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On renaissances.


When technology extends one of our senses, a new translation of culture occurs as swiftly as the new technology is interiorized. (Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy)

WHY are there no studies of renaissance as a phenomenon? We in the West have now endured a sufficient number of them that we ought, in hindsight, to be able to enunciate at least a few general principles. Such at least will be the aim of these brief notes. I do not know that any study has ever been made of renaissances in general. Every study that I have seen concerns this renaissance or that renaissance in particular; occasionally, two renaissances are looked at simultaneously for contrast or comparison. Such studies are well focused and properly scholarly; and there is besides the veritable wealth of books about this or that renaissance for general consumption. But there are no book-length studies, nor is there even a single article, concerning renaissances as a phenomenon.

Our renaissances have a number of characteristics in common. One of the most remarkable, perhaps, is the numbing effect of the spectacular event. Consequently, there is never, at the time, any realization or acknowledgement that a renaissance is underway. This paradox is the first characteristic of renaissances, and it applies also to our own time: a renaissance is always invisible to those who live through it. To them, the action of renewal and revivification is so habitual that they accept it as the norm: the convulsion was too completely environmental to be noticeable as such. At such times, one notices only that matters are in an advanced state of chaos. Change follows upon change and there does not appear to be a direction or pattern to it all. The feeble-minded chant "Change is Good!" and burble slogans about "progress" to allay their uncertainties. Change is generally catastrophe in slow motion.

Another characteristic is this: a renaissance is not an isolated phenomenon. A renaissance is a side-effect of a precipitating action or event occurring elsewhere. Some new technology arrives on the scene and radically reshapes perception; similarly, an undersea earthquake can spin off a tsunami wave. In the case of the renaissance presently underway, we have been treated to a protracted cascade of electric technologies from the A.C. motor to the MP3, from the telegraph to the satellite, the radio to the Internet or GPS or "cloud" computing. A renaissance always accompanies an earthquake in sensibility: it is the outer manifestation of interiorizing a technology.

The first area of the culture to respond to the onset of a renaissance is the arts: as the poet Ezra Pound observed, artists function as "the antennae of the race." One after another, all of the arts burst into renewed life and sometimes into furies of innovation. The spectacular efflorescence in the arts diverts attention from the comparatively ponderous reorganization of culture and society. Some, perhaps many, of the sciences will also be affected and will make major discoveries, will revise or replace long-held theories.

A renaissance is the leading edge of a new mode of culture and society; it brings with it a new-fashioned identity. That is, while the renaissance is evident almost immediately because of the ferment in the arts, the accompanying new culture will be discovered some time after it has established itself, perhaps two or three generations later. The arts are the Early Warning System.

Another remarkable feature of renaissances is this: each is accompanied by a major war. In our present case, we have had World Wars One and Two and the Cold War, to mention a few, and now we are embroiled in the first round of the Terrorist Wars. At the speed of light, the front is gone, the battleground is the entire globe and that much larger paysage interieur. In War and Peace in the Global Village (1968), we showed that violence is always a response to a sudden change in patterns of identity.

WE habitually refer to the magnificent renaissance of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries as the Grand Renaissance because it so far outshone the glories of all previous renaissances; but the renaissance that ushers us into the twenty-first century, this new millennium, is grander by far because it subsumes all prior times and all prior forms of awareness. In the West we are recycling and revisiting not only our own culture but also exploring all the others--every form of experience that humans have ever created or indulged. The content, then, of the renaissance surging about us is the entire Neolithic era. The Neolithic age, which is now over, used the pastoral hunter as its content and has for over a century used pastoralism as its esthetic. Our present environment is not made up of specialized tools; rather, it is constituted of information and software.

The Orient is undergoing the same retrievals, of Western culture as well as its own, in the same measure and degree that we are rediscovering the East. Similarly, this is the new rise of Islam. And we have just launched another phase of this rolling renaissance on the Internet and the World Wide Web. These new forms demand participation and are by their very nature inclusive and encyclopedic. Our new media environments are now global instead of being confined to a single culture or society. They bring every culture on earth into abrasive interface with every other--an experience which fuels terrorist fury.

