Speech on the occasion of

St. Paul’s Jubilee of University Students

 

Dr. Eric McLuhan

 

Campidoglio

March 12, 2009

 

Let me offer a few thoughts about the environmental conditions in which we find ourselves immersed today.

 

New circumstances call for new approaches to adjusting the relation between Gospel and culture. How does the Rock relate to the shifting sands of popular culture?

 

          Our world is clearly in turmoil, a recent development being economic woes. But these global economic ills illustrate the state of our interconnectedness in the electric age. All of the established patterns of culture are being modified, even discarded. Everything current is “old”; everything old is new. There are few if any standards upon which one can rely. The roles of men and women, and those of children, are shifting weekly, it seems. Even Literacy[1] has lost its central place in culture and everyday affairs. These and a host of other confusions are not isolated incidents but developments spun off by the renaissance surging in our environment. This renaissance has been with us since the time of the telegraph. Where other renaissances have been confined to a couple or a handful of cultures at a time, this renaissance involves the entire world simultaneously. An immense renaissance calls for the reappearance of Renaissance Man, skilled in reading all literacies and able to con the language of environmental forms.

The renaissance that envelops us in this new millennium is the greatest of all in part because it subsumes all prior times and all prior forms of awareness. In the West we are recycling and revisiting not only our own culture but we are also exploring all the others—every form of experience that humans have ever created or indulged. The content, then, of the renaissance raging about us is the entire Neolithic era. The Neolithic age, which is now over, had used the pastoral hunter as its content and in recent times has been using pastoralism as its esthetic. The environment is no longer constituted of specialized hardware tools; now, it is made of information and software.

The Orient is undergoing the same retrievals, of Western culture as well as its own, in the same measure and degree that we are rediscovering the East. Similarly, this is the new rise of Islam. And we are just launching another phase of this rolling renaissance on the Internet and the World-Wide Web. These new technologies demand participation and are by their very nature inclusive and encyclopedic. The Internet is now busy forming a deposit of all human knowledge: it presents us with the spectre of the old preliterate oral encyclopedia, the egkuklios paideia, albeit cast in a radically new electronic form.

The Grand Renaissance of the 16th century is aptly named not only because it was the grandest and most comprehensive renaissance in human experience, but also because it involved the entire of the Western world. Certainly, the renaissance of the 12th century seemed to the participants grand and extensive, yet to us it still pales by comparison with the events of the 15th and 16th centuries. But we should notice that both of these cultural effervescences were outward movements, expansions; our present renaissance, powered by electricity and vastly more eclectic than any prior renaissance, is implosive inasmuch as it involves the entire globe at once. Once the entire world is involved, no further expansion—or expansionism—is possible. This condition raises the prospect that, unlike any previous time, this 20th-century renaissance will simply continue without surcease, that renaissance will become our permanent address.

All oral and tribal peoples regard present and past and future as a single multidimensional event or set of cycles, a vortex of cultural energies that charges them with being and cosmic significance and destiny. In our postliterate time, we echo this sense of things. In a variety of ways, for example in popular ideas about reincarnation, even in the saying, “what goes around comes around.” In the electric age, all times come around, simultaneously present and accessible, not hypothetically but as real, available experience. Cyclicity implies dynamism and compactness, a means to charge and re-charge the cultural batteries. The alternative, the familiar rational line of history, presents instead a single prolonged discharge. Today we live in “post-history” in the sense that all pasts that ever were are now present to our consciousness and that all the futures that will be are here now. To live today is to live mythically in many cultures and times at once. If there is a future to history, it resides, as the Italian rhetorician Giambattista Vico tried to indicate, in the hands of poets and artists. As the unity of the modern world becomes increasingly a technological rather than a social affair, the techniques of the arts provide the most valuable means of insight into the real direction of our own collective purposes.

 

 

I do not know of any study that has ever been made of renaissances in general. Every study that I have seen concerns this particular renaissance or that renaissance specifically; occasionally, two are looked at for comparison’s sake. These studies are well focused and impeccably scholarly. And there is, besides, the profusion of books about this or that renaissance. But there are no book-length studies, nor is there even a single article, concerning renaissances as a phenomenon. Our present-day Phoenix Playhouse has heretofore been operating behind closed doors. Let me suggest that the following six traits characterize renaissances. All can be seen in operation today.

