McLuhan and Plato 11- on the perception of the child (obj gen)

Ξένος: ἀλλὰ δὴ τῷ μύθῳ μου πάνυ πρόσεχε τὸν νοῦν, καθάπερ οἱ παῖδες; πάντως οὐ πολλὰ ἐκφεύγεις παιδιὰς ἔτη. (Plato, Statesman 268e. ‘Stranger: Then please pay careful attention to my story, just as if you were a child; and anyway you are not much too old for children’s tales.’)

In McLuhan and Plato 10 – on the child and the child’s perception, the perception of the child is treated as a subjective genitive: this is perception that belongs to the ontological child, the perception that this ontological child has, a mode of perception that is structured by the ontological child’s determination that “reality or the sum of things is both at once”. But what of the perception of this ontological child as an objective genitive? What of the perception of it as the object of experience that you or I might have? Just how are we to experience this ontological child “holding to both” as such?

What is distinctive about the view of the child discussed in McLuhan and Plato 8, 9 and 10 is that it is considered as an ontological power on a par with the gods and giants. If it is asked on what basis such a view of the child is possible as an objective genitive, as the possible object of our experience, the answer must be that this is a possibility that belongs, first of all, and indeed exclusively, to the perception of the child as a subjective genitive. For this experience requires of us — we who are definitively finite or ontic — perception of the child (obj gen) as holding to both the gods and the giants at the ontological level. But the availability of ontological perception to utterly finite beings in this way is something only the ontological child can see.

Each side of the contesting gods and giants in the gigantomachia battles to reduce all existence to its version of seamless singularity — the gods to pure formal ontology “in the heights of the unseen”, the giants to that sheer ontic particularity “which can be handled and offers resistance to the touch”. In fundamental contrast, the ontological child insists on an ontological plurality and complexity that exactly therefore does not hold itself away from ontic expression1: “reality or the sum of things is both at once”.

Only childish perception can experience such an ontological child.

Considered as an objective genitive, fitting experience of the ontological child is itself ruled by the childish determination to “hold to both [ontic/ontological]” and “to choose the mean and avoid the extremes [ontic/ontological] on either side” since “reality or the sum of things is both [ontic/ontological] at once”.2 It emerges in this way that the only means to such experience is its goal. The prerequisite (what must already be in place) for the perception of the ontological child (obj gen) is exactly its end (what seems to be not yet in place), namely, the perception of the child (subj gen). If we cannot already see as the ontological child sees, we cannot come to see the ontological child at all.

The result or effect of such experience must be its cause. The implication is that time must bend around on itself to form a knot — and/or be plural such that the order of tenses in one time does not coincide with their order in another time. In the crossing of such times, time’s tenses would become layered and com-plicated such that what was past in one time is present in another (hence: ‘An Ancient Quarrel in Modern America’) or what is present in one time is future in another (hence: “The future of the future is the present, in any age. All you have to do in order to predict the future quite accurately is to look at the present, what‘s under your nose. Wyndham Lewis once said, ‘The artist is engaged in writing a detailed history of the future because he‘s looking at the present’.” ‘McLuhan reacts to his critics’, CBC Media Archives, 1967).

What is to be experienced in the present and future can equally be the how of experience that is already in place from the past.  What is to be realized as an objective genitive may, even must, already be realized as a subjective genitive.

What is to be seen must already have been seen.

This is a knotted, highly complicated matter. But there can be no doubt that this sort of loop in time was critically important to McLuhan and, on his reading, to the whole western tradition.  As future posts will need to elaborate, this issue is central to such core concerns of his as:

  • the nature of cognition
  • the rearview mirror and the possibility of fresh perception (which turns on the nature of cognition)
  • the nature of the artist and of art (exercising fresh perception)
  • the discovery of discovery (turning on the possibility of fresh perception of fresh perception)
  • the nature of media as necessarily founded in the nature of perception and cognition (including their possible perversions)

The working of the loop in time may be seen in language learning by children.  A newborn child can hear sounds, but not as language. When it begins to hear certain sounds in its environment as significant (sign-ificant), it has begun to filter meaningful sounds from meaningless ones and to associate the meaningful sounds with their objects. Such filtering and such association is, however, already structured by the language which the child does not yet know. The question is, how does a child come to structure its experience in a way that corresponds to what it has yet to learn?  Here the pathway to is somehow defined from the goal that is to be reached.

