Monthly Archives: August 2014

McLuhan and Plato 6 – Theuth

In The Gutenberg Galaxy (24-25) McLuhan cites Plato’s report in the Phaedrus of a mythical exchange between King Thamus of Egypt and Theuth (or Thoth)1, the Egyptian god of wisdom:

If a technology is introduced either from within or from without a culture, and if it gives new stress or ascendancy to one or another of our senses, the ratio among all of our senses is altered. We no longer feel the same, nor do our eyes and ears and other senses remain the same. The interplay among our senses is perpetual save in conditions of anesthesia. But any sense when stepped up to high intensity can act as an anesthetic for other senses. The dentist can now use “audiac”— induced noise — to remove tactility. Hypnosis depends on the same principle of isolating one sense in order to anesthetize the others. The result is a break in the ratio among the senses, a kind of loss of identity. Tribal, non-literate man, living under the intense stress on auditory organization of all experience, is, as it were, entranced.
Plato, however, the scribe of Socrates2 as he seemed to the Middle Ages, could in the act of writing look back to the non-literate world and say:
“It would take a long time to repeat all that Thamus said to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts. But when they came to letters, This, said Theuth, will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit. Thamus replied: O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.” [Phaedrus, 274-5]3
Plato shows no awareness here or elsewhere of how the phonetic alphabet had altered the sensibility of the Greeks; nor did anybody else in his time or later. Before his time, the myth-makers, poised on the frontiers between the old oral world of the tribe and the new technologies of specialism and individualism, had foreseen all and said all in a few words.

This extended citation from 1962 had been preceded in McLuhan’s work by a series of shorter citations and references ten years earlier, beginning with his essay in the first issue of Explorations in 1953, ‘Culture Without Literacy’:

Faced with the consequence of writing, Plato notes in the Phaedrus:
“This discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learner’s souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence and you give your disciples not truth but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”
Two thousand years of manuscript culture lay ahead of the Western world when Plato made this observation.

Then in the next year, in 1954, in his ‘Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters’ lecture, McLuhan noted in passing that

Plato regarded the advent of writing as pernicious. In the Phaedrus he tells us it would cause men to rely on their memories rather than their wits.

The formulation “Plato regarded the advent of writing as pernicious” is shorthand for ‘Plato regarded Socrates regarding Thamus regarding the advent of writing as pernicious’. The endless mirroring at stake here will be discussed below; it recalls McLuhan’s dictum that the content of any medium is always another medium.

In ‘Joyce, Mallarmé and the Press’, also in 1954, McLuhan continued to stress the importance of this exchange:

Manuscript technology fostered a constellation of mental attitudes and skills of which the modern world has no memory. Plato foresaw some of them with alarm in the Phaedrus:
“The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear omniscient and will generally know nothing;  they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”
Plato is speaking for the oral tradition before it was modified by literacy. He saw writing as a mainly destructive revolution. Since then we have been through enough revolutions to know that every medium of communication is a unique art form which gives salience to one set of human possibilities at the expense of another set. Each medium of expression profoundly modifies human sensibility in mainly unconscious and unpredictable ways. 

Finally, still in 1954, McLuhan reverted to this same exchange in ‘Sight, Sound, and the Fury’ which appeared in Commonweal Magazine:

recall that in the Phaedrus, Plato argued that the new arrival of writing would revolutionize culture for the worse. He suggested that it would substitute reminiscence for thought and mechanical learning for the true dialectic of the living quest for truth by discourse and conversation. It was as if he foresaw the library of Alexandria and the unending exegesis upon previous exegesis of the scholiasts and grammarians.

This last passage is noteworthy in several respects.  For one thing, it records a positive use of “dialectic” and a negative use of “grammarians” which should give pause to those who would characterize McLuhan as an anti-dialectician and pro-grammarian tout court. In fact he was anti-dialectic and pro-grammar only in certain senses of these terms and everything depends upon the clarification of these certain senses. For another, the phrase “unending exegesis upon previous exegesis” shows that McLuhan was fully conscious of the mirroring implications of the exchange in the Phaedrus and therefore of Derrida’s caution (mistakenly directed against McLuhan) that “instead of thinking that we are living at the end of writing, (…) we are living in the extension – the overwhelming extension – of writing.” Lastly, in his reference to “the true dialectic of the living quest for truth by discourse and conversation” McLuhan not only returned to an idea of his own going back to the 1930s (an idea that future posts will need to document and to discuss in detail), but he also returned to a fundamental idea in the work of Harold Innis with whom he worked in 1949 and began to read via Tom Easterbrook, it seems, in 1947 or 1948.

It was probably Innis who called McLuhan’s attention to the exchange between King Thamus and Theuth.4  In the ‘Preface’ to his 1946 collection of essays, Political Economy in the Modern State, Innis already cited this story from the Phaedrus:

The most dangerous illusions accompany the most obvious facts including the printed and the mechanical word. Plato refused to be bound by the written words of his own books. He makes Socrates say in Phaedrus regarding the invention of  writing, ‘this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.’ Since this was written the printing press and the radio have enormously increased the difficulties of thought. The first essential task is to see and to break through the chains of modern civilization which have been created by modern science. (vii)

He then cited it again at length in Empire and Communications, 1950, which McLuhan had read by the time of his March 1951 letter to Innis (discussed here):

Greek civilization was a reflection of the power of the spoken word. Socrates in Phaedrus reports a conversation between the Egyptian god Thoth, the inventor of letters, and the god Amon5 in which the latter remarked that
“‘this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”
Socrates continues:
I cannot help feeling, Phaedrus, that writing is unfortunately like painting; for the creations of the painter have the attitude of life, and yet if you ask them a question, they preserve a solemn silence, and the same may be said of speeches. You would imagine that they had intelligence, but if you want to know anything and put a question to one of them, the speaker always gives one unvarying answer.”
He continued with a plea for a better kind of word or speech and one having far greater power. “I mean an intelligent word graven6 in the soul of the learner which can defend itself, and knows when to speak and when to be silent.”  (67-68)7

Ultimately, McLuhan (also Innis) must be understood as attempting new answers to this complex question “and now, under conditions / That seem unpropitious”.

