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A Book Review . . . Discarnate Man And The Incarnate Church

May 20, 2020 Featured Today No Comments


Marshall McLuhan, The Medium and the Light: Reflections on Religion. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock; 1999. Edited by Eric McLuhan and Jacek Szklarek.

Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980) has long been known as one of the twentieth century’s most significant media analysts. At least since the publication of The Mechanical Bride (1951), he has been remembered popularly for the issuance of pithy, sometimes gnomic catch-phrases such as: “the medium is the message,” or that media change is “a kind of massacre of the innocents,” or that “electronic technology does not need words any more than the digital computer needs numbers,” or that “education is ideally civil defense against media fallout,” or that “skepticism is the very form of written culture,” or that “the uttermost purity of mind is no defense against bacteria.”
What is not as generally known is that McLuhan was a Catholic convert, and that, during much of his life he was a daily communicant. The author’s son, Eric, does a good job of introducing us to the central role that Catholicism played in his father’s life.
The conversion — though in some fashion worked through by a long period of study and delight in which Thomas Aquinas and G.K. Chesterton (particularly the latter’s What’s Wrong With the World and Orthodoxy) were particularly important — was a peculiar one, however. He came in on his knees, he said, and suggested that this was the only genuine way to enter. Despite his long period of preparation his moment of formal conversion came suddenly, and inexplicably.
In an essay reflecting on the matter in 1970, McLuhan wrote: “I never had any need for religion, any personal or emotional crisis. I simply wanted to know what was true and I was told. . . .”
“By the way,” he added, “faith is not a matter of concepts; it’s percepts, a matter of immediate reality.” He was “. . . a Thomist for whom the sensory order [i.e., the world] resonates with the Divine Logos. I don’t think that concepts have any relevance in religion. Analogy is not a concept, it is resonance. It is inclusive. It is the cognitive process itself.”
In an interview given the same year (1970) he would claim that theology, insofar as it is theorizing, is merely “one of the ‘games people play’.” It can be done with any religion.
The contents of McLuhan’s work in this volume are not arranged chronologically, but topically. Part I (which opens with a delightful essay on Chesterton) contains material concerning his conversion. Part II is focused on “The Church’s Understanding of Media,” Part III on “Vatican II, Liturgy, and the Media,” and Part IV on “Tomorrow’s Church.” Before concerning ourselves with the “content” of these parts, however, it may be important to say something about McLuhan’s “style,” his “form.”
In evaluating his work it important to keep in mind that McLuhan claimed to be nonjudgmental. He did so on the grounds that judgment, or certainly pre-judgment, got in the way of observation and analysis. Yet he surely appears to be passing judgments all the time. Perhaps some distinctions are necessary here.
He simply avoided moral or esthetic judgments on the contents of media — their matter and sequencing. Such judgments would have gotten in the way of his observation and analysis of the media themselves. His son points out also that McLuhan proceeded to his analyses via formal causes.
And media were, in these analyses, formal causes. Elsewhere McLuhan insisted that these formal causes shaped, rearranged the synesthetic balance of the human mind, or changed the proportions, the ratio, of the psyche, regardless of their content.
They worked their way the more they were not attended to. In one classic sentence McLuhan contended that the content of a medium “is like the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind” (Understanding Media, p. 18).
One might think that McLuhan’s practical endorsement of one medium, the written (or printed) word (e.g., by publishing his analyses in books, essays, subsequently printed talks and interviews), is a betrayal of this principle. He is in fact heavily aware of just what the printed word as a medium means, however.
For a classic instance of analysis of just what the printed word does as printed word, and regardless of content, McLuhan takes us back to an episode presented by Plato, in the Phaedrus. Therein Socrates reminds his hearers of the Egyptian story about the supposed blessings of the introduction of writing by the god Theuth to King Thamus (Ammon). Thamus, nevertheless, points out that whatever the benefits may be, men will become forgetful thereby as memory atrophies.
As “prerogative instances” of McLuhan’s suffused contention that the Church was not all that sophisticated in its awareness of the consequences of media as such, two episodes from Part II (“The Church’s Understanding of Media”) and Part III (“Vatican II, Liturgy, and the Media”) might be appropriate.