The same considerations apply in spades to the first use of language by humans. In order to have begun to communicate, humans must have had the ability to take the pathway leading both to and from language. This is the archetypal example of the event that, as McLuhan came increasingly to stress,

in all structures of a simultaneous or acoustic character “effects” always precede “causes”. (‘The Medieval Environment’, 1974)

Plato3 accounts for this possibility of a loop in time by describing the life of the soul between lives in which it is exposed to “true being” (eg, to the forms of “justice” and “temperance”)4:

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 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. (Phaedrus 249e-250b, emphasis added)

Plato complicates time by introducing a time between the times of the soul’s plural lives and by appeal to a “recall” through which the diachronic time of souls in their different lifetimes can be broken through by the synchronic vision in depth (as McLuhan would say) “of the holy things which once they saw” in that previous time (which is always also the future time of the ‘next world’). Human experience is taken to consist of “images” and “copies” which appear on a kind of looking glass, a looking glass that obscures as much as it illuminates. Insight (in-sight), like that of the philosopher according to Plato, must penetrate through these images5 to the underlying forms of “true being” in an exercise of “recall” that rides the multi-dimensionality of time.

Plato and McLuhan (to mention only Plato and McLuhan) each followed this same labyrinthine complex which defines the western tradition.6 It is precisely this complex which is at stake in McLuhan’s appeal to “light through” as opposed to “light on”. When it learns language, a child has to “flip” from the latter to the former: it must cease taking sounds in its own way and instead put on its environment in order to begin to hear what is being communicated through those sounds. But as Plato and Aristotle already investigated, and as Thomas reiterated from them, the ground in play here turns on the nature of time. As discussed previously7, McLuhan repeatedly cited a passage from Aristotle which he found in the Summa Theologica. Here is his treatment of it in From Cliché to Archetype:

The basis of all paradox, Christian and secular, is to be found in the sixth book of the Physics of Aristotle, to which Aquinas refers in his Summa Theologica I.II.q 113.a.7, ad quintum. The question for Aquinas is whether justification by faith occurs in­stantly or gradually. Aquinas says it occurs instantly because — ­here he appeals to Aristotle’s Physics — ”the whole preceding time during which anything moves towards its form, it is under the opposite form”. (160)8

If a child learned language gradually, it would never come to learn it.  Zeno’s paradox would apply. Instead, a moment of illumination must occur in which a new structure of experience is sensed suddenly — a new structure for the child which is the existing structure of the child’s environment. As McLuhan continued the citation of Aristotle (following Thomas) in his letter to Maritain:

et in ultimo instanti illius temporis, quod est primum instans

The last moment of the old time suddenly becomes the first moment of the new.  But this ‘first’ (“primum”) is not only the start of a new diachronic series in correspondence with the child’s environment, it is above all the “recall” of what ‘first’ has to be in place in order for such a new series to be possible at all: the medium of the “both together” (word and object, mind and thing, language and world, speaker and hearer and, in particular here, the child’s old world and its new one). It is this enabling medium, this copula, that is the message.9

McLuhan considered these complications of time especially in his 1974 essay, ‘The Medieval Environment’. The first sentence of this essay declares:

I want to explore a theme concerning a new inter-relationship of past and present.