Postscript

In The Medium is the Massage (1967), in the middle of a discussion of oral and visual space, and of the revolution in Greece from the first of these to the second, McLuhan paraphrases this same passage from the Phaedrus:

The discovery of the alphabet will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves.  (…) You give your disciples not truth but only the semblance of truth; they will be heroes [!] of many things, and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing. (113)

 

  1. One of the ads featured in Culture is Our Business (297) is for the “Random House Sweatshirt of the English Language”. And one of the definitions from the dictionary shown in the ad as available from Eagle Shirtmakers on a sweatshirt (along with ‘drop-out’, ‘flower’, ‘lover’, ‘peace’, ‘woman power’ and ‘yin and yang’) is “Thoth: Egyptian Religion, the god of wisdom, learning, and magic, the Inventor of numbers and letters, and scribe of all the gods, represented as a man with the head either of an ibis or of a baboon: identified by the Greeks with Hermes.”
  2. By characterizing Plato as “the scribe of Socrates”, McLuhan formulates a complicated figure in which he, McLuhan, transcribes Plato’s transcription of Socrates transcribing a dialogue concerning transcription between King Thamus and the god of transcription, Thoth. Derrida’s influential discussion of this Phaedrus exchange in ‘La Pharmacie de Platon’ (originally in Tel Quel, 1968) may have been sparked by McLuhan, either here in Gutenberg Galaxy and/or in McLuhan’s earlier discussion of it in Explorations. In any case, Derrida’s dismissal of McLuhan as a logocentrist (as discussed elsewhere in this post) is simply lazy. In fact, on McLuhan’s analysis, it is Derrida who is the logocentrist since “merger” may be effected either by final consolidation or by final deferral (aka anti-consolidation). McLuhan, in fundamental contrast, would inquire about the natures, plural, of the gap between these — “the medium is the message”.
  3. McLuhan uses the Jowett translation.
  4. While McLuhan refers to the Phaedrus before his encounter with Innis, particularly in his PhD thesis, he does not discuss the exchange between King Thamus and Theuth. It may well be that his particular interest in it was ignited by Innis just as Innis was igniting his interest in communications media more generally. (For discussion, see McLuhan on first meeting Innis.) But before Innis’ 1946 and 1950 citations of the Theuth story, McLuhan may well have encountered it in the “platonist” Rupert Lodge’s philosophy classes at the University of Manitoba and/or in John Ruskin’s twelfth letter from May 1, 1872, in his Fors Clavigera (‘letters to the workmen and labourers of Great Britain’) where it is quoted at length. (McLuhan began reading Ruskin as an undergraduate in Winnipeg and cited him extensively throughout his career beginning already with his Manitoban articles.)
  5. This should, of course, be King Thamus and not “the god Amon”. It may be that the text is corrupted here and should read “the priest of the god Amon”. Innis seems to have identified Thamus as Thutmose III, probably correctly, and says of the latter in ‘The Problem of Space’: “In the eighteenth dynasty a concern with the problem of time was accompanied by the subordination of all priestly bodies to the high priest of Amon. A priest of Amon became Thutmose III in 1501 BC and destroyed the Hyksos army at Megiddo in 1479.”
  6. “An intelligent word graven in the soul” is a momentous phrase which the whole tradition may be thought to have been at work attempting to plumb and that yet remains unplumbed and unplumbable. Suffice it to note here that the Greek — logos gegrammenos — combines the oral and the written and that the fitting English translation of ‘graven word’ retains this combination while adding the combination of the living and the dead (through the fact that the ‘graven’, like a ‘grave’, is an excavation for a repository, the first of a meaning or image, the second of a corpse).
  7. The phrase Innis uses here, “a better kind of word or speech”, shows that he (and the same is true of McLuhan), did not simply oppose speech and writing (as Derrida would have it) and therefore they were not forced to privilege one of the other (as Derrida would have it). Instead, both looked to a third power — “a better kind of word or speech” — a third power that McLuhan called Logos or “dialogue” or “inclusion” among many other names. Through this third power, speech and writing (aka ear and eye) might be perceived to communicate originally (“the medium is the message”). Now this perception would necessarily be a replay (retrieval, re-cognition, etc) since it would depend on the third power, not the third power on it. The great question implicated here, already posed explicitly by Plato, concerns how it is that human perception can relate at all to all such fundamental powers (pace Derrida), aka how it is that media do not simply mirror other media indefinitely (“the overwhelming extension of writing”), aka how it is that a diachronic process like learning can come to understand a synchronic process like the contest of the fundamental powers.

McLuhan and Plato 5 – Peter Pan

Although only indirectly, McLuhan also pointed to another Greek mythological figure to augment his analysis of Narcissistic experience (discussed in McLuhan and Plato 4 – Narcissus). This was Icarus, who met his demise by flying too close to the sun with the wings fabricated for him by his father, Daedalus. While McLuhan never seems to have discussed Icarus specifically, he did refer to Daedalus as the “the inventor of flight” (Take Today, 70) and he had a lot to say about that modern day Icarus, Peter Pan.

The first paper he published after he obtained his first fulltime teaching position, at St Louis University in 1937, was titled ‘[Saint] Peter or Peter Pan’ (Fleur de Lis, 37:4, May 1938).  The paper begins with a citation (not identified by McLuhan) from Nikolai Berdiaev’s 1936 Dostoievsky: an Interpretation:

When he has reached an extremity of inner division and is psychologically unbalanced, with all the customary land-marks wiped out and no new ones in sight, then man hears the call of Anti-Christ.

McLuhan comments (in a moralistic tone which he would later come to mock in himself):

Europe and America have heard the call of Anti-Christ without alarm, for it is the voice of Peter Pan1 (…) The complexity of life ha[s] begun to frighten people. (…) And the mists of Never-Never-Land begin to obliterate the landmarks and frontiers of civilized life.

This fear and obliteration combined to precipitate, in McLuhan’s view, a desire to escape with Peter Pan “from the ‘gwate bid world’ of mature responsibilities”.

Still, he could see the black humor in the fact that “life grows as solemnly farcical as the pageant of the Emperor’s new clothes”.2 And he could vaguely make out as well that he was just the man to document that farce, as he was to do more than a decade later in The Mechanical Bride:

A book might easily be filled if one were simply to list the means adopted in the past five years to knock away the last props of personal life.3

Ten years later, now in Toronto, he continued in the same vein in ‘Time, Life and Fortune’ (View Magazine, 1947):

Perhaps the most persistently risible feature of T.L.F. [Time, Life and Fortune] is the assumption of “god-like heights of observation.” It is an inseparable feature of paranoid megalomania shared by every Dagwood who dreams of flying his own plane or leading an expedition to the top of Mount Everest.

Similarly in The Mechanical Bride (23):

The reader is to be habitually soused with sex and violence but at all times protected from the harsh contact of the critical intellect. This comment leads one smack up against a door marked “Peter Pan, Inc.,” behind which sit the amalgamated forces of Henry Luce, the Comic Books, and the syndics of the book clubs.

And similarly again in the 1954 Counterblast:

The media are not toys; they should not be in the hands of Mother Goose and Peter Pan executives. (‘Media Log’)

Fourteen years later, in Through the Vanishing Point (1968), Peter Pan still figured as the archetype of too tender experience:

The Waste Land (…) presents a disconnected space, psychologically and socially, of anguished Peter Pans. (235)

Culture is our Business (1970), one of McLuhan’s last books, brought this regression to childhood into connection with the new media environment of advertising and TV:

Today, through ads, a child takes in all the times and places of the world “with his mother’s TV.” He is gray at three. By twelve he is a confirmed Peter Pan, fully aware of the follies of adults and adult life in general. These could be called Spock’s Spooks, who now peer at us from every quarter of our world. (…) Four years old may already have become the upper limit of tolerable emotional maturity. (7)

“Spock’s Spooks” aka “the paralyzed child” would appear again in Take Today (1972, 260). But precisely these themes of the appeal of childishness and the corresponding need for a rigorous critique of media had already been present more than three decades before in ‘Peter or Peter Pan’:

