Love in The Time of “The Medium is the Message”

A media-theoretical look at Bertrand Legend’s debut novel “The Harmonic Social”

Books on our dystopian future are a staple of the 2010s, and will likely continue to establish themselves within a socio-politically unstable climate. Yet, few works are original and provide interesting commentary from a media-philosophical standpoint. Bertrand Legend’s debut novel The Harmonic Social is an exception: It is a McLuhanian approach to the question of love in times of the rapidly growing influence of technology. It might establish the author as a truly original voice of an overdone genre.

Imagine at thirteen years old, you face a profoundly difficult decision: Do you want to live a sheltered life in a world catered to your most comfortable needs — or do you prefer uncompromising freedom, living a life constantly on the run, and in the wild?

The Harmonic Social depicts a dystopian future that has long forgotten the ways of our world. Yet the new world is drenched in the old: Echoing today’s social media ubiquity, in The Harmonic Social, the medium truly has become the message. By choosing “enhancement” instead of a life in freedom, people connect their brains to an artificial intelligence. The promise might seem enticing: All citizens of Harmonic City are connected via the AI, in a perfectly harmonious world with no pain or challenges. A floating device for each citizen (a “phary”) provides the interface between them and the state. A phary scans all of its owner’s thoughts and emotions and creates a reflection of the world based on the owner’s state of mind. But there is more: Every time a Harmonic citizen is contacted by a fellow Harmonican, the phary scans the message and filters every potentially harmful or offensive piece of information.

Information thus becomes one with the ego, perpetually trapping all Harmonicans in a Lacanian mirror stage. Functions of the human body, such as fear, discomfort and sex drive are “extended from the human body into a media technology,” as McLuhan would describe it: Into The Harmonic Social.

This resounds McLuhan’s radical conclusion on modern-day life. In the final chapter of Understanding Media, he states that electronic technologies are extensions of the human central nervous system, a idea that has often been interpreted metaphorically. The Harmonic social however is a literal extension of the nervous system, leaving the body in it’s narcissistic state of Narcosis (See McLuhan’s chapter on The Gadget Lover: Narcissos and Narcosis).

In this sense, The Harmonic Social is a sharp critique of social media and its influence on sensualism, in a true McLuhanian sense. For the female protagonist Chloane and other Harmonicans, reality does not exist, only self-sufficient utterance of the medium itself. In other words, the world around them is a reflection of their own unchallenged beliefs. As according to Understanding Media, reality is indistinguishable from communication, the same holds true for human interactions; What Chloane and her fellow Harmonicans perceive when communicating is not so much an actual interaction, but a re-utterance of their own system of comfort and security, devoid of the challenging, the sensual. Every time her boyfriend wants to sleep with Chloane, he sends a request in advance, for her to consider consent and prepare. It is not only a sensual trap, but the socio-political bubble augmented, as seen in the 2016 elections.

What happens when you leave this narcissistic spiral of the medium behind? Reading McLuhan, one might think that there is no way to escape, since extending the human body into technologies is described as essential to the human condition. Other theorists account for different stages of perception, and so does The Harmonic Social when it introduces its main character, Elo.

Outside of Harmonic City, the author provides us with the most lyrical, but most harsh of worlds. Elo’s version of reality is uncommonly genuine and emotional for a science-fiction novel. Not once does the language meander into the gadget-y, self-indulgent bleakness so common for its genre. The reader is confronted with a relentless impression of a world resembling Lacan’s “Real” more than his mirror stage of the harmonic social. Nomads live in an instinct-driven, even cannibalistic life constantly on the run from one another. The world seems to be trapped in an ever-repetitive cycle of destruction and doom.

When Chloane is sent into this world to work on a farm, her mirror breaks, and her world collides. For the first time, she “no longer calls herself the locus of life” and becomes one with her surrounding. Chloane meets Elo, and as a love story unwinds, the central question of the novel is posed: Is love possible between someone who lives in “the Real”, and someone whose version of the world is but an augmented version of themselves? The novel’s answer unfolds as a masterfully written thought experiment with the main characters as its brilliant orchestrators.

The Harmonic Social truly masters the critical balance that many novels of its genre fail to surmount: On the one hand, it creates a philosophically intriguing universe, with rich commentary on present times as well as general reflection on media and technology and their role within the human condition. On the other hand, and here lies the greatest strength of as I see it, the author rarely includes truly touching, lyrically powerful passages. Here, people live in “the somber worlds” of each other’s eyes (even here, note the McLuhanian imagery), and tears seem to have the power of magic potions. These poetical bits become even more powerful as they are only very rare in the mercilessly harsh dystopia that is Harmonic City and between the long passages that it takes to delineate its intriguing universe.

The Harmonic Social is thus what I have not experienced in the science-fiction genre thus far: Poetically intriguing and touching, while at the same time providing an intelligently composed and thought-provoking theoretical framework. The world created is genuine and very original, and we will hopefully read more of its author.

The Harmonic Social, 145 pages: