involution

Today the word “involution” is not commonly circulated in discourse on media. For this reason it has not yet secured a stable relationship to the vast constellation of key concepts available to media theorists. In its own right, however, the term involution has the semantic diversity to become a versatile concept for media theory.
We use clauses like “this is involved in that.” This tool should be involved in that process of construction. This idea is involved in a discussion of that principle. The meaning of this is involved in the meaning of that. This medium is involved in a history of that method of technological production. I am involved with you. We can say, rather generally, that subjects or objects become involved with other subjects or objects through involution. In these simplified examples, involution means something like relationality, reciprocity, sociality, cooperation, mutuality, or participation. Involution is another way to designate the familiar “act of involving” or “fact of being involved” (Oxford English Dictionary). One may involve oneself in a political cause or cultural movement, or in the contemplation or production of a medium, in engagement with another person, or in the machinations of a conspiracy, or in the secrecy of a scandal. Generally these kinds of clauses describe subjects engaging in or with something else, attaching or finding themselves connected to, inextricable from, or implicated in, participating in or committing to, bound up or identified with, comprehended by or understood within, initiated or included inside another force, material, concept, scene, ideology, or medium in more or less transparent ways. We like to emphasize the voluntary component of involvement in and with media. But there are ways in which we are involuntarily related to them, before or beneath our awareness of them and our intentional engagement with them. Involution is a condition occurring above and beneath the threshold of consciousness.
Marshall McLuhan, in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, developed a set of conceptual tropes for evaluating and analyzing the range of media according to their ability to solicit or exclude audience involvement (in terms of the relative demand on the sensorium, or on the necessity for the audience’s interpretative, imaginative, or hermeneutic involvement). “Hot” media like high resolution photography and 3D movies are media that stimulate the senses to a high degree, saturating them and minimizing the cognitive involvement of the user or viewer by leaving him or her “well-filled with data”(McLuhan 22). “Cool” media like speeches or cartoon drawings solicit audiences to fill in the blanks in the medium, so to speak, by inferring or injecting further data not immediately present therein. Take, for example, the mental images one assembles while listening to the state of the union address, or the narrative lineaments connecting the frames of a comic strip from gutter to gutter. In short, involvement–what McLuhan called “participation”– is the concept that shattered our understanding of media merely as artifacts. We are always already subject to a condition of involution when we use media. In proposing the concepts of “hot” and “cool” media, McLuhan noticed that they should be examined and described not only in themselves, but also in terms of their relative psychic and cognitive effects on those who engage with them. That is, he gave us a way of understanding the way media inevitably involve sensation and cognition in a field of their own, as opposed to being merely historically or artifactually interesting things.
Sometimes involution describes “the rolling, curling, or turning inwards” of a thing, idea, process, or medium upon itself, and also “a part of a structure formed by this action” (OED). Understood in this way, involution is a kind of autopoetic or morphogenetic process that begins through some framework of self-reference. Perhaps we may think of avant-garde art’s preoccupation of art for art’s sake, or art which announces itself as such, in terms of involution. The avant-garde meta-artistic impulse is the explicit reflection of a medium upon itself as what it is, that is, in its mediating function.
Sometimes an involution is the object which is being involved, but more often an involution is that which involves, or more explicitly, “enwraps” something else. Common kinds of involutions are membraneous structures like envelopes, packages, coverings, casings, and veils, material or conceptual mediations which quite literally cover up or encase other things. Our clothing may be considered the involution that keeps us warm in the winter or tells other people something about ourselves. Along these lines, most familiar involution–a medium frequently overlooked– is the involution of our own skin, the organ which simultaneously covers or “enwraps” us, and separate us from what we consider to be other than ourselves (perhaps even one precondition for the possibility of a basic experience of alterity). The medieval body, delimited by the skin, was mediated by the metaphor of flesh as a prison or entrapment of the soul. Man was involved in his body by virtue of being attached to it as to a spiritual obstruction, obstacle, or torturous enclosure. The incarnation is perhaps another version of the metaphor that participates in the idea of the body as an involution of spirit (“And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us,” John 1:14).
