Latin, from Greek
narkissos (influenced by narkê,
numbness, from its narcotic properties).
The Greek myth of Narcissus is
directly concerned with a fact of human experience, as the word Narcissus indicates.
It is from the Greek word narcosis, or numbness. The youth Narcissus mistook his
own reflection in the water for another person. This extension of himself by mirror numbed
his perceptions until he became the servomechanism of his own extended or repeated image.
The nymph Echo tried to win his love with fragments of his own speech, but in vain. He was
numb. He had adapted to his extension of himself and had become a closed system.
point of this myth is the fact that men at once become fascinated by any extension of
themselves in any material other than themselves. There have been cynics who insisted that
men fall deepest in love with women who give them back their own image. Be that as it may,
the wisdom of the Narcissus myth does not convey any idea that Narcissus fell in love with
anything he regarded as himself. Obviously he would have had very different feelings about
the image had he known it was an extension or repetition of himself. It is, perhaps,
indicative of the bias of our intensely technological and, therefore, narcotic culture
that we have long interpreted the Narcissus story to mean that he fell in love with
himself, that he imagined the reflection to be Narcissus!
Just as an amputee cannot feel his prosthesis, a person who learns to read is unaware
of (numbed to) the environment invoked by print media. The reader has become so absorbed
in the content of the new medium he experiences 'closure.' He fails to notice that it has
become an integral part of his sensorium; how print media has, over time, appropriated his
spiritual life and profoundly altered his perception of the world.
Physiologically there are abundant reasons for an extension of ourselves involving us in a
state of numbness. Medical researchers like Hans Selye and Adolphe Jonas hold that all
extensions of ourselves, in sickness or in health, are attempts to maintain equilibrium.
Any extension of ourselves they regard as "autoamputation," and they find that the
autoamputative power or strategy is resorted to by the body when the perceptual power
cannot locate or avoid the cause of irritation. Our language has many expressions that
indicate this self-amputation that is imposed by various pressures. We speak of
"wanting to jump out of my skin" or of "going out of my mind," being
"driven batty" or "flipping my lid." And we often create artificial
situations that rival the irritations and stresses of real life under controlled
conditions of sport and play.
Amputation and isolation: the foot is amputated
and replaced by an inanimate prosthesis, the wheel. Similarly, the motorcar was also a
numb prosthesis, for it shares with the inanimate prosthesis a loss of feedback and
control, giving us suburbia and the freeway city.
The wheel accelerated center-margin organization, Roman militarism, war,
mass migration from rural to crowded urban areas, and other shocks to the body politic,
resulting in numbness or lack of awareness (and consequent political decline), none of
which was apparent to the participants at the time. They were unaware that they occupied a
wheeled center-margin universe, and of its enormous tax on their society.
was no part of the intention of Jonas and Selye to provide an explanation of human
invention and technology, they have given us a theory of disease (discomfort) that goes
far to explain why man is impelled to extend various parts of his body by a kind of
autoamputation. In the physical stress of superstimulation of various kinds, the central
nervous system acts to protect itself by a strategy of amputation or isolation of the
offending organ, sense, or function. Thus, the
stimulus to new invention is the stress of acceleration of pace and increase of load.
For example, in the case of the wheel as an extension of the foot, the pressure of new
burdens resulting from the acceleration of exchange by written and monetary media was the
immediate occasion of the extension or "amputation" of this function from our
bodies. The wheel as a counter-irritant to increased burdens, in turn, brings about a new
intensity of action by its amplification of a separate or isolated function (the feet in
rotation). Such amplification is bearable by the nervous system only through numbness or
blocking of perception. This is the sense of the Narcissus myth. The young man's image is
a self-amputation or extension induced by irritating pressures. As counter-irritant, the
image produces a generalized numbness or shock that declines recognition. Self-amputation
principle of self-amputation as an immediate relief of strain on the central nervous
system applies very readily to the origin of the media of communication from speech to
The description of the human sensorium as an
aggregate of media is a useful clue to an understanding of man's technological extensions.
Where does the mind end and do artificial media begin? It is McLuhan's thesis that
psychologically there is no clear or fixed boundary, that we are our extensions,
i.e. 'They that make them shall be like unto them.'
Physiologically, the central nervous system, that electric network that coordinates the
various media of our senses, plays the
chief role. Whatever threatens its function must be contained, localized, or cut off, even
to the total removal of the offending organ. The function of the body, as a group of
sustaining and protective organs for the central nervous system, is to act as buffers
against sudden variations of stimulus in the physical and social environment. Sudden
social failure or shame is a shock that some may "take to heart" or that may
cause muscular disturbance in general, signaling for the person to withdraw from the threatening situation.
