Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5824
[Stearn is an American educator, publisher, and editor. In the following excerpt from an interview originally published in Encounter in June 1967, McLuhan discusses some of his theories and comments on the critical reception of his work.]
[Stearn]: What originally led to your interest in media and the effect of media upon our culture?
[McLuhan]: I was gradually made aware of these things by other people—artists, the new anthropological studies. As you become aware of the different modes of experience in other cultures—and watch them transformed by new, Western technologies—it is difficult to avoid observation. It becomes inevitable to assume that what happens to other people and cultures can happen to us. My present interest is an extension of, and derivative of, my literary work. If I could get a team of media students going, I would happily retire back into literary studies. I find media analysis very much more exciting now simply because it affects so many more people. One measure of the importance of anything is: Who is affected by it? In our time, we have devised ways of making the most trivial event affect everybody. One of the consequences of electronic environments is the total involvement of people in people. The Orientals created caste systems as an area of classified immunity.
Here perhaps my own religious faith has some bearing. I think of human charity as a total responsibility of all, for all. Therefore, my energies are directed at far more than mere political or democratic intent. Democracy as a byproduct of certain technologies, like literacy and mechanical industry, is not something that I would take very seriously. But democracy as it belongs very profoundly with Christianity is something I take very seriously indeed.
There have been many more religious men than I who have not made even the most faltering steps in this direction. Once I began to move in this direction, I began to see that it had profound religious meaning. I do not think it my job to point this out. For example, the Christian concept of the mystical body—all men as members of the body of Christ—this becomes technologically a fact under electronic conditions. However, I would not try to theologize on the basis of my understanding of technology. I don't have a background in scholastic thought, never having been raised in any Catholic institution. Indeed, I have been bitterly reproached by my Catholic confrères for my lack of scholastic terminology and concepts.
When one looks back at your first book, The Mechanical Bride, it appears as a strident, moral tract. What is your present attitude toward the Bride and how is it related to your more recent interests?
Mechanical Bride is a good example of a book that was completely negated by TV. All the mechanical assumptions of American life have been shifted since TV; it's become an organic culture. Femininity has moved off the photographic, glamor cake altogether into the all-involving tactile mode. Femininity used to be a mingling of visual things. Now it's almost entirely nonvisual. I happened to observe it when it was reaching the end of its term, just before TV.
In 1936, when I arrived at Wisconsin, I confronted classes of freshmen and I suddenly realized that I was incapable of understanding them. I felt an urgent need to study their popular culture: advertising, games, movies. It was pedagogy, part of my teaching program. To meet them on their grounds was my strategy in pedagogy: the world of pop culture. Advertising was a very convenient form of approach. I used advertising in the Bride because of legal considerations—no permissions were needed. Otherwise I would have used picture stories of any sort from movies, magazines, anywhere. I had thirty or forty slides and gave little talks to student groups. I invited them to study these ads. In England, at Cambridge, when I arrived there, it had become popular to look at films and the popular culture around us as something to be studied and understood as a "language." Wyndham Lewis did various studies on pop culture. Leavis has a book called Culture and Environment. There was a similar interest in popular speech idioms, language, the Wake. The Waste Land is full of these pop-cult forms. Pound's Cantos have similar forms. Pound has a very useful guide to the Cantos called Kulchur. In doing the Bride I was merely trailing behind some interesting predecessors. I discovered that when you take anything out of the daily newspapers and put it on the screen, people go into a fit of laughter. Like Mort Sahl. He would take random items from the press and read them out to an audience straightforwardly. People never notice the outrageous humor until something is removed from its form. Because it's environmental and invisible. The moment you translate it into another medium it becomes visible—and hilarious.
Movies on TV are, in a sense, a parody. Just using one form over another form creates that comic effect. When movies were new it was suggested that they were a parody of life. The transcript of ordinary visual life into a new medium created hilarious comedy. The word parody means a road that goes alongside another road. A movie is a visual track that goes alongside another visual track, creating complete terror. I did take time to read the language of the form and discovered that most people couldn't read that visual language. If I merely reprinted ads, without any appended dialogue, the book would have been hilarious in any case. That kind of book ought to be an annual. When you change its environment you flash perception onto it.
In the Bride there is far more following of lines of force than simply moral judgments.
Wyndham Lewis was a great influence on me because of his pop-cult analysis. I found Lewis far too moralistic for my tastes. I greatly admired his method. Lewis looked at everything as a painter first. His moral judgments never interested me. He was horrified by Bergson and the time philosophy because it seemed to him to destroy various aspects of our Western culture. He said the whole Western culture was based on sight. But he moralized all his life about "ear people" like Bergson who were undermining the visual facets of Western culture. He attacked Spengler in the same way.
Lewis Carroll looked through the looking glass and found a kind of space-time which is the normal mode of electronic man. Before Einstein, Carroll had already entered that very sophisticated universe of Einstein. Each moment, for Carroll, had its own space and its own time. Alice makes her own space and time. Einstein, not Lewis Carroll, thought this was astonishing….
Perhaps the most repeated and passionate dissents emerge from what many critics call your historicism. John Simon's charge—that you play the history of ideas game none too well—has been repeated quite often. You have said that without radio, no Hitler; that the Russians have an "ear" culture and consequently found the U-2 a sensory intruder, not merely the belligerent act of a hostile power.
The Russians find it unbearable to have "eyes" around their environment. Just as we hate the idea of having "ears" in our own—vide: the microphone in the embassy eagle. The Russians live much more by ear than we do. Their new high-rise apartments are at once transformed into villages. All communication between fellow apartment dwellers is like that of a village square. They must live this way. In India, for example, when they tried to put in cold running water, it pulled the village women away from the well. This destroyed community life. They had to remove the pipes. You cannot put running water into an aural community without distressful circumstances.
When you make a structural analysis, you follow lines of force and follow not just one but many, at various levels of the culture, observing patterns. All semiliterate or "backward" cultures are aural cultures, whether it's Ghana or China. They organize space differently, at all times. The Eskimo world is an ear one. When asked to draw maps, they draw areas they've never seen. From their kyacks they've heard water lapping against shores. They map by ear and it later proves quite adequate when checked by aerial photo. Except that there is always an exaggerated area where they've camped. That part receives a stress or bulge in their map. The natural world of nonliterate man is structured by the total field of hearing. This is very difficult for literary people to grasp. The hand has no point of view. The ear has no point of view.
Years ago when I was working with Carpenter on anthropological matters, I used acoustic and auditory space frequently as a basic counterploy to visual Western man. I gave it up because I found that the literary people made desperate attempts to visualize auditory space. But you cannot visualize auditory space, that is: a total field of simultaneous relations, without center or margin. Carpenter has remarked that anthropological materials are now beginning to be made up and published by natives themselves—their own stories are being retold by natives themselves. And the results are totally different from what the anthropologists said earlier. We now realize that a nonvisual culture cannot be reported by a visual man.
A prose statement is a reduction to visual terms, like legal language—which is an extreme, unrealistic case of visual organization.
It isn't accidental that the primary arts of Russia are music and ballet. They are not a literary people at all. The world of Dostoevski is not literary. It's a newspaper world, like Edgar Allen Poe or Dickens (an Ann Landers type). This does not contradict the fact that they take literacy far more seriously (and literally) than the West does. Russians, for example, are quite agitated about the telephone.
Russia never had a Renaissance, in terms of space. Realism, perspective art, is avant-garde for them. When you have the means of realistic representation, you also have the means of mechanical production. Mechanical production comes out of visual realism in the Western world. What we think of as realism is to them (Russians) absolute fantasy.
Kafka isn't realism in our world. It's allegorical fantasy (like Bosch). Similarly, western visual man would have great difficulty in "reading" a tactile piece of information.
To pre-literate man, space was sacred.
A lot of this aural culture is found now in the Negro world. The reason that they are so far ahead of us in the arts is, quite simply, that they haven't trained their visual sense to the point of suppressing the other senses. In music—dance and song—Negroes are ahead.
The generations gap between parents and children is quite simple—children are auditory, nonvisual in their orientation. Teen-agers are returning to a backward phase.
All literate cultures sentimentalize all primitive cultures, whether as anthropologists or new neighbors of Negroes. We sentimentalize their primitive state automatically as superior to our own. This confuses a lot of perception, of course.
Is the Cold War then merely a sensory conflict?
We have a huge cold war going on inside our own borders concerning territorial conflicts, ambitions, jurisdictions, economic demands, etc. These are hugely exaggerated misunderstandings born of sensory divergencies. Our inability to understand them mutually exasperates our negotiations in dealing with them. This exasperation is quite independent of the actual sources of conflict. The same with Castro and dealing with Cuba, with its intensely backward, aural culture. The Cuban way of thinking and feeling about problems is quite alien to our modes of understanding. It's the same with the American Southerner, who has very backward, aural ways of thinking and feeling. It's very hard for the literate North to give him credit for being honest and sincere at all.
De Tocqueville was able to predict certain developments in American culture by contrasting the lack of auditory background in America with its ability to blueprint its development in visual, literate terms. He was making equations. He encountered a new land in which literacy had no opposition, except from Indians. Visual literacy marched unimpeded by any other sensory mode. For the first time in the history of the world, a great new technology encountered a great, new space.
De Tocqueville could not blueprint older, European cultures. But to an ear-oriented European, the American literate culture was quite visible. Mrs. Trollope spoke about auditory, nonvisual factors—which the English even in our time find impossible to deal with. They are unable to realize that they have a class struggle based upon ear culture. We accept literacy and they don't. Literacy wipes out tonality. Americans have never permitted a tone of voice to dictate a man's importance in this world. The English use that criterion entirely as a basis of judging human excellence. In highly literate, visual America it is correct spelling and grammar, not correct intonation. T. S. Eliot lacked an English voice and they did not accept him there. Pound just romped through England wearing a mask of outrageous Yankee dialect. They accepted that. The British are unaware of their auditory culture; we're quite unaware of our visual culture.
Similarly, you claim that the war in Vietnam is, more or less, a creature of television.
Without an informed public there would be no war. We live in an informational environment and war is conducted with information. TV news coverage of Vietnam has been a disaster as far as Washington is concerned because it has alienated people altogether from that war. Newspaper coverage would never alienate people from the war because it's "hot," it doesn't involve. TV does and creates absolute nausea. It's like public hangings—if there were public hangings there would be no hangings. Because public hangings would involve people. The distant statistical fact—"At 5:30 this morning so and so was executed"—that's hot. Washington is still fighting a "hot" war, as it were, by newspaper means and the old technologies. The effects of the new technologies on war coverage is not something Washington is prepared to cope with. In Washington people do not concede that the news on TV and news in the press are dissimilar.
TV has begun to dissolve the fabric of American life. All the assumptions—all the ground rules—based on visuality, superficiality, blueprinting, connectedness, equality, sameness—disappear with TV.
If you shut off TV, then we would end the war in Vietnam and at the same time set back the civil rights movement?
Oh yes. But there is an alternative: Put hundreds of extra lines on the TV image, step up its visual intensity to a new hot level. This might serve to reverse the whole effect of TV. It might make the TV image photographic, slick, like movies: hot and detached. Bell Telephone is now operating with eight-thousand-line TV images, not eight hundred, quite beyond the fidelity of any known photographic process.
Why hasn't this been tried?
You might well inquire. No one believes these factors have any effect whatever on our human reactions. It's like the old days when people played around with radium, painting watch dials and they licked the brushes. They didn't believe radium could affect people….
When Eric Goldman asked you on "The Open Mind" if media change—the electronic revolution of our time, for example—was a "good" or "bad" thing, you replied:
Now, you see, you have slipped into the literary language of the classifier. The visual man is always trying to check things out by classification and matching.
Goldman: I have set it in the language of the social commentator. You have said something is happening in our society. We now have a medium which is bombarding us, all of our senses.
McLuhan: But when you say "good," is it good in relation to what? You know, the social scientist—
Goldman: Is it good in relation to the established values of the West, let us say?
McLuhan: You remember what the social scientist said to a friend of his: "How is your wife?" And the other social scientist replied, "Do you mean is she better? If so, in relation to what?"
