“Body percept” – identity, space and time

In the mid-60s McLuhan broached the topic of what he called the “body percept”:1

Each of us forms a body percept, from moment to moment, based upon his intake of sensations, perceptions, but we are completely unaware of this body percept which we form of ourselves from moment to moment. It takes considerable dexterity and skill to observe one’s own body percept, the image we form of ourselves. The immediate surrounding — the new environment, whatever it is — is always invisible… (Contribution to Technology and World Trade, Session — Technology: Its Influence on the Character Of World Trade and Investment, November 16. 1966, p 12.)

 the image we have of ourselves….our body percept, as the psychologists say….our body percept, is something of which we are always unconscious…your body percept changes directly with any alteration in temperature, any alteration in sound….any alteration in input through any of the senses affects your body image….of this you’re completely unaware…(‘This is Marshall McLuhan’, NBC Television, March 19, 1967)

The thing that is most intimate and most totally surrounding us at all times is our own body percept. We create a body percept from minute to minute, or second to second by simple sounds and inputs that we experience, and if this body percept were totally unconscious, it would take the toil of a psychiatrist to reveal it. We do not know what our body percept is without special efforts at getting into a new environment from which to examine it. (‘Education in the Electric Age’, 1967)2

Everybody responds to a new environment without benefit of concepts. The immediate sensory adjustments which we make to each and every change in our surroundings also affect the patterns of human association in society as much as they alter our body-percept or our sense of ourselves. (The Future of Morality: inner vs outer quest, 1967)

This “body percept” is said to be “the image we form of ourselves”, “our sense of ourselves”. But this is clearly a very strange matter. For, in the first place, who does this work of identity formation? Since the “body percept” is something “we form of ourselves” — “our sense of ourselves” being the object and result of the activity — it would seem that there is something, or somebody, prior to our selves, that in some way enables the “image” and “sense” we have of who we are.  An “I” (“each of us”) somehow before and aside from our “I”?  An “I” that somehow originates and crafts our “I”? (As discussed here, McLuhan treats this shadow figure involved in identity formation as the “masked man” on the “frontier”.  In his 1972 interview with L’Express he said: “the key is that they [the young] return to a primitive existence, in which life is reduced to nothing, and they no longer have any kind of identity. They reject their own identity, and become no-one. (…) It is liberation, but when it is total liberation, it is like death. We all know the reincarnation thesis: we are freed from our own body; we can disappear right now and come back totally different next time. This is what we have reached.”)

Further, when does this activity occur?  McLuhan says that it transpires “from moment to moment” and is “immediate” and is “without benefit of concepts”.  Such a process can hardly occur in ordinary chronological time for it would then, of course, ‘take time’: it would be mediate, not “immediate”, subject to conceptualization, not “without benefit of concepts”, and would not be finalized “from moment to moment”. In fact, if identity formation occurred in clock time, we would always be waiting for our “body percept” to resolve itself in order then to go about the business of the “intake of sensations” and of “sensory adjustments (…) to (…) our surroundings”. But there is no such delay and no such chronological process. Instead, our sense of ourselves and our response to our surroundings is, as McLuhan says, always “immediate”.

If the “body percept” yet changes “from moment to moment”, this is no trans-formation which happens in chronological time.  Instead, it is a change which has always already occurred such that the “body percept” is immediately in possession of a sense of itself and able to respond to the surrounding world — no matter how different it may be from the “body percept” from the moment before. 

In Saussure’s terms, this process is synchronic, not diachronic. In this understanding, human beings are subject to a remarkable process in which their very identity is formed, including the manner of their “intake of sensations”, in a way similar to the saussurean view of the ‘production’ of language. Here the genesis of language is conceived to operate through a series of decisions made in synchronic time concerning which sounds and which modifications of those sounds (like their order and emphasis) are to be taken as significant. Or as insignificant. So English operates via a defined range of accepted meaningful sounds and of the manipulation of those sounds, while other languages operate with different ranges of these same variables.  