For almost a century now, the intelligence of the ablest men has been systematically bought and set to work to exploit the weakness and stupidity of the rest of mankind. This is the exact reverse of the traditional procedure of all civilizations. Hitherto the ablest men have been selected to govern, to educate, rather than to exploit, the others. Today however, copywriting and luxurious advertisement displays swallow up the best artistic talent of several countries.
But this is only one of the techniques of the anonymous masters of our civilization. One hundred and seventy years ago4, Edmund Burke detected an even wider range of symptoms: “The revolutionists leave nothing unchanged. The consequences are upon us; they menace private enjoyment. They dwarf the growth of the young; they break the quiet of the old. If we travel they stop our way. They infest us in town; they pursue us to the country. Our business is interrupted; our repose is troubled; our pleasures are saddened; our very studies are poisoned and perverted, and knowledge is rendered worse than ignorance by the revolutionary harpies sprung from night and hell.” 5

 

 

  1. This rather strange identification of Peter Pan with the Anti-Christ might have been mediated by the passage in Isaiah 14:12: “How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning!”, where Luci-fer as the light-bringer and harbinger of the dawn as the morning star might be thought to equate with Peter Pan + Tinker Bell.
  2. McLuhan would still be writing about “the Emperor’s new clothes”, as well as the Emperor’s old clothes, forty years later. Everything depended on whether experience was tied to the rear-view mirror (in which only “the Emperor’s old clothes” could be seen) or had gone “through the looking-glass” with Alice and could therefore perceive his “new clothes” aka his nakedness.
  3. This and the citations above all come from ‘Peter or Peter Pan’.
  4. Sic: 140 years ago. McLuhan may have been thinking of Burke first taking his seat in Parliament which did date to “one hundred and seventy years ago”.
  5. As with his initial citation from Berdiaev, McLuhan does not identify his source. It is from Burke’s ‘A Letter to a Noble Lord’, 1796, with emphasis added here, not by McLuhan. With his “revolutionary harpies sprung from night and hell” Burke may have been alluding to Pope. As discussed in a prior post, McLuhan would use Pope’s memorable description of “Night Primaeval, and of Chaos old” to conclude The Gutenberg Galaxy 25 years later.

McLuhan and Plato 4 – Narcissus

I call this peculiar form of self-hypnosis Narcissus narcosis, a syndrome whereby man remains as unaware of the psychic and social effects of his new technology as a fish of the water it swims in. As a result, precisely at the point where a new media-induced environment becomes all pervasive and transmogrifies our sensory balance, it also becomes invisible. (…) This is the zombie stance of the technological idiot. It’s to escape this Narcissus trance that I’ve tried to trace and reveal the impact of media on man, from the beginning of recorded time to the present. (Playboy interview, 1969)

Like Plato, McLuhan turned to myth, indeed to Greek myth, to articulate the drama of the soul’s formation1 as — or into? — or from? — this or that “mode of awareness”.  Narcissus2 provided him with the archetype of this process in modern times3.

Especially after 1960 the Narcissus myth came to play a major role in McLuhan’s thought. Understanding Media (1964) has a complete section dedicated to it, ‘The Gadget Lover: Narcissus as Narcosis’ (41-47), where this overview is to found:

The Greek myth of Narcissus is directly concerned with a fact of human experience. As the word Narcissus indicates, it is from the Greek word narcosis, or numbness. The youth Narcissus mistook his own reflection in the water for another person. This extension of himself by mirror numbed his perceptions until he became the servomechanism of his own extended or repeated image. (…) He had adapted to his extension of himself and had become a closed system. (Understanding Media, 41)4

A 1962 article, ‘Prospect’, which appeared in Arts Canada, considered the matter as follows:

Narcissus fell in love with an “outering” (projection, extension) of himself. And people always fall in love with the latest gimmick or gadget that is merely an extension of their own bodies. But Narcissus means “numb”, dead, narcosis. He was completely unaware that it was himself that he’d fallen in love with. And when reading or when in the motor car or watching TV or listening to the radio we are pretty unaware that 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 hook5. 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. I take it[, however, that] we consider it more desirable for human beings to have some autonomy, some independence of the gimmicks. 

Similarly, the next year in ‘The Agenbite of Outwit’ (Location, 1963):

As Narcissus fell in love with an outering (projection, extension) of himself, man seems invariably to fall in love with the newest gadget or gimmick that is merely an extension of his own body. Driving a car or watching television, we tend to forget that what we have to do with is simply a part of ourselves stuck out there. Thus disposed, we become servo-mechanisms of our contrivances, responding to them in the immediate, mechanical way that they demand of us. The point of the Narcissus myth is not that people are prone to fall in love with their own images but that people fall in love with extensions of themselves which they are convinced are not extensions of themselves. This provides, I think, a fairly good image of all of our technologies, and it directs us towards a basic issue, the idolatry of technology as involving a psychic numbness. (Emphasis to ‘not’ and to ‘idolatry’ added)

McLuhan often asserted that “all our artifacts are in fact words” (Global Village, 7) so that “the media themselves, and the whole cultural ground, are forms of language” (Global Village, 27). But if technology is language and is also “idolatry” (as the worship of the work of our own hands) it follows, as McLuhan put it in a letter to Sheila Watson’s husband, Wilfrid, that “sin (…) is language itself i.e. the ultimate self-exhibitionism, the ultimate uttering”.6 Such a sense of unlawful “self-exhibitionism” and its resulting conscious or unconscious “agenbite” forms the background to McLuhan’s further explication of the Narcissus myth in Understanding Media:

amplification [aka extension] is bearable by the nervous system only through numbness or blocking of perception. This is the sense of the Narcissus myth. The young man’s image is a self-amputation7 or extension induced by irritating pressures. As counter-irritant, the image produces a generalized numbness or shock that declines recognition. Self-amputation forbids self-recognition. (42)

Already in The Mechanical Bride (1951, but written years earlier) there is a section (141-144) called ‘The Tough [Guy/Gal] as Narcissus’. In fact, The Mechanical Bride as a whole describes the narcissistic life situated, as McLuhan puts it in a wonderful turn of phrase, “inside the totem machine” — that is, the ‘life’ of the soul insofar as it dedicates itself to “totemistic worship” in the ‘interior landscape’. Such “worship” is the soul’s identification, driven by an “inner panic”, with “pseudo-simplicities” supplied by “nation-wide agencies of education, production, distribution, entertainment, and advertisement”8 (aka “nation-wide agencies of mental sterilization”) whose interest lies in the “monopolistic” organization of both society at large and of the psychic life of its individual members.9 Narcissus provides an image of “this trek toward the voluntary annihilation of our individual humanity”.10

To understand the “individual humanity” McLuhan was determined to help preserve (“It’s to escape this Narcissus trance that I’ve tried to trace and reveal the impact of media on man”), it is necessary to interrogate that “inner panic” aka “irritating pressures” which motivate “totemistic worship” as a “counter-irritant”.11 In his 1969 Playboy interview, McLuhan addressed himself to just this question:

This problem is doubly acute today because man must, as a simple survival strategy, become aware of what is happening to him, despite the attendant pain of such comprehension. The fact that he has not done so in this age of electronics is what has made this also the age of anxiety, which in turn has been transformed into its Doppelgänger — the therapeutically reactive age of anomie and apathy. But despite our self-protective escape mechanisms, the total-field awareness engendered by electronic media is enabling us — indeed, compelling us — to grope toward a consciousness of the unconscious, toward a realization that technology is an extension of our own bodies. We live in the first age when change occurs sufficiently rapidly to make such pattern recognition possible for society at large.

