowledge.

But that’s what knowledge is, that’s the point, you might say. But Levinas understood that there was always something outside of the idea of knowledge as fixed, as “said”, and that having fixed ideas can result in violence. There is an excess beyond the said, which exists in the alterity of the Other. This alterity, this difference, is the thing that can never be assimilated into knowledge. If we understand all knowledge as “said”, then we deny difference, and attempt to fix and make “the same” through language the alterity of the other. If we deny difference, we create a totalizing way of understanding the world. To return to our metaphor, if all knowledge is fixed in the “book of said”, how does it change, adapt or accommodate difference? It becomes totality, the social and political implications of which are clearly violent.

This is where the “saying” comes in. Imagine you picked up the book of all the “said” knowledge and started reading aloud from it – performing it, if you like. Your performance, your saying of the words, would add all kinds of differences. You might even alter or change some of the knowledge in order to make it fit better with the world you live in. You could start unfixing the “said” in order to accommodate difference. And it wouldn’t be to do with the language on the page – it would be other stuff, excessive stuff, introducing this difference. But it isn’t just to do with this particular oral way of “unfixing” things. Written language can enact a “saying” too, by being self-reflexive, and retaining awareness of where it fixes meaning. It can allow room for indeterminacy by using multiple phrases and terms for the same thing, it can use the structures and features of dialogue and interlocution.

The concept of the “saying” is that knowledge is always related in a particular way – it is not just the signs and signifiers of language which convey something, but in fact the very nature of the communication itself. One metaphor which Levinas uses to explain this concept in his earlier work, Totality and Infinity, is teaching. As all good teachers know, communicating to students is not just about telling them information – you are not just a conveyor of the “said”. Much of teaching is in “saying”. “Saying is communication” suggests Levinas “but as a condition for all communication, as exposure. Communication is not reducible to the phenomenon of truth”. When you teach, you perform the “said”, in the “saying”. One does not necessarily replace the other – the saying augments the said with the trace of alterity. I don’t just tell the student information – I acknowledge and understand their difference – and the asymmetrical nature of my relationship to them – through the performance of saying.

So back to memes. Memes are more saying than said. It appears that the “said” of memes – what they mean, what they signify – is always in the process being erased by the manner of their saying; the fact they are posted, shared, circulated virally. To misunderstand a meme, or to misapprehend the way that a meme communicates is, perhaps, to worry about getting the joke, or what it is trying to say. In fact, memes are a manifestation of a Levinasian ethics which emphasizes recognizing and responding to the alterity of the Other before any form of rational thought or cognitive act. Memes are first and foremost acts of relation, performances of “saying”:

The unblocking of communication, irreducible to the circulation of communication which presupposes it, is accomplished in the saying. It is not due to the contents that are inscribed in the said and transmitted to the interpretation and decoding done by the other. It is in the risky uncovering of oneself, in sincerity, the breaking up of inwardness and the abandon of all shelter, exposure to traumas, vulnerability.

Memes perform their relation within what Levinas would refer to as proximity, that is, the sense that we have an ethical responsibility to the other. They create vulnerability in the relationship between self and other online, in that they challenge the notion that we need fixed and clearly explicable signifiers to communicate. Memes are “irreducible” to what has come before. Memes break up inwardness, in that there is no interior psychological origin which acts as the progenitor of their supposed knowledge.

Pinchevski’s gloss of the above quote from Levinas is very useful to turn to here as a final word, as it gets at the idea of saying as establishing the ethical relation, rather than the said. The relational over the linguistic, if you will:

What is put forward is that communication is not only the process of giving signs; its effect transcends its content, for communication is always for someone and therefore already involves an unarticulated expression of relation. Thus, for Levinas, communication is ultimately irreducible to its contents.

There’s more to be said about the issue of the digital interface as a site of ethics here, and about whether the site of Levinas’s saying, the thing that “says” which is called “the face” is shown in the same way online as in face-to-face communication. I think this might be to do with what Levinas calls the “nakedness” or “vulnerability” of the face, which is what I’m going to do a bit of reading* about this week.

*after some liberal use of the control-f function

The function of the click and Virtual/Virtue Ethics

I can… click away from a friend’s blog, without the price that must be paid for physically turning away from a face-to-face conversation.

This quote is from Shannon Vallor’s work on social networking and ethics (see Social Networking Technology and the Virtues, Ethics and Information Technology, 12 (2): 157-70 . Vallor  has written the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry for this subject – http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ethics-social-networking/). Charles Ess refers to it in Digital Media Ethics (2014), which is a textbook I’ve been reading the last couple of days. The context is a discussion of how virtue ethics provides a relevant ethical framework for thinking about moral actions in digitally-mediated encounters. It’s got me thinking about the click as a mechanism, but also as a symbol. It is one of the concepts which works as a shorthand for activity online, and as such deserves a bit of deconstruction.

The “click” is constantly referred to in works which ask what the ethical significance of digital interaction is. There is a sense in the reference to the “click” that online activity is bounded by it, defined by it, and that to “click” is often a careless, or ethically weightless, action. To privilege the ‘click’ in descriptions of the ethics of online activity I think does two things. Firstly, it establishes a digital dualism, the notion that online or immaterial activity is experientially and morally separate from offline or material activity. In emphasizing this particular interface effect (we need to click to work the ubiquitous interface of the computer operating system) the ethical discussion focuses not on the relational nature of the encounter between a user and the interface, but only on the mechanism which allows us to navigate it. In reality, online activity has become extremely complex, and is not easily disentangled from the rest of lived experience; indeed, it is a huge portion of everyday activity in many societies. Focusing on only one albeit significant element of that activity, the mouse, means that the description of such complex textual activities as reading, replying, messaging, typing and retyping, composing, is reduced. Language and relationality is erased in an ethical discussion which puts the “click” in the foreground. The function of the click has become simultaneously the motif of instantaneity and of the apparent ethical ephemerality of digital interaction.

To say a click is not the same as turning your face to another person is perhaps not too hard to argue. But if so, at the same time it must be acknowledged that “clicking away” is not the same as turning your face away from someone. The click is a function of intention, which has to be seen as just one element of the mediated encounters between people via digital interfaces. Just because the function which allows me to traverse the interface is near-instantaneous, and relies on an embodied movement which is getting more effortless (we now tap, swipe, even look at the interface to create action) does not mean that the textual ends of that function are defined by the same apparent lack of friction. The reading of the click as a somehow ethically hollowed-out function or an a-ethical procedure relies on the notion that online activity is somehow divorced from offline activity. To put this in the context of the initial quotation, my friend will know if I have not read their blog post (or if I disagree with it) when they ask me next time we meet, or when they message me asking what I thought. There are questions here about how people pay attention to other people online, and how friendship is similar-but-different in mediation via and interface. But the answers to these should understand that the click is a surface element, a nexus in which disparate elements temporarily merge: the affordances provided by the interface, the intentions of the person(s) interacting via the interface, and the variety of embodied actions which communicates such intention (typing, looking, navigating and re-navigating, linking, posting, sharing). If the click is to be thought of as an ethical act, it must be considered in the context of the interface before the context of the face-to-face. In other words, it must be viewed as a component of virtual ethics before it is considered a practice for virtue ethics.