The Grand Renaissance of the sixteenth century is aptly named not only because it was the grandest and most comprehensive renaissance in human experience, but also because it involved the entire cultural matrix of the Western world. Certainly, the renaissance of the twelfth century seemed to the participants no less grand and less extensive, yet to us it still pales somewhat by comparison with the events of the sixteenth century. But we should notice that both of these cultural explosions were just that--outward movements, expansions; our present renaissance, powered by electricity and vastly more extensive and eclectic than any of the others, is implosive because it involves the entire globe at once. Once the entire globe is involved, no further expansion--or expansionism--is possible. This condition raises the prospect that, unlike any previous time, this twenty-first-century renaissance will simply continue without surcease, that renaissance will become our permanent address.

All oral and tribal peoples regard present and past and future as a single multidimensional cycle or set of cycles or gyres, a vortex of cultural energies that charges them with being and cosmic significance and destiny. We have echoes of this sense of things today in the popular reappearance, for example, of reincarnation, and even in the saying, "what goes around comes around." In the electric age, all times are simultaneously present and accessible as real, available experience. Cyclicity implies dynamism and compactness, a means to charge and re-charge the cultural batteries. The alternative, the familiar rational line of history, presents instead a single prolonged discharge or endless effusion. Today we live in post-history in the sense that all pasts that ever were are now present to our consciousness and that all the futures that will be are here now. To live today is to live mythically in all cultures and times at once: the narrative of history now concludes, as does the history of narrative. If there is a future to history, it resides, as the Italian rhetorician Giambattista Vico tried to indicate, in the hands of poets and artists.

A brief review of our acknowledged renaissances may suggest some further observations.

FOR the Grand Renaissance of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the driving technology was clearly the printing press. It ushered in a flowering and retrieval such as still holds the world in thrall, including a revival of learning, of ancient rhetoric, and of the entire manuscript culture of the ancient world and the middle ages. The explosion of culture extended to newfound territories around the world and ushered in a spate of empire-building by Spain, Portugal, England, and others, made possible by the new technology of ocean-going ships. Like the present one, which got underway in the nineteenth century, this renaissance straddles two centuries: it began in the fifteenth and continued in the sixteenth century.

The same universal recognition holds true for the "Medieval Renaissance," the renaissance of the twelfth century. The fact that it is widely deemed to be of lesser significance than that of the sixteenth century is a matter of comparison only, so much is it overshadowed by the Grand Renaissance. Yet this period enjoyed a pronounced revival of learning due to the reappearance of paper supplies.

The renaissance of the twelfth century might conceivably be taken so broadly as to cover all the changes through which Europe passed in the hundred years or more from the late eleventh century to the taking of Constantinople by the Latins in 1204 and the contemporary events which usher in the thirteenth century, just as we speak of the Age of the Renaissance in later Italy ... More profitably we may limit the phrase to the history of culture in this age--the complete development of Romanesque art and the rise of Gothic; the full bloom of vernacular poetry, both lyric and epic; and the new learning and new literature in Latin. The century begins with the flourishing age of the cathedral schools and closes with the earliest universities already well established at Salerno, Bologna, Paris, Montpelier, and Oxford. It starts with only the bare outlines of the seven liberal arts and ends in possession of the Roman and canon law, the new Aristotle, the new Euclid and Ptolemy, and the Greek and Arabic physicians, thus making possible a new philosophy and a new science. It sees a revival of the Latin classics, of Latin prose, and of Latin verse, both in the ancient style of Hildebert and the new rhymes of the Goliardi, and the formation of the liturgical drama ... (Haskins 6-8)

Where the renaissance of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was a renaissance of rhetoric and audience-making, that of the twelfth century was a renaissance of manuscript culture and the ancient tradition of literary studies, the translatio studii. Prior to these events there was another also sometimes called a "medieval renaissance": I refer to Charlemagne and the Carolingian renaissance and the Carolingian empire.

Charles the Great, crowned Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III in Rome in A.D. 800, believed that his own preoccupation with the arts and sciences was the very duty of a ruler.

