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.

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