Spiritual Media Philosophy
Considerations following McLuhan
Translated by Karl Hughes
What I will present to you today is something like a thought experiment. The idea came to me while reading The Medium and the Light. Reflections on Religion (1999), a book co-published by McLuhan’s son, Eric, and Jacek Szlarek. It contains articles, introductions, drafts, lectures and letters by Marshall McLuhan, originating in various times and contexts. In them, the founder of modern media theory tackles questions of religion and spirituality.
For a long time I had little interest in either. But in the last few years this has changed – as a result of profound experiences I had both in the purview of Richard Shusterman’s so-called “Somaesthetics”1 as well as in the context of subtle energy work (Chinese: Chi, Japanese: Reiki, Indian: Prana). The two most important somaesthetic and spiritual teachers for me were and are respectively, Moshe Feldenkrais (1904-1984) and Grand Master Choa Kok Sui (1952-2007). From each in his own way, I have learnt to expand my somaesthetic and spiritual perceptual horizon.
What is interesting, and in the academic context quite unusual, is that the expansion of my perceptual horizon was in both cases not only and not primarily accomplished via the reading of written texts. It was, above all, the learning of particular practices and cultural techniques of body and energy work which significantly altered both the proprioception of my physical (Feldenkrais) and the experience of my energetic body (Choa Kok Sui). Which brings me back to the aforementioned thought experiment.
Clearly Marshall McLuhan had also gathered experiences which had profoundly altered his perceptual horizon. This fact constitutes one reason why Eric McLuhan published the book I referred to. Among other things, The Medium and the Light concerns the spiritual experiences that lead Marshall McLuhan, on the 25 March 1937 (at the age of 25) to convert to Catholicism. Marshall McLuhan describes his conversion as follows:
I had no religious belief at the time I began to study Catholicism. I was brought up in the Baptist, Methodist and Anglican churches. We went to all of them. But I didn’t believe anything. I did set to find out, and literally to research the matter, and I discovered fairly soon that a thing has to be tested on its terms. You can’t test anything in science or in any part of the world except on its own terms or you will get the wrong answers. The church has a very basic requirement or set of terms, namely that you get down on your knees and ask for the truth. (...). I prayed to God the Father for two or three years, simply saying ‘Show me’. I didn’t want proof or anything. I didn’t know what I was going to be shown because I didn’t believe anything. I was shown very suddenly. It didn’t happen in any expected way. It came instantly as immediate evidence, and without any question of its being a divine intervention. There was no trauma or personal need. I never had any need for religion, any personal or emotional crisis. I simply wanted to know what was true and I was told ... Wham! I became a Catholic the next day.2
In his Introduction, Eric McLuhan emphasizes that till the end of his life his father practised his Catholic faith in private and, as a rule, consciously kept it separate from his public statements as a media theorist.3 The notable thing about the texts collected in The Medium and the Light is that they all represent exceptions to this rule. This is what makes them a good foundation for my thought experiment. It consists in (1) reconstructing a religious version of McLuhan’s media theory, and on this basis (2) seeing what a contemporary media philosophy – one which draws the intellectual and spiritual closer together than is usual in the humanities – might look like.
1) McLuhans religious media theory
In what follows, I rest exclusively on the texts published in The Medium and the Light. Many of them had already appeared elsewhere; mostly, however, in little known journals. For this reason, the Reflections on Religion systematically collected in The Medium and the Light had exerted hardly any previous influence on McLuhan scholarship.
