Postdigital Consciousness: Paradigm Shift from Hellenistic to Hebraic Roots of Western Civilization

Archithese: International Thematic Review of Architecture, Switzerland, No. 4, 2012.

The Hellenistic concept of an ideal and static state of perfection is losing relevance in a networked world that is alive, thriving through dialogue and fast interaction.  An aspiration for rest might remain, but the non-linear dynamics of the universe and everything within cannot be ignored.  It is a process which departs from the formal object to focus once again on the vitality of nature and us as human beings.  

Mel Alexenberg

I had first sensed a postdigital consciousness nearly a half-century ago at New York University when I programmed mammoth computers to plot pictures that called out for the warm human touch of colorful pigments in molten beeswax sensuously flowing over a plotter’s hard-edged digital drawings.  In the 1970's this aura continued in my "From Science to Art" curriculum project for Israel's schools that I created at Tel Aviv University (Alexenberg 1974) and in my interdisciplinary course "Morphodynamics: Design of Natural Systems" that I taught at Columbia University. I initiated interactive dialogues between human sensibilities and new technologies in the 1980's by creating an interactive biofeedback imaging system for the LightsOROT: Spiritual Dimensions of the Electronic Age exhibition that I co-curated more than two decades ago at MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies for Yeshiva University Museum (Alexenberg and Peine 1988b). As art editor of The Visual Computer: International Journal of Computer Graphics, I anticipated the postdigital age in my digital art issue editorial “Art with Computers: The Human Spirit and the Electronic Revolution" (Alexenberg 1988a).

When I began work on my book, The Future of Art in a Postdigital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness (2011), I checked Wiktionary, the wiki-based open content dictionary, for a definition of “postdigital,” I found none.  So I created one based upon my research as an artist exploring the dynamic interface between real space and cyberspace.  I posted it on Wiktionary and added it to Wikipedia’s entry for “Postdigital.”  My act of collaborating in the creation of the world’s most actively used dictionary and encyclopedia exemplifies the postdigital age.  Now if you look for the Wiktionary definition, you will find mine.

Postdigtial (adjective). Of or pertaining to art forms that address the humanization of digital technologies through interplay between digital, biological, cultural, and spiritual systems, between cyberspace and real space, between embodied media and mixed reality in social and physical communication, between high tech and high touch experiences, between visual, haptic, auditory, and kinesthetic media experiences, between virtual and augmented reality, between roots and globalization, between autoethnography and community narrative, and between web-enabled peer-produced wikiart and artworks created with alternative media through participation, interaction, and collaboration in which the role of the artist is redefined.   

Experiencing postdigital visual culture is to experience an emerging worldview that stands in stark contrast with an older worldview that has dominated Western culture until the rise of modernism. Postdigital visual culture reveals a paradigm shift from the space-time structures of ancient Greece revived in Renaissance Europe to the space-time structures of the Hebraic roots of Western culture emerging in our networked world.  Hebraic origins of this emerging contemporary paradigm shift are explored in relation to the conceptual and contextual impact of media, from Talmud to Internet, and of architecture, from Wright to Gehry.

In his seminal book Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek (1960), Norwegian theologian Thorleif Boman contrasts the static, peaceful, moderate, and passive Greek thought with the dynamic, vigorous, passionate, and action-centered characteristics of Hebraic thought.  Winston Churchill (1951) points out: “The Greeks and the Jews are the two peoples whose worldviews have most influenced the way we think and act.  Each of them from angles so different has left us with the inheritance of its genius and wisdom….  Their messages in religion, philosophy, and art have been the main guiding light in modern faith and culture. (Churchill 1951)

The Medium is the Message

“Visual culture opens up an entire world of intertextuality in which images, sounds and special delineations are read on to and through one another, leading ever-accruing layers of meanings and of subjective responses.” (Rogoff 2002, p. 24)  Major media systems in Jewish visual culture and digital visual culture share a common space-time structure that opens up new worlds of intertextuality.  Both the multilinear typographical design of the Talmud, the major work of Jewish law and lore, and hypertext linking in the design of the Internet are structured so that they facilitate and encourage creative, associative, and multiple perspectives.  The single-point perspective of Hellenistic consciousness revealed through Renaissance art and the unilinear structure of the proto-industrial age Gutenberg Bible produce an obsolete structure of consciousness alien in a networked world. 