“The attendant pain of such comprehension”, a pain which “self-amputation” avoids by preventing “self-recognition”, is correlate with guilt (“agenbite”) and with a certain fear12:

Fear is the primary motive in [the allure of] toughness. Fear easily gives rise to hate, which intensifies brutality. And the numerous variants on straight-arm tactics, from lynch law to the third degree, all reduce to inner panic as their origin. It is the weak and confused who worship the pseudo-simplicities of brutal directness (…) those who are confused or overwhelmed by a machine world are encouraged to become psychologically hard, brittle, and smoothly metallic. The slick-chick and the corporation executive, as they now register on the popular imagination, are already inside the totem machine.13

This unacknowledged but “attendant” pain and guilt and fear arise before finitude:

For the man in a literate and homogenized society ceases to be sensitive to the diverse and discontinuous life of forms. He acquires the illusion of the third dimension and the “private point of view” as part of his Narcissus fixation, and is quite shut off from Blake’s awareness, or that of the Psalmist, that we become what we behold. (Understanding Media, 19)

If the forms of perception aka media are “diverse and discontinuous” (therefore discrete and finite among themselves) and if those forms determine how and what we are able to experience14 (so “that we become what we behold” of them), then we are subject to a double finitude. Our awareness depends upon forms which are finite and does so in a way that is itself finite, not only as dependent, but also in the sense that it has no “fixation” to any one of them (pace Narcissus).

In ‘Stylistic’ (1956), one of McLuhan’s Renascence contributions, he noted that:

it is only [by] standing aside from any structure or medium, that its principles and lines of force can be discerned. For any medium has the power of imposing its own assumption on the unwary. Prediction and control [aka, insight and freedom] consist in avoiding this subliminal state of Narcissus trance. 

It is fundamental to “our individual humanity” that we are capable of “standing aside” from the forms of experience (obj gen!) aka “modes of awareness” — forms which already (when?) ‘stand aside’ from each other. These gaps between us and the forms, and between the forms themselves, provoke Sartrean “nausea” (as a compound “panic” mixture of guilt, fear and pain)15 and motivate Narcissus to collapse them into experience that is ‘all him’. This is a merger which reflects only himself since he himself has determined himself to its singularity — however “completely unaware [he was] that it was himself that he’d fallen in love with.” 

Narcissus has effected this “unaware” identification in order to prevent his recognition that it has determined him — with its “attendant” exposure to his finitude, guilt and pain. It is “self-protective escape mechanisms” of this sort, such “self-amputations”, which reduce us to “servo-mechanisms” of our own creations:

Thus disposed, we become servo-mechanisms of our contrivances, responding to them in the immediate, mechanical way that they demand of us. (‘Agenbite’)

each of us is merely a Narcissus dancing around in love with his own image.  (‘Prospect’)

Combining these texts from the 1950s and 1960s, the contention is that “our individual humanity” consists in the capability of “standing aside from any structure or medium” thereby “avoiding [the] subliminal state of Narcissus trance” aka identification with “pseudo-simplicities”. This demands our becoming “sensitive to the diverse and discontinuous life of forms” and therefore to the finitude, guilt and pain implicated in that discontinuity.  And this is just what McLuhan claimed (in a letter to Joe Keogh, July 6,1970, Letters 412-413) to be doing:

 I am a metaphysician, interested in the life of the forms and their surprising modalities.

Interest “in the life of the forms and their surprising modalities” demands a twofold recognition: that the forms are plural and that they have a “life” aka “evocative power” that determines us (not we them). The road to these recognitions, according to McLuhan, lies in an interrogation of our subjectivity which would recall (replay, recollect, retrieve, etc) the journey of the soul through the “other world” (right here, right now) through which the shape of our experience has been determined in such a way that the marks of that journey may be read in it if we dare probe for them:

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’, 1962)

Getting off the double hook through which we are trapped in ourselves by ourselves — “the zombie stance” — demands that we “grope toward a consciousness of the unconscious” process of psychic formation. Such probing is the only way to confront the “basic issue, the idolatry of technology as involving a psychic numbness” and this, in turn, is the only way “for human beings to have some autonomy, some independence of the gimmicks”. 

 

 

 

  1. In the citation from his Playboy interview given at the head of this post, McLuhan speaks of “the point where a new media-induced environment becomes all pervasive and transmogrifies our sensory balance, it also becomes invisible”. The usual reading takes this to be a “point” in diachronic time when some new technology (like the wheel or the smart phone) somehow takes over the (the?) experience of some or all of mankind. But this reading is senseless on many grounds (as future posts will continue to document). Instead, as the Plato posts suggest, this “point” of awareness-shift takes place, usually in an “invisible” manner, in synchronic time and concerns the drama of the individual and social sensus communis aka “sensory balance”. And the “media” which “induce” this “transmogrification” are not empirical technological devices (which function more like catalysts) but are the fertile “words” (see Language itself”) churning “in the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart” which exercise an “evocative power” (TVP 33) on the soul in the “interior landscape”. That this process is “invisible” to the very persons undergoing it is a great mystery which thinkers like Plato have considered without visible effect for millennia now.
  2. As later posts will detail, Peter Pan as a kind of Icarus figure also played an important role in this regard for McLuhan.
  3. Modern times are the epoch of “our intensely technological and, therefore, narcotic culture” — “The Narcissus myth does not convey any idea that Narcissus fell in love with anything he regarded as himself. Obviously he would have had very different feelings about the image had he known it was an extension or repetition of himself. It is, perhaps, indicative of the bias of our intensely technological and, therefore, narcotic culture that we have long interpreted the Narcissus story to mean that he fell in love with himself, that he imagined the reflection to be Narcissus!” (Understanding Media, 41)
  4. In all of the great many published editions of Understanding Media the first two sentences of this passage read: “The Greek myth of Narcissus is directly concerned with a fact of human experience, as the word Narcissus indicates. It is from the Greek word narcosis, or numbness.”  It is typical of the poor editing nearly all of McLuhan’s books received from his publishers that this error has not been caught and corrected.
  5. This is a tip of the hat to McLuhan’s student and friend, Sheila Watson, and to her 1959 novel The Double Hook.
  6. McLuhan to Watson, summer 1965, cited by Andrew Chrystall at the MOM site here. The full sentence reads: “Eric has worked out that the sin committed by HCE in Phoenix park is language itself i.e. the ultimate self-exhibitionism, the ultimate uttering.”
  7. “Self-amputation” is McLuhan’s shorthand for the fact that “people fall in love with extensions of themselves which they are convinced are not extensions of themselves” (‘The Agenbite of Outwit’).
  8. McLuhan would later emphatically add ‘war’ to this list.
  9. McLuhan never gave up the social critique broached here. In Understanding Media he observes: “As long as we adopt the Narcissus attitude of regarding the extensions of our own bodies as really out there and really independent of us, we will meet all technological challenges with the same sort of banana-skin pirouette and collapse. Archimedes once said, “Give me a place to stand and I will move the world.” Today he would have pointed to our electric media and said, “I will stand on your eyes, your ears, your nerves, and your brain, and the world will move in any tempo or pattern I choose.” We have leased these “places to stand” to private corporations.” (68)
  10. All of the citations in this paragraph come from ‘The Tough as Narcissus’ section of The Mechanical Bride, 141-144.
  11. McLuhan much admired Wyndham Lewis’s analysis of this “panic” movement of the soul in The Art of Being Ruled (1928), a book which is cited extensively in McLuhan’s 1944 essay on Lewis, ‘Lemuel in Lilliput’. In Sheila Watson’s thesis on Lewis, directed by McLuhan, The Art of Being Ruled is quoted describing “the anxiety of the disillusioned person to escape from the self and to merge his personality in things (or in) the non-human, feelingless, thoughtless”. Watson comments: “The gap between the subject and the object is closed.” Wyndham Lewis and Expressionism (1964), 305, n274
  12. Sheila Watson in Double Hook: “He doesn’t know you can’t catch glory on a hook and hold it, That when you fish for glory, you catch the darkness too. That if you hook twice the glory, you hook twice the fear”.
  13. The Mechanical Bride, 141
  14. When McLuhan emphasized that “the medium is the message/massage”, he was trying — completely without success — to reverse the anxiety-provoking assumption that the object depends on the subject in favor of the insight that the subject depends on the object.  Hence the very first remark of the very first commentary in Through the Vanishing Point (33): “The word itself as evocative power, not a sign.”
  15. As future posts will detail, all human experience implicates, in McLuhan’s telling, a “nobody” or “masked man” who is a creature of the “frontiers” and gaps which must be navigated in the “interior landscape” on the way to “awareness”. Paradoxically, Narcissus would distance himself from this anxiety-provoking “nobody” by collapsing all distance in his experience.