I would like to begin with an observation McLuhan made in an interview which appeared in 1970 under the title, “Electric Consciousness and the Church.” The comment relates to computers and in particular to the fact that computer technology may generate a form of consciousness which extends beyond language:
It is possible that the new technologies can bypass verbalizing. There is nothing impossible about the computer’s – or that type of technology’s – extending consciousness itself, as a universal environment. In a sense, the surround of information that we now experience electrically is an extension of consciousness itself.4
The independent quasi-conscious existence which multi-media information on the internet have attained, and the non-verbal manner in which computer programmes on the net communicate with each other in algorithms, has made an everyday experience of what McLuhan was then able to perceive through visionary eyes. McLuhan’s answer in the same interview to the question, “what effect this might have on the individual in society”5 is of particular significance for my thought experiment in this context. His answer runs:
Many people simply resort instantly to the occult, to ESP [extrasensory perception – M.S.], and every form of hidden awareness in response to this new surround of electric information. And so we live, in the vulgar sense, in an extremely religious age. I think that the age we are moving into will probably seem the most religious ever. We are already there.6
I would like for the time being to leave the question open whether, and if so, in what sense data processed by or between computers may be described as an “extension of consciousness itself.”7 Instead, I will concentrate on the far-reaching assertion that the “new surround of electric information”8 would lead to a revalidation of occult, religious and spiritual forms of consciousness among those affected. McLuhan hones this notion further: within the framework of his thinking he makes a crucial distinction between the Christian religion and other forms of belief. With Hinduism, Buddhism and other non-Christian traditions in view, he stresses the point:
I don’t think of them as religious except in an anthropological sense. They are not, as far as I am concerned, the thing – revealed divine event – at all. (...). They were rendered obsolete at the moment of the Incarnation and they remain so.9
The actual potential for solving the problem of adaptation of human consciousness to the speed of light of electronic media lies for McLuhan in new forms of what he refers to in another interview as “lived Christianity”10:
In fact, it is only at the level of a lived Christianity that the medium really is the message. It is only at that level that figure and ground meet.11
Here the close proximity between the central tenets of McLuhan’s Media Theory – “The Medium is the Message”12 – and his conversion to the Catholic faith become obvious.
In Jesus Christ, there is no distance or separation between the medium and the message: it is the one case where we can say that the medium and the message are fully one and the same.13
McLuhan believed that in the electronically speeded up world of modern media, a developmental watershed had been reached, where Western culture’s prevailing fixation with media content could be shifted towards by a more robust, holistic view of its formal effects.
Perhaps now, when things happen at very high speeds, a formal causality or pattern recognition may appear for the first time in human history.14 (p. 72)
He goes further: referring to the return of the spoken word in the age of electronic media, of radio, film and television, the religious media theorist proclaims:
The word as a means of healing or of magical change is precisely what phonetic literacy rejected, and precisely what the TV generation now seeks to bring back into all aspects of language. (p. 131f)
This has far-reaching consequences for McLuhan’s thoughts on the future of the Catholic Church. In a discussion McLuhan conducted with Pierre Babin in 1977 under the title “Liturgy and Media,” he deploys the computing distinction between hardware and software to outline a new form of liturgical practice. By way of elucidation, he firstly asserts:
Hardware refers to the machine itself which is more or less fixed, while software is mutable. Writing in general, given its predetermined and unchanging form, is like hardware; while speech, which is supple and changeable, is closer to software. The visual is hardware, the acoustic is software.15
The application to questions of a future liturgy then runs as follows:
Liturgy in its creative and improvisational aspects is software, but once it is fixed by the voice of authority, fixed in writing, and made uniform by print, it becomes hardware.16
McLuhan expresses the same view more emphatically and at a higher level of generality in a draft of a (never completed) book from the early seventies, with the working title The Christian in the Electronic Age:
Let us do with less and less hardware. We can do more and more with less and less (Bucky Fuller). Beware the pitfalls and booby traps of hardware media.17
And in order to give a clearer idea of the software character of the Christian ceremonies in the age of electronic media, McLuhan sketches out, in the previously quoted discussion with Babin, the following, and for the established Church, barely comprehensible strategy:
We want everything to happen at once, all the richness, all the feasts, all the Sriptures together and instantly. It is the same thing as having Christ right here in person. Electricity tends to evoke the presence of Christ immediately via the ear.18
For the author it is quite clear what this might mean for the church as hierarchical institution. As he provocatively states in “Electric Consciousness and the Church”:
“The Church has in various periods consisted of hermits in very scattered huts and hovels in all sorts of backward territories. It could easily become this again, and in the age of the helicopter I see no reason why the Church should have any central institutions whatever.19
This sketch of McLuhan’s religious media theory makes it perfectly obvious that despite their denominational form, McLuhan’s thoughts call the prevailing institutional identity of the Catholic Church into question. Equally though, it must be stressed that McLuhan held other forms of spirituality, not based on the, for him, evidential experience of the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, for erroneous.
