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Cut-Rate Salvation

TO POINT OUT this analogy is not to criticize 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 schematization of history which implies the inevitability of a predicted state of affairs and a strongly positive evaluation of this none-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 mobilization 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 stabilizing 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 schematization 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 schematization 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 under-standing 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 schematization 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 ample 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 on 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 individualized, specialized, 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 schematization, 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, specialization, 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 senseratios, 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 naïves 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 externalize our faculties. In particular media extend our senses. Electronic media, he goes on, extend or externalize 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 externalize the human capacities they reinforce.

Perhaps a community could enslave itself to a computer by programing 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 “externalize” 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 unappetizing 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 lackeyes 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

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