McLuhan Studies : Issue 5

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Alessandro Tempi



by Alessandro Tempi


Marshall McLuhan wrote in 1974 that the evolutionary circle of the world's technological containedness—which Mallarmé had foreseen ("The world," he said, "exists to end in a book")—ends with the opening of the space age. We live in a global theatre where men have the ambiguous and not completely meditated privilege of being simultaneously spectators and actors. Besides, if it is true, as Umberto Galimberti has maintained for a long time, that men have not always lived in the world so much as in descriptions of it, mightn’t the "containedness" be interpreted as the result of the historical destiny of description? Isn’t the very act of describing things an act of containing them inside the stable margins and reassuring outlines of a representative order?


We need therefore to meditate on the privilege which we humans are given of living a world which cannot contain more than it is already contained. The time has come to ask ourselves those questions urged on us by the global condition of being-contained. What is the actual capability of human thought, which often still clings to deceptive humanistic and anthropocentric habits? How can we adequately perceive, and then answer, the challenge of living in a world where not only have we neglected nature but where we are still largely incapable of thinking about and facing critically the condition of its being-contained?


Now, I don't mean that this thinking should necessarily be more abstract or scientific reasoning (for this kind of reasoning culminated in the present state of being-containedness). On the contrary: on this point, such intellectually disparate thinkers as McLuhan and Heidegger seem surprisingly to agree: Aristotelian-Cartesian-style thinking brought us the world of being-contained. It works in terms of containers and containedness. But now we need another kind of thinking if we are to come to grips with the situation in which we find ourselves.


We could call this thought disenchantment with the enchantment of the world's being-contained (that is with the existence of this containedness which acts everywhere but which is so pervasive that it cannot be noticed). We could also call it, reasonably, aesthetic thought, for two reasons. One, it finds in the visual Arts the primary sources of its discourse (as in fact it happens in McLuhan as well as in Heidegger). And two, it lends the greatest and strongest aesthetic disposition to think about the world in terms of disillusionment and demythologization. An aesthetic thought is also a hermeneutic thought, one which interprets and its object exactly as if it were an Art form.


The uneasy enchantment of the world's technological containedness can therefore be broken by considering the world as an Art form, an aesthetic object. This kind of attention is obviously not peculiar to philosophers and critics but, on the contrary, belongs more to Artists; to these, as we know, McLuhan assigned the task of creating counter-environments able to reveal and demythologize the world's being-contained. The creative task which Art undertakes in its relation with the world is no less serious than the lay tasks of rational science, and in this sense we can state that the world itself can be translated today—as McLuhan noticed thirty years ago—into a real Art form, whose aim is to expose and criticize the dimension of being-contained inside a man-made environment.


Only if we are able to think the world as an Art form (which means as the object of a creative aesthetic thought) we will manage to break the technological enchantment of its blinding obviousness. This being-contained represents today the new foundations of the world because, on the one hand, it makes the world accessible, usable, spendable; on the other hand, it returns it to us with all the ethical responsibilities which ownership implies. Restitution is also, however, re-institution: it allows us to rethinkand re-define our relation with the world by de-mythicizing its being-contained. Re-institution becomes in turn a destitution of the inevitability and absoluteness of every kind of environmental pressure.


The road to this re-institution can be taken by means of an authentic aesthetic-creative thought, able to realize how the question of its relation with the world calls today for complete awareness of the world’s transition to Art form.


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