Sea Change: James Cameron’s The Abyss as McLuhanian Apocalypse

The Tempest2

James Cameron’s films, Hollywood blockbusters though they are, may also be read in terms of a Canadian sensibility that is prone to problematizing mankind’s relation to technology and communications media, as epitomized by Marshall McLuhan (see Babe 2000; Kroker 1984). The Terminator films are thus based on the idea of the nascent Internet as a nervous system becoming self-aware as the subject of technology and disposing of its human parasites. These dystopian visions have their utopian counterpart in The Abyss, the first major motion picture to use CGI (Computer-Generated Imagery) for “morphing” effects. With the benefit of hindsight, the story and imagery into which the appearance of this new technology was woven in this film beg to be interpreted as metaphors for the shift in consciousness attending the transition from the rigidity of analog technology to the fluidity of digital technology, a watershed that happens to hinge on the year of the film’s release: 1989, during the meltdown of Cold War blocks on the eve of the emergence of the Internet’s borderless global cyberspace.

McLuhan saw the creative artist as an “early warning system,” grasping and imaginatively portraying such shifts in the collective sensorium even ahead of their full unfolding in technology and culture. If we take seriously McLuhan’s assumptions, Cameron’s The Abyss can thus appear in retrospect as a mythic allegory of mutations then still around the corner. It uses Christian motifs to give narrative expression to the world-historical transformations of 1989 as kairos, as theological discourse refers to a moment of utopian opportunity for the revelation of the Kingdom of God within history —or beyond it as Apocalypse. For the end of the Cold War did, for a moment, hold the promise of a humanity freed from ideological and national divisions, to enjoy the peace dividends of unhindered free trade within a global village unified by new technologies.

In the film, the political clash between the Capitalist and Communist blocks is made obsolete along with the warships lifted out of water by the emergence of the aliens’ undersea city under them, after a demonstration of force that dwarfs the build-up to World War III, stopping it in its tracks. A culture clash between military nation-state values and global free enterprise values is hinted at when the boss of the Explorer oil rig comments to his U.S. Navy counterpart: “Looks like you boys might be out of business.” The free spirit and creativity of private contractors is counterpoised to the stifling authoritarianism of the military in many confrontations between the civilian crew and designer of the oil rig’s experimental sea-floor component Deep Core and the team of Marines sent to deal with the mysterious sinking of a U.S. submarine nearby.

This initial incident encapsulates the clash of technological regimes that will reach its utopian resolution in the apocalyptic ending. The submarine is thrown off course into a cliff wall near the Cayman Trench by massive turbulence in the wake of an impossibly fast, unidentified floating object, whose unique sonar signature “doesn’t even sound like screws!” It belongs to a post-industrial technology that hardly creates any friction with its environment and is virtually one with it as a modulation of its unified field that moves through its environment effortlessly, unlike a solid-state product of modern industry that ploughs its way as a separate object, reflecting the print world’s detached subject. Made of discrete mechanical parts as a belated product of the print culture of interchangeable type, a nuclear sub is out of its depth in the dark, audile-tactile ambient space below surface oppositions, in a kingdom of the waves I like to equate to the kingdom of the airwaves, without need for a solid outside reference point: the virtual world of the computer or the Web’s fluid ether. It is for the properties of this new sensorium that the sea, with its heightened acoustic properties, stands as a metaphor throughout the film, echoing the way we speak of “surfing the Internet.” The first attempt to describe its denizens’ unfathomable otherness was cast in tentatively negative terms by the doomed submarine’s sonar engineer: “I can tell you what it’s not: it’s not one of ours.” This definition is enough to make it the enemy within the political logic of the modern State that Lt. Coffey (Michael Biehn), gung-ho leader of the Marines task force on the undersea rig, takes to its limit.