In the remaining decade and a half of his life after broaching the notion of the “body percept”, McLuhan would increasingly focus on the plurality of time as times as the key to this formation and on the role of Saussure in specifying this strange chronology.  In one of his last published essays before his death (‘Pound, Eliot, and the Rhetoric of The Waste Land’, 1979) he would write:

Contemporary linguistics has recovered the multi-leveled study of language in our time. (…) the four divisions of the Four Quartets in respect to the four seasons, the four elements, and the four analogical levels of exegesis (…) are musical and simultaneous rather than sequential. (…) Mythic “narrative” is not sequential but simultaneous, requiring prolonged meditation.  (…) The importance of this simultaneity concerns the classical claim to embody the Logos in the resonant interplay of divisions. (…) The simultaneity of the four levels, as used by the grammarian, constitutes the resonance of the Logos, just as the five divisions, when used by the orator, constitute the presence of the word. This is what the linguists now call la langue (…) Eliot made a wedding of the diverse patterns of the four levels of exegesis on the one hand, and of the five divisions of classical rhetoric on the other. As already remarked, both patterns are synchronic and simultaneous rather than diachronic or sequential. 

In this same essay McLuhan cites Eliot on tradition as “a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer (…) has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. This historical sense (…) is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together…” (‘Tradition and the Individual Talent‘ [1919], Selected Essays, p. 14).

And so as well with the “body percept”.  In the process of identity formation — aka, of “our sense of ourselves” and our response to the world — humans somehow engage with a chaotic array of possibilities for self identity which McLuhan terms “allatonceness” and “the unconscious”. These possibilities are necessarily chaotic and unconscious because they are situated3 before any particular instance of consciousness derived from them. It is the same difference as that between all the sounds available for language use and the set of sounds used in any particular language. As cited below from Technology and World Trade“the human unconscious is the total experience of mankind, stored without any story line, just jumbled…”. 

This is a process of engagement with all the possibilities for our “sense[s] of ourselves” — one which every human being is continually undergoing “from moment to moment”. It is out of this confrontation that a selection has always already been made resulting “immediately” in “the image we form of ourselves” and the “sensory adjustments [we make] to (…) our surroundings”. As McLuhan put the matter in his letter to Serge Chermayeff of Dec 19, 1960:

The massive overlay of antecedent and existent technologies takes on a peculiar character of simultaneity in the electronic age. All technologies become simultaneous, and the new problem becomes one of relevance in stress and selection, rather than of commitment to any one.

McLuhan seems to have been wrestling with this complex at least by the early 1940’s when he was teaching in St Louis and Windsor:

Increasingly, I feel that Catholics must master C.G. Jung. The little self-conscious (unearned) area in which we live to-day has nothing to do with the problems of our faith. Modern anthropology and psychology are more important for the Church than St. Thomas to-day. (McLuhan to Walter Ong and Clement McNaspy, December 23, 1944, Letters 166)4

McLuhan’s interest in Freud, Adler and Jung requires detailed research.  Suffice it to note here that Jung’s notion of a “collective unconscious” must have appealed to McLuhan on account of its complications of identity5 (the “I” as produced rather than as producing6), time (identity formation occurring not in chronological diachronic time but in a simultaneous synchronic time) and space (the “interior landscape” situated not inside a capsule “I”, but ‘outside’ and ‘before’ it, spatially as well as temporally).

Already in 1916 (and included in a volume of his essays in English translation in 1917), Jung hypothesized that

besides [repressed and  subliminal materials] the unconscious contains all the material that has not yet reached the threshold of consciousness. These are the seeds of future contents. Equally we have every reason to suppose that the unconscious is never quiescent in the sense of being inactive, but presumably is ceaselessly engaged in the grouping and regrouping of so-called unconscious fantasies. (CG Jung, ‘The Structure of the Unconscious’, CW7, 270-271)

In McLuhan’s terms 50 years later, “the material that has not yet reached the threshold of consciousness”, but could do so, is “the total experience of mankind” (full citation given below). And Jung’s “ceaselessly engaged in the grouping and regrouping” is McLuhan’s “body percept which we form of ourselves from moment to moment”. 

When McLuhan called our self-consciousness “unearned”, he apparently meant a self-consciousness  which was unaware of its own genetic investments — unaware, that is, of the process through which it was what it was.

