Matthew Furlong wrote the following about chapters 4-7:
These four chapters conclude our reading of Understanding Media Part I, in which McLuhan lays out the basic concepts that guide the reader through his analysis of particular media studies. In them we find an account of “Narcissus narcosis,” the general condition of being subjected to our own extensions without being aware of that subjection. Following that account, we find two chapters about the possibility of escaping Narcissus-narcosis through the media themselves, and one final chapter concerning the challenges we face in this transitional time of literal-visual culture meeting its future in the form of electric media.
4: “The Gadget-lover: Narcissus as narcosis”
Drawing on the Greek myth of Narcissus, who becomes transfixed his reflection in a pool of whatever, unaware that that image is an extension of himself, McLuhan describes as akin to Narcissus’ condition our own condition of, through a narcotic numbness, misrecognizing the extensions of ourselves as wholly other entities.
Every extension of ourselves, he argues, emerges as the functional amputation of what we extend. For example: the wheel, which functionally extends the foot, functionally amputates the foot with respect to the tasks which most overburden the latter. McLuhan offers the accelerated/accelerating processes of money- and document-exchanging as examples of increasingly intolerable burdens on the foot.
It’s worth drawing from McLuhan’s example the hypothesis that the auto-amputative operation of media, such as the wheel, effects Narcissus narcosis at least partly in the way that the new extension is automatically drawn into other media-processes. By this I mean that the wheel, in its involvement in the automobile for example, ceases to appear to us as an extension of ourselves, and starts to appear as an alien agent to which we must submit, insofar as it is tangled up in other processes whose dominating effects on us forced the new media’s emergence in the first place. The n-hour automobile commute that defines so much of North American life, iconized by Los Angeles gridlock, is a perfect example of what I think McLuhan means here.
In other words: when we become dominated by our own extensions, we become what McLuhan calls their servo-mechanisms. As McLuhan points out earlier in the book, we extend ourselves as a control-strategy: technologies are attempts to grapple with our environments and to sustain a sort of homeostasis in relation to those environments. The concept of Narcissus narcosis indicates that the price we pay is a loss of control in relation to our own strategies of control.
And it seems as though the greatest loss of control we suffer has to do with our awareness of the situation itself. Narcissus narcosis is the process and the effect in which, by which, we “accept these extensions of ourselves into our personal system and … undergo the ‘closure’ or displacement of perception that follows automatically” (Understanding Media, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994, page 46).
However, McLuhan finds a possible source of hope in the emergence of electric media themselves: he ties to them the fact that the twentieth century is the age of “consciousness of the unconscious”. His hope is that we can turn this consciousness of the unconscious back on its own wellspring, electric media, and break the Narcissist stupor.
5: “Hybrid Energy: Les Liaisons Dangereuses”
McLuhan begins by summarizing the content of Chapter 4. “It is now been explained,” he writes, “that media, or the extensions of man, are ‘make happen’ agents but not ‘make aware’ agents” (48). Yet “the hybridizing or compounding of these agents offers an especially favorable opportunity to notice their structural components and properties” (49), which can help make us aware of our situation. Following up on his implicit suggestion in Chapter 4 that media emerge and are taken up in relation to other media, as strategies for accommodating the overwhelming effects of other media (wheel—commerce/government, e.g.), McLuhan argues that each medium has at least one correlate, with the exception of light: “except for light, all other media come in pairs, with one acting as the ‘content’ of the other, obscuring the operation of both” (52).
All media, except for light, emerge as meetings of media. “What I am saying,” he says, “is that media as extensions of our senses institute new ratios, not only among our private senses, but among themselves, when they interact among themselves” (53, italics mine). Thus he concludes the chapter by saying that the “moment of the meeting of media is a moment of freedom and release from the ordinary trance and numbness imposed by them on our senses” (55).
The question is: how?
He offers some specific examples. James Joyce’s Ulysses, which deploys a mythic “Greek” resonance in its depiction of everyday life in 1920s Dublin, unsettlingly re-oralizes/auralizes linear “secular” life. Likewise, McLuhan’s reference earlier in the book to Cubist art shows how painting, which intensified the private point of view by perfecting the representation of perspective, can re-adjust our sense-ratio by representing the total perceptual involvement implied and induced by electric media.
Here I think it’s worth referring back to McLuhan’s early claim in the book that media alter space-time arrangements in our senses and in our actual activities: sense-ratios, stripped of their particular characters, are essentially space-time arrangements. The key to understanding how hybrid energy can break Narcissus narcosis lies in understanding how media-hybridity implies multiple space-time sensibilities at once. For example, when cinema speeds up mechanical processes to the point that it can break free of imagery whose logic resembles that of the film-process itself—a sequence of isolated frames moving past us in a linear manner—the limits of mechanism stand a chance of being exposed. Mechanical logic itself is laid bare before us for what it is; no longer a semi-concealed horizon, its own self-surpassing makes it for us an object of possible understanding and intervention. For McLuhan this doesn’t depend as much on solitary artistic geniuses who disclose the truth about the world for us, but rather “by a simple adjustment of situations from one culture in hybrid form with those of another” (55).
