The Medium is the Message
Marshall MacLuhan, of the well-turned epigram, is too tempting to cite really, and too much needed in this utilitarian age that sees only content and not this other matter, sees only the message and not the medium by which the message comes, and what a matter that is! Of course, the message does matter; it does matter if people use the plethora of tele-connections we now possess to see a concert of Brahms’ German Requiem, an incisive documentary, a soap opera or porn, but still this very thing goes unquestioned, that we gaze across the planet and enter others’ lives or they enter ours, at the flick of a switch, utterly passively. That Paxman or indeed Max Keiser can be in a thousand, a hundred thousand or millions of homes at the same instant is not nothing. Max has probably entered the fray because he couldn’t stand any longer to see Paxman and his ilk, the official spokesmen for corporation and finance, hogging (literally) the entire field.
The medium thus supplies the age what Muslims would recognise as a qiblah: a common direction to which everyone faces thus uniting them. That this direction gives the impression of diversity, difference of opinion and vigorous debate is another matter. That its latest manifestation, the Internet, feeds the browser exactly what he already believes is an extraordinary achievement. Thus all men gaze into the mirror of the Internet and see their own reflections.
One cannot really buy into the Messianic Googleism that comes out of California which sees the Internet as the salvation of the masses and the door to an age of a new democracy. Indeed, how can one take Googleism seriously when its most high-profile proponent is itself one of the super-corporations of the new age? A recent radio programme about the 1848 revolutions across Europe underlined nothing so much as the similarities they had with the Occupy Movement, and those revolutions were snuffed out pretty resolutely. This current world turbulence is simply the froth on the surface of a great torrent, a transfer of actual power and wealth from old élites to new that is unparalleled in scale and scope. The media present us the froth and veil this transfer.
Technology and Destiny
As Heidegger might be paraphrased: technology is not something that we are doing, but something that is happening to us, whose destiny is from far beyond us. How could that not be, when this is how we stand in existence in the first place? How could that not be, since the universe itself is, as a totality and in all its parts, a destining from beyond? More marvellous than that, Shaykh Dr. Abdalqadir as-Sufi wrote:
The philosopher, i.e. the materialist, asks, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” The knowledgable ask, “How are you able to ask, how do you recognise that there is something, and that you can think ‘nothing’?” Man in the world, cognisant, is the real event to be understood. (The Science of Khayal)
We are cast into existence and we hurtle through life to death from that initial throw; we are driven, we do not drive. In this situation, those who do not see that beyond and who think of themselves as the actors on the stage are helpless in the grip of a delusion, i.e. that they themselves are apparently an active part of the world spinning out of control, the very earth wobbling on its axis.
If one stands back, then another pattern emerges. Technology is intrinsically global. We need copper from here, silicon from there, and uranium from elsewhere, but do not ask what for. Thus what happens in Tahrir Square or Ben Ghazi is our business because our lives will be affected as never before by it. We are the new democratic middle-class. We have abolished slavery and instead of slaves, and indeed even servants, we have machines, which Buckminster Fuller measured in terms of how many slaves they replace. That is wonderful, but what about all the new slaves who climb down into volcano mouths in Indonesia, through the poisonous fumes which shorten their lives and give them painful deaths, to get the sulphur, another ‘resource’ needed by our technology? So here, the slaves are hygienically gone, but over there they have multiplied, or at least they are largely invisible to us, except that by the wonders of this technology, they come into our living rooms every night in National Geographic documentaries and through CNN when their unbearable lives spill into action on the streets. So, like it or not, we are global, and we are responsible.
But what drives, apart from this mysterious metaphysical beyond which technological man denies while being most visibly in its grip? Discounting ultra-metaphysical explanations such as the appearance of the anti-Christ and other end-time explanations, not because we do not believe them but because they are glib and are somehow discourteous towards the mysterious metaphysical beyond and diminish it while evoking it, we cast our cold eye over history, and European history in particular since it is undoubtedly from here that the genesis of this new order or disorder grows.
The Historical Stand-off
We cannot help but see the historical stand-off between Islam and Christendom, and see Europe thwarted in its trade routes and its access to India and China, once lands of fabulous riches, spices, silks, gold and silver, Europe connected only by slender Venetian trade across the legendary Silk Route with its precarious caravans of camels. Europe took from fallen Andalus its clear rational thinking and philosophy, its ambience of a world-civilisation connecting East and West. It took also its maps and some even of its sailors, and sailed West hoping to reach East, and also sailed East for the same purpose. When Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope into the Indian Ocean, the Venetian Stock Exchange collapsed because those patient camel caravans would not be equal to the great Portuguese ships and their trade. Unexpectedly South America yielded silver and gold too, for a currency starved Europe.
