Monthly Archives: September 2017

From the unconscious to the conscious to consciousness of the unconscious

In the present age of all-at-onceness, we have discovered that it is impossible — personally, collectively, technologically — to live with the subliminal. Paradoxically, at this moment in our culture, we meet once more preliterate man. For him there was no subliminal factor in experience; his mythic forms of explanation explicated all levels of any situation at the same time. (‘Introduction’ to Explorations in Communication)

The all-­at-once, many-leveled awareness of the electronic age discourages continuation of the unexamined subliminal back-log of literate man. (The Medium is the Message)

Finnegans Wake is a set of multi-leveled puns on the reversal by which Western man enters his tribal, or Finn, cycle once more, following the track of the old Finn, but wide awake this time as we re-enter the tribal night. It is like our contemporary consciousness of the Unconscious. (Understand Media, 35)

Any process that approaches instant interrelation of a total field tends to raise itself to the level of conscious awareness… (Understand Media, 351)

With Gutenberg the first mechanization of a handicraft was by segmentation of the scribal processes, demonstrating the powers of rapid repetition to create mass production. Gutenberg wiped out scholasticism and scribal culture almost overnight. In the same manner that TV uses movies, Gutenberg used the old medieval content as his programming. Soon his technology created a new environment that altered the human sensorium drastically, providing the presses with individual authors eager to express fragmented opinions, or what we later began to call “private points of view”. Just as there was nobody in the ancient classical world to notice the effects of the phonetic alphabet and papyrus on the human psyche and social
organization, so there was nobody at the Council of Trent who noted that it was the form of printing that imposed a totally new formal causality on human consciousness. (McLuhan to MM to Robert Leuver, Jul 30, 1969, Letters 385 = M&L 90)

We put the unconscious outside in the environment by simply putting everything outside at once without connections. The unconscious has everything, but it has no connections. Our new electric environment has everything but no connections. It is simultaneous but not connected. This is the unconscious, so for most people it looks like crazy, mixed-up energy. Just like the unconscious itself. We have created the unconscious outside ourselves as an environment. (Education in the Electronic Age, 1967/1970) 

we live in post-history in the sense that all pasts that ever were are now present to our consciousness and that all the futures that will be are here now. In that sense we are post-history and timeless. Instant awareness of all the varieties of human expression constitutes the sort of mythic type of consciousness of ‘once-upon-a-timeness’ which means all time, out of time. (Electric Consciousness and The Church, 1970)

Since the unconscious as the complete spectrum of “formal causality” already “has everything”, it never has anything new. But human consciousness is new all the time and therefore varies, not only between each individual and all others, and not only over every individual’s lifetime, but also between different historical ages and in particular between different technological eras. These bring possibilities to consciousness which were always present but which were largely dormant because unconscious and not perceived as capabilities that might be developed.  

The parallel with chemistry is exact.  The chemical elements were always the foundation of physical materials and were always the same.  In this perspective, chemistry can be said to be timeless. But chemistry also has a history and this in two senses (leaving aside the history of the cosmic formation of matter).  First, our ways of understanding the physical world vary over time and are subject to qualitative leaps, like the one that took place in the nineteenth century culminating in Mendeleev’s Table of the elements.  Second, experimentation (particularly following the specification of the elements in the nineteenth century, but to some degree active throughout human history) leads to discoveries regarding how physical materials can be heated or mixed or otherwise manipulated to produce something new.  Of course the possibility of such innovation always existed, synchronically; but its dis-covery and applied use occurs only in historical time, diachronically.

As an example, the discovery of bronze was both something new in human history and something “ancient” — “ancient” because the potential for bronze always existed.  Once discovered, the process of bronze-making could be refined indefinitely, but the achievement could also be applied to other materials like iron.  It was, of course, exactly experimentation of this type, prior to the discoveries in the nineteenth century that eventually gave birth to modern chemistry.  A kind of proto-chemistry was practised, one of whose driving (though not necessarily explicitly posed) questions was: how does this work?

Such innovations are explosive in human history because they inexorably lead to further ones and, in the process, alter or revolutionize existing social relations. And, as McLuhan insisted, existing images of individual identity are at the same time explosively altered along with them. A kind of back and forth is initiated between objective discoveries and subjective ones, each being cause and effect of the other in turn, that progressively exposes, in small or large steps, the principles of both.