The grand master of Pranic Healing I mentioned at the beginning, Choa Kok Sui, suggested in one of his books that we consider the difference between religion and spirituality this way: religion is something “that tends to be sectarian”20 and “to be based on belief.”21 By contrast – Choa Kok Sui continues – we can describe spirituality as a non-denominational activity, which “deals with the inner sciences.”22
The construction of my little thought experiment is inspired by this suggestion. Therefore, in my own considerations I make a conscious terminological distinction between McLuhan’s religious media theory and a spiritual media philosophy as outlined in the following section.
2) Spiritual media philosophy
My experimental conception of a spiritual media philosophy is argued from a firmly non-denominational position. On this account, it might at the same time make a contribution to bringing the spiritual and intellectual closer together. As a pragmatist media philosopher, I would, in contrast to McLuhan, focus particulary on the question of how we use certain media and, moreover, how we avoid culturally deterministic notions on the momentum of media configurations.23
In the first part of my thought experiment, I deliberately left open the question of what McLuhan meant in “Electric Consciousness and the Church” when he denoted the “surround” of electronic media as an “extension of consciousness itself.”24 My reticence was founded on the fact that philosophical pragmatism either does not use the word consciousness, or if at all, then in the sense of an attribution.25 For this reason, it seems to me, McLuhan elsewhere in The Medium and the Light suggests a less questionable reformulation. Here he denotes the “electronic world”26 not as an extension of our consciousness but rather as an extension of our nervous system.
It is to this formulation, which also appears in McLuhans opus magnum27, that I would like to connect my considerations on spiritual media philosophy. If one considers the digital network as a technological projection or instrumental extension of the human nervous system, then the following question arises: How does the use we make of the external nervous system of electronic media relate to the way we use the internal nervous system of our biological body?
To begin with, in this context it may be held that as a rule we do not use our nervous systems in a conscious way. In fact, with regard to all the physical, mental and spiritual processes we perform, both the vegetative and somatic nervous system are, in varying degrees, unconsciously active in the background. That said, we humans can of course relate in both a reflexively and purposefully transformative way towards our own nervous systems. An example of this is the Feldenkrais method, which I mentioned briefly at the beginning of my considerations. The method aims to supplement a particular aspect of the use of the nervous system, which has established itself through evolution and culture.
From the perspective of evolutionary biology, German philosopher Wolfgang Welsch has pointed out that the way humans use their nervous systems has developed over the course of human history.28 According to current research in neuroscience, the orientation of the nervous system to sensory stimuli, which in rats, for example, accounts for 90% of their neurological activity, in humans has been progressively displaced in favour of internal data processing. At the same time, evolutionary history has shown that despite the human nervous system’s particular specialization in internal data processing, it nevertheless cannot exceed a certain limit. This limit lies at around 90% of neurological activity.
In other words, if less than 10% of the nervous system’s capacities are directed towards reception and processing of sensory stimuli, our ability to survive as a species would in all likelihood be in doubt. This, at any rate, is how evolutionary biologists interpret the fact that the specialization in internal data processing, which occurred in the proto-cultural phase of human history, has leveled off at the 90% maximum value and not changed over the last 40,000 years.29
The Feldenkrais method can be directly related to the dynamics of this development. It works to compensate its effects by re-energizing the human nervous system’s activities in the area of sensory stimuli. It focuses on a specific type of sensory stimuli, namely that of so-called proprioception. The term is used in physiology to designate the perception of all those sensory stimuli which emanate from our locomotor (musculoskeletal) system. This form of perception is of particular importance for an organism because it enables it to locate itself in space and change its position through directed movement.
From the perspective of media philosophy, it is precisely the area of proprioception, which, given the increasing use of screen technologies in modern media culture, has been subject to particular neglect.30 It is in this context that McLuhan’s metaphor of an external nervous system derives its potency.
Audio-visual screen technologies support and demand forms of exteroception which get along with practically no active movement of the body in physical space. This means that the audio-visual perception of media not only isolates the auditory and visual senses from the other external senses (smell, taste, touch) but also partly from the kinesthetic self-perception of the moving body. The result is a medially imparted form of exteroception, which is extremely similar to the internal data processing of the central nervous system. This similarity might help to explain why the network of media data sources (in the sense of McLuhan’s metaphor) can appear as an externalized nervous system.
