“Perpetuity of collective harmony” as judo

In the beginning was the Word: a spoken word, not the visual one of literate man.1

The post below treats a passage in Understanding Media from its chapter 8. The title of this chapter is:

The Spoken Word – Flower of Evil?2

This was a notion McLuhan treated with some frequency:

The golden age of primitive man (…) indicates a state of collective consciousness. A state of homogeneity and non-differentiation which in pagan theory proceeded the fall of man. Vertical man, self-conscious man, rational and civilized man is in this view the result of a spiritual fall. [John] Lindberg agrees with Karl Marx that this fall resulted from the first attempt to transfer or exploit a food or property surplus for private purposes. Horizontal man, pre-historic man, in this view, was innocent of “mine” and “thine.” He was without individual self-consciousness. Technological man or post-historic man is rapidly approximating the same state. Instantaneity of global communication plus the abundance of mass-produced goods has created a situation of mental and social collectivism. (…)  Paradoxically, the fall brings about the rise of individual reason and the invention of the instruments of culture and civilization. Reason, the tool-making faculty, is the fruit of evil. (‘The God-Making Machines of the Modern World’, 1954)3

But how to specify the question at stake when it involves not some object of perception or of consideration, but rather the source from which perception or of consideration arises. In Understanding Media, chapter 8, McLuhan attempted to use judo on this problem.

In several places McLuhan waxed lyrical about the possibility, enabled by technology, of “a perpetuity of collective harmony and peace“.  This phrase appears in Understanding Media (80) and was then repeated five years later, verbatim, in his Playboy interview.4

Critics (and even some admirers!) of McLuhan recur to these passages to demonstrate in his own words that he was a technological Utopian.

There are very good reasons to take it, however, that McLuhan was practising “intellectual judo” in these passages:

a procedure in tackling problems which resembles the “negative capability” of Keats — a sort of intellectual judo. Instead of straining all available effort on a visible goal or problem, let the solution come from the problem itself. If you can’t keep the cow out of the garden, keep the garden out of the cow. (Technology, the Media, and Culture, 1960)

In the first place, as illustrated in his review of John Lindberg (cited above), written a full ten years before the publication of Understanding Media, McLuhan had long seen such “a situation of mental and social collectivism” as a product and sign of “pagan theory”.

Moreover, immediately before the extended passage in Understanding Media where McLuhan treats “the bliss of union in the collective unconscious” he observed:

It helps to appreciate the nature of the spoken word to contrast it with the written form. (UM, 79) 

What then follows is McLuhan contrasting “the spoken word”, not with “the written form”, at least not directly, but with “the condition of speechlessness” aka “the preverbal condition of men” :

the process of consciousness itself (…) without any verbalization whatever

to by-pass languages in favor of a general cosmic consciousness which might be very like the collective unconscious dreamt of by Bergson

“Consciousness (…) without (…) verbalization”! A “cosmic consciousness” that is “unconscious”! How many readers of McLuhan have testified to their own idiocy by swallowing, in appreciation of his supposed view, or in derision of it, such “dreamt” idiocies?

What is at stake here, then, is a way “to appreciate the nature of the spoken word” (aka the logos) in contrast to “the written form” as “a human technology”5 — exactly through the sort of idiotic non-sequiturs that can be generated only via premises typical of the Gutenberg galaxy.  This is the judo move of turning the momentum of one’s opponents back against them.

