The turn from one understanding electricity to another, from the classical and medieval emphasis on numbness and cold to the modern emphasis on suddenness and fire marks the moment of shock in the history of shock.
Marshall McLuhan, in an article he wrote with an engineer, Barrington Nevitt, in 1973, introduced an interesting term of art from rhetoric into the philosophy of technology: “Today, metamorphosis by chiasmus – the reversal-of-process caused by increasing its speed, scope or size – is visible everywhere for everyone to see. The chiasmus of speedup is slowdown. Perhaps first noted by the ancient Chinese sages in I Ching or The Book of Changes, the history of chiastic patterns is traced through classical Greek and Hebrew literature by Nils W. Lund in Chiasmus in the New Testament. Computer programmers have also learned that “information overload leads to pattern recognition” as breakdown becomes breakthrough.” The passage ends, in typical McLuhan fashion, with a cornpone soundbyte – but the suggestion of going by chiasmus is nevertheless solid.
In the literature about modernism, Walter Benjamin may have developed the most illuminating notion of where shock, as a social motif, came from and why it proved so useful. Susan Buck-Morss, one of Benjamin’s interpreters, suggests that Benjamin connected Freud’s thought about war trauma – trauma related to shock – with the trauma of the factory regime, as denounced by Marx. If the former was shock in the modern sense, the latter was a long fatigue, a numbness. Both, however, had a defining relationship to repetition. The repetition of the anxiety of the traumatized soldier was psychological – a feeling of overwhelming danger that possessed him, waking and sleeping, again and again, as if his whole body were repeatedly trying to grip some moment that kept slipping away. The repetition of the factory worker was routine – a matter of a designed work flow that forced him to do the same thing over and over, to a mechanical standard.
In the modern social experience, shock can’t be separated from the numbness out of which it came – they are bound together in a persistent chiasmus :