Saturday, April 20, 2013

"McLuhan Invokes a Shamanic Analogue"

(This is a midterm essay I wrote for the class "Technology & Contemporary Art". We were required to discuss the writing of Marshall McLuhan in relation to several artists and their work. It's a few pages so I hid the rest under the jump break.)

McLuhan Invokes a Shamanic Analogue

Prevailing Western cultural myths surrounding technological advancement plot a trajectory of cumulative “innovations” that propel civilization – and by extension the individual – in a progressively more rational, mechanized, automated and abiological direction: away from the natural world and the animal body. It is generally accepted that technology represents a triumph over nature via a body of progressive improvements on tools and other media, and while that can be demonstrated to be categorically true, any analysis of the underlying side effects of individuals submerged in the techno-industrial milieu, especially negative observations, are met with skepticism, confusion or derision and occur late if at all. In the mid-20th century, Marshall McLuhan presented an alternative interpretation that reversed the trajectory of the previous Weltanschauung; specialized, machine-like Cartesian man was a biproduct of print technology, print itself was a detour and the new electric technology promised to paradoxically deliver humanity back to an audile-tactile, whole field perception illuminated by the image of an instantaneously connected global tribe. It is the purpose of this paper to describe McLuhan's pioneering and prescient analyses that continue to run contrary to the generally accepted view of the techno-human condition (a mindset itself, according to McLuhan, that is a relic of long obviated print-oriented sense ratios[1]) in relation to individuals working in the arts and their role in the potential elucidation of the hidden yet profoundly transformative effects of the ubiquitous experience of media.

“It is in its power to extend patterns of visual uniformity and continuity that the “message” of the alphabet is felt by cultures.” -Marshall McLuhan (1964)

The distinction between the print-conditioned perception and preceding arrangements of senses and cognitive biases is the sine qua non of McLuhan's oeuvre. Without an understanding that the homogenizing power of the phonetic alphabet and its repeatability through uniform type technology disseminated en masse a profound shift in human civilization down to the level of each individual's inner processes, it is impossible to understand and extrapolate from the “zero point” of the Gutenberg revolution the precipitation of Renaissance perspective, linear sequential bias, primacy of the visual (ocularcentrism) and ultimately the present Western rationalism inherited from the legacy of René Descartes' mind-body dualism. New patterns of behavior and self-extension result in new modes of functioning, it is McLuhan's assertion that at the expense of previous forms of awareness, we adapt to our technology and it internalizes us (“Extension of the self involves a state of numbness...He had adapted to his extension of himself and become a closed system.”[2]).

The fragmenting, specialist, isolating mode of literate man is originated in “the same separation of sight and sound and meaning that is peculiar to the phonetic alphabet also extends to its social and physiological effects. Literate man undergoes much separation of his imaginative, emotional, and sense life.”[3] Completely receptive to the ordering and pattern-defining operational framework of adaptation to print, it follows that literate man falls victim to the temptation to apply the rational ordering approach to everything that falls within his experience, which proved a remarkable success primarily in the science of physics[4], but also in establishing means of mechanized mass production such as the assembly line (cf. Fordism). However, what may apply agreeably to laws describing the behavior of physical matter does not necessarily have the same implications at cultural levels, as McLuhan interjects, “Consciousness is regarded as the mark of a rational being, yet there is nothing lineal or sequential about the total field of awareness that exists in any moment of consciousness. Consciousness is not a verbal process.”[5] The bias extended to the lineally sequential and the rational, repeatable conclusion by adaptation to print heavily informed the Western mind for several hundred years, however, according to McLuhan, the sense ratios demanded by a print culture have already been supplanted by the immersion in the electric age. Already transformed and retribalizing at a rapid rate, humanity is simply not aware of the new environment shaping perception—we continue to navigate into the future as though building linearly on the advancements of the past: “We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.”[6]

Early in Understanding Media, McLuhan states “The serious artist is the only person able to encounter technology with impunity, just because he is an expert aware of the changes in sense perception.”[7] The “serious artist” is described as fulfilling a special kind of social role; someone who in a sense exists outside or detached from the everyday, operationally conditioned level of culture or at least someone who has cultivated a faculty of perception, that is to say the ability to see and analyse the systems and cultural machinery in which they are immersed. A favorite metaphor often employed by McLuhan to evoke the obliviousness of human-in-media was that of a fish, completely unaware of its total immersion in the medium of water ,“since they have no anti-environment which would enable them to perceive the element they live in.”[8] It is the base principle of McLuhan's work that humans experience a total immersion of which they demonstrate very little awareness until an “anti-environment” is eventually presented; that the changes which are accepted as technological triumphs are in fact transformative down to the very subtle, animal body levels of sense perception, cognition and psychological modus operandi, ultimately how we are capable of perceiving the world and ourselves.

