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T V Dinner

Understanding Media

by Marshall McLuhan
McGraw Hill, 359 pp., $7.50

When Mr. McLuhan published The Gutenberg Galaxy a year or so ago he announced the present volume, which is more supplement than sequel. Gutenberg was about the way it is now possible—since we have progressed some distance into a new era in which the major cultural determinants are electric and electronic technologies—to see how totally life and thought were formerly determined by typographical technologies. Thus we assumed without question that space was uniform and continuous, time linear and successive. We apprehended history, and everything else, visually. Many consequences flowed inevitably from this arbitrary, though apparently natural, arrangement: the growth of nation states, modern educational methods, our games, our economics, the mechanical processes which reached their apogee in the assembly line. We had a visual, linear, successive culture. Thus we were very different from tribal man, who is oral and tactile, not visual. And just at the moment when certain predominantly oral-tactile societies (the Chinese, for instance) are moving into a typographic, assembly-line technology, we are being hurried ignorantly into the electric galaxy and reverting to oral and instantaneous modes of understanding, with all their benefits and dangers.

The indices of this enormous and unnoticed change are the media appropriate to the new technologies, and the new book studies them in detail. It is uselessly old-hat, says McLuhan, uselessly literate, to ignore the media and concentrate one’s criticism on the messages they bear. “The medium is the message.” Just as nobody now asks what a painting is about, we should not ask what television communicates, unless we wish to be described as illustrating “the numb stance of the technological idiot.” Our urgent need is to learn what the media are, and what they are doing to us, not what they are saying.

It happens that there are classes of media. Some are hot, of high definition, and requiring little audience participation; some are cool, of low definition, and requiring much participation. A lecture and radio are hot, a seminar and television are cool. On the whole, oral is cool, and oral is good; so seminars are better than lectures, and television than radio. In one of his agreeable flourishes McLuhan says we will soon be able to program whole cultures to stabilize their emotional climates: if trouble is brewing in South Africa because of an overdose of hot radio, we might prescribe an increased dose of TV to cool everybody off. But these subtleties are for the future. At present our business is to understand the media and the changes they have made in our world. They have brought us near to oral decentralization, to an instantaneity diametrically opposed to the visual and linear organization of the typographical past. We have to get used to the dethronement of the eye and the extension of our sensoria. Just as tools were extensions of the hand, and the wheel of the feet, so electricity is an extension of the central nervous system, and will in time require us to live in wall-less houses and car-less cities.

At present we haven’t caught on, are numb and worried. The telegraph, protevangelist of the electric galaxy, introduced the Age of Anxiety and Pervasive Dread; and yet, if I understand McLuhan, the prospect before us, though dangerous, is intoxicatingly bright. Meanwhile we must get used to having our brains outside our skulls and our nerves outside our hides—and we must cease these foolish literate Gutenberg criticisms of advertising, for example. Advertising is very cool, and so is the tabloid; if you profess to dislike lies and pseudo-events you are being irrelevant, confusing medium with content. Complaints that comic books and television are violent simply miss the point; they are cool, and antithetic, McLuhan happily proclaims, to literacy. Content is never important; what matters is that we should get with it. The historical and political assumptions underlying McLuhan’s work could stand elaborate examination; sufficient for the moment to say that in such passages as these he provides defenses for many familiar targets of the literate by recourse to boldly primitivistic strategies.

As I noticed in reviewing The Gutenberg Galaxy, McLuhan has insoluble problems of method, and they are equally evident here. He has to get into a linear-successive typographical book his sense of the ideogrammatic simultaneity of oral-electric culture; with every word he writes he admits a reluctant allegiance to the old order and falsifies his report of the new. That this problem has occurred to him is very evident in the new book, but his attempts to solve it have got him into fresh difficulties. It’s not merely that he has to persuade us to make an exception about the importance of content in this particular medium. His Gutenberg prose style has been infected by cooler media. McLuhan admires, because they are appropriate to the new galaxy, the “mosaic” make-up of tabloid newspapers and the discontinuous presentation of Time and, especially, Mad. Some of the discontinuity, and much consequent repetitiveness, has got into his book. Any chapter is likely to repeat, ab initio, the general argument. A paragraph (as on p. 343) may begin with a sentence almost identical with that which opened the previous paragraph. Some of the arguments are presented in a distinctly cool fashion, requiring determined audience participation; as when we are told that “highly literate societies take steps to reduce or eliminate odors from the environment…B.O., the unique signature and declaration of human individuality, is a bad word in literate societies.” Or, cooler still: “the wheel is an ablative absolute of feet, as chair is the ablative absolute of backside.” This is an obscure literate joke, and it goes on: “when such ablatives intrude they alter the syntax of society. There is no ceteris paribus in the world of media…” Another literate joke, even more obscure. And speaking of syntax, it is not always easy in this book to know what McLuhan is talking about. The reason for this darkness is undoubtedly his worry about seeming too literate. The electric galaxy has certainly played hell with McLuhan’s prose; I suppose he expected it would.

All the same, although the central thesis seems overblown and the presentation eccentric, this book contains a good deal that sounds true, and much that is amusing. This is certainly a time in which new insights are being obtained on a great range of subjects (though under the electric galaxy a great range of subjects is an impossibility) by enquirers who have found it possible to take a radically new look at their disciplines. We see that we shall get our answers from a study of the tools and agencies rather than from the “material.” And I think McLuhan’s new galaxy is really only a metaphor, too doggedly pursued, for this. His own new view of new views produces a stream of engaging speculations about the media: money, automobiles, clocks, education, roads, telephones (cool, by the way: “what we call the French phone, the union of mouthpiece and earphone in a single instrument, is a significant indication of the French liaison of senses that English-speaking people keep firmly separate”). If one is inclined to dismiss some of the theories as pure fantasy, one has to allow that others—on an unpredictable range of subjects from call-girls to typewriters—seem illuminating. One of the ideas McLuhan comes out strongly for is that the artist is the prophet of the new culture which will result from these staggering changes in the technological infrastructure. That’s it, perhaps: this prophet of the new age is a poet. In poetry, as we have learnt long ago, content is never that important; and we can say of Mr. McLuhan that insofar as he nothing affirmeth, he therefore never lieth, even when he is talking about TV.

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