But wait! That is still not enough to explain what was to come. People who cannot do sums say that this new gold and silver caused inflation, whereas the sums show that the inflation the gold and silver caused was hardly a percent. It was minuscule. But inflation there was. Where did that come from? Another mysterious force was coming to the fore in Europe: banking. Indeed an epoch of banking had already passed: the Medicis had risen and declined, and the centre of gravity had shifted from Florence to Amsterdam. Amsterdam had banked the naïve but malign Spanish monarchy and its New World explorations and, as banking always does, pocketed the proceeds, while Spain – not right away but slowly and inevitably – sank into being an inconsequential backwater of history. Serve them right for their betrayal of their oaths, their subjection to the Inquisition-dominated Christianity that perpetrated such barbarities on the Spanish themselves and on the peoples of South America and elsewhere. Serve them right.
As we have seen, banking grows and devours everything in its path. That was the epoch when it devoured monarchies, either replacing them entirely by obedient ‘democratic’ orders or passive and compliant ‘constitutional monarchies’ such as the British. Banking and finance already then began to step into the driver’s seat and a plethora of East India Companies with their armies began to subjugate the world, East and West, while maintaining the fiction at home that things were as they had always been. Look at Vermeer’s beautiful paintings and then realise that those serene middle-class houses, without vulgar Catholic ostentation but tastefully prosperous in the new style of the Protestant banking dispensation, were of course sustained by the wealth pouring in from as far afield as Indonesia.
The Middle Class
Everywhere the middle class began to appear and now the world in its entirety wishes to be middle class. No one wants to be king any longer, for kings are universally despised, but the world would be middle class, and the middle class devours existence like a horde of locusts, stripping the world bare, but feeling what king and locust never feel: guilt. Indeed, the goal of being middle class is held out to the world by the banks, who stand ready of course to assist with all the necessary loans, and the new citadel of middle-classness is America where it is renamed The American Dream, a society that quadruples and quintuples consumption and then quadruples the quadruples such that the earth groans under the strain. The earth has become, in Heidegger’s marvellous but awful expression, a ‘standing reserve’, and, because this is the new metaphysic, man who utilises this reserve cannot fail to see himself also as a standing reserve, to which vision he submits with a submission which the old religions would envy.
The Technologisation of Money
Everywhere we meet this factor of amplification. Technology amplifies, accelerates, multiplies and brings the far near, but as a consequence, makes the near far away, humanly, socially and metaphysically. One technology lay at the root of it: the technologisation of money, its transformation from a thing of value that is intermediate in the exchange of other things of value, into a factor in the new religious cult of economics, a piece, the first piece of ‘virtual reality’ – a contradiction in terms – that we were to experience, but leading on inexorably to the new digital age we inhabit. Like other technologies, money has amplification, acceleration and multiplication built into it and brings it to bear on all it touches. Run Johnny run!
The pillaged South American gold met this new force and by the miracle of leverage it multiplied itself far beyond its actual value in a twofold way: it lifted utterly obscure outsiders from the bottom of the world to pinnacles undreamt of by world conquerors and riches they could not have imagined, and it plunged untold millions into debt. Thus we see the paradox of the modern world: the so-called ‘rich’ of the North and West are masters of debt, mastered by debt, whereas the ‘poor’ of the South and East are, or have been until recently, without debt, what little they have really their own. Now they are racing to join the debt-prosperity paradox, exchanging their apparent poverty and actual wealth for apparent wealth, real debt and smart-phones.
Thus we encounter a world dominated by a revelation of a mathematical sort whose result is all the toys of the technological world and we have the metaphysic of this technology, which turns out to be another mathematics, the exponential increase of debt for the many and of wealth for the much fewer than 1%.
Usury is Self-Devouring
Everywhere we are overwhelmed by the gigantic nature of the machine that leads modern men to utter despair, nihilism and suicide. It is too big, they say, to be opposed; it is invincible. Nevertheless, everything enormous had humble beginnings and will certainly have a humble end; that law of existence is inexorable. The very amplification of which the economic avails itself is also the energy that drives it to destruction. The ancients recognised that and, at least, had the wit, if not to put an end to it, at least to ameliorate its worst excesses by proclaiming Jubilees of debt cancellation (I refuse to join the pseudo-religion of economics that calls it debt ‘forgiveness’ as if debt were a sin, and bankers gods) during which the slaves, who had been enslaved because of their debts, were set free. However, that drive to destruction that lies at the heart of the insane economic order we are stuck with has meant that repeatedly throughout history, it rises Phoenix-like from its own pyre. This is a cycle that ought to stop, not because its wave has reached such an amplitude as to be utterly dangerous and destructive but, because even if it involved an unjustified increase that was as much as a blade of grass it is immoral and indecent.
