Narcissus Narcosis & Autoamputation


Echo and Narcissus by John William Waterhouse (1903)

On the Narcosis of Narcissus

By Christopher S. Morrissey  –  June 13, 2019

He could not go.
He wanted neither to eat nor to sleep.
Only to lie there — eyes insatiably
Gazing into the eyes that were no eyes.
This is how his own eyes destroyed him.
— Ted Hughes, “Narcissus”

Unknowingly he desires himself, and
the one who praises is himself praised, and,
while he courts, is courted,
so that, equally, he inflames and burns.
How often he gave his lips in vain to the deceptive pool,
how often, trying to embrace the neck he could see,
he plunged his arms into the water,
but could not catch himself within them!
What he has seen he does not understand,
but what he sees he is on fire for, and
the same error both seduces and deceives his eyes.
— Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book III, trans. A.S. Kline

In Chapter 4 of Understanding Media (1964), “The Gadget Lover: Narcissus as Narcosis,” Marshall McLuhan describes how technological innovations furnish us with extensions of our own selves, even though we do not realize it. McLuhan notes that narcosis is a Greek word that means “numbness.” Narcissus was so numbed by the image of himself reflected on the water that he did not realize that he was looking at himself. The same is true of us when we use our hi-tech gadgets.

It has become a cliché to say that people who take selfies are “narcissistic.” But perhaps McLuhan can help us redeem this cliché. The sort of Narcissus-narcosis that we experience when we take selfies with our smartphone cameras is significant not so much because it is evidence of vanity. It may very well be. But it need not be. In fact, the number of people taking selfies is so large that it is probably too crude and reductionistic to say that they are all “narcissistic,” as if they are all excessively vain. Rather, it is more accurate to say that everyone with a smartphone is narcissistic in McLuhan’s sense: They are so numb that they do not realize these smartphones are extensions of their own selves. We are all Narcissus now.

That is because it would be a mistake to think that these devices are mere tools, which can be used and not used at will. Rather, they have now become part of our own selves, and to discard them would be a form of total suicide. Therefore, we should turn our attention to our induced numbness instead. How is it that we have become so numb that we do not realize that these gadgets are extensions of our own bodily powers? Like Narcissus, how is that we fail to realize they have become an indivisible part of us? Moreover, they have even become part of us in ways we fail to realize. Our dependence is greater than we imagine.

“With the arrival of electric technology,” writes McLuhan, “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.”

In other words, “autoamputation” is a kind of survival mechanism, by which the body tries to cope with the technological change currently transforming the environment. But the form this attempt at survival takes is the construction of idols. In fact, any use of technology is likened by McLuhan to the beholding of idols. On this point, he quotes Psalm 115, in order to suggest how humans can come to conform themselves to the idols that they behold…
Read the rest at

Christopher S. Morrissey is a Fellow of the Adler-Aquinas Institute and lectures in logic and philosophy at Trinity Western University in Canada. He is also the managing editor of The American Journal of Semiotics and author of “Hesiod: Theogony / Works and Days” (Talonbooks, 2012).

Narcissus by Caravaggio

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