“Only the small child and the artist have that immediacy of approach that permits perception of the environmental. The artist provides us with anti-environments that enable us to see the environment.”
— Marshall McLuhan, 1965
By Eric F. Coppolino | Originally appeared on Planet Waves
My (so-far) four-year swan dive into advanced media studies began with a single comment I made one night on Planet Waves FM: The environment is invisible.
I learned this from my father, Joe Coppolino, who was doing his Ph.D. in communications in the late 1960s and early 1970s when I was a kid. This was at New York University, where the same program was also called “media ecology” — the study of the media environment.
He learned it from reading Marshall McLuhan as part of his course work, which percolated to the dinner table (in case you’re wondering how I turned out this way).
Today, based on my studies, I would state it slightly differently: the environments that surround us tend to be imperceptible.
We don’t tend to notice them, unless someone points something out to us, or there is a problem that calls it to our attention. Yet the environment is what drives everything we experience as reality, and conditions how we feel and perceive existence.
For example, the electrical environment that surrounds us is more noticeable when there is a blackout. Normally you don’t think of the electrons flowing into your freezer, until you’re sitting in the dark in 90-degree heat concerned that all your food will melt. Then, suddenly, everyone is thinking about electricity.
When you study the environment, you figure out what’s happening. For example, let’s say you have a fish tank, and the fish seem unwell. You don’t cut one open to see what’s going on. Rather, you check the water temperature. You study the chemistry of the water, and measure things like salinity or pH, ammonia and nitrates. In this way, we need to understand our environment rather than the fish: the ground rather than the figure. Yet people are obsessed by the figure dancing on the stage, the person holding the press conference, or striding into the room with “Hail to the Chief” playing. There is little to no information available there.
In the fish tank example, the fish are the figure. The water is the background, ground or environment. The best information comes from the background; the conducting medium. This is what Marshall McLuhan meant by the medium is the message: the relevant data comes from, and is transmitted through the ground. The television set is more important than the program.
Later in this article, I will offer some information about our current astrology. It too offers a metaphor, in the form of the Saturn-Pluto conjunction that happens on Jan. 12, 2020. This is a rare, less-than-generational event, part of the same cycle that brought us 9/11, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and earlier, the Reagan Revolution.
First, some thoughts about environments.
Collusion, Delusion, Insomnia and Stress
The world has problems now, and as far as I can tell, most people are struggling emotionally and spiritually. So most are (it would seem) unavailable to work on the collective issues. We are seeing a lot of things go wrong, and are, silently, poised for The Big One. What’s it gonna be? Another banking crash? A food supply collapse due to climate change? A “nuclear error”? Four more years of No Collusion, No Obstruction, and Russian ownership of our elections? A pandemic of some kind (as if there are not enough of them already)?
Yet the problems and the personal struggles are so pervasive they disappear into the environment. We “don’t notice.” They’re just “the way things are,” so we tend to either not see, or gloss over them without much thought. Any new element added to mounting chaos just disappears into the already-existing mess.
Yet the pain, stress, confusion and insomnia gradually mount. The water is getting warmer half a degree at a time, so nobody knows when to scream. Yet quite a few people need to.
Our planet is a mess in ways that are depressing to even think about, many of them horrifying, which is part of why the problems seem to disappear from view: nobody wants to think about them, and it takes special focus to do so. And they seem unsolvable. Do you cringe every time you throw another piece of single-use plastic into the trash?
At the moment (as of this writing in late July 2019), about a third of the population is cheering, “Yay! No impeachment!” And Robert Mueller warned us on Wednesday that the Russians are hacking the 2020 election “as we sit here.” Yet nobody seems capable of pushing back. Individual people have no idea what to do except maybe vote, wondering whether it really helps. The remedy to this whole cluster of problems begins with being more social, in person, devices put away, in a no-money-exchanged environment.
The Democrat Party (as it’s now derisively known) has a prettier image, and yet is equally complicit in the massive corporate Ponzi scheme in which we are all trapped, like being locked into a Las Vegas hotel and casino where the air conditioning has failed and the chips are running low. And everyone is stuffing their face at the buffet while bombs go off outside.
Yet when we take the matter as an internal thing, as part of the human condition, we can see where the struggle is really coming from. It seems to be coming from us, but we are products of our environments. And there are three factors that I think are driving the mess and making it very, very difficult to respond, because those factors are nearly impossible to perceive.
Digital Technology, AI, Robotics
A number of times in Planet Waves, I’ve published a quotation, and I beseech thee to pause for a moment and think about it, or cut it out, enlarge it, print it and post it all over your home and office. It’s from Marshall McLuhan’s son Eric, the late father of my friend Andrew McLuhan. Sayeth he:
“The body is everywhere assaulted by all of our new media, a state which has resulted in deep disorientation of intellect and destabilization of culture throughout the world. In the age of disembodied communication, the meaning and significance and experience of the body is utterly transformed and distorted.”