It was around this same time in the mid 1940s that he began to work on Poe (‘Edgar Poe’s Tradition’, 1944, which was selected for inclusion in The Interior Landscape 25 years later) and discovered in his Maelstrom (apparently through his close friend Cleanth Brooks) a prescient description of the process through which identity formation occurs “from moment to moment”.7  

As well, he was already engaged with Eliot’s Four Quartets (published in four steps between 1936 and 1942) — a contemporary consideration of this same complex. This was an engagement which began when he was still in Cambridge and was pursued, as seen above in the citation from his last essay, until the end of his life. Referring to the later 1940’s, Hugh Kenner has described how

Marshall, at that time pretty much a New Critic, believed with F. R. Leavis that the one major poet of our time was Eliot. (…) The passion (…) with which we two (…) studied Eliot! We penciled notes on the yellow postwar paper of a Faber Four Quartets8

When he arrived in Toronto in 1946, McLuhan found that Eric Havelock was considering another voyage to the bottom of the sea, this time in Virgil (but not without its own connection with Poe9combined with his (Havelock’s) ongoing investigation of sensory configurations, media and culture in pre-classical and classical Greece. McLuhan would then begin a 10 year engagement with Virgil’s labyrinths (recorded above all in his correspondence with Ezra Pound) and a 35 year engagement with media and sensory modalities.

This latter investigation, too, is prefigured in his 1944 letter to Walter Ong and Clement McNaspy in his criticism there of F.R. Leavis:

his failure to grasp current society in its intellectual modes (say in the style of Time and Western Man or Giedion’s Space, Time and Architecture) cuts him off from the relevant pabulum. (December 23, 1944, Letters 166)10

These “intellectual modes” would turn into ‘media’ and ‘sensory modalities’ in his later work. But it would take 15 more years for these notions to crystallize — for thinking, too, transpires in a time of its own. Suffice it to note here only that the attempt to specify the synchronic process of identity formation must rely on “pattern recognition” just as the comparative study of different languages does and just as Poe’s mariner found in the Maelstrom when he began to identify recurring patterns in its gyrations. At bottom, McLuhan’s ‘media’ are these ‘patterns’ which exist before identity formation in comparable11 fashion to the way in which chemical elements are prior to the formation of any and all physical material. They comprise, so to say, the available shapes.

Finally, the question arises of where this identity formation takes place? McLuhan is clear that the answer to this question is not ‘inside us’:

the computer, by speeding up the total available human experience, has in effect put outside — as the new environment — the human subconscious or unconscious. For years I’ve been noticing the extension of consciousness by various technological means. The human unconscious is the total experience of mankind, stored without any story line, just jumbled and assembled in the human unconscious. Now, with instant dispersal and instant retrieval systems, we have the all at once. We have put outside us, as a new environment, the unconscious… (Contribution to Technology and World Trade, 13, 1966)

“The total experience of mankind”, McLuhan says, is now “outside us”. Or, rather, since the nature of “us” has thereby become questionable, the inside and the outside are now “jumbled” such that neither can be isolated from the other. Hence it is not possible, as McLuhan research usually attempts, to take technological environments (or, worse, technological objects) as somehow given for analysis.  Instead, the need is to identify those media which are the recurrent configurations of the “body percept” in order to understand the variable “adjustments which we make to each and every change in our surroundings”.  Only then is it possible, both as regards our own subjective approach and as regards our objective “surroundings”, to begin the required study.

The great problem, of course, is that the ground of every particular “body percept”, the entire range of the “body percept” forming “the new environment”, is “invisible”, “unconscious” and unknown (“whatever it is”):

the computer, by speeding up the total available human experience, has in effect put outside — as the new environment — the human subconscious or unconscious. (…) We have put outside us, as a new environment, the unconscious… (Contribution to Technology and World Trade, 13, 1966)

we are completely unaware of this body percept which we form of ourselves from moment to moment. It takes considerable dexterity and skill to observe one’s own body percept, the image we form of ourselves. The immediate surrounding — the new environment, whatever it is — is always invisible (Contribution to Technology and World Trade, 12, 1966)

No language can privilege all sounds. For language is a system of differences between sounds and this requires a selection between significant and insignificant ones. So with the “body percept”. Its synchronic formation consists in a selection from “the total available human experience”. And this process is “always invisible”, not only in the vulgar sense that most are utterly unaware of its operation, but also in the more profound sense that the “body percept”, too, exists only as a system of differences and cannot simply be ‘all’.  The implied selection, which ‘takes place’ on the way to consciousness must, as McLuhan says, be “assembled in the human unconscious”. The synchronic process of constitutional selection (“which we form of ourselves from moment to moment”) occurs on the other side of an essential darkness which is prior to and fundamentally distanced from consciousness exactly because it is on the way to it. In his contribution to Technology and World Trade, McLuhan called this the “interior trip into the darkness of our own being” (28). 