Henri Bergson, the French philosopher, lived and wrote in a tradition of thought [nota bene: “in a tradition of thought”! cf, “in this view” in the Lindberg review above] in which it was and is considered that language is a human technology that has impaired and diminished the values of the collective unconscious. It is the extension of man in speech [according to this tradition] that enables the intellect to detach itself from the vastly wider reality. [“In this view”, to attach oneself to the world and to other human beings in speech is actually to “detach” from them. Keep your eye on the pea in this shell game!] Without language, Bergson suggests, human intelligence would have remained totally involved in the objects of its attention. [“Objects of (…) attention” aside from language? And even from consciousness?]
Language [considered as a ” human technology”] does for intelligence what the wheel does for the feet and the body. It enables them to move from thing to thing with greater ease and speed and ever less involvement.
Language extends and amplifies man but it also divides his faculties. His collective consciousness or intuitive awareness is diminished [according to this tradition] by this technical extension of consciousness that is speech.
Bergson argues in Creative Evolution that even consciousness is an extension of man that dims the bliss of union in the collective unconscious. [“The bliss of union in the collective unconscious”!] Speech acts to separate man from man, and mankind from the cosmic unconscious. [“the cosmic unconscious”!]
The power of the voice to shape air and space into verbal patterns may well have been preceded [as all things must be “preceded” in Gutenbergian serial chronology] by a less specialized expression [“A less specialized expression” — a language that was “expression”, but was not yet language!] of cries, grunts, gestures, and commands, of song and dance [“song and dance”!]. (…)
Our new electric technology that extends our senses and nerves in a global embrace has large implications for the future of language. [Language subject to serial time again!  What happened to “allatonceness”?] Electric technology does not need words [according to this “tradition of thought”] any more than the digital computer needs numbers [“any more than the digital [number] computer needs numbers”!]6. Electricity points the way to an extension of the process of consciousness itself, on a world scale, and without any verbalization whatever [“extension of the process of consciousness itself and without any verbalization whatever”!]. Such a state of collective awareness [aka, unawareness] may [may!] have been [according to this “tradition of thought”] the preverbal condition of men. [“The preverbal condition of men” who are men, as McLuhan repeatedly insisted, only in and through language!] Language as the technology of human extension, whose powers of division and separation we know so well, may [may!] have been the “Tower of Babel” by which men sought to scale the highest heavens. Today computers hold out the promise of a means of instant translation of any code or language into any other code or language. The computer, in short, promises by technology a Pentecostal condition of universal understanding and unity. The next logical step would seem to be, not to translate, but to by-pass languages in favor of a general cosmic consciousness [“to by-pass languages in favor of a general cosmic consciousness”!] which might [might!] be very like the collective unconscious dreamt of by Bergson [“a cosmic consciousness which might be (…) unconscious”!]. The condition of “weightlessness” [“by which men sought to scale the highest heavens”?], that [Teilhardian?] biologists [in this “tradition of thought”] say promises a physical immortality, may [may!] be paralleled by the condition of speechlessness that could confer a perpetuity of collective harmony and peace. (UM, 79-80)

Any reference to this idiocy, positive or negative, as if McLuhan didn’t have his tongue firmly planted in his cheek when he translated pure gnosticism into his own characteristic terms, betrays, via judo, a corresponding idiocy of approach.  And a tin ear. The only proper response to such “secret escape hatches from the sunken submarine or the unguided missile of existence” is, according to McLuhan, “wild laughter at its arrogant confusion”.7 

Finally, it must be remembered that the issues at stake in this passage were repeatedly treated by McLuhan elsewhere:

  • language not as “a human technology” but as the primary characteristic of human being and of civilization and, first of all, of being itself: “it is language itself that embodies and performs the dance of being.”8
  • time not as a linear one-way arrow, but as plural and as fundamentally simultaneous with the sequential as a figure upon it9
  • primitive life not as “bliss of union in (…) the cosmic unconscious” but as “the human dark” and perpetual terror10
  • “weightlessness” as the cause and symptom of an animus against life in war, abortion and euthanasia
  • monism as the goal and sign of gnosticism: “Let us rejoin the One”!11
  • Bergson as lacking “the courage of his own philosophical position”12
  • The global village not as “a Pentecostal condition of universal understanding and unity” but as irresolvable conflict13 
  • Electric technology as potentially Luciferian14 

There is no need to guess what McLuhan thought about these matters — as opposed to how they appeared in “a tradition of thought” which was utterly foreign to him.

At the end of his Playboy interview, McLuhan may have had both of the iterations of “a perpetuity of collective harmony” in mind.  

PLAYBOY: Despite your personal distaste for the upheavals induced by the new electric technology, you seem to feel that if we understand and influence its effects on us, a less alienated and fragmented society may emerge from it. Is it thus accurate to say that you are essentially optimistic about the future?

