Exploring ignorance (9) – The Concept of Dread

In Exploring ignorance 8, the first sentence of Take Today is cited: “The art and science of this century reveal and exploit the resonating bond in all things.” (3)  But McLuhan goes on to note in the same place that:

To naïve classifiers a gap is merely empty (…) With medieval dread they abhor vacuums.

Where gaps are (held to be) no “resonating bond”, but only “empty (…) vacuums”, merger becomes the order of the day: “All boundaries now gone” (Take Today 209). This is the only form of coherence that remains a possibility. All other possible forms of coherence1 are articulated in some way and “classifiers” therefore consider them (if consideration is made at all in the general “numb”) to be fundamentally illegitimate and, at best, secondary.

For “classifiers” such complex forms are infected by a vacuous and dreadful emptiness at the axis of their purported connections and “bonds”. Indeed, difference and coherence are held by them (knowingly and unknowingly) to be mutually exclusive in a fundamental sense: the im-possibility of the conjunction of fundamentally different relata dominates their experience “in all things”.

The power of the urge to merge in the “electric age” is manifested in three world-historical developments:

  • The gapped bond of ontology/ontical is collapsed into the ontical only. Echology and intelligibility are lost. The very idea of human beings having an essential relation to truth and reality becomes laughable. “Fear of the Lord” becomes obsolete, something humans have grown — extended themselves — far beyond.
  • The gapped bond of human beings and nature is collapsed into human beings only: “We have put the brains and nerves of man around the globe.” (‘Prospect’ 365); “When Sputnik went around the planet, nature disappeared, nature was hijacked right off the planet, nature was enclosed in a man-made environment…” (Florida State University lecture, 1970; cf Lamberti, Marshall McLuhan’s Mosaic, 35)
  • As humans in a state of Narcissistic narcosis fixate on their own image in and as the “man-made environment”, the fractures and differences of human fin-itude are collapsed and humans become generic automatons only: “we are merely servo-mechanisms” (‘Prospect’ 365); “each of us is merely a Narcissus dancing around in love with his own image” (‘Prospect’ 365); “THE UNPERSON: THE MAN THAT NEVER WAS” (Take Today 26).

These three momentous reductions of the complex to the simple are like Poe’s maelstrom, forming a vortex: the descending gyres whirl in circles which are increasingly smaller, faster and more violent. First the macrocosm, then the cosmos, then the microcosm collapse into themselves, one after the other, like so many black holes. Dante’s inferno has the same conical architecture as the maelstrom but with stationary circles: there the downward momentum is energized by our souls, not by its gyrations. But both the maelstrom and the inferno gravitate to a merged point of doom.

In ‘Prospect’ McLuhan enlarges on this merged state of Narcissistic narcosis as follows:

we’re merely obsessed, fascinated with a little bit of ourselves, stuck out there, in another material. I think it is very important to know that it is a bit of yourself out there because otherwise you are never going to get off the hook. You’re always going to be a servo-mechanism. The servo-mechanism is the perfect feedback.  You echo exactly the thing that’s out there like a thermostat jumping to the heat variations. When we are completely unaware of the nature of television or radio or telephone, we are merely servo-mechanisms of those forms. We respond to them in the immediate mechanical way that they demand of us. In this way, each of us is merely a Narcissus dancing around in love with his own image. (‘Prospect’ 365, emphasis added)

Merger, which McLuhan saw as a, or the, form of madness is the structural energy, the fateful dynamic, at work here. The collapse of the ontological gods and powers and of nature into a collapsed human being results in a state of “perfect feedback” where “you echo exactly the thing that’s out there” — and what is “out there” is “the brains and nerves of man” (‘Prospect’ 366). We come to function “like a thermostat jumping to the heat variations” where there is no “gap” of consideration between the external “variations” and our response to them.  We react simply “in the immediate mechanical way that they demand of us”.

When, especially in Take Today (but in general everywhere), McLuhan is concerned to probe “the nature” of media “by directing perception on (…) interfaces” as “prime sources of discovery”, he is above all concerned with restoring what he calls the “evitable” dimension (Take Today 6) of human being:

I take it we consider it more desirable for human beings to have some autonomy, some independence of the gimmicks. (‘Prospect’ 365)

To free himself from servitude to his own artifacts has become the main program of the new ecological age that began with Sputnik. (Take Today 7)

Restitution of human “evitability” out of servo-mechanical “servitude” to “gimmicks” depends on a threefold re-cognition.  First there must be recognition of the possibility of change. No such recognition, no foundation and no motive from which to attempt to act evitably. This requires, In turn, re-cognition of the plurality of the possible states from and to which change might be made.  No such plurality, no possibility of change. And this requires, finally, re-cognition of “boundaries” and “gaps” between such states. No such boundaries, no such plurality and no such possibility.

Hence McLuhan’s ever-repeated attention to “boundaries [as] areas of maximal abrasion and change”, as “where the action is”. Here alone is where evitability can start.

But these restorative re-cognitions must begin in the “electric age” with human being, because, as seen above, literally everything (even itself) has collapsed into human being. There is nothing else. “We have put the brains and nerves of man around the globe” (‘Prospect’ 366); “nature [has] disappeared” (Florida State University lecture, 1970; cf Lamberti, Marshall McLuhan’s Mosaic, 35). “The Viewer is Monarch of All He Surveys” (Take Today 142). “The user of the electric media, whether radio, telephone, movie, or TV, has a powerful sense of being king and emperor, since he is the content of a total environment of electric services.” (Take Today 144)

Ontology and nature and human nature itself have all collapsed into Marcuse’s “one-dimensional man” (published in the same year as Understanding Media, 1964), McLuhan’s “UNPERSON”.