The literal meaning of recreation is
re-creation, the renewal of our spiritual life and the restoration of a diminished sense
whether physical or social, is a counter-irritant that aids in that equilibrium of the
physical organs which protect the central nervous system. Whereas pleasure is a
counter-irritant (e.g., sports, entertainment, and alcohol), comfort is the removal of
irritants. Both pleasure and comfort are strategies of equilibrium for the central nervous
A theory of psychopathology, that neurosis
proceeds not from infantile trauma, but from a bias in the ratio of man's extensions? That
the 'harmony of all being' has been disrupted by a flawed model of perception, such as the
highly visual organization of life produced by print media?
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. It could well be that the successive mechanizations of the
various physical organs since the invention of printing have made too violent and
superstimulated a social experience for the central nervous system to endure.
Mark Twain's remark on the death of his daughter that it is providential that the human
mind cannot absorb the full meaning of such a tragedy all at once.
to that only too plausible cause of such development, we can return to the Narcissus
theme. For if Narcissus is numbed by his self-amputated image, there is a very good reason
for the numbness. There is a close parallel of response between the patterns of physical
and psychic trauma or shock. A person suddenly deprived of loved ones and a person who
drops a few feet unexpectedly will both register shock. Both the loss of family and a
physical fall are extreme instances of amputations of the self. Shock induces a
generalized numbness or an increased threshold to all types of perception. The victim
seems immune to pain or sense.
Tthis could account for the persistence of
phobias (acrophobia, claustrophobia, agoraphobia) and suggests that phobic reactions may
not be as irrational as they seem. For example, most people who fear heights have no fear
of flying, and vice versa; they have the peculiar power to numb themselves to one danger,
but too much imagination to numb themselves to the other.
shock created by violent noise has been adapted for dental use in the device known as audiac.
The patient puts on headphones and turns a dial raising the noise level to the point
that he feels no pain from the drill. The selection of a single sense for intense
stimulus, or of a single extended, isolated, or "amputated" sense in technology,
is in part the reason for the numbing effect that technology as such has on its makers and
users. For the central nervous system rallies a response of general numbness to the
challenge of specialized irritation.
Shell shock that occurrs well after the
conclusion of combat: PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Human imagination, the fear
multiplier, is damped down during emergencies, e.g. accident victims report they felt no
fear at the heighth of peril, but only after events, when memory kicked in.
who falls suddenly experiences immunity to all pain or sensory stimuli because the central
nervous system has to be protected from any intense thrust of sensation. Only gradually
does he regain normal sensitivity to sights and sounds, at which time he may begin to
tremble and perspire and to react as he would have done if the central nervous system had
been prepared in advance for the fall that occurred unexpectedly.
on which sense or faculty is extended technologically, or "autoamputated," the
"closure" or equilibrium-seeking among the other senses is fairly predictable.
It is with the senses as it is with color. Sensation is always 100 per cent, and a color
is always 100 per cent color. But the ratio among the components in the sensation or the
color can differ infinitely. Yet if sound, for example, is intensified, touch and taste
and sight are affected at once. The effect of radio on literate or visual man was to
reawaken his tribal memories, and the effect of sound added to motion pictures was to
diminish the role of mime, tactility, and kinesthesis. Similarly, when nomadic man turned
to sedentary and specialist ways, the senses specialized too. The development of writing and the visual
organization of life made possible the discovery of individualism, introspection and so
invention or technology is an extension or self-amputation of our physical bodies, and
such extension also demands new ratios or new equilibriums among the other organs and
extensions of the body. There is, for example, no way of refusing to comply with the new
sense ratios or sense "closure" evoked by the TV image. But the effect of the entry of the
TV image will vary from culture to culture in accordance with the existing sense ratios in
each culture. In audile-tactile Europe TV has intensified the visual sense, spurring them
toward American styles of packaging and dressing. In America, the intensely visual
culture, TV has opened the doors of audile-tactile perception to the non-visual world of
spoken languages and food and the plastic arts. As an extension and expediter of the sense
life, any medium at once affects the entire field of the senses, as the Psalmist explained
long ago in the 115th Psalm:
Their idols are silver and gold,
The work of men's hands.
They have mouths, but they speak not;
Eyes they have, but they see not;
They have ears, but they hear not;
Noses have they, but they smell not;
They have hands, but they handle not;
Feet have they, but they walk not;
Neither speak they through their throat.
They that make them shall be like unto them;
Yea, every one that trusteth in them.
of "idol" for the Hebrew Psalmist is much like that of Narcissus for the Greek
mythmaker. And the Psalmist insists that the beholding of idols, or the use of
technology, conforms men to them. "They that make them shall be like unto them."
This is a simple fact of sense "closure." The poet Blake developed the
Psalmist's ideas into an entire theory of communication and social change. It is in his
long poem of Jerusalem that he explains why men have become what they have beheld.