MCLUHAN: There are grounds for both optimism [the Playboy interview iteration] and pessimism [the Understanding Media iteration]. The extensions of man’s consciousness induced by the electric media could conceivably usher in the millennium [the Playboy  interview iteration], but it also holds the potential for realizing the Anti-Christ [the Understanding Media iteration] — Yeats’ rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouching toward Bethlehem to be born. Cataclysmic environmental changes such as these are, in and of themselves, morally neutral; it is how we perceive them and react to them that will determine their ultimate psychic and social consequences. If we refuse to see them at all, we will become their servants. It’s inevitable that the world-pool of electronic information movement will toss us all about like corks on a stormy sea, but if we keep our cool during the descent into the maelstrom, studying the process as it happens to us and what we can do about it, we can come through.
Personally, I have a great faith in the resiliency and adaptability of man, and I tend to look to our tomorrows with a surge of excitement and hope. I feel that we’re standing on the threshold of a liberating and exhilarating world in which the human tribe can become truly one family and man’s consciousness can be freed from the shackles of mechanical culture and enabled to roam the cosmos. I have a deep and abiding belief in man’s potential to grow and learn, to plumb the depths of his own being and to learn the secret songs that orchestrate the universe. We live in a transitional era of profound pain and tragic identity quest, but the agony of our age is the labor pain of rebirth. I expect to see the coming decades transform the planet into an art form; the new man, linked in a cosmic harmony that transcends time and space, will sensuously caress and mold and pattern every facet of the terrestrial artifact as if it were a work of art, and man himself will become an organic art form. 

