18 July 2005

McLuhan Lectures 2005 - July 6 – Monique Tschofen – Cannibals

“Agents of Aggressive Order”: Letters, hands, teeth and conspicuous consumption in the early Canadian torture narrative.

Monique Tschofen begins her examination of the “early Canadian torture narrative” by focusing on McLuhan’s fascination with the break boundary – the point of reversal effected by the action of a new medium (in the general case) on an old environment. It is the so-called point of no return when the entire socio-psychological system of human interaction suddenly changes into another characteristic form, thereby creating massive disruption and dislocation in the status quo. Break boundaries typically possess several common characteristics. They are productive, in that an entirely new environment is created that (obviously) changes the context in which all prior technologies, media and conceptions exist, and therefore (not so obviously) changes their meanings in society. Thus, they are also transformative, even though those who come through the break boundary have a great deal of difficulty perceiving the transformation, while those who are “born” on the other side of the break boundary have a great deal of difficulty conceiving of the world prior to the transformation. Break boundaries are also “explosive,” meaning that the juxtaposition of old and new in the same time and place results not merely in change, but in radical, sometimes cataclysmic, change. Finally, it is at the break boundary that our environment becomes visible, that is, obviously perceptible. As a society, we can see the dynamics of the interactions enabled by the various things we conceive and create. We see them (and the total environment that they create) for what they are: structuring mechanisms that have changed out lives throughout the time that they were acting imperceptibly, except to a few who possessed the perceptual tools to see them.

Tschofen reads McLuhan work on perception and sensory balance as a treatise on human agency – as we become aware of the physical and psychic dangers that are properties of the technologies we create, we can choose how, and where, to engage them, and emerge stronger as a society and culture. [I refer to this vitally important aspect of understanding McLuhan in terms of “McLuhan as a political project.”]

She goes on to examine McLuhan’s repeated reference to the ancient myth of King Cadmus, in which the founding of Thebes was accomplished by warriors that sprung from the sowing of dragon’s teeth. McLuhan related the lineality of teeth, and the intimate relationship between mouth, teeth and language to reference the aggressive order, precision, power and violence that arises from language. In particular, it is the relationship among oral (teeth in the mouth), and written (language separated from the mouth and “sown” in lineal rows) language, and empires (warriors) that leads to McLuhan’s examination of history through the lens of The Gutenberg Galaxy. She also does a great job of explaining “the medium is the message,” as follows:
I think McLuhan is calling for a most complex hermeneutic... He’s inviting us to listen between the lines, or to see into the sounds, and to find there something important about the history of our media, and of the epistemes and cognitive styles they engender. To put this simply, he’s inviting us to ask: “What does this text let us understand about itself as a technology – about the production and reproduction and dissemination as well as the multiple effects and influences this kind of technology might yield? Can we see within it the traces of a history of our media?” In asking these questions, he’s inviting us to break the containers of our own thinking, knowing that these disruptions can be dangerous but ultimately lead us to new freedoms, because media can configure not only our situations but also our intellectual operations. Finally, through his own writing style, he’s modelling this kind of double-operation he invites us to undertake. By leaving these symptoms and traces of previous media environments, McLuhan makes secondary arguments about the history of media without needing to state them directly, showing or performing, rather than telling.

Tschofen then goes on to examine an aspect of early Canadian history, namely the early (violent) interactions of the British and French explorers with the first nations peoples as an exemplar of the collision between manuscript/early print culture and oral culture at a break boundary. For example, a Huron woman observed that the “Black Robes” chant incantations and spells, and subsequently a village of otherwise healthy people mysteriously die – making a connection between European prayer and European diseases. Other examples abound in the chronicles of the time that use a trope of apophasis – the narrator lament the difficulty of conveying the horror of a scene, and then proceed to do precisely that in gory, gothic detail. It is more a promise than a warning: “The program you are about to see contains scenes of violence, course language and nudity. Viewer discretion is advised.” In other words, “now that I’ve got your attention...”

Reports back from the New World were liberally peppered with tales of violence, torture and cannibalism, that Tschofen maintains comprise a “torture narrative” designed to evoke horror at the transformations imposed on the literate, mediated European body at the break boundary with a “primitive” oral society. The purpose of such gruesome tales were to provide the justification for colonization. Here were these cannibals and terror mongers who are clearly in need of the civilizing influence of European belief and education. Domination and imposition of what would be a foreign culture is justified because of the extreme and obvious need for a civilizing influence. However, using a McLuhan discourse, we find another structuring dynamic at work. Here, the torture and cannibalism depicted in written transmissions back to Europe make plain the violence at the break boundary between oral and literate societies, and the “changing epistemologies induced by media technologies.” In the rather graphic examples shared by Tschofen, the intrinsic nature of oral vs. literate societies is captured. The literate Jesuits, tortured at the hands of the indigenous peoples, connected the book (written account) to the body. The book (e.g. Bible) is one with the material body. In contrast, for the primary oral people, language is always an embodied experience; “speech-acts are always physical acts that are grounded in and return to the physical body... They cannot say anything without doing it.”

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