As a case study, the skin could be considered an original form of mediation, an involution that establishes or mediates the thought of what bodies and selves are, and especially the inside-outside, or the organic-inorganic binaries that structure practical thought and simple notions of embodied identity, interactivity, and sociality. To the extent that an involution separates something from something else by enveloping or enclosing it in its own space, it may serve media theorists in relation to the concept of the liminal. As I have suggested, involutions like skins or defensive walls, for example, may mediate some versions of “inside-outside” or “here-there” dialectic. In this sense they are structures both constituted and constitutive (of the orientation of oneself in space, for example). These kinds of involuted or involuting structures seem to establish the conditions for the possibility of certain prepositional notions like “at,” “in,” “out,” “to,” and “from,” as well as the modes of topological orientation they allow us to imagine and inhabit as subjects. The semiotic status of prepositions like these is a function of their indexical character. They depend for their meaning on a particular spatial context and the fields of relation among objects therein. An involution may well mediate or structure this prepositional topos.
When I say that my skin covers me, I am making an argument about where I begin and end. The question of how subjectivities are imagined, delimited, and articulated through media must be of interest to media theorists. In this sense, an involution may be available to media discourse as a concept which mediates fundamental thoughts about the dialectic between liminality and subjectivity. And perhaps we may think of other enveloping structures such as nations, cities, homes, defensive forts, rooms, walls, etc. as involutions analogous to skin, which mediate other kinds of relationships (involvements) of different shapes and magnitudes (in fact, many anatomical expressions deploy uncanny metaphors involving architecture, as in “artery walls,” “chambers of the heart,” “the eyes as windows to the soul,” and “dome of the skull”). In fact, McLuhan suggests that architectural spaces and the associated technologies- ranging from the igloo and the modern apartment to the metropolis- are themselves fundamentally extensions of the human skin, projections or amplifications of its biological, existential, and social functions. “If clothing is an extension of our private skins to store and channel our own heat and energy, housing is a collective means of achieving the same end for the family or the group…Cities are an even further extension of bodily organs to accommodate the needs of large groups” (McLuhan 123). Citing examples as diverse as the wigwam and gothic architecture, McLuhan also suggests that the architectural specificities of man’s housing occasion “alterations in the ration or proportion of the sense lives of the members of a society,” and reflect the order of their social and economic life (125).
A gallery in an art exhibition may be said to involve its occupants by enveloping them with its walls and ceilings, its palette and decorations. It may also be said to envelop the space it produces, since the empty space (void) of a room, for example, could not come into being without the construction of its four walls. Involution, considered as an encasing, enfolding, or enclosing gesture, could describe the project of architecture as the medium of producing spaces and spatial effects, of instantiating idiosyncratic place by mediating space. So far involution has been described an artifact imposed on another object (i.e. in the sense of enwrapping or covering it). But involution may also signify “a rolling, curling, or turning inwards” (OED)– in other words, a purely formal dynamism, a force constitutive of a structure or system. But almost always, this activity of a medium automatically produces a cavity or space within itself, either as its final cause or as an epiphenomenon. In these examples, we are permitted to speak of an involution as “a part of a structure formed by the action of involution”(OED). The ear, mouth and throat, and nasal cavities (involutions which constitute a differentiated mammalian sensorium) is an example of an involution of tissue that produces a functional acoustic space for the sensorium of some member of the animal kingdom. Consider the sketch below by sculptor Antony Gormley:

(Untitled 1981)

But if involution can refer to more or less neutral structures such as coverings or envelopes, it may also connote less benign conditions of “entanglement,” “complication,” or “intricacy of construction or style.” Novels, poems, and syntactical units may be said to be involved if they are internally complex to a degree that makes that complexity or intricacy a more or less explicit feature of the medium. Syntactic, semantic, or thematic involution in effect “thickens” the medium, a formal feature which renders the medium more or less opaque as such. We may think of entangling structures–ranging from the useful and interesting to the obscure, distressing, and difficult– such as labyrinths, puzzles, and networks, from Ariadne’s mythical web to online social network interfaces. [OED entry: a1763 SHENSTONE Economy III. 33 Such the clue Of Cretan Ariadne ne'er explain'd! Hooks! angles! crooks! and involutions wild!]. Involution in this sense signals the threatening possibility of an involvement in a medium which is neither immediately transparent to those involved, nor accessible in its totality. A network may involve subjects in such a way that they cannot be fully aware of the extent of their involvement in it. (Marshall McLuhan suggested that in what he called “the electric age,” the age of mass communication and the beginning of technological networks, “we wear all mankind as our skin,” (45) reinforcing his claim that all media, including networks (and especially social networks), are extensions of the original social function of the body. Perhaps we may say that the face-to-face relation is replaced with the face-to-interface relation.