Thus, McLuhan praises and prioritizes art and artists—in the “scientific” and “humanistic” fields, as he says in Chapter 7, p. 65—as those who seem best able to draw out hybrid energies, to make them perceptible, and to alert the rest of about the Narcissist spell that turns us into servo-mechanisms of media. That is, if new media are counter-irritants that conceal themselves within us and without us, then art can provide counter-counter-irritants; elsewhere, McLuhan calls artistic creations “counter-environments”.
6: “Media as Translators”
Like Chapter 5, this chapter is what I’d call a “possibility” chapter, or an “appraisal” chapter. As with the issue of hybrid media, McLuhan finds in the translating powers of media a weapon against Narcissus narcosis. What does it mean to say that media “translate”? They translate one kind of knowledge into another: translating is “a ‘spelling-out’ of forms of knowing. What we call ‘mechanization’ is a translation of nature, and of our own natures, into amplified and specialized forms” (56).
As with hybridity, this translating operation includes the Narcissist danger, but McLuhan finds in electric media a vehicle of hope: “man must serve his electric technology with the same servo-mechanistic fidelity with which he served his coracle, his canoe, his typography, and all other extensions of his physical organs. But there is this difference, that previous technologies were partial and fragmentary, and the electric is total and inclusive. An external consensus or conscience is now as necessary as private consciousness” (57-58).
How does the inclusiveness of electric media provide an opportunity to escape narcosis? We have already seen the work that art can do; here, I think McLuhan finds electric media’s capacity “to store and translate everything” (58) comprehensively and at quasi-infinite speed to be quite advantageous. For example, with the advent of electric media, we now have the ability to process and store all the documents and artifacts of sense-ratios prior to, and adjacent to, our own. Moreover, they are in principle available to anyone to be compared and contrasted; that is, to be translated objects and translating agents. “Under electric technology the entire business of man becomes learning and knowing” (58).
How does this radical, global, translatability counter-act Narcissus narcosis? By juxtaposing multiple different sense-ratios in the form of their documentary evidence, which are traces of how they act as causes—”causal traces,” perhaps—electric media from this perspective stand to present sense ratios as such as plastic, flexible arrangements that can be adjusted and transformed. If media, in their capacity as translators, are “active metaphors in their power to translate experience into new forms” (57), and the danger of Narcissus narcosis is the deadening of metaphors, the translation of “metaphorical” meaning into “literal” meaning, then the universal storing-translating power of electric media stands to act as a metaphorical life-support system.
In other words, electric media offers us the opportunity to establish a “common sense”, a new “rationality” (60) concerning sense. This common sense grasps or apprehends (60) the serial and simultaneous coexistence of many different sense ratios that compose different social and psychic arrangements of human life. “[M]ight not,” he wonders, “our current translation of our entire lives into the spiritual form of information seem to make of the entire globe, and of the human family, a single consciousness?” (61).
7: “Challenge and Collapse: The Nemesis of Creativity”
In this chapter McLuhan offers one last hopeful possibility, and indicates the scope of the difficult translation in which we electrically “re-tribalize”. Drawing on his earlier remarks about hybrid energies and their possibilities, McLuhan suggests the highly “literate” technique of the “suspended judgment” as a strategy for slowing down, or staving off, our Narcissist absorption into the new electric sense ratio. The suspended judgment, which consists in analyzing and describing the effects of new media without concluding whether those effects are “good” or “evil” “presents the possibility of rejecting the narcotic and of postponing indefinitely the operation of inserting the new technology in the social psyche” (63).
Simply put, McLuhan holds out hope that we can resist attacking or defending the new media long enough to understand how they transform our sense-ratio. “What we seek today is either a means of controlling these shifts in the sense-ratios of the psychic and social outlook, or a means of avoiding them altogether. To have a disease without its symptoms is to be immune. No society has ever known enough about its actions to have developed immunity to its new extensions or technologies. Today we have begun to sense that art may be able to provide such immunity” (65).
Here again McLuhan praises art for its capacity to shift perceptions, and to act against the Narcissist effect by making us deliberately maladjusted to the latter. “The artist,” he writes, “is the man in any field, scientific or humanistic, who grasps the implications of his actions and of new knowledge in his own time. He is the man of integral awareness … thus he can correct the sense ratios before the blow of new technology has numbed conscious procedures” (65). Thus, in the case of cinema, which can present as iconic images of multiple series of events occurring simultaneously, the artists can make us aware of a difference: the difference between the sense-ratio which we don’t know we’re exiting and the sense-ratio we don’t know we’re entering. When we become aware of that difference, we can begin to consciously explore the complexities and challenges elicited by those sense-ratios colliding.
McLuhan closes the chapter on a slightly ambivalent note. After pointing out with Arnold Toynbee that “‘geographical expansion is often a concomitant of real decline” (71), McLuhan also says that the very vehicle of our civilizational expansion—that is explosive, literate, visual, mechanical technology—offers, even in the midst of decline, the one-thing-at-a-time consciousness necessary to analyze our electrification bit-by-bit, explode and disentangle its various elements, and to expand our understanding of its operation.
- If “media-savvy” here would include training in metaphor, translatability, and artistic perception-practice, how might we consider educating our children? Might such an education, especially in a transitional time such as our own, mitigate social violence and a propensity for certain forms of war, since McLuhan sees forms of violence concomitant to the emergence of new media as an “identity quest”?
- What forms of “art” (in the “scientific” and “humanistic” fields) that group members have encountered and appreciated might count as a “counter-environmental” use of hybrid energy?