My McLuhanite friend has been talking to me about “Gutenberg Man” — a species of human consciousness shaped by a society saturated with and shaped by the printed word. Wikipedia says:
McLuhan studies the emergence of what he calls Gutenberg Man, the subject produced by the change of consciousness wrought by the advent of the printed book. Apropos of his axiom, “The medium is the message,” McLuhan argues that technologies are not simply inventions which people employ but are the means by which people are re-invented.
For awhile now, I’ve noticed a kind of mentality that seems to connect with McLuhan’s concept. This mentality understands entirely in terms of cognitive objects, which entails removal of the subject from the matter to be understood so the matter is viewed from a point exterior to the problem.
When this mentality thinks, cognitive objects are analyzed (disassembled) and synthesized (assembled or reassembled) into systems, like an engineer tinkering with a gadget set before him on a workbench. There is distance separating the thinker and the thoughts, and the thinking takes place across this distance. The thinker extends his intellect to the problem and puts together facts or ideas into arguments, or theories, or demonstrations. It all takes place with words. If there is no word, there is no thought. Thinking is a linguistic matter.
Much can be accomplished with this style of thinking, but it does have sharp limits — in what it can create, but also in what it can understand.
One realm of understanding that fully outside the limits of this mentality is religion. Inside its boundaries is only fundamentalism or anti-fundamentalism. It cannot even conceive the kinds of truths known to a religious mind, which is perfectly okay with them, because religion is just a mix of rustic platitudes and dangerous nonsense. Religions must be instructed by more advanced, scientific minds to COEXIST — by emphasizing the essential rustic platitudes and suppressing the inessential dangerous nonsense. But wouldn’t it just be better to keep the rustic platitudes and move on?
I find the limitations of such mentalities intensely frustrating. They stand inside their limits, demanding (with smug, smirking skepticism) a preview of what will be known beyond their limits, because, of course, “there is no there there” — and failure to produce the requested preview demonstrate this fact. Or, alternatively, they demand proof that their current way of thinking is inadequate — and if they cannot be driven from their current position with overpowering arguments, it is reasonable to conclude there are no real reasons to change their current understanding.
In both cases, a particular understanding of the nature of understanding is excluded from play, and all that is left in in play is bounded — imprisoned, in fact — within the realm of objective thought.
This exclusion prevents them from understanding their condition within the world than bystanding it. They stand apart, oblivious to themselves, except as a bundle of thoughts about themselves (psychological, biographical, social, scientific, magical), like stunted gods, knowing things about all things.
Because I get mean when communication is willfully thwarted, and because I enjoy inventing insults, I am calling this condition Gutenperger’s Syndrome. It is, like Asperger’s Syndrome, an empathic incapacity — but one caused by an incapacity to think outside the limits of objectivity and explicit language. It makes a thinker immune to radically new understandings that implicate one’s own subjectivity and potentially transform it. Those with Gutenperger protect themselves from such transformations and all its dreadful preliminaries.
Once I recognize a person as a Gutenperger’s case, I know that philosophizing with them can only end in tears. I must keep things shallow and light, especially when they want to be “deep”. And they always do.