Exploring ignorance 12 – “mechanization of total human gesture”

Continuing Exploring ignorance 8 – “Nothing completely packaged” . . .

In The Mechanical Bride McLuhan observes:

The magic that changes moods is not in any mechanism. It is critical vision alone which can mitigate the unimpeded operation of the automatic. (87)

The word ‘mood’1 in this passage must be taken in the wide sense implicit in its etymology:

Mood: “emotional condition, frame of mind,” Old English mod “heart, frame of mind, spirit; courage, arrogance, pride; power, violence,” from Proto-Germanic *motha- (cf. Old Saxon mod “mind, courage,” Old Frisian mod “intellect, mind, intention,” Old Norse moðr “wrath, anger,” Middle Dutch moet, Dutch moed, Old High German muot, German Mut “courage”).

What is at stake here for McLuhan is not only (only!) changes in our feelings or emotional states, but changes to our “frame of mind”, to our whole way of being and to the paradigmatic ways according to which we view the world and act in it. Therefore his characteristic attention to the different global understandings of societies organized via orality or manuscript or print or electric media.

When humans change moods in this wide sense, this does not take place through some further mood. There is no mood between moods. Such a supposition would institute an infinite regress since the intermediary mood of change from one mood to another would itself require further moods to differentiate it from the moods between which it is supposed to operate. Such a supposition cannot answer the question of how a transition from mood to mood occurs. In fact, instead of answering the question, it merely postpones it indefinitely — a popular remedy to a great many problems in today’s ‘fast paced’ world. Change between moods does not require further explanation where recourse is made to some infinitely partitioned evolutionary process. Here the frontier to be crossed from one mood to another becomes smaller and smaller as more and more intermediary moods are added to the linear picture. In the end, the ever shrinking gap of change itself elicits no notice and therefore no wonder.

Instead of this evolutionary perspective, mood change according to McLuhan must be perceived to transpire in that border or gap or “resonating bond” which both differentiates moods and yet also joins them in “metaphorical” fashion. But this gap (“where the action is”) is necessarily “hidden” since it falls only between one “frame of mind” and another. Functioning between moods in this way, this magic is not itself perceptable within any one of them. Instead it manifests itself only (only!) as a kind of withdrawal through which moods (plural!) appear in their resonatingly bonded assembly and which are thereby subject to change (since housed in this magic, since figured on this ground).

“The magic that changes moods”, but which “is not in any mechanism”, can seem to be “nothing”. But it is attention to this “hidden” power (Take Today 22), aka “nothing”, which characterizes that “critical vision” which “alone . . . can mitigate the unimpeded operation of the automatic”. Here again the etymology is of ‘critical’ importance:

Crisis: early 15c., from Latinized form of Greek krisis “turning point in a disease” (used as such by Hippocrates and Galen), literally “judgment, result of a trial, selection”, from krinein “to separate, decide, judge”, from PIE root *krei– “to sieve, discriminate, distinguish” (cf. Greek krinesthai “to explain;” Old English hriddel “sieve;” Latin cribrum “sieve,” crimen “judgment, crime”, cernere [cf, discern] (past participle cretus) “to sift, separate;” Old Irish criathar, Old Welsh cruitr “sieve;” Middle Irish crich “border, boundary”).

McLuhan’s “critical vision” is that sort of perception which discerns through focus on the “turning point”, “border” and “boundary”. It concentrates on the gap “where the action is” — even though this gap is necessarily “hidden” and can well appear to be no more than “nothing”.

It is through his focus on the “resonating bond” that McLuhan rejects “merger”. In another passage from The Mechanical Bride note should be made of the repeated contrast drawn between “orchestrating” and “fusing”, between “discontinuity and endless variety” on the one hand and “the universal imposition of . . . one social or economic system” on the other, between “harmony” and the “unilateral, monistic, or tyrannical”:

The symbolist esthetic theory of the late nineteenth century seems to offer an even better conception than social biology for resolving the human problems created by technology. This theory leads to a conception of orchestrating human arts, interests, and pursuits rather than fusing them in a functional biological unit, as even with Giedion and Mumford. Orchestration permits discontinuity and endless variety without the universal imposition of any one social or economic system. It is a conception inherent not only in symbolist art but in quantum and relativity physics. Unlike Newtonian physics, it can entertain a harmony that is not unilateral, monistic, or tyrannical. It is neither progressive nor reactionary but embraces all previous actualizations of human excellence while welcoming the new in a simultaneous present. (MB, 34)

