A Secular Church? McLuhan, Catholicism, and the War of Identity

I’ve been tracking McLuhan’s relationship to his Catholic faith for the last several weeks, specifically going through The Medium and the Light, a collection of interviews, addresses, outlines, etc. centering on religion. True to form, McLuhan’s thoughts are a mixture of what feel like off-the-cuff statements and long-percolated and crystallized observations.

Reading all these documents alongside each other, spanning from letters written in graduate school to reflections at the end of McLuhan’s life, makes for a complicated Gestalt. At times McLuhan reflects a conservative convert’s zeal, at other times he presents a challenging progressive critique of the Church. The gaps between lead to some curious connections and juxtapositions.

Take, for example, the following line of thinking McLuhan advances, in a letter, on the difference between what he identifies as Christian and secular approaches to identity:

“In Christian terms, the components of Mars, or the rest of the systems of the cosmos, can reveal nothing comparable to the dimensions of experience available to the most grovelling Christian. Christians, however, have a peculiar war to fight which concerns their identity. The Christian feels the downward mania of the earth and its treasures, and is just as inclined to conform his sensibilities to man-made environments as anyone else. When the secular man senses a new technology is offering a threat to his hard-won human image of self-identity, he struggles to escape from his new pressure. When a community is threatened in its image of itself by rivals or neighbours, it goes to war. Any technology that weakens a conventional identity image creates a response of panic and rage which we call ‘war.’ Heinrich Hertz, the inventor of radio, put the matter very briefly: ‘The consequence of the image will be the image of the consequences.’

When the identity image which we enjoy is shattered by new technological environments or by invaders of our lives who possess new weaponry, we lash back first by acquiring their weaponry and then by using it. What we ignore is that in acquiring the enemy’s weaponry, we also destroy our former identity. That is, we create new sensory environments which ‘scrub’ our old images of ourselves. Thus war is not only education but also a means of accelerated social evolution. It is these changes that only the Christian can afford to laugh at. People who take them seriously are prepared to wipe out one another in order to impose them as ideals. Today there is no past. All technologies, and all cultures, ancient and modern, are part of our immediate expanse. There is hope in this diversity since it creates vast new possibilities of detachment and amusement at human gullibility and self-deception.

There is no harm in reminding ourselves from time to time that the ‘Prince of this World’ is a great P.R. man, a great salesman of new hardware and software, a great electrical engineer, and a great master of the media. It is his master stroke to be not only environmental but invisible, for the environment is invincibly persuasive when ignored.”

(“A Peculiar War to Fight”: Letter to Robert J. Leuver, C.M. F., 92-3)

There’s a lot that is unsaid and unclarified here, but we might say something like McLuhan wants to argue that Christian identity is inherently unstable, by virtue of its negation of the “downward mania” of the world, which wards off the fear of new identities that congeal around media that will inevitably be outmoded. A Christian is tempted like anyone else by the treasures of worldly media, but at bottom the Christian’s war is a meta-war, against the world itself, not immanent to the preservation of worldly identities. The Christian occupies an outside and fluctuating position of continual transformation (elsewhere in a letter, McLuhan says Christianity is “awareness of process”), while the secular operates on a plane of immanence that is constantly bringing identities into being and erasing them without any discernible reason apart from the march of media.

At the same time, however, McLuhan’s relationship to Catholicism as an institution is anything but comfortable. Throughout the collection, he regularly indicts the Church for failing to understand media, a problem already at the heart of the institution by virtue of its emergence in a Greco-Roman, literate culture, which, McLuhan says, privileges stable permanence over change (change being the demand made by the Church). As literate media is displaced by electric media, the Church begins to feel the threat of irrelevance–and threats often lead to temptations. This is perhaps no better expressed than in McLuhan’s short essay in the collection on the liturgy and the microphone. In adopting the microphone and speakers, McLuhan suggests the liturgy is utterly transformed.

The Latin Mass is the product of a variety of media, namely visual media, that are losing their hegemonic status. As new media emerge, like the microphone, the Church feels the pressure of new identities (the microphone eliminates distance between speaker and audience, or clergy and congregation, while the ritual muttering of specialized Latin keeps that distance intact). Confronted with the shift from visual to audial media, the Church struggles to maintain its identity as Roman Catholicism. First the Church acquires the weaponry of the identity that threatens it–the microphone–but, as McLuhan explains, this only serves to scrub the old image of itself, the Latinate, literate image.

“Many people will lament the disappearance of the Latin Mass from the Catholic Church without realizing that it was a victim of the microphone on the altar,” McLuhan writes (“Liturgy and the Microphone,” 112). McLuhan doesn’t come across as one who opines for the Latin Mass himself here (in fact he suggests the Church will and already is in the process of “de-Romanizing,” as a result of the speed of electric media), but rather aims to criticize the somnambulist posture of the Church, which gets broiled in controversies about figures (doctrinal or dogmatic disputes) rather than the ground (medial changes).

From such a perspective, is the Church not engaged in exactly the kind of immanent war of identity McLuhan chastises in his letter to Leuver? One that is contingent on the maintenance of a particular media form–the war the Christian is supposed to laugh at?  Throughout his writings, McLuhan clearly doesn’t think the Church needs to remain tied so closely to its literate heritage, and even suggests that it simply can’t and won’t–the electric age is already here (“It would be a good time to be Russian Orthodox,” McLuhan quips on p60). But what to do with this juxtaposition (one McLuhan does not make himself, but that the collection suggests), at least in figuring out McLuhan’s position viz. his own Catholicism? Would we say the Church has its own “secular” wars, a victory of the “Prince of the World” who is so invisible that even those entrusted with the possibility of transcendence are ultimately bound to the determinative logic of medial backgrounds?

It may be unfair to draw the disparate remarks McLuhan makes in this collection so closely together. But such an interpretive attempt is foisted on the reader by virtue of encountering them all at once. It seems to me the best we could say is that McLuhan thinks the Church is certainly not immune from the struggles media pose for stable identity, and that perhaps the Church is itself caught in a secular war that aims to preserve an older media in the face of a new one. Untangling the Church from its medial fetishism is a task McLuhan seems to keep trying, frustratedly (because no one seems to be all that interested), throughout the volume.

Incidentally, I think McLuhan plays much too fast with terms like the “secular” and even Christian identity. Nevertheless, as McLuhan himself affirms, the devil’s in the details.

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