McLuhan and Plato 3 – the wild horses of passion

In From Cliché to Archetype (72) McLuhan refers to “the classical passage from the Phaedrus of Plato on the wild horses of passion1“. This passage appears immediately before the one discussed in McLuhan and Plato 1 (Phaedrus 249-250) concerning the exposure of souls to “true being” and the causes of their forgetting that exposure. The two Phaedrus passages form a continuous narrative and with the related myth of Er from the Republic constitute a kind of Platonic de anima in myth.

Phaedrus 246a-248b
Of the nature of the soul, though her true form be ever a theme of large and more than mortal discourse, let me speak briefly, and in a figure. And let the figure be composite — a pair of winged horses and a charioteer. Now the winged horses (…) of the gods are all of them noble and of noble descent, but those of other races are mixed; the human charioteer drives his in a pair; and one of them is noble and of noble breed, and the other is ignoble and of ignoble breed; and the driving of them of necessity gives a great deal of trouble to him. (…)
W
hen perfect and fully winged [the soul] soars upward (…) whereas the imperfect soul, losing her wings and drooping in her flight at last settles on the solid ground — there, finding a home, she receives an earthly [bodily] frame (…) and this composition of soul and body is called a living and mortal creature. (…)
And now let us ask the reason why the soul loses her wings! The wing is the (…) element [of a mortal creature] which is most akin to the divine, and which by nature tends to soar aloft and carry that which gravitates downwards into the upper region, which is the habitation of the gods. The divine is beauty, wisdom, goodness, and the like; and by these the wing of the soul is nourished, and grows apace; but when fed upon evil and foulness and the opposite of good, wastes and falls away.
Zeus, the mighty lord, holding the reins of a winged chariot, leads the way in heaven, ordering all and taking care of all;  (…)
But the others [the human charioteers] labour, for the vicious steed [of their pairs] goes heavily, weighing down the charioteer to the earth when his steed has not been thoroughly trained: — and this is the hour of agony and extremest conflict for the soul2 
(…) Of [these] other souls, that which follows God best and is likest to him lifts the head of the charioteer [even though he is] troubled indeed by the steeds, and [therefore only] with difficulty beholding true being; while another [charioteer] only rises and falls, and sees, and again fails to see, by reason of the unruliness of the steeds. The rest of the souls are also longing after the upper world (…) but not being strong enough they are carried round below (…), plunging, treading on one another, each striving to be first; and there is confusion and perspiration and the extremity of effort; and many of them are lamed or have their wings broken through the ill-driving of the charioteers; and all of them after a fruitless toil, not having attained to the mysteries of true being, go away, and feed upon [earthly] opinion.

McLuhan, too, held that human being is always a “composite” of two factors3:

There are only two basic extreme forms of human organization. They have innumerable variants or “parti-colored” forms. The extreme forms are the civilized and the tribal (eye and ear)4

visual and acoustic space are always present in any human situation, even if Western civilization has (…) tamped down our awareness of the acoustic. 5

every artifact of man mirrors the shift between these two modes. 6

Acoustic and visual space structures may be seen as incommensurable, like history and eternity, yet, at the same time, as complementary…a foot, as it were, in both visual and acoustic space…7

Plato calls these factors the two horses of a chariot or two wings of the soul or (combining these) “winged horses”. But because they “have innumerable variants or parti-colored forms”, as McLuhan says, there must be a third factor at stake which accounts for this variety.

In his mythological de anima, Plato approaches this question in two ways.  On the one hand, he distinguishes between the “descent” and “breeding” of the horses of the gods and of mortals:

Now the winged horses (…) of the gods are all of them noble and of noble descent, but those of other races are mixed; the human charioteer drives his in a pair; and one of them is noble and of noble breed, and the other is ignoble and of ignoble breed; and the driving of them of necessity gives a great deal of trouble to him.

The difference here has to do with the coordination or relationship of the two horses.  While the two horses can never be one horse, they can act as one in a coordinated way. This sort of coordinated movement characterizes the chariots of the gods (or the wings of their souls) and it is what allows them to circulate in the region of “true being”. The horses of mortal creatures, by contrast, are ill-matched: one of them is “ignoble” and “has not been thoroughly trained” and is therefore “vicious”. The resulting “unruliness of the steeds” prevents human souls from rising to the divine region of “true being” and binds them to the earth and to mortality.

This Platonic contrast between divine pairs of horses and human pairs appears in McLuhan as the difference between the “complementary” and the “incommensurable” (as in the Global Village 45 passage above), or as “inclusive” relation versus “exclusive”, or as “both-and” versus “either-or” (cf Global Village 31). These are all two varieties of “the gap where the action is”, the former reflecting the metaphorical nature of the gap, the latter rejecting it.

On the other hand, the “innumerable variants” between the performance of the two horses may be referred to the “charioteer” who drives them. Plato speaks, for example, of “the ill-driving of the charioteers” and says in regard to the pairs of unruly steeds that “the driving of them of necessity gives a great deal of trouble”. Not only the “descent” and “breeding” of the horses determines the sort of relation they have, then, but also how they are driven and controlled and trained relative to one another by their “charioteer”.

