With Gutenberg the first mechanization of a handicraft was by segmentation of the scribal processes, demonstrating the powers of rapid repetition to create mass production. Gutenberg wiped out scholasticism and scribal culture almost overnight. In the same manner that TV uses movies, Gutenberg used the old medieval content as his programming. Soon his technology created a new environment that altered the human sensorium drastically, providing the presses with individual authors eager to express fragmented opinions, or what we later began to call “private points of view”. Just as there was nobody in the ancient classical world to notice the effects of the phonetic alphabet and papyrus on the human psyche and social organization, so there was nobody at the Council of Trent who noted that it was the form of printing that imposed a totally new formal causality on human consciousness. (McLuhan to MM to Robert Leuver, Jul 30, 1969, Letters 385 = M&L 90)
We put the unconscious outside in the environment by simply putting everything outside at once without connections. The unconscious has everything, but it has no connections. Our new electric environment has everything but no connections. It is simultaneous but not connected. This is the unconscious, so for most people it looks like crazy, mixed-up energy. Just like the unconscious itself. We have created the unconscious outside ourselves as an environment. (Education in the Electronic Age, 1967/1970)
we live in post-history in the sense that all pasts that ever were are now present to our consciousness and that all the futures that will be are here now. In that sense we are post-history and timeless. Instant awareness of all the varieties of human expression constitutes the sort of mythic type of consciousness of ‘once-upon-a-timeness’ which means all time, out of time. (Electric Consciousness and The Church, 1970)
Since the unconscious as the complete spectrum of “formal causality” already “has everything”, it never has anything new. But human consciousness is new all the time and therefore varies, not only between each individual and all others, and not only over every individual’s lifetime, but also between different historical ages and in particular between different technological eras. These bring possibilities to consciousness which were always present but which were largely dormant because unconscious and not perceived as capabilities that might be developed.
The parallel with chemistry is exact. The chemical elements were always the foundation of physical materials and were always the same. In this perspective, chemistry can be said to be timeless. But chemistry also has a history and this in two senses (leaving aside the history of the cosmic formation of matter). First, our ways of understanding the physical world vary over time and are subject to qualitative leaps, like the one that took place in the nineteenth century culminating in Mendeleev’s Table of the elements. Second, experimentation (particularly following the specification of the elements in the nineteenth century, but to some degree active throughout human history) leads to discoveries regarding how physical materials can be heated or mixed or otherwise manipulated to produce something new. Of course the possibility of such an innovation always existed, synchronically; but its dis-covery and applied use occurs only in historical time, diachronically.
As an example, the discovery of bronze was both something new in human history and something “ancient” — “ancient” because the potential for bronze always existed. Once discovered, the process of bronze-making could be refined indefinitely, but the achievement could also be applied to other materials like iron. It was, of course, exactly experimentation of this type, prior to the discoveries in the nineteenth century that gave birth to modern chemistry, that eventually led to that birth. A kind of proto-chemistry was practised, one of whose driving (though not necessarily explicitly posed) questions was: how does this work?
Such innovations are explosive in human history because they inexorably lead to further ones and, in the process, alter or revolutionize existing social relations. And, as McLuhan insisted, existing images of individual identity are at the same time explosively altered along with them. A kind of back and forth is initiated between objective discoveries and subjective innovations, each being cause and effect of the other in turn, that progressively exposes, in small or large steps, the principles of both.
McLuhan’s proposal was therefore that the interior landscape be considered in similar fashion to the external one. Here too the possibilities of human experience are timeless, “ancient”, just as the chemical elements are “ancient”. But, again just like chemistry, the relation of these ancient possibilities to human consciousness is anything but clear in the beginning and can gradually become so only through an extended historical dynamic. Further, in both domains, truth is not a matter of coming to know everything there is to know in some lightening bolt moment of inspiration, it is a matter of continuous work on questions which are known to be problematic.
However, human beings, fundamentally unlike physical materials, are momentarily (also epochally) subject to changes in the structure of their experience depending on individual circumstances like health, mood, age, genius, etc and on environmental circumstances like war, weather events, economic changes, etc. It may therefore be said that human possibilities contest or quarrel in ways that chemical elements do not.
According to McLuhan, all human experience has always been generated out of this quarrel. But just which possibilities are developed out of the quarrel’s full spectrum, and what is known of this process of development, these not only vary in history, they are history itself!
The electric age offers unique opportunities (and duties) to research and to shape history1 on an on-going basis. But the necessary condition of this research is recognition of the knot of synchronic and diachronic times in the genesis of human consciousness.
- ‘Shaping history’ in McLuhan’s sense does not entail some sort of God-like take-over or hi-jacking of being itself in the way bad readings of Hegel sometimes conclude. Instead, ‘shaping history’ implies the responsibility of a creature to use its unique powers of thought and communication to order the world and itself in accord with the intrinsic dignity of that world and of all its beings. For McLuhan’s thoughts on hijacking see The hijacked world. ↩