Such “a new inter-relationship of past and present” implicates that loop in time through which the diachronic order of “of past and present” is reversed:

in all structures of a simultaneous or acoustic character “effects” always precede “causes” (…) Acoustically, causes and effects are “simultaneous” or, in the practical order, effects really precede causes.  (‘The Medieval Environment’)

In learning a language, a child somehow senses its “effects” long before it comes to understand (ie, speaks) the “cause”. Considered diachronically, the language was ‘first’ in place in the child’s environment, indeed as the child’s environment; but what the child ‘first’ experiences are the “effects” of that “cause” (such as the significance of certain sounds like ‘mama’). Considered synchronically, however, the two are “simultaneous” since language is just such “effects”:

The synchronic approach (…) regards each moment or each facet of any situation as inclusive of the full range of the matters studied. (…) In synchronic terms (…) the effects [are] exercised simultaneously on whole situations, (‘The Medieval Environment’)

The “full range” or “whole situation” is that plenum of sounds and of rules of association — “language itself” — out of which any particular language represents a selection.  Language use may be imagined, as it was by Saussure and as McLuhan here salutes Saussure in calling “the synchronic approach”, as the ability to follow those structural selections which define any given particular language.10

In ‘The Medieval Environment’ McLuhan speaks of

 The flip from visual to acoustic order, from rational connectedness to intuitive insight.

He was able to predict this “flip” (as following from TV, say) because it had already occurred and, indeed, is always occurring. As the ontological gigantomachia — the dynamic relations of the gods and giants and child — such “flip” between the “colossal” forms of “true reality” is the basis of what will occur because it has occurred; and it has occurred because it always occurs. Language learning (indeed all learning whatsoever) performs this flip through “retrieval” and, since humans are humans through language, it is precisely the nature of human beings to be followers of this flip (as adherents and investigators, but also in the temporal sense).

Such a knotted complication of time and times is treated repeatedly by Eliot in Four Quartets. In ‘The Medieval Environment’ McLuhan cites two passages from the first (‘Burnt Norton’) and last (‘Little Gidding’) poems of Eliot’s cycle:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
(Burnt Norton, i)

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.
(Little Gidding, v)

“The end is where we start from” or, as Eliot concludes ‘East Coker’, “In my end is my beginning.”

Not cited in this essay by McLuhan, but central to the knotted complex at stake here, are further passages from Eliot’s cycle like the following:

Time past and time future
Allow but a little consciousness.
To be conscious is not to be in time
But only in time can the moment in the rose-garden,
The moment in the arbour where the rain beat,
The moment in the draughty church at smokefall
Be remembered; involved with past and future. (Burnt Norton, ii)11

Words move, music moves
Only in time; but that which is only living
Can only die. Words, after speech, reach
Into the silence. Only by the form, the pattern,
Can words or music reach
The stillness, as a Chinese jar still
Moves perpetually in its stillness.
Not the stillness of the violin, while the note lasts,
Not that only, but the co-existence,
Or say that the end precedes the beginning,
And the end and the beginning were always there
Before the beginning and after the end.
And all is always now. (Burnt Norton, v, emphasis added)12

That “all is always now” is exactly not a collapse of time into an ‘eternal now’. Such collapse into singularity is what both the gods and the giants fight for — eternally unsuccessfully. Instead, as only the ontological child can see, the “all” that “is always now” is the crossing of times, plural, such that:

If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable. (Burnt Norton, i)13

Quick now, here, now, always  —
Ridiculous the waste sad time
Stretching before and after. (Burnt Norton v)

“All time” does not redeem because it includes incalculably much that required (and requires) redemption — but is now gone. And this will “always” be the case.

As will need to be considered in detail in future posts, McLuhan read Eliot continuously over a period of 45 years. He wrote to his family at some length about Eliot in 193414 and two of his last essays before his 1979 stroke were ‘Rhetorical Spirals in Four Quartets‘ (written for a volume of essays dedicated to Sheila Watson in 1978)15 and ‘The Possum and the Midwife’ (McLuhan’s 1978 Pound Lecture at the University of Idaho which takes its title from the complicated authorship of The Waste Land). Suffice it to note here that the plurality and other knotted complications of time, although conspicuously absent from McLuhan scholarship, were central considerations for him from the mid 1930’s when he began to read Eliot at Cambridge.16

Such complications are “the end and the beginning” of the perception of the ontological child since the child can neither be seen (as object), nor seen with (as subject), apart from the determination that “reality or the sum of things is both at once” (also, or especially, in regard to time and times17).

