McLuhan and Plato 9 – on the plain of oblivion

In McLuhan and Plato 8 Plato’s description from the Sophist is given where he describes ontology aka ontologies as a gigantomachia peri tes ousias:

What we shall see is something like a battle of gods and giants going on between them over their quarrel about reality (…) On this issue an interminable battle is always going on between the two camps. (Sophist 246a-247c, empasis added)

The matter of the ‘between’ (Gk ‘meso‘ as in ‘mesolithic’, ‘mesoamerican’ etc) is ‘central’ to Plato, especially in the Sophist. It is the nature of this ‘between’ that is the casus belli between the contesting ontologies described by him there. This gap is “where the action is”. But this action has a peculiar twist. While the gods and the giants eternally disagree as to the nature of “true reality”, and are determined to fight to the death over this issue, they entirely agree with one another that “real being” is singular and undifferentiated. They each hold that the gap between them should not exist exactly because, they assert, it ultimately does not exist. Each of them battles ‘interminably’ (ie, without limit or border) to overcome the other — aka reclaim it back into itself as into a “real existence” or “true being” that is monolithic.  Each therefore also battles ‘interminably’ to eradicate the gap between it and the other. For only if this gap is erased can the other then be merged into its proper reality.1

For the childish philosopher or philosophical child, in fundamental contrast , “reality or the sum of things is both at once” (249c). For this ontological child, the gap between the gods and the giants not only happens to exist (as even the gods and giants find, however unaccountably), it must exist since “real being” is plural in its view and plurality cannot exist without difference and difference cannot exist without borders or gaps between its plural constituents. Indeed, since the borders in this case are ontological, they are truly abysmal gaps in Being itself. They fall outside all the possible varieties of Being and yet hold together those varieties — in Being.

As future posts will need to explore in detail, the ineradicable gaps in human being are isomorphic with these gaps in Being itself. The latter supply the very strange ground to the figures of the former. This is particularly to be seen in that abysmal moment between lives when, according to Plato, humans are exposed to “true being”, aka to the ‘lots’ or destinies of the different ontologies of the gigantomachia peri tes ousias. He describes this exposure as follows:

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. (Republic 618)

The isomorphism between the agon of the gigantomachia and the “agony” of “the supreme peril of our human state” is particularly drawn in the Phaedrus:

this is the hour of agony (!) and extremest conflict (!) for the soul (648a)2

In the face of this moment of “supreme peril” and “extremest conflict”, continues Plato in the Republic,

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 [in the life that results from the choice of such a lot] irremediable wrongs to others and suffer yet worse himself [both in that life and in the other world after it]; but let him know how to choose [the lot of] the mean and avoid the extremes on either side, as far as possible, not only in this life but in all that which is to come. (619)

As is clear from Plato’s specification of thehour of agony” exactly “in this life“, what happens ‘between lives’ is the characteristic action of human being at every moment. Humans are always on their way between the ontological possibilities of Being and their particular being — that is, they are always ‘between lives’. It is this vertical up and down movement constituting the horizontal line of our lives that has been forgotten in the stupendous progress of the latter. A cloak of the secondary has been thrown over the primary. 

Now among the ‘siamese triplets’ of the gigantomachia peri tes ousias Plato ‘sides’ (or doubly sides) with the child in its determination to “hold to both” and “to choose the mean and avoid the extremes on either side” since “reality or the sum of things is both at once”.  It is this stance, he says, that characterizes the philosopher. Future posts in this Plato series will attempt to specify just how this occurs and why. Suffice it to note here that McLuhan takes up this question in terms of the labyrinth, the vortex and the maelstrom. But Plato, too, considers the strange time and place that is implicated with this “mean” (or ‘medium’) when it falls between ontologies and between lives and between the moments of “this life”. Thus, later in this same concluding book of the Republic, he describes Er’s experience with the souls of the dead preceding their rebirth:

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. (Republic 621a-b)

These souls between lives find themselves on a “plain of Forgetfulness”, or oblivion, “a barren waste destitute of trees and verdure”. Though this plain flows a “river of Unmindfulness, whose water no vessel can hold”. When the spirits drink from this river, “each one (…) forgot all things”. Each one then goes to sleep, sinking into “the middle of the night”.