What they have, says Blake, is "the spectre of the Reasoning Power in Man" that
has become fragmented and "separated from Imagination and enclosing itself as in
steel." Blake, in a word, sees man as fragmented by his technologies. But he insists
that these technologies are self-amputations of our own organs. When so amputated, each
organ becomes a closed system of great new intensity that hurls man into "martyrdoms
and wars." Moreover, Blake announces as his theme in Jerusalem the organs of
If Perceptive Organs vary, Objects of Perception
seem to vary:
If Perceptive Organs close, their Objects seem to close also.
To use any technology is to accept its
subliminal premises, a priori, without examination and reflection, and to lose
sight of its side effects both on the macro as well as the micro level.
On the macro or
social level, writing accelerated commerce and center-margin organization, and on the
micro or psychological level, writing (and later print) changed man's modes of perception,
stripping him of the richness of the oral-tactile world he had known as a hunter-gatherer.
use or perceive any extension of ourselves in technological form is necessarily to embrace
it. To listen to radio or to read the printed page is to accept these extensions of
ourselves into our personal system and to undergo the "closure" or displacement
of perception that follows automatically. It is this continuous embrace of our own
technology in daily use that puts us in the Narcissus role of subliminal awareness and
numbness in relation to these images of ourselves. By continuously embracing technologies,
we relate ourselves to them as servomechanisms. That is why we must, to use them at all,
serve these objects, these extensions of ourselves, as gods or minor religions. An Indian
is the servo-mechanism of his canoe, as the cowboy of his horse or the executive of his
The symbiotic relationship between man and his
Man's relationship to his technologies isn't strictly economic or utilitarian.
He identifies with his machines on an esthetic-spiritual-symbolic level and attaches to
them in a psycho-sexual way.
Physiologically, man in the normal use of technology (or his variously extended body) is
perpetually modified by it and in turn finds ever new ways of modifying his technology. Man becomes, as it were, the sex organs of the
machine world, as the bee of the plant world, enabling it to fecundate and to
evolve ever new forms. The machine world reciprocates man's love by expediting his wishes
and desires, namely, in providing him with wealth. One of the merits of motivation
research has been the revelation of man's sex relation to the motorcar.
Germany's miraculous recovery and Japan's
economic boom during and after the American occupations of the post-war period.
creation of a liaison class, i.e. intelligentsia, that interpreted the invading culture,
and mediated the Amercianization of Europe and Asia, may have been the root of the
anti-American feeling that followed (and the precursor to the anti-Western resentments of
the Third World, especially in the failed states of the Mideast).
it is the accumulation of group pressures and irritations that prompt invention and
innovation as counter-irritants. War and the fear of war have always been considered the
main incentives to technological extension of our bodies. Indeed, Lewis Mumford, in his The
City in History, considers the walled city itself an extension of our skins, as much
as housing and clothing. More even than the preparation for war, the aftermath of invasion
is a rich technological period; because the subject culture has to adjust all its sense
ratios to accommodate the impact of the invading culture. It is from such intensive hybrid
exchange and strife of ideas and forms that the greatest social energies are released, and
from which arise the greatest technologies. Buckminster Fuller estimates that since 1910
the governments of the world have spent 31/2trillion dollars
on airplanes. That is 62 times the existing gold supply of the world.
Quickness of thought and nimbleness of mind are
the enemy of unconscious behavior. The total field awareness, invoked by instant
communications, set phenomena, formerly subsumed under categories of information, in
functional relief, revealing man's unconscious biases and subliminal conflicts.
example, when extensions like writing and print colonize human consciousness over a
protracted period of time, say several centuries, the gradual or incremental nature of the
process makes it impossible for man to 'make the connections.' Suppose the process had
been accelerated in an age of electric media In that case the cause and effect
relationships would stand out immediately, setting man's utilitarian motivations and
unconscious drives in sharp relief.
principle of numbness comes into play with electric technology, as with any other. We have
to numb our central nervous system when it is extended and exposed, or we will die. Thus
the age of anxiety and of electric
media is also the age of the unconscious and of apathy. But it is strikingly the age of consciousness of the unconscious, in
addition. With our central nervous system strategically numbed, the tasks of conscious
awareness and order are transferred to the physical life of man, so that for the first
time he has become aware of technology as an extension of his physical body. Apparently
this could not have happened before the electric age gave us the means of instant, total field-awareness. With such awareness,
the subliminal life, private and social, has been hoicked up into full view, with the
result that we have "social consciousness" presented to us as a cause of
guilt-feelings. Existentialism offers a philosophy of structures, rather than categories,
and of total social involvement instead of the bourgeois spirit of individual separateness
or points of view. In the electric age we wear all mankind as our skin.