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Fragmentation of the self.
The changing perception of the self is downstream of the printing press.
Fragmentation by the book
Here is how the story usually goes.
The defining feature of the Western Enlightenment subject is radical individualism. He suffers from a social disconnect. His individualism can go two ways. Western man either deludes himself grandiosely into considering himself self-made, or in the negative sense, suffers from radical alienation. That is the basic problem as rendered in critical terms.
The primary reason given for this radical individualism derives from the intensification of the “division of labour” which began its gradual uptick at the dawn of Europe’s 17th century. All of the most important social theories throughout and about this period focus on this division of labour, or specialization. Adam Smith points out that ten people, working serially, each performing a single stage in the production of a pin (cutting the wire, grinding the tip, etc.) can produce a thousand-fold more pin a day than ten people each performing all the steps in parallel on their own pins. A pin-maker, then, reducing their role to only one part of pin-making, becomes one-tenth a pin-maker. Work becomes meaningless on any large scale because man’s job becomes a trivial abstraction. The results of his labour are so detached from his role in the total process that he feels totally unrelated to it. He can’t own the end product because he has no expert knowledge of the total product. He can only master some rudimentary, arbitrary task that anyone else could easily do. He is replaceable and anonymous. A cog in the machine.
In fact, economic theorists then proceed to explain that modern machinery itself, in all its complexity, derives from this same division of labour. People became parts in the process, and each part, once parcelled out of a total craft, can be individually mechanized. Piece by piece, each human optimizes their part of the total work into movements so optimized that some gadget could be installed there instead, without disruption to the other workers. One at a time, each human in the chain is methodically plucked out and replaced.
One example might be the retail store: Yesterday, it was the cashiers tallying up the goods for retail sale who were plucked out of the system, and tomorrow it will be the truck drivers who deliver them to the loading dock. But the retail system itself remains in operation and survives in its identity across each change.
Inverting this view from the social system at large to the subjectivity of each person, then, it is said that Western Man became equally fragmentary in mind. The world within which he lives is broken up into pieces he can only discontinuously visit. The scenes within which life is lived are out of order or sensible relation, and he makes do the best he can in this state of affairs by merely managing his emotional state and coping enough to carry on.
Knowledge of the whole, either the whole individual identity or the whole social world (two ways to the same thing), is out of reach. While he would logically assume that all the parts of his life would collectively amount to its whole, it seems nevertheless that he can never properly sum all these parts to produce it. Each man lives in his own private world, his facets tumbling like shards of glass in a kaleidoscope.
No wonder, then, his uncertain relation to others. The endless division of work in the many processes comprising civilization results, then, in divided selfhood.
Fragmentation, as told by Marshall McLuhan
That unassimilable weirdo Marshall McLuhan decided that this explanation wasn’t good enough.
I mean, it sounds pretty good to me, and it sounds pretty good to pretty much every sociologist and economist and historian and psychologist who’s ever contemplated or actively studied the matter. No matter. Something else had to be going on beneath all that which nobody but him was paying attention to.
One way into his dissenting thesis on the causes of individuality was his own individuality.
He was, I repeat, unassimilable. He just would not melt into group or collective consciousness. The guy just absolutely could not lose himself. Why? Because he was too good with his words.
McLuhan studied language in both its most baroque and eloquent and in its rawest, most base vernacular forms. He studied how the authors of great literature went about studying their own culture, writing down snippets of living discourse. He studied rhetoric and grammar and dialectic, and how the teaching of these subjects survived through the rises and declines of Western history’s many empires. He studied sermons and poems and journals and political pamphlets on the most mundane and parochial of issues throughout thousands of years of life.
Upon first read of a poem, McLuhan’s mind visualized the camera of the poet’s mind eye, and he tracked its racks and zooms and pans across the landscapes of reality and the mind. The musicality of the rhythms and rhymes were like genres to his ear, minutely classifiable and detailed like notes scored on a clef.