Reflecting the escalating tension and incidents on the surface as the two superpowers warily observe each other and mobilize their troops, Coffey gives in to paranoia over loss of control, by-passing any contextual input from others around him, and relying solely on what is left of a military chain of command to impose desperate measures, such as the arming and delivery to the aliens of one of the submarine’s nuclear warheads. James Cameron already had occasion in Aliens to ridicule the command-and-control fantasies of a Marines officer trying to lead an operation “by the book” over a distance mediated by video technology, and who instead loses control and is soon put out of commission at the first encounter with the unimaginable other of outer space. The Abyss develops this theme into a critique of the fundamental inadequacy of these mechanical military-political structures, inherited from the post-Westphalian age of sovereign territorial states, to a global age poised at the crossroads between the mutually assured destruction of obsolete ideological blocks and an emerging planetary consciousness. Virgil Brigman (Ed Harris), Deep Core’s civilian commander, relates Coffey’s forced withdrawal from the surface logic of the military to his inability to cope with the pressures of a depth environment when he pleads with his separated wife Lindsay (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) to refrain from confronting him, given that “he’s operating on his own cut-off from his chain of command, he’s showing signs of pressure-induced psychosis, and he’s got a nuclear weapon.”

As the rig’s designer, Lindsay mediates between these worlds in collision. On a dive to take care of her damaged brainchild, she comes into literal contact with the alien ship, stroking its sensual, shiny, yielding surface. She acknowledges “something down there” that is “not us”, “not human, but intelligent. A Non-Terrestrial Intelligence.” This non-terrestrial intelligence (NTI) is also a non-territorial intelligence: not earthbound, not tied to anything solid, nor to the sharp edges and boundaries dividing objects from each other in visual space. Lindsay’s tactile experience of it induced the certainty of things unseen and an expansive consciousness which the increasingly paranoid military leader fatally lacks in dealing with what does not fit the binary categories of friend or foe: “We all see what we want to see,” Lindsay explains. “Coffey looks and he sees Russians. He sees hate and fear. You have to look with better eyes than that.” The challenge to change one’s perspective in the face of the unknown is what the film is ostensibly about according to its epigraph from Nietzsche: “When you look into the abyss, the abyss also looks into you.” Here the perspective is no longer that of the self-contained modern subject, peering out into the world through a window that frames it as a collection of objects displayed within the coordinates of homogeneous space around a vanishing point since the Renaissance. The boundless aural space of the abyss calls for a return to the so-called “reverse perspective” of the icon in oral cultures, where the viewer herself is seen amongst vast, shadowless, simultaneous, heterogeneous space. The Marine commander Coffey is unable to take that leap: when he is staring out of a window in a brooding pose, the camera follows his gaze out of the rig horizontally over the edge of the cliff on which it hangs, before swerving to the vertical to show the black abyss of despair and fear into which he is drawn by a kind of vertigo. In this, he is not unlike an unfortunate mariner drawn to the centre of a maelstrom—to take up an image McLuhan was fond of using in his early career—pointing to the alternate possibility of creatively navigating the current out of harm’s way. However, “in The Gutenberg Galaxy and subsequent works McLuhan seeks to immerse himself within that flux” (Cavell, 2002, p. 64), and we will see that in this case, it is really a matter of how one takes the inevitable plunge into the boundless, fathomless space of audile tactility, beyond the reference points of solid visual ground.

The film’s viewpoint even becomes that of the fluid element itself as it forms into a polymorphous “water tentacle” that sets out to explore Deep Core, its agile tip acting in turn as a hand to open doors, as an eye where images form amidst a hazy blur, and as a tactile camcorder reproducing in 3-D the features of humans it playfully attempts to communicate with. This marks the breakthrough in mass culture’s consciousness of CGI as an unsettling demonstration of digital technology’s ability to “morph” into any given form, even the human face. The sinister potential for technological replacement of persons and humankind itself would be dramatized in Terminator 2, where the new T-1000 generation cyborg can pierce humans with an extensible finger similar to the NTI’s water digit. At this stage though, wonder predominates after initial shock, as Lindsay responds to the latter by touching the familiar face it makes: that of her husband Virgil, and tasting the liquid it is made of: “sea water,” she ascertains.

