Shadow of the Cultural Imagination?
by Cliff Bostock
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
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.
MARSHALL McLUHAN'S TRIBAL VISION
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
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
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
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.
APOLOGISTS AND CRITICS
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
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,
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
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:
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:
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
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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