Hence it is that McLuhan’s entire work might be understood as an ongoing meditation on the Four Quartets as a twentieth century specification of The Descent into the Maelstrom (1841) and Heart of Darkness (1899) — the “Africa within”12

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.
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,
Dessication 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. (‘Burnt Norton’, 1936)

In this case — if McLuhan’s entire work can be understood as an ongoing meditation on the Four Quartets — it would have been McLuhan’s genius not to invent insight we already have in spades from Plato (see Plato on the plain of oblivion) to Eliot (with priceless pearls on the string between13), but to retrieve it in new ways permitting its application in both theory and practice. The former would unfold in new sciences, plural.  The latter, essentially including the former new sciences, would begin to address the individual and social problems precipitated by a world engulfed, as never before, in nihilism.

  1. In 1965 Seymour Wapner and Heinz Werner published a small book called The Body Percept. Given the date just before McLuhan began talking about the matter, it seems highly probable that McLuhan read, or at least saw, their book.  But it is not in his library preserved at the UT Fisher Library and he seems not to have referenced it in any of his writings.
  2. Presented as ‘Education in the Electric Age’ on January 19, 1967 to the Provincial Committee on the Aims and Objectives of Education in the Schools of Ontario. Printed as ‘Education in the Electronic Age’ in Interchange, 1:4, 1-12, 1970; also in The Best of Times/The Worst of Times: Contemporary Issues in Canadian Education, eds, Hugh A. Stevenson, Robert M. Stamp, and J. Donald Wilson, 1970. Earlier in his presentation, McLuhan mentioned the body percept: “You cannot put a satellite environment around a planet without altering the planet and the occupants of the planet. Their whole vision of themselves, their body percepts, their corporate social percepts, are entirely altered by a satellite environment.”
  3. As treated below, the sense of ‘space’ at stake here is equally strange as those of identity and time.
  4. Cf McLuhan to Walter Ong in December 1947: “ it is plain enough to me that the abiding achievement of the past century has been in analytical psychology and as such the Catholic mind has yet to ingest let alone digest that achievement. But your essay shows one main road back from the central point of contemporary awareness through medieval culture to St Augustine. Notice that your own discussion on “tension” as the mode of Xian being is specifically psychological — the basic approach of present-day esthetic analysis.” (Letters 191)
  5. Cf, Jung’s contrasts of ego and self, personal unconscious and collective unconscious, etc.
  6. Consciousness becomes incidental rather than structural.” (McLuhan to Peter Drucker, October 24, 1966, Letters 338)
  7. Significantly, Brooks’ Maelstrom poem begins: “Then when the terror is at its height, you hurl / The useless watch away, fling time away, / Having no more to do with time…”. And in its concluding section: “Who knows the whirlpool’s season or the hour / That ripens it to peace? Who thinks to catch / Time’s phoenix on her nest?”
  8. 1985 Preface to the reprinting of Kenner’s The Poetry of Ezra Pound from 1951.
  9. In 1946 Havelock began to publish his three-part essay ‘Virgil’s Road to Xanadu’ in the new UTP journal Phoenix. In 1943, situated between his 1939 Catullus monograph and the Xanadu essay, he issued ‘Homer, Catullus and Poe’ in The Classical Weekly, 36:21.
  10. McLuhan’s criticism of Leavis here in 1944 throws into question Kenner’s assessment of his remaining identification with Leavis five years later (cited above per note 8).
  11. Comparable — while remaining fundamentally different. As discussed here, the essential difference between physical elements and experiential media is that the formations of the latter require synchronic activation.  While both are subject to fundamental trans-formation in fission and fusion, as well as compounding and intermixing in phenomena as complicated as weather fronts, with media this is, so to say, natural and incessant.
  12. McLuhan referred to the “Africa within” frequently and attributed the phrase, perhaps in error, to Conrad. His use of the phrase seems to appear first in his 1961 review of Louis Dudek’s Literature and the Press in UTQ, 30:4, 421.
  13. And further pearls are arrayed on the string stretching back as far before Plato as we are after him — back to the beginning of recorded history in the fourth millenium BC. And before that, in the deep reaches of pre-history…?