Its primary and secondary and tertiary plots touched and tumbled through their relations and allusions and references, painting with the very paint of encyclopedic cultural knowledge a new unity.
McLuhan’s much-ignored literary criticism demonstrates amply McLuhan’s masterful awareness of the true power of language. He demonstrates over and over the techniques by which history’s most celebrated wordsmiths reached into the world and its history, and into the mind and its depths, and released energies by rubbing together and ripping apart the fabric of each.
So, when he’s sitting in a classroom or a staff meeting or a conference hall and listening to what is being said, he’s not going to not be having thoughts about what’s being said.
And how it's being said. And how appropriately decorous that how-it-is-being-said is. And who said it better, or worse, in every other case he’s encountered in reading when what was being said was said. And in what other analogous situations what is being said might also be said with a minutest of adjustment. And whether, implicit in what is being said, lay some rigid conceptual or ideological schema circumscribing the possibilities of what might be reasoned out of what is being said. And, thus, what might be said in turn to explode any such rigid schema and befuddle the speaker and audience so circumscribed.
We all know a banger quip when we hear one. We always wish we had said it.
Hot takes are the currency of pop culture, whether on Twitter, or television panels. Everyone is going along with a line of thinking and then, boom, some smart-ass blows up the whole system upon which the conversation was premised, and leaves jaws dropped and eyes popped. Self-awareness is painfully forced onto the naive, and the audience wallows and hoots in delectable sympathy.
Insults and burns are the cheapest forms of hot takes—everyone is, after all, a hypocrite and, for want of an actual point, hypocrisy can always, always be pointed out somehow by enlarging the scope of a conversation to rope in a damning contradiction.
The insult may be an unavoidable result of disagreement or correction, but when it is itself the desired result, we have little reason to be impressed. Much more impressive is to express one’s dissent eloquently enough to avoid an insult. I like to believe that you can always leave someone sheepish or humbled in a way they’ll thank you for. Words are so dynamic, so potential in their infinite combinations, that there are always, always, the perfect words. Rhetoric is the discipline of training one's ability to find those words, to pluck them out of any situation you might be in.
That is the heart of individualism for McLuhan. Human individuality is a function of the felicity of language, and the powers of language to both bind groups of people within collective solidarity and, on the contrary, to liberate individuals from those binds.
When we speak with one another, we create a situation we both subjectively share. As embodied beings, we turn the room or the world we cohabit into a space between our minds, and our gestures and words work together to maintain that space that transcends each of us. And just as easily we can sever or disrupt or change that space, and thus each other, by our gestural and verbal manipulations.
Returning to our ten tenth-of-a-pin-makers, each shares a portion of the pin in its stages toward completion and could together restore the commonality of the space they work within around that pin as a whole. As a lynchpin, as it were. To sit in a room with an interior decorator, or a carpenter, or an architect is to enter a new view of that room from their expert eyes. Why a window faces east, or whether the window is straight or well insulated or well-dressed are all different specialist facets, different layers of the same object. It takes a well-developed ability to speak to paint these shared scenes, however.
The various technical terms and concepts of our hyperspecialization present massive barriers to that communication, however. Everything must be explained. There is always so much preamble and defining of terms and half-decent analogies to overcome. But as with anything else, practice makes perfect. And when the flashes of real connection start sparking off, it becomes addicting. A reason for being, even.
McLuhan once quipped, “Communication of the new may be miraculous, but it’s not impossible.”
Owing to the fragmentation of society today, it is the duty of every man and woman who knows something and is half-decent at explaining it to become a miracle worker.
A Material Basis
If you haven’t already thought of the biblical Tower of Babel by now, shame on you. You’ve got a lot of work to do in either building up a bare minimum of cultural knowledge or developing your faculties for associational or analogical perception. While there are many reasons for taking the deep study of religion seriously, the centrality of religion in precisely addressing the issue we are considering here, that of the individual and the group, is paramount in-and-of itself.
