"Living backwards!" Alice repeated in great astonishment. "I never heard of such a thing!"
"— but there's one great advantage in it, that one's memory works both ways."
"I'm sure mine only works one way," Alice remarked. "I can't remember things before they happen."
"It's a poor sort of memory that only works backwards," the Queen remarked.
It is worth briefly reviewing the historical development of what Marshall McLuhan, in his 1954 lecture on "Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters," called "the revelation of the poetic process." Awareness of the process, which for McLuhan is exactly analogous to the process of ordinary perception, is the key concept in McLuhan's thought, colouring everything else in his subsequent media analysis.
On a more profound level, though, this revelation is also at the inner core of his religious beliefs. Perception is Incarnation. It is an immense power, and like all such power it can be used for great good or great harm. Again:
Knowledge of the creative process in art, science, and cognition shows us either to the earthly paradise or to complete madness. It is to be either the top of Mount Purgatory or the abyss.
Awareness of this process, and it is always somewhat arbitrary to assign a precise beginning to these things, starts to become apparent in the writings of Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope -- literary acquaintances and friends -- and particularly in Swift's A Tale of a Tub and Pope's Dunciad. Both of these texts show a new awareness of the limitations and confinements of print, the dominant medium of their era. The Romantic poets and the Pre-Raphaelites expanded and deepened this self-awareness, culminating in Edgar Allen Poe's explicit revealing of the poetic process.
Thus the Romantic poets were consciously in revolt against printed books as shackles on the human spirit. They turned to landscape and the pictorial presentation of experience long before the arrival of photography. And Poe's discovery about writing poems and stories backwards contained, years in advance, not only the secret of modern laboratory science but of the movie.
Poe's ideas are taken up and furthered by the French Symbolist poets, most notably by de Nerval and Mallarmé, and it is through the Symbolists, via Arthur Symons and W.B. Yeats, that a culmination is reached in the work of James Joyce. McLuhan's lecture concludes with Joyce, and he makes it clear that it is with Joyce that the key to the gates of both Paradise and the Abyss can be found.
Slaying The Minotaur
Joyce, according to McLuhan, was able to surpass the Symbolists in his awareness of the process of perception through his knowledge of Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas, in one reading, is himself very interesting as he was the student of the alchemist Albertus Magnus (although scholars now largely dismiss the claims that Albertus Magnus authored the various alchemical texts that appear in his name).
At any rate, it is fascinating to imagine that the mainstream of Christian theology has been inspired by the Great Work of alchemy. And regardless, the equivalence of perception and the incarnation of the Spirit is an alchemical truth.
It was Aquinas who enabled Joyce to surpass all the Pre-Raphaelites. It was the Thomist awareness of analogy derived from sense perception that gave Joyce the means of digesting all the ideas of all his contemporaries without relying on any of them as a prop or a frame of reference.
Joyce's theory of aesthetic apprehension most lucidly unfolds in Stephen Hero, yet it is the basis of all of his work that follows. Central to this is Joyce's notion of the epiphany. Previously in this blog I've outlined this theory, but it is worth taking a look at this again.
By an epiphany he [Joyce as Stephen] meant a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself. He believed that it was for the man of letters to record these epiphanies with extreme care, seeing that they themselves are the most delicate and evanescent of moments.
Thus, according to McLuhan, it is this awareness of epiphany -- of aesthetic arrest -- which allows Joyce to go beyond all prior poets.
Gradually it dawned on Mallarmé that pure poetry was impossible -- a poetry which would have as its theme the poetic process itself. Henceforth the subject and framework of a poem would be the retracing of a moment of perception. For some of the Romantic poets the doctrine of the aesthetic moment as a moment out of time -- a moment of arrested consciousness -- had seemed the key to all poetry. The Pre-Raphaelites had pushed this doctrine as far as they could. But Mallarmé saw deeper and Joyce saw the rest. Joyce it was who saw that Aquinas had the final answer sought by Mallarmé. The rational notes of beauty, integrity, consonance, and claritas traced by St. Thomas were actual stages of apprehension in every moment of human awareness.
In a related essay from 1951, "Joyce, Aquinas, and the Poetic Process," McLuhan focuses in on the precise instant of aesthetic arrest and demonstrates its crucial importance for the whole poetic/artistic tradition.
The moment of arrest is an epiphany, a moment not in time's covenant, and it is by the bringing of complex perceptions to a focus in such moments that the minotaurs of the labyrinths are always overcome.
