Why Bother with Marshall McLuhan?

23Jul11

Alan Jacobs

In October 1958 an organization called the National Association of Educational Broadcasters held its annual convention in Omaha, Nebraska, and featured as its keynote speaker a Canadian professor of English named Marshall McLuhan. McLuhan gave what appears to have been a dazzling speech, as was his wont, and on the basis of it the NAEB — a forward-thinking body — commissioned him to produce for them a syllabus for a year-long eleventh-grade course devoted to the study of media, especially new and visual media. They wanted American high-school students to understand “the various and often contradictory qualities and effects of media,” and believed that McLuhan was just the person to explain such matters. McLuhan gladly accepted the commission and set to work.

But the syllabus and accompanying “textbook” he eventually produced baffled the leadership of the NAEB. They discerned that McLuhan had given them an ambitious and intellectually dynamic project, but could not see how to use it in a high-school classroom. One can scarcely blame them for their befuddlement, given that this was McLuhan’s idea of an appropriate discussion question for eleventh-graders: “Speech as organized stutter is based on time. What does speech do to space?”

When McLuhan revised and expanded his report and published it in 1964 as Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, his general readers were often just as baffled. Nothing puzzled them more than the book’s most basic and, in McLuhan’s mind, crucial distinction, that between “hot” and “cool” media:

There is a basic principle that distinguishes a hot medium like radio from a cool one like the telephone, or a hot medium like the movie from a cool one like TV. A hot medium is one that extends one single sense in “high definition.” High definition is the state of being well filled with data. A photograph is, visually, “high definition.” A cartoon is “low definition,” simply because very little visual information is provided. Telephone is a cool medium, or one of low definition, because the ear is given a meager amount of information. And speech is a cool medium of low definition, because so little is given and so much has to be filled in by the listener. On the other hand, hot media do not leave so much to be filled in or completed by the audience. Hot media are, therefore, low in participation, and cool media are high in participation or completion by the audience. Naturally, therefore, a hot medium like radio has very different effects on the user from a cool medium like the telephone.

I think one reason readers had so much trouble with this distinction is that, on first reading and perhaps on second and third, it seems so obviously to be false. How different, really, is the amount of information the ear receives through a telephone’s speaker and through a radio’s speaker? Is it really the case that what comes from the radio is “well filled with data” while what comes from the telephone is “meager”? Is this just a matter of radio speakers, in general, being of higher quality than telephone speakers? Does it matter whether what comes through the radio is music or speech, given that “speech is a cool medium of low definition” — so that if people are talking on the radio then it becomes somehow a cool medium? Why does he say that a movie “extends one single sense” when movies have sound — not just speech but musical accompaniment, which was intrinsic even to films of the “silent” era? (Indeed, later in the book McLuhan says that “film is not really a single medium like song or the written word, but a collective art form with different individuals directing color, lighting, sound, acting, speaking.”) Seriously, what gives?

McLuhan was simply dismissive of such puzzlement. In his preface to a later edition of the book, he wrote that “the section on ‘media hot and cool’ confused many reviewers of Understanding Media who were unable to recognize the very large structural changes in human outlook that are occurring today.” His critics, then, are just out of touch with contemporary experience. In a later interview he would add, shifting the ground of his defense, “Clear prose indicates the absence of thought.” Any confusion we experience is the inevitable result of McLuhan’s profundity — a claim quite similar to the ones made by Judith Butler when responding to the news that she had “won” the 1998 edition of the Bad Writing Contest sponsored by the journal Philosophy and Literature.

I have been reading McLuhan off and on since, at age sixteen, I bought a copy of The Gutenberg Galaxy. His centenary — McLuhan was born in Edmonton, Alberta on July 21, 1911 — provides an occasion for me to clarify my own oscillating responses to his work and his reputation. I have come to certain conclusions. First, that McLuhan never made arguments, only assertions. Second, that those assertions are usually wrong, and when they are not wrong they are highly debatable. Third, that McLuhan had an uncanny instinct for reading and quoting scholarly books that would become field-defining classics. Fourth, that McLuhan’s determination to bring the vast resources of humanistic scholarship to bear upon the analysis of new media is an astonishingly fruitful one, and an example to be followed. And finally, that once one has absorbed that example there is no need to read anything that McLuhan ever wrote.

That last judgment may perhaps be rather strongly worded. We shall revisit it.

What must always be remembered about McLuhan — though people rarely remember it — is this: he was a professor of English. In the early 1930s he took bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