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.

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