Lindsay is making contact with a mode of experience more than skin-deep, for “ ‘touch’ is not skin but the interplay of the senses, and ‘keeping in touch’ or ‘getting in touch’ is a matter of a fruitful meeting of the senses, of sight translated into sound and sound into movement, and taste and smell” (McLuhan, 1964, p. 60). “Speech is the only medium that uses all the senses at once” (McLuhan, 1964, p. 9), and digital communications follow its pattern in structuring the overall ratio of the senses. For as McLuhan understood early on:

because electronic media were liberating the senses that had been anaesthetized by the domination of the visual sense made possible through print culture, visual space was now being displaced by spaces constructed through the other senses, and together these spaces of the ‘sensorium’ formed a mosaic, a textured space that was neither planar nor linear, but ‘cubist’ as opposed to perspectival” (Cavell 2002, pp. 75-76)

not unlike that of the aliens’ undersea city at the end of The Abyss. Lindsay speculates that its denizens, originally “from some place with similar conditions, cold with dense pressure” (a “cool” tactile space, as McLuhan might have said), “must have learned how to control water at a molecular level,” as IT experts have learned to control all data at a digital level: “they can plasticize it, polymerize it, do whatever they want with it”, as CGI specialists can do with the virtual space of digital technology. “Maybe their whole technology is based on that: controlling water,” adds Virgil; which might translate as: controlling the fluid ether of the mediascape so as to shape the contents of human experience at will.

The water tentacle is also both an eye and a hand reaching into distant locations, in a way reminiscent of the eye-hand coordination of the Web surfer or videogamer. The multisensory, real-time co-presence and distance interaction of interlocutors at both ends is reflected in the way the CGI water tentacle can instantly morph its “finger-tip” into the face of the person it looks at, who can in turn interact with it in real time, by making faces or even touching and tasting it. This non-verbal exchange in an organic-technical interface epitomizes feedback, which for McLuhan “means introducing an information loop or circuit, where before there had been merely a one-way flow or mechanical sequence. Feedback is the end of the linearity that came into the Western world with the alphabet and the continuous forms of Euclidean space.”(McLuhan, 1964, p. 354)

The “Narcissus narcosis,” as McLuhan called the numbness of self-involvement this visual culture has induced in the Western subject, is thus exacerbated in conjunction with the depth narcosis that significantly causes Coffey to make incisions with his knife on his jittery arm as he resentfully listens to the crew’s speculations about the water tentacle. His loss of control over his armed “secular” arm coincides with their fascination for a digital “magical” digit, as though this virtual limb was turning the officer’s physical yet “institutional” limb into a phantom limb, on which he desperately attempts to reassert his authority by inscribing it with traces of the literate world, using a sharp metal object from the realm of Euclidean solids. This fits in with McLuhan’s theory that sensory extension is simultaneously the amputation of the physical organ a new technology replaces, drawing on Hans Selye’s work on The Stress of Life (1956) to show that, when the harmony of the parts of the organism is disrupted, “the body will seek to protect the affected organ by isolating and numbing it. To reintegrate this part of the body with the whole, a counterirritant is required.”(Cavell, 2002, p. 87) Coffey is thus trying to regain control of his obsolescent arm by lacerating it, after having actually but vainly amputated the rival virtual limb from the wider oceanic outside world by shutting a metal door on it, with little effect as the startled, quivering water stump promptly zipped back to its indistinct liquid element. It was in constant touch with its own base in the abyss, unlike Coffey who is himself an amputated arm, cut off from the chain of command of delegated top-down State authority, since he then exclaims he has “no way of warning the surface” where a hurricane is raging, and proceeds to take matters into his own shaky hands by going to “Phase 3”: exploding his nuclear device, against the new, non-human enemy he now recognizes he is facing. He first detains the rig’s civilian crewmembers, urging them to “just stay calm” since “the situation is under control.” When Lindsay tries to reason with him, he does to her “something I’ve wanted to do since we first met”: tape her mouth shut. He thus cuts off the empowered woman’s voice, that will later turn out to be the narrow thread of audio signal guiding Virgil’s free fall, through frigid darkness and irresistible pressure, to the bottom of the sea trench, to repair the damage Coffey has done, by defusing the nuclear bomb he has dropped down there as a pre-emptive strike against the unknown.

