A Descent into the Maelstrom
On surviving the technological vortex.
The huge vortices of energy created by our media present us with similar possibilities of evasion or consequences of destruction. By studying the patterns of the effects of this huge vortex of energy in which we are involved, it may be possible to program a strategy of evasion and survival. —Marshal McLuhan. Man and Media.
At some thoughts a man stand perplexed, above all at the sight of human sin, and he wonders whether to combat it by force or by humble love. Always decide: ‘I will combat it by humble love.’ If you resolve on that once and forall, you can conquer the whole world. Loving humility is a terrible force: it is the strongest of all things, and there is nothing else like it. —Elder Zosima. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky.
The highest good is like water. Water brings good to all things and does not contend; It goes to places which most people detest And is therefore akin to the Dao. —Tao Te Ching. Chapter 8. (Charles Q. Wu translation)
My father worked in advertising for nearly 40 years—in his case literally on Madison Ave. Over the course of his career, he would take the train into the city from the suburbs where we lived. He typically spent the two hours roundtrip in relative silence reading.One of the thinkers I know he read was Marshall McLuahn—a man whose work revolutionized media studies.
So it was a pleasant, though hardly unexpected discovery that I found nearly the whole catalog of McLuhan’s writings amongst the bookshelves of my family home.This was the summer before my junior year in college. Over the course of that summer, with McLuhan's oeuvre before me, I immersed myself in his thought. At the same time, I had gotten a job at a post-production commercial editing house doing pickups and deliveries around Manhattan. So now I too, like father like son, spent the two-hour round trip commute reading McLuhan.
One of the things I quickly discovered was that McLuhan’s writing is a set of ever-shifting themes and variations. He continually returns to the same ideas, inspirations, and even the same exact quotes. The overall effect is that of a continual circling around something; of seeing it from different angles; of highlighting various aspects depending on the context; all in an attempt to illuminate the ever-shifting, illusive meaning of our technological society—and its deep and often unseen effects on us. One such theme that he continually returned to was the use of the short story, A Descent into the Maelstrom, by Edgar Allen Poe, first published in 1841.
Despite now having been long familiar with the gist of Poe’s story, I hadn’t actually bothered to read it until quite recently. On the surface, it is a story about a seafaring man and his successful avoidance of a shipwreck. But more importantly, it is a parable of how to respond to and perhaps survive times of great chaos. I certainly don’t need to tell anyone that we now live in such a time. But even though it is a tale of survival the story doesn’t provide us with any easy or comforting news.
McLuhan saw very clearly the radical changes that our technological world was having upon us and in us, and this forms the core of his work.Despite having coined the much-abused term "global village,"—a contradiction in terms—he didn't see the rapid growth of our technological society as an entirely good thing. Rather than using polemics against it, he directed his efforts toward describing the situation as deeply and accurately as he could. It is no surprise then, that Poe's narrative resonated with his work.
I myself grew up fully engaged with media and technology, such as it was. It wasn't nearly as immersive then as it is now.Nevertheless, over the course of my childhood, I logged many hours in front of the television. And, since my father was a great movie lover, a weekend excursion out to see that latest offerings was not uncommon. I was also particularly enthusiastic about pop music. Which for better or worse deeply shaped my emotional life and expectations of how life should go. So, when I came upon McLuhan's view of things that summer I was already well inclined to see technology and media in a negative and even quasi-apocalyptic light. His insights were revelatory to me and have long shaped how I see the world.
II. At Sea, and into the Abyss.
The ways of God in Nature, as in Providence, are not as our ways ; nor are the models that we frame any way commensurate to the vastness, profundity, and unsearchableness of His works, which have a depth in them greater than the well of Democritus. —Joseph Glanville (the epigraph to A Descent into the Maelstrom, by Edgar Allen Poe).
A Descent into the Maelstrom, for those who haven’t read it, is basically the story of an old man—or one who at least appears old—relating his improbable escape from a shipwreck. The maelstrom which nearly dragged him to the depths, called the Moskstraumen, actually exists off the coast of Norway, where the story takes place.He along with his two brothers are all fishermen. In order to make each trip to the fishing grounds and return they must unavoidably pass by the dreaded maelstrom—timing this passage when it will be the calmest. For years they are able to calculate their coming and going successfully without incident—though not without an abiding sense of foreboding. Eventually, of course, they do get caught in a sudden storm at sea and are ineluctably drawn into the vortex. One brother is blown off the ship almost immediately, never to be found, leaving only the narrator and his older brother remaining.
Realizing the severity of the situation, the bothers respond by taking two very different strategies—the consequences of which forms the crux of the whole story. The older brother decides to cling to the relative stability of the ship itself. Superficially this seems reasonable. In times of great chaos and uncertainty, it is quite natural for us to seek the comfort of solid ground. In this case, of course, as in many others, it turns out to be an illusion. Conversely, the narrator, despite the chaos going on all around him, is able to remain calm enough to study the behavior and patterns of the maelstrom itself. It is in this that he finds salvation.
