Marshall McLuhan 1968 – The End of Polite Society
The ‘fact that Christianity began in Greco-Roman culture really is of enormous significance’ for McLuhan who ‘discovered fairly soon that a thing has to be tested on its terms’. Eric Havelock explains that it was the greek medium of the phonetic alphabet that made it possible for ‘men to have for the first time in human history a sense of private identity. A sense of private substantial identity – a self – is to this day utterly unknown to tribal society.’ In this sense McLuhan argue that under Ghengis Khan Christianity could have become what it is now. A centralized, bureaucratic institution with little awareness about the way technology it employs shapes its characteristics.Literacy in Traditional Societies edited by Jack Goody ‘shows not the slightest awareness that the many non-phonetic forms of literacy have no civilizing effects whatever. Civilization is a technical event. There is no other alphabet that has the effect of upgrading the visual powers at the expense of all the other senses. It is the dominance of the visual faculty that creates civilized values.’ McLuhan explains that ‘Havelock was the person who explored the fact that the private individual person was in fact an artifact, or development, from the technology of the phonetic alphabet’ and less an ‘inevitable aspect of the human condition’.
Christians, however, have a peculiar war to fight which concerns their identity. The Christian feels the downward mania of the earth and its treasures, and is just as inclined to conform his sensibilities to man-made environments as anyone else. When the secular man senses a new technology is offering a threat to his hard-won human image of self-identity, he struggles to escape from this new pressure. When a community is threatened in its image of itself by rivals or neighbors, it goes to war. Any technology that weakens a conventional identity image creates a response of panic and rage which we call “war”. Heinrich Hertz, the inventor of radio, put the matter very briefly: “The consequence of the image will be the image of the consequences.”
When the identity image which we enjoy is shattered by new technological environments or by invaders of our lives who possess new weaponry, we lash back first by acquiring their weaponry and then by using it. What we ignore is that in acquiring their weaponry we also destroy our former identity. That is, we create new sensory environements which ‘scrub’ our old images of ourselves. Thus war is not only education but also a means of accelerated social evolution. It is these changes that only the Christian can afford to laugh at.
The ‘body of Christ’ is the mental landscape for a Christian for whom faith, as a way of knowing, operates in the realm of percepts, not that of concepts. ‘It is a mode of spiritual awareness and knowing, as acute and as real as vision, touch, smell, hearing. . but a spiritual rather than a bodily sense’. Nobody needs to tell oneself to smell, if you smell something you know that you do it. And the same is true for the faith. In Nietsche’s phrase ‘god is dead’ he interprets ‘that the Incarnation was His death because He became visible. Now in the non-visual time, the visual alienates them… the God who is dead, of course, is the Newtonian God, the visual image of a visually-organized cosmos. With the dethronement of the visual sense by the audile-tactile media of radio and TV, religion, or the relating to the divine, can no longer have a primarily visual bias. The present irrelevance of our political and educational establishments stems from the same situation. God, of course, is not involved in any of this.’
The foundations of social survival are, however, to be found in a switch from reason to passion, from fear to love. And the possibility of the switchover resides in our capacity today to discover the creative dynamics of norm-making. Norm, the region of passion and flux, was no basis for any past city. But norm seen as a produce of an individual and collective creative activity may be a clue to a new social dynamics.
Its a good book with material relating Mcluhan to his complex relationship with the Christian faith. A blog that talks about it is helpful but the best recipe is to read the whole book. It relates also Mcluhan with memetics in which I am interested in. The impact of Mass Media on the Church is a fairly recent doctoral thesis from a polish clerk Father Dariusz Gronowski. If anyone reads my lines and has a copy in english, drop me a line.