 

  • A renaissance is always invisible to those living through it.
  • A renaissance is always a side-effect of something else, some new medium that reshapes perception: in our case, we have the spectrum of electric technologies from the motor to the MP3, from the telegraph to the satellite, the radio to the Internet. The Grand Renaissance married the printing press and the alphabet.
  • A renaissance is always accompanied by a revolution in sensibility.
  • A renaissance is always announced in and by the arts; artists function as “the antennae of the race.”
  • A renaissance always serves as the advance phase of a new mode of culture and society, new-fashioned identities all ’round.
  • A renaissance is always accompanied by a major war. In our case, we have had World Wars One and Two and the Cold War (among other wars), and now we are embroiled in the first of the Terrorist Wars. At the speed of light, the front is gone, the battleground is the outward globe, and that (much larger) paysage intérieur.

 

 

In the global information age both the nature and the meaning of war are recast. The “global village” of the radio era has been replaced by the Global Theatre of the satellite age. All of us now have corporate masks and roles and new group identities to replace the old job patterns and detached individuals that were the legacy of the alphabet and the printing press.

For many centuries Christianity has relied on a ground of Literacy as a medium for transmitting the Gospel. Now that that ground has been supplanted by an environment of electric information, we find ourselves in a culture increasingly without ties to Literacy. The phonetic alphabet gave us for the first time the experience of separation and detachment: separation of sound from sense, the abstract, meaningless phoneme and the abstract, meaningless letter, and Euclidean abstract space. From the alphabet we learned separation of thought and feeling, of action and reaction, and of knower from known. Detachment of the knower breaks the tribal bond and allows the individual person to emerge from the group and to flourish. Print vastly accelerated these processes and produced the Grand Renaissance of recent memory. The renaissance today features instead a hunger for ever more involvement in every phase of social and cultural life and entertainment. Mimesis,[2] not objectivity, fuels this hunger. Our ways of knowing have already shifted to the ancient pattern without our having noticed it.

Just look at the present form of advertisements and video games, and the array of masks and icons and participatory roles that we shoulder when we venture onto the Internet. Mimesis means that the mode of the new culture is put on, in much the same manner as St Paul spoke of “putting on” the armor and weaponry of Heaven to combat temptations. It is much more than simple imitation. When Aristotle observed that mimesis is the process by which all men learn, he was simply acknowledging the put-on as a (then-conventional) way of knowing. We put on these new media whenever we extend ourselves into the global environment. Plato declared war, in Republic, on the poetic establishment of his time over their use of mimesis: today it seems the global information environment has declared war on Plato. Since Cézanne and the Symbolist poets in the XIX Century, our arts have insisted we “put on” our “beholder’s share” of participation. Modern ads (lifestyle ads and others), equally, serve up not products but styles and group images and “corporate cultures” for us to participate. Role playing and participation in video games and fantasy worlds is the main fount of user satisfactions. Group culture features some curious manifestations, including no-fault divorce and no-fault auto insurance. Traditional Catholic culture, on the other hand, emphasizes Literacy both directly, for reading Scripture and commentary, and indirectly, through its insistence on an individual private identity and an individual private soul, individual private responsibility and individual private salvation. Consequently, traditional Catholic culture, no longer mainstream, finds itself playing the role of counter-culture everywhere in the electric world.

          We brought an end to Literacy when we killed that Hydra, the reading public. In its place have sprung up dozens of eager little baby literacies. The old reading public has reverted to the earlier stage of small groups of readers, “reading clubs.” Those who read now do so in an atmosphere of post-Literacy: we are surrounded by people who know how to read but on the whole prefer not to. The new literacies appear in every area imaginable, from various media literacies (film literacy, television literacy, computer literacy), to the arts (art literacy); there are also cultural literacy, numeracy[3], environmental literacy, and so on, by the hundred.

          But we are immersed in a renaissance, a global renaissance, for the first time in human experience, and one which is still gathering momentum. Most of our past renaissances have after a century or so subsided into the new culture that they imparted; the renaissance that envelops us today receives fresh impetus from each new technology that bursts upon the scene. Now, a renaissance is particularly a time of revival and retrieval and up-dating. The time is ripe to revive those aspects of Catholic culture consonant with the new sensibilities and the new demand for mimetic involvement. The time is ripe for updating all the meditative modes of prayer and liturgy; for retrieving manifold interpretation of Scripture; for reviving Catholic mysticism; for revivifying the fullness of our learnèd tradition, the translatio studii, as a simultaneous event.