Plato describes an encounter with — nothing. For there is no world “between worlds”, no experience between modes of experience, no life between lives, no place between sorts of places, nothing (no-thing) between varieties of things. There is no possible experience of this nebulous in-between state, no possible language to describe ‘it’.  To experience or describe it would be to frame it — but it falls between frames. Plato’s wonderful observation is exact: this is “water no vessel can hold”.

And yet it is precisely Plato’s point that it belongs to human nature to traverse this plain and to drink this water and to go into this night and to encounter this nothing. Human being belongs to this mean between ontological extremes aka to this medium between. Only so do humans learn and communicate and come to know the truth — for all of these, Plato argues, are derived by recollection of the soul’s exposure to “true being” in its journey through this in-between state:

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 (Phaedrus 249e-250a)

Now McLuhan, too, attempted communication concerning a “mean” or “medium” or “frontier” or “borderland” whose “water no vessel can hold”:

the artist (…) lives perpetually on this borderland between (…) worlds, between technology and experience, between mechanical and organic form (…) [exercising] the spirit of play which is necessary to maintain the poise between worlds of sensibility (McLuhan to Wilfrid Watson, Oct 8, 1959, Letters 257, emphasis added)

In this peculiar situation between identities, there is no identity, there is only the “the unperson: the man that never was” (Take Today, 26):

When things come at you very fast, naturally you lose touch with yourself. Anybody moving into a new world loses identity. If you go to China, and you’ve never been there before, you’re a nobody.  You can’t relate to anything there. So loss of identity is something that happens in rapid change. But everybody at the speed of light tends to become a nobody. This is what’s called the masked man. The masked man has no identity. (Forward Through The Rearview Mirror, 100)

In fact, there is nothing ‘there’ at all, it is “pure opacity”:

the new frontier is as invisible as a radio wave. There are no tracks (…) The new frontier is pure opacity3 (Take Today, 90) 

  1. McLuhan describes this will-to-merger in ‘Nihilism Exposed’ (1955) as follows: “it is precisely the courage of (Wyndham) Lewis in pushing the Cartesian and Plotinian angelism to the logical point of the extinction of humanism and personality that gives his work such importance in the new age of technology. For, on the plane of applied science we have fashioned a Plotinian world-culture which implements the non-human and superhuman doctrines of neo-Platonic angelism to the point where the human dimension is obliterated by sensuality at one end of the spectrum (Plato’s giants) , and by sheer abstraction at the other (Plato’s gods). (…) And now in the twentieth century when nature has been abolished by art and engineering, when government has become entertainment and entertainment has become the art of government, now the gnostic and neo-Platonist and Buddhist can gloat: ‘I told you so! This gimcrack mechanism is all that there ever was in the illusion of human existence. Let us rejoin the One’.” (The interpolations of ‘Plato’s giants’ and ‘Plato’s gods’ have been added here.) Six years before, in “Mr. Eliot’s Historical Decorum” (1949), McLuhan made the same point as follows: “Analogy institutes tension, polarity, a flow of intellectual perception set up among two sets of particulars. To merge those two sets by an attempt to reduce a metaphor situation to some single view or proposition is the rationalist short circuit (…) “Symbol” means to throw together, to juxtapose without copula. And it is a work that cannot be undertaken nor understood by the univocalizing, single plane, rationalist mind. Existence is opaque to the rationalist. He seeks essences, definitions, formulas. He lives in the concept and the conceptualizable (…) his very postulates discourage him from the loving and disciplined contemplation of existence, of particulars.”
  2. For discussion, see McLuhan and Plato 3 – the wild horses of passion.
  3. McLuhan often calls the childish “both together” of the third possibility “dialogue” (eg, Take Today 22). In ‘Prospect’ (1962) he notes: “In dialogue (…) you are deeply involved because it is so vague. It is so opaque, so incomplete and you have so many broken components to work with, that you have to pay the utmost attention in order to participate.”

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