Hence the imperative to expose boundaries and gaps in human nature as the “areas of maximal abrasion and change” where, alone, evitability might be reborn. Hence the need to reconsider Finn MacCool and Huckleberry Finn as exemplary types of “Finn-again” — as types of human fin-itude whose limitations and boundaries are fundamental and therefore revelatory (in the first place of evitability).

The need is to relearn ana-lysis of discrete “bits”:

we’re merely obsessed, fascinated with a little bit of ourselves, stuck out there, in another material. I think it is very important to know that it is a bit of yourself out there because otherwise you are never going to get off the hook. (‘Prospect’ 365, emphasis added)

McLuhan thought, or rather hoped (in way that tended with experience more to faith than to expectation), that the investigations in geology, biology, anthropology and psychology, which had been vastly extended in time and space beginning in the nineteenth century, would bring re-cognition of the fin-itude of human being (objective genitive) by exposing its incredible variety. No finitude, no real variety. And conversely, if real variety, then real finitude. The exacting analysis of language and of the social environment to which McLuhan was exposed in Cambridge, especially by Richards and Leavis, could spark a similar hope. How consider, for example, “Seven Types of Ambiguity” without a sharp appreciation for the discrete and finite? Then In Toronto, the focus on “bias” that McLuhan found in Harold Innis could be thought to have related promise. If all human action and experience is necessarily biased, how not acknowledge its fin-itude?

And once fin-itude were deeply acknowledged, “evitability” might relaunch.

But the fin-itude of human being could not be, cannot be, re-cognized on account of an intervening curtain of dread:

With medieval dread they abhor vacuums. (Take Today 3)

The boundaries which constitute fin-itude are taken to be “empty (…) vacuums” and this emptiness, as Pascal already saw, excites a repulsive horror and a general state of “anxiety”:

when you put the nervous system outside [and equate it with all there is], fear is no longer the problem. Anxiety is the problem. Fear is specific, anxiety is total. (…) You don’t know now precisely what you’re dreading, rather it’s a pervasive state. The condition of man is what you dread. You no longer dread that animal, that famine, and so on, but this condition. (‘Prospect’ 366)

Anxiety and dread are “total” and “pervasive” and exclusively concern “the condition of man” because, on the one hand, human being in the “electric age” is all there is; on the other hand, this “all there is” must be taken in a “total” and “pervasive” way — it must lack all variety and borders and any sort of specificity in order to avoid that fin-itude and dread-ful vacuity that all “gaps” and borders entail. “You no longer dread that animal, that famine, and so on” because these are discrete forms of life, discrete happenings, discrete threats, and it is exactly the discrete with its implicated borders and limits and difference that is dreaded.

It is just because “all boundaries now gone” (Take Today 209) that human being can expand into being “all there is”. Conversely, only some featureless “all there is” can be without borders: if there were anything else, anything specific or discrete, borders would be required. The condition of such nebulous inflation (Hegel’s night in which all cows are black) is at the same time, however, the condition of — that which introduces — “total anxiety” and dread. On the one hand, the whole construct is a rickety “gimmick”; on the other, any change from it, even any genuine consideration of it, is so dreaded (since these would implicate borders) as to be im-possible. This pathetic state of being trapped in a gigantic construction which we ourselves have jerry-built, and then locked ourselves into, constellates “total anxiety”.

Our whole existence is known to be a sham and yet any movement from it is blocked by our own dread. We suffer mortally from a kind of metaphysical incarceration that we yet know to be fatally flawed and doomed.

McLuhan describes it as follows:

when we put our nerves outside, we become of course vulnerable to the nth degree; in fact, we barely survive from day to day. Mere existence becomes one of perpetual anxiety. (…) We now have an unimaginably harassed [‘life’] by putting our nerves outside ourselves; it is like living without a skin. So what we do is go numb. When we put our nerves outside we can only survive by anaesthesia. And so we live in the unconscious. This is the age of the unconscious because it is the age when the nervous system is totally exposed. (…) Man is now in a somnambulant state because this offers him his only possibility of survival and sanity. He couldn’t bear a fully conscious existence under the frenetic conditions that he is exposed to by his own technology. He could not register these terrible shocks directly and survive. He’d go mad. (‘Prospect’ 366)


man lives in total anxiety in the age of electricity. Anxiety means (…) involvement and therefore of course a very heightened kind of existence, a sort of nightmare (‘Prospect’ 366)

This “mad (…) nightmare” is not only (only!) the loss of feeling at home in this skin and on this earth.  It is not only (only!) the torture humans impose on themselves and on all the creatures of the earth. It is not only (only!) the ceaseless warfare that must be waged against any and all difference. It is also an ontological conflict where what is at stake is the very nature of being itself, the very nature of “all that is”.

Where “gaps [are the] prime sources of discovery” (Take Today 3) and yet “gaps” are fundamentally rejected in favor of “merger”, no “dis-covery” is possible absent fundamental change. But fundamental change cannot be contemplated because the gaps between essential forms, to which and through which fundamental change would need to be made, are what are dreaded most of all. These are the most abysmal “gaps” and the ones whose consequences are the most ‘earth shaking’. (Here again, the relationship  may be noted between McLuhan’s work and that of his University of Toronto colleague, Tuzo Wilson, on plate techtonics.)

McLuhan predicted a world in which private (aka discrete) identity would disappear and what it means to be a human being would be dictated from some unquestionable and unconsiderable source. In a state of “total anxiety”, ‘security’ would demand that we all “echo exactly the thing that’s out there”. Take Today


  1.  The table of media elements set out in ‘On the new opening of a domain‘ represents an attempt to specify the range of the elementary forms of media on the basis of a variable atomic structure of coherence. Recognition of something like this range represents the only possible first step out of merger.

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