In the Four Quartets, too, it is the child who shows, or is, the way:

Other echoes
Inhabit the garden. Shall we follow?
Quick, said the bird, find them, find them,
Round the corner. Through the first gate,
Into our first world (…)
Go, said the bird, for the leaves were full of children,
Hidden excitedly, containing laughter. (Burnt Norton i)

And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.

These lines from ‘Little Gidding’ (v, emphasis added) lead immediately to the conclusion of the cycle where “the fire and the rose” may be taken (among other things) as the times which cross in, or indeed, as the present (“Quick now, here, now, always”):

And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

This is the vision of the child (objective and subjective genitive!).

  1. The availability of coherent ontological perception at the ontic level has its ground in the event that difference between the ontological and the ontic is a reflex of the difference at the ontological level between the gods, giants and child. And since such fundamental difference is coherent at the ontological level (the position the child maintains against the gods and giants), so is it coherent between the ontological and ontic levels. These dynamic formalities are what McLuhan called “the usual but hidden processes of the present” (Take Today 22).
  2. These citations from Plato’s Republic 619 and Sophist 249 are discussed in McLuhan and Plato 89 and 10.
  3. Cf McLuhan and Plato 1
  4. These forms are structures of ontological balance as seen in (by) the child ‘holding to both’. As such, “justice” and “temperance” underlie language and communication generally and therefore also human being considered as the being that is defined by language.
  5. McLuhan appealed over and over again, of course, to Alice going ‘through the looking-glass’.
  6. It is no part of these McLuhan and Plato posts to claim that McLuhan was a Plato scholar. He certainly was not. The point is rather that the very different enterprises of the two are to be understood in regard to one and the the same underlying complex.
  7. Chrystall on time 2
  8. The passage from Aristotle found in Thomas is also cited by McLuhan, in Latin, in his letter to Maritain (May 6, 1969, Letters, 371) and in ‘The Medieval Environment’ (1974): “Aquinas (…) explained this paradoxical reversal of form (…) when he noted that during the preceding time, when anything is moving to a new form, it appears under the opposite form: Et ideo in toto tempore praecedenti, quo aliquid movetur ad unam formam, subest formae oppositae”.
  9. When a child flips into this medium of both-together in learning a language, it retrieves that form through which it was ‘first’ given life from the ‘both together’ of its parents. Their both together, in turn, retrieves the both together of ontological/ontic dispersal which, in its turn, retrieves the ontological child holding to both and the gigantomachia of which the ontological child is both part (as 1 of 3) and whole (as holding together the other 2).
  10. But since language defines human identity and not vice versa, who makes these selections and where and when is this ‘done’?
  11. Lines 3, 4 and 7 of this passage are cited in ‘Empedocles and T. S. Eliot’, 1976.
  12. The lines beginning “Only by the form” down to “stillness” cited in ‘Empedocles and T. S. Eliot’, 1976
  13. Cited by McLuhan in ‘Empedocles and T. S. Eliot’, 1976
  14. Dec 6, 1934, Letters 41, discussed in McLuhan and Plato 1 – Phaedrus and Er.
  15. Four Quartets also figure prominently in McLuhan’s 1976 essay ‘Empedocles and T. S. Eliot’.
  16. A year or so after beginning to study Eliot and Pound, McLuhan began reading Wyndham Lewis — beginning with Time and Western Man.
  17. McLuhan argued that historical epochs are above all characterized according to their emphasis on time as synchronic (“tribal man”) or diachronic (The Gutenberg Galaxy) or “both at once” (“the electric age”).  The parallel with Plato’s gigantomachia is clear. But the gigantomachia is “always now” such that these historical epochs were and are cut across by the times of the other epochs. Hence the recurrent possibility of perception that was and is not limited to that of its age: “Other echoes/Inhabit the garden.” So much for McLuhan’s purported ‘technological determinism’.

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