Sunday, April 10, 2005

The Hypertrophied Eye

Protestantism is the expression of faith that resulted from changes in consciousness effected by the spread of literacy after Gutenberg. Catholicism is the expression of a faith shaped by a consciousness formed in traditions and customs that have its roots in oral culture. A literate consciousness is one that hears the Word while reading alone. An oral culture hears the Word when it is read aloud and heard in the assembly in the context of a sacramental ritual--the mass--which became meaningless hocus pocus for the modern Protestant sensibility. I'm not talking here about the difference in doctrine between Catholics and Protestants, but about a very fundamental difference in the way each experiences and encounters the Word.

A spoken-word culture shapes minds that easily swim in the world of symbol and mythopoesis. The premodern ear-centered imagination is a far richer than the literal literate mind of moderns. Things change very dramatically when a culture tips toward literacy from orality. It's the difference between whether the ear or the eye is the main organ for processing information that comes to us from the world outside our minds. And this shift from orality to literate consciousness is central in understanding what caused the shift from medieval to modern consciousness. This is Marshall McLuhan's basic thesis, and it's an important one to understand if we're to grasp the significance of what is happening to us at this moment as once again consciousness is being changed by our continuous exposure to electronic media.

There are so many things that can be said about this, but the most important for my purposes here is the way these processes require the hypertrophied eye. Did you ever think that what we mean by doing science is essentially thinking only about what we can see and that the scientific revolution was founded on the development of instruments like the telescope and later the microscope that helped us to see more, and that knowing eventually became equated with seeing. In contrast, knowing in a textless world came from what people heard, from the poets and storytellers, which meant that human knowing by people not less intelligent than us was more metaphorical and analogical. The experience of knowing was different because it was done in very different mode of consciousness than the one we now take for granted as universal.

In the scientific age, the age of seeing, everything that was invisible was thought to be unreal—or merely a matter of subjective opinion. But the effect of this new habit of thought was to render a whole dimension of reality as unreal subjective fantasy even though for preliterates this dimension of reality was as objective as the chair upon which I’m sitting. In other words the invisible dimension of reality was pushed into unconsciousness, and as the mind individuated during the modern era, we came to understand the “unconscious” as a personal, subjective realm rather than as a transpersonal collective one. The "unconscious" means for almost everyone today our individualized personal reservoir from which arise personal thoughts, feelings, and fantasies, and we project back our own experience into the minds of the primitive preliterates as having thoughts, feelings, and fantasies the way we have them. Therefore, moderns think, the mythologies they created are the same thing as moderns writing science fiction--a species of imaginative speculation.

But what has become unconscious for us was conscious, or semi-conscious, for them. They lived in a world that was permeated by the gods. The gods were not in here locked in our individual unconscious minds, but out there animating a world shimmering with their presence. We have just come to think that the poor benighted fools were projecting intrapsychic unconscious content onto the blank screen that was the world around them. They weren't. This is simply the prejudice of a shriveled kind of mind that knows only with its eyes and brain.

Nature, for moderns, became the realm of "common sense,” but it has never been other than a cognitive consensus based on sharing in the heritage of alphabetic literacy. The world became “Newtonized” as mystics like William Blake lamented. The scientific process cast aside traditional lore and authority as steeped in superstition and the irrational, and substituted a new understanding of objectivity which required the freezing of reality by making most of it irrational, i.e., opaque to reason, except its physical husk. The world literate moderns came to live in is more like one of those awkward looking exhibits at local Natural History Museum than the living, buzzing, spiritually animated and soulful world of preliterates. And it is this experience of the world that is at the heart of our allienation and of our longing for something more.

Our cognitive capacities to understand more deeply come from listening and speaking. “Out of the depths I cry out unto you, O Lord.” What depths is the Psalmist speaking of? Music and the spoken word correctly heard engender feeling states that are the precondition for deeper modes of cognition. Music is very important here, and the trivialization of music is linked to our loss of a sense of the sacred and of the "moods" or "modes" of consciousness needed for extraordinary cognitive states. And so insofar as our acoustic sense has atrophied, so has our capacity for cognitive depth. What passes for deep thinking is just complex thinking, which comes from complex seeing, analytical seeing, decontextualized seeing, abstract seeing.

So I would argue, then, that Marshall McLuhan was one of the most important Catholic thinkers of the 20th Century. For him understanding the shift from orality to literacy was central to his understanding about how the modern mind is programmed, and his ideas about how the mind is being even now reprogrammed by electronic media is a major driver that is bringing us into a post-modern, post-literate world.

This is really the meaning behind McLuhan's idea of how society is becoming tribal. He didn't mean by this Balkanized or fragmented; 'tribal' was a positive word for him, and he didn't mean it as a regressive movement. He meant it as a way of describing a social connectedness that was lost during the modern era. The point bears repeating: post-literate doesn't mean a regression to preliterate, as it is commonly supposed. But reading and the eye will no longer remain virtually the exclusive means through which we obtain and process information. The goal is to return to a broader, more balanced cognitive capacity that will allow for a more ready acceptance of objective realities that are “unseen.”

McLuhan's point is that the human being in becoming literate paid a price by throwing off what had been a more balanced ratio among the senses. The hypertrophied visual man lives in a kind of estrangement from the world around him in a way that was not the experience of the preliterate, acoustic man. Modernity and its eye centeredness created the conditions for the possibility of individualism and critical reflection, but it also led to the gradual disenchantment of the world which became reified, Hamlet's sterile promontory, a thing over against which we become aware of our own subjectivity, but which in itself lost its numinous character. Yes, we developed a capacity to see with our physical eyes more accurately—but we see only the surfaces of things, and as a result our ability to cognize a richer kind of multidimensional reality has severely atrophied.

Electronic media is changing us profoundly, but these changes are gradual just as the shift from oral to literate did not change humans very quickly. Literates until recently lived in a world in which most people were still illiterate, and the oral world still flourished in the rural areas, and the oral culture preserved there was an endless source of material and inspiration for the literate artists of the last two or three centuries. But as literacy has become almost universal and along with that the rural world withers as it technologizes, another way has to be found to break out of the literate straitjacket so many have come to assume is the sole basis for our civilized life.

I feel very ambivalently about technolgoical civilization, because it's not at all clear that the changes that come are an unambiguous good. So the question here, as elsewhere, is who's in the driver's seat--the serpent or the dove? (Matt 10.16) If it's the serpent, we're likely to evolve into a race of cyborgs. But if the dove is driving or at least influences the direction evolution will be taking in the future, something else is possible.

And so if there is one point I hope I’ve made so far it's that being literate is not the goal of the evolution of consciousness; it’s just a stage. And whatever anxiety we may understandably feel about the unknown terrain to be navigated ahead, we need to trust that we will have the resources to find our way. These technologies cannot be feared, they must be mastered and used for transformative purposes. And the one rudimentary resource we have to achieve that now at this point is conscience--Protestantism's bequeathal to the future, which is the way the serpent part of us searches out and listens for the prompting of the dove part.