Misrecognising Narcissus

Mark Fisher


Narcissus now Any number of critiques of modern society advance the idea that this is a “narcissistic” age: self-obsessed, status-oriented, fixated on appearance. But these moralistic complaints have little to do with McLuhan’s idea that in mass mediated society we are in a state of “Narcissus trance”. McLuhan increasingly elected to strike a cool pose, retreating from moralistic comment, and preferring to cast himself as playfully probing the media environment from inside the maelstrom. The “narcissus trance” does not describe a special kind of pathology; it refers to everyday immersion in the media environment. Ironically, it is most acute in those who believe that media technologies are neutral tools that they can manipulate. McLuhan’s case in point: General David Sarnoff's argument that “We are too prone to make technological instruments the scapegoats for the sins of those who wield them. The products of modern science are not in themselves good or bad; it is the way that they are used that determines their value.” For McLuhan, this is the Narcissus delusion. Media may not be “good” or “bad” in themselves, but “any medium has the power of imposing its own assumption on the unwary. Prediction and control consist in avoiding this subliminal state of Narcissus trance.” There’s a paradox already: prediction and control depend on accepting the extent to which agency and perception are now partially contracted out to the media-landscape.


The Other is I “The youth Narcissus,” McLuhan wrote in his best-known book Understanding Media, “mistook his own reflection in the water for another person. This extension of himself by the mirror numbed his perceptions until he became the servomechanism of his own extended or repeated image. Now the point of this myth is the fact that men at once become fascinated by any extensions of themselves in any material other than themselves.” 1 The significance of this return to the Narcissus myth has little to do with the standard complaints that media culture leads to preening self-regard. Correcting this misperception, McLuhan wrote that “the wisdom of the Narcissus myth does not convey any idea that Narcissus fell in love with anything he regards as himself. Obviously he would have had very different feelings about the image had he known it was an extension or repetition of himself.” Narcissus’s problem, then, is not self-love, but misrecognition. “The mirror is a metaphor for a medium which is an extension of ourselves, and provides a fantasy of wholeness and self-sufficiency, but is misrecognised as an external object of mastery, an other.” 2


Uncomfortably numb How does this misrecognition come about? McLuhan tells us that “the Greek word narcosis, or numbness” is the etymological root shared by the words “narcotics” and ”narcissism.” The “sense of the Narcissus myth”, McLuhan writes, is that “[t]he young man’s image is a self-amputation or extension induced by irritating pressures. As counter-irritant the image produces a generalized numbness or shock that declines recognition. Self-amputation forbids self-recognition.” 3 McLuhan’s gnomic theses derive in part from Freud’s astonishing retrospeculative account of the traumatic formation of the organism in Beyond The Pleasure Principle. Freud argues there that “[p]rotection against stimuli is an almost more important function for the living organism than reception of stimuli” and that the organism itself can only develop once “its outermost surface ceases to have the structure proper to living matter” 4. A mortification of this outer layer – or, in McLuhan’s terms an “autoamputation” – is the precondition for all organic interiority.


Hydraulic jacks The more cyberblitzed we are by media signal, the more numbed we become. “Today, when the environment has become the extension of the entire mesh of the nervous system,” McLuhan wrote in his essay Notes On Burroughs, “anaesthesia numbs our bodies into hydraulic jacks.” 5


