Citadel of inclusive awareness

we live in a global village and the job is to create a global city (McLuhan to Tyrwhitt, 1960)1

Bob Dobbs has emphasized the importance in McLuhan’s work on “the citadel of individual consciousness”.2 Indeed, McLuhan himself marked this importance by repeating in the 1969 Counterblast this same phrase from 13 years earlier in the 1956 ‘Educational Effects of Mass Media of Communication’.

What may be the deepest questions probed by McLuhan are: who, when and where is this citadel? what does it do? how does it go wrong? how might its function as a kind of gyroscope be put right?

‘Citadel’ derives from Latin ‘civis’, city, and McLuhan explicitly drew on this etymology in the passages below culminating in the idea of the citadel/city as “the central nervous system” (aka, as we might say today, the operating system). In a letter to Jackie Tyrwhitt in 1960 he set out a notion of the city as the social sensus communis against which his ‘citadel’ texts should be read:

Now that by electricity we have externalized all of our senses [in technologies like tele-phone and tele-vision], we are in the desperate position of not having any sensus communis. Prior to electricity, the city was the sensus communis for such specialized and externalized senses as technology had developed. From Aristotle onward, the traditional function of the sensus communis is to translate each sense into the other senses, so that a unified, integral image is offered at all times to the mind. The city performs that function for the scattered and distracted senses, and spaces and times, of agrarian cultures. Today with electronics we have discovered that we live in a global village and the job is to create a global city, as center for the village margins. The parameters of this task are by no means positional [= geographical]. With electronics, any marginal area can become centre, and marginal experiences can be had at any center. (…) The problem of [Tyrwhitt’s area of] urban planning today (in the field of nuclei that is the global village) is assuming more and more the character of language itself, in which all words at all times comprise all the senses, but in evershifting ratios which permit ever new light to come through them. Is not this the problem that we have now to face in the management of inner and outer space — not fixed but ever new-made ratios, shifting always to maintain a maximal focal point of consciousness? Thus the human community would assume the same integral freedom and awareness as the private person?3

Here are McLuhan’s ‘citadel’ passages in chronological order:

Ever since Burckhardt saw that the meaning of Machiavelli’s method was to turn the state into a work of art by the rational manipulation of power, it has been an open possibility to apply the method of art analysis to the critical evaluation of society. That is attempted here [in The Mechanical Bride]. The Western world, dedicated since the sixteenth century to the increase and consolidation of the power of the state, has developed an artistic unity of effect which makes artistic criticism of that effect quite feasible. Art criticism is free to point to the various means employed to get the effect, as well as to decide whether the effect was worth attempting. As such, with regard to the modern state, it [art criticism] can be a citadel of inclusive awareness amid the dim dreams of collective consciousness. (‘Preface’ to The Mechanical Bride, 1951)

No longer is it possible for modern man, individually or collectively, to live in any exclusive segment of human experience or achieved social pattern. The modern mind, whether in its subconscious collective dream or in its intellectual citadel of vivid awareness, is a stage on which is contained and re-enacted the entire experience of the human race. There are no more remote and easy perspectives, either artistic or national. Everything [possible] is present in the foreground [of our consciousness]. That fact is stressed equally in current physics, jazz, newspapers, and psychoanalysis. And it is not a question of preference or taste. This flood has already immersed us. And whether it is to be a benign flood, cleansing the Augean stable of speech and experience, as envisaged in Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, or a merely destructive element, may to some extent depend on the degree of exertion and direction which we elicit in ourselves. (The Mechanical Bride, 1951, 87)

What we have to defend today is not the values developed in any particular culture or by any one mode of communication. Modern technology presumes to attempt a total transformation of man and his environment. This calls in turn for an inspection and defense of all human values. And so far as merely human aid goes, the citadel of this defense must be located in analytical awareness of the nature of the creative process involved in human cognition. For it is in this citadel that science and technology have already established themselves in their manipulation of the new media. (Closing lines of ‘Sight, Sound, and the Fury’, 1954)

we must substitute an interest in the media for the previous interest in subjects. This is the logical answer to the fact that the media have substituted themselves for the older world. Even if we should wish to recover that older world we can do so only by an intensive study of the ways in which the media have swallowed it. But4 no matter how many walls have fallen, the citadel of individual consciousness has not fallen, nor is it likely to fall. For it is not accessible to the mass media(Closing lines of ‘Educational Effects of Mass Media of Communication’, 1956, that were repeated in the 1969 Counterblast.)

