The Gutenberg Galaxy, by Marshall McLuhan

29Jan13

 The original University of Toronto Press cover

Last year was the 50th anniversary of the publication of Marshall McLuhan’s second most important book. Blogger David Barker offers some interesting thoughts on McLuhan’s ”The Gutenberg Galaxy”.

The Gutenberg Galaxy The latest cover

This is the 14th installment of my January Book Project, an unexpected deviation from my reading list. The Gutenberg Galaxy is remarkable as an academic work both because it has wormed its way into popular consciousness and because it has persisted there for half a century. The reason for its popularity is that Marshall McLuhan knew not only how to think about media, but also how to exploit them. He reduced the book’s content to a simple three-word container and shot it like an arrow into popular consciousness: “The Global Village”.

What is The Global Village?

We’ve all heard the phrase. And I suspect most people (myself included) believe they know what it means. Before I read the book, I assumed that the phrase was descriptive: we live in a shrinking world. The proliferation of electronic media and high-speed transportation has changed our perception of the world’s size. We can have conversations with people on the other side of the world and, if we prefer to wait a few hours, we can board airplanes and hold those conversations face-to-face. National boundaries grow increasingly porous. Protectionist trade policies have been dismantled so goods and labour move around the globe unimpeded. The global village is simply the description of an observant man who was trying to understand our changed and changing modes of social and political organization.

But what is it really?

On reading The Gutenberg Galaxy, I discovered that my presuppositions were wrong. Yes, “the global village” can be taken as purely descriptive. But we don’t need a whole book to describe something that is obvious to anyone who’s even nominally conscious. McLuhan means something more by the phrase.

As the title suggests, McLuhan is concerned with a precise moment in Western history—the invention of the printing press. At that moment, Western culture was launched on a journey of transformation from an audile-tactile culture to a predominantly visual culture. Print had existed prior to the invention of the printing press, but its cultural effects were negligible until the printing press introduced mass production to publication. This had a number of consequences including:

>> creation of the author (notions like plagiarism, attribution, and moral rights in a text didn’t exist until the Statute of Anne in 1709)

>> creation of the individual

>> commoditization of text (the very first mass-produced commodity for commercial trade)

>> creation of the unconscious (print text emphasized the visual, forcing our other modes of experience and communication to go underground)

>> regimentation of linear time (previously, the simultaneity of modes of experience had meant that time was relatively unimportant as a function of media)

McLuhan theorizes that because electronic media reintroduce simultaneity into our communications, and because they restore the audile-tactile to a dominant position, our culture is transforming once again. We have more in common with oral cultures of pre-literate societies than we do with, say, Shakespeare’s Renaissance, or Darwin’s Beagle. We are more like tribal people living in a village, not because our world has shrunk, but because our culture is less visual.

What about the internet?

McLuhan published The Gutenberg Galaxy in 1962. While he was well aware of computer technology (which gets some treatment in his book), he could not have predicted what would happen when computers became globally networked (although it has been suggested that he imagined something like the world-wide web). It’s arguable that he coined the term “surfing”. He uses it in a section called “Heidegger surf-boards along on the electronic wave as triumphantly as Descartes rode the mechanical wave.”

One could point to the graphic user interface and the development of ebook technology to argue that the oral/aural function of electronic media of 1962 was just a blip along a long-term cultural trajectory that prefers the visual. But I’m inclined to think he would regard the media enabled by the internet as synaesthetic. They don’t prefer any sense, but integrate them. (DigiScents even tried to integrate the olfactory sense into the online experience, although PC magazine named it one of the 10 worst technologies ever developed.)

Although it’s possible to apply typographical principles to online design, that doesn’t seem to be the direction we’re taking. Flash was an ideal tool for “forcing” traditional design into the browser space, but that’s pretty much dead. And it seems inevitable that single purpose tablets (aka ereaders) will converge with general purpose tablets. Faber’s T.S. Eliot app integrates tactile, audile & visual, and it provides a model for exploiting new (synaesthetic) media. Online media have also transformed time. Our narratives are now emphatically non-linear. Blogs and Facebook timelines present in reverse chronology, and organic search engines, like Google and Facebook’s soon-to-be-released Graph search, produce search returns that are decontextualized both in space and time.

While book-lovers sometimes deride the blog/tweet/Facebook post/text message/YouTube video/surfing/gaming/Skyping world we’ve created, I don’t think proclaiming it right or wrong, or better or worse, is useful. I prefer McLuhan’s approach which is simply to ask: how far has new media seeped into popular consciousness? By that measure, book-lovers may find themselves in the position of King Canute trying to hold back the tide. Although we may wish that it didn’t wash so far ashore, it serves no purpose to judge the tide.

But is McLuhan right?

I do find one thing rather odd in The Gutenberg Galaxy. The book reads like a “big idea” book. You know the kind. They’re the sort of books Malcolm Gladwell writes. He observes a bunch of fascinating and seemingly unrelated effects, then accounts for them all by relating them to a single unexpected and often miniscule cause. The big idea is that this one phenomenon determines so much in our lives, and we’d never noticed until Gladwell was kind enough to point it out. In a more academic way, that’s what McLuhan does with the printing press. Without it, there could be no psychoanalysis, no Newtonian physics, no nation states, no conception of the individual or of individual liberties. The problem is that this line of reasoning invokes causal relationships that are only possible with a linear conception of time. But that linearity is one of the very things that falls into question here. I’m left wondering if this isn’t a bootstrapping argument (or whatever its opposite). He wants to smash our conception of the hammer by swinging a hammer at it.

Republished by permission from http://tinyurl.com/ayk22pf

Wikipedia

This woodcut from 1568 shows the left printer removing a page from the press while the one at right inks the text-blocks. Such a duo could reach 14,000 hand movements per working day, printing around 3,600 pages in the process.
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