          The current decline of alphabetic Literacy and its supplanting with all those little literacies actually constitutes another revival, one familiar throughout the Middle Ages. The schoolboys’ rhyme sums it up:

Omnis mundi creatura

Quasi liber et pictura

Nobis est, et speculum …

It was ever held that God Himself speaks to man in two ways, through Scripture and through that great speech called the Work of the Six Days. So there arose the trope of the Two Books which were set before man to read and to interpret, the Book of Nature and the Book of Scripture. And of course the two were in complete harmony, though the two texts be writ in entirely separate languages, one in a language of words and one in a language of forms. You might even say that the language of the one is software (information) and that of the other is hardware (things). From the first, the Two Books meant the existence of at least two literacies, each offering simultaneous levels of meaning. For the one, the familiar four levels of interpretation (literal, allegorical, tropological, anagogical); for the other, the corresponding four causes (formal, efficient, material, final).

 

He who would read both books, the Grammarian, had to be versed in the arts and the sciences, had to be able to work with any language that came his way: he learned to read the language of forms. The grammaticus or man of letters could read and decode any literacy. Our contemporary environment of multiple literacies is a sure sign that the Two Books are reasserting themselves. Modern education must include training in reading both Books, the Divine and the human, Gospel and culture. The Book of the World today includes the “literacy” of environmental ecology and that of cultural ecology, and now also all the new literacies (additional literacies come to light every few weeks)—all in all a multitude of forms as yet lacking coordination. New media are new languages of perception, their grammars and syntaxes—their “literacies”—yet to be ascertained. The reappearance of the Two Books will soon be followed by the appearance of their reader and interpreter, the Grammarian, in suitably updated form. His training is going to be oriented towards encyclopedism instead of specialism. He must also be a reader of languages. He will be rather like the celebrated Renaissance Man. This is absolutely fitting inasmuch as we are in the throes of a renaissance.

          I do not propose this as an idea or an epitome of the kind of education we need today but as the norm. Our survival, individual and cultural, depends on our ability to read and interpret what our man-made environments are saying to us and doing to us. Our electric information environment calls for the skills of the explorer and the navigator instead of the student and the aesthete. We are drowning in information; we are deluged with answers: only the probe, the question can guide the explorer and the navigator.  An education system built on formal analysis and concepts must give place to one focused on training of critical awareness and training of perception. Though it resembles a “triumph of style over substance,” the shift is actually deeper and more fundamental than that. It represents a lessening of emphasis on ideological content and a revival of the study of environmental form and formal causality.

 

I have tried to suggest a few considerations to keep in mind during your deliberations these next few days on the Gospel and culture. For we change culture every time we change media, and we are changing media—introducing new media—at a furious rate just now. Each new environment means a completely new way to see and imagine the world and opens a new act on centre stage of the Global Theatre.

 

 

 


I use capital-L-Literacy to denote reading and writing with the phonetic alphabet used first by Greece and Rome, as distinct from other forms of writing. 

[1]

Under the spell of mimesis, the knower (hearer of a recitation) loses all relation to merely present persona, person, and place, and is transformed by and into what he perceives. It is not simply a matter of representation but rather one of putting on a completely new mode of being, whereby all possibility of objectivity and detachment of figure from ground is set aside. Eric Havelock devotes a considerable portion of Preface to Plato to this problem. He discovered that mimesis was the oral bond by which the tribe cohered: “You threw yourself into the situation of Achilles, you identified with his grief or his anger. You yourself became Achilles and so did the reciter to whom you listened. Thirty years later you could automatically quote what Achilles had said or what the poet had said about him. Such enormous powers of poetic memorization could be purchased only at the cost of total loss of objectivity. Plato’s target was indeed an educational procedure and a whole way of life.” (Eric Havelock, Preface to Plato (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1963), page 45. 

David Booth shows the same mimetic process at work as educational procedure in the world of new literacies: “When students are inside the experience, needing to read and write in order to come to grips with the issues and concerns being discussed or examined, when texts are being interpreted or constructed as part of the learning process, then I can sense that a literacy event is happening. The young person needs not only to inhabit the words and images, but to see herself as a performer of what she has learned, representing and owning the learning. In effect, she herself becomes the literacy. And she reads and writes with her whole self, with her body, with her emotions, with her background as a daughter and student and citizen; she sits in school beside her family members, and she reads every text she meets alongside them, inside her cultural surround. Literacy is constructed through identity.” [Op. Cit., page 53. An autistic reveals the same process: “My language is not about designing words or even visual symbols for people to interpret. It is about being in constant conversation with every aspect of my environment. Reacting to all parts of my surroundings.”  (www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jny1M1hI2jc)] Booth is describing a culture of children fully immersed in their sensory word, one that adults may find foreign but which is increasingly a normal state for our children. [See David Booth, Reading Doesn’t Matter Anymore: Shattering the Myths of Literacy (Markham, Ont.: Pembroke Publishers Limited, 2006; Portland, Maine: Stenhouse Publishers, 2006).]

[2]

Numerical literacy. 

[3]