Loss of Identity, Violence & Nostalgia


The message

A Marshall McLuhan centennial

By Joshua Hunt , Vanguard staff, Tuesday, February 15, 2011

“We have never stopped interfering drastically with ourselves by every technology we could latch onto,” Marshall McLuhan said in 1966. “We have absolutely disrupted our lives over and over again. Unimpeded, the logic of this sort of world is stasis.”

July 21, 2011 will mark 100 years since the birth of the media scholar and author of “The Medium is the Message,” who died on the final day of 1980. McLuhan stepped only one year into the decade that would see many of his theories on the future of media come to full bloom—the burgeoning ecology of media, birth of the global village and end of private identity.

McLuhan was fond of quoting Shakespeare, perhaps never with greater effect than in his famous lecture “The Future of the Future is the Present.” It is his affection for the great bard that leads me to believe McLuhan chose his words carefully, which makes his choice of words particularly interesting when he said that man uses technology to interfere with himself. Self-interference is, of course, a well-known euphemism for masturbation, and was above mention for neither the playwright nor the media scholar.

McLuhan believed deeply in man’s need to comfort his self from the onslaught of a world that seemed hostile from birth, and while masturbation is the act of physically imitating creation, it is in creating false media environments that man has found the greatest comfort for his psyche.

Were McLuhan alive today, he would perhaps take great interest in two particular aspects of modern society. The first of these aspects is the increasingly violent nature of our world, in both the physical world and its various media counterparts.

“When you live out on the frontier, you have no identity, you are a nobody, therefore you get very tough,” he said in 1977. “You have to prove you are somebody, and so you become very violent…ordinary people find the need for violence as they lose their identities.”

What does this say about a world where violence, both real and imagined, increases at a rate matched only by the proliferation of new media? I believe it says that media is responsible for a world that is increasingly violent, but not in a manner that censoring sex and violence is capable of curbing. The nature of media is that which it is given by man, and we have given it the nature of removing from us our natural selves. We relinquish aspects of our identity so that we might take shelter in the constructs that we have created to shield us from the harsh frontiers we encounter. At each new threshold, collective identity is lost, and with each new loss comes an increase in our capacity for violence.

If Marshal McLuhan had lived to see his 100th year in 2011, he might have marveled less at our technology than at our hunger for nostalgia. It was an area of particular interest for the author and media scholar, who said that one result of the electronic age would be a loss of private identity owing to the discarnate being that one becomes when broadcast electronically. Lacking a physical body in the electronic sphere, one’s relationship to the world around them changes.

“One of the big marks of the loss of identity is nostalgia, revivals of clothing, dances, music and shows,” he said. “We live by the revival, it tells us who we are, or were.”

Thus I commemorate Marshall McLuhan’s discarnate being, which lives on through his own self-interferences, with the most sincere sense of nostalgia of which one is capable. ■ http://www.psuvanguard.com/arts-culture/the-message-1.2469137

Comment: This is a muddled commentary. The increasing violence of our present time that this writer describes, is nothing compared to the violence of the last century. As for loss of identity, the opposite seems to be happening today, as ethnic communties reassert themselves and break away, or attempt to, from larger nation states: Slovakia from Czechoslovakia, Southern Sudan from Sudan, Scotland from Great Britain, Quebec from Canada, the Muslim regions of Russia.

5 Responses to “Loss of Identity, Violence & Nostalgia”

  1. Two of my intellectual touchstones for understanding nostalgia are Julian Jaynes and Corey Robin. The former explains how nostalgia is the core of egoic consciousness, as it first emerged in the proto-individualism of the Axial Age. And the latter shows how nostalgia is the powerful engine of the reactionary mind. Both will help one grasp why identity is intertwined with nostalgia.

    It isn’t only about identities being lost but also being remade. And over time, as past identities become hazy, we cling ever more strongly to the identities that replace them. Nostalgia obscures how radical are these new identities. Consider that ethno-nationalism was non-existent until recent centuries. Many Europeans and Americans continued to identify with the cultures of local communities or regions, until the world war era.


  2. 2 Peter Cullen

    “As for loss of identity, the opposite seems to be happening today, as ethnic communties reassert themselves and break away, or attempt to, from larger nation states: Slovakia from Czechoslovakia, Southern Sudan from Sudan, Scotland from Great Britain, Quebec from Canada, the Muslim regions of Russia.”

    McLuhan predicted this in describing how instantaneous electronic media would ‘retribalize’ the species. Which again can be seen as a form of nostalgia.


  3. You’re right if identity is nothing more than national, tribal or ancestral identity. But surely personal identity is more than that.


  4. 4 Peter Cullen

    “But surely personal identity is more than that”

    Yes, for sure, I agree with you. The part in quotes in my post comes from the last paragraph added to the article above not from me. That last paragraphs begins with “Comment: This is a muddled commentary.”


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