Emma Wadland wears dark sunglasses and says she’s here because of her humanity. Dressed in a black blouse and skirt, the U of T student holds hands with fellow strangers. It’s one year after Sept. 11 and a Native ceremony is being held by U of T at the north end of Philosopher’s Walk in commemoration.
After a brief speech by a Native elder, drumming begins. A chant resonates in sync to the powwow drum being struck. Everyone stands in a circle around it and one can see that a diverse group is present, typical of ceremonies for Sept. 11. Most are here because, as Wadland says, she felt a need to be though she has no personal relation to the events.
“There was something about those images that day that struck me,” she says. “They’ve been in my mind ever since.”
It’s in Tokyo that the drumming coverage of the day begins. A group of shoeless Japanese businessmen are standing silently in a small rock garden in their office tower.
In Berlin, Germany, mourners weep while laying candles and flowers at the American embassy’s front gates.
In Edinburgh, Scotland, a panning view inside a church shows the pews to be full. The camera zooms in on a girl solemnly holding a candle, standing in front of a statue of Jesus.
Television news is broadcasting the message all over the planet as it rotates into the day of the anniversary: Marshall McLuhan’s prophecy has come true. We are all living in a global village and the tribal drums are sounding.
What would the 20th century’s most famous media theorist say if he had been alive the day the images of the World Trade Center towers falling were broadcast world-wide? What meaning would he see in it?
“I think the implosion of the towers upon themselves would remind him of his many observations about the electronic implosion of the world upon itself, the collapse of cultures living at different speeds and forced to coexist,” says Derrick de Kerckhove, director of the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology at U of T.
De Kerckhove, who worked with McLuhan for over ten years as translator, assistant and co-author, says McLuhan was a fervent believer in electronic media being an extension of the human nervous system. Television especially, would give rise to a constricted world marked by interdependence, simultaneity, and the inescapable presence of others—the global village. Most importantly, it would create a technological form of global consciousness and retribalize humanity by engaging all of its senses.
“The global village is the world under the conditions of television,” says de Kerckhove.
If so, then perhaps Osama bin Laden was making a statement less about American culture per se than about the global effect of American television and mass media when the World Trade Center was attacked.
Back in the 1960s, McLuhan noted the global village was being built by Western mass media, particularly American. Today, regions around the world that had little electronic media presence forty years ago are being pulled into the media maelstrom of the global village at a breakneck speed. They are forced to defend values, beliefs and religions against a global media largely dominated by American culture.
“When an individual or social group feels that its whole identity is jeopardized by social or psychic change, its natural reaction is to lash out in defensive fury,” said McLuhan in a 1969 Playboy interview.
Perhaps the “metaphysician of media,” as the magazine dubbed him, would see Sept. 11 as meaning more than simply rage against the American cultural undertow in global media. McLuhan’s work emphasizes that every medium unconsciously shapes our thought and behaviour. A print-based society shifting the majority of its communication to electronic media, such as television, would undergo a period of profound disorientation.
As McLuhan once stated: “Particularly in countries where literate values are deeply institutionalized, [global village integration] is a highly traumatic process, since the clash of the old segmented visual culture and the new integral electronic culture creates a crisis of identity, a vacuum of the self, which generates tremendous violence—violence that is simply an identity quest, private or corporate, social or commercial.”
“McLuhan would surely be tempted to bring it all back to media biases, but he would also know that what we have here is not the evidence of a clash between TV and other media,” says de Kerckhove.
The man who virtually never watched television would certainly recognize that Sept. 11 was seemingly orchestrated for it, he says.
“He would have observed the process of ‘re-cognition’ at work in the time interval between the attacks on each tower,” says de Kerckhove.
In this view, the second hijacked plane was planned to crash into the other tower after a suitable amount of time had elapsed for television coverage to focus on the first crash. Watching the second plane hit on television was like an instant replay where the experience could be felt consciously rather than as a knee-jerk reaction. Being more conscious of it, the message of the experience could be received.
“McLuhan used to say, ‘The first time, you have the experience. The second time, you get the meaning.’ What is that meaning? It’s like everything else; it’s up to you, up to the whole world to decide, but what is no more an option is to refuse to look there.”
Whether the terrorists anticipated the television cameras pointing at the World Trade towers before the second plane hit is uncertain. Nor is it known if the date of the attacks—9/11—was chosen to better market the events in the media.
Speculation exists about the time of the attacks, too. Did they happen to take advantage of the crowds of people coming to work that morning? Or was it to allow television coverage to reach the 5.5 billion people that were awake eastwards between New York and Tokyo so they could watch it live?
Sept. 11, it seems, was about something beyond us, extending from us across the planet, whatever “us” is becoming. What the message is specifically is still undecided. But as McLuhan once said, “Unless we understand this dynamic, we shall move at once into a phase of panic terrors, exactly befitting a small world of tribal drums, total interdependence, and superimposed co-existence.”