By new media, he means everything from the telegraph forward, but he’s also talking about digital. Digital means artificial intelligence, which is actually robotics. To truly consider this paragraph, it helps to read it like a poem, and interpret the words line by line. Try reading it out loud, slowly.
The body is everywhere assaulted
by all of our new media,
a state which has resulted
in deep disorientation of intellect
and destabilization of culture
throughout the world.
In the age of disembodied communication,
the meaning and significance
and experience of the body
is utterly transformed
Thing One is that digital technology has pushed us out of our bodies, creating confusion and destabilization from the most local level out to the global. Print technology focused us inward; digital technology does two things: it explodes us, or turns us inside out. And it turns us into tribal beings. This is why there is no longer any privacy, and unique means being exactly like everyone else.
As a result, we’re turning into a bunch of confused, hungry ghosts, like a newly deceased person lost on the bardo plane, unaware he or she is dead. The result of this is bewilderment, detachment and panic, which, since it’s environmental — that is, part of the environment of our lives — seems normal. With this comes a whole new form of stupidity, and increased tendency to violence in all forms. (If you don’t know who you are, violence is the easiest way to find out, if you’re not into art and sex.)
We become like our tools; we become like our environment. We are immersed in robots, and being turned into robots. When you’re treated badly, pause and consider: are you being treated like a person, or an automaton? Is the person acting human or like a machine?
Electric technology also turns us from individuals into tribal beings. Tribal means people who refuse to think for themselves, and where individuality is not tolerated. This is mass consciousness, not group consciousness. Groups are made of individuals; masses are mindless mobs. If you’re wondering why people cannot get organized and push back, or even have much of an opinion, think on these things.
Global Warming and Pollution
How do you feel when you read that there’s Prozac in the drinking water, or bits of microscopic plastic in your organic salmon?
While it does not directly affect most people physically, every last person on the planet is aware of the species-level threat of global warming. The more I look into this, the more aware I become that it’s worse than we’re being told.
Methane levels are out of control, and this is worse for trapping heat than carbon dioxide. As the ice caps melt, fossilized methane is released and enters the atmosphere, speeding the problem. The methane breaks down to CO2, so it’s two problems in one. The cycle accelerates, ice melts, sea levels rise, seas warm up — and so on.
Oceans are the immune system of the planet, and they are supported by coral reefs, which are rapidly dying off. Part of that problem is warming, and part is nitrogen from sewage being dumped into the sea. Along with global warming, we are experiencing many kinds of contamination: plastics, drugs, glyphosate (Roundup), dioxin, PCBs, DDT, phthlates, and so on.
These all seem out of control (this is my journalism field — they are out of control, and have been since at least the 1950s), but the big daddy is that the whole planet is heating up. Whether one believes this is caused by human activity, space aliens or is “just happening,” the threat is the same. Humans are not capable of much forethought.
And while everyone is not directly affected in terms of floods or fires, there are many secondary problems, for example, insects that thrive on warmer weather, and then there is a psychic effect. Part of what is feeding the panic people feel is this species-level threat. It’s not that everyone is sitting up at night wondering whether and when human civilization will be totally disrupted (though some people are); rather, this is pressure coming from the environment that is fueling fear, agitation and a creeping sense of futility. These emotions slip and slither into every facet of life; into every relationship.
Working as an environmental investigative reporter, there was a moment when I went from reading how every bite of food and breath of air was contaminated with dioxin, to realizing this is actually true. Everyone knows this, to some extent; we console ourselves by saying “something has to kill ya.” But that is cold comfort.
The Third Factor: Sexual Suppression
Nobody wants to talk about this one; please, hang onto your rotten tomatoes for a moment. Once upon a time, there was a philosopher named Wilhelm Reich. He was a medical doctor and colleague of Freud in the 1930s. In a book called The Function of the Orgasm, he explained how authoritarian government structures take over. He learned from studying the rise of fascism in Europe in the last century, a period that has many times been compared to our own. So how and why do they take charge?
The reason is that ultimately, we want them to. But that wanting is not natural. It’s caused by the suppression of sexual and loving feelings. These held-down, bottled-up feelings are converted into a kind of cosmic longing, which he called the “mystic longing,” and that calling is begging for response and attention.
It is answered, he said, in the charismatic leader. In other words, the bossy authoritarian harvests repressed sexual energy from the population, and propels his campaign and consolidation of power with it.