In anatomy and physiology, the term involution refers to “the retrograde change that occurs in the body in old age, or in some organ when its permanent or temporary purpose has been fulfilled” (OED). Senile involution is “the shrinking of the whole body which accompanies old age” (OED). Here the term signifies a “retrograde process of development,” a form of differentiation more akin to degeneration, retreat, or atrophy” (OED). It can be thought of as the dialectical counterpart to the concept of evolution defined basically as development through “protension” or as “the process of unrolling, unfolding, opening out, or revealing” (OED). Along these lines, media theory may look to appropriate the term in connection with aspects of Marshall McLuhan’s “extensions of man” thesis of media, and in particular McLuhan’s notion of technological extension as narcosis and “autoamputation.”
McLuhan suggested that media should be understood as extensions of the human sensorium useful to the central nervous system in coping with and displacing sensory over-stimulation or over-exertion. “In the physical stress of superstimulation of various kinds, the central nervous system acts to protect itself by a strategy of amputation or isolation of the offending organ, sense, or function. Thus, the stimulus to new invention is the stress of acceleration of pace and of load” (McLuhan 42). As with the biological theory of evolution, McLuhan’s theory of the evolution of human technology is understood as the organism’s response to the demands of its environment in terms of mediating and moderating the shock of external stimuli. McLuhan cites the invention of the wheel as both an extension and an amputation of the function of the foot. The wheel extends (or protends or pretends) the organ of the foot in order to cope with special increased demands for movement in the environment. But by replacing the foot as the organ of the self-propulsion, the wheel is both an extension of the foot (or its techno-evolutionary correlate) and the involution (the degeneration or regression) of the original organ. As man evolves his capacities to produce ever more efficacious, technologically evolved extensions of his body and consciousness, he extends himself indefinitely into the world. But the concomitant effects on the organs for which these extensions are the supplement is their involution, their deterioration or shrinkage. The original organs and their capacities (from the eyes and ears, to the hands and feet, to memory and sensation) may be said to involve exactly to the extent that their technological substitutes evolve. For example, memory involutes or becomes increasingly ineffective or degenerate as record-keeping technologies like writing and online databases begin to take over the burden of the task of remembering. According to McLuhan’s thesis, the central nervous system’s sensitivity to the stimuli of external shocks is dramatically lessened with the development and proliferation of electric technology: “Physiologically the central nervous system, that electric network that coordinates the various media of our senses, plays the chief role. Whatever threatens its function must be contained, localized, or cut off, even to the total removal of the offending organ…With the arrival of electric technology, man extended, or set outside himself, a live model of the central nervous system itself” (McLuhan 43). According to this proposal, involution may enter the canon of media discourse as a reciprocal concept to evolution as technogenesis.
Although involution has a highly technical ring, it designates experiences and conditions (and conditions of experience) which are ubiquitous and familiar within the discourse of media theory. It is obvious that the particular texture of the word can yield give media theorists a fuller, more complex insight into the concept of involvement. Additionally, for its semantic versatility, “involution” may become a conceptual tool for refining or revisiting concepts already deeply embedded within media discourse (see, for example, the cross-referenced keywords in this article). Not surprisingly, involution may be a concept that allows media theory to turn upon itself in a new way. Already its definite texture and semantic history aptly show us what it might mean to involve or be involved in a medium, or to be a medium that involves. It is a polyphonic sign, and therefore a polymorphous concept waiting to enter the canon of invaluable keywords in this glossary.

Tacy B. Stephens
Works Cited
Oxford English Dictionary.
McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: the Extensions of Man. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994.
Moszynska, Anna. Antony Gormley Drawing. London, The British Museum Press, 2002.