Like the Internet, the branching and rhizome-like structure of the Talmud has no beginning and no end.  The multiple patches of text on each page are the recorded dialogue of generations of scholars that come to life in the vivid spontaneity of contemporary learners engaging these scholars and each other in searching for significance of past explorations for present and future actions.  Studying these non-sequential multilinear tractates takes place in active noisy learning environments, quite different from the enforced quiet of a library for linear books.  These traditional sites for creative learning in real space branch out through cyberspace to extend the worldwide community of learners.  Fresh directions for art can be derived from the dynamic, interactive, and multidirectional structure of an ancient culture echoed in digital visual culture of the future.  (Alexenberg 2004a)

When I was professor of art and education at Columbia University, technoprophet Marshall McLuhan came down from Toronto to lecture.  He talked about how the linear pattern of information resulting from print technology limited the thought patterns of people who learned from printed books.  Word follows word, line follows line, paragraph follows paragraph, page follows page, chapter follows chapter, in a single necessary order from the first page to last.  Learning through a medium that is a one-way street prevented creative, flexible, associative, open-ended, multidirectional, and multidimensional thought.  Instead of just being authoritative, books became authoritarian, demanding thinking in straight lines from a fixed point of view.  The book medium became a stronger message than its content.  Designed to be read in privacy, in seclusion from others, the book ended dialogue. It conferred the values of isolation, detachment, passivity, and non-involvement.  (McLuhan 1969, 1994)

I invited McLuhan to my office to show him how the Hebraic dialogic mindset, which could not tolerate unidirectional thought, used print technology to design multilinear books.  I took a volume of Talmud off my shelf and showed him non-linear pages designed in 16th century Venice (see Figure 1). “The Talmud is thus the recorded dialogue of generations of scholars.  It has all the characteristics of a living dialogue.  Freshness, vivid spontaneity, and acute awareness of every subject permeate every argument and discussion.  The spirit of life breathes on every single page.” (Steinsalz 1989, p. 9)  It is not a set of books to be read in quiet solitude.  We give life and continuity to the dialogue that began millennia ago by engaging the hundreds of voices talking across the folio pages in active dialogue with a learning partner.  The two learners, a hevrutah, enter a page and move around within it while arguing with each other, calling for support from all the scholars before them and proposing their own innovative ideas. They can begin their learning on any of its 5,894 pages.  Each student in the dialogic dyad “longs to create, to bring into being something new, something original.  The study of Torah, by definition, means gleaning new, creative insights from the Torah.” (Soloveitchik 1983, p. 99)  The multivolume Talmud has no beginning and no end.  The hevrutah can jump around within a page, between pages, between different Talmud tractates, bring to bear the Bible, kabbalistic texts, or any other sources, ancient and modern.  A study hall in a yeshiva filled with many learning teams is a busy, dynamic, noisy environment, quite different from the eerie silence of a library for linear books.

From Talmud to Internet

When I began surfing the World Wide Web, it seemed a familiar place to me.  I felt I had been there before.  Talmud study had prepared me for its vast multidirectional options, hyperlinking and its non-sequential organization.  I felt at home seeing home pages that had an uncanny resemblance to Talmud pages.  As a member of the panel, “Toward an Aesthetic for the 21st Century: Networking, Hypermedia, and Planetary Creativity,” at the 1990 conference of the College Art Association, I explored this confluence between traditional Jewish media experiences and encountering the emerging Internet. A decade later, Jonathan Rosen wrote in The Talmud and the Internet: A Journey between Worlds:

I can’t help feeling that in certain respects the Internet has a lot in common with the Talmud.  The Rabbis referred to the Talmud as a yam, a sea – and though one is hardly intended to ‘surf’ the Talmud, something more than oceanic metaphors links the two verbal universes.  Vastness and an uncategorizable nature are in part what define them both….  The Hebrew word for tractate is masechet, which means, literally, “webbing.”  As with the World Wide Web, only the metaphor of the loom, ancient and inclusive, captures the reach and the randomness, the infinite interconnectedness of words….  I take comfort in thinking that a modern technological medium echoes an ancient one. (Rosen 2000, pp. 7, 8, 11)

Canadian professor Eliezer Segal (2008) goes one step further.  He uses the new medium to explicate the old.  He created an interactive digital Image-Map of the typographic design of a typical Talmud page to serve as a port of departure on a voyage through centuries of vital dialogue.  The visitor to his website can click on any portion of the Talmud page image and be linked to a description of that patch of text.  He explains the contents and purposes of the text in English, also describing when and where that patch of text was composed.

In the on-line magazine, Computer-Mediated Communication, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute professor David Porush writes that the Talmud is an early example of hypertext and the Wikipedia process of multiple authorships in an interactive global community. 

A page of Talmud is structured around a single text surrounded by concentric layers of commentary and commentary on commentary.  By form and content, it announces the unfinished quality of constructing knowledge and the collective construction of shared values.  Even in its layout on the page, the Talmud suggests a kind of time and space destroying hypertextual symposium rather than an authoritative, linear, and coherent pronouncement with a beginning and ending written by a solitary author who owns the words therein…. The notion of private self, or the notion of singular origin of knowledge, pales into insignificance in the face of this talmudic-hypertextual-Internet-like vision of communally-constructed knowledge.  (Porush 1995)

Two Guggenheim Museums

Complementing our exploration of the media ecology of the Talmud and the Internet, two major works of American architecture embody the contemporary confluence between Hebraic consciousness and the space-time structure of visual culture in the emerging postdigital world.  The paradigm shift from the Hellenistic to the Hebraic roots of Western culture is exemplified by the two Guggenheim art museums – Frank Lloyd Wright’s museum in New York and Frank Gehry’s museum in Bilbao, Spain.