Classification, for the literary man, is the be-all and end-all of observations. That's why Macdonald attempts to classify me. In the medical world, classification is a form of dismissal. If the doctor says it's measles, that's it, it's over with. The rest is just routine. But classification is not the beginning of the study of a problem—it's the end. For me any of these little gestures I make are all tentative probes. That's why I feel free to make them sound as outrageous or extreme as possible. Until you make it extreme, the probe is not very efficient. Probes, to be effective, must have this edge, strength, pressure. Of course they sound very dogmatic. That doesn't mean you are committed to them. You may toss them away.
There is an alternative to classification and that is exploration. This doesn't easily register with nineteenth-century minds. Most nineteenth-century minds are helpless in discussing contemporary forms. They have never acquired the verbal means of grappling with a pictorial world. Macdonald has no verbal strategies for even coping with the movies, let alone more subtle or more recent forms, like radio or television.
I'm perfectly prepared to scrap any statement I ever made about any subject once I find that it isn't getting me into the problem. I have no devotion to any of my probes as if they were sacred opinions. I have no proprietary interest in my ideas and no pride of authorship as such. You have to push any idea to an extreme, you have to probe. Exaggeration, in the sense of hyperbole, is a major artistic device in all modes of art. No painter, no musician ever did anything without extreme exaggeration of a form or a mode, until he had exaggerated those qualities that interested him. Wyndham Lewis said: "Art is the expression of a colossal preference" for certain forms of rhythm, color, pigmentation, and structure. The artist exaggerates fiercely in order to register this preference in some material. You can't build a building without huge exaggeration or preference for a certain kind of space.
This question of repetition bothers them most because they are looking for values or a "point of view." Now values, insofar as they register a preference for a particular kind of effect or quality, are a highly contentious and debatable area in every field of discourse. Nobody in the twentieth century has ever come up with any meaningful definition or discussion of "value." It doesn't work any longer in economics, let alone humanist affairs. It is rather fatuous to insist upon values if you are not prepared to understand how they got there and by what they are now being undermined. The mere moralistic expression of approval or disapproval, preference or detestation, is currently being used in our world as a substitute for observation and a substitute for study. People hope that if they scream loudly enough about "values" then others will mistake them for serious, sensitive souls who have higher and nobler perceptions than ordinary people. Otherwise, why would they be screaming.
Anybody who spends his time screaming about values in our modern world is not a serious character. You might as well start screaming about a house that's burning down, shouting, "This is not the act of a serious man!" When your old world is collapsing and everything is changing at a furious pitch, to start announcing your preferences for old values is not the act of a serious person. This is frivolous, fatuous. If you were to knock on the door of one of these critics and say "Sir, there are flames leaping out of your roof, your house is burning," under these conditions he would then say to you, "That's a very interesting point of view. I personally couldn't disagree with you more." That's all these critics are saying. Their house is burning and they're saying, "Don't you have any sense of values, simply telling people about fire when you should be thinking about the serious content, the noble works of the mind?" Value is irrelevant.
But if "value is irrelevant" what about the content of media? In your discussions with Eric Goldman this same point was raised:
Goldman: Mr. McLuhan, a number of commentators have said that as they understand your view, you really don't think that changing the contents of television would change much about this process….
McLuhan: No. You may have seen a New Yorker joke. A couple are watching TV, and one says, "When you think of the vast educational potential of TV, aren't you glad it doesn't?" This is based on the assumption, you see, that it is the content that does the educating, not the medium. Now, if it should be just the other way around—and very few people have asked themselves anything about that—then it would be understandable why these things happen involuntarily and unasked.
Goldman: Take "Peyton Place." If you put on "Peyton Place" or if you put on a news documentary, the contents are radically different in that case, but still from your point of view the medium is transcending the contents in significance so far as the person out there is concerned.
McLuhan: It's like changing the temperature in a room. It doesn't matter what's in the room at all, or what pictures are on the wall, or who is in the room. If the temperature drops forty degrees suddenly, the effect on our outlook, our attitude, is profound.
Media are like that. They just alter the total social temperature. Since TV, the whole American political temperature has cooled down, down, down, until the political process is almost approaching rigor mortis. These facts of media are not the areas in which they look—after all, the medical profession was in the habit of looking in the wrong places for causes and effects for many centuries, and nobody has come up with any suggestions for how to control media or the social impact of technologies until now.
Many people would rather be villains than nitwits. It occurs to me just now that moral vehemence may provide ersatz dignity for our normal moronic behavior. It would be possible to extend my media analysis to include the idea that the normal human condition, when faced with innovation, is that of the brainwashed idiot who tries to introduce the painfully learned responses from one situation into new situations where they apply not at all. The reason that I refrain in the book from pointing out this obvious moral is owing to the discovery, represented by the book itself, that this helpless and witless condition of persistent irrelevance of response is unnecessary at the first moment that we recognize this pattern of response and its causes. It is this discovery that fills me with optimism. The moralist has instinctively translated my forward-looking discovery into backward-looking misanthropy. Moral bitterness is a basic technique for endowing the idiot with dignity. Guilt and remorse are retrospective by definition and exempt the guilty party from any redeeming act of expiation or creative renewal. Guilt and remorse are forms of despair and sloth. Any charge of nonmoral fervor with regard to my work merely points to my own effort to protect reader and critic from the rage and indignation which they have richly earned. For many years I have observed that the moralist typically substitutes anger for perception. He hopes that many people will mistake his irritation for insight. Is this not one of the great attractions of Marxism? While lacking all insight into the processes with which it is concerned, it yet provides an intensely dramatic role for the corporate expression of dissatisfactions that elude the understanding.
Do I "approve of 'Peyton Place' or of Jack Paar?" No! But they're trying to classify Paar with a good or bad "thing," not attempting to find out what he's doing or what effect he's having or what's really going on. They are trying to fit him into some sort of encyclopedia of culture. They find concept a much more convenient form of human activity than precept. They ask me to judge what I observe. Cocteau said: "I don't want to be famous. I just want to be believed." Any artist would say that he doesn't want people to agree or disagree with him. He just wants them to notice. I expect my audience to participate with me in a common act of exploration. I want observations, not agreement. And my own observation of our almost overwhelming cultural gradient toward the primitive—or involvement of all the senses—is attended by complete personal distaste and dissatisfaction. I have no liking for it.
Since, however, this new cultural gradient is the world, the milieu, in which I must live and which prepares the students I must teach, I have every motive to understand its constituents, its components, and its operations. I move around through these elements as I hope any scientist would through a world of disease and stress and misery. If a doctor, surgeon or scientist were to become personally agitated about any phenomenon whatever, he would be finished as an explorer or observer. The need to retain an attitude of complete clinical detachment is necessary for survival in this kind of work. It is not an expression of approval or a point of view or outlook. It's only a strategy of survival. Anybody who enters this kind of work with strong feelings of approval or disapproval, nineteenth-century-style point of view, fixed positions, "From where I'm sitting I would say that this is an abomination and degradation of all human values," etc.—anybody who enters any situation in our time with any such commitments has completely polished himself off the scene as an observer. He's had it. So our literary fraternities—nineteenth-century liberals if you like—are completely helpless to even approach the material of their own culture. They are so terrified, so revolted, they don't even know how to get near it and they've bothered to acquire the means of studying or of observing it.
This so-called primitivism—and it is so fatuous in our time, so uncritical—one of the more ridiculous aspects of Picasso, if you like—it's a form of surfboarding, just riding any old wave that happens to be around. On the other hand, primitivism, D. H. Lawrence style, has become in itself almost a form of camp. That is why we have suddenly abandoned it in favor of camp, which is a new artistic attitude toward our own junkyard. The sudden resolve to tackle our own junkyard as art work is a hopeful indication that we are prepared after all to look at the environment as that which is capable of formulation, patterning, shaping. It still lacks the awareness of what effects environments have upon us. They still seem to imagine that you can take it or leave it. You know the old literate attitude toward advertising in the thirties: "Personally, I can take it or leave it. I'm just not interested in it." These are the helpless victims of all advertising, these people who think that merely by subjecting themselves to it without taking an interest in it they can be immune. The idea of immunity from environments and environments created by media—so long as one concentrates upon noble content—is a cherished illusion in literary circles. I heard a Tom Swiftie the other day—"'Don't talk to me of icebergs,' said the captain of the Titanic sanctimoniously." The literary professions are somewhat in that position. There are many who imagine that we can disregard these forms and their operations on human sensibilities.
Similarly, there are those who feel they can expose themselves to a hideous urban environment so long as they feel they are in a state of literary grace, as it were; that the forms of life are not in themselves communicative; that only classified data register in our apparatus. People would never dream of valuing their daily experiences in terms of what they happen to see or hear that day. Media like print or radio or television—which are much more environmental and pervasive forms assailing their eyes and ears all day long—these are invisible. It was only in the nineteenth century that artists, painters, and poets began to notice that it was the environmental form itself, as humanly constituted, that really provided people with the models of perception that governed their thoughts. The literary people still cherish the idea that we can fight off the sensory models imposed on our sensorium by environment, by content, by the classifiable part of the environment. It's somewhat the predicament that Malraux sees in his museum without walls. As long as you can see art inside a museum you can, as it were, protect it from all sorts of vulgarity. What happens when photo engraving and various new technologies make it possible to have far more art outside walls of museums than inside? How do you maintain taste and artistic standards when you can vulgarize the greatest art with an environment? These are the problems assailing the literary world but which have never been looked into by literary people, journalists, and reviewers.
As a person committed to literature and the literary tradition, I have studied these new environments which threaten to dissolve the whole of literary modality, the whole traditions of literary achievement, and I don't think that these are merely threats to classifiable literary values that can be fended off by staunch moralism or lively indignation. We have to discover new patterns of action, new strategies of survival.
This is where William Burroughs comes in with his Naked Lunch. When we invent a new technology, we become cannibals. We eat ourselves alive since these technologies are merely extensions of ourselves. The new environment shaped by electric technology is a cannibalistic one that eats people. To survive one must study the habits of cannibals.
Why are some critics so outraged by your work?
Any new demand on human perception, any new pressure to restructure the habits of perception, is the occasion for outraged response. Literary people prefer to deal with their world without disturbance to their perceptual life. In the sixteenth century, when new forms of perception came into existence with things like printing, people underwent terrified responses as recorded by Hieronymous Bosch. The world of Bosch shows space—the old familiar, comfortable, sensible space of all right-thinking people—medieval, iconic, discontinuous. Against that space he juxtaposes the new world of perspective and three-dimensional space with its strange vanishing point and continuum. By putting these two spaces together he gets the "Temptation of St. Anthony." Quite similarly, Kafka takes the plausible, reasonable, literary modes of discourse and narrative and immediately juxtaposes them with something else—creating metamorphosis, change of structure, change of perception. By putting the three-dimensional world against the metamorphic world of changed structure he gets the same degree of nightmare and terror that Bosch got by putting his two spaces together. Now Bosch was merely recording a response of his age to the experience of pictorial space. To the world of the sixteenth century, rational, three-dimensional, pictorial space was a world of absolute horror. There is no literary horror in the presence of mass culture that could match the horror which the sixteenth century felt in the presence of three-dimensional, rational space. To them it was absolute disaster, absolute spiritual disruption. In our time the plunge through the looking glass of Lewis Carroll into the discontinuous, space-time world of electric technology has created the same sense of the plunge into the abyss, the plunge into the irrational on the part of our contemporaries that we associate with existentialism. Our contemporaries are mistaken, in many ways, as to the causes of their present discontent. On the other hand, they are not mistaken about the demands on their sensibilities and on their perceptions. To shift out of a nineteenth-century, rational space into a twentieth-century space-time, noncontinuum is an experience of great discomfort because it puts one's whole sensorium under terrible pressure….
Is there a real danger in the new media?