The media-ecological adaption of the use of our internal nervous system to the increasing use of the external nervous system of digital networks constitutes a central desideratum of contemporary educational policy. The integration of methods of training kinesthetic proprioception (Feldenkrais Method, Alexander Technique, and Rolfing among others) in media education classes at schools and out-of-school educational institutions may, therefore, have an important contribution to make in the future.31
One of the central cultural political challenges of what I call spiritual media philosophy consists in the initiation of campaigns which promote such media-ecological movements. As a practically oriented discipline, spiritual media philosophy establishes the framework for edificational interventions, pertaining to the holistic networking of the various types of media and their forms of use. In this context is important to notice that under the heading media, media philosophers not only, nor primarily, understand the term in the sense of mass media, but also and above all as semiotic communications media (such as images, spoken and written language, dance, theatre and music) along with the media of sensory perception (namely space, time and physical senses).32
In my introductory remarks, I indicated that in my own continuing education, both the learning of Moshe Feldenkrais’ techniques of movement and the practical experience I was able to accumulate with Grand Master Choa Kok Sui’s energy work led to a deep-seated change in my perceptual horizon. To conclude, I would like to enlarge upon what implications work with the human energy body might have for the questions of spiritual media philosophy.
What is significant about Choa Kok Sui’s so-called “Pranic Healing”33 is that the educated chemical engineer actually has accomplished a scientific pragmatization and cultural political democratization of cultural technologies of healing that are thousands of years old. Till now, elements of these techniques have been practised by small circles of insiders, more or less unsystematically and independently of each other, as part of the esoteric teachings of world religions.34
In his late work on The Origin of Modern Pranic Healing Choa Kok Sui shifts his “highly effective art of healing (…) which everyone can learn quickly”35 to the context of a “union between science and spirituality.”36 This union – Cho Kok Sui continues – is also expressed in the present “in the field of quantum physics (…), in homeopathy, in acupuncture, feng shui, chi kung, vibrational medicine and others.”37
The area of scientific bio-energetics has in recent years actually become an important object of research in biomedicine. In Germany, principally in the work of the biophysicist Fritz-Albert Popp and in the USA, in the works of the microbiologist, James Oschman, the phenomena hitherto designated by metaphorical terminology such as aura or body of light are scientifically conceptualized as measurable electro-magnetic fields.38
Like McLuhan before him, Oschman also sees interesting connections between holistic energy medicine and electronic media culture:
We are (…) accustomed to having large numbers of tasks handled by invisible currents flowing through chips in computers, and to adjust our television sets by the invisible radiation of our remote controls. It should not therefore be so shocking to a culture such as ours to accept that invisible energies regulate and coordinate our bodies.39
Illuminatingly, the physiologist adds:
We used to think that the ‘language of life’ was composed of nerve impulses and molecules, but we now see that an even deeper communication underlies these familiar processes. Beneath the relatively static action potential and ‘billiard ball interaction’ of molecules there is the domain of subatomic, energetic, electromagnetic and wave dimension.40
What is especially significant for the contemporary cultural situation in Choa Kok Sui’s pragmatist techniques of spiritual energy work is that through the learning of these simple, highly effective tools, it is possible for anyone to modify their own nervous system, or that of other forms of life, via the directed alteration of body energy. While the Feldenkrais Method treats the physical body (and thus, indirectly, also the energy body) by quasi-mechanical means, Pranic Healing treats the light energy of the body directly. This distinguishes, in a refined sense, spiritual from somaesthetic cultural techniques and at the same time returns us to McLuhan’s considerations in The Medium and the Light.
In a similar way to the electronic highway, light serves as the basic medium of data transfer in the spiritual work with Prana-energy. Since the electromagnetic radiation spread infinitely through space, Choa Kok Sui’s methods are not bound to the physical presence of healer and patient in one place, or indeed one room. This feature – namely, the possibility of distance healing – makes it quite clear that cultural technologies of spiritual energy work exhibit a structural analogy with electronic information networks.
In spiritual practice, the energy dimension of our bodies turns out to be a morpho-genetic continuum, which is connected to external flows of energy from other forms of life, plants, the elements, the planet Earth, and the whole universe. It is this fundamental openness which distinguishes the energy system of the chakras and meridians from the closed structure of our physiologically defined nervous system. Thus, the holistic network of subtle light energies can serve at the same time as a model and a potential corrective for the external nervous system of electronic information technologies.
1 Richard Shusterman, Body Consciousness. A Philosophy of Mindfulness and Somaesthetics (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press 2008).