In his study of Hebrew thought compared to Greek, Boman explains that biblical passages concerned with the built environment always describe plans for construction without any description of the appearance of the finished structure.   Noah’s ark is presented as a detailed building plan.  How the ark looked when it set sail is never described.  The Bible has exquisitely detailed construction instructions for the Tabernacle without any word picture of the appearance of the completed structure.  Indeed, the Tabernacle was made of modular parts, came apart like Lego, was set on a wagon, moved through the desert from site to site, deconstructed and reconstructed each time.  Its active life was quite different from the immovable monumental marble temples on the Acropolis. (Alexenberg 2003)

A Hebraic structure of consciousness in architecture emphasizes temporal processes in which space is actively engaged by human community rather than presenting a harmoniously stable form in space.  Architectural theorist, Bruno Zevi, compares the Hebraic and Greek attitudes toward architecture in his essay, “Hebraism and the Concept of Space-Time in Art.”

For the Greeks a building means a house-object or a temple-object.  For the Jews it is the object-as-used, a living place or a gathering place.  As a result, architecture taking its inspiration from Hellenic thought is based on colonnades, proportions, refined moulding, a composite vision according to which nothing may be added or eliminated, a structure defined once and for all.  An architecture taking its inspiration from Hebrew thought is the diametric opposite.  It is an organic architecture, fully alive, adapted to the needs of those who dwell within, capable of growth and development, free of formalistic taboo, free of symmetry, alignments, fixed relationships between filled and empty areas, free from the dogmas of perspective, in short, an architecture whose only rule, whose only order is change.  (Zevi 1983, p 165)

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum

In Frank Lloyd Wright: A Study in Architectural Content, art historian Norris Kelly Smith explained Wright’s originality and genius in terms of Boman’s comparison between Hebrew and Greek patterns of thought.  Since Wright was well versed in the Bible as the son of a Unitarian minister, he internalized the biblical message of freeing humanity from enslavement in closed spaces and expressed this freedom in his architectural design.  Smith emphasizes that Wright imbued the field of architecture, conditioned by two thousand years of Greco-Roman thought, with Hebrew thought.  Wright was critical of the neo-classical rhetoric employed by American architects who studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. He sought to create a new architecture to echo the biblical call inscribed on the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof” (Leviticus 25:10). He wanted American architecture to assert its cultural independence from Europe.

It is significant that the nation founded on the principles of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” became the center of the shift from the Hellenistic to the Hebraic worldview in the arts.  Dynamic forms of art and architecture symbolizing life and liberty blossomed on American soil.  Frank Lloyd Wright exemplified this blossoming. His spiral museum invites a living response.  When I had asked my children what they remembered most from their visits to the New York Guggenheim, they enthusiastically reminisced about running down the ramp and being high up looking over the fence into the center atrium.  It is not a box for rectangular pictures set in static space, but a lively place to be engaged over time. The exhibitions I saw there that worked best were shows about movement:  Alexander Calder’s mobiles were moving around the spiral to create a circus of color. Yaacov Agam’s kinetic and dialogic art changed with the movement of the viewers in his Beyond the Visible show, and Jenny Holzer’s ruby light word messages on a running electronic signboard flashed their way up the spiral ramp. The Art of the Motorcycle exhibition in 1998 was right on the mark.

The spiral is one of the major life forms in nature: from DNA, to a nautilus shell, to the growth pattern of palm fronds.  It is also one of the major symbols of the Hebraic mind.  Jews are called am haSePheR, usually translated “People of the Book.”  But SePheR is a word written in the Torah scroll itself long before the invention of codex type books.  SePheR means spiral scroll.  It is spelled SPR, the root of the word “SPiRal” in numerous languages, ancient and modern. The English words “SPiRitual” and “inSPiRation” share the SRP root from the Latin SPiRare, to breathe.

In Judaism, form gives shape to content.  The medium is an essential part of the message.  Rather than the modernist viewpoint of art as the language of forms, Judaism shares postmodernism’s emphasis on the ideas their forms might disclose (Efland 1996). Weekly portions of the first five books of the Bible in the form of a Torah scroll are read in synagogue. The symbolic significance of the spiral form is so strong that if a Torah scroll is not available in synagogue, the Bible is not publicly read at all.  The exact same words printed in codex book form convey the wrong message.  If the divine message encoded in the Torah is trapped between two rectilinear covers, it loses its life-giving flow.  Form and content join together to symbolize the essence of Jewish values.  The Bible encoded in a flowing scroll form provides a clue as to the nature of biblical consciousness as an open-ended, living system.