Misrecognition and modernity McLuhan’s account of the traumatic autoamputation of subjectivity can be positioned as a moment within the broader sweep of modernity. Marx and Freud, the two major theorists of modernity, made a double move. On the one hand, they argued that what we experienced as alien and alluring (the commodity as/and/ or the object of desire) derives its power not from its own qualities, but from projected - disavowed fragments of “ourselves” while, on the other hand, what we experience as interiority is a space controlled by exterior forces. “[T]he productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race,” 6 as Marx put it. In this respect, modernity could be defined as the reflexive critique of fetishism. Fetishism was initially posited by colonists as a primitive form of religion which European culture had overcome but Freud and Marx maintained that modern culture is itself deeply fetishistic – all the more so because it does not – indeed cannot - recognise the way that a fetishistic logic conditions what is experienced as psychological and social reality.
The contribution of psychoanalysis – especially in its Lacanian variants – was to have pushed this critique of fetishism to its limits. A certain kind of humanism demands that Narcissus re- integrate into himself the imagos and fantasmatic objects that he took for Others, so that he can thereby regain an allegedly lost wholeness. But for psychoanalysis, there was no originary coherent subjectivity which was only afterwards accidentally split into self and (disavowed) other. On the contrary, misrecognition is a necessary precondition for subjectivity. The Lacanian imaginary self “exists only the basis of the misrecognition of its own conditions; it is the effect of this misrecognition. ... In other words, to abolish the misrecognition means at the same time to abolish, to dissolve, the ‘substance’ which was supposed to hide itself behind the form-illusion of misrecognition.” 7 It’s no accident that, for Lacan, this misrecognition is initially achieved by means of the medium of a mirror. (Equally, it’s no accident that for Marx commodity fetishism was achieved by means of the medium of capital.)


Extensions of man silently murder other possible worlds McLuhan’s famous image of media as “extensions of man” must also be seen in the light of misrecognition and autoamputation. As with many of McLuhan’s probe-concepts, the image of “extensions of man” is profoundly ambivalent. The extension is not simply an augmentation of the power of the human organism, and there is more at stake in McLuhan’s work on media than an anticipation of the now hackneyed discourse of the cyborg. For sure, like Samuel Butler, Norbert Wiener and Gregory Bateson, McLuhan sees the human-organic as inseparable from the techno-inorganic – humanity can no more do without its inorganic media-technological extensions than a crab can do without its shell. Each extension augments – or to use McLuhan’s preferred term, enhances – particular human capacities, but it does so at the cost of diminishing other capacities (“an extension of man is never a laughing matter, since it silently murders other possible worlds” 8), at the same time as it imposes its own (techno)logic. The more crucial an extension turns out to be, the more invisible it – and the logic it secretes – becomes. “To extend the hand with a hammer does not usually draw our attention to the hammer; instead, it inaugurates a world in which reeds and bones have lost all prestige as obstacles. To enhance something does not mean to turn it into a floodlit rock star, but rather into a soundless electric or magnetic field.” 9


Fish don’t know water exists until they are beached For McLuhan, media are not tools, but environments, and environments function only once they have receded from conscious attention; like the cliché, about which McLuhan also has a great deal to say, environments are “‘cognized’ or absorbed without being ‘recognized’ or realized for consciousness.” 10 In an image McLuhan returns to many times in his work, the one thing that fish don’t see is water. Similarly, Narcissus doesn’t misrecognise the media-mirror; rather, he misrecognises his mirror-image as an Other only because he doesn’t see the mirror at all.


Make it happen Those familiar with the work of philosopher Graham Harman will note the resonances between this account of media as recessive-subterranean equipment and Harman’s own rogue reading of Heidegger. For Harman, Heidegger’s crucial insight comes out of the famous “broken tool” analysis in Being and Time. When a tool is being used, it retreats from attention into a world of silent functionality, but when a tool is made the object of attention, it is no longer being used; it is effectively broken. Thus the being of the tool can never be accessed by conscious attention; it remains always partially veiled. It’s no surprise, then, that Harman is an enthusiastic reader of McLuhan. As he observes in his essay “The McLuhans and Metaphysics”, Marshall and Eric McLuhan’s definition of being in Laws Of Media is practically a restatement of Heidegger’s core philosophy: “being is multidimensional and environmental and admits of no point of view. As with any other ground, Being cannot be perceived directly; it has to be seen by side-effects.” 11 The world of silent functionality into which a tool recedes is the media environment, which is partly why McLuhan claimed that media are “make-happen” agents rather than “make-aware” agents. Media are “communicational” in the geographers’ sense: think of a road or a canal rather than a letter. Or, rather, think of a letter as like a road or a canal.
As Harman identifies, McLuhan’s thinking here was influenced not by Heidegger directly but by gestalt psychology. “According to the gestalt model, any perception has some explicit focus, a foreground of which it is constantly aware. But this conscious figure is visible only against a tacit background that is also perceived without being explicitly present.” 12