In many traditional human societies, a higher perceptual role belonged to the shaman figure[9]– one who parses the invisible landscape, an extra-environmental individual who has a vantage point that permits the awareness of underlying mechanisms. McLuhan positioned himself in alliance with the shamanic tradition through his intentional focus on the ability to probe and analyse generally unquestioned social conventions and effects the majority of the population pass through in minimal awareness, unless their attention is specifically commanded here or there. As well as typical “witch doctor” practices such as healing, weather prediction and various forms of divination, the shaman is a wise woman/man to whom the society turns for guidance in the face of change–the shaman serves as a kind of cultural mediator, delivering myths that shape the culture, disseminating symbols and experiences designed to maintain a balance and sense of wholeness at tribal and individual levels, “the shaman helps patients transcend their normal, ordinary definition of reality” (Harner, 1980).

At the time of writing, from within the cultural perspective of the writer (which could be described as “Western techno-industrial consumer capitalism”), there is no accepted or acknowledged place for something like the shamanic tradition, no dedicated and refined practice that deals in mediating cultural ethos and reconciling the tribe's perceptual balance in a world that has presented rapid fragmentary change on all levels[10]. The closest analogue we afford is the idea of the “visionary thinker”, usually a role reserved for McLuhan's serious artists and to those in fields like psychoanalysis, philosophy or cultural theory writing, though the latter produce work which is not engaged with by the broader society on the level of art. It should be noted that while writers like Debord, Baudrillard, Deleuze, Zizek, etc., have been entertained as valuable “pop” figures within the culture, it may be conjectured that celebrity status overshadows the actual work, as discussion shifts immediately away from analysis of content to the spectacle of the personalities themselves, the medium of the Icon is the more effectual, more viral message, true to McLuhan's paradigm, and the culture has no problem accepting such thinkers as “important” without having to actually read any of them more deeply than a Wikipedia summary at best, and probably not at all on average. McLuhan's popularity was of course exemplary of this cultural dynamic; though he achieved a massive presence and audience and his work resonated deeply with some, “McLuhan the TV Guru” became the message in spite of content; volumes of heavily involved and demanding cultural exegesis were reduced to catchphrases and TV talk show audience members were invited to suppose whether or not they really “meant anything” in one of the most ironic provings-right of possibly all recorded history.

Seemingly it has fallen upon the shoulders of artists (a contentious role itself in contemporary society) to reach the general population with “outsider” information facilitating potential shifts in perception that do not come from within the established continuing inertia of the cultural machinery. If they feel they have some insight, it is the province of innovative individuals to attempt to present or mirror the culture and its effects. By 1969, McLuhan tasked artists more urgently than ever with “the need for a counter-environment as a means of perceiving the dominant and unnoticed environment.”[11] He may have felt quite alone in his struggle[12] and that artists who could sense the true, hidden implications of the unquestioning acceptance of the new electric technology should be tasked with devising creative and appealing methods of conveying these realizations and thereby influencing the awareness of mass culture: “To this end, the artist must ever play and experiment with new means of arranging experience, even though the majority of his audience may prefer to remain fixed in their old perceptual attitudes.”[13]

Attempting to create a counter-environment often involves hijacking the tools and media of the dominant, unnoticed environment and repurposing or subverting them in some way, this is especially true of video and installation art. Margaret Morse describes interactive installation art in terms of “setting this mediated/built environment into play for purposes of reflection.”[14] The media and technology we are exposed to everyday in a broader cultural context are potentially reversed through interactivity dynamics and turned into mirrors of the relationship between interactor and interface, “what is returned is ourselves, transformed and processed”.[15] Nam June Paik arrived in New York in the 1960s after being inspired to pursue electronic art while studying musical composition in Germany, and is considered the first video artist. Paik's experimental video piece Global Groove (1973) involves viewers in a cross-cultural intersection predicated on mass global satellite transmission, he supposed “If we could compile a weekly TV festival made up of music and dance from every county, and distributed it free-of-charge round the world via the proposed common video market, it would have a phenomenal effect on education and entertainment”[16].