In discerning the dynamic patterns and forces at work in the vortex, he notices how certain cylinder-shaped objectsare able to escape the vortex and return safely to the surface of the sea. But saving himself is not solely a matter of intellectual illumination. He must take decisive and even radical action. Which means he must do the very thing that is seemingly the most irrational to do: he must abandon ship. To this end, he lashes himself onto a water cask (a cylinder). Before doing so he tries to signal to his older brother to join him. The brother understandably refuses. The narrator, abandoning all illusions of safety or hope of rescue, trusts his own intuition, and leaps into the howling vortex alone.
Needless to say, he is the only survivor of the wreck.
III. The Providence of Mammon.
No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and Mammon. —Matthew 6:24
One of the characteristics of our current system is that it liberates us from the need to directly contribute to our own survival. This is no small thing—and is entirely unprecedented. This has deeply shaped our sense of the world and the meaning of our lives. Growing up I was told to Follow my Bliss. Which was not merely presented as one option among many, but almost as a moral imperative. Consequently, I went about this mission with a zeal not dissimilar to a baffled knight scouring the wasteland seeking the Grail. And yet, no matter how seriously my life would go awry (repeatedly), and no matter how clearly I saw the damage this “quest” was doing, it has been a story that has been exceedingly difficult to let go of. This conceit comes at no small cost. I gave up a lot of very good things in order to pursue this way of seeing my life.
Without this story—that our lives can be shaped largely to our own will and satisfaction—the Providence of Mammon is revealed for what it is: a trap. It may for a time benefit you materially, but it is also fosters choices that lead us to psychological and spiritual misery and meaninglessness. It is a woldview founded on inverted sense of what it means to be human. If taken seriously this leads us to opposite of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.Instead, the more we seek to serve ourselves and our desires, the more we actually serve the gods of power, profit, pleasure, and prestige. Chasing these, let alone getting them, only acheives the means of our own undoing. It is very easy to lose yourself even when you don't gain the world in the bargain. Failure is more helpful than success. Because the more diligently we pursue it, the more difficult it is to navigate oneself out of it, and at times, even to know that one has become lost there.
IV. A Necessary Disintegralism.
I have altered the deal. Pray I don’t alter it further. —Darth Vader. The Empire Strikes Back.
He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.― Friedrich Nietzsche.
In making this deal—a devil’s bargain if there ever was one—we are losing the ability to live in any other way than by what we are told. The technological society that has promised to liberate us from need so as to live as we please, is the very same mechanism by which we controlled and rendered helpless. By having implicitly agreed to its terms it is hard to back out of the deal now. For many of us, we are without the necessary skills to live without or beyond its provision. In seeking to gain the skills to win the game laid out for us we have never bothered to gain the skills to be in any degree independent of it. We may still be comfortable, even if we no longer flourish.
We are in the maelstrom. There is no escaping it anymore. The ship is coming apart. The only real question for us now is whether we will cling to what we have known or seek a better way. The first step in this is to more deeply discern the nature of our situation. The irony is that same sinking ship itself is itself providing us with the means to possibly escape it. Yes, the information age is a tar pit of disctraction, but it is also a vast library. It is a way to gain the skills that would be otherwise lost to us.
A necessary disintegralism will need to begin by helping us disentangle ourselves from the kind of thinking and intuitions that the system has fostered in us. We have lived under its tutelage and to our detriment. Our sense of the world is becoming increasingly divorced from reality. To reorient ourselves to the true goods and Good of this life is not an empty intellectual exercise. Without doing so we will continue to run on the programming that has served us so poorly. This is no small task.
But it is also very easy to get lost in an unending intellectual pursuit. The amount of information out there is effectively endless. There are always more books, more articles, more podcasts, more substacks, on and on and on. It is very exciting and natural to find meaning in the pursuit of a new way of living in the world. But that is only one side of the task at hand. The other part of this is to learn, to whatever degree we are able, to build things, grow things and fix things.Without this all the intellectual illumination in the world won’t help. We will squander the time given and go down with the ship.
But I don’t think this can be about merely saving our own skins. This isn’t a call to militant survivalism. As wobbly as the system looks at this point, it is still very powerful. It can still do a tremendous amount of damage and is best avoided to the degree that it is possible. This is to instead trust that humble love, like water, can overcome the hardest thing in the world. This is about the hope that there is a better way to live—both in the here and now and perhaps for the future. A way that certainly will be more difficult but also for that far more satisfying.
We can also become like water by seeking the out of the way places that other people detest. Which is to say, eventually we may need to learn to thrive in the margins and unexpected places. There we can hope to become disciples of life rather than that of death. Needless to say, there are no guarantees in any of this. Other than staying on the ship is increasingly looking like a bad choice.
