Mud Wrestling with Marshall McLuhan

Well… mud wrestling in a sort of metaphorical way. My latest attempt to embrace and wrestle to the ground his at times elliptical ideas, with the title of this piece my homage to an outside-the-box thinker and crafter of provocative aphorisms like “the medium is the message”, its corollary, “the medium is the massage”, and the “Global Village”.

Though I only came close to meeting him once, I learned about McLuhan’s ideas through a dear family friend and one-time McLuhan collaborator, Mary Jane Shoultz, who I willingly let regale me with the synthesis of their radical thinking during my teen years in the 1970s. Mary Jane meshed McLuhan’s ideas on how we are profoundly impacted by our communication technology with her own radical feminist thought to come up with such provocative concepts as “spliteracy” and “patriarchal pimperialism”. She was my favorite “Feminist Aunt”, and beyond my own mom (Jane Roberts) probably had more influence on my own developing world view than anyone else in my youth.

What recently rekindled my intimate tangle with McLuhan’s ideas was a link shared with me to his extensive 1969 interview in Playboy Magazine, which I had never seen before. (As you know, we male types counted on Playboy back in the 60’s and 70’s for such good articles as this one!) Per the article’s author…

McLuhan contends that all media — in and of themselves and regardless of the messages they communicate — exert a compelling influence on man and society. Prehistoric, or tribal, man existed in a harmonious balance of the senses, perceiving the world equally through hearing, smell, touch, sight and taste. But technological innovations are extensions of human abilities and senses that alter this sensory balance — an alteration that, in turn, inexorably reshapes the society that created the technology.

Despite the conventional (patriarchal) pronoun usage, here is an approach to understanding human culture and why all of us do what we do, which some McLuhan critics have called “technological determinism” (as opposed to say the “economic determinism” of Karl Marx). But it makes sense to me that since we perceive the world through our five (or even six) senses, any technology that expands or morphs that sensory input is going to have a profound impact on what we judge to be important and how we interact with and view our place in the world.

So for example, hearing FDR’s “fireside chats” on the radio delivered to our ears with all the intimacy and reassuring acoustic nuances of a well-modulated human voice was a very different experience from reading say the transcript of those same words in the newspaper the next day. In fact all the key leaders during World War II used their spoken words (heard by most listeners through their radios) to enflame a collective spirit (“retribalization” as McLuhan would call it) within their nations (for better or worse) that led to launching and finally ending this holocaust.

McLuhan would argue that without the radio this “retribalization” could not have happened, and the events of the period may have played out quite differently. The new technology of radio did not cause the war, but it did amplify and focus the societal (patriarchal) pathology that drove events. According to McLuhan, even without Hitler…

Some other demagogue would have used the radio to retribalize the Germans and rekindle the dark atavistic side of the tribal nature that created European fascism in the Twenties and Thirties.

McLuhan’s point is that our communication technology is a sort of powerful magic that, like Willow in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, we need to appreciate and use thoughtfully lest it warps our ethical compass while it reshapes our capabilities. One way or the other, Willow would never be the same once she was fully engaged in the powers of her witchcraft. The question was could she maintain her equilibrium, her “Willow-ness” in the course of that transformation.

So as Marx called out the major historical changes in human economic activity around the means of production, McLuhan calls out three major advances in our communication technology that inspired complete transformations of human society. Again, from the author’s set-up to the interview…

According to McLuhan, there have been three basic technological innovations: the invention of the phonetic alphabet, which jolted tribal man out of his sensory balance and gave dominance to the eye; the introduction of movable type in the 16th Century, which accelerated this process; and the invention of the telegraph in 1844, which heralded an electronics revolution that will ultimately retribalize man by restoring his sensory balance.

McLuhan’s take was that the invention of a phonetic alphabet – a mechanism to represent the basic sounds of human speech as a small set of symbols that could be recorded on smooth portable surfaces (the pages of a book), allowing the capture, transport and decoding/reading of that human voice – was a sort of powerful magic that profoundly changed the capabilities of an individual human being to communicate with others. In the process it gave a prominence to our visual sense that diminished the other four (or five) senses and threw humans unknowingly out of their previous sensory equilibrium. As McLuhan says in the interview…

It divorced the visual function from the interplay with the other senses and thus led to the rejection from consciousness of vital areas of our sensory experience and to the resultant atrophy of the unconscious. The balance of the sensorium — or Gestalt interplay of all the senses — and the psychic and social harmony it engendered was disrupted, and the visual function was overdeveloped.

Phonetic literacy made it possible for the spoken wisdom of one person to be recorded, saved and reinvoked over and over again, facilitating the Axial Age (roughly 800 to 200 BCE) and the rise of religions like Judaism and later Christianity that are built around various versions of a book (the Bible) and other written liturgy. The wise words of some of the best thinkers of the age could be captured and read by or to others to spread that wisdom and exponentially magnify its impact on human culture.

It also suggested that other aspects of human existence, endeavor and experience might be disassembled down to a small set of basic building blocks to be better studied, understood and eventually manipulated. The precursor to the scientific method of Aristotle and others, disassembling holistic natural processes down to their component parts.

McLuhan argues that our visual sense is the most detached of all our senses, and its rise to preeminence in the new era of phonetic literacy, made the collective consciousness of tribal society increasingly difficult to maintain. The other senses of “literate” people diminished in usage and importance. The collective power of human voices singing together, the tastes of shared food, the smell of human pheromones and perhaps the psychic abilities that were once a natural part of human perception, atrophied in comparison to this compelling new visual technique.