It was Gutenberg’s mass-produced Bible, the product of Europe’s first movable-type printing press, which splintered much of the Catholic Church into centuries of protesting factions. It’s worth noting what happened: Mechanized production broke a physical object, a book full of profound and holy words, out of its internment within the cloistered spaces of social governance and regulation. Out in the world, the Bible could become a kernel or nexus of new organizations, about which people could individuate from the church as they grew together in new religious sects.
Two hundred years before the founding fathers of the United States of America constituted their great republic upon the rock of extremely wordy legal documents, the proliferation of print ripped through the social fabric like free radicals tearing up bio-cellular structures. Two thousand years prior, the Greeks had transformed their culture from a foundation on the oral poetry of Homer to the philosophical texts of the Socratics.
It is shouted from every rooftop today that we humans are creatures of story. We live in a world of narratives. Wrong. We live in a world of words. We started in a world of words we spoke, and we’ve radically changed our world every time we developed a new relation to words captured out of the air and put into symbols. We’ve developed ideographic forms and syllabaries and alphabets, and we’ve carved on stone and papyrus and paper and in lights in the sky and pulses in a wire.
We’ve used words to describe processes, and we’ve broken those texts into sections, and we’ve broken our world as we’ve turned these pages of texts into discrete lists of concepts. We’ve conceptualized everything. We’ve measured things, writing those measures down and rendering them in grids and tables and graphs. We’ve learned to describe things in our environment as though we’ve made those tables and graphs, even if we haven’t made them! We’ve entered shared spaces based on concepts in common. And concepts in common grew out of books in common. And books in common grew out of the mass production of books about which people could commune.
The history of language, and of our division and fragmentation is thus entirely material.
McLuhan’s media ecology is the most materialist perspective you could ever want. Even concepts and thoughts have material form in the way we put words onto paper. From this view, all abstractions lead back to ground. The medium is the message.
McLuhan was so devout in his faith that he attended Mass daily. So, it’s worth contemplating how it is that so materialist a theory could come from a man like Marshall McLuhan.
…he was an individual because he could read books without speaking them aloud for others to hear. He needed a quiet place to read by himself. He found solitude to do so.
Handwriting was often sounded out slowly because it was hard to read quickly. Silent reading with the perfect letter-forms of print allowed for reading faster than lips could move: silent reading and the silent inner voice grew from this. The Western individual is an individual long before the division of labour became the norm: he was an individual because he could read books without speaking them aloud for others to hear. He needed a quiet place to read by himself. He found solitude to do so.
In the solitude of the mind capable of silent reading, romanticism could bloom. The contemplation of dreams and sensuousness that only the finest of words could capture provided relief to an ever-disenchanted, mechanized world. The cold logic of daily living, in contrast with the flights of imagination and striving for escape within Romantic art were mirrored in the new, growing fracture between science and art, mind and heart, machine and man. The battle to heal the divides was uphill, using words to weave back together what had been separated. Divergencies and specialisms multiplied faster than new unities with every innovation, and commercial interests developed their own art—advertising—to capitalize on every symptom.
Artists sold out, and the language of the market asserted itself as a primary frame for social existence.
One aspect which defines McLuhan’s trend-bucking tendency is his demarcation of the Electric Age from the preceding Gutenberg Age.
That is, he declared the world constituted by mechanical manufacturing as having ended with the growth of the telegraph in the mid-19th century.
To say that the world isn’t constituted by mechanism isn’t to say that the mechanism have gone away. It’s only to say that the mechanisms were once the unacknowledged basis of social change, and now they have been one-upped by a new, more base material form. The environment of physical mechanisms has been surrounded and encapsulated to be controlled by an even baser force.