In McLuhan, the “charioteer”, the third factor, appears as the sensus communis which produces, or reflects, a certain “sensory closure”:

Consciousness (…) may be thought of as a projection to the outside of an inner synesthesia, corresponding generally with the ancient definition of common sense. Common sense is that peculiar human power of translating one kind of experience of one sense into all other senses and presenting the result as a unified image of the mind.  Erasmus and More said that a unified ratio among the senses was a mark of rationality. (Global Village 94)

The “charioteer” may also be called “the utterer” as when McLuhan speaks of “the utterer as the etymology” (Global Village 7). The mystery of human being is such that it is never clear if the human soul is the cause of its mode of awareness or an effect of it (or, somehow, both cause and effect at once). However the case may be, the “the utterer” can be called “the etymology” since the ratio of the senses (aka “mode of awareness”) cannot be accounted for aside from the role of the sensus communis, be it active and/or passive. (McLuhan regularly identifies the common sense with the sense of touch and it is noteworthy that touch is both active and passive at once.)

As already noted in different respects above, the key question concerns the nature of the gap between the horses or between wings of the soul or between the senses of eye and ear8. For both Plato and McLuhan, these ratios depend in turn upon insight into the nature of “being itself” as metaphorical (“Zeus, the mighty lord, holding the reins of a winged chariot, leads the way in heaven, ordering all and taking care of all“) and into the resulting implication that an inclusive relation of the horses/wings/senses is both possible and proper to humans as reflecting such “true being”. Because “being itself” is metaphorical, it is possible for humans to relate metaphorically to it. And because they can relate metaphorically to it, it is possible for them to order their awareness after it metaphorically as well. It is just this, according to Plato in this same section of the Phaedrus, that characterizes the philosopher:

intelligence (…) is the recollection9 of those things which our soul once saw while following God — when. regardless of that which we now call being [aka opinion], she raised her head up towards the true being. And therefore the mind of the philosopher alone has [coordinated] wings; and this is just, for he is always, according to the measure of his abilities, clinging in recollection to those things in which God abides, and in beholding which, He is what He is. And he who employs aright these memories is ever being initiated into [their] perfect mysteries (…) But, as he forgets earthly interests and is rapt in the divine, the vulgar deem him mad, and rebuke him; they do not see that he is inspired. (249c-d)

The many deep parallels between Plato’s mythological de anima and McLuhan’s analysis of the modes of awareness (aka “understanding media”) are remarkable. The conclusion is hard to avoid that little progress has been made in communicating these matters over the intervening two and a half millennia. An important aspect of McLuhan’s concern with communication therefore had to do with the question of how these matters were at long last to be communicated such that they might play a regulative role in human governance (individual and collective).  He called this the needed transformation of the ivory tower into the control tower and the key to this transformation, he saw, was the initiation of science, or sciences, in the human domain. 

  1. “Passion” here may be understood not only in the sense of ’emotion’, but also in the sense of ‘passivity’, as in the Easter ‘passion’. This sense would refer to the fact that the human soul is determined by the coordination of these horses such that it appears passive in relation to their active role in-forming it.
  2. See Republic 618c: “And here, my dear Glaucon, is the supreme peril of our human state”. As will be discussed in later posts concerning Plato’s gigantomachia (aka agon-y) and McLuhan’s “ancient quarrel”, both hold “true being” to be plural and dynamic. The exposure of the soul (obj gen!) to this “extremest conflict” (“extremest” because belonging to “true being” itself) is synchronic so that this “hour” (in ” time not our time”, a time “that is and was from the beginning”, therefore “ancient”) is, as Eliot says, “always now” (Four Quartets, Burnt Norton v). McLuhan’s aim was exactly to thematize this agon-izing synchronic exposure of the soul in an epoch — the world’s night — when human experience had become captured by the Narcissistic denial of it in a planetary numb/dumb.
  3. In his 1967 interview with Gerald Stearn, McLuhan notes that “It’s very difficult to have a structure of any sort without polarities, without tension. (…) Without polarities, without contraries — this is Blake’s whole notion of hateful contraries — without polarities, there is no progression, no structure. (But) for a literary person who likes things to move along in one direction on one plane, polarities are distressing.”
  4. Take Today 22
  5. Global Village 55
  6. Global Village x
  7. Global Village 45
  8. In the myth of Er in the Republic at 614d, in preparation for his becoming “the messenger who would carry the report of the other world to men”, Er is instructed to “hear and see all that was to be heard and seen in that place”.
  9. For McLuhan, too, the role of recall, retrieval, replay, recognition, etc etc, together with its implication of multiple times, is central.

McLuhan and Plato 2 – When is myth?

Increasingly, I feel that Catholics must master C.G. Jung. The little self-conscious (…) area in which we live today has nothing to do with the problems of our faith. Modern anthropology and psychology are more important for the Church than St. Thomas today. (McLuhan from Windsor to his former SLU Jesuit students, Walter Ong and Clement McNaspy, December 23, 1944, Letters 166)

In McLuhan and Plato 1, passages from Plato’s dialogues Phaedrus and the Republic are cited as being essential to McLuhan’s project.  But how so?  Are there really essential connections between it and a myth of the “other world” where a process of reincarnation or metempsychosis takes place between the serial lives of souls making their way through a chain of repeated deaths and rebirths?

To answer this question a series of further questions must be posed. This post, will consider one of them: when does myth occur? McLuhan addressed this question directly in his 1959 essay ‘Myth and Mass Media‘ (Daedelus, 88:2):

Writing, in its several modes, can be regarded technologically as the development of new languages. For to translate the audible into the visible (…) is to institute a dynamic process that reshapes every aspect of thought, language, and society. To record the extended operation of such a process in a Gorgon or Cadmus myth is to reduce a complex historical affair to an inclusive timeless image. Can we, perhaps, say that (…) myth is (…) a single snapshot of a complex process (…) a complex process (…) recorded in a single inclusive image? The multilayered montage or “transparency,” with its abridgement of logical relationships, is as familiar in the cave painting as in cubism.
Oral cultures are simultaneous in their modes of awareness. Today we come to the oral condition again via the electronic media, which abridge space and time and single-plane relationships, returning us to the confrontation of multiple relationships at the same moment.
If a language contrived and used by many people is a mass medium, any one of our new media is in a sense a new language, a new codification of experience collectively achieved by new work habits and inclusive collective awareness. But when such a new codification has reached the technological stage of communicability and repeatability, has it not, like a spoken tongue, also become a macromyth? (…)
Languages old and new, as macromyths, have that relation to words and word-making that characterizes the fullest scope of myth. The collective skills and experience that constitute both spoken languages and such new languages as movies or radio can also be considered with preliterate myths as static models of the universe. But do they not tend, like languages in general, to be dynamic models of the universe in action? As such, languages old and new would seem to be for participation rather than for contemplation or for reference and classification.

