“With the arrival of electric technology, man extended, or set outside himself, a live model of the central nervous system itself. To the degree that this is so, it is a development that suggests a desperate and suicidal autoamputation, as if the central nervous system could no longer depend on the physical organs to be protective buffers against the slings and arrows of outrageous mechanism” (McLuhan, 2011, p.65).
Right now, I type and these keys literally extend my fingers. Tapping causes symbols to appear in my WordPress edit box and a blue “publish” button will extend my thoughts (via image-symbols) to a potential public. Media is an “extension of [wo]man.” McLuhan’s (2011) emphasis on media extensions through amputation and de-emphasis of the connecting body seems harsh, violent and permanent.
In this way, he points to our love of “gadgets” that extend our bodies causing us to forget to account for material selves. Instead, man fixates on technology that mediates our participation. Extended man becomes numb; he enters into a state of narcosis, or numbness– a reference back to the Greek myth of Narcissus who became so infatuated with his reflection that he thought it was a different person. McLuhan (2011) writes, “the point of this myth is the fact that men at once become fascinated by any extension of themselves in any material other than themselves” (p. 63).
My first few experiences using social media, especially in closed network microblogs, illustrates a Narcissus-syndrome. As McLuhan points out, Narcissus’ “extension of himself by mirror numbed his perceptions until he became a servomechanism of his own extended or repeated image” (p. 63). I can remember my first experiences in Twitter. I became so fascinated with my posts that I began to filter my daily life as a mental 140 character post. If someone said something funny, I’d mentally compose my micro-post then repeat it until I could get to an Internet connection. I was fascinated with my ability to create an image of myself through participation in social media–so fascinated that I would carefully craft identities that were not necessarily consistent with my offline self. Unlike Narcissus, I could change the shape of my image…even still, I didn’t recognize myself.
“Self-amputation forbids self-recognition” (McLuhan, 2011, p.64)
While reading “Narcissus as Narcosis,” I was struck by how relevant this concept is for students involved in distance education programs, namely those using synchronous mediums for class delivery. While present through audio and a visual headshot, participants on both sides of the media must use closure to sense man as extended through technology. In what way does this technology induce numbness in our ability, both at a distance at in Norfolk, to perceive the presence of your mediated cohort?
I struggled early in my participation in ODU’s program because I sensed my non-presence. I’m now wondering how much of that numbness was media induced. Classes where we openly discussed issues of mediation (via Polycom, Adobe, Skype, Webex) felt different. In those moments, “the meeting of the media” became “moment[s] of freedom and release from the ordinary trance and numbness imposed by them on our senses” (McLuhan, 2011, p.81).
I’m grateful for those moments when we were far enough back to recognize ourselves seeing reflection, and I am also thankful for an opportunity to participate in such an intellectually creative program. Still…McLuhan’s concepts of amputation, narcosis, and media extended man raise critical issues for students, like me, who choose to extend their presence as scholars in ways that might not be traditionally perceived as “scholarly” or “real” by others looking at our reflections.
McLuhan, M. (2011) Understanding media: the extensions of man. Critical edition. Ed. by Terrence Gordon. Gingko Press: Berkeley, CA. Print.