McLuhan is employing a very complex symbolism here. Stephen Dedalus, the hero of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen Hero, and Ulysses, is partly named after Daedalus of Greek myth, the architect of the labyrinth. (And interestingly McLuhan also suggests that Stephen is named for Stéphane Mallarmé.)
The labyrinth is also found in the inner ear, the physical sense most associated with simultaneity and incarnation. A minotaur, for McLuhan, is "anything which interferes with cognition," anything which aims to "devour beauty," and it is the beast which must be slain by the artist. The best weapon by which to do this, a weapon which also transports one instantly to the heart of the labyrinth, is the epiphany.
But the technical means of capturing these moments is by landscape, as Wordsworth and others were aware. The Pre-Raphaelites and then Swinburne, Pater, and the early Yeats had sought for the means to prolong these moments. But the symbolists discovered that the moment was not an end but a beginning. It was a point from which to begin a retracing of the labyrinth of apprehension in order to find the inevitable art form for that moment.
Through the application of the theological alchemy of Aquinas, therefore, Joyce is able in Ulysses and especially Finnegans Wake to epiphanize history; all times and places and all perceptions of the artist and his characters become present at once. He reveals that in poetic creation, and by analogy ordinary perception, the entire drama of human myth and legend is eternally at hand:
So that Joyce not only was the first to reveal the link between the stages of apprehension and the creative process, he was the first to understand how the drama of cognition itself was the key archetype of all human ritual, myth and legend. And thus he was able to incorporate at every point in his work the body of the past in immediate relation to the slightest current of perception.
For perception itself is a universal process. Joyce spells this out explicitly in Stephen Hero:
What we symbolize in black the Chinaman may symbolize in yellow: each has his own tradition. Greek beauty laughs at Coptic beauty and the American Indian derides them both. It is almost impossible to reconcile all tradition whereas it is by no means impossible to find the justification of every form of beauty which has ever been adored on the earth by an examination into the mechanism of aesthetic apprehension whether it be dressed in red, white, yellow or black. We have no reason for thinking that the Chinaman has a different system of digestion from that which we have though our diets are quite dissimilar. The apprehensive faculty must be scrutinized in action.
Just as the system of digestion is common to all humans regardless of extreme variations in cultural diet and tastes, so the process of aesthetic apprehension, no matter how superficially different are the desired objects of aesthetic taste, is also a universal process.
Into Their Hands
All aesthetic apprehension, no matter the culture or the individual, can be characterized by the Aquinian terms of integrity, symmetry and clarity. Joyce, according to McLuhan, had discovered that not only is the poetic process analogous with the process of perception, but that both are analogies of much larger social processes; cultural and universal structures of aesthetic apprehension.
What Joyce is saying is that for the first time in history many now have the means of observing the social process as the process of redemption. This he can do because the social process is the analogue of the process of sense perception and interior cognition. And the process of perception is that of incarnation.
And this finally takes us to the devastating conclusion of McLuhan's lecture. Joyce's discovery, a universal key for unlocking the secret of our collective perception, is the key to both liberation and enslavement. McLuhan did not mince words with this.
Again, he claimed this awareness could unleash "psychic powers comparable to the physical powers made available via nuclear fission and fusion," and very dangerously "a possible path to the totalitarian remaking of human nature." The insights of Joyce have been seized upon by the social engineers, and this would also explain the intense interest, according to Bob Dobbs, of organizations like the CIA in the work of Marshall McLuhan.
What Joyce wrote down in this wise fifty years ago is dawning on political scientists and social engineers today as a revolutionary discovery about man and society.
McLuhan cites the example of John Lindberg, "a Swedish noble man associated with the United Nations." Lindberg is a sort of modern Machiavellian, very akin, though politically dissimilar, to neocon guru Leo Strauss, who is driven by the very practical concern of manufacturing a viable belief system that could be applied universally and internationally.
He considers Christianity as a sort of "noble lie" to unite the global masses under a single centralized government. This, however, would be a Christianity "de-Christianized," so to speak, universal but made impotent, a secular world Christianity without the name, without the Incarnation. And the dilemma of the world-crafters is as follows:
Namely that in the modern world we have through the very perfection and instantaneity of our means of communication made it impossible to resolve the conflicting claims of the numerous societies and cultures which are now in close association. Neither can we hope to impose any on all the others and reduce them to a single form. But, he argues, we now have the key to the creative process which brings all cultures into existence (namely the extension into social institutions of the central form and mystery of the human cognitive process). And it is this key which he proposes to deliver into the hands of a world government.
