Shadow of the Cultural Imagination?

by Cliff Bostock
Pacifica Graduate Institute

Space that has been seized upon by the imagination cannot remain indifferent space subject to the measures and estimates of the surveyor. It has been lived in, not in its positivity, but with all the partiality of the imagination.

-- Gaston Bachelard (1994, p. xxxvi)

I became an adept at simple hallucination: in place of a factory I really saw a mosque, a school of drummers led by angels, carriages on the highways of the sky, a drawing room at the bottom of a lake; monsters, mysteries; the tide of melodrama would raise horrors before me. Then I would explain my magic sophism with the hallucination of words! Finally I came to regard the disorder of my mind as sacred.

-- Arthur Rimbaud (1961, p. 55)

I did not expect to encounter the shadow of Rimbaud's vision of hell when I recently visited MindWave, a "virtual reality amusement park." But, lying on a bed -- in a room of beds that recalled a latter-day Greek dream temple -- I was transported to another topography. This was accomplished through the trance-inducing technology of music and mechanical massage followed by the projection of computer-generated imagery

I call it "another topography" because it was neither an interior locus nor an exterior one. It was that space that has come to be known as "cyberspace" or "virtual reality." It shares certain characteristics with the disassociated, disembodied state of hallucinatory space, but the images that one encounters here do not take form in the imagination (or memory) of the visitor. Nor do they arise spontaneously in the archetypal field. This is not the mundus imaginalis.

Here, through the disembodying technology of electronic media and the collapse of boundaries (through regression), consciousness is overtaken by images generated by the other, a programmer. This is a nearly Faustian experience of consciousness liberated from the body, time and space. But the price, as I will show, is the imagination's integrity, soul itself.

It is my thesis here that cyberspace represents the soulless shadow of the cultural imagination and, perhaps as a first cause, the shadow of the cultural body. In the cyber explorer, we may find the next evolution of the astronautical body described by Robert Romanyshyn (1989). Poised behind the window of the video screen but (often) holographically transported, the visitor to cyberspace inhabits an entire topography of mechanically generated images.

My thesis is in large measure derived from my own experience as an inhabitant of cyberspace for more than 10 years. The denouement of my own life there was the experience of this virtual reality amusement park, which, to my mind, dramatized the subtler, everyday effects of inhabiting cyberspace.

In my "mind trip" at MindWave, I was -- after regression -- shown a holographic video of the "ideal future." This ideal was no less than a Frankensteinian vision of the triumph of the Cartesian view. The body was literally represented in its highest evolutionary form as a silvered robotic being -- featureless, genderless, gliding, without gestural meaning. The other principal image was of the city of the future, an extension of the imagined body: a gleaming clockworks of glistening geometric shapes around which cars whizzed. The city was literally superimposed over mountains, which receded from the skyline like Sophia banished to the earth's core.

As such, it depicted the shadow of the civilized world. The most shocking aspect of the experience, though, is that I could not exercise my own imagination in this environment. When I attempted to visualize something other, because I found the images ugly, I could not. My imagination was, for the time I was at MindWave, completely overtaken by the shadow-like but programmed eruption of banal images.

My response afterward confirms my analysis. Disoriented and barely able to drive, I visited a mall for the hour I had before meeting a friend for lunch. I found myself in a virtual frenzy of consumerism -- on the verge of spending nearly a thousand dollars on items I didn't need. Happily, I realized before I spent my money what I was experiencing: My body was starving for tactility, anchoring in the here and now. The words "Indian cotton" on a shirt label had absurdly become an incantation of something magical. (I was Stepfordized.)

Thus, my lived experience tells me in a personal way that cyberspace, by disembodying the visitor to its topography, has the potential to appropriate the imaginative faculty. The return to "real life" in turn may produce a compensatory hunger for sensation that is out of proportion to the body's situation, even unhealthy.

This is not the way it is supposed to be. It doesn't follow the thread of popular thinking that began with Marshall McLuhan in the late 1950s.


It strikes me as ironic that 30 years ago I wrote my first serious paper as an undergraduate film student at William and Mary on Marshall McLuhan. I also at that time became interested in Carl Jung's work on mandalas. At the time of my studies, 1967, McLuhan had not yet written 1970's (now out-of-print) From Cliche to Archetype with Wilfred Watson, a book of essays in which the media philosopher examines Jung and the cultural imagination.

Before looking at that, though, some background is necessary.