It has sometimes been alleged that idealism prompted the artists and scholars of Europe to gather at the court of Charlemagne in order to unite their efforts for the cultivation of classical beauty and wisdom. They were, after all, so the argument runs, true humanists who endeavoured to re-kindle the fire of culture and to keep it alive for coming generations. They had no interest in material gain. Alcuin, the model of this kind of humanism, repeatedly praised poverty and impressed his idealistic motives upon his readers. Notker. also, explained that the first of the "humanists" had not been prompted by desire for material gain when they had first approached the royal court. (Innis 116)

Another driving technology was the stirrup: the Franks of the eighth century invented mounted shock combat (Whyte). Antiquity imagined the centaur; the Middle Ages made him the master of Europe. The times bring to mind to mind such personages as Bede, Alcuin, St. Boniface; in the eighth century, England held the intellectual leadership of Europe, and it owed this leadership to the Church. The earliest written records of Old English date from this time. In the eighth century, English vernacular literature and the arts received new impetus. Workers in stone and glass were brought from the continent for the improvement of church-building. Islam was on the rise.

As regards military conflict at this time, the fallout of this renaissance included the partition of Europe and the decline of the tribal structure of that continent, the rise of the royal houses, and the schism between the Eastern and Western churches.

Two earlier renaissances loom as part of this survey. The first of these occurred in the fourth century A.D., the other at the turn of the millennium, about the year zero. Constantine, 288-337 or so, established Christianity as the religious foundation of Western civilization. A few familiar names will give some points of orientation: St. Augustine, St. Jerome, Martianus Capella. At this time, too, the West repels assaults by Persia and Eastern empires. The Edict of Milan, 313, gave for the first time full legal recognition to the Christian community. The Council of Nicea, in 325, was the world's first Ecumenical Council. This time also initiated Caesaropapism: the emperor's becoming head of the Christian commonwealth precipitated a massive retrieval, refurbishing, and renewal. May 11, 330, saw the foundation of Constantinople. This city was intended from the outset to be the center of art and learning. Charlemagne built its libraries and stocked them with Greek manuscripts from an antiquity that included the great products of classical Greece. He filled the streets and squares and museums with art treasures drawn from all over the Greek orient.

Four centuries before these events, the emperor Caesar Augustus mounted a massive program of cultural reform. It undertook a careful retrieval of ancient Roman values and culture. Augustus revived and reestablished the office of vates, the poet/priest of the temple of Palatine Apollo, devoted to the spiritual side of Roman culture. It had a cultural priesthood devoted to the "sacred" responsibilities of poetry and the arts, and gave high salience to the work of Horace, Varro, and Virgil. This time was a period also of moral and social reform. Christianity made its appearance ...

Nor is this the end of the matter.

Since we are surveying Western renaissances, and the West may be said to have been defined by the phonetic alphabet, if we look beyond the zero date we will discover that the pattern operative in the Christian Era had an earlier beginning, though the date of the first renaissance is in doubt. Certainly the fifth-to-fourth-century glory of Athens would qualify: all of the other characteristics are in place. The eighth century B.C. presents us with Homer and Hesiod and the early onset of phonetic literacy, which instilled a dramatically new bias of sensibility and occasioned the first major retrievals due to alphabetic writing. The Theogony was used as a pattern for retrieving and systematizing the Greek religion and to regularize ideas of the gods and goddesses. This was also the time of the Hoplite revolution, occasioned by bronze armor and by the innovation of cavalry.

This eighth-century revolution affected not just the arts but every walk of life. It accompanied the maturity of the Greek Iron Age... Iron had been in use from before the turn of the millennium (the "early Iron Age") but an enormous development of iron metallurgy between c. 750 and c. 650 improved and accelerated the speed and efficiency of life in many fields, and under this more stable mode of existence the population of Greece multiplied to a remarkable extent.