The literate man is one who is accustomed to the inner translation of sight into sound and of sound into sight, a complex activity for which he pays by psychic withdrawal, a weakening of sensuous life and a considerable lessening of the power of recall. But in return he obtains analytic mastery of specific areas of knowledge, and especially the power of applied science for social purposes. The increase of inner self-awareness resulting from the incessant translation of sound into sight and sight into sound also enhances his sense of individual identity and fosters that inner dialogue or conscience within, which we rightly associate with the very citadel [< civis] of civilized [< civis] awareness. (Printing and Social Change, 1959)

Historians see the forms of the great cities in the ancient world as manifesting all facets of human personality. Institutions, architectural and administrative, as extensions of our physical beings necessarily tend toward world-wide similarities. The central nervous system of the city [< civis] was the citadel [< civis]… (Understanding Media, 1964)

The 1959 passage from ‘Printing and Social Change’ continued:

In the new time which must be one of co-existence and pluralism there will be a basis for the simultaneous use of print and of all other media as well. To discover that basis now before we exhaust ourselves in moral denunciation and pointless clashes is urgently indicated. (Printing and Social Change, 1959)

The 1960 letter to Jackie Tyrwhitt cited above augmented these thoughts on “basis” from the previous year as follows:

By electricity, Jackie, we have not been driven out of our senses so much that our senses have been driven out of us. Before we can return to one another, a good deal of clarification is needed for the purposes of reconciliation. (…) Noise [in a communication system] is of course just any kind of irrelevance, and yet irrelevance is a needed margin for any kind of attention or center. In the field of attention, a center without a margin is the formula for hypnosis, stasis and paralysis. Again, when our senses are external to us, it becomes natural to regard a perpetual flow of programs5 through all media as indispensable to the community,6 just as much as the private individual considers that all of his senses should be receiving impressions all the time, even in sleep. 

In McLuhan’s view, “reconciliation” required the reconstruction of the “citadel of individual consciousness”, and of the analogous social “central nervous system of the city”, as a dynamic yet ordered site of “evershifting ratios”. The need was for ‘pattern recognition’ of the spectrum of figure/ground relations through and as which that citadel both received and managed its formations. The great riddle was and is how to under-stand ‘management’ as something received:7

The problem (…) is assuming more and more the character of language itself, in which all words at all times implicate8 all the senses, but in evershifting ratios which permit ever new light to come through them. Is not this the problem that we have now to face in the management of inner and outer space — not fixed but ever new-made ratios, shifting always to maintain a maximal focal point of consciousness?9

“Of conscious” — an objective genitive!10

  1. McLuhan’s 1960 letter to Tyrwhitt is cited at length in this post.
  2. In McLuhan and Holeopathic Quadrophrenia: The Mouse-That-Roared Syndrome, Dobbs has the following fine insight — or insights: “humanity’s technological evolution had ended with television as all “hardware” had flipped and fused into “software” and what remained was a complex collective ESP, the patterns of which would be invoked by constant audience research, polling and surveillance. These new “weather” patterns, since they were multi-sensuous and abstract, McLuhan called “pollstergeists“. These are what plagued the human citadel of consciousness as it stared from its cave at the newly-retrieved quantum fluctuations of a still-born “astoneaged” society. The content of this situation, the human users and “media” themselves, imploded into a rapid, Sisyphean, and tetradic oscillation through the states of metaphor, metonymy, synechdoche, and irony which registered emotionally as states of paranoia, schizophrenia, hysteria, panic, and ecstasy. This is the condition I have designated as quadrophrenia in which the living metaphoric coherence of the collective consciousness appears to be usurped.”
  3. McLuhan to Jackie Tyrwhitt, December 23, 1960, Letters 277-278.
  4. McLuhan has ‘And’ here.
  5. ‘Programs’ should not be understood here in the sense of ‘computer programs’. McLuhan must have been thinking of something like radio or television ‘programs’. That he equates ‘programs’ with ‘impressions’ should be be noted. The idea is that impressions are already a complicated story as exemplified in our dreams.
  6. Cf, McLuhan to Harry Skornia, November 18 1958: “Big break-through in insight into TV came in NYC via Andre Girrard (sic, Girard) the painter who works for CBS and NBC. In a word, key fact about TV is that image is defined not by light on but by light through, exactly as stained glass principle of art form.  Makes me tingle all over just to see those words because very big matters hinge on this fact.  Opens up understanding fast.”
  7. Take Today may be read as an inquiry into this riddle.
  8. McLuhan has ‘comprise’ here instead of ‘implicate’.
  9. McLuhan to Tyrwhitt, December 23, 1960, full passage cited above.
  10. Consciousness is the always already having been achieved dynamic — as the always being achieved dynamic — of these “evershifting ratios”. The German word Gewesenheit captures the dynamic of this plurality (Ge-Wesen) as past (gewesen) and present (Gewesenheit).