In an interview in 1970, for instance, he insisted that television had scrubbed the private identities of the young and exchanged these for tribal involvement. This exchange was “one of the crosses of our time.”
In the same interview he continued: “If there is no such thing as a private individual because of our electric culture of total involvement, then the question of life after death becomes irrelevant.” And, finally: “Christianity definitely supports the idea of a private, independent, metaphysical substance of the self. Where the technologies supply no cultural basis for this individual, then Christianity is in for trouble. When you have a new tribal culture confronting an individualist religion, there is trouble.”
Christianity may be less individualist and more corporate than McLuhan perceives, as much of Greek Orthodoxy might suggest, as well as more willful exercises of forms of existentialism. One might have thought that McLuhan’s devotion to the Fathers of the Early Church (his son notes that his father worked assiduously in his 24-volume set of the Ante-Nicene Fathers) would balance off the rigors of his Aristotelian-Thomism. Yet his emphasis on individualism as the charism of the modern Western Church may well be correct.
The second instance is perhaps easier to come to terms with. In the initial essay in Part III McLuhan focuses on the role played by the microphone and systems of amplification on the reform of the Latin Mass. With the microphone, the celebrant is everywhere at once, and the everybodies who are everywhere do not take well to mumbled words in a strange tongue.
When the celebrant and the servers were the only ones who could hear what was said, the language involved could have been Swahili. Now, the acoustics having been changed, an obvious premium is put on the vernacular. McLuhan also notes that the now-dominant celebratory mode “‘obsolesces’ the architecture of our existing churches.”
Part IV (“Tomorrow’s Church”) provides some further provocative instances of how formal causes, forms, act in a fashion that might be called ex opere operato. This phrase, canonically set in distinction from its congener ex opere operantis at the Council of Trent, was used to distinguish the manner by which the sacraments worked.
“The work” (i.e., the sacrament) works itself at a very basic level deeper than any psychological or other attributable quality of the soul, though the fullest action of grace depends in some manner on the subjective attitudes of recipient and minister (opere operantis).
It has often seemed to me that this designation and distinction, which McLuhan was certainly aware of, could have been of use to him in distinguishing the functioning of the medium from that of the message. I cannot recall, however, that he ever used it. There may be good reasons for this omission, of course, or I may have missed its application.
A central essay in Part IV is that titled “Wyndham Lewis: Lemuel in Lilliput,” originally given as an address to students at St. Louis University in 1944. Lewis is called “the least provincial intelligence which has been in England since St. Thomas More.” McLuhan uses him and his works as a launching pad into the troubling space of the machine-fashioned, science-dominated, world of human alienation and “mystical mass doctrine” of the twentieth century.
The destruction of the family partly by means of the meretricious “elevation” of women into the ranks of “the employed” here is a significant step toward our brave new world where there are no men, women, and children, but only workers, in a workers’ paradise.
McLuhan, via Lewis, cites Proudhon as having written (well over 150 years ago) that the family had to go because, in an industrial society, it was simply too expensive an institution. The concept of “woman” is also too great a luxury to survive, while our obsession with childhood is simply the result of the decay of parenthood.
“So there is no longer any family, in one sense: There is now only a collection of children, differing in age but in nothing else. The last vestige of the patria potestas has been extirpated” (Lewis, cited by McLuhan).

An Opportunity To Meditate

Our current perverse perspective in which only the plague seems real and almost everything else merely virtual offers us an opportunity to reflect sharply on the broader phenomenon McLuhan describes as “this electronic age of discarnate togetherness” (in “Liturgy and Media,” 1973).
In 1999, at the end of his “Introduction,” Eric McLuhan noted that twenty years earlier his father was preparing to give a talk (in the fall of 1979) on “Discarnate Man and the Incarnate Church.” Soon before giving the talk his father had a stroke that took away his power of speech. Eric McLuhan invites us to piece together from the articles in this volume the talk that his father never gave.
What a rare opportunity we physically isolated, virtual attendees at Mass have to do so, and to meditate on the pregnant phrase: “Discarnate Man and the Incarnate Church”!

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