McLuhan’s proposal was just that the interior landscape be considered in similar fashion to the external one.  Here too the possibilities of human experience are timeless, “ancient”, just as the chemical elements are “ancient”. But, again like chemistry, the relation of these ancient possibilities to human consciousness is anything but clear in the beginning and can gradually become so only through an extended historical dynamic. Further, in both domains, truth is not a matter of coming to know everything there is to know in some lightening bolt moment of inspiration, it is a matter of continuous work on questions which are known to be problematic — and this in a process which has no end.

However, human beings, fundamentally unlike physical materials, are momentarily (also epochally) subject to changes in the structure of their experience depending on individual circumstances like health, mood, age, genius, etc, and on environmental circumstances like war, weather events, economic changes, etc.  It may therefore be said that human possibilities contest or quarrel in ways that chemical elements do not.

According to McLuhan, all human experience has always been generated out of this quarrel. But just which possibilities are developed out of the quarrel’s full spectrum, and what is known of this process of development, these not only vary in history, they are history! 

The electric age offers unique opportunities (and duties) to research and to shape history1 on an on-going basis. But the necessary condition of this research is recognition of the knot of synchronic and diachronic times in the genesis of human consciousness.

  1. ‘Shaping history’ in McLuhan’s sense does not entail some sort of God-like take-over or hi-jacking of being itself in the way bad readings of Hegel sometimes assert. Instead, ‘shaping history’ implies the responsibility of a creature to use its unique powers of thought and communication to order the world and itself in accord with the intrinsic dignity of that world and of all its beings. For McLuhan’s thoughts on hijacking see The hijacked world.

Espionage as the total human activity

From a Maclean’s interview in 1972 with Peter Newman:

The new human occupation of the electronic age has become surveillance. CIA-style espionage is now the total human activity. Whether you call it audience rating, consumer surveys and so on — all men are now engaged as hunters of espionage. (…) The biggest job in the world will be espionage. Around the world, people are spending more and more of their time watching the other guy. Espionage at the speed of light will become the biggest business in the world. But the CIA and the FBI are really old hat using old hardware by comparison to what’s coming, in which everybody earns pocket money by watching his own mom and dad or his brothers and sisters. (…) The possibilities of espionage are unlimited.

Anybody who followed McLuhan’s advice here to invest in Microsoft, Amazon, Google and Facebook would be a billionaire.

Twenty years before his Maclean’s interview in his ‘Preface’ to The Mechanical Bride, McLuhan had characterized “audience rating [and] consumer surveys” as follows:

It is observable that the more illusion and falsehood needed to maintain any given state of affairs, the more tyranny is needed to maintain the illusion and falsehood. Today the tyrant rules not by club or fist, but, disguised as a market researcher, he shepherds his flocks in the ways of utility and comfort. (vi)

The hijacked world

From a March 8, 1971 McLuhan letter to Jim Davey in the Prime Minister’s Office:

Realizing that the very nature of hi-jacking is related to new services and environments. I asked a New York tycoon whether there were any parallels to hi-jacking in business. He replied at once that the bigger the business, the easier it is to hi-jack it. He said that the biggest banks in the world today are being sued by their own share-holders for misallocation of funds [ie, for allowing themselves to be hi-jacked like Wells Fargo at this very moment in 2017]. The Penn Central [RR] discovered that its entire funds had been appropriated for non-transportation uses. This is done in the bookkeeping division of the firm, unbeknownst to the rest of the operation. It is almost impossible to check. Hence, the larger the operation, the less it knows about whether it is going “to land” [at its intended destination]. Cities are hi-jacked every day by developers who simply pressure the bureaucracy into “landing” in areas favorable to the developers. Countries can be hi-jacked as readily as a big business.
(…) This raises the problem of swinging blocks of votes as a form of hi-jacking. Historically, the creation of the CPR could be considered under the aspect of hi-jacking our country. Pollution is another form of taking over an entire service environment, whether of land, water or air, perverting its uses. If some private enterprise in fact uses land, water or air [for its own profit, like a billboard], it is that enterprise that becomes the content of the environment in question, just as the hold-up man on the plane, by assuming the use of the plane for himself, becomes the content of the plane by usurping the role of all the other passengers.
Since t
he user as content is not a figure of speech but a basic dynamic (…) I suggest that it can be the basis of a complete restatement of political and economic realities in the information age of the wired planet. (Letters 428)1

A contemporary article took up the same theme:

The hijacker of a plane does not presume to operate the craft. He merely decides where it is to put down. So it is today with the very largest organizations. The larger the enterprise, the easier it is to shape its patterns and destinies, unknown to the occupants and ‘owners’. (‘The Hijacking of Cities, Nations, Planets in the Age of Spaceship Earth’, Explorations [insert in University of Toronto’s Varsity Graduate], Number 30, p.110, Spring, 1971)

McLuhan saw 50 years ago what is happening today in spades — but with little enough notice. We have all been hi-jacked, but fail to register that the various components of our ‘identity’ — ‘world-order’, ‘country’, ‘tradition’, ‘individuality’, ‘privacy’ and so on — have all been taken over for uses we don’t know, never approved and certainly don’t control.