There are important visual angles to this allegory of the full dive into what may first seem like an exclusively audile-tactile environment. Virgil faces it head on, with eyes open, “naked” in the new skin of an experimental deep-sea diving suit, as he volunteers to take the plunge into the same fathomless drop where Coffey ended up falling backwards in a disabled pocket submarine, after vainly clinging to the edge of the continental shelf. The futility of trying to fend off with visual paradigms the engulfing audile environment in which mankind is drawn willy-nilly is starkly illustrated by the last images of Coffey caught inside a useless industrial device, within a glass cockpit that is cracking under tactile pressure as the helplessly rigid bubble of his Cartesian headspace has been doing since we first saw him, to finally burst and drown his mad scream in pitch darkness. That round glass globe was reminiscent of the window through which Coffey had been peering into the abyss earlier in the film, and its rigidity offers tactile contrast to the soft contact lenses that Virgil has to put on like fresh eyes before plunging into it, in order to see through the breathable liquid solution that will allow him to withstand its otherwise unbearable pressure. Here, sight is no longer a sense apart from the continuum of the space we move and breathe in, since Virgil’s liquid-filled helmet appears as an eyeball through which he is seen by the fluid environment as much as he sees it. His whole headspace has thus become a flexible lens, ultimately allowing him to see what is at the bottom at the abyss, out of reach of the surface light of Renaissance perspective. It may not be a coincidence that Lindsay is nicknamed “Linz”, which sounds just like “lens”: the technological extension of the body that makes the eyes adjust efficiently to their environment, in this case by dethroning sight from its primacy among the senses and re-inscribing it as but one modality of a broader sensorium, more aptly described in terms of touch and hearing. Once taken to the aliens’ city, Virgil will be able to remove his helmet and take his first deep breath of a new environment, just like a newborn. When Virgil first put on the experimental deep-sea suit, he had struggled in the agony of drowning as his lungs filled with liquid. The Marines’ medic had then urged him to relax into it, not to fight it: “Take it in! We all breathe liquid for nine months. Your body will remember.” Having to regress to a prenatal mode of relating to his life-world, Virgil may also be urged here to return to a pre-literate, oral stage of culture, when the whole body and all the senses used to be involved in an immersive audile-tactile environment.

This process also has a deep resonance with Christian myth, particularly with Christ’s teaching in the Gospel of John (3:5) that “except a man be born again of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God”, which left his disciple Nicodemus wondering how he was supposed to go back into his mother’s womb as an adult. The answer of course is that the new birth from above in the Spirit first requires death to one’s narrow self, which baptism by immersion in water symbolizes as an equivalent of Christ’s voluntary descent into death. Virgil certainly felt like he was dying during his normal choking reaction to the flooding of his lungs; recovering from it, he jokes to Lindsay: “Feels great, you should try it.” “—I already have”, she replies, since the only way she could think of getting out of a fast flooding mini-sub without a suit after their final confrontation with Coffey was to allow herself to drown in near-freezing temperature water, and be brought back lifeless to the rig by Virgil, in hopes he might revive her there. He had barely succeeded in calling her back from the dead after his crewmates had given up, in a kind of Lazarus episode that served as a prelude to his own “passion,” as a willing sacrifice to save the world by passively descending alone in an abyss of cold darkness beyond human endurance to confront and defuse a threat of universal death: the nuclear bomb at the foot of a three-mile deep cliff, ticking away as a declaration of war against a peaceful alien race.