It seems to me that the great advantage in understanding the operational dynamics of various media is to quiet them down, not exploit them. If you understand these dynamics, you can control media, eliminate their effects from the environment. And this is most desirable. I think we would do ourselves a considerable kindness if we closed down TV operations for a few years. If TV was simply eliminated from the United States scene, it would be a very good thing. Just as radio has a most malignant effect in Africa or Algeria, or China—in highly auditory cultures, radio drives these people nearly mad with paranoia and tribal intensity—TV, in a highly visual culture, drives us inward in depth into a totally non-visual universe of involvement. It is destroying our entire political, educational, social, institutional life. TV will dissolve the entire fabric of society in a short time. If you understood its dynamics, you would choose to eliminate it as soon as possible. TV changes the sensory and psychic life. It is an oriental form of experience, giving people a somber, profound sense of involvement.
When an admirer called him a poet, Freud considered the judgment harmful in that it took away from his scientific intent. A Canadian writer suggests that you are not literary critic, sociologist, historian, or whatever, but, simply, a poet.
All poets have to probe to discover anything. In our world, there is so much to discover.
Can we excuse methodological lapses in the name of poetic and/or artistic license?
Our sensory modes are constituents, not classifications. I am simply identifying modes of experience. We need new perceptions to cope. Our technologies are generations ahead of our thinking. If you even begin to think about these new technologies you appear as a poet because you are dealing with the present as the future. That is my technique. Most people look back for security. Much greater perceptions and energies are needed than simply mine in the world in which we exist. Better developed talents are needed. James Joyce had these talents in a much more refined state. Joyce had a complete ecology of manmade environments which these critics should have read and studied long ago.
Will there ever be silence?
Objects are unobservable. Only relationships among objects are observable.
Are you disturbed by the sometimes harsh critical responses your work excites?
Even Hercules had to clean the Augean stables but once!
Marshall McLuhan and Gerald E. Stearn, in an interview in McLuhan: Hot and Cool, edited by Gerald Emanuel Stearn, The Dial Press, Inc., 1967, pp. 266-302.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2407
[Woodcock is a Canadian educator, editor, and critic best known for his biographies of George Orwell and Thomas Merton. He also founded Canada's most important literary journal, Canadian Literature, and has written extensively on the literature of Canada. In the following essay, which was originally published in The Nation in November 1971, he compares McLuhan's vision of an electronic "global village" to worldviews expressed in Utopian literature.]
It has become a commonplace in discussing the effect of the media in modern society to point to the way in which reputations can be instantly made, and lost with equal rapidity. The situation is all the more piquant when this happens to a media figure like Marshall McLuhan. Remembering his career, one is tempted to adapt the slogan of a celebrated gasoline advertisement which for some reason he overlooked in compiling The Mechanical Bride: "That's McLuhan—that was."
It is true that, as a disturbing sport among academics, McLuhan has been in evidence for twenty years. But neither The Mechanical Bride (1951) nor The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) marked the real beginning of his brief reign as a mod hero. That came with the publication of Understanding Media (1964), a thinly veiled celebration of the impending reign of the electronic media and the return to tribalism, now universalized. All the basic ideas of that book (and McLuhan really has few ideas, but repeats them constantly in varying forms) had in fact been sketched in The Gutenberg Galaxy, and the notion of swimming with the maelstrom had made its appearance in The Mechanical Bride. But in Understanding Media McLuhan translated his gospel from academic hieratic into Madison Avenue demotic, and stunned many apparently intelligent people into accepting a highly exaggerated view of the role of electronic communications in our lives.
None of the curious intermedial volumes in which, after Understanding Media, McLuhan tried to develop a mosaic of picture and aphorism (in a vain attempt to evade the charge that he used print to declare the end of print), made an impression like that of his earlier books, and their failure confirmed the implications of the continuing success of the paperback revolution in publishing: that under modern conditions people are in fact reading more than they did a generation ago, and that the Gutenberg dynasty remains in control of a very large territory in the Western consciousness. Since 1964, moreover, there is evidence that, like mosquitoes resisting DDT, the human mind is learning to absorb television without the extraordinary changes in consciousness McLuhan predicted. We have not yet become Global Village enough to diminish the passions of nationalism; indeed, to give an example very close to the bone when dealing with McLuhan, the spread of television in Canada, and particularly the prevalence of American shows, has been followed by an upsurge of national feeling, a strong reaction against the very influences that not long ago made it seem as though North America might become the prototype of the Global Village.
I do not know how far the evident failure of his teachings to work out in the short run has affected McLuhan's viewpoint; recently he has withdrawn into the academic fastness from which he emerged. But it is certain that during the past three or four years his influence has waned, and I doubt if there are many ardent McLuhanites left except among slightly unfashionable PR officers and belated Op artists. And now the burial beetles are at work on his reputation; interestingly, they are led by late disciples. The authors of two recent books, Jonathan Miller (Marshall McLuhan, 1971) and Donald F. Theall (The Medium is the Rear View Mirror, 1971) are former McLuhanites turning against the master, Miller in total opposition and Theall in that spirit of revisionism which to the faithful always seems worse than downright rejection.
Having held even at the height of general McLuhanacy the critical attitude of the working journalist, who knows that things are never as simple as aphorists and myth makers declare, I find it hard to resist the kind of I-told-you-so smugness which anarchists used to assume towards Trotskyists when they talked of Stalin. It is easy—all too easy—to say: How could you really believe McLuhan's nonsense about TV being tactile? How could you swallow those absurd assurances that an Eskimo lived in an auditory world when his very survival as a hunter depended on a visual sense that reads the landscape as accurately as any of us reads a page of print? How could you allow McLuhan the insolent claim that the front page of a newspaper, with its "instantaneous mosaic," is less rather than more visual than a page of print?
Yet McLuhan remains a phenomenon that has to be acknowledged. Even after his vogue has dissipated, some of his works will remain as curiosities in the history of Western culture. The Gutenberg Galaxy, for example, is likely to be read for the very feature that the later McLuhan would have dismissed as irrelevant—its content. It is, like Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy or Proudhon's De la Justice, one of those eccentric compendia of strange knowledge that omnivorous readers will find entertaining long after the argument has ceased to be topical. And even his earlier scholarly essays, recently collected in The Interior Landscape, plodding and murkily written though they may be, are interesting because of the traditionalist and elitist gloss which they provide on his latest work. "The Southern Quality" and "Edgar Poe's Tradition," neither of which McLuhan has repudiated, read like parodies on the myths of gentlemanly Dixie, while an anticipation of his later excesses in relation to the media appears when he seeks to show that the symbolist theory of analogies and correspondences originated in the front pages of newspapers, whose arbitrary juxtaposition of dissimilar incidents supposedly inspired Mallarmé and Rimbaud.
The study of this earlier McLuhan, the search for the roots of his later ideas in his Canadian origins, in his convert's Catholicism, in his admiration for Joyce, Eliot and Wyndham Lewis, provides the most interesting chapters in both Miller's Marshall McLuhan and Theall's The Medium is the Rear View Mirror.
Unfortunately Miller becomes so involved in tracing McLuhan's debt to Innis and Whorf and Giedion and the prairie Populists and the Sophist tradition that he leaves little room for what one had imagined to be the purpose of the Modern Masters series in which his book figures, the lucid exposition and criticism of the chosen writers. It seems obvious that a consciousness of space running out induced him to concentrate on the books up to The Gutenberg Galaxy and to say virtually nothing about Understanding Media or anything later. Yet it is in Understanding Media that McLuhan's most pernicious maxim, "The medium is the message," was worked out in such a way that the leaders of industrial and advertising corporations adopted him briefly as an instant guru. That monstrous half-truth, implying that content is irrelevant, seemed for a time to be accepted as a white flag of surrender offered on behalf of the whole intellectual community—offered not merely because McLuhan's growing determinism made him regard the triumph of the electronic media as inevitable, but also because he seemed to desire the recreation of a community hostile to the intellect. It is in Understanding Media that McLuhan finally reveals himself in all his effrontery as the know-all know-nothing, a character worthy of the imagination of his master Wyndham Lewis.
There are of course good things in Miller's little book. As a doctor knowledgeable in neurology, he is able to pick apart very effectively McLuhan's assumptions regarding the co-ordination of the senses, and as a television man he can show how McLuhan's theories fail to work out in the practice of the media. But his general hostility to his subject weakens his case. One reacts with incredulity to the dismissal of all of McLuhan as "a gigantic system of lies." It is of course something far more insidious—a gigantic chaos of half-truths.
Here—as well as in his fuller treatment of his subject—Theall is more credible than Miller. While the most Miller will allow McLuhan is that he sets us thinking, Theall does him the justice of granting that, despite his monstrous exaggerations and his pedantic ways of shocking the pedants, McLuhan has spotted some genuine trends in our society. What Theall does not develop clearly is the process by which the trend-spotter became the trend-setter. I still think the book which McLuhan has since rejected as obsolete, The Mechanical Bride, is his most true and useful book, since here he is merely revealing, with some acuteness, the way in which advertising both reflects and moulds the attitudes of our world. It is when in his later books he himself takes a role in moulding attitudes, and does so by intellectually dubious means, that McLuhan becomes one of the great exemplars in our generation of la trahison des clercs.
I am always surprised that, except for a few rather slight hints in the essays Raymond Rosenthal collected some years ago in McLuhan: Pro and Con (still the best book on McLuhan), nobody—and that includes Miller and Theall—has examined seriously McLuhan's role as the leading Utopian fantasist since Huxley and Orwell, or how this role is related to the fact that his transformation into a prophet took place in Canada.
Seen as a great false metaphor for the ideal society, McLuhan's vision reflects in its form the discredit that in recent years has fallen on the conventional Utopia. As a detailed model of an ideal society, Utopia began to lose its appeal as soon as the first signs of the welfare state appeared, and the failure of Utopia in time present—i. e. Communist Russia—resulted in the inversion of Utopia in the future into a negative vision, pioneered by E.M. Forster and Zamiatin, developed by Huxley and Orwell. But the desire persisted for some kind of Utopian pattern in which human alienation could be shown ending in a culture that reunited man's nature as well as his society; it persisted especially among Catholic converts who fervently believed in their own kind of vanished golden age. Man came out of a tribal world, where the unity of the group protected him psychologically as well as physically from the hostility in the darkness around the tribal fire. Let him return to a worldwide tribalism, a global village, in which a balance of all the senses and a reconciliation of intellect and emotion would at last prove itself superior to nature and transform the earth into a vast artifact.
Once one considers it in this way, McLuhan's vision is seen to have a great deal in common with many Utopian novels, and here I am not merely talking about the incidental anticipations of electronic devices which one finds in books like Bellamy's Looking Backward. Much more impressive is the forecast in Forster's "The Machine Stops," written about sixty years ago, of a world where man's fate is actually determined by a technological structure he himself has created and which brilliantly anticipates the type of communications network McLuhan imagines as the arterial structure of world tribalism.
Even more interesting is the anti-intellectualism, the prejudice against a literary or even a literate culture, that pervades so many Utopias. Even in Utopia itself there is a strong suggestion that oral is superior to written discourse, and Swift's Utopians, the Houyhnhnms, like the inhabitants of Plato's golden age, have no writing and are the wiser and more moral for the lack; the same applies to the underground people in Herbert Read's The Green Child. In the anti-Utopias the attack on literacy becomes an attack on thought. Anything but the most elementary intellectual activity is forbidden in the worlds of We and 1984 and Brave New World, and in the last of these, technological advances are used, as McLuhan envisages, simply to cultivate and gratify all the senses. In Huxley's novel there is also a kind of world tribalism, exemplified particularly in the ritual orgies of its people.
Though he acknowledges no debt to Huxley, what McLuhan poses as inevitable and therefore—by its Panglossian logic—desirable, is something very near to a realization of Brave New World. The flaw in the vision is that he does not take into account that serpent in the electronic Eden, the content in the message; man will still want to eat of the Tree of Knowledge, and from that reality McLuhan can escape no more than he now escapes the tyranny of print.