Briefly, McLuhan argues that the invention of the phonetic alphabet and movable print imposed linearity on the formerly tribal mind and, among the senses, gave dominance to the eye. (Another way of putting this would be to say that mankind withdrew into its "head," its rationality.) The effect of the electronic media -- and he wrote primarily about television -- in his view would be ultimately to retribalize mankind by balancing the senses, since, he said, the electronic media require the participation of all of the senses. By "retribalization," McLuhan meant the restoration of the feeling function to parity with the thinking one. He observed this without judgment and saw losses and gains in the process (although he was certainly maligned viciously by many literate academic critics). This process would be enhanced, he argued, by the creation of the "global village," since television (and now the Internet) brings people physically distant into intimate communication (McLuhan).

It is no exaggeration to say that McLuhan viewed all of culture as primarily shaped by media. His argument is compelling. In the same way that Romanyshyn convincingly describes the modern mind's shaping by the technology of linear perspective vision, McLuhan's enormous corpus of (mainly out-of-print and often maddeningly aphoristic) work demonstrates how the technology of type prejudiced Cartesian linearity. With the advent of Marconi's telegraph, though, he says that thinking began a process of defragmentation, a restoration of the five senses to parity. This process-level tribalization's ultimate medium in his lifetime was television.

McLuhan's analysis of the impact of media on culture proved to be prescient in many structural respects. The World Wide Web and the Internet have certainly proven to be global villages of sort and these, as he predicted, are subdivided into special-interest communities (such as internet news groups). The extent to which this directly influences life outside the cyber topography can't be seen yet, although McLuhan was daring enough to suggest that the United States would literally be "Balkanized" by electronic media (McLuhan, p. 257).

And that points to how McLuhan (and certainly his followers today) may have also been a victim of a failure to heed his own warning. He often cautioned that the effect of one technology remains invisible until it is superseded by another (McLuhan, p. 238). Thus, we can only regard McLuhan's "probes" of the ultimate effects of electronic technology as he did himself -- as highly speculative. His real contribution is his analysis of print media and his observations of the transition to the electronic age. He argued that we must remain mindful of this transition if we are to avoid being overwhelmed by grief, a generalized sense of loss, in the rapid decline of reason's dominance as the feeling function is elevated in the electronic media's restructuring of consciousness in the service of retribalization..

For my purpose here, it is interesting to note that McLuhan cited two important cultural transitions that I certainly experienced at MindWave (and throughout the rest of cyberspace): disembodiment and the reversal of the archetypal imagination.

The experience of disembodiment is self-evident and McLuhan was specific about its likely consequences:

As electric media proliferate, whole societies at a time become discarnate, detached from mere bodily or physical 'reality' and relieved of any allegiance to or a sense of responsibility for it...The alteration of human identity by new service environments of information has left whole populations without personal or community values..." (McLuhan, p. 379).

I cannot imagine a better description of a Jungian concept of a cultural shadow: a space from which anima mundi has been banished and the ego's drives given predominance.

The reversal of the archetypal imagination, which he elaborated in From Cliche to Archeytpe, is as interesting if more difficult to grasp. In McLuhan's view, the archetypes as we know them are actually cliches of desacralized tribal "gods" (as personifications understood in their own cultures to have valid moral and spiritual exegeses.). The Greek gods were desacralized, abandoned in real life when they were reduced to cliches, but were retrieved by, for example, the Romans and, later, by Renaissance-era scholars. This, he argues, is a mental "game" in which images became increasingly more cliche-like in their content, as a result of media, although they retain their archetypal or transpersonal ground. In fact, McLuhan would probably have argued that images can not retain their archetypal ground without becoming cliches.

The reason, he argues, is that as media drench the environment but remain primarily unconscious, they must appropriate common imagery:

Is it not natural that, as any form whatever becomes environmental and unconscious, it should select as 'content' the most common and vulgar and environmental of materials? As any form becomes environmental, it tends to be soporific. That is why its content must also become innocuous in order to match the effects of the medium. (McLuhan, p. 338).

The job of the artist, he argues, is to reveal the dialect between old and emerging forms -- or to put it another way, to help integrate this shadow expression.