2 Marshall McLuhan quoted following Eric McLuhan, „Introduction“, in: The Medium and the Light. Reflections on Religion, eds. Eric McLuhan and Jacek Szklarek, Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers 1999, p. IX-XXVIII, here: p. XVIf.
3 Ebd., S. XVII-XIX.
4 Marshall McLuhan, „Electric Consciousness and the Church“, a.a.O., S. 79-88, hier: S. 88.
10 Marshall McLuhan, „Religion and Youth. Second Conversation with Pierre Babin“, a.a.O., S. 104.
12 Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media. The Extensions of Man, London und New York: Routledge 1964, S. 7.
13 McLuhan, „Religion and Youth“, a.a.O., S. 103.
14 Marshall McLuhan, „The Logos Reaching Across Barriers: Letters to Ong, Mole, Maritain, and Culkin“, a.a.O., S. 66-74, hier: S. 72.
15 Marshall McLuhan, „Liturgy and Media. Third Conversation with Pierre Babin, a.a.O., S. 141-149, hier: S. 148.
17 Marshall McLuhan, „The Christian in the Electronic Age“, a.a.O., S. 176-177, hier: S. 177.
18 McLuhan, „Liturgy and Media“, a.a.O., S. 148.
19 McLuhan, „Electric Consciousness and the Church“, a.a.O., S. 86.
20 Master Choa Kok Sui, The Existence of God Is Self-Evident, München: Innere Studien Verlag 2007, S. 14.
23 Zur meiner vom amerikanischen Pragmatismus inspirierten medienphilosophischen Grundposition siehe Mike Sandbothe, Pragmatische Medienphilosophie. Grundlegung einer neuen Disziplin im Zeitalter des Internet, Weilerswist: Velbrück Wissenschaft 2001.
24 Marshall McLuhan, „Electric Consciousness and the Church“, a.a.O., S. 79-88, hier: S. 88.
25 Daniel Dennett, The Intentional Stance, Cambridge (MA): MIT Press 1987.
26 Marshall McLuhan, „’A Peculiar War to Fight’: Letter to Robert J. Leuver“, a.a.O., S. 89-93, hier: S. 93.
27 McLuhan, Understanding Media, a.a.O., S. 45ff.
28 Wolfgang Welsch, „Das Rätsel der menschlichen Besonderheit“, in: Studia Philosophica, Bd. 57/2, 2010, p. 47-59, especially p. 50.
29 Volker Storch, Ulrich Welsch und Michael Wink, Evolutionsbiologie, Berlin: Springer 2001, p. 375.
30 Mike Sandbothe, „Und wie fühlt sich Ihr Nacken an?“, in: Kulturaustausch. Zeitschrift für internationale Perspektiven, Heft 3/2010, S. 22-23.
31 Alexander Gröschner und Mike Sandbothe, „Kreativität fördern durch körperbasiertes Lernen. Pragmatistische Perspektiven für den Unterricht in Schule und Universität“, in: Medienpädagogik. Zeitschrift für Theorie und Praxis der Medienbildung, Online-Publikation: medienpaed.com 2010.
32 Vgl. Systematische Medienphilosophie, hrsg. von Mike Sandbothe und Ludwig Nagl, Berlin: Akademie 2005.
33 Choa Kok Sui, The Ancient Science and Art of Pranic Healing, Manila: Institute for Inner Studies 1987 and Miracles through Pranic Healing, Manila: Institute for Inner Studies 1997.
34 Kocku von Stuckrad, Was ist Esoterik? Kleine Geschichte des geheimen Wissens, München: Beck 2004.
35 Choa Kok Sui, Die Entstehung der Pranaheilung und des Arhatic Yoga, a.a.O., S. 68.
36 Choa Kok Sui, The Existence of God is Self-Evident, p. 12.
37 Choa Kok Sui, The Existence of God is Self-Evident, p. 12.
38 Fritz-Albert Popp, Biophotonen – Neue Horizonte in der Medizin, Stuttgart: Haug 1983; Biologie des Lichts. Grundlagen der ultraschwachen Zellstrahlung, Berlin: Paul Parey 1984. James Oschman, Energiemedizin. Konzepte und ihre wissenschaftliche Basis, München: Urban & Fischer 2009.
39 Oschman, a.a.O., S. 198.
40 Ebd., S. 194.