Everything depends for McLuhan on the initiation and exploratory development of the “critical vision” which is here associated with “orchestrating”, “discontinuity”, “endless variety” and “harmony”. Each of these is structured by a fundamental gap across which “the magic that changes mood” transpires. But in modern times, this “critical vision” becomes lost exactly through, strangely enough, its extended application — through the use of “the magic that changes moods” within such “mechanisms” as the movies and television and, above all, advertising.

In a surprisingly early note to Ezra Pound on Jan 5, 1951 (which will require extended consideration in a later post), McLuhan is already mulling over these ideas:

Basic modes of cognition on this continent not linguistic but technological. (…) Present procedure is to slap an alien culture over the actual one. The real one is killed and the alien one is worn as a party mask. (Letters 218)

Then, in another letter to Pound from July 16, 1952, outlining what would become The Gutenberg Galaxy a full decade hence, McLuhan writes of the “mechanization of total human gesture” by “radio-telephone-cinema-TV” (Letters, 232). Similarly some months later, January 23, 1953, to Walter Ong:

Am working on a book whose theme is The End of the Gutenberg Era. Tracing impact of print, and now, the switch to media which rep[resent] not the mechanization of writing but of word and gesture (radio movies TV) Necessarily a much greater change than from script to print. (Letters 234)

McLuhan calls modernity “the age of advertising” (the title of an important article he wrote for Commonweal magazine in 1953) because advertising in the sense of the manipulation of moods characterizes all aspects of modern life. As he shows in The Mechanical Bride, and again in Understanding Media 15 years later, politics, news and entertainment all turn on mood manipulation as much as advertising itself does.

The key to advertising in this broad sense is its operation under the cover of manifest ubiquity. Like water to fish, advertising is the last thing we notice exactly because it is everywhere present and everywhere efficacious: it is the air modernity breathes.

Further, advertising functions by putting this “magic that changes moods” to use. It is “nothing completely packaged, the “mechanization of total human gesture”. Here (as McLuhan wrote to Pound in 1951) the “basic modes of cognition” become surface figure instead of foundational ground: the “procedure is to slap an alien culture over the actual one”. This transfer of the “hidden” power of change from the essential gap between moods as ground, to functionality within a defined purpose as figure, obscures the nature of this magic exactly through its illumination and application.

“The magic that changes mood” is therefore in oblivion today for 3 distinct reasons:

  • In the first place, this “magic” is “hidden” by nature. As McLuhan cites the I Ching in Take Today, “[the Creative] does indeed guide all happenings, but [it never becomes manifest;] it never behaves outwardly as the leader. Thus true strength is that strength which, mobile as it is hidden, concentrates on the work without being outwardly visible (22);
  • In the second place, this “hidden” power has become ubiquitous in an entire “age of advertising” and this ubiquity makes it just as difficult to discern as water to fish;
  • In the third place, this “magic” has become displaced from the “hidden” gap between one “frame of mind” and another, to use within a single “frame of mind”. Such use makes this power visible only as what it is not and thereby invisible as what it is.

But there is also a fourth reason. The “magic” which is the “resonating bond” between moods would expose our radical finitude if we were to become consciousness of our ever-repeated transitions through it. This does not occur, in part because of its natural obscurity and its unnatural use, but even more (since consciousness and obscurity are not necessarily opposed and especially consciousness and unnatural use are not opposed at all) because ‘mood’ is correlate with identity and with the perceived world and to appreciate the finitude of the former (mood) would be to appreciate the finitude of the latter (identity and world) along with it.

Dread forbids this.

Advertising has been able to harness this magic power of change and metaphor only by partnering with our dread to suppress awareness of the true nature of such change. It rivets our attention, as one says — rivets it to surface effect away from the ground of its own action and of the action it is all too successful in precipitating in us.


  1. Great phrase: ‘word mood’! The definition of language!

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