Electromagnetism is instantaneous in its effects, unlike physical objects which must travel continuously through space. A copper wire laid across the ocean floor changes its charge state across its entire length all at once. Even the most intensile cord or chain takes time to propagate force across its length, and weight and friction get in the way. No bell on a string, regardless of its construction, can compete with the ability to propagate an invisible energy wave through the universe at light speed. Maybe that seems too obvious to state, but what McLuhan does with this technological inflection point differentiates him from nearly any other person considering the nature of individualism, fragmentation, and communication.
The thesis of McLuhan’s first book The Mechanical Bride was quickly abandoned when he cottoned on to media theory. The metaphor that humanity was being mechanized by its machinery was a totally old story. No longer relevant. Sure, it was happening and obvious everywhere, but that ubiquity was just obscuring the new, still imperceptible underlying cause, and its effects were still so new as to be barely being felt.
The age of mechanism inaugurated by the Gutenberg printing press was being slowly swept aside by the Marconi universe.
Guglielmo Marconi, of course, developed the first long-distance techniques for radiotelegraphy. He’s the reason the world went “wireless.”
To McLuhan, the wireless world is a discarnate world.
To McLuhan, the wireless world is a discarnate world. Mechanism is obsolete because mechanism still operates in physical space, according to how physical objects must exist and move about. In the work of modernist writers, McLuhan’s literary discernment recognized the collapse of that material world of physical objects. As early as 1865, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland presented a world of discontinuities beyond the regulation of regimented, scientific knowledge and logical comprehension.
The spaces within which our world is constituted by our communication, an act of communion through language and gesture which is already subjective, was now itself a product of machines. All our senses were mechanized and externalized. Hearing and sight and even touch could be packaged and sent over the airwaves. Everything books had done in words to evoke senses could now be done directly. Parallel to radio and television was the electric light. With light projection, the novel was rendered obsolete by cinema. Instead of explaining, with linear continuity of words, a narrative story, cinema could simply reveal scenes and situations on celluloid unrolled on a spool for direct sensory experience.
McLuhan’s specific interest non-linear in modernist cinema, which we still enjoy today from directors like David Lynch, is important to note. Most films we know about are linear and full of explication, but that’s the old thing as content of the new, he would say. Cinema constrains itself to old familiar forms for the sake of mass marketability, but its strengths don’t derive from the strength of story. For McLuhan, cinema’s strength was what it could take from poetry, from the camera movements of the mind, and sudden juxtapositions and interruptions which words in verse had achieved for time immemorial.
To go back to beating up upon our more familiar frameworks, let’s consider how most people talk about cinema. They’ll call them texts, in the French style. They’ll talk in terms of symbolism and structures. All abstractions. All generalizations.
All of which treat words as units existing in some cybernetic matrix of comparison. All treat the story as the substance, as though a book could be made into a movie and share some common substance for common critique. McLuhan undercut all that language before it developed its hegemony, and by returning to him we can get a completely different vantage. One which sees our post-modern world of simulations and deserts of the real as grounded in history and in material forms.
It just takes a great deal of study of many different specialisms to find the ground. It takes great training in discernment to heal the fragmentation. It takes seeing each other as living within the surface appearances of worlds shown to us by machines and focusing on those machines themselves. And the history of those machines, and the history of humanity in relation to the older environments from which our new ones developed.
Yes, we’re mechanized.
We treat our bodies like sensation factories or meat computers. We talk about the levels of neurotransmitters in our brains as though we just pulled a dipstick out of our ears to check them. People now walk and sleep covered in sensors gathering every measurable datum. We undergo endless psychometric tests, both scientific and amateur, to define ourselves within systems of classification. The same people who say IQ tests are pseudo-scientific nonsense will show you their ranked kink scores from a survey on a BDSM website (“72% Rope Bunny”).
Behind all of this are the machines of measure and calculation which comprise them. The tabulation of data goes back to slates and the abacus, to the pencil and paper. But data gathering and processing now has swamped our physical space with its representation. Computation is just math, very, very quickly. We live in a chalkboard that does arithmetic very, very quickly.