That a late-blooming Utopian vision should emerge in Canada is not surprising, particularly if one remembers the teachings of another and more reasonable Canadian guru of world fame, Northrop Frye. Writing on Canadian literature, Frye has developed the thesis that traditionally Canada was a garrison society, a society of pioneers whose situation until the recent wave of urbanization was analogous to that of a tribal people, with the northern Wilderness fulfilling the same role of circumambient enmity as the African forest. One can go beyond Frye to remark that, since a common fear creates unity in tribal and garrison communities alike, they have no need of Utopian visions. It is when human societies loosen out into civilizations, and the sense of community dissipates, that the dream of ideal worlds in past or future emerges. The Homeric Greeks, if one is to believe the epics, had no thought of either a lost golden age or an ideal Platonic republic. Similarly, one of the striking features of Canadian literature until recently was the almost complete absence of Utopias or anti-Utopias; keeping the watch in the garrison was the important task. But now, in a mere generation, Canada has passed out of the pioneer phase, Canadian critics like Frye himself have begun to study Utopian myths, and Canadian poètes manqués like McLuhan have begun to create Utopian visions. The fact that what to Forster and Huxley was anti-Utopia should have become Utopia to McLuhan may be an alarming symptom of the degree of alienation in the collective Canadian psyche, struggling towards self-recognition, yet plagued by dissension. It may also be merely an externalization of McLuhan's own plight, of a longing for the return, at any cost to human dignity, to the great warm womb of the tribal unconscious.
George Woodcock, "McLuhan's Utopia," in his The World of Canadian Writing: Critiques & Recollections, Douglas & McIntyre, 1980, pp. 235-40.
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[Quinton is an English philosopher and educator. In the following essay, he maintains that McLuhan is "an academic sheep in Tom Wolfe's clothing" whose theories are neither radical nor couched in a very original manner.]
Any effort to get a clear view of Marshall McLuhan's doctrines is seriously discouraged by his explicit and repeatedly expressed scorn for old-fashioned, print-oriented, 'linear', rationality. By rejecting as obsolete the humdrum business of setting out definite theses, assembling evidence in support of them, and undermining actual and possible objections, he opts out of the usual argumentative game of truth-seeking, rather in the style of a chess-player who kicks over the table. In this situation ordinary criticism is enfeebled by an uncomfortable suspicion that it is missing the point.
Although he writes books plentifully sprinkled with the familiar vocabulary of linear rationality ('thus', 'therefore', 'it follows', 'it is clear that'), there is, I think, no doubt of McLuhan's seriousness about this negative and seemingly self-destructive commitment. For although his books are recognisably books, for the most part full of moderately grammatical prose, they do deviate in various ways from standard forms of exposition. The two main works look ordinary enough at first. But the chapters of The Gutenberg Galaxy are mostly short, have no numbers, and have very long titles. What really enforces one's bewilderment are the not infrequent cases where the title-aphorism has only a very remote connection with the chapter beneath it. The thirty-three chapters of Understanding Media do have titles of a familiar, Vance-Packardy sort (e. g., 'Clocks: The Scent of Time' and 'Television: The Timid Giant'); seven of them are about media of communication in general, the rest about twenty-six particular media (or near-media, e. g. clothes). But the content, of the later chapters at any rate, is largely jottings, transferred, it would seem, from the notebook with a minimum of working-over. However dense and organised the prose may look, what it says is connected more by associative leaps than logical linkages. With The Medium Is the Massage (with Quentin Fiore, New York, 1967) a rather thin diet of prose is eked out with a great deal of typographic space-wastage and photographic interruptions, in an attempt to produce something nearer the specifications of his theory.
In varying degrees, then, his writings avoid conventional, linear logic and he instructs his readers to approach them in a non-linear way. The Gutenberg Galaxy, he says, is a 'mosaic image' not 'a series of views of fixed relationships in pictorial space'. You can, in effect, start anywhere and read in any direction you like. The same spirit is revealed in McLuhan's regular tactic for dealing with objectors. He sees such linear automata as bogged down in a desperate 'unawareness', so dominated by the print medium to which they are bound by habit and professional interest that they are simply not equipped to see what he is getting at.
Quite a good way of arriving at a general idea of what he is up to is provided by McLuhan: Hot and Cool, a collection of thirty items mostly about, but a few by, McLuhan, finished off by a thirty-six-page dialogue between McLuhan and the editor (ed. G.E. Stearn, New York 1967). The items about him vary from fairly devotional pieces, among which is a quite astounding architectural meditation in the McLuhan manner by an architect called John M. Johansen, through the slightly nervous display of interest by Tom Wolfe, to the somewhat predictable broadsides of reflex liberal ideology from Dwight Macdonald and Christopher Ricks. These are mostly rather short pieces, and even if the commentators had any inclination to give more than the most cursory survey of McLuhan's ideas (as Kenneth Boulding, a shrewd but amicable objector, clearly has), they have not had the space for it. An interesting feature of this collection is the extent to which people writing about McLuhan tend to be infected by his style, with its fusillade of scriptwriter's pleasantries, rather in the way that one's voice falls to a whisper when one is talking to a sufferer from laryngitis. What the collection lacks is any extended effort to elicit a reasonably definite structure of theory from McLuhan's writings. I should not make this complaint if I did not think the thing could be done. If McLuhan is desultory (as a matter of principle), he is also exceedingly repetitious; not only does the same quite large but wholly manageable body of leading themes recur time and time again in his writings, they are even presented in the same jocular words (he has a grandfatherly indulgence toward his own phrases). What I wish to maintain is that if we ignore his anti-linear instructions, we can easily discern beneath the thin camouflage of his expository idiosyncrasies an articulate theory of society and culture, with all the usual apparatus of first principles, explanatory supplements, and logically derived consequences. What is more, this entirely linear theoretical contraption is of a classic and familiar kind, having a very close formal analogy with the main doctrines of Marx. To speak just once in McLuhanese: he is an academic sheep in Tom Wolfe's clothing.
The fundamental principle of McLuhan's system is a theory of the main determinant of historical change in society, culture, and the human individual. Such changes according to this system are all ultimately caused by changes in the prevailing or predominating medium of human communication. McLuhan got this idea from the later works of the Canadian economic historian Harold A. Innis, but what the teacher used vertiginously enough, as an interpretative clue, the pupil asserts, with only the most occasional and perfunctory qualification, as the basic truth about causation in history. The main evidence for this proposition is provided in The Gutenberg Galaxy in which a vast array of disparate works is ransacked for quotations (they must make up half the book) describing the social and cultural effects of the invention of printing. Print, he tells us, created (that is his usual word in this connection) individualism, privacy, specialisation, detachment, mass-production, nationalism, militarism, the dissociation of sensibility, etc., etc.
The connection between cause and effect affirmed in the fundamental principle is explained by the doctrine of 'sense-ratio', which McLuhan derived, it appears, from the work of Father Walter J. Ong. McLuhan associates different historical periods or cultural situations with different balances of emphasis in the communicative and mental life of human beings as between the various senses. Tribal man, with his oral culture, was a conventional being who heard, smelt, and felt the people he was in communication with. Gutenberg man acquires information through focusing his eyes on clearly printed rows of alphabetic symbols. Tribal man brought all his senses to bear on his world in a healthy balance; Gutenberg man over-concentrates on vision and leaves his other senses numb and deprived.
The third element of McLuhan's system is a patterning or schematisation of history, which is achieved by applying the fundamental principle to raw historical fact. Broadly conceived, the schema divides human history into three parts: the remote or pre-Gutenberg past, the immediate or Gutenberg past, and the immediate or electronic future. The first and longest of these eras further subdivides, on closer inspection, into a tribal epoch of oral, face-to-face communication, an ideographic epoch, and an epoch of alphabetic handwriting (i. e., prehistory, the East, and Western civilisation from the Greeks to the Renaissance).
The final stage of this schema, the electronic future, develops into a large-scale prophecy which also implies a diagnosis of current cultural discontents. With electronic means of communication rendering printed matter more or less obsolete we are on the edge of a new type of society and a new type of man. Indeed the new men are already among us: they are our children with their sense-ratios transformed by TV-watching at an impressionable age, dedicated to 'cool', participative enjoyments like the frug, and altogether alienated from the Gutenberg assumptions of traditional instructional schooling. That is why we get on with them so badly. The coming society will be appropriate to this type of human being. It will be a 'global village', a unitary world of neo-tribesmen, sunk in their social roles and fraternally involved with one another in a way that excludes what their forebears would regard as individuality.
Faced by the inevitable we need some kind of strategy to meet it with. Here McLuhan recurs, with a frequency unusual even for him, to Poe's story about a sailor caught in a maelstrom who saved himself by coming to understand how it worked. As things are, ignorance about the irresistible effects of new electronic media is general and blinding. The first step, at any rate, is to understand them by directing attention away from their content to their form and its effects on sense-ratios. It is not wholly clear that there is a second step, that anything more than understanding is required.
The global village is as welcome to McLuhan as it is inevitable. In Understanding Media he says that the faith in which he is writing is one that 'concerns the ultimate harmony of all being'. Generally the social and cultural features of the Gutenberg era that we are about to lose are described in an unfavourable way, their connection with war, inequality, indifference, the mutilation of the self is emphasised. But on the other hand, from the time of The Mechanical Bride (New York, 1951) McLuhan has been insisting that he is not concerned with whether the changes he is investigating are 'a good thing', and strongly suggests that this is a crude and unenlightened sort of question to ask. Rudolph E. Morris in McLuhan: Hot and Cool is sufficiently impressed by these protestations of detachment to praise the book, quite wrongly, for its freedom from moral indignation (a fairly dense cloud of moral steam rises from McLuhan's collar on page thirteen of The Mechanical Bride, for example). Despite his insistence on detachment there is no doubt that he strongly favours the future as he describes it.
Finally McLuhan has a special intellectual technique, both of exposition and defense. His procedure is to heap evidence up in tumultuous and disparate assemblages, with little critical appraisal of his sources—unless they deviate very grossly in some way from one of his main theses—and with only the most tenuous thread of topical relevance to connect them. To justify this shapeless and enthusiastic technique of almost random accumulation he falls back on the idea that he is producing a mosaic, not a linear argument. In fact he is producing a linear argument, but one of a very fluid and unorganised kind. Objectors are discounted for benighted visuality and obsession with print. Yet McLuhan not only writes books, he is immensely bookish, in the manner of some jackdaw of a medieval compiler or of Burton in The Anatomy of Melancholy.
The analogy between this system and Marx's is plain enough to be set out briefly. Each system begins with a general interpretation of history, an account of the ultimate cause of historical change. Each applies this to arrive at a schematisation of the actual course of historical events. For exciting, practical purposes each schema divides history into three parts: the remote past (before print or capitalism), the immediate past (print or capitalism), and the immediate future (global village or classless society). But the remote past can be divided further, into prehistory (the oral tribe or primitive communism), the East (ideographic script or slave economy), and the early West (alphabetic script or feudalism). Both McLuhan and Marx devote their main work to the shift from the early West to the immediate past: as The Gutenberg Galaxy tells what print did to the scribal culture, so Capital describes the emergence of capitalism. Each system concludes its historical schema with a prophecy of imminent major change to a state of affairs that is nebulously described but enthusiastically welcomed. In each case the welcomed future is a reversion, in a major respect, to the initial phase of the whole historical process. McLuhan and Marx both present strategies for dealing with the inevitable. Marx calls for an activist endeavour to ease the birth-pangs of the coming order; McLuhan, less exigently, calls for an effort to understand, best pursued by reading his works. Both are strongly in favour of the future that they predict, for all its obscurity of outline. Finally both have a brisk way of disposing of hostile critics. They have a self-sealing device against any possible attempt at refutation: the theory predicts it and explains it away, what Popper calls 'reinforced dogmatism'. Objectors must be visual or bourgeois.
To point out this analogy is not to criticise McLuhan, except in so far as he maintains that his ideas cannot be set out in a conventionally systematic way. But it does put one on one's guard. A system of this form embodies two crucial elements about whose acceptability very general and very elaborately worked-out doubts have been raised: a schematisation of history which implies the inevitability of a predicted state of affairs and a strongly positive evaluation of this non-too-clearly-described inevitable future.