In a further letter to Davey six months later (Sept 29, 1971), McLuhan commented on this general obliviousness:

What has happened is a complete collapse of community awareness via specialism of function. As long as an operation or process is divided into sufficiently small [isolated] segments [such as ‘departments’ in government or business], nobody feels any responsibility for anything. Communal awareness has no chance to come into play. (…) The really devastating programming is the destruction of perception and sensitivity by the creation of vast environments far exceeding human scale. The King Kong fantasies are direct expressions of the feeling most people have in their environments which have become monsters. Yet, the best intentioned bureaucrats in all governments are busily engaged in creating bigger and blacker King Kongs every day of the week. (Letters 441)

30 years before in The Mechanical Bride he had already commented on this phenomenon:

One unintended effect of trying to dragoon everybody into a single monster book club has been to splinter the public into numerous fragments. Each club trying to corner the whole public has, by its particular bill of fare, witlessly caused an anti-club segment to be formed. And the more the clubs have tried telepathically to find and control the window to the public subconscious, the more they have created blind spots and indifference. (26)

  1. In a letter two weeks later, again to Davey, McLuhan suggested that “you may be specially interested in my letter on hijacking a city, a business, a country, etc. Hijacking is a process made possible by high speed travel or high speed information movement. Conglomerates are probably a form of hijacking” (McLuhan to J.M. Davey, March 22, 1971).

The show biz world

And now in the twentieth century (…) nature has been abolished by art and engineering,  (…) government has become entertainment and entertainment has become the art of government… (Nihilism Exposed, 1955)

Pop Art is an indication that as the whole planet goes inside a new satellite-and-information environment made by man, we can no longer afford to deal with the human habitat as something given to us by Nature. We have now to accept the fact and responsibility that the entire human environment is an artifact, an art form, something that can be staged and manipulated like show biz. (Great Changeovers for You, 1966)

That the entire planet should become show business on a twenty-four-hour basis is not only inevitable now, but it creates “challenges” for all levels of the establishment on a scale that will gradually obliterate consciousness. (McLuhan to Robert Leuver, Jul 30, 1969, Letters 386 = M&L 91)

Show business is taking over, and the guy who can present the best image will be the boss. This means role-playing (…) Until now, it has been private identity and ego trips. Today the new thing is to get rid of you and become whatever the situation demands. In the TV age everybody has to get rid of the self to have a job at all, whether as a teacher or a performer — you have to ditch the old private ego and start role playing. (‘An Interview With Marshall McLuhan: His Outrageous Views About Women’, Linda Sandler. Miss Chatelaine, September 3, 1974, pp. 58-59, 83-87, 90-91)

The New Criticism and plural times

Back in the 1920’s there used to be much concern about the “meaning of meaning.” At that time the discovery that the meaning was not [narrative or linear] statement so much as the simultaneous interaction of many things came as an exciting surprise. (Great Change-overs for You, 1966)1

Structuralism in all its forms is necessarily acoustic, ie, simultaneous and multi-levelled. The followers of Ferdinand Saussure divided [time]2 into diachrony and synchrony. Diachrony is the conventional historical form of scholarship and synchrony is structural analysis based on the fact that all acoustic structures have every part of them in any part at all. Personally, I acquired this synchrony through Joyce, Pound, Eliot and the new criticism, and in turn applied it to the new media. (McLuhan to Ray di Lorenzo, April 5, 1974, cited in Escape into Understanding, 432 n101)

  1. Great Change-overs for You’, Vogue 148:1, 60-63, 114-115, 117, July 1966 = ‘The All At Once World Of Marshall McLuhan’, British Vogue, August 1966. With  different titles, this article, in whole and in part, with and without changes, was republished repeatedly by McLuhan between 1966 and 1970.
  2. McLuhan wrote (ie, dictated) that “Saussure divided the acoustic into diachrony and synchrony”, which, of course, makes little sense when he had just equated the “acoustic” with the “simultaneous and multi-levelled”, ie, with the synchronic. He meant to say that Saussure divided time in this way.