The non-linear production style and often jarring effects of Global Groove made full use of television's unique demands on the senses. In contrast with print, which allows the reader a fixed perspective of analysis, television must be watched and “kept up with”. According to McLuhan, “TV promotes depth structures in art and entertainment alike, and creates audience involvement in depth as well.”[17] The linear, fixed perspective is obviated by speed, involving a viewer in keeping up with a flow of imagery that often would not make coherent sense as a still frame but must be absorbed instantaneously as a dynamic whole, participatory involvement in a “nonverbal gestalt or posture of forms”[18]. Paik exploited the medium through video manipulations that accentuate the dynamic, high speed involvement of television that draws the viewer into its pace (and its space), attempting to keep up with the “New York style” dancing figures on the screen, feeling the resonance of the beating of the traditional Korean drum synchronized with the movements of the drummer and modulated in and out of abstraction by the wild, distorting video effects of the Paik-Abe video synthesizer. The tone of Global Groove is something which is felt or sensed rather than made explicit through visual text or speech; involvement in the video demands a “unified sensorium”[19], a viewer may get the feeling of involvement in many places and cultures at once, there is a focus on expression of the body through rhythm – the sensibility of the tribal dance of the global village facilitated by the electric age.

Bill Viola's Sleep of Reason (1988) incorporates the television as an object itself as part of a built environment. Since Global Groove, the moving image has escaped all confines and appears to us on walls, floors, external structures, hanging in air or extending into virtual spaces. In Sleep of Reason,  the unexpected visitation of the moving image on all the surrounding walls evokes a sense of the supernatural; owls fly in and out of space, dogs bark menacing, and in an instant the lights return and the walls again solid as if nothing had happened at all. The eeriness and ethereal, dream-like or subconsciousness theme runs throughout much of Viola's work, often alluding to religious apparition or a communion with the world of the dead (as in the shamanic tradition). “Sleep of Reason” refers to Goya's work of a similar name, which in the context of its time suggested rational, Enlightment reason as an antidote to the “monsters” that plague the superstitious, religious mind. By recontextualizing this sensibility into the electric age, Viola seems to suggest that we are still pursued by monsters, even producing our own monsters and that reason fragmented our focus rather than delivered us to a truly utopic state. In dreams, as on TV, we are haunted by the contents and projections of the unconscious mind, despite their apparent dismissal in the face of reason. Paradoxically, it seems, we may need to put Enlightenment reason itself to sleep if we are to cast off the curse of Cartesian dualism and navigate the new demands and frontiers of the electric age, which is more like the inner space of the mind than the structural space of the printed page.

Awareness of the body in relation to technology and virtuality is an issue bordering on the pathological in contemporary society. William Gibson fanboys proudly denounce “meatspace” and defiantly live much of their lives, alongside millions of dedicated or addicted TV watchers and Internet users, as though they have no body to burden the ascent into media. The Cartesian legacy gives them confidence that the body is simply outdated technology, like an old car, and an updated model will be dispensed according to the laws of supply and demand. Simon Penny tells us there is no such thing as a virtual body[20], that computer-based technology can only give us visual representation or unconvincing feedback. McLuhan asserts that the central nervous system is extended entirely outside itself[21] through our love – “this continuous embrace” of – technology, and that we respond autonomously with numbness in “the Narcissus role of subliminal awareness”[22].

The extent to which we identify with reflections of ourselves extended into media is investigated by Paul Sermon's telematic works, especially the intimate and boundary dissolving Telematic Dreaming (1992), named for a phrase from a Baudrillard essay. Distant participants project simultaneously in realtime, transposed virtually in each others spaces like lovers made of light in a dreamlike precessionof simulacrum of seduction, as per “enchanted simulation: the trompe-l’oeil, more false than false, and the secret of appearances.”[23] Is the trick of the eye enough to simulate the intimacy of laying next to another body or are we simply entranced by the simulation itself? McLuhan would have heavily applied his Narcissus analogy to Telematic Dreaming; more an encounter with a disembodied Other than another human, the ability to feel intimacy toward a represented body of light could constitute adaptation to “a closed system” induced through the interplay of mutually auto-amputated participants[24]. This work is easy to romanticize yet a very ominous undertone stresses the disconnection between interface and the body on the other side must not be confused. Already we can imagine the unspoken anxiety that follows users of online dating sites in the realization that they are much more adapted to communicating with each other virtually than “irl”, more comfortable seeing each other on a screen than in three dimensions. Though he suggests the body is wherever it can affect, Sermon presents the piece not as the technology for long distance lovers it may seem possible to market it as today, but as a situation for reflection .