At MindWave, the programmer did indeed reverse the archetypal imagination. He seized the banal images of a robotic human and a clockworks city -- cliches worse than you see on the average sci-fi television program -- but I am not certain, as McLuhan maintains, that they are redeemed ultimately by leading us back to the archetypal ground. Does the "innocuous" or the "banal" or "common" or "vulgar" necessarily mirror the archetypal, as he argues? If the archetype underlying this robotic cliche is something like the Ultimate Cartesian Man, where is its capacity to address us in the full range of its autonomous experience? Certainly not at Mindwave. It is a cartoon, a shadow of the figures that bloom from the ground in Rimbaud's imagination.

We certainly can't say, 35 years after McLuhan began writing, that the Electronic Age is mature, much less become superseded , so that its meanings have all become visible. Perhaps, though, we can say that one aspect of it, television, has matured. With the broad use of cable programming, VCR technology, satellite access, special-interest stations and round-the-clock real-time news programming, we probably can say that we have, by McLuhan's structural definitions been retribalized as far as television technology goes. But can we say that the feeling functions and nonsequential thinking have actually been elevated to the extent of recapturing community or "tribal" values? Can we say that, say, MTV's nonlinear programming represents, as McLuhan predicted, a significant enrichment of the imaginative, emotional and sensory life beyond, say, the experience of teenagers in the 1950s? Has that happened anywhere in the world, among any "tribe," under the influence of television?

On the contrary, the landscape of television remains as much a wasteland as ever -- more violent than ever and more commercial than ever, with advertising even invading public broadcasting. The strongest example of the continuing diminishment of soul in television was CNN's real-time coverage of the Gulf War, a bizarrely bloodless depiction of enormous carnage effected by electronically guided missiles. CNN spent hours celebrating the killing technology and very little time describing the pain and suffering. Ironically it was this very nationalism that McLuhan most looked forward to seeing eliminated by "retribalization" through television.


These particular issues -- ongoing disembodiment and reversal of the imagination -- do not go unnoticed in contemporary discussion. In fact they are pivotal concerns. Interestingly, apologists do tend to characterize cyberspace as symptom or shadow.

The ubiquitous Camille Paglia, one of our culture's main advocates for the parity of pop and fine arts, frequently argues that American society has become obsessed with television re-runs in order to create a new collective memory: the cliche as archetype, in other words. To Pagilia, the content of the images is irrelevant (for, in McLuhan's words, "the medium is the message"). But another view is that the banal content of media is itself symptomatic of our lost connections with one another, of our need to restore soul to the world. A psyche possessed by the language and imagery of the Brady Bunch is surely different from one possessed by the imagery of , say, the family in Miller's "Death of a Salesman." But which is the more pervasive image in our culture? The Brady Bunch, of course. And which is the more accurate? "Death of a Salesman's" of course.

The quality and authenticity of images -- by which I do mean to imply their soulfulness -- seem to be matters of great indifference, even to Derrick de Kerchove, McLuhan's heir, who holds the chair of the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology at St. Michael's College in Toronto. He says we should "embrace" these banal images. Perhaps, though, he means for us to embrace them in the sense that we must make the shadow conscious (although I feel certain that is not Paglia's intent).

He suggests something quite interesting, after all: "As you eliminate your body on the Web, you recuperate it in your physical location" (de Kerchove, p. 149). In other words, if you enter cyberspace -- as I did at MindWave -- you will have an (extreme) compensatory experience of recuperation of your physicality. My objection to this point of view, is that it doesn't account for the fact that the cyber topography itself creates the need for the compensatory experience, regardless of what preceded it. The body reacts profoundly to its disembodiment, regardless of awareness, it seems. What (besides data) is gained in the process? Awareness of the need for tactility and presence in the world? One could also say that hypnosis is followed by an experience of falling back into the body, but one doesn't seek to be hypnotized to learn that one has a body. (One imagines a variation on an old joke: "Why did the Little Moron visit cyberspace? Because it felt so good to have a body when he came back.") This is pure apologism. No, something more is operating in the disembodiment of the cyber traveler.

Clifford Stoll, author of Silicon Snake Oil (1995), has an answer: compulsion or "addiction." An astronomer (and therefore already accustomed to being "disembodied), Stoll actually helped develop the Internet, became "addicted" to it, and now works to debunk it. His book, more than any other, reveals the hype, the banality, the commercialism and the sheer meanness and lunacy of many people inhabiting cyberspace. For Stoll, the Internet and the World Wide Web are at best superficially entertaining but have a powerful dark side.

Any regular visitor to chat rooms or news groups knows that cyberspace is a place where people say things to one another that they would never say in face-to-face conversation. Disembodiment of course confers the safety of anonymity and physical distance. The absence of the gestural body's visual cues tends to promote confusion and misreading which result in the insult-swapping called flame-wars. The disowned aspects of the psyche, in short, blossom in the bodiless black hole of the Net.