There is clearly something in McLuhan's fundamental principle, just as there is in Marx's. Major changes in styles of communication do have large effects. What is wrong here is the violent exaggeration with which McLuhan blows up a truth about the causal relevance of media into a full-blooded and unqualified theory of historical change. What he usually does is to argue that some change in media of communication is a necessary condition of a certain major social or cultural change, and then to represent his discovery as an account of what created the major change in question. Print, he says, created the large national army of modern times. Now it may be that the large national army does make a good deal of use of printed matter for such things as training manuals and quartermaster's forms. But the railway, as indispensable for rapid mobilisation of large numbers, is obviously more important. Anyway McLuhan's timing is all wrong here. The print age, for him, begins about 1500, but the type of army he has in mind first appears in the mid-nineteenth century with the American Civil War and Bismarck's wars against Austria and France, or, at the earliest, with the armies of the French Revolution and Napoleon. During the three preceding, print-dominated centuries, armies had been small bodies of mercenaries or long-service professionals.
He might, at this point, reply that the mass army of modern times was created by nationalism and that nationalism was created by print: Q.E.D. Even if we allow the questionable assumption that creation is transitive in this way, this still will not do. For how does print create nationalism? By stabilising the vernacular? But were not Elizabethan Englishmen nationalistic even though most of them were illiterate? Or is it enough that the ruling class should be literate? Then why was eighteenth-century Italy not nationalistic?
Here, right at the foundations of McLuhan's system, a persisting vagueness of terms makes it difficult beyond a certain point to see precisely what is being said. Media, he contends, are the ultimate causal factors in history. But what is a medium? Much of the time the term is taken in a fairly ordinary way to mean a technique for the communication of ideas between human beings. It is in this sense that the concept of a medium occurs in his schematisation of history. But in Understanding Media roads, clothes, houses, money, cars, and weapons are all included in the repertoire of media discussed, things which either do not communicate information but carry altogether heavier loads, or which communicate information only as a very minor and peripheral function (as a nun's habit says 'don't ask me to have a drink with you'). In this extended sense a medium comes to be any item of technology, and the sense in which the fundamental principle is to be taken becomes very much diluted. Nevertheless, McLuhan's fundamental principle does make a point and he has certainly assembled evidence relevant to it which is impressive in its bulk and often intellectually stimulating.
This is less true of the schematisation of history that he derives from its application, which simply draws old and familiar distinctions between historical periods in a new terminology. What everyone is used to calling modern history is renamed the Gutenberg era, ancient and medieval history is renamed the era of alphabetic script, the epoch of the oriental empires is renamed the ideographic era. This would be all right in a modest way if it served to confirm a well-known distinction and to deepen our understanding of it. But here a pedantic-looking doubt must be voiced. What does he mean when he says of some medium that it is the dominant medium of a given historical period? Does it mean that everyone was preoccupied with it, in which case the Gutenberg era began in Europe only a hundred years ago with a fair approximation to universal literacy? Or does it mean that the medium of an era is the one through which the ruling class acquires most of its information or most of its important information? In that case the beginning of the Gutenberg era is pushed back to where he wants it all right (1500 roughly), but the basis of his claim that we are on the edge of an electronic age dissolves. This serious indeterminacy is one that he generously exploits. He says that England is much less visual and print-oriented than the United States. Yet England was the first country to exhibit most of the social and cultural symptoms of Gutenbergian domination: massproduction industry, big cities, individualism, nationalism, etc. Allowing himself this degree of freedom he deprives his schematisation of any definite content.
At this point his explanation of his fundamental principle by means of sense-ratios needs to be considered. Once again a very simple point seems to have been exaggerated into confident and unqualified assertions which cry out for justification. It is reasonable and enlightening to say that tribesmen do not have a detached, impersonal point of view of a visually conceived world stretching out uniformly from them in space and time. But to talk of sense-ratios suggests a kind of mathematical precision about this kind of perception which he nowhere begins to achieve. To raise a very simple question: why does he say nothing about the blind? Plenty of blind men display all the marks of extreme visuality in his terms, are individualised, specialised, detached and so forth. But how can this be possible for people who have been blind since birth and have had to get their information either tactually through Braille or auditorily through a reader?
This becomes highly important when he arrives at the final stage of his schematisation, his prophecy about the electronic age just ahead of us, peopled with its global villagers. All the alleged products of print are declared moribund and about to disappear: the individual, privacy, specialisation, detachment, militarism, nationalism, massproduction, and so forth. In their place the world will become a unity of emotionally involved tribesmen, aware of everything that is happening everywhere. The real basis for this prediction is his account, in terms of sense-ratios, of the effect of TV on people accustomed to it from early life. TV, he says, is a cool medium, whereas print is hot. It involves the collaboration of its watcher in what it presents, for he has to fill out its low-definition picture with imaginative efforts of his own, while print, where everything is clear and determinate, imposes a passive receptiveness on the reader.
My limited observation of children's TV habits makes me doubt this. If the show interests them they watch it with passive absorption; if it does not they leave it buzzing on around them and get on with something on the floor. But I would not rest the case on such anecdotal material, particularly since the effect is alleged to take place at a fairly subconscious level, as inaccessible to naive observation as it is to modification or control. It seems reasonable, however, to argue that despite its low pictorial definition TV leaves a lot less to the supplementative imagination of its watchers than print does to its readers. But even if electronic media do decrease detachment, as they might be held to do by the very lifelikeness of their representations, why does he infer that this involvement will inevitably be fraternal and charitable? There is no necessary connection whatever between making people more emotional and excitable and making them more humane and unselfish. Words like 'sensitive' and 'involved' can be used to mean either sympathetically concerned with the welfare of others or, more neutrally, just concerned. No doubt young people at present are more given to global idealism than their elders, but then that is nearly always the case; having few other responsibilities they can afford this emotional expenditure.
Again it is not at all clear why the involving nature of exposure to electronic media should eliminate individuality. If print makes men passive it should, according to McLuhan's own argument, presumably be well equipped to stereotype them. No doubt there are many forces in the world making for Riesman's other-directedness, but TV with its rapid diffusion of advertisers' ideas of fashionable life-styles is only one of them.
McLuhan's predictions often go far beyond the global village toward the imminent formation of a kind of cosmic, preverbal consciousness. Media, like all technologies, extend or externalise our faculties. In particular media extend our senses. Electronic media, he goes on, extend or externalise the central nervous system. Here he has really taken off. Certainly tools can augment the power and precision of our muscular operations. In line with this, media strictly so called can be regarded as ways of improving the performance of our sense-organs, though this more accurately applies to things like microscopes and telescopes. Going a little further still, we can allow that computing machines can assist and improve on the thinking work of the central nervous system. But this is not to say that computers or other media detach our faculties from us altogether, that they literally externalise the human capacities they reinforce.
Perhaps a community could enslave itself to a computer by programming it to make social decisions on the basis of its inflow of information, and by linking it up with machinery designed to put the decisions into effect. Such a community would be well advised to put the main power switch in an accessible position. But since in our entropic universe destruction is easier than construction, the descendants of people clever enough to construct such an appliance ought to be clever enough to blow it up if it gets out of hand. Moreover, whatever sort of computer it is, it will not be preverbal in McLuhan's lavish sense: its tapes may have combinations of 1s and 0s on them instead of ordinary words but it will not operate with blank tape. I have almost certainly misunderstood McLuhan on this topic, probably by taking his word 'externalise' literally. If he does not mean it to be understood in that way, all he can mean is that there will be a collective consciousness—or subconsciousness—of the kind an excited patriotic crowd might have, with everybody thinking or feeling the same thing. We must try to avoid this unappetising prospect by leaving TV-watching in its current voluntary condition and keeping more than one channel going.
McLuhan describes the electronic future in reasonably attractive ways on the whole. Not least in the phrase 'global village' itself with its intimations of rusticity, friendliness, the simple life. But his neo-primitive future does seem to be without most of the things which men have laboriously struggled to achieve and in virtue of which, despite everything, they still think of themselves as superior in more than brute strength to the other animal species: freedom, individuality, foresight, even detachment, the indispensable condition of rationality itself. In so far as the outlines of the electronic future are clear they are by no means enticing, but then in so far as they are clear the arguments on which their inevitability is based are very far from persuasive. And in so far as they are not clear there is nothing to take a position for or against. But anyway taking a position about the future has little point in McLuhan's system, since it is not shown how the understanding he offers is related to any possible action. What he really offers is a kind of general relief from historical anxiety: Amazing things are going to happen but considered in themselves they are not at all bad, and the disturbance of their arrival can be brought within manageable bounds by one's being intellectually prepared for them.
Whatever else he is McLuhan is consistently interesting. His scope is unlimited and there are the added attractions of his remorseless and all-inclusive contemporaneity and his jokes. Contemporaneity is a rapidly wasting asset. The Mechanical Bride, which is now sixteen years old, has a largely camp interest. The jokes often seem a little automated, like those in a Bob Hope show. His technique has a Gutenbergian repeatability. 'Money,' he says, 'is the poor man's credit card.' Why not 'Gratitude is the poor man's tip' or 'Changing the furniture around is the poor man's interior decoration'. But there are so many of them that the strong can carry the weak. What he claims to offer is much more than this, a general scheme of individual and social salvation. Compared to all such schemes it perhaps makes the least exacting demands on those who would like to follow it. They do not have to mortify the flesh or hurl themselves against the armed lackeys of the bourgeoisie or undergo 500 hours of analysis. All they have to do is to read a few books, a curiously Gutenbergian device. If, as I have argued, the scheme does not stand up very well if approached with the good old linear questions, 'Just what does he mean?' 'Is there any good reason to think that it is true?' they must remember that they were offered salvation at a bargain price.
Anthony Quinton, "McLuhan," in his Thoughts and Thinkers, Duckworth, 1982, pp. 269-76.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5501
[Kroker is a Canadian economist, educator, and critic who has written several studies on Postmodernism and popular culture. In the following excerpt, he evaluates McLuhan's contributions to the study of technology and some of his theories' shortcomings.]
Not the least of McLuhan's contributions to the study of technology was that he transposed the literary principle of metaphor/metonymy (the play between structure and process) into a historical methodology for analysing the rise and fall of successive media of communication. In McLuhan's discourse, novels are the already obsolescent content of television; writing "turned a spotlight on the high, dim Sierras of speech"; the movie is the "mechanization of movement and gesture"; the telegraph provides us with "diplomacy without walls"; just as "photography is the mechanization of the perspective painting and the arrested eye". To read McLuhan is to enter into a "vortex" of the critical, cultural imagination, where "fixed perspective" drops off by the way, and where everything passes over instantaneously into its opposite. Even the pages of the texts in Explorations, The Medium is the Massage, The Vanishing Point, or From Cliché to Archetype are blasted apart, counterblasted actually, in an effort to make reading itself a more subversive act of the artistic imagination. Faithful to his general intellectual project of exposing the invisible environment of the technological sensorium, McLuhan sought to make of the text itself a "countergradient" or "probe" for forcing to the surface of consciousness the silent structural rules, the "imposed assumptions" of the technological environment within which we are both enclosed and "processed". In The Medium is the Massage, McLuhan insisted that we cannot understand the technological experience from the outside. We can only comprehend how the electronic age "works us over" if we "recreate the experience" in depth and mythically, of the processed world of technology.
All media work us over completely. They are so persuasive in their personal, political, economic, aesthetic, psychological, moral, ethical, and social consequences that they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected, unaltered. The medium is the massage. Any understanding of social and cultural change is impossible without a knowledge of the way media work as environments.
And McLuhan was adamant on the immanent relationship of technology and biology, on the fact that "the new media … are nature" and this for the reason that technology refers to the social and psychic "extensions" or "outerings" of the human body or senses. McLuhan could be so universal and expansive in his description of the media of communication—his studies of communication technologies range from writing and speech to the telephone, photography, television, money, comic books, chairs and wrenches—because he viewed all technology as the pushing of the "archetypal forms of the unconscious out into social consciousness." When McLuhan noted in Counter Blast that "environment is process, not container", he meant just this: the effect of all new technologies is to impose, silently and pervasively, their deep assumptions upon the human psyche by reworking the "ratio of the senses."
