On the frontier everybody is a nobody

ἐπειδὴ καὶ σχεδὸν ἀνώνυμον ὂν τυγχάνει τὸ τῶν αὐτεπιτακτῶν γένος (Plato, Statesman, 260e, ‘since the class of those who issue orders on their own is virtually nameless’)

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall.
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed.
(Hopkins, No Worst, There Is None, 1885, cited in ‘The Analogical Mirrors’, 1944, and in Take Today, 1972, 256)

What is more moving than to think that this soldier [featured in an ad] fought and died for the fantasies he had woven around the image of Betty Grable? It would be hard to know where to begin to peel back the layers of insentience and calculated oblivion implied in such an ad. And what would be found as one stripped away these layers, each marked with the pattern of sex, technology, and death? Exactly nothing. One is left staring into a vacuum… (The Mechanical Bride, 1951, 13)

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)

When we put our central nervous system outside us we returned to the primal nomad state. (…) Television man is nomadic man again; he has only one possible environment again: the globe. (‘Prospect’, 1962)

the interior trip into the darkness of our own being (Contribution to Technology and World Trade, 1966, 28)

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, 1966, 13)

the vanishing point in the viewer (Through the Vanishing Point, 1968, 59)

the unperson: the man that never was (Take Today, 1972, 26)

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

The We Nobody Knows (Take Today, 259)

Quest for Privacy And Identity Turns Everybody into Nobody (Take Today, 269)

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)

On the frontier everybody is a nobody (‘All The Stage Is A World In Which There Is No Audience’, 1978; ‘Last Look at the Tube’, 1978; ‘Living at the Speed of Light’, 1980)

McLuhan’s nomad/no-man is Plato’s Ur in the realm of the dead, Poe’s mariner in the Maelstrom, Conrad’s Kurz in the Heart of Darkness, Alice in Wonderland, Eliot’s Tiresias in The Waste Land (see below). All undertake the “interior trip into the darkness of our own being” (Technology and World Trade, 28, 1966). And what is encountered there, in the dark, are the primordial forms of time and space out of which human identity is forged: “the total experience of mankind, stored without any story line, just jumbled and assembled in the human unconscious”.  (“Assembled” in this passage means “situated”, not “put together” — for there is ‘no one’ there “on the frontier” before identity who might assemble anything.  Here there is only “the unperson: the man that never was”, “the masked man”, the “nobody”.)

This phantom “unperson” is robbed of all identity in this “interior trip into the darkness” where it ‘finds itself’ in the “pure opacity” of “the human unconscious”. Most strangely, however, what effects the “opacity” here is not an absence but a fullness1 — for what is to be encountered here are the seeds of “everybody”, “the we nobody knows”, “the total experience of mankind“, “worlds plural, the entire “globe” of all possible human perception.

When the globe becomes a single electronic web with all its languages and culture recorded on a single tribal drum, the fixed point of view of print culture becomes irrelevant, however precious. (McLuhan to David Riesman, February 18, 1960, Letters 261)

What robs the “unperson” of identity is not (or not only) the disappearance of its usual markers, but the “jumbled” revelation of all possible markers. As Aristotle puts it in his usual pithy manner:

the fact that we cannot simultaneously grasp a whole and its parts shows the difficulty involved. However, since the difficulty is twofold [involving both what we see and our seeing], perhaps its cause is not in things but in us; for just as the eyes of owls are to the light of day, so is our soul’s intellective power to those things which are by nature the most evident of all. (Metaphysics, 993)

Hence, in The Waste Land, Tiresias, as man and woman, living and dead, has “foresuffered all“:

And I Tiresias have foresuffered all
Enacted on this same divan or bed;
I who have sat by Thebes below the wall
And walked among the lowest of the dead.

2500 years before, Plato set out the scene as follows:

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)

McLuhan’s claim was that with the advent of electric technology the planet would be forced to regain “an adequate remembrance” of “true being”.  As a professor of English, he put forward the hypothesis that this might be accomplished by the interrogation of language:

I have not wandered as far from literature as might appear. In so far as literature is the study and training of perception, the electric age has complicated the literary lot a good deal. However the new extensions of our senses have greatly enhanced the role of language as training for coping with the total environment. As the total environment becomes a technologically prepared environment, language assumes new roles over and beyond the confrontation with the printed page. Yet the literary man is potentially in control of the strategies needed in the new sensory environment. Language alone includes all the senses and interplay at all times. (McLuhan to Michael Wolff, July 4, 1964, Letters 304)

It is distinctive of human beings to have language and to have language to deploy some constellation of sense. Every constellation of sense, in turn, may be thought to derive from a mysterious exposure to all the possibilities of such constellations in “the darkness of our own being” — and to have made a selection there resulting in some “body percept“. Insofar as language expresses such selections as their effect and exposes them under itself, like a palimpsest, it may be said to reveal, in “the totality of language itself” (GG 248-9) across the historical and spatial range of its users, “all the senses and [all the possibilities of their] interplay”.2 Hence it is that “the literary man is potentially in control of the strategies needed in the new sensory environment” — where the word ‘potentially‘ indicates not only a future eventuality, but also the strange space and time of the investigations (from ‘vestige’ and ‘vestigium’ = “a footprint, a track”) of the potencies3 of sensory modalities through which, alone, this eventuality might be realized.4 

  1. Therefore the utterly strange finding that this “opacity” is at once a “landscape”.
  2. Cf, McLuhan to Robert J Leuver, July 30, 1969: “The reason that Joyce considered Vico’s new science so important for his own linguistic probes, was that Vico was the first to point out that a total history of human culture and sensibility is embedded in the changing structural forms of language.” (Letters 385). Also: “Eliot and Joyce accepted language as the great corporate medium that encodes and environs the countless dramas and transactions of man.” (Media Ad-vice: An Introduction, 1973)
  3. Cf, McLuhan’s letter to Innis of March 14, 1951: “But it was most of all the esthetic discoveries of the symbolists since Rimbaud and Mallarmé (developed in English by Joyce, Eliot, Pound, Lewis and Yeats) which have served to recreate in contemporary consciousness an awareness of the potencies (McLuhan’s emphasis) of language such as the Western world has not experienced in 1800 years. (Letters 220)
  4. The ‘situation’ of the nomad/nobody between the potencies of sense-formation is that of the child (or of the entire human species) at the moment of first language learning (when learning and use occur at the same moment). In a 1962 addendum to ‘Joyce, Aquinas, and the Poetic Process’ (1951) McLuhan cited Adolf Hildebrand from The Problem of Form: “The height of positivism would be attained if we could perceive things with the inexperience of a new-born child” (Joyce’s Portrait: Criticisms and Critiques, ed Thomas E Connolly, 265). Then, the next year in a letter to John Snyder (August 4, 1963, Letters 291): “The pattern by which one learns one’s mother tongue is now being extended to all learning whatsoever.” McLuhan’s claim, following the great minds from Heraclitus to Eliot, was that the forms of human experience differ in a fundamental way from the forms of physical materials in that they require activation from moment to moment. Known or unknown, the horizontal span of human experience is broken at every moment by a vertical descent into “the darkness of our own being” where selection must be made made between the potential formations ‘there’. The potential for our waking from the nightmare of history is therefore omnipresent. Cf, Heraclitus DK B53: αἰὼν παῖς ἐστι παίζων, πεττεύων· παιδὸς ἡ βασιληίη (Eternity is a child moving counters in a game, the kingly power is a child’s); and DK B70  Ἡ. παίδων ἀθύρματα νενόμικεν εἶναι τὰ ἀνθρώπινα δοξάσματα (Heraclitus considered human opinions to be children’s toys).