Monthly Archives: February 2014

The Proscenium Arch (3)

In The Proscenium Arch (2), the claim is made that:

the “Global Electric Theatre” is the apotheosis of Gutenbergian “single perspective”.

But how so? McLuhan uses “the electric” as one of the terms in a series which also includes “inclusiveness”, “allatonceness”, “dialogue”, etc — all of which designate “double perpespective” (a=≠b).  Now this series is just what the Gutenberg galaxy rejects or at least deemphasizes and ignores:

the medieval stage had been cyclic and simultaneous in presenting many scenes and episodes at once like a three-ring circus. Whereas the new humanist theater developed the proscenium arch with its single perspective (‘Printing and Social Change’, Printing Progress, 1959)

It would seem that McLuhan intended to contrast the image of a “Global Electric Theatre” with that of the “humanist theater”. So how can the “Global Electric Theatre” represent the apotheosis of the Gutenberg galaxy and its theater and not a fundamental break from them?

Everything depends on the perspective — or perspectives! — in which and for which the “Global Electric Theatre” is taken to be. That is, everything turns at this point on ontology.

The Gutenberg galaxy everywhere eventuates in an appreciation of the equation.  And the equation serves to specify an identity between unequals. In E = mc2, for example, Einstein’s point is not that matter and energy are ‘the same’ in such a way that they might be merged in some all-encompassing master concept, Instead, the two are held to be fundamentally different, but yet related via the speed of light squared. Their equation sets forth this highly complex relationship. In literature, similarly, symbolism developed the notion that surface and depth in textual expression could be fundamentally different, but yet related in a certain manner of experience which it was the goal of the poet or artist to articulate. Here the artistic vision might be compared to the speed of light needed to correlate mass and energy in physics. In both these examples (and everywhere in the explosions of insight in all the arts and sciences following on the Gutenberg revolution) what is at stake is the universal potential for equation where discrete unequals are investigated as related in complex ways. Hence McLuhan’s general formulas:

The “meaning of meaning” is relationship. (Take Today 3)

The gap is where the action is (Take Today 81)1

Now the great question urged by McLuhan is: what is the state of perspective for which such equation represents the real? 

The danger is that equation as the relationship of unequals is taken to be a power or form exercised from the “single perspective” of humans:

The Apollo age has scrapped Greek Nature as we assume full responsibility for orchestrating our total environment on human scales  (‘The argument: causality in the electric world’, Technology and Culture, 14:1, 1973)

In this case, the “double perspective” entailed by equation would be a secondary expression of human “single perspective” and the “Global Electric Theatre” would therefore be the apotheosis of the Gutenberg galaxy. As will be discussed in future posts, McLuhan frequently compares this development to the event of atomic power coming into human hands. In both cases, the danger is that an unlimited, more than human power comes to be exercised on the basis of limited human insight. More, as foreseen by Dostoevsky and Nietzsche, such gigantic power comes to be exercised by that limited human insight which has been set utterly free by the nihilism and amoralism entailed by our ownership of the gigantic equation form. Where there is no truth, “everything is permitted”.

The situation is that of a gigantomachia in which the mis-shapen giants of the earth have succeeded in their assault on Olympus and the gods.

By contrast, where “double perspective” is foundational, not secondary to a prior singularity, humans are called to recognize not only some other incidental perspective, but a divine one.  Here humans, instead of grounding equation as figure, are figured on its ground.

McLuhan often treats this contrast as one of “light on” (coming from our “single perspective”) versus “light through” (coming to our perspective from another one). Here is a typical discussion from The Gutenberg Galaxy (106-107)

any medieval person (…) would assume that the reality looked through at us, and that by contemplation we bathed in the divine light, rather than looked at it. The quite different sensuous assumptions of manuscript culture, ancient and medieval, from anything since Gutenberg, obtrude from the ancient doctrine of the senses and the sensus communis.

Armed with this principle that there is a ratio or rationality in the senses themselves, Panofsky is able to move freely among the ratios that are between medieval scholasticism and medieval architecture. But this principle of ratio in the senses as light through Being is everywhere in study of the senses of scripture as well. But all of these matters became much confused by the growing demand for light on, rather than light through, as the later technology set the visual faculty in ever sharper separation from the other senses. (…) After Gutenberg the new visual intensity will require light on everything. And its idea of space and time will change to regard them as containers to be filled with objects or activities. But in a manuscript age when the visual stood in closer relation to the audile-tactile, space was not a visual container. (…) There was scarcely any furniture in a medieval room, as Siegfried Giedion explains in Mechanization Takes Command (p. 301):

And yet there was a medieval comfort. But it must be sought in another dimension, for it cannot be measured on the material scale. The satisfaction and delight that were medieval comfort have their source in the configuration of space. Comfort is the atmosphere with which man surrounds himself and in which he lives. Like the medieval Kingdom of God, it is something that eludes the grasp of hands. Medieval comfort is the comfort of space. A medieval room seems finished even when it contains no furniture. It is never bare. Whether a cathedral, refectory, or a burgher chamber, it lives in its proportions, its materials, its form.