The awareness of the universal creative process which Joyce associated rightfully with the Incarnation, with the Word becoming Flesh, is now being employed for the worst possible aims. The multimedia mega-network, a system which should and could be fashioned for total liberation, is being employed singularly for this purpose. Christ is transformed to Antichrist.
A Machine To Make Gods
This ambiguity and tension is reflected throughout all of McLuhan's subsequent work. A sampling of quotes found in The Medium and the Light and assembled from a number of McLuhan's letters and interviews over the years clearly brings out his seemingly contradictory views on the mass communication superstructure.
On the one hand, McLuhan is celebrating the interconnectivity and simultaneity of the electronic media as being directly analogous to the traditional theological doctrine of the mystical body of Christ, the union or re-union of all believers into a single redeemed consciousness. As in an interview from 1967:
Once I began to move in this direction, I began to see that it had profound religious meaning. I do not think it my job to point this out. For example, the Christian concept of the mystical body -- all men as members of the body of Christ -- this becomes technologically a fact under electronic conditions. However, I would not try to theologize on the basis of my understanding of technology. - (Interview with Gerald Stearn)
These are the conditions of the "global village" in which we all dwell. Every time and place is perpetually linked with every other time and place. Each of us is potentially a member or a re-member of a universal community.
Let us start directly with a mention of what I consider to be an experience which we all share, all the time -- the global-village atmosphere of the twentieth century. Whether you conceptualize it or whether you verbalize it, you live in a global situation in which every event modifies and affects every other event. Not at some remote time, not long after the first one, but at the same time. In other words, whatever happens today affects everything that happens today TODAY, not tomorrow. - "Communication Media: Makers of the Modern World"
This position, minus its theological implications, may be what McLuhan is most commonly associated with in the popular mind. He is a celebrant of the New Media, an advocate and prophet of the global village, a term of his own coining. But this characterization of McLuhan, which also has him demonized as a sinister hawker of the New World Order by absolutist conspiracy theorists everywhere, is blind to an equal and directly opposed strain of McLuhan's thought.
The globalized electronic media ecology is only potentially the contemporary manifestation of the mystical body of Christ. More than likely, however, it is the exact opposite of this. It is a simulacra, a counterfeit. In a 1969 letter to Jacques Maritain this contrary view is expressed:
Whereas the Renaissance print-oriented individual thought of himself as a fragmented entity, the electric-oriented person thinks of himself as tribally inclusive of all mankind. Electric information environments being utterly ethereal fosters the illusion of a world as a spiritual substance. It is now a reasonable facsimile of the mystical body, a blatant manifestation of the Anti-Christ. After all, the Prince of this World is a very great electric engineer.
And again in a 1969 letter about Maritain's work he repeats this assertion:
Have just read Maritain's The Peasant of the Garonne . 100% right as far as he goes. He is totally ignorant of the new electric environment as creating the world before which misguided Christians kneel. This strictly Luciferian product is ethereal and a a highly plausible mock-up of the mystical body. - (Letter to John W. Mole)
The new electric environment, far from being the framework for the restored mystical body, is only a "reasonable facsimile," a "highly plausible mock-up," an Antichrist counterfeit of the same. What would liberate us, now fully ensnares and enslaves. The "great master of the media" is not the Redeemer, but he who would prevent redemption.
There is no harm in reminding ourselves from time to time that the "Prince of this World" is a great P.R. man, a great salesman of new hardware and software, a great electrical engineer, and a great master of the media. It is His master stroke to be not only environmental but invisible, for the environment is invincibly persuasive when ignored. -- (Letter to Robert J. Leuver)
McLuhan's tireless promotion of media literacy, therefore, must always be viewed in this light. It is only through total awareness of the process of perception, and its extension through the electronic media ecology, that we are able to participate in the unfolding Incarnation. What is ignored becomes invisible, and what is invisible becomes all-pervasive and invincible.
In a short essay from 1954, the same year that he presented his lecture on "Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters," McLuhan narrows in on the ideas of John Lindberg of the U.N. Lindberg, like all such social engineers -- acolytes of the "great electric engineer" -- is obsessed with the problem of world control. We require new gods to direct and guide us in this unprecedented and groundless world.
