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Electricity and...

Battle of Symbols

Electricity and Christianity

After the atrocities of September 11th a number of documentaries appeared on television which offered “inside” views of Afghanistan and Pakistan by various film makers and reporters. In one of the documentaries, Abandon All Hope by independent film maker Len Sherman, there is the scene of dim room in an Afghanistan home, the only light coming from a flickering light bulb hardly stronger than the light of a candle.

The narrator tells of the destruction of the electric plants in Afghanistan during the Russian war years. Now there are only a few electric plants operating and electric power is sporatic. There is the suggestion in this scene of the age of electricity turned back to the age of fire.

The invasion of western civilization into eastern Islamic civilization is not only an invasion of the content of symbol images of western popular culture but also an invasion of the electric context or medium that holds the content of these images. Modernity of the western world is largely the modernity of electricity against a past world of fire.

Marshall McLuhan observed that electricity re-tribalizes mankind creating a form of “global village.” The electric global village is more powerful than the economic global economy. Yet the global economy is a creation of electricity.

The western world does not own the symbolism of electricity. In many ways, it’s relationship to an auditory, surrounding, immersive context, its equality in cyberspace against a freedom of particular visual place, gives it more connection to eastern culture than to western culture.

And more of a relationship to the religion of Islam than to Christianity. In The Medium and the Light Marshall McLuhan speculates on the future of religion. The speculations appear throughout the book in various guises but are congregated together in Part IV titled “Tomorrow’s Religion.” During the twilight years of his life, using his fine-honed technique of media analysis as well as his vast knowledge of history, McLuhan offered some comments which should give Western culture more than a little cause for concern.

In an interview conducted on March 27, 1970 with Hubert Hoskins in The Listener, McLuhan offers some observations on the possible future of Christianity. Rather than talk about percepts and concepts he placed his observations firmly within the area of media theory, a discipline he both created and, by that time, certainly owned:

"Christianity definitely supports the idea of a private, independent metaphysical substance of the self. Where technologies supply no cultural basis for this individual, then Christianity is in for trouble. When you have a new tribal culture confronting an individualist religion, there is trouble."

The relevance of this observation to the modern electric world is obvious. Christianity arose during a time of the creation of a linear, visual technology which encouraged privacy. Yet the dominant medium today is not the linear, visual one of print but rather the non-linear, auditory one of electricity. As he mentioned many times, electricity makes the world into one great tribal village where privacy is no longer possible.

Is the idea of the private person in fact an artifact or a development from the technology of the phonetic alphabet? If so, McLuhan reasoned, then we need to regard the Greco-Roman tradition and Western literacy in a different light. In a letter to Alexis de Beauregard (5/11/72) he wrote “If the private person is an artifact, then it becomes criminal to perpetuate him technologically in the electronic age.”

Towards the end of his life, McLuhan pushed this speculation even further. In “Tomorrow’s Church: Fourth Conversation With Pierre Babin” (1977) he makes the following startling observation:

"In a certain way, I also think that this could be the time of the Antichrist. When electricity allows for the simultaneity of all information for every human being, it is Lucifer’s moment. He is the greatest electrical engineer. Technically speaking, the age in which we live is certainly favourable to an Antichrist. Just think: each person can instantly be tuned to a ‘new Christ’ and mistake him for the real Christ."

The crucial thing needed in this critical period, is not the ability to see a new concept but rather to feel a particular “frequency.” As McLuhan notes in the final paragraph of The Medium and the Light, “At such times it becomes crucial to hear properly and to tune yourself to the right frequency.”

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