 

  1. Also Take Today, 60-61: “That the gap is where the action is, is now acknowledged as the basis of chemical and physical change.”  And: McLuhan, ‘The Gap is Where the Action is’, Ontario Dentist (The Journal of the Ontario Dental Association), 53:6, 1976.

The Proscenium Arch (2)

In his first proscenium arch passages from the 1950s, McLuhan establishes an equation between the proscenium arch and singular perspective. A theatre with such an arch provided a specialist space for “a single audience looking at a single scene”. It was a set-up enabling a “single perspective such as a single page presents to a reader” and therefore could be termed by him “the pure projection of the form of the printed page”. The medieval stage, In contrast, “had been cyclic and simultaneous in presenting many scenes and episodes at once like a three-ring circus”. (All citations in this post are from the passages given in The Proscenium Arch 1.)

The proscenium arch was, then, an educational medium teaching the use of intense “single perspective” focus to a medieval world previously dominated by multiple perspective. It functioned as a kind of catalyst promoting the latter relative to the former. But it was not, as future posts will elaborate, a technology which originated or caused or invented “single perspective” — an absurdity into which all too many readings of McLuhan fall when explicating his take on comparable media like the alphabet or the book.

When McLuhan in his later texts refers to “the proscenium arch”, his earlier definitions must be borne in mind.  This would guard against the frequent mistake of understanding his “Global Electric Theatre” as some kind of break from the Gutenberg galaxy. Rather, when “Sputnik put the globe in a ‘proscenium arch’, and the global village [was] transformed into a global theater”, “single perspective” came to dominate as never before. Here “doing one’s [own] thing” (aka “single perspective”), at the expense of “public space” (aka multiple perspective “like a three-ring circus”), amounts to the “simulation of [the] human condition”, the substitution on a planetary scale of “the proscenium arch and stage lighting” for the “ambient light” of the real world and the real condition of humans in it. The “Global Electric Theatre” is the apotheosis of Gutenbergian “single perspective”!

This is an apotheosis which has eventuated in “our awareness of planet Polluto — a limited figure against the ground of limitless space”. Such awareness is exactly nihilism since “a limited figure against the ground of [the] limitless” is, of course, nothing at all — for the “limited” has no “ground” or foundation or reality where these are taken as lacking limit, as not recognizing limit, as “limit-less”.1

The relationship of “single perspective” with multiple perspective on “many scenes and episodes at once like a three-ring circus” is not linear. As regards such essentials, there is no appeal to progress in McLuhan, either positive or negative.  Humans qua humans are always and everywhere subject to the range of possible perspectives and this range (while of course always subject to further specification just like the table of chemical elements) has itself no history2.

 

  1.  Cf GG, 259: “Print, with its uniformity, repeatability, and limitless extent, does give reincarnate life and fame to anything at all. The kind of limp life so conferred by dull heads upon dull themes formalistically penetrates all existence.” (Emphasis added)
  2. No history in the sense of sharing our history. But it has its own history which is the springboard of ours.

The Proscenium Arch (1)

McLuhan’s repeated allusions to the proscenium arch illuminate his views and techniques in interesting ways. The following passages, given in chronological order, will be discussed in subsequent posts:  

The very idea of a single audience looking at a single scene or action through a proscenium arch, so typical of the Renaissance, so unmedieval, is the pure projection of the form of the printed page into drama. (…) By contrast the medieval stress was for cycle plays simultaneously performed as at a circus.  (Explorations 8, 1957)

the medieval stage had been cyclic and simultaneous in presenting many scenes and episodes at once like a three-ring circus. Whereas the new humanist theater developed the proscenium arch with its single perspective such as a single page presents to a reader. Concern for the dramatic unities naturally emerges with the proscenium arch. It is a major difference between the styles of Dante and Milton. (‘Printing and Social Change’, Printing Progress, 1959)

Duccio’s discovery of how to place these figures in an architecturally enclosed space moved toward theatricality and the proscenium-arch space in painting. The sense of the downward thrust of weight generated by perspective strengthens the simulation of a human condition. (Through the Vanishing Point: Space in Poetry and Painting, 1968)