This is easier to show than to tell. The two photos in this section will help you see the facial expressions that illustrate sexual repression and pain, and which in turn are converted into the craving for some fascist savior to rescue us.
Most authoritarian government structures start off with suppressing sexuality. One Saturn-Pluto cycle ago, Ronald Reagan took office and implemented abstinence-only indoctrination in schools throughout the United States, and then began pushing it on foreign governments as a condition of receiving U.S. funding. Around the same time, HIV and AIDS (which, conveniently for him, he ignored for years) spread a sex panic, and did their part to hold down natural feelings.
This creates emotional, psychic and ultimately social chaos. Sex is not just sex. When the sexual environment is relaxed, people are naturally more social. We feel more free, and open to easy expression. Hold down sex and people get paranoid about one another (this is why I say that scandals always damage healthy modes of relating).
But it gets worse. The more repression, the more we crave tyranny. It is the opposite reaction to letting go. To feel free, you have to feel safe. When you feel unfree and unsafe, you will want someone to come and protect you.
In one of his most famous quotes, Reich tells us: “The formation of the authoritarian structure takes place through the anchoring of sexual inhibition and anxiety.” Let’s edit this for simplicity. When sexual inhibition and anxiety are forcefully attached to one another during childhood, grafted together as one feeling, the result is authoritarian mental and emotional programming.
And he tells us: “In brief, the goal of sexual suppression is that of producing an individual who is adjusted to the authoritarian order and who will submit to it in spite of all misery and degradation. Initially, the child has to submit to the structure of the authoritarian miniature state, the family, which process makes it capable of later subordination to the general authoritarian system.”
Notice that people who have a lot of good orgasms give the impression that they cannot be controlled, and have no interest in control. It’s possible to go directly there, and save yourself years of discussion. People freaked out about sex are freaked out about everything else. There is a threat around every corner. Relax about sex, and the world feels safer.
You must be bold, and endure the attention of being lit up from the inside (which is what sex does). In other words, by loosening up sexually, and staying turned on, in the current environment, you will attract attention, and you will have to know how to handle it (practice makes perfect). You will also feel a lot better about yourself. It helps to steer clear of petty tyrants who refuse to let go emotionally.
The Resulting Total Environment
Does this help make it clear why people are so stressed? We can include personal economic woes, debt and the relationship crisis that can come from these different facets of our environment. I think people are deeply worried, cannot talk about it, and feel like nobody would care if they did. In this weakened state, solutions are difficult to even think about.
Together, these three factors (which are all related) are taking us on a wild ride into our dystopian future. The question is, what can we do about it? I think that collectively, there is very little. On the individual level, we can respond, mainly by noticing the impacts. Being aware of the environment is the first step toward dealing with it, though for now, this will mostly be personal.
And this is not about hiding in one’s cocoon. We need to be more social, not less. We need to slow down and be kinder and more patient with one another. We must ensure that we are not neglecting what is helpful in our lives, and that we’re not feeding what is toxic.
The Saturn-Pluto-Eris Pattern: 2019–2022
We are living through astrology that describes this scenario perfectly. There is a lot more to say here than I can say in a short passage, but let’s sketch it out. Saturn and Pluto are headed for their less than once per generation conjunction on Jan. 12. In Capricorn, that feels like a structure about to explode. It is the perfect earthquake astrology. Or rather, feeling like there’s going to be one.
It describes perfectly the panicky sense of the future that is driving society, and describes facts that people are aggressively avoiding.
It could apply to anything and, in truth, the conjunction applies to everything. This aspect does not mean “the shit’s gonna come down.” However, it feels like it already is.
Saturn and Pluto make their conjunction in a square to ultra-slow-mover Eris. Remember that Eris is the one that up-ended the conceptual order of the solar system, and resulted in Pluto’s demotion. Eris is a certain kind of chaos, and in Aries, it reminds me of Eric McLuhan’s idea that, “the meaning and significance and experience of the body is utterly transformed and distorted.” There have been many such transformations under the influence of Eris, particularly when it is transiting through Aries, a sign associated with “I am.”
Saturn and Pluto in Capricorn are transforming and distorting society’s institutions, politics, structure and sense of history. It’s like a black hole is in the vicinity, threatening to swallow everything.
Saturn and Pluto hang close together through all of 2020, in late Capricorn. After Saturn moves into Aquarius, Pluto and Eris remain in their square out to the end of 2021, and these two tectonic forces continue to collide: the individual crisis of Eris in Aries, and the cultural crisis of Pluto in Capricorn.
Let’s put it this way. By even the most reserved, conservative reading of this aspect, we are in for a wild ride. But please remember that you’re not a robot, nor are you “safer” as one. You are human, with human needs, and your humanity to offer.