This increased number of inhabitants encouraged a wholesale switch from pasturage to arable farming, and food-production notably intensified. (Grant 7) (1)

The events Homer recorded in Iliad and Odyssey, occurred four centuries earlier still, in about the twelfth century B.C., which was also a time of renaissance, for Troy, perhaps, and certainly for Mycenae. It was called the Golden Age, the beginning of the great Classical Period in Greece.

The curious thing that emerges from our survey of Western renaissances is the realization that they occur in a regular four-century rhythm: every fourth century we have a renaissance. That isn't to say that nothing goes on in the intervals between renaissances: a great deal does, beyond question. But whatever does occupy those times does not qualify as a full-scale renaissance of the sort we've been discussing.

Now, I realize that the four-century cycles are clearly not at all exact. Charles Haskins pointed out that, when one is dealing with effusions such as renaissances,

chronological limits are not easy to set. Centuries are at best but arbitrary conveniences which must not be permitted to clog or distort our historical thinking: history cannot remain history if sawed off into even lengths of hundreds of years. (Haskins 8-9)

RENAISSANCES have this one common characteristic: each one results from an earlier action. Some spasm or cultural convulsion pulled the awareness of the culture into a new shape. In other words, what we normally notice about a renaissance, the intensifying of artistic action and innovation, is actually a side-effect of a deeper action. Then, a renaissance is the shock-wave produced as that technology penetrates the whole culture and works its particular influence. So the pattern we've found in our renaissances shows us the effects, not the causes. The questions in each case then arise:

* What caused such a massive drift in perception as to reinvigorate these old things? And to do so in this or that particular manner?

* What prodded perception into that manner of noticing?

* Where was the stress applied?

In each case, the precipitating or deciding factor was a new technology.

Then, if there is in fact a cycle or rhythm of renaissances in Western culture, does this mean that there is in our culture a definite rhythm to our technologies? We already know that, with the first tools, human evolution shifted from biology to technology. In all of creation, we are the only species that has thus taken charge of the course of our own evolution. That is, inasmuch as the technologies are actual extensions of a biological organism (us), may not that rhythm be a biological one?

Now, what of the renaissance around us? Its underpinnings include the cascade of electric technologies over the last century and a half: radio, telegraph, film, television, videotape, computer ... The pace is accelerating, with personal computers, cellular telephones, global positioning satellites, space exploration and space telescopes, virtual reality, interactive multimedia, the Internet, and the World Wide Web all appearing in a couple of decades. We have undergone an explosion of interest in outer space and other planets, voyages to the moon, probes sent to Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, etc. One immediate result of satellites was our discovery (rebirth) of Earth as a polluted planet that needed cleaning up and updating. Nature ended, the planet became an art form inside a manned capsule, and life will never be the same. Nature ended and art took over. Ecology is art. Since the present renaissance began in the nineteenth century, we have seen an extensive list of innovations, more than a few of which would have been enough to launch a distinctly new form of sensibility, as events have proven: the telegraph, the photograph, movies, television, satellites, computers, and so on. Any of these would, under ordinary circumstances, have set a renaissance in motion. But we have had one after another without, it seems, a break, and the rolling renaissance seems to continue washing over our culture and civilization unabated, instead of waxing and waning. Possibly, then, our renaissance is not one but actually a series of overlapping renaissances, each feeding on the energy of the last. As the unity of the modern world becomes increasingly a technological rather than a social affair, the techniques of the arts provide the most valuable means of insight into the real direction of our own collective purposes.

ONE further characteristic: our renaissances are generally accompanied by Vatican Councils. In the case of the renaissance presently humming around us, we have had two. We may expect a third before long. Noticing that the Councils of Nicea and Trent occurred during renaissances, I took a closer look and found the following: more than half the Church Councils held have occurred during renaissances, and they tend to be the major ones. Here is a list of those that coincided with renaissances.

Twenty-First (Ecumenical Council: Vatican Two

Reformed the Mass, the Catechism, demoted Latin. Etc.

Twentieth (Ecumenical Council: Vatican One

Dec. 1869 to July 1870

Pope: Pius IX

Decreed Infallibility ex cathedra

The Council of Trent (19th (Ecumenical)

A.D. 1545-1563

Five Popes: Paul III, Julius III, Marcellus II, Paul IV, Pius IV

Vs. Luther and other reformers.