The isolated moment moves us toward photographic stress on visual realism. Darkness is to space what silence is to sound, i.e., the interval. No ambient light — the world of the proscenium arch and stage lighting.  (Through the Vanishing Point: Space in Poetry and Painting, 1968)

Since Sputnik, the planet has become a global theatre under the proscenium arch of man-made satellites. (Culture Is Our Business, 1970)

Since Sputnik put the globe in a “proscenium arch,” and the global village has been transformed into a global theater, the result, quite literally, is the use of public space for “doing one’s thing”. (From Cliche to Archetype, 1970)

When Sputnik went around the planet in 1957 the earth became enclosed in a man-made environment and became thereby an “art” form. The globe became a theatre enclosed in a proscenium arch of satellites. From that time the “audience” or the population of the planet became actors in a new sort of theatre. (‘Roles, Masks and Performances’, New Literary History 2:3 1971)

Since Werner Heisenberg and Linus Pauling, the only remaining material bond is resonance. All physical, psychic, and social processes merge in constant play and replay. There are no more spectators in lab or life, only participants in the Global Electric Theatre. Sputnik created a new proscenium arch that transformed our awareness of planet Polluto — a limited figure against the ground of limitless space. The Apollo age has scrapped Greek Nature as we assume full responsibility for orchestrating our total environment on human scales beyond ideologies. (‘The argument: causality in the electric world’, Technology and Culture, 14:1, 1973)

Today, causing and explaining and predicting merge while teacher-student, consumer-producer, and audience-actor unite in new roles for the Global Electric Theatre [with its proscenium arch of satellites]. The future is not what it used to be… (‘The argument: causality in the electric world’, Technology and Culture, 14:1, 1973)

Peace in difference

Continuing Assmann on the battle between Horus and Seth

The gap between earth and sky is fundamental. It is what first gives space for the unfolding of human being. This unfolding is human history. The possibility of such unfolding history is therefore given in the prior history of the relations between earth and sky when it is de-cided that they will forever part from one another (and to this extent forever struggle with one another), but also continue always to relate to one another in a difficult peace (a peace that is difficult exactly on account of their fundamental parting).  

The earth and sky part. Each becomes a separate part of the cosmos on its own; but each also remains at peace with the other piece. The second of these, as much as the first, is what gives space for human unfolding. More, the aboriginal peace in difference of earth and sky is what gives form to human life. Humans relate to the gods and to reality in general, not because they are ever able to match them in their thoughts or deeds, but because their ineluctable difference from them in their making is subject to the prior power of the difficult peace between earth and sky. It is this power that McLuhan terms “the resonating bond in all things”, “the gap where the action is”.

Much of mythology and religion is dedicated to a consideration of this prior drama “in the beginning” when space between heaven and earth was first opened for human time.

McLuhan returned again and again to the work of Mircea Eliade, particularly to The Sacred and the Profane, in an ever-renewed effort to think through how he agreed, and how he differed, from it. Later posts will take up this topic in detail. Suffice it to cite here Eliade’s view that

In imitating the exemplary acts of a god or of a mythical hero, or simply by recounting their adventures, the man of an archaic society detaches himself from profane time and magically re-enters the Great Time, the sacred time. (Myths, Dreams and Mysteries)

McLuhan was allergic to any suggestion that humans can match or merge with or “imitate” the sacred. His bent was therefore to problematize Eliade’s account in an attempt both to better understand the “magic” in question and to relate it to the contemporary world of advertising, movies and the new media. His discussions of “magic” will need to be considered in many different contexts in future posts.

As regards the relation of earth and sky, McLuhan’s take on the electric age was that it is the period when earth-bound humans populate the sky with satellites and generally collapse nature into art1, turning the earth and sky into an enclosed stage with its “proscenium arch“:

When Sputnik went around the planet in 1957 the earth became enclosed in a man-made environment and became thereby an “art” form. The globe became a theatre enclosed in a proscenium arch of satellites. From that time the “audience” or the population of the planet became actors in a new sort of theatre. (‘Roles, Masks and Performances’, New Literary History 2:3 1971)

This collapse or merger portends, in his view, either unprecedented disaster, perhaps the end of human being (which cannot be without the gap of earth and sky) or new insight into the nature of this gap as a “resonating bond”.

 

  1. The complexity and depth of McLuhan’s project has always been underestimated. As an example, the collapse of nature into art, one of McLuhan’s more frequent topics, is another way of addressing nihilism — Nietzsche’s ‘no facts (nature), only interpretations (art)’. So it is that McLuhan’s work is first of all ontology and all the rest of it must stand or fall with his success or failure on this fundamental front.