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Cut-Rate Salvation

McLuhan: Hot and Cool—A Critical Symposium

edited by G.E. Stearn
Dial, 312 pp., $6.95

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 chessplayer 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 recognizably 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 organized the prose may look, what it says is connected more by associative leaps than logical linkages. With The Medium Is the Massage 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. 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, specialization, 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 conversational 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 overconcentrates on vision and leaves his other senses numb and deprived.

The third element of McLuhan’s system is a patterning or schematization 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 civilization from the Greeks to the Renaissance).

The final stage of this schema, the electronic future, develops into a largescale 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 in 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 unfavorable way, their connection with war, inequality, indifference, the mutilation of the self is emphasized. But on the other hand, from the time of The Mechanical Bride, 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 favors the future as he descries 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 unorganized 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 schematization 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 endeavor 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 favor 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.

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