Reform the Church, improve discipline

Infallibility ex cathedra

The Fifth Lateran (18th (Ecumenical) Council

A.D. 1512-1517

The Council of Constance (16t" (Ecumenical)

A.D. 1414-1418 (rather early?)

The Eleventh (Ecumenical / Third Lateran Council

A.D. 1179

Pope Alexander III

Vs. Albigensians

The Tenth (Ecumenical / Second Lateran Council

A.D. 1139

Pope Innocent II

1000 prelates, & Emperor Conrad

The Ninth (Ecumenical / First Lateran Council (the first one held in the Lateran)

A.D. 1123

Pope Callistus II

900 bishops & abbots

The Seventh (Ecumenical Council or Second Council of Nicea

A.D. 787

Convoked by Constantine VI & his mother, Irene

Pope: Adrian One

Regulated veneration of images

The Second (Ecumenical Council or First General Council of Constantinople

A.D. 381

Pope Damasus

Emperor Theodosius I

150 bishops

Added end articles to the Creed

The First (Ecumenical Council, or The Council of Nicea

A.D. 325, lasted 2 mo. 12 days

Pope: Sylvester

Emperor Constantine

318 bishops were present

Nicene Creed; Vs. Arius; fixed date of Easter

I leave you with the mystery of the renaissance cycles and with a few questions.

* Are there in fact other iterations of the four-century cycle? In the sixteenth century B.C., for example? Or the twentieth, or twenty-fourth centuries B.C.?

* What precipitating technologies are responsible for each renaissance? Can we now use the cycle to date other major technological revolutions as accurately as carbon dating allows us to do, for example? Might it be possible to use this cycle as a guide to events in prehistory? In Laws of Media: The New Science (1988), we showed that all human innovation is a form of speech, that the things we make have exactly the same structure as our words. Technology is language without syntax. This suggests that the rhythm of renaissances in our culture reflects some fundamental rhythm of a verbal and uniquely human nature--an area for further investigation.

* What is the significance and meaning of events in the intervening centuries? Is there a rhythm to them too?

* Do other, non-Western, cultures march to a different rhythm or observe a different pattern of renaissance? Or do they have no rhythm at all? That is, is the four-century cycle to our innovations-and-retrievals-and-renaissances peculiar to the West alone? Or does it actually extend to other cultures such as those in the Orient or in Central or South America or in Africa or in primitive Europe? Perhaps other cultures do have different rhythms. China, for example, and Egypt have followed the lines of force of the dynasty, rather than those of the democracy, and their social rhythms clearly differ from ours. Their language-patterns and language-rhythms differ from ours, and I would maintain that innovation and utterance are linked absolutely.

I have tried in the foregoing to sketch a complex matter. In the process I have had to omit an immensity of detail and of related concerns cultural and anthropological. The entire matter of our renaissances and their relation to technological and perceptual change deserves prolonged study. More important, however, is the mystery of the renaissance underway at the present: the first Global Renaissance. The present is not too soon to mount studies of the present situation, if only for orientation. With some awareness of the environmental pressures on psyche and society alike, we might discover means to channel or control some of those energies, to reduce human misery, preserve cultures, and allay international uncertainty.

Works Cited

Grant, Michael. The Rise of the Greeks. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons,1987.

Haskins, Charles Homer. The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1971.

Innis, Harold. Empire and Communications. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1972.

McLuhan, Marshall. The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man. U of Toronto P, 1962.

McLuhan, Marshall and Eric McLuhan. Laws of Media: The New Science. U of Toronto P, 1988.

McLuhan, Marshall and Quentin Fiore. War and Peace in the Global Village. Bantam Books, 1968.

Whyte, Lynn, Jr. Medieval Technology and Social Change. Oxford UP, 1966.


(1) See also R. Higg, ed., The Greek Renaissance of the Eighth Century B.C.--Tradition and Innovation (Stockholm, 1983).
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Author:McLuhan, Eric
Publication:Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Sep 22, 2011
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