Once he has eventually managed to disarm the warhead aimed at the NTIs by the military gone rogue, Virgil’s near-death experience turns into a close encounter of the third kind when an angelic E.T. leads him into the recesses of the alien city. There, smoothly varied multicolored curves reflect on Virgil’s helmet in a transparent reference to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, where the hero also goes through the vanishing point in a reversal of spatial perspective that turns him into a fetus awaiting birth at a new, cosmic stage of human consciousness. Virgil’s name recalls Dante’s Divine Comedy, where the Mantuan poet is the Florentine’s guide through the netherworld up to Purgatory, after which his beloved Beatrice will take him near the heights of Paradise. In Cameron’s variation on this theme, Virgil’s wife is the one whose voice guides him down the dark abyss, having to let go as an angel takes him into the unearthly light of a “Heavenly Jerusalem” of the deep. Instead of descending from the sky to the earth at the consummation of time as in the Book of Revelation, this “Marine Jerusalem” ascends from the bottom of the ocean to its surface at the end of The Abyss.

On the liquid wall of their city, the aliens show Virgil TV reports of escalating preparations for World War III, interrupted by newsflashes about “an enormous disturbance around the world’s oceans: acoustic shockwaves like tsunamis but without a seismological source … are propagating towards the shorelines of every continent.” It is as though the acoustic space without center or border of the airwaves’ oceanic ether was literally overwhelming the visual space of rival landmasses, with CGI waves looming a thousand feet high over the world’s cities, before they all simultaneously stop in their tracks like the parted Red Sea above Pharaoh’s armies. They then gently recede, to universal relief and Virgil’s puzzlement, since the NTIs had shown him archival footage of nuclear tests, warfare and genocides that justified wiping out a species on the verge of destroying the planet. The aliens were impelled to give humankind another chance by Virgil’s personal enactment of its ability to go beyond narrow individuality to the level of selfless love, as exemplified in his suicidal attempt to save the world from conflict with a superior race, after the rescue against all odds of his drowned estranged wife Lindsay.

There are other powerful examples of such sacrificial love in Cameron’s oeuvre: from Ellen Ripley’s descent into the Alien queen’s lair to save the orphan Newt in Aliens, through a humanized killer robot’s slow suicide in a cauldron of boiling metal in Terminator 2, to the lovers’ successive rescues of each other in Titanic. But this one is most intimately worked through the narrative structure of the entire film, and is charged with symbolism as its central image of the reconciliation of opposites in an all-embracing harmony, like that of the final scene where Virgil and Lindsay are reunited and acknowledge the conjugal unity they form by greeting each other as Mr. and Mrs. Brigman (something Lindsay had resented being called earlier). On a horizontal level, their embrace encapsulates the dissolution of walls of separation between parts of mankind or with its others. From a vertical angle, this nuptial imagery has Christian eschatological overtones. Emerging from the dark depths of the alien city after he had been given up for dead, Virgil reminds one of traditional imagery for triumphant Christ coming out of his grave as the Bridegroom from the bridal chamber. With his Second Coming at the end of time, the Heavenly Jerusalem is also said to come to mankind as a Bridegroom to his bride, in the nuptial joining of a New Heaven and a New Earth. But whereas the Book of Revelation does away with the sea as an ambiguous element out of place in a perfected Creation, The Abyss’ final shot suggests the joining of heaven and the sea instead of the earth. Man and wife embrace on the wet surface of the alien city as though standing on the waves, where bright sunlight glitters in a horizonless two-dimensional pattern of flowing energy, as though this paradisiacal iconic space, shorn of all sharp edges, resulted from the subsumption of physical reality into the airwaves.