The message McLuhan was so at pains to deliver to the masses is one of awareness; a cautionary approach to adopting media is necessary if we are aware of the potential effects on all scales. If we are to become aware of what we are doing and what is happening to us before it has already happened, we must deploy counter-environments and analytical tools and the possibility for real reflection as a human organism, not mediated reflection that “forbids self-recognition”[25]. Despite Simon Penny's lamentations that virtual reality is absolutely inadequate, especially when it ignores the body, millions of people will continue to immerse themselves in virtual simulation via media like videogames, online environments and interfaces, etc. As Lynn Hershman Leeson observed, “When “real” objects are artificially inserted into environments, they simultaneously become simulated symbols that function as virtual reality[26]” and therefore the first virtual realities began in places like Ur and Çatal Höyük when nomadic humans first extended themselves into structures and “sacred space”[27]. Technology is not separate from the psyche is not separate from the body. If we can understand what media truly is, we may be able to step outside, at least for a shift in perspective.

McLuhan and the artists whose work presents these dilemmas and restructurings to us implore us to accept that our sense ratios, perceptions and even cultural systems are virtual, provisional and malleable constructs inextricably bound to the way we engage our bodies with tools in internal and external space. The retribalization of global culture is an invitation for a shaman class capable of whole field of consciousness perception to take the reigns from the crumbling artifice of Cartesian tunnel vision with its nature and body-rejecting materialism that, staring fixedly into the rear-view mirror, cannot see what has already hit it head-on.


Marshall McLuhan. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964).
Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore. War and Peace in the Global Village. (New York: Bantam, 1968).
Marshall McLuhan. The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man. (New York: Signet Books, 1962).
Marshall McLuhan. Counterblast. (1969)
Michael Harner. The Way of the Shaman. (New York: Harper & Row, 1982).
Margaret Morse. “Video Installation Art: The Body, the Image and the Space-in-Between.” In Illuminating Video: An Essential guide to Video Art. Edited by Doug Hall and Sally Jo Fifer. (New York: Aperture & Bay Area Video Coalition, 1990) 153-167.
David Rokeby. “Transforming Mirrors: Subjectivity and Control in Interactive Media.” In Critical Issues in Electronic Media. Edited by Simon Penny. (New York: State University of New York Press, 1995) 133-158.
Simon Penny. “Virtual Reality as the Completin of the Enlightenment Project.” Culture on the Brink. Edited by G. Bender & T. Druckrey. (Seattle: Bay Press, 1994) 231-248.
Jean Baudrillard. On Seduction. (1980)
Lynn Hershman Leeson. “Reflections and Preliminary Notes”. Paranoid Mirror. Exhibition Catalogue. (Seattle Art Museum, c. 1995), 11-24.
Mircea Eliade. The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion. (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1959)

[1]   Print is the extreme phase of alphabet culture that detribalizes or decollectivizes man in the first instance. Print raises the visual features of alphabet to highest intensity of definition.” McLuhan (1962), 158.
[2]   McLuhan. (1964), 51.
[3]   McLuhan. (1964), 90.
[4]   “Print brought in the taste for exact measurement and repeatability that we now associate with science and mathematics.” McLuhan (1964), 276.
[5]   McLuhan. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. (1964), 87.
[6]   McLuhanism.
[7]   McLuhan. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. (1964), 18.
[9]   Harner. The Way of the Shaman. (1980)
[10] Blake sees man as fragmented by his technologies.” McLuhan (1964), 55.
[11] McLuhan. Counterblast. 1969.
[12] I am in the position of Louis Pasteur telling doctors that their greatest enemy was quite invisible, and quite unrecognised by them.” McLuhan (1964), 18.
[13] McLuhan (1964), 224.
[14] Margaret Morse. Video Installation Art: The Body, the Image and the Space-in-Between. (1990).
[15]         David Rokeby. Transforming Mirrors: Subjectivity and Control in Interactive Media. (1995).
[16] Nam June Paik. 1973.
[17] McLuhan (1964), 272.
[18] McLuhan (1964), 272.
[19] McLuhan (1964), 269.
[20] Simon Penny. Virtual Reality as the Completion of the Enlightenment Project. (1994)
[21] “ the age that had extended its nervous system outside itself...” McLuhan (1964), 222.
[22] McLuhan (1964), 55.
[23] Jean Baudrillard. On Seduction. (1980), 157.
[24] McLuhan (1964), 51.
[25] McLuhan (1964), 52.
[26] Lynn Hershman Leeson. Preliminary Notes. (1968)
[27] Mircea Eliade. The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion. (1959).

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