All media are extensions of some human faculty—psychic or physical.
Media, by altering the environment, evoke in us unique ratios of sense perceptions. The extension of any one sense alters the way we think and act—they way we perceive the world. When these ratios change, MEN CHANGE.
For McLuhan, it's a processed world now. As we enter the electronic age with its instantaneous and global movement of information, we are the first human beings to live completely within the mediated environment of the technostructure. The "content" of the technostructure is largely irrelevant (the "content" of a new technology is always the technique which has just been superceded: movies are the content of television; novels are the content of movies) or, in fact, a red herring distracting our attention from the essential secret of technology as the medium, or environment, within which human experience is programmed. It was McLuhan's special genius to grasp at once that the content (metonymy) of new technologies serves as a "screen", obscuring from view the disenchanted locus of the technological experience in its purely "formal" or "spatial" properties. McLuhan wished to escape the "flat earth approach" to technology, to invent a "new metaphor" by which we might "restructure our thoughts and feelings" about the subliminal, imperceptible environments of media effects.
In this understanding, technology is an "extension" of biology: the expansion of the electronic media as the "metaphor" or "environment" of twentieth-century experience implies that, for the first time, the central nervous system itself has been exteriorized. It is our plight to be processed through the technological simulacrum; to participate intensively and integrally in a "technostructure" which is nothing but a vast simulation and "amplification" of the bodily senses. Indeed, McLuhan often recurred to the "narcissus theme" in classical mythology as a way of explaining our fatal fascination with technology, viewed not as "something external" but as an extension, or projection, of the sensory faculties of the human species.
Media tend to isolate one or another sense from the others. The result is hypnosis. The other extreme is withdrawing of sensation with resulting hallucination as in dreams or DT's, etc … Any medium, by dilating sense to fill the whole field, creates the necessary conditions of hypnosis in that area. This explains why at no time has any culture been aware of the effect of its media on its overall association, not even retrospectively.
All of McLuhan's writings are an attempt to break beyond the "Echo" of the narcissus myth, to show that the "technostructure" is an extension or "repetition" of ourselves. In his essay, "The Gadget Lover", McLuhan noted precisely why the Greek myth of Narcissus is of such profound relevance to understanding the technological experience.
The youth Narcissus (narcissus means narcosis or numbing) mistook his own reflection in the water for another person. This extension of himself by mirror numbed his perceptions until be became the servomechanism of his own extended or repeated image. The nymph Echo tried to win his love with fragments of his own speech, but in vain. He was numb. He had adapted to his extension of himself and had become a closed system. Now the point of this myth is the fact that men at once become fascinated by any extension of themselves in any material other than themselves. [Understanding Media]
Confronted with the hypnotic effect of the technological sensorium, McLuhan urged the use of any "probe"—humour, paradox, analogical juxtaposition, absurdity—as a way of making visible the "total field effect" of technology as medium. This is why, perhaps, McLuhan's intellectual project actually circles back on itself, and is structured directly into the design of his texts. McLuhan makes the reader a "metonymy" to his "metaphor": he transforms the act of "reading McLuhan" into dangerous participation in a radical experiment which has, as its end, the exploration of the numbing of consciousness in the technological massage. Indeed, to read McLuhan is to pass directly into the secret locus of the "medium is the massage"; to experience anew the "media" (this time the medium of writing) as a silent gradient of ground-rules.
No less critical than Grant of the human fate in technological society, McLuhan's imagination seeks a way out of our present predicament by recovering a highly ambivalent attitude towards the objects of technostructure. Thus, while Grant writes in William James' sense of a "block universe" of the technological dynamo, seeing only tendencies towards domination, McLuhan privileges a historically specific study of the media of communication. In an early essay (1955), "A Historical Approach to the Media", McLuhan said that if we weren't "to go on being helpless illiterates" in the new world of technology, passive victims as the "media themselves act directly toward shaping our most intimate self-consciousness", then we had to adopt the attitude of the artist. "The mind of the artist is always the point of maximal sensitivity and resourcefulness in exposing altered realities in the common culture." McLuhan would make of us "the artist, the sleuth, the detective" in gaining a critical perspective on the history of technology which "just as it began with writing ends with television." Unlike Grant's reflections on technology which are particularistic and existential, following a downward spiral (the famous Haligonian "humbug") into pure content: pure will, pure remembrance, pure duration, McLuhan's thought remains projective, metaphorical, and emancipatory. Indeed, Grant's perspective on technology is Protestant to the core in its contemplation of the nihilism of liberal society. But if Grant's tragic inquiry finds its artistic analogue in Colville's To Prince Edward Island, then McLuhan's discourse is more in the artistic tradition of Georges Seurat, the French painter, and particularly in one classic portrait, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. McLuhan always accorded Seurat a privileged position as the "art fulcrum between Renaissance visual and modern tactile. The coalescing of inner and outer, subject and object." McLuhan was drawn to Seurat in making painting a "light source" (a "light through situation"). Seurat did that which was most difficult and decisive: he flipped the viewer into the "vanishing point" of the painting. Or as McLuhan said, and in prophetic terms, Seurat (this "precursor of TV") presented us with a searing visual image of the age of the "anxious object."
Now, to be sure, the theme of anxiety runs deep through the liberal side of the Canadian mind. This is the world of Margaret Atwood's "intolerable anxiety" and of Northrop Frye's "anxiety structure." But McLuhan is the Canadian thinker who undertook a phenomenology of anxiety, or more precisely a historically relative study of the sources of anxiety and stress in technological society. And he did so by the simple expedient of drawing us, quickly and in depth, into Seurat's startling and menacing world of the anxious, stressful objects of technology. In his book, Through the Vanishing Point, McLuhan said of Seurat that "by utilizing the Newtonian analysis of the fragmentation of light, he came to the technique of divisionism, whereby each dot of paint becomes the equivalent of an actual light source, a sun, as it were. This device reversed the traditional perspective by making the viewer the vanishing point." The significance of Seurat's "reversal" of the rules of traditional perspective is that he abolished, once and for all, the medieval illusion that space is neutral, or what is the same, that we can somehow live "outside" the processed world of technology. With Seurat a great solitude and, paradoxically, a greater entanglement falls on modern being. "We are suddenly in the world of the 'Anxious Object' which is prepared to take the audience inside the painting process itself." Following C.S. Lewis in The Discarded Image, McLuhan noted exactly what this "flip" in spatial perspective meant. Rather than looking in according to the traditional spatial model of medieval discourse, modern man is suddenly "looking out." "Like one looking out from the saloon entrance onto the dark Atlantic, or from the lighted porch upon the dark and lonely moors." The lesson of Seurat is this: modernity is coeval with the age of the "anxious object" because we live now, fully, within the designed environment of the technological sensorium. For McLuhan, we are like astronauts in the processed world of technology. We now take our "environment" with us in the form of technical "extensions" of the human body or senses. The technostructure is both the lens through which we experience the world, and, in fact, the "anxious object" with which human experience has become imperceptibly, almost subliminally, merged.
Now, McLuhan often remarked that in pioneering the DEW [Distant Early Warning] line, Canada had also provided a working model for the artistic imagination as an "early warning system" in sensing coming shifts in the technostructure. Seurat's artistic representation of the spatial reversal at work in the electronic age, a reversal which plunges us into active participation in the "field" of technological experience, was one such early warning system. It was, in fact, to counteract our "numbing" within the age of the anxious object that McLuhan's literary and artistic imagination, indeed his whole textual strategy, ran to the baroque. As an intellectual strategy, McLuhan favoured the baroque for at least two reasons: it privileged "double perspective and contrapuntal theming"; and it sought to "capture the moment of change in order to release energy dramatically." There is, of course, a clear and decisive connection between McLuhan's attraction to Seurat as an artist who understood the spatial grammar of the electronic age and his fascination with the baroque as a method of literary imagination. If, indeed, we are now "looking out" from inside the technological sensorium; and if, in fact, in the merger of biology and technology which is the locus of the electronic age, "we" have become the vanishing points of technique, then a way had to be discovered for breaching the "invisible environment" within which we are now enclosed. For McLuhan, the use of the baroque in each of his writings, this constant resort to paradox, double perspective, to a carnival of the literary imagination in which the pages of the texts are forced to reveal their existence also as a "medium", was also a specific strategy aimed at "recreating the experience" of technology as massage. Between Seurat (a radar for "space as process") and baroque (a "counter-gradient"): that's the artistic strategy at work in McLuhan's imagination as he confronted the subliminal, processed world of electronic technologies….
McLuhan was the last and best exponent of the liberal imagination in Canadian letters. His thought brings to a new threshold of intellectual expression the fascination with the question of technology which has always, both in political and private practice, so intrigued liberal discourse in Canada. McLuhan's thought provides a new eloquence, and indeed, nobility of meaning to "creative freedom" as a worthwhile public value; and this as much as it reasserts the importance of a renewed sense of "individualism", both as the locus of a revived political community and as a creative site (the "agent intellect") for releasing, again and again, the possible "epiphanies" in technological experience. In McLuhan's writings, the traditional liberal faith in the reason of technological experience, a reason which could be the basis of a rational and universal political community, was all the more ennobled to the extent that the search for the "reason" in technology was combined with the Catholic quest for a new "incarnation." McLuhan's communication theory was a direct outgrowth of his Catholicism; and his religious sensibility fused perfectly with a classically liberal perspective on the question of technology and civilization. In the present orthodoxy of intellectual discourse, it is not customary to find a thinker whose inquiry is both infused by a transcendent religious sensibility and whose intellectual scholarship is motivated, not only by a desperate sense of the eclipse of reason in modern society, but by the disappearance of "civilization" itself through its own vanishing-point. As quixotic as it might be, McLuhan's intellectual project was of such an inclusive and all-embracing nature. His thought could be liberal, Catholic, and structuralist (before his time) precisely because the gravitation-point of McLuhan's thought was the preservation of the fullest degree possible of creative freedom in a modern century, which, due to the stress induced by its technology, was under a constant state of emergency. In McLuhan's discourse, individual freedom as well as civil culture itself were wagered in the contest with technology. The technological experience also made the possibility of a new "incarnation" fully ambivalent: it was also the Catholic, and by extension, liberal belief in a progressive, rational, and evolutionary history which was gambled in the discourse on technology.
But if McLuhan provides an important key to exploring the technological media, then it must also be noted that there are, at least, two major limitations in his thought which reduce his value, either as a guide to understanding technology in the Canadian circumstance or, for that matter, to a full inquiry into the meaning of the technological experience in the New World. First, McLuhan had no systematic, or even eclectic, theory of the relationship between economy and technology; and certainly no critical appreciation of the appropriation, and thus privatisation, of technology by the lead institutions, multinational corporations and the state, in advanced industrial societies. It was not, of course, that McLuhan was unaware of the relationship of corporate power and technology. One searing sub-text of Understanding Media and The Mechanical Bride had to do with the almost malignant significance of the corporate control of electronic technologies. In McLuhan's estimation, "technology is part of our bodies"; and to the extent that corporations acquire private control over the electronic media then we have, in effect, "leased out" our eyes, ears, fingers, legs, and the brain itself, to an exterior power. In the electronic age, this era of collective and integral consciousness, those with control of technological media are allowed "to play the strings of our nerves in public." The body is fully externalized, and exposed, in the interstices of the technological sensorium. For McLuhan, just like Grant, the technological dynamo breeds a new formation of power, demonic and mythic, which is capable, as one of its reflexes of vapourizing the individual subject, and of undermining all "public" communities. But if McLuhan understood the full dangers of corporate control of technological media, nowhere did he extend this insight into a reflection on the relationship of capitalism and technology. Now, it may be, as in the case of Jacques Ellul, another civil humanist, that McLuhan's intellectual preference was to privilege the question of technology over all other aspects of social experience, including the economic foundations of society. McLuhan may have been a technological determinist, or at the minimum, a "technological monist" who took technique to be the primary locus for the interpretation of society as a whole. If this was so, then it is particularly unfortunate since McLuhan's "blindspot" on the question of capitalism and technology undermined, in the end, his own injunction for an "historical understanding" of the evolution of technological media. In "Catholic Humanism" and, for that matter, in all of his writings, McLuhan urged the use of the historical imagination—an historical perspective which was to be sympathetic, realistic, and reconstructive—as our only way of understanding the great watershed in human experience precipitated by the appearance of electronic society. His was, however, a curious and somewhat constricted vision of the historical imagination: for it omitted any analysis of the precise historical conditions surrounding the development of the technological experience in North America. McLuhan was as insensitive, and indifferent, to the problem of the political economy of technology as he was to the relationship of technology and ideological hegemony in the creation of liberal society, and the liberal state, in North America. McLuhan's primary value was, of course, creative freedom, not "justice"; and his political preference was for a universal community founded on the rights of "reason", not for the "ethic of charity." This is to say, however, that McLuhan's "historical sense" already embraced, from its very beginnings, the deepest assumptions of technological society. McLuhan's mind was a magisterial account of the technological imagination itself. This was a discourse which evinced a fatal fascination with the utopian possibilities of technology. Indeed, McLuhan liked to speculate about the almost religious utopia immanent in the age of information.