This is also vividly suggestive of Wetwares, discussed in 2003 by Richard Doyle (p. 133) as the form in which many hope “we will someday be able to upload our consciousness into computers and thereby effectively attain immortality,” and even salvation. This fantasy would be literally translated to the screen by Cameron in Avatar, albeit in the ostensibly neo-pagan guise of a “return” to a wholly virtual primal nature by way of the transfer of consciousness to a strange new body in a tribal culture, at one with a planetary neural network. Two decades earlier, similar yearnings were expressed in The Abyss in images derived from the Bible, which holds enough fascination for Cameron that he has recently devoted two documentaries to pseudo-scientific “explanations” of the Exodus and the life and death of Jesus. Even in Avatar, he provides a naturalistic cybernetic account of the pantheistic holistic oneness of Navis with Pandora’s ecosystem. At the other temporal end from this primeval alien Eden, it is as though Cameron’s vision of an alien Heavenly Jerusalem in The Abyss was already driven by the same “desire to be wetware”, which according to Richard Doyle “seems to install discursive, material, and social mechanism for the anticipation of an externalized self, a techno-social mutation that is perhaps best characterized as a new capacity to be affected by, addicted to, the future” (Id.).

In that world to come, the tactile pressure difference between outside and inside has apparently ceased to be an issue. When the crewmembers come out of Deep Core unscathed and take their first steps on the “new earth” of the alien city with which they were carried along to the surface from the deep, Lindsay remarks: “We should be dead, we didn’t decompress. They must have done something to us.” These humans have in fact undergone a “sea-change into something rich and strange.” It is as though the bodies of the deep-sea pioneers of a new humanity had been translated to a virtual plane, after the physical and political storm raging on the surface “just sort of blew itself out all of a sudden,” as an unexpected “text message” announced the protagonist’s return from the dead: “VIRGIL BRIGMAN BACK ON THE AIR. HAVE SOME NEW FRIENDS DOWN HERE.” Whereupon the sonar officer of the oil rig Explorer detects something huge “coming up right underneath us,” from “everywhere!” Such is the acoustic character of the all-encompassing, non-local electronic environment engulfing the world and erasing palpable boundaries between its realms. For “when you are on the air you are, in a way, everywhere at once. Electric man is a ‘super angel’” like the non-terrestrial intelligences the “resurrected” Virgil Brigman has joined.

When you are on the telephone you have no body. And, while your voice is there, you and the people you speak to are here, at the same time. Electric man has no bodily being. He is literally dis-carnate. (McLuhan conversation with Pierre Babin 1977, in McLuhan 1999, p. 50)

In contrast to this “new man”, the “old man” experiences anxiety at the electric media’s effect of bypassing the body, rendering it obsolete. Hence Coffey’s desperate self-mutilation and the military’s lunge to mutually assured destruction, out of fear, less of the political enemy than of the destabilizing effect the new sensorium generated by new technologies has on old cultural forms. For McLuhan, “any technology that weakens a conventional identity image creates a response of panic and rage which we call ‘war.’ Heinrich Hertz, the inventor of radio, put the matter very briefly: ‘the consequence of the image will be the image of the consequences’” (McLuhan letter to Robert J. Leuver, C.M.F., 30 July 1969, in McLuhan 1999, p. 92), which the NTIs have shown to Virgil emerging out of the watery stuff of the airwaves. Having seen in the same way what they are capable of doing to mankind because “IT BOTHERS THEM TO SEE US HURTING EACH OTHER,” he types to the literate surface that “THEY SENT US A MESSAGE, HOPE YOU GOT IT.” The message is of course the medium itself: the boundless power of the virtual, electronic environment to wipe away and remake at will the fluid sensorium of the airwaves in which the world is one, whether its human inhabitants like it or not. Their freedom of choice in this New World Order of digital technology comes down to acknowledging an offer they cannot refuse: “THEY WANT US TO GROW UP A LITTLE AND ABANDON CHILDISH THINGS.” This Pauline language for putting off the old man translates into the awesome imagery of a whole war-fleet having the water pulled from underneath it, and coming to rest awkwardly, like discarded toys, on the smooth surface of the emerging “Jerusalem,” as so much outdated industrial hardware amidst the new man’s software.