Ordinarily we focus on the macro-level and we think that somehow we ought to petition Pharaoh to change his ways, something that he is not known for doing. Yet the secret of Pharaonic power lies in the slaves themselves; it is they who sustain his world even though it oppresses them. This is the great paradox of power and empire and the lie at the heart of democracy, because democracy is a Pharaonic concept instituted only to take ‘the people’s’ actual power from them, not to empower them. Their actual power is not political but economic: they can walk away. They can choose how they spend their money; every pound or dollar or euro spent is an actual vote of substance, whereas voting itself is a fiction void of meaning or power. They can also choose their money, although on this last the state and the banks disagree seriously. When they do any of the above, the technology of amplification, acceleration and, most importantly, ‘leverage’ applies to that as well. A pound spent judiciously and with intention is multiplied in effect and what more judicious use than to buy silver and gold? A silver coin spent judiciously is multiplication on multiplication, power on power. If that did not move you then consider the now old-new science of chaos which shows that micro-alterations can produce substantial macro results; the butterfly beating its wings in the West can produce a hurricane in the East. Indeed, it already has.
That, however, is all in the realm of this zone, and takes no account of the beyond that is so near, from which the destining of things such as technology emerges. Modern man wants a scientific, political and, above all, economic ‘answer’, and in this he is a product of all of these forces and thus incapable of responding to them. It is, however, in confronting the eternal matter of destiny, whether of an individual or a societal nature, that we see our task. Here we pick up our earlier theme of that standoff between the West and Islam, not a clash of civilisations, but an impasse from which so much stems. Since destiny is a core theme both of Islam and of Europe, although both the Muslims and Europe have forgotten it except fitfully, like a slumberer who is sometimes jolted awake only to fall asleep again, then we should somehow pole-vault over what is presented to us as Islam, its covering of women, concern for food, and suicidal ‘Masada complex’ warriors, and all the other things that look to us like a revamped Judaism, and look to what it has to say about this matter of destiny.
Muhammad, peace be upon him
Since Islam itself is mute, it is not a being that speaks, we look to its source in this existence, Muhammad, peace be upon him. Since we are not so interested in the words, but in what fact and event say, we want to know what the life reveals about destiny. Because we have already seen that our view of this world is mundane in a way that traps us in a grasp of issues such as technology that does not come to terms with them, does not engage with their emergence from the beyond and thus is helpless before them, we must also not look at him as simply the historical figure he undoubtedly was, but try to see beyond, or to see the beyond which he expresses.
We say Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah. The Arabic word for Messenger, rasul, is also in its origin, as few Arabs know, a word that means ‘message’. Whereas our current discourse treats his ‘message’ in an utterly prosaic manner, and indeed the clash of civilisations has become somewhat heated over this message and the polemic has risen in pitch to an astonishing degree, when we understand that he, peace be upon him, was the message itself then we enter another perspective from which things fall into place. For if he, peace be upon him, had merely brought a set of commands and prohibitions, which are among the things that he did bring, then there is no shortage of human beings with such aspirations to get their messages across to others, sure that the world’s salvation lies in that.
The Messenger, the Message
Yet we are accustomed to people saying one thing and doing another. How many a one has been shown to lack something in his behaviour when contrasted with his words. However, this is a matter beyond even sincerity and integrity, for these are words that have been utterly devalued in our time and which have only produced monstrosities such as Blair, Cameron and Obama, all of whom are painfully sincere and ooze integrity, or at least something that looks vaguely like it. We are talking about another order of being which our exhausted language probably cannot do justice to. Medium and message are absolutely one. We have gone utterly beyond Marshall McLuhan’s simple elegant quote.
Because this small essay probably cannot contain all of the things I would like to say or could say or ought to say, we will turn to our theme of the destining of things and events from the beyond. The man Muhammad, peace be upon him, was himself a locus of this destining both in his revelation, the Qur’an, which came from the beyond, and in his own life and biography. How else can we explain the rapid spread of what he had? As Karen Blixen paraphrased Thomas Carlyle (in my paraphrase from memory): ‘Islam was spread by the sword. Yes, well and good. But everything starts with one man. So let him get his sword.’ We all know that more significant than the sword are the men who may or may not wield the sword, and Muhammad, peace be upon him, had men.
That destining continues. The Book itself endures and more than endures. It spoke, or by it, It spoke to countless people and continues to speak today to ever increasing numbers of people. The clash of civilisations has in reality broken down all the barriers between East and West so that the world has become a monoculture yet with recidivist outbreaks of violence of an appalling character. In this monoculture of Coca Colaism and bankism, there has been an equal and opposite reaction, which is the rapid spread of Islam among the peoples who historically thought of themselves as its most inveterate enemies. So it is an indisputable destining. Let the sociologists and anthropologists explain it away as they like, but we are dealing with destiny and with the beyond that is so near.
The medium is the message; the line is seamless and there is no division between them. His wife said that his character was the Book, that he was the Qur’an walking. The Qur’an remains to us, a bit of the beyond that is near in this present reality, among whose enduring miracles is articulating the perils and wonders of this destining we experience.