This all makes sense to me from my reading of history (which for me has been mostly Western history). Over the past 3000 years the use of literacy was limited to a few in positions of clerical or political authority or otherwise elite status. My understanding was that in 15th Century Europe it was illegal in many places for regular folk to even read the bible (protecting the franchise of the Roman Christian church hierarchy of priests, bishops, etc to “lead the flock”).

With the 16th Century and the invention of movable type and the advent of printing (in Europe, while it had been done previously in Asia), the spread of literacy was exponential, and as McLuhan would argue, all the re-balancing of the hierarchy of our senses and the change to how humans viewed the world that went with it.

For example, McLuhan links the whole concept of nationalism to a change in perspective brought by the communication revolution of printing, making possible pamphlets, newspapers and books…

Nationalism didn’t exist in Europe until the Renaissance, when typography enabled every literate man to see his mother tongue analytically as a uniform entity. The printing press, by spreading mass-produced books and printed matter across Europe, turned the vernacular regional languages of the day into uniform closed systems of national languages — just another variant of what we call mass media — and gave birth to the entire concept of nationalism.

Likewise, McLuhan saw other key developments of the Modern Era (from the 16th to the 20th Century) being facilitated by this new orientation that more universal literacy and the technique of easily constructed and reproduced printed pages gave to people…

The individual newly homogenized by print saw the nation concept as an intense and beguiling image of group destiny and status. With print, the homogeneity of money, markets and transport also became possible for the first time, thus creating economic as well as political unity and triggering all the dynamic centralizing energies of contemporary nationalism. By creating a speed of information movement unthinkable before printing, the Gutenberg revolution thus produced a new type of visual centralized national entity that was gradually merged with commercial expansion until Europe was a network of states.

This makes sense to me as well, since much of what inspired or enraged the people of the West over the past five centuries was what people read – Luther’s Ninety-five Theses catalyzing the Protestant Reformation, the Communist Manifesto catalyzing revolution, or the blaring headline’s of the daily newspapers. Many historians credit Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst and their daily newspapers for pushing the US into war with Spain in 1898.

And then wrestling with McLuhan’s contention that literacy has given primacy to the human visual sense, which he sees as promoting more detachment at the expense of the other senses, I can see that too. Just think about the values implied in our conventional language usage. Its all about some form of “seeing”, whether you “saw the light”, will “see you later” or have a “point of view”. And my own continuing experience is that it is music heard with my ears that feels so connecting to memories in my own life and inspiring a sense of connection between me and the larger community (see my piece “The Soundtrack of My Life”).

And finally, to finish this first foray into McLuhan’s ideas as expressed in the 1969 interview, he speaks of the most recent fundamental change in our communication technology which he sees as inspiring a new profound transformation in how we “view” the world. Beginning with the invention of the telegraph in the mid 19th Century and intensifying with all the other forms of electronic media that followed – telephone, radio, cinema, television and computers. McLuhan says the impact of these new media includes bringing the senses (at least seeing and hearing) back into more of a balance, and provocatively called out that the rise of electronic communication is “retribalizing” people and culture…

The electronically induced technological extensions of our central nervous systems, which I spoke of earlier, are immersing us in a world-pool of information movement and are thus enabling man to incorporate within himself the whole of mankind. The aloof and dissociated role of the literate man of the Western world is succumbing to the new, intense depth participation engendered by the electronic media and bringing us back in touch with ourselves as well as with one another.

When McLuhan was interviewed in 1969, it was the age of television, and McLuhan spoke to its transformative power in the political arena…

TV is revolutionizing every political system in the Western world. For one thing, it’s creating a totally new type of national leader, a man who is much more of a tribal chieftain than a politician. Castro is a good example of the new tribal chieftain who rules his country by a mass-participational TV dialog and feedback; he governs his country on camera, by giving the Cuban people the experience of being directly and intimately involved in the process of collective decision making. Castro’s adroit blend of political education, propaganda and avuncular guidance is the pattern for tribal chieftains in other countries. The new political showman has to literally as well as figuratively put on his audience as he would a suit of clothes and become a corporate tribal image — like Mussolini, Hitler and F.D.R. in the days of radio, and Jack Kennedy in the television era. All these men were tribal emperors on a scale theretofore unknown in the world, because they all mastered their media.

McLuhan died in 1980 before the Internet came on the scene as the preeminent electronic media, more prodigious in its reach than television and adding the interactive two-way communication. And where radio and television had a limited set of “broadcasters”, the Internet gave individuals and a much wider array of groups the capability to put their ideas out their in the information marketplace. I bet if McLuhan were alive today he would have a field day de-constructing the aspects and metaphors of the “World Wide Web”, moving us toward the “Global Village”, a term that he coined for the world.

See part two of my pieces on McLuhan.

4 replies on “Mud Wrestling with Marshall McLuhan”

  1. A fantastic summary of McLuhan’s ideas! Anyone who has studied his work knows how difficult it can be at times to sift through his writings. Thanks for doing the hard work!

  2. Paul… thanks for the comment… made my day!

    I think McLuhan has such an insight on the power of electronic media to change our lives, even though he lived before the preeminence of the Internet.

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