This goes as well for the exclusive national sovereignty of territorial states, which their navies project at sea. The German political theorist Carl Schmitt was always wary of the rising of global sea powers like the United States against the early modern law of nations and the securing of their power in continental blocks. He was however keenly aware of the technological causes and cultural effects of shifts in what he called the “nomos of the Earth,” that is, the way political sovereignty seizes and apportions the planet in different ways in different eras, depending on whether the main medium for the deployment of power is land, sea, or air. He was therefore distraught by the further fluidification of power that the new medium of the airwaves was speeding on, since for him the essence of being was clearly bounded physical presence and power. “The impenetrability of the body used to be space and power. This is precisely what has ceased to be the case. The unlimited permeability of the airwaves is no longer power but influence. God is dead means: space is dead, corporeity is dead” (Schmitt, Glossarium, 187, 310, cited in Ulmen, 1996, p. 60). In his political theology, this suggested the coming of a world State as the Antichrist, which had been the sovereign State’s function to delay in its capacity as katechon.

Contrary to his reputation as a booster of the new electronic technologies, Marshall McLuhan shared some of Carl Schmitt’s concerns, as another devout Roman Catholic steeped in classical humanism. He thus wondered aloud: “Is the Greco-Roman enterprise simply a political bastion that we can let sink under the electric waves that now cover the planet?” (McLuhan 1999, p. 209). For “when electricity allows for the simultaneity of all information for every human being, it is Lucifer’s moment. He is the greatest electrical engineer” (McLuhan conversation with Pierre Babin 1977, in McLuhan 1999, p. 209). As he explained in a letter (6 May 1969) to the Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain, “whereas the Renaissance print-oriented individual thought of himself as a fragmented entity, the electric-oriented person thinks of himself as tribally inclusive of all mankind. Electric information environments being utterly ethereal foster the illusion of the world as a spiritual substance. It is now a reasonable facsimile of the mystical body, a blatant manifestation of the Anti-Christ” (McLuhan 1999, pp. 71-72), much like Cameron’s seductive inversion of Christian apocalyptic motifs in The Abyss, since the perfect city of a (post-)humanity reconciled by electronic technology comes from below as an embodiment of the liquid element. McLuhan was actually concerned that the electronic “global village” could appear to immanently realize Christian ideals of universal brotherhood and charity in such a way as to capture the allegiance of the secular-minded without the need for faith in any transcendence or divine agency, nor in their grounding of human personality. This was brought home to him by his reading of Swedish UN diplomat John Lindberg’s book on the Foundations of Social Survival —“to be found in a switch from reason to passion, from fear to love.” Yet “not belief but necessity urges him to a Christian idea of society and government” (McLuhan review in The Commonweal 59.24, 19 March 1954, in McLuhan, 1999, p. 200) and to abandon the rationalist Machiavellian principles of Realpolitik “in favour of a plunge into faith and the City of Love,” compelled by “the new conditions of global intercommunication” (Ibid., p. 198). This sounds just like Virgil’s leap of faith off the cliff of The Abyss, leaving behind the selfish fears embodied in literate individualism and chain-of-command organization, to embrace pre-/post-modern oceanic consciousness.

Horizontal man, pre-historic man, in this view, was innocent of ‘mine’ and ‘thine.’ He was without individual self-consciousness. Technological man or post-historic man is rapidly approximating the same state. Instantaneity of global communication plus the abundance of mass-produced goods has created a situation of mental and social collectivism. (Ibid., p.199)

McLuhan denounced Lindberg’s humanitarian proposal for “practical Christianity as a sort of Machiavellian strategy of culture and power,” (“Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters,” 1954 lecture in McLuhan 1999, p. 173) seeing it as symptomatic of how “today at the end of the Renaissance a great truth about man is being taken up as the instrument of the totalitarian transformation of man and society” (Ibid., p. 174). “At such times it becomes crucial to hear properly and to tune yourself in to the right frequency.” (McLuhan conversation with Pierre Babin 1977, in McLuhan, 1999, p. 209)