McLuhan makes a series of points here whose understanding, individually and collectively, is indeed essential for an understanding of his project:

  • the time of myth is now — the character of “myth is to reduce a complex historical affair to an inclusive timeless image”, it presents “the confrontation of multiple relationships at the same moment” in a “multilayered montage or transparency”1
  • the timeless now of myth is not the absence of time, or the stilling of time, it is the pluralization of time, time as inherently times: “the confrontation of multiple relationships at the same moment”, “the multilayered montage or transparency” of the “static” and the “dynamic” together and at once in “inclusive collective2 awareness”
  • the topic of myth is “the development of new languages”, “word-making”, the forging of “modes of awareness”, of “new codification[s] of experience”
  • the end result recorded in myth is the “dynamic (…) reshap[ing of] every aspect of thought, language, and society” exactly through “word-making” and “new codification of experience collectively achieved”
  • and since humans have their being in “thought, language, and society” only such a “multilayered” approach to “word-making” and “new codification” can originate “models of the [human] universe in action” for investigation

Such models cannot be constructed via the rear-view mirror of accepted “reference and classification” since what is at stake in them is the investigation of the very constitution of “reference and classification” — including that of the models themselves. To refer all the different possibilities for the “codification of experience” to a somehow privileged one3 of them would be exactly to refuse the investigation proposed by McLuhan. Yet this is just how the world proceeds on its iron way.  Forgetting that our “modes of awareness” have been produced in a process subject to a double oblivion — we forget that we have forgotten — we take over the reins of the planet in a movement that proceeds faster and faster, in a more and more uniform manner, with greater and greater effect, all utterly blindly. Of course the result will be disastrous, especially for coming4 generations — if there are any.

It is grim irony that this occurs at a time when we know, via anthropology, linguistics, psychology, computer science (etc etc) more and more about the variety of our “modes of awareness” such that, as McLuhan says, having reached “the technological stage of communicability and repeatability” we can now produce “new media” at will.  The fundamental fact about contemporary history is that we do not know — and are determined not to know — what we are doing even now.

McLuhan’s project was therefore just that of Freud in regard to dreams and other unconsciously produced phenomena, but applied to “languages old and new”, to “modes of awareness”, to — media.  

Since we cannot know in advance how to approach the investigation of “modes of awareness” and “codification[s] of experience”, all we can do is “probe”:

Most of my work in the media is like that of a safe-cracker. In the beginning I don’t know what’s inside. I just set myself down in front of the problem and begin to work. I grope, I probe, I listen, I test — until the tumblers fall and I’m in. That’s the way I work with all these media. (Stearn interview, 1967)

I grope, I listen, I test, I accept and discard; I try out different sequences — until the tumblers fall and the doors spring open. (Playboy interview, 1969)

Languages cannot be approached except in language.  Probing therefore involves trying on different “modes of awareness” (aka “languages old and new”) until ones are found that return interesting results. This is the process that produced all our existing sciences and is what can produce new sciences in the human domain — if it is tried. It is just such an exercise of courage and freedom in regard to human awareness that McLuhan describes in the concluding paragraph cited above:

Languages old and new, as macromyths, have that relation to words and word-making that characterizes the fullest scope of myth. The collective skills and experience that constitute both spoken languages and such new languages as movies or radio (…) tend, like languages in general, to be dynamic models of the universe in action (…) for participation

To participate in different “modes of awareness” demands revisiting and renewing the process of “word-making” through which “the development of new languages” takes place. This requires freedom and courage because it necessarily involves letting go of existing modes of “reference and classification” and taking the pathless path between “modes of awareness” — “not in movement but abstention from movement” — in order to participate in another:

Descend lower, descend only
Into the world of perpetual solitude,
World not world, but that which is not world,
Internal darkness, deprivation
And destitution of all property,
Desication of the world of sense,
Evacuation of the world of fancy,
Inoperancy of the world of spirit;
This is the one way, and the other
Is the same, not in movement
But abstention from movement; while the world moves
In appetency, on its metalled ways
Of time past and time future, 5

As specified by McLuhan above and as described by Eliot in Four Quartets, this implicates a kind of vertical time which cuts across horizontal time at every instant:

And under the oppression of the silent fog
The tolling bell
Measures time not our time, rung by the unhurried
Ground swell, a time
Older than the time of chronometers, older
Than time counted by anxious worried women
Lying awake, calculating the future,
Trying to unweave, unwind, unravel
And piece together the past and the future,
Between midnight and dawn, when the past is all deception,
The future futureless, before the morning watch
When time stops and time is never ending;
And the ground swell, that is and was from the beginning,
Clangs
The bell.6

It is this “time not our time”, “a time older than the time of chronometers (…) that is and was from the beginning”, that McLuhan saw recorded in myth:

To record the extended operation of such a process in a Gorgon or Cadmus myth is to reduce a complex historical affair to an inclusive timeless image. Can we, perhaps, say that (…) myth is (…) a single snapshot of a complex process (…) a complex process (…) recorded in a single inclusive image? The multilayered montage or “transparency,” with its abridgement of logical relationships, is as familiar in the cave painting as in cubism.
Oral cultures are simultaneous in their modes of awareness. Today we come to the oral condition again via the electronic media, which abridge space and time and single-plane relationships, returning us to the confrontation of multiple relationships at the same moment.7

 

 

  1. These Platonic myths, for McLuhan, are therefore tales in which a synchronic drama in depth concerning the constitution of “awareness” is expressed as diachronic action in extended space (“the other world”) concerning rebirth. But it may well be that these are matters which require such special expression (like myth or poetry or song) and that they become distorted when stated prosaically. It may be, then, that especially religion cannot be understood without acknowledgement of this requirement — once sung, twice said, as Augustine noted.
  2. “Collective awareness” here must be understood as describing the collective object of awareness and not, or not only, the collective subject of awareness.
  3. See McLuhan and Plato 4 – Narcissus
  4. The disaster is hardly only something to be awaited in the future, of course. It is rolling over us as we speak. We are exterminating plant and animal species, indeed whole environments, at an astonishing rate. Entire cultures and languages disappear daily, including our own. Richly, we call this “conservatism”. The planet has been given over to Alfred E Neuman, the great new man of the modern world.
  5. Four Quartets, Burnt Norton iii
  6. Four Quartets, The Dry Salvages i
  7. The painting of Icarus by Peter Breughel the elder is a wonderful illustration of contemporaneity of myth – and of its obliviousness to the fishermen, farmers and shepherds of practical life.

McLuhan and Plato 1 – Phaedrus and Er

In Process and Reality (1929), Whitehead famously observes that “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” This is true in spades of McLuhan.

The dialogue that McLuhan most often (and most influentially) considered was the Phaedrus. He returned over and over again to the exchange in it concerning the value of writing between King Thamus and its divine inventor, Theuth (or Thoth)1. This exchange and McLuhan’s discussions of it will be considered in a later post.

But another section of the Phaedrus is arguably even more central to McLuhan’s project, although he directed little attention to it2. This section is, however, cited at length by his daughter, Teri, in The Way of the  Earth (1994), a book dedicated to her father “in loving memory”:

Phaedrus 249e-250b
every soul of man has in the way of nature beheld true being; this was the condition of her passing into the form of man. But all souls do not easily recall the things of the other world; they may have seen them for a short time only, or they may have been unfortunate in their earthly lot, and, having had their hearts turned to unrighteousness through some corrupting influence, they may have lost the memory of the holy things which once they saw. Few only retain an adequate remembrance of them; and [even] they, when they behold here any image of that other world, are rapt in amazement; but they are ignorant of what this rapture means, because they do not clearly perceive. For there is no light of justice or temperance or any of the higher ideas which are precious to souls in the earthly copies of them: they are seen through a glass dimly; and there are [therefore only] few who, going to the images, behold in them the realities, and these only with difficulty. (The Way of the  Earth, 217)