The revolutionary situation which faces us would appear to have suggested to Lindberg that the man-made machine is the new universe for the making of gods. And whereas the machine of nature made whatever gods it chose, the machines of man have abolished Nature and enable us to make whatever gods we choose. Perhaps a better way to say this would be to suggest that modern technology is so comprehensive that it has abolished Nature. The order of the demonic has yielded to the order of art. -- "The God-making Machines of the Modern World"
Modern technology, therefore, and especially modern media technology, is to be hijacked, is to be tweaked in accordance with the insights on the processes of cognition and perception -- as revealed in Poe through to Joyce -- for the production of gods. And the tasks of these new deities is clear; to unify the globe under a new "benign" consensus of centralized command.
If we can discover by observation of many societies past and present the principle of creativity in morals, we shall have the master-clue to all future government of huge inter-cultural associations of men.
McLuhan's focus on the media, therefore, has always had this dual emphasis. The world-spanning electric media environment is simultaneously the mystical body of the Incarnation and its Antichrist counterfeit. Both are present in uneasy coexistence. And in McLuhan's worldview, vast conspiracies are ever in play in order to affect a final unambiguous outcome.
To Hell With East And West
In 1988, Donald Theall, a close student of McLuhan's, wrote a fascinating essay on this very overlooked aspect of his mentor's thought. Theall explains:
Like the generation of artists among whom he matured, McLuhan was deeply interested in magic, alchemy, occult belief and mystery religions. His own commitment went further, since he also firmly believed that the "secret" tradition with which they were associated had an immediate and important historical impact.
Through examination of McLuhan's letters, and primarily to those sent to Ezra Pound and his former student Walter Ong, his belief in the existence of a global occult conspiracy is made explicit.
Put simply, he believed in a conspiracy theory of current history in which secret societies societies, possessing a hidden knowledge of secret doctrines, manipulated the intellectual and political life of the world.
These letters to Pound and Ong have also been published in The Medium and the Light -- a text whose primary purpose appears to be the revelation of precisely this neglected side of McLuhan's worldview. His letter to Ezra Pound from February 1953, while Pound was incarcerated at St. Elizabeths in Washington D.C., is particularly fascinating and worth reproducing in full:
Last year has been spent in going through rituals of secret societies with fine comb. As I said before I'm in a bloody rage at the discovery that the arts and sciences are in the pockets of these societies. It doesn't make me any happier to know that Joyce, Lewis, Eliot, yourself have used these rituals as a basis for art activity.
Monopolies of knowledge are intolerable
The use of the arts for sectarian warfare! ugh.
The use of the arts as a technique for salvation!
as a channel of supernatural grace!
The validity of the rituals is entirely in the cognitive order.
Art is imitation of the process of apprehension.
clarification of " " "
Now that I know the nature of the sectarian strife among the Societies I have no intention of participating in it any further, until I know a good deal more. To hell with East and West. - McLuhan
A number of important points jump out from this letter. The first is McLuhan's realization that the arts and sciences are being directed in secret by esoteric societies. Second, is his accusation that Pound, Joyce, Lewis and Eliot have used the rituals of these societies "as a basis for art activity." Third, that the arts can be used for both "sectarian warfare" and as "a technique for salvation." Fourth, that art imitates and clarifies the process of perception/apprehension. Fifth -- and incredibly tantalizing -- is that the societies themselves are engaged in sectarian strife.
And finally is the very fact that the letter was sent to Ezra Pound, the poet himself under lockdown in a federal "bughouse" largely for, in bungling and xenophobic radio diatribes, trying to expose an international conspiracy of usury which he viewed was opposed to an equally powerful "conspiracy of intelligence" that he also called Eleusis. An incredible array of paradigm shattering thought-bombs converge in this short letter.
In both Eric McLuhan's editorial comment to this letter and in Theall's discussion in his essay, there is mention of McLuhan's literal belief in a "freemasonry of the arts." What McLuhan means by this may get to the core of his entire project. McLuhan, now widely accused as being an arch-conspirator, is blowing the lid off the conspiracy.
The ambiguity, the mirroring, is too much. Christ and Antichrist, warring brothers, chase each other round and round the Tree, blurred and indistinguishable. The global village becomes a global gulag. Our ordinary perception seamlessly and continuously transforms the abyss into paradise and back again. Both mocked-up and mystical, our electronic extensions both strangle and embrace. What has been incarnated? What has been resolved? There is far deeper to go.