Unlike the narrator of A Descent into the Maelstrom, we are unlikely to survive all this alone. We need each other. Turns out that we always have. We have lost ourselves and each other in chasing after a goal that could never satisfy us in the first place. It isn’t too late to change our minds. But it isn’t a simple choice or an easy one. It means finding a way off of the megasystem and learning to live without it.In so doing we can connect again to our own inner lives, to others, to the wilderness and to the Divine. This can only be for our good. But getting there may very well seem like diving into the vortex to survive the vortex.
That because that’s exactly what it is.
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CHAPTER FORTY-SEVEN "The softest thing in the universe," said the Ancient Sage, "Overcomes the hardest thing in the universe. The stiff and unbending is the disciple of death, The gentle and yielding is the disciple of life. A tree that is unbending is easily broken. The hard and the strong will fall. The soft and weak will overcome." If a painful experience comes upon a humble soul, She bends and thus remains whole. Straightway she goes against herself, Straightway she accuses herself, And she does not set about accusing anyone else. Thus she goes. on her way, Untrouble, undepressed, in complete peace of mind, Having now cause to be angrrey or to anger anyone. Therefore, said the sage: "Mix with all this humble as dust. This is called the Original Harmony. It cannot be made intimate, nor can it be alienated. It cannot be benefited, nor can it be harmed. It cannot be exalted, nor can it be debased. For this very reason it is the highest, most valuable thing in the world." The humble soul, at one with the dust of the earth, Knows the power behind saying, "Forgive me." She is among the strongest in the world, For nothing is more powerful than lowliness. —Hieromonk Dasmascene. Christ the Eternal Tao.
On occasion, I had the opportunity to ride into the City with him. It was a surprisingly quiet, and even a peaceful trip. There wasn’t a whole lot of conversation. It was a time well-disposed to reading. He said of this time that it provided him with the equivalent of a master’s degree. It certainly gave him time to reflect in ways that would have been very unlikely otherwise.
McLuhan’s work can be loosely summed up in his well-known phrase, “the medium is the message”. By this, he means that any technology by its very structure and manifestation, regardless of content, will have certain effects on us. For example, television changes us in deep ways regardless of what we are watching. It changes our brains, it changes the way we relate to one another. Even if one watched nothing but the most refined high culture, television would still have its effect on us. In my view, almost entirely negative effects. This is why our dilemma cannot be solved on the internet. The internet is the dilemma or at least a major expression of it. Escape is mandatory.
McLuhan's focus was on how various technologies did and would change us. In that sense, I don’t think it is entirely inaccurate to call McLuhan an Adman’s philosopher. It makes sense that someone in advertising would be interested in the effects of media on us. He was engaged in it nearly every day. But the implications of his work go far beyond that.
At that time I was studying Music Composition and fancied myself something of an avant-gardist. I was slowly winding my way through the history of Western music and was then focused on the post-World War II avant-garde and their embrace of electronic music. In reading about this movement McLuhan’s name came up repeatedly.
His first book was published in 1951 and he died in 1980.
My childhood is almost quaint by comparison.
Logged = Wasted.
I had a penchant for sitcoms. I would watch many of them without ever laughing. This is a strange thing to do.
Mostly for the worse.
Yet here I am, despite that, still apocalyptic and nearly fully engaged with it. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, and all that.
Though apparently Poe greatly exaggerated its power and fury. The actual maelstrom is hardly the monstrous, implacable, and swirling eddy of despond that he makes it out to be. By so exaggerating it, I think, its parabolic nature is made clear.
I don’t know if the physics of this is correct. I can only assume it is.
This is a story worth reading. I actually rank it with other fictional works that have greatly informed my understanding of our current metacrisis. Those being, A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller, and The Road, by Cormac Mccarthy. All of these are worth the time to read.
Or even believe these exist or even could exist.
Power, Profit, Prestige, and Pleasure—aka the four p’s.
Mea Maxima Culpa.
I have been so enthralled by the intellectual search that I have hardly even begun to learn how to live outside of the megasystem. This is a real problem.
Though I admit that any early attempts at this will likely be a hybrid between indepence from and dependence on the system.
Your essay’s thoughtful vibe followed me away from the computer screen, and into conversations with family members, and now I come back wondering, What is the water cask? Maybe our ship is always sinking, often in little ways, yet ways that accumulate and can become real dangers (even before the Great Ship sinks)? Maybe we ought to be daily practicing leaping into the waters?
Excellent piece. I especially love how the surviving brother repurposed an ordinary object, a water cask, to save himself. That is the kind of adaption we may have to make to survive what is coming. I think it is also necessary to check our assumptions of what the future might look like. The past is prelude, but prelude to what? I assume it will be a gradual decline, and there is already evidence for that, but there might also be a few downdrafts coming. Best to prepare for both possibilities.
Adjusting out mindsets and acquiring skills are both required, and I would give a premium on the former. I think we must, in the words of poet William Everson, "build [a] program for action based on repose." The substacks, I believe, are for the reposing part, and that is great for a beginning. I think the skills part will grow more urgent as we see that the time is running out. That may be sooner than we think.