Language as the technology of human extension, whose powers of division and separation we know so well, may have been the "Tower of Babel" by which men sought to scale the highest heavens. Today computers hold out the promise of a means of instant translation of any code or language into any other code or language. The computer, in short, promises by technology a Pentecostal condition of universal understanding and unity. The next logical step would seem to be, not to translate, but to by-pass languages in favour of a general cosmic consciousness which might be very like the collective unconscious dreamt by Bergson. The condition of "weightlessness" that biologists say promises a physical immortality, may be paralleled by the condition of speechlessness that could confer a perpetuity of collective harmony and peace. [Understanding Media]
Everything in McLuhan's thought strained towards the liberation of the "Pentecostal condition" of technology: the privileging of space over time; the fascination with the exteriorisation in electronic technology of an "inner experience" which is electric, mythic, inclusive, and configurational; the primacy of "field" over event; the vision of "processed information" as somehow consonant with the perfectibility of the human faculties. And it was this utopian, and transcendent, strain in McLuhan's thought which may, perhaps, have made it impossible for his inquiry to embrace the problematic of capitalism and technology. In McLuhan's lexicon, the privileging of the "economic" relationship belonged to an obsolete era: the now superceded age of specialism, fragmentation, and segmentation of work of the industrial revolution. McLuhan viewed himself as living on the other side, the far side, of technological history: the coming age of "cosmic man" typified by "mythic or iconic awareness" and by the substitution of the "multi-faceted for the point-of-view." What was capitalism? It was the obsolescent content of the new era of the electronic simulation of consciousness. For McLuhan, economy had also gone electronic and thus even the corporate world, with its "magic" of advertisements and its plenitude of computers, could be subsumed into the more general project of surfacing the reason in technological society. Consequently, it might be said that McLuhan's blindspot on the question of economy was due not so much to a strain of "technological determinism" in his thought, and least not in the first instance; but due rather to his, transparently Catholic expectation that if the electronic economy of the corporate world was not an "agent intellect" in the creation of a new technological horizon, it was, at least, a necessary catalyst in setting the conditions for "cosmic man." McLuhan was a "missionary" to the power centres of the technological experience; and he could so faithfully, and guilelessly, discuss the civilizing moment in technology because there never was any incompatibility between the Catholic foundations of his communication theory and the will to empire. If McLuhan was a deeply compromised thinker, then it was because his Catholic humanism allowed him to subordinate, and forget, the question of the private appropriation of technology. And what was, in the final instance, tragic and not comic about his intellectual fate was simply this: it was precisely the control over the speed, dissemination, and implanting of new technologies by the corporate command centres of North America which would subvert the very possibility of an age of "creative freedom".
If one limitation in McLuhan's discourse on technology was his forgetfulness of the mediation of technology by political economy, then a second limitation, or arrest, concerned McLuhan's contempt for the "national question" in Canada. It would be unfair to criticize a thinker for not violating the internal unity of his own viewpoint. McLuhan was always firm in his belief that the dawn of the "global village", this new era of "universal understanding and unity" required the by-passing of "national" political communities. The universalism of reason and the potentically new "Finn cycle" of an all-inclusive and mythic technological experience rendered obsolete particularistic political concerns. McLuhan's polis was the world; and his, not inaccurate, understanding of that world [in "The Relation of Environment & Anti-Environment," in F. Marsen, The Human Dialogue: Perspectives on Communications, 1967] had it that the United States, by virtue of its leadership in electronic technologies, was the "new world environment." It was, consequently, with a noble conscience that McLuhan, like Galbraith, Easton, and Johnson before him, could turn his attention southward, passing easily and with no sign of disaffection, into the intellectual centres of the American empire. And, of course, in prophesying the end of nationalist sensibility, or the more regional sense of a "love of one's own", McLuhan was only following the flight beyond "romanticism" of the liberal political leadership of Canada, and, in particular, the "creative leadership" of Trudeau. Indeed, that Trudeau could so instantly and enthusiastically embrace McLuhan's world-sensibility was only because the latter's sense of an underlying reason in the technological order confirmed the deepest prejudices of Trudeau's own political perspective. Indeed, between Trudeau and McLuhan a parallel project was in the making: on Trudeau's part (Federalism and the French-Canadians) a political challenge against the "obsolete" world of ethnicity (and thus nationalism) in Québec and an invitation to Québec to join the technological (rational) society of North America; and on McLuhan's part, an epistemological and then moral decision to join in the feast of corporate advantages spread out by the masters of the empire. The common trajectories traced by Trudeau's technocratic politics and by McLuhan's sense of technological utopia reveals, powerfully so, the importance of the Catholic touch in Canadian politics and letters; just as much as it reflects, that for the empire at least, Catholicism is, indeed, intimate with the "central cultural discoveries" of the modern age. Moreover, the very existence of a "McLuhan" or a "Trudeau" as the locus of the Canadian discourse discloses the indelible character of Canada, not just as a witness to empire, but, perhaps, as a radical experiment in the working out of the intellectual and political basis of the technological imagination in North America. Canada is, and has always been, the most modern of the New World societies; because the character of its colonialism, of its domination of the land by technologies of communication, and of its imposition of an "abstract nation" upon a divergent population by a fully technological polity, has made of it a leading expression of technological liberalism in North America.
It was, consequently, the fate of McLuhan to be welcomed into the privileged circles of the corporate and intellectual elites of the United States. This was not unanticipated. The Canadian philosopher, Charles Norris Cochrane, noted [in "The Latin Spirit in Literature," University of Toronto Quarterly 2, No. 3 (1932–33)] that it is the peculiar feature of imperialisms that, as their energies focus, in the most mature phase of empire, on the "pragmatic will" to conquer, to expand, to live, they are often forced to seek out in the peripheral regions of the empire some new source of intellectual energy, some inspiring historical justification, which would counter the dawning sense of "intellectual futility" that so often accompanies, and undermines, the greatest successes of the will to empire. McLuhan was such an "historical energizer." His utopian vision of technological society provided the corporate leadership of the American empire with a sense of historical destiny; and, at least, with the passing illusion that their narrowminded concentration on the "business" of technology might make of them the "Atlas" of the new world of cosmic man. It was McLuhan's special ability, done, no doubt, sometimes tongue in cheek and with a proper sense of intellectual cynicism, to transfigure the grubby leadership (Grant's "creative leaders") of the American business world, and then of a good part of the new class of technocrats in the West, into the dizzying heights of a greater historical destiny, that made him such a favoured courtesan of the technological empire. Grant might say of the "creative leaders" of empire that their nihilism is such that they would always prefer to will rather than not to will, but McLuhan provided another, more radical, alternative. In the face of the incipient nihilism of the technological experience, McLuhan dangled that most precious of gifts: a sense of historical purpose (the age of communications as "cosmic consciousness"); and an intellectual justification (the technological imperative as both necessary and good).
While Grant's austere, and forbidding, description of technological dependency revolved around a consideration of technique as will, McLuhan thought of technique as possessing, at least potentially, the poetry of consciousness. Thus, it was not with bad faith but with the curious amorality of a thinker whose ethic, being as it was abstract freedom and reason, and who could thus screen out the barbarism of the technological dynamo, that McLuhan could associate with the leadership of technological society. And just to the extent that Grant's ruminations on technological society have led him into, almost self-imposed, solitude in Halifax (far from the "dynamic centre" of the technological dynamo in the Great Lakes region of North America), McLuhan could be a dandy of the New York intelligentsia. McLuhan's association of the values of reason and "universal unity" with the expansive momentum of the technostructure was, of course, a highly fortuitous compromise. It allowed him to serve a legitimation function for the technological dynamo, while all the while maintaining his sang-froid as a civil humanist who was above the fray, a Catholic intellectual among the barbarians.
McLuhan's political commitments, represented both by his rejection of the "national question" in Canada and by his participation, in depth, in the futurology of technological empire, are of direct consequence to his contributions to a master theory of communications. That McLuhan could find no moment of deviation between his civil humanism, founded on the defence of "civilization", and his absorption into the intellectual appendages of empire, indicates, starkly and dramatically, precisely how inert and uncritical is the supervening value of "civilization". McLuhan's lasting legacy is, perhaps, a historical one: the inherent contradiction of his discourse in remaining committed to the very technostructure which had destroyed the possibility of "civilization" indicates the ultimate failure of civil humanism in modern politics. McLuhan's humanism, and indeed his abiding Catholicism, could provide an inspiring vision of a more utopian human future; but in remaining tied to the "primacy of reason", a reason which was fully abstracted from history and ontology, McLuhan's discourse could always be easily turned from within. This was the comic aspect of the whole affair: the technological dynamo could also accept as its dominant value the "primacy of reason"; and, by extension, the application of technical reason, in politics, bureaucracy, science, and industry, to the proliferation of technological media. The technostructure thus absorbed McLuhan's discourse on his own terms: it transposed his search for a new, universal civilization into an historical justification of technological necessitarianism; and it showed precisely how compatible the Catholic conception of "transcendent reason" is with the rationalising impulses of the technological system. McLuhan's one possible avenue of escape: the recovery of a "grounded" and emergent cultural practice or, at least, some sense of "intimations of deprival" which had been silenced by the technological dynamo was, of course, firmly closed to him by his commitment to the universal over the local, and to the metaphorical over the historical. To dismiss McLuhan as a technological determinist is to miss entirely the point of his intellectual contribution. McLuhan's value as a theorist of culture and technology began just when he went over the hill to the side of the alien and surrealistic world of mass communications: the "real world" of technology where the nervous system is exteriorised and everyone is videoated daily like sitting screens for television. Just because McLuhan sought to see the real world of technology, and even to celebrate technological reason as freedom, he could provide such superb, first-hand accounts of the new society of electronic technologies. McLuhan was fated to be trapped in the deterministic world of technology, indeed to become one of the intellectual servomechanisms of the machine-world, because his Catholicism failed to provide him with an adequate cultural theory by which to escape the hegemony of the abstract media systems that he had sought to explore. Paradoxically, however, it was just when McLuhan became most cynical and most deterministic, when he became fully aware of the nightmarish quality of the "medium as massage", that his thought becomes most important as an entirely creative account of the great paradigm-shift now going on in twentieth-century experience. McLuhan was then, in the end, trapped in the "figure" of his own making. His discourse could provide a brilliant understanding of the innerfuctioning of the technological media; but no illumination concerning how "creative freedom" might be won through in the "age of anxiety, and dread." In a fully tragic sense, McLuhan's final legacy was this: he was the playful perpetrator, and then victim, of a sign-crime.
Arthur Kroker, "Technological Humanism: The Processed World of Marshall McLuhan," in his Technology and the Canadian Mind: Innis/McLuhan/Grant, St. Martin's Press, 1985, pp. 52-86.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1020
[In the following review, Fawcett offers a favorable appraisal of McLuhan's collected letters.]