Most ironically but also backhandedly supportive of de Kerchove's view, the Internet literally becomes the container for the culture's bodily sexual shadow. It is filled with every pornographic image imaginable. And, if the disembodiment produces the effect of trying to recapture physicality, it is nowhere more clearly seen than in Internet Relay Chat or America Online "chat rooms," which are almost entirely sexual, their names reading like a menu that might surprise Krafft-Ebing.

As Bachelard comments repeatedly in The Poetics of Space, you cannot occupy any space without eventually animating it with the imagination. From a metaphysical perspective, even when I was lying paralyzed on the bed at MindWave, I was in (passive) dialog with an eruption of the shadow of the world soul. In short, the medium does heighten the desire for physicality but in its shadow expression. The process becomes quite compulsive for millions of people, Stoll maintains. Again, this is not a consciously undertaken process. It is axiomatic that we always return, unconsciously, to what we disown because the psyche demands integration and resolution. The medium becomes the shadow's sexual massage, to paraphrase McLuhan, and the bearer of our hostility toward one another. But it does nothing to help us out of this cycle. The cyber visitor seeks relief from his symptom...in the symptom.

To my mind, the most cogent analysis of the ways in which soul is banished from cyberspace belongs to Robert Sardello. He pays homage to McLuhan in both his books, Love and the Soul (1995) and Facing the World with Soul (1992), but he also exposes the inflation of his theories. For Sardello, it is beside the point that McLuhan makes the (dubious) claim that television and the computer are "cool" tactile rather than "hot" visual media because video pixil-images require "filling-in" by the viewer.

Sardello sees this phenomenologically: Yes, the viewer and the screen co-construct from "a rapidly moving series of dots" an image, but it is soulless because it is only a "shadowy" reproduction of real life. (Sardello, 1992, p. 106).

For Sardello, soul starts in the sensate world. So, in his view, it is a given that because television distances us from reality, it also diminishes its emotional content -- thus explaining how it is possible to view the Gulf War as a kind of grand video game. Further, he argues, the computer is by nature reductionistic. Life for the cyber addict becomes a series of problems to be solved rather than transformed. (Sardello, 1992, p. 107). As a consequence, he says, what is really operating in cyberspace is a faux-soul, a psychopathic soul -- one that prizes efficiency and expediency above all else and reduces emotional interactions to gamesmanship. I would go so far as to say that cyberspace is the main bearer of the culture's current diagnoses. The disembodiment is by definition dissociative and identity becomes remarkably fluid....or "multiple." Because identity so easily becomes a response to the environment and other disembodied entities, the entire inhabited topography has borderline characteristics.


I have here viewed mainly the effects of traveling in cyberspace as a tourist -- not as an active fashioner of it. The World Wide Web is now composed of millions of personal "home pages" of mainly banal imagery (Stoll) which do nothing to advance the argument that the soul, rather than its shadow or psychopathic form, is constellating itself there. These millions of pages say largely nothing interesting about the people who constructed them. As pieces of self-construction, they are themselves composed mainly of the flotsam and jetsam of contemporary culture -- another Frankensteinian fantasy, which, try as she might, Camille Paglia would have difficulty explaining away as more than a defense against authentic or soulful expression.

On the other hand I have given the medium little credit for the way it does facilitate certain forms of communication. And, finally, I haven't observed the obvious: Like television, cyberspace is not going away.

How do we regard it, then?

Sardello writes that we must withdraw our fantasies of technological salvation and return to the cultivation of soul in the natural world, but he is not very articulate in how to do that.

I looked to Goethe's Faust for advice. Faust's struggle is the reconciliation of the ego and the Self. In a way, we can view the McLuhanistic fantasy of retribalization as an alchemical coniunctio of science (technology, the ego) and the Self's yearning for the greater other of the electronic anima mundi, an analogue of the mythic or transpersonal in Faust. When Faust has even a momentary experience of the coniunctio -- as at the end of the first act -- there is always an alchemical byproduct, like the homunculus at the outset of Act 2 (Goethe, 1976). But it always aborted by Faust's unconscious orientation.