The sort of machines we are becoming are not the machines that people were becoming in the 19th century. Postmodern theory and queer theory and critical theory and feminist theory are the only fields attempting to grapple fully with these implications, but their resources are ill-equipped.
They all fall into the traps they are trying to detect. Yes, the issues are our embodiments, our bodies, and our rigid categories of identity. But it’s not the texts doing it to us. Or the structures. It’s our physical, material world. It’s everything that we’re not qualified to talk about because the language to discuss them is full of specialist technical jargon. Or it’s the knowledge that can only be learned through hands-on experience, with a screwdriver or a microscope or flight yoke. It’s the histories not of people but of environments.
Modern critical theories will discuss all these things, but they’ll do so within frameworks or concepts. And so they’ll never leave the book. They won’t abandon their specialist terms or their frameworks because that’s their common history, their bond as a group. And so they can’t individuate. They won’t expand their language usage to break out of those frameworks, those terms. They won’t abandon the mathematical rigidities they are fighting against. Intersections of structures are as mathy as anything else. Proliferation of labels is just more labels. Eloquence is simple speaking and raw perception—things antithetical to specialisms. And probably bad for one’s academic career. Alas.
We are fragmented because of all the effects of the Industrial Revolution, sure. And then, on top of that, now the world outside of the world we see and hear are invisible devices and radio waves and atomic radiation and non-visible motions of planets and gravity and magnetism.
Our fragments are thrown into a blender of discontinuous space.
The paranoid schizophrenics who are terrified of things nobody can see have the correct idea but lack the words or concepts to think through the real causes.
The paranoid schizophrenics who are terrified of things nobody can see have the correct idea but lack the words or concepts to think through the real causes. When they get caught up on 5G radiation or microchips in vaccines, they’re looking for the right thing in the wrong area. I once had an hour-long argument on conspiracy theory radio with a guy who was certain the vaccine was turning people into Bluetooth transmitters. Our crisis today is a lack of sufficient breadth of encyclopedic learning to properly explain and justify our true perceptions. We just feel that the technical details are so arcane that it’s impossible to learn anything. And everyone who seeks to explain it to us does so in terms of commercialization, not dispassionate material reality. Our perceptions always succumb to the distortions of our inadequate formulations of them.
Nobody trying to formulate the problem can find the physical, material world about which to focus and build up their collective space for communing and discussion. They keep into through the medium, entering its infinite imaginary content-spaces, and collapsing their perception into a singularity. There is no substance there to live, no kernel, no bit of grit for the snowflake to crystallize upon.
To try and base one’s worldview on the contents of a book—which is to say a conceptual schema, or an ideology, or a religion deriving from another culture in time and space, or a pile of legal documents—is to be placing oneself out of one’s physical body in material space.
Different media affect our senses differently and provide different groundings for our discarnate being. But really, there’s only ever you here and now, staring at words on a screen, silently sliding your eye over them. That’s a physical object you’re staring at, not a virtual document or text. There is no text. I am not here.
It’d be radical if everyone started talking as though that obvious truth was true. But no amount of knowing it is true will change anything if we don’t talk about it like it’s true. If our words continue to reify the content of media as real, then technological determinism will continue along its inevitable path.
We have talked ourselves into this mess through our slovenly usage of language, and our indulgence of convenience. It is a problem we can only talk our way back out of, as individuals who commune. Who come together, but also break apart. Who exist in bodies, together, in this material world we have made for ourselves. There are words for all the things in our real world. Yes, those words exist in books, but we can speak the, and point at them, and build our world out of them when we learn to speak and write again.
Labour will always be divided, but that’s no excuse to not try and talk across party lines.
Crossing lines, toward the neutral ground of actual things is the only way we’ll be able to create a shared perception of the whole. This is another way of saying becoming whole ourselves, together, each and every individual one of us.