The myth of Er, in the final book (x: 614-621) of the Republic, tells a related story of a man chosen:

to be the messenger who would carry the report of the other world to men, and they [the judges seated “in an intermediate space” between the doors of heaven and earth] bade him hear and see all that was to be heard and seen in that place. Then he beheld and saw (…) the souls departing at either opening of heaven and earth. [614d, emphasis added]

These circulating souls journey in “the other world” to a place where they must choose a certain lot in their coming life on earth.  Socrates specifies:

And here, my dear Glaucon, is the supreme peril of our human state; and therefore the utmost care should be taken. Let each one of us leave every other kind of knowledge and seek and follow one thing only, if peradventure he may be able to learn and may find some one who will make him able to learn and discern between good and evil, and so to choose always and everywhere the better life as he has opportunity. (…) A man must take with him into the world below an adamantine faith in truth and right, that there too he may be undazzled by the desire of wealth or the other allurements of evil, lest, coming upon [such lots as] tyrannies and similar villainies, he do irremediable wrongs to others and suffer yet worse himself; but let him know how to choose [the lot of] the mean [ie, justice] and avoid the extremes on either side, as far as possible, not only in this life but in all that which is to come. [618c-619b]

Both symbolizing and grounding the lots which are offered to human souls in this way is the axis mundi in the double form of a rainbow and spindle, which supports the chain of being:

a line of light, straight as a column, extending right through the whole heaven and through the earth, in colour resembling the rainbow, only brighter and purer; (…) and there, in the midst of the light, they saw the ends of the chains of heaven let down from above: for this light is the belt of heaven, and holds together the circle of the universe, like the under-girders of a trireme. [616b-c]

The rear-view mirror often seems to be an important factor in this selection process:

the choice of the souls was in most cases based on their experience of a previous life [619e-620a]

But this is mis-leading for the souls since what is at stake for them is not continuous between lives:

there was not, however, any definite character in them [the lots], because the soul, when choosing a new life, must of necessity become different [618b]

Just as in the Phaedrus, the conclusion of this process in the Republic is that the souls which have passed through it become numb and forget all about it:

and when they had all passed [through the selection process “into the form of man”], they marched on in a scorching heat to the plain of Forgetfulness, which was a barren waste destitute of trees and verdure; and then towards evening they encamped by the river of Unmindfulness, whose water no vessel can hold; of this they were all obliged to drink (…) and each one as he drank forgot all things. Now after they had gone to rest, about the middle of the night there was a thunderstorm and earthquake, and then in an instant they were driven upwards in all manner of ways to their birth, like stars shooting. [621a-b]

Here the forgetfulness of human souls of their exposure to the forms of “true being” is, so to say, objective: it belongs to the constitution of the human condition to have drunk from “the river of Unmindfulness”. In the Phaedrus, by contrast, forgetfulness is more subjective, resulting from

having had their hearts turned to unrighteousness through some corrupting influence, they (…) lost the memory of the holy things which once they saw. [250a]

Probably both factors are at work in every human life. In any case, like Er,

few only retain an adequate remembrance of [“the holy things which once they saw”] [250a]

McLuhan was one of these few. Hence it was that he felt himself called to a certain office:

to be the messenger who would carry the report of the other world to men3 [Republic 614d]

But this report would carry an all-important proviso: that the other world is right here right now.

Here is how, at the age of 23, he was already able to express the point in a letter to his family from Cambridge:

Of late I have been wayfaring among the work of T.S. Eliot. He is easily the greatest modern poet, and just how great he is remains to be seen, because he has not produced his best yet. However the poems I am reading4 have the unmistakable character of greatness. They transform, and diffuse and recoalesce the commonest every day occurrences of 20th century city life till one begins to see double indeed — the extremely unthinkable character, the glory and the horror of the reality in life (yet, to all save the seer, behind life) is miraculously suggested. (Dec 6, 1934, Letters 41; brackets have been added around the phrase “yet, to all save the seer, behind life” to highlight McLuhan’s point that this world and “the other world” are synchronous5 and inextricably knotted together — while remaining irreducibly different from “the other”. The contrasting emphasis to ‘in‘ and ‘beyond‘ is original.)

The “seer” reacts against two conceptions of “the other world” (which ultimately amount to the same thing)6: the conception that the other world is elsewhere, “behind life”; and the conception that the other world is illusory. In deep contrast to both, the “seer” can “see double indeed” and so experiences “the extremely unthinkable character” of “reality” such that both “the glory and the horror” are beheld as bound togetherin life”.

“The other world” may be taken to specify the transitive “gap where the action is” in two senses. It may be taken as the critical point of trans-formation between the fundamentally different experience of the “seer” (who experiences “the glory and the horror” together “in life”) and of the “all” (who experience “glory”, if at all, only “behind life”)7. It is just such critical juncture ‘between lives’ that Plato describes in mythical form in the story of Er:

And here, my dear Glaucon, is the supreme peril of our human state…

This crossroads is ‘located’ in “the other world” because it is prior to experience, a priori, but only in myth can such location be described as belonging to some “other” space and time. In fact, the experience of space and time is subject to it. And just as “the glory and the horror” are experienced by the “seer” as together in life”, so also with this world and “the other world” — however “extremely unthinkable” this may be “to all save the seer”.

“The other world” as the transitive “gap where the action is” may also be taken to specify the relation between “the glory and the horror”. This relation is inherently plural as subject to different ways of experiencing ‘it’ (“in life” or “behind life”, say). The determination of the particular nature of this relation may therefore be said, in mythical fashion, to take ‘place’ in “the other world” — because that nature is always strictly correlate with the de-cision made at the critical point of trans-formation between the different modes of experience of the “seer” and the “all” and is therefore just as a priori as that de-cision is.

The gap between or without different modes of perception is isomorphic with the gap experienced within different modes of perception.  So it is that the latter may be taken to map the former (one of the keys to McLuhan’s new sciences) and so it is that what is definitively out of experience as prior to it (in “the other world”) is just as much decisively in it.

McLuhan was already at work on his 1936 Chesterton paper (completed in mid 1935) at the time of this December 1934 letter to his family. A future post will show in terms of it that McLuhan was fully conscious of these points. In 1937, a little over two years hence, they would be decisive to his de-cision to convert.

 

  1. McLuhan used both of these transliterations. One of the ads featured in Culture is Our Business (297) is for the “Random House Sweatshirt of the English Language”. And one of the definitions from the dictionary available from Eagle Shirtmakers (along with ‘drop-out’, ‘flower’, ‘lover’, ‘peace’, ‘woman power’ and ‘yin and yang’) was “Thoth: Egyptian Religion, the god of wisdom, learning, and magic, the Inventor of numbers and letters, and scribe of all the gods, represented as a man with the head either of an ibis or of a baboon: identified by the Greeks with Hermes.”
  2. But see McLuhan and Plato 3 – the wild horses of passion
  3. The subtitle of Philip Marchand’s biography of McLuhan, The Medium and the Messenger, is well chosen.
  4. Poems 1909-1925
  5. See McLuhan and Plato 2: When is myth?
  6. As Nietzsche recounts in ‘History of an Error: How the true world became a fable’ and as discussed here.
  7. Once “the glory and the horror” are (seen as) ultimately divided, all sorts of permutations of them are possible.  So, eg, “the glory” may be seen “in life” and “the horror” behind it (rather than vice versa as McLuhan has it in his letter).