It occurred to me that the silvered robotic-like human I encountered at MindWave was a homunculus of sorts. Edward Edinger (1990) and Alice Raphael (1960) both describe the homunculus as a manifestation of the Philosopher's Stone, a paradoxical union of the organic and inorganic realms. Edinger writes that "the homunculus signifes the birth of the conscious realization of the autonomous psyche. In dreams it may appear as a doll or statue which comes to life, representing the ego's dawning awareness of a second psychic center, the Self" (p. 62). This is certainly one fair physical description of the figure I encountered at MindWave.

If one regards the "program" at MindWave as a dreamlike eruption of this knowledge in a shadow aspect, the viewer's orientation is not likely to be very different from Faust's orientation toward Homunculus: He remains ignorant of its meaning. In the play, in fact, he travels to the mythic Underworld in search of Helen while, above, Homunculus falls in love with the sea goddess Galatea. Faust's continuing unconscious orientation, then, renders Homunculus a symptom, a shadow expression. Homunculus responds by hurling himself at the feet of Galatea, the goddess, killing himself and merging with the ocean. Says Thales before this calamity: "He longs to be embodied...And there's another difficulty...he's a hermaphrodite."

The difference in plot between MindWave's program and Faust is, of course, that the former's author is as unconscious as Goethe's character, so that the story has no meaning other than a symptomatic one , no moral content -- only the meaning Paglia and de Kerchove (sadly) advance as validation of the medium. It is true, as I experienced, that taking on the symptom at MindWave produced a strong compensatory and bodily hunger in me akin to Homunculus' crashing himself at the throne of Galatea. But I, virtually hypnotized, crashed myself in the mall. In other words, unlike Faust, MindWave's program does nothing to guide one to an experience of soul falling into the body, to individuation. Shall we call it aversion therapy without a goal?

We really do have no choice but to embrace cyberspace as we must embrace any other symptom or expression of the shadow. But it is essential, as Sardello and Stoll suggest in their separate ways, that we realize the symptom points toward our cultural healing. It is not the healing itself. The inflated expectations we have developed about cyberspace and retribalization resemble Faust's compulsion to remain unconscious in the face of his own lived experience. Time and again, he attempts by the force of ego to subjugate the Self.

Faust, in Goethe's writing of the legend, is redeemed in heaven by the anima, represented as Gretchen, the woman whose innocence he spoiled and, by his actions, condemned to death. This is fitting, for the play's prologue actually is set in heaven and we learn that the drama that is to ensue is a result of a wager between God and Mephistopheles. In other words, as Edinger notes (p. 94), the struggle begins in the numinosum, the transpersonal Self.

And so, whenever we approach cyberspace (or any other technology), we must stop and ask, as Faust never did for very long, if soul is being served or disserved by the temporary abdication of the body. We may make a decision to leave the body for the ego's need -- to gather information, to send mail, to drive a car, for that matter -- but to absorb ourselves in the medium with the fantasy of salvation through retribalization is to actually take on the symptom of the banished anima mundi.

Better, as Sardello (1995) suggests, to grieve the world's soul, or, as Rimbaud puts it, to sacralize the disorder of the mind which perceives, in its spontaneous imaging, the Underworld breaking through the surface of the earth. Ultimately, cyberspace's imagery deprives the imagination of its spontaneity.


Bachelard, Gaston (1994). Trans. Maria Jolas. The Poetics of Space. Boston: Beacon Press.

de Kerchove, Derrick (1996). What Would McLuhan Say? Wired Magazine, Oct. 1996, p. 148

Edginger, Edward (1990) Goethe's Faust: Notes for a Jungian Commentary. Toronto: Inner City Books.

Goethe, Johann Wolfgan von (1976). Trans. Walter Arndt, Faust. New York: W.W. Norton.

McLuhan, Marshall (1995). Essential McLuhan, Eric McLuhan and Frank Zingrone, eds. New York: HarperCollins.

Raphael, Alice (1965). Goethe and the Philosopher's Stone: Symbolic Patterns in the Parable and the Second Part of Faust. London: Routledge.

Rimbaud, Arthur (1961). Trans. Louise Varese. A Season in Hell and The Drunken Boat. New York: New Directions.

Romanyshyn, Robert (1989). Technology as Symptom and Dream. London and New York: Routledge.

Sardello, Robert (1992). Facing the World with Soul: The Reimgination of Modern Life. Hudson, NY: Lindisfarne Press.

Sardello, Robert (1995). Love and the Soul: Creating a Future for Earth. New York: HarperCollins.

Stoll, Clifford (1995). Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway. New York: Anchor.

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