  1. Carpenter and McLuhan, ‘Accoustic Space’, Explorations In Communication, 1960, 65.
  2. This is the title of Understanding Media chapter 8 in which the “perpetuity of collective harmony and peace” passage appears. Its question mark is a sign of the interrogation its judo is intended to provoke.
  3. Review of The Foundations of Social Survival by John Lindberg, Commonweal magazine, 59:24, 606-607, March 19, 1954.
  4. The partially parallel passage in the Playboy interview will be treated further in future posts.  Suffice it to note here that McLuhan used the same “perpetuity of collective harmony and peace” phrase from Understanding Media in it, but to fundamentally different purpose — as if he needed to say in reference to the Understanding Media passage that “harmony and peace” were not only laughing matters. The Playboy passage reads: “The computer thus holds out the promise of a technologically engendered state of universal understanding and unity, a state of absorption in the logos that could knit mankind into one family and create a perpetuity of collective harmony and peace. This is the real use of the computer, not to expedite marketing or solve technical problems but to speed the process of discovery and orchestrate terrestrial — and eventually galactic — environments and energies. Psychic communal integration, made possible at last by the electronic media, could create the universality of consciousness foreseen by Dante when he predicted that men would continue as no more than broken fragments until they were unified into an inclusive consciousness. In a Christian sense (ed: in fundamental contrast to the gnostic “tradition of thought” unfolded in the Understanding Media passage), this is merely a new interpretation of the mystical body of Christ; and Christ, after all, is the ultimate extension of man.” Here “consciousness” that “enables the intellect to detach itself from (…) reality” (Understanding Media) and “divides (our) faculties” (ditto), so doubly alienated both externally and internally, finds “peace” not by attaining “the cosmic unconscious” (attaining “the cosmic unconscious”!), but by “escape into understanding” — an understanding that works only because it “divides”.  And dividing, in turn, can and does yield understanding because “in the beginning” the extension of logos (subjective genitive!), which was “with God”, as John has it, provides the ground and archetype for “the ultimate extension of man” (objective genitive!) into his multiple insanities (these being in humans also the “ultimate extension” of creation away from God). Hence it is that the divisions of humans (subjective and objective genitive!) may be healing (since healed) because, prior to them (in all senses), in an original belonging in even greater difference, there is the “ultimate extension” of Christ. This is an “extension” which is “ultimate” exactly and only because it is already operative “in the beginning”: hence, “the gap is where the action is”! So it is that “harmony and peace” are possible for humans, despite their mad warring on themselves and the rest of creation, because there is, prior to them and their divisions, a belonging together of fundamental difference (call it ‘logos‘) which forever exceeds even their crazed centrifugal flight into “weightlessness” and purported “physical immortality”. (That this passage and this reasoning appeared in Playboy provides another great example of “intellectual judo”!)
  5. Nietzsche: “Once upon a time, in some out of the way corner of the universe (…) there was a star upon which clever beasts invented knowing.” See The bubble of life in Tolstoy, Nietzsche, Havelock and Innis. Many different paths go out from this crossroads. Like Tolstoy, McLuhan took it that the multiple absurdities of this supposition required a new start elsewhere: “The gap (between this supposition and others) is where the action is.” For Nietzsche it required the admission of nihilism since the story of the “clever beasts (who) invented knowing” was itself invented. For Bergson, according to McLuhan, it was an indication of a prior and perhaps still possible conscious/unconscious “bliss of union”. For Havelock it precipitated a crisis of faith and, eventually, insight into rival possibilities. For Innis this idea threw mankind reactively into short-term thinking that, in turn, led to war as a way of life. For Hegel this whole topic was important in his dryly humorous consideration of what it means to take away an instrument from objects which are accessible only through that instrument.
  6. Understanding Media, 114: “long before literate technology, the binary factors of hands and feet sufficed to launch man on the path of counting. Indeed, the mathematical Leibniz saw in the mystic elegance of the binary system of zero and 1 the image of Creation. The unity of the Supreme Being operating in the void by binary function would, he felt, suffice to make all beings from the void.”
  7. Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters: “Art and poetry are regarded as private religions, secret escape hatches from the sunken submarine or the unguided missile of existence. The Catholic alone can laugh at these antics.” Later in the same lecture: “Joyce is the single poet voice in our century raised not not merely against this view but in wild laughter at its arrogant confusion.” Compare The Mechanical Bride: “The human person who thinks, works, or dreams himself into the role of a machine is as funny an object as the world provides. And, in fact, he can only be freed from this trap by the detaching power of wild laughter. (…)  Finnegans Wake by James Joyce (…) being a great intellectual effort aimed at rinsing the Augean stables of speech and society with geysers of laughter.” (100-101)
  8. Empedocles and T. S. Eliot, 1976.
  9.  The Global Village: “time considered as sequential (left hemisphere) is figure and time considered as simultaneous (right hemisphere) is ground.” (10)
  10. Counterblast: “Until WRITING was invented, we lived in acoustic space, where all backward peoples still live: boundless, directionless, horizonless, the dark of the mind, the world of emotion, primordial intuition, mafia-ridden. Speech is a social chart of this dark bog. SPEECH structures the abyss of mental and acoustic space, shrouding the race; it is a cosmic, invisible architecture of the human dark.” (1954 and 1969)
  11.  Nihilism Exposed, 1955. From the start of his career onwards, McLuhan equated merger with the cosmos as suicide: “The Dagwoods and the billionaire power-gluttons are equally rushing to the suicide of total immersion in the chaos of matter.” (Lemuel in Lilliput, 1944) Earlier in Understanding Media itself, McLuhan characterized the human merger with the cosmos not as “bliss”, but as “suicidal auto-amputation”: “With the arrival of electric technology, man extended, or set outside himself, a live model of the central nervous system itself. To the degree that this is so, it is a development that suggests a desperate and suicidal auto-amputation, as if the central nervous system could no longer depend on the physical organs to be protective buffers against the slings and arrows of outrageous mechanism. It could well be that the successive mechanizations of the various physical organs since the invention of printing have made too violent and super-stimulated a social experience for the central nervous system to endure.” (43)
  12.  Nihilism Exposed, 1955.
  13. Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters: ” in the modern world we have through the very perfection and instantaneity of our means of communication made it impossible to resolve the conflicting claims of the numerous societies and cultures which are now in close association.”
  14. See the Playboy interview passage at the end of this post: “The extension of man’s consciousness induced by the electric media (…) holds the potential for realizing the Anti-Christ”.