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”.
- 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. ↩
- As later posts will detail, Peter Pan as a kind of Icarus figure also played an important role in this regard for McLuhan. ↩
- 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) ↩
- 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. ↩
- This is a tip of the hat to McLuhan’s student and friend, Sheila Watson, and to her 1959 novel The Double Hook. ↩
- 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.” ↩
- “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’). ↩
- McLuhan would later emphatically add ‘war’ to this list. ↩
- 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) ↩
- All of the citations in this paragraph come from ‘The Tough as Narcissus’ section of The Mechanical Bride, 141-144. ↩
- 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 ↩
- 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”. ↩
- The Mechanical Bride, 141 ↩
- 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.” ↩
- 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. ↩