Being ahead of your time is seeing what’s in front of you Who is it that can bring these “tacit backgrounds” into view? For McLuhan, the technocrat, hypnotised by the power of the machine, is no closer than the everyday gadget-user to perceiving the contours of the environment. Only artists, those who can construct a “counter-environment”, are capable of bringing the media environment into view. Self-understanding lags behind what people actually do. New media-logics stealthily impose themselves while we look in the rearview mirror, importing concepts from the past to explain what is actually in front of us. “Artists, being experts in sensory awareness, tend to concentrate on the environmental as the challenging and dangerous situation. That is why they may seem to be ‘ahead of their time.’ Actually, they alone have the resources and temerity to live in immediate contact with the environment of their age. More timid people prefer to accept the content, the previous environment’s values, as the continuing reality of their time. Our natural bias is to accept the new gimmick (automaton, say) as a thing that can be accommodated in the old ethical order.” 13


The user illusion But artists are by no means the only agents capable of snapping out of narcissus trance. In the era of Web 2.0, consumer electronics and computer literacy (now there’s a term which exemplifies rearview-mirror thinking), there are all manner of consultant-manipulates and hype-engineers who can also control “the future” because they see the present. They deliberately build rearview mirrors into all the new architecture of Web 2.0, making users feel that they are empowered, participating, involved - convincing all the digital Narcissuses that there is, after all, a substance to their subjectivity. Ask yourself this: what does the “i” in iPod stand for? When Microsoft says “I’m a PC”, what is the “I”? “I” codes for the interpassive subject of communicative capitalism, always plugged in but always alone. “Instead of leading to more equitable distributions of wealth and power, instead of enabling the emergence of a richer variety in modes of living and practices of freedom,” Jodi Dean argues, “the deluge of screens and spectacles coincides with extreme corporatization, financialization, and privatization across the globe. Rhetorics of access, participation, and democracy work ideologically to secure the technological infrastructure of neoliberalism, an invidious and predatory politico-economic project that concentrates assets and power in the hands of the very rich, devastating the planet, and destroying the lives of billions of people.” 14 Yet there’s no way back through the (rearview) mirror. The possibilities for a different politics depend upon waking from narcissus trance and seeing the new potentials in what is in front of us. But McLuhan’s most important lesson is that what is in front of us is the hardest thing of all to recognise.


1 McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, p41
2 Glenn Wilmott, McLuhan, or Modernism in Reverse, (Toronto, Buffalo, London: University of Toronto Press, 1996)
3 McLuhan, ibid, p41
5 McLuhan, Notes On Burroughs, available online at
6 Karl Marx, Capital¸ Volume 1, Chapter 3
7 Slavoj Zizek, The Sublime Object of Ideology, (London and New York; Verso, 1989) p68
8 Harman, p110
9 Harman, ibid, 112
10 Willmott, ibid, p148
11 Marshall McLuhan and Eric McLuhan, Laws of Media: the New Science, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988), p59
12 Harman, ibid, p109
13 McLuhan, Notes On Burroughs
14 Jodi Dean, Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies: Communicative Capitalism and Left Politics, (Durham and London: Duke University, 2009) , 23


‘Misrecognising Narcissus’ was commissioned for Narcissus Trance, a group exhibition and performance programme curated by Shama Khanna and Paul Purgas at E:vent Gallery, London and Spike Island, Bristol during 2010-11.