With the publication of this overdue collection [Letters of Marshall McLuhan], it should be clear to anyone still not convinced that Marshall McLuhan is among the small company of intellectual geniuses Canada has thus far produced. Arguably, he has been our most exciting and original thinker, and the partial eclipse of his reputation in the past decade is an indictment of our national short-sightedness and mediocrity. We seem content to lavish our "high" cultural attentions on one-eyed English walruses like Robertson Davies, while our truly public attentions go to shallow media stars like David Suzuki, Rick Hansen, and Wayne Gretzky.
Having grown up thinking that Marshall McLuhan was halfway between an idiot savant and the Devil incarnate, I found his letters a revelation. Despite some uneven and occasionally self-serving editing, the editors of the volume have produced a book that is of international interest, one that provides major clarifications of McLuhan's extremely elliptical theoretical opus, and is a testimony to just how far ahead of his time Marshall McLuhan's thinking reached. For students of McLuhan, the book is of course compulsory. Personally, I'd venture to say that no one concerned with the structure of contemporary reality can afford not to read it.
You can skip the first 172 pages of the book, which are really little more than juvenilia. It consists chiefly of his letters to his mother, his wife-to-be, Corinne, and other family members. Towards the end, there is a rather silly correspondence with Wyndham Lewis, the English writer and portraitist, that chiefly documents McLuhan's partly successful attempts to help Lewis make money by painting portraits of the leading citizens of St. Louis, where McLuhan was teaching in a Jesuit college. It demonstrates McLuhan's generosity, but little else except that Lewis was a bit of a jerk: nothing new there.
The letters—and McLuhan's genius—really took off after 1946, reached their apex in the 1950s and continued with barely declining intensity until a stroke disabled McLuhan permanently in September 1979. Of topical interest are the extended correspondences with Ezra Pound, 1948 to 1953, and the correspondence in the 1970s with Pierre Elliott Trudeau. The meat of the volume however, is elsewhere—in the letters to people like Harold Innis, David Riesman, Walter Ong, Wilfred Watson, Peter Drucker, and then-president of the University of Toronto, Claude Bissell. In these letters, McLuhan develops, reshapes, and restates his often obscure theoretical concerns in ways that allow us to evaluate them more fully than ever before.
The letters reveal McLuhan's genius as an uneven one, created (rather than marred) by profound imbalances and idiosyncrasies. His Jesuit Christian background (and his life-long adherence to Christian intellectual habits and spiritual goals), his democratic optimism, and his almost fetishistic attachment to the Newtonian paradigm all play powerful roles in his thinking and, oddly, contribute to its originality. He was both what the editors of the volume have gone to considerable lengths to make him appear—a deeply conservative family man, a Christian and respectable University of Toronto faculty member—and the intellectual hooligan he considered himself to be. In short, though he was not a typical Canadian, he was certainly an exemplary one. He could have come from no other location and culture than ours.
Although he argued, at times vociferously, that the extrapolations he made about the consequences of mass telecommunications and other aspects of information growth were morally and politically neutral, his letters reveal him as a captive of his intellectual training and his Christian values. He didn't really see the extent to which corporate technopreneurs and political authoritarians would sequester his discoveries for their own narrow purposes. Nor did he foresee that the rapid development of mini-and microcomputers would create a whole new—and privatized—technological élite class. The global village that has resulted is a much more complex, undemocratic and potentially dangerous interdependency than he imagined, governed more by short-sighted barbarism than by visions of the universal liberation of the human mind and body. In particular, his democratic optimism blinded him—as it has George Steiner and others—to the poverty of social resources that would result from the return to tribalism in a mass and electronically manipulated form.
We do not have the luxury of assuming that the global village Marshall McLuhan imagined will be the best of all possible worlds. We're in it, and it is demonstrably not as sweet and generous as he thought it would be. We should, however, credit him for being among the first to glimpse its key components and its structure, and for having seen more of it than any single mind on the planet.
For that, he should be accorded every honour. Most of all, he should be read and thought about, so we can employ his massive insights and correct his errors.
Brian Fawcett, "Village Scribe," in Books in Canada, Vol. 17, No. 3, April, 1988, p. 31.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1561
[Bliss is a Canadian historian and educator who specializes in the history of business, economics, and modern medicine. In the following essay, he assesses McLuhan's impact on Western culture.]
The young wonder who Marshall McLuhan was. Maybe some kind of TV commentator in the sixties? The rest of us remember "the medium is the message," and "a global village," and that McLuhan was otherwise unintelligible. He was famous for a while, and then sort of disappeared. You may have read the obituaries in 1980. Does anyone take seriously today this Canadian academic who was once billed as "the most important thinker since Newton, Darwin, Freud, Einstein, and Pavlov"?
It seems that a McLuhan revival is slowly gathering steam. Biographers and essayists are at work, the University of Toronto Press will soon publish his last manuscript, and a major collection, Letters of Marshall McLuhan, which was released in Canada [in November 1987], has just been published in Great Britain and the United States. The 450 letters in this volume, brilliantly annotated by William Toye, encompass McLuhan's whole career, and are offered as the "autobiography" he never bothered to write. They are an essential source for all reconsiderations of McLuhan.
He emerges from his letters as a failed metaphysician of the media. McLuhan's system and style proved ludicrously inadequate as a guide to our time, which is why he fell into comparative obscurity after about 1972. But the man and his ideas are fascinating artefacts. To a handful of true believers, McLuhan will endure as oracle. To the rest of us he is passing into history as an interesting product of a strange moment in Western culture.
Marshall McLuhan grew up in Winnipeg where his father worked as a life-insurance salesman and his mother became a professional elocutionist. The letters effectively begin in 1934 when the twenty-three-year-old graduate of the University of Manitoba went to Cambridge on an IODE scholarship. Reacting against both his Baptist and his Canadian upbringing, he discovered culture and Roman Catholicism in England. "I simply couldn't believe that men had to live in the mean mechanical joyless rootless fashion that I saw in Winnipeg," he wrote his mother.
In 1936 McLuhan began an unremarkable apprenticeship as at teacher of literature, mostly at Saint Louis University, a Jesuit college in St. Louis, Missouri. He migrated to Assumption College in Windsor, Ontario, in 1944, largely to avoid having to serve in either country's armed forces, and in 1946 moved to St. Michael's College at the University of Toronto. He was neither prolific nor well known as a scholar, too lowbrow for most academics when he wrote about comic strips and advertising, too highbrow for many in his professorial role as an expert on difficult modernist writers such as James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound.
He got little attention for his first book, The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man (1951), or the obscure periodical, Explorations: Studies in Culture and Communication, that he helped edit through the 1950s. The fame began with The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man in 1962, followed by Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man in 1964. Soon it was evident that McLuhan and the media were engaged in mutual lionization: the academic preached the transcendent importance of electronic communications, the communicators heralded the visionary academic. From 1963 he presided over a special Centre for Culture and Technology at the University of Toronto, and in 1967–68 was paid the then enormous sum of $100,000 for a guest stint at Fordham University in New York. He jet-setted and hobnobbed and corresponded with prime ministers and pundits and corporation presidents; he was the subject of eight books between 1967 and 1971. McLuhan played himself in Woody Allen's film Annie Hall. As Tom Wolfe put it in a famous McLuhan profile, the overwhelming question was "What if he is right?"
McLuhan was much more than an intellectual gadfly or adroit self-promoter. As a literary scholar, he immersed himself in the avant-garde techniques, images, and social attitudes of modernist writers. In dozens of letters to Wyndham Lewis and Ezra Pound, both of whom he met and championed, McLuhan proved a faithful and eager disciple, mimicking even their verbal mannerisms, particularly Pound's punning wordplay. Steeped in modernism's emphasis on form over content, McLuhan latched easily and enthusiastically onto the ideas of pioneering communications theorists such as Harold Adams Innis who emphasized the primacy of the forms of media over the messages they transmit. McLuhan's synthesis, which had emerged by 1960, was based on two claims: (1) sensory perception and communications technologies are interrelated, the latter as extensions of the former; (2) new media technologies, such as the printing press, cinema, or television, change the balance of our senses, and thus create new modes of consciousness, behaviour patterns, and social forms, all of this independently of their content.
"Harry me boy, it works," McLuhan exults to another media guru in 1964. "To deal with the environment directly is my strategy Harry…. All that I've said about the medium is the message is sound…. The principle works in many ways…. It works also for all modes of perception. Can now put the entire Gutenberg Galaxy on a single page."
McLuhan was convinced that he had discovered the fundamental principles of human sensory perception and symbiosis with the environment, and began to refer to himself as a "metaphysician." As a possessor of universal insight, untempered by humility or caution, he was happy to interpret anything in literature, history, the whole universe, past, present, and future. McLuhan offered thoughts on Ovid and Aquinas and Blake and comic books, race relations and toplessness, streakers, Watergate, hippies, prayer mats, Cadillacs, corporations, Canadian culture—the works.
There were apocalyptic overtones to McLuhan's prophecies about television's destroying all established bureaucratic and political organizations. But there was also an offer of transcendence to those who believed. "I am saying it is now possible to by-pass what used to be called 'fate,'" he wrote [Pierre] Trudeau. If the prime minister would keep in touch by telephone or personal emissary, the prophet would tell him how to do it. Others could subscribe to the McLuhan Dew-Line Newsletter, containing the latest probes from this intellectual radar station up in barren Toronto.
Would McLuhanism supersede other views of the psyche and society? He thought comparisons between himself and Freud made sense, but only if Freud's failure was recognized: "The merely individualist psychology of Freud has flunked out in the new age of tribal and corporate identities." In fact both McLuhan and Freud were the founders of closed systems based on largely untestable hypotheses about the hidden workings of the mind. Both tried to apply their doctrines universally. Both welcomed disciples and were intolerant of critics. Both seemed, for their time, to supply dazzling insights.
But McLuhan's time was very short. He was far more shallow and reckless than Freud and far less able to handle criticism. His prophecies did not come true. Television technology did not totally tribalize today's teenagers or the rest of society. Organizations did not collapse. Content mattered. When McLuhan tried to duck his critics by labelling them mere "content men" and falling back on his Delphic, Pound-like style—as a questioner, a prober, a jester, not necessarily to be taken seriously—he stopped being taken seriously. In his later letters McLuhan seems incapable of serious dialogue about his ideas—he preaches and repeats himself—yet is pathetically eager to find intellectual support for his collapsing system. His last refuge is the arrogant elitism of modernist aesthetics—a view of the artist as prophetic outsider.
There are enough alienated intellectuals, technological determinists, Catholic neotribalists, and Cancultists to keep the McLuhanist flame flickering indefinitely. The Letters, a representative selection culled from the McLuhan papers in the National Archives of Canada, provide a new stock of flashing McLuhanisms. Some oracle, though. What was really in those precious letters to the prime minister's office? Nothing more concrete than a conservative Catholic's dislike of abortion and support for capital punishment. McLuhan had little more to say to the politicians and decision makers of his time than his mentors, Wyndham Lewis and Ezra Pound, had to say in theirs. He apparently did not share their flirtations with fascist ideology, but he had little more insight into political reality. The correspondence contains no anticipation of the one true global upheaval of his lifetime: "There will be no war in Europe," twenty-seven-year-old McLuhan writes in September, 1938. "The real villains in the piece are not Hitler etc. but the Comintern, the free masons and the international operators who have their headquarters in Prague." When war does come, he chooses not to serve. There are no letters printed from mid-1940 to mid-1943.
For about fifteen minutes in the 1960s there was enormous interest in the electronic media, in communications generally, and in the idea that all the old forms of behaviour were being shattered in the modern world. It was a cloistered professor of literature, an expert on the breaking of forms by Joyce, Pound, et al., who came forward with the explanations that we dutifully took seriously and then sensibly dismissed. As an intellectual, McLuhan bridged and symbolized and popularized, running a unique gamut from the modernist literary revolution of the 1890s and early 1900s to cultural theorizing in the 1960s. For that reason, and for his audacity and the fame he enjoyed, McLuhan survives.
Michael Bliss, "False Prophet," in Saturday Night, Vol. 103, No. 5, May, 1988, pp. 59-60, 62.
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