Wright’s helicoidal shaping of the Guggenheim Museum’s cavity in New York represents the victory of time over space, that is, the architectural incarnation of Hebrew thought, even more significant because it was fully realized by a non-Jew.  Like Schonberg’s music, Wright’s architecture is based on linguistic polarity, emancipated dissonance, contradiction; it is once expressionistic and rigorous; it applies Einstein’s concept of ‘field;’ it is multidimensional; it extols space by demolishing all fetishes and taboos concerning it, by rendering it fluid, articulated so as to suit man’s ways, weaving a continuum between building and landscape.  In linguistic terms, this means a total restructuring of form, denial of any philosophical a priori, any repressive monumentality: action-architecture, aimed at conquering ever more vast areas of freedom for human behavior. (Zevi 1983, p 165)

Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum

In creating the Bilbao Guggenhiem, Frank Gehry moved beyond Wright to a more powerful realization of the Hebraic mindset that Boman describes as “dynamic, vigorous, passionate, and sometimes quite explosive in kind.”  Gehry told the story about his grandmother buying fish and keeping them in the bathtub to prepare gefilte fish for the Sabbath meal.  He would observe the vigorous body motions of swimming fish seen from above.  This gave Gehry his vocabulary for the dynamic shape of his museum.  Fish are one with their environment.  They must stay in constant motion in it to stay alive. Oxygen carrying water must be kept moving over their gills for them to breathe.  To stop motion is to die.

Gehry’s method of working is creative play with dynamic forms using digital imaging systems.  He starts with spontaneous scribble sketches that become forms that he moves and reshapes in a dynamic interplay between computer-generated 3D CAD graphic models and physical models in real space. 

As he began to shape buildings from mobile parts, his sense of space transcended Cartesian notions.  This special sense defies verbal definition, but it might be compared with the sensation of moving bodies in a medium akin to water. To the extent that his buildings arrest volumes in continuous motion (and transformation), time becomes their formative dimension….. He sets the bodies of his buildings in motion as a choreographer does to his or her dancers.  (Dal Co 1998, pp. 29-30)

As an integral part of education for an architecture of time and motion, Gehry takes his students on ice in full hockey gear to interact with each other and their environment in rapid movement.  Like fish in water, skaters standing still on ice are unstable.  Swift motion creates balance. The same concept of stability in motion is sensed in seeing the “fish-scale” titanium skin on the Bilbao museum that makes it look like a futuristic airplane. Airplanes must move through their air medium in order to fly. Stopping motion in midair leads to crashing and death.  He sets the bodies of his buildings in motion as a choreographer does with dancers.  “One need only observe Gehry’s manner of drawing to gain an immediate impression of his way of thinking: the pen does not so much glide across the page as it dances effortlessly though a continuum of space” (Dal Co 1998, p. 30).  His studio practice appears like a performance rehearsal.  His knowledge of performance art, his collaborations with artists, and his planning with artists led to spaces at the Bilbao Guggenheim uniquely suited for the presentation of alternative forms of art.

Postdigital Culture and Hebraic Space-Time

When we look back at the twentieth century, we see modernism breaking down the Hellenistic dominance of Eurocentric visual culture.  When we look forward to the 21st century, we begin to experience a new global visual culture in which Hebraic space-time structures resonate with ancient worldviews of India (Vidwans 2008) and China (Huang 2008) in dialog with the creative energies of America. 

Fresh directions for art, architecture and media are emerging from the redefinition of visual culture in a networked world.  We are witnessing a paradigm shift from Hellenistic to Hebraic consciousness, from iconic representation to dialogic presentation, from static image to dynamic process, from passive appreciation to interactive collaboration, and from imitating the creation to imitating the Creator. (Alexenberg 2004b)  It is not the Hellenistic vision of a complete and ideal nature to be copied that is the primary artistic value, but it is the continuation of the living process of creation itself that is valued in the Hebraic structure of consciousness. Postdigital culture revitalizes Hebraic space-time that breaks open frameworks to create a vibrant dialog between multiple realms of discourse through active participation and multiple authorship. It makes boundaries between disciplines as permeable as cell membranes that act as vital processes for active interchange of information. 


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About the Author

Mel Alexenberg is former professor of art and education at Columbia University, head of the art department at Pratt Institute, research fellow at MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies, and dean at New World School of the Arts, University of Florida's arts college in Miami.  In Israel, he is head of the School of the Arts at Emuna College in Jerusalem and former professor of art and Jewish thought at Bar Ilan University and Ariel University Center.  His artworks exploring digital technologies and global systems are in the collections of more than forty museums worldwide. His blogart can be accessed through links at