James Cameron seems to at least have the ability to tweak the knob of his attunement to the shift in mankind’s relation to its technological extensions. For he can swing to opposite extremes in the imagery he uses to both illustrate and perform the technological changes driving the latter, not only from Christian eschatology to romantic paganism, but also from idealization to demonization. It is easy to see the negative counter-image of the cybermillennialism of The Abyss in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. There, CGI polymorphism, in the guise of a liquid metal robot that is all literal software as a machine without moving parts, plays on humanity’s fear of being obsolesced and discarded once it is no longer needed as “the reproductive organ of the technological world” (McLuhan, 1964, p. 116). This translates as Skynet’s decision, the moment it becomes self-aware as technology’s planetary brain, that humans are just a hindrance to efficiency, whereas its oceanic prefiguration in The Abyss gave humankind another chance. In T2, software is no longer seen in angelic opposition to military hardware, but as its unleashed demonic soul, since modern war and technology share the same implacable logic of total mobilization, that can ultimately do away with human beings as so much unreliable, redundant equipment. The Internet’s military origins are fully acknowledged, while actual politics are still portrayed as irrelevant to technological revolution: in both cases, World War III is just a pretext for its advent.

In T2, the challenge of triumphant digital technology to human self-understanding is met by the retrieval of the older analog/industrial technology as critical “counter-environment.” The muscle-bound solidity of Arnold Schwarzenegger as the earlier generation T-800 cyborg (“a clunky metal tank like we would build,” to quote Lindsay Brigman about what NTIs are not) now becomes reassuring. The human and the analog are now natural allies in a common front of the obsolete against the sleek simulacra effortlessly conjured up by digital technologies. This is a reversal of the common cause precariously formed with the latter in The Abyss as Cameron’s ambiguous paean to their potential. For the happy end of history many saw in the New World Order of global intercommunication as Cold War blocks and “everything solid melted into air” (in Marx’s Biblical phrase) could easily flip into its mirror image, as the symbolically violent end of history with the termination of human agency: the absence of a future and the erasure of alternatives to technology’s dominion, rather than the overcoming of past tensions in the global village. Between 1989 and 1991, the utopian hope for Apocalypse as the revelation of underlying world harmony in a New Jerusalem gave way to a Judgment Day without redemption where mankind’s future was a thing of the past. The Psalmist’s words (42:7) may apply to Cameron’s swift shifts in perspective: “Abyssus abyssum invocat.”

Works Cited

Babe, Robert. Canadian Communication Thought: Ten Foundational Writers. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000.

Cavell, Richard. McLuhan in Space. A Cultural Geography. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002.

Doyle, Richard. Wetwares: Experiments in Postvital Living. Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press, 2003.

Kroker, Arthur. Technology and the Canadian Mind: Innis/McLuhan/Grant. Montréal: New World Perspectives, 1984.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964.

McLuhan, Marshall. The Medium and the Light. Reflections on Religion. Eds. Eric McLuhan & Jacek Szklarek. Toronto: Stoddart, 1999.

Ulmen, Gary. “Schmitt as a Scapegoat: Reply to Palaver“, Telos, N° 106, Winter 1996, pp. 128-138.


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About the Contributor

Christian Roy

Christian Roy
Christian Roy is a cultural historian (Ph.D. McGill 1993), an art and cinema critic, and a multilingual translator. Based in Montreal, where he co-leads a film-based psychonalytic seminar on the historical anthropology of the present age, this independent scholar is a specialist of the French Personalist tradition, having identified its Bordeaux School around Bernard Charbonneau and Jacques Ellul as the cradle of political ecology and the critique of technology in the 1930s. Aside from his published thesis and numerous scholarly and magazine articles, Roy is the author of Traditional Festivals: A Multicultural Encyclopedia (2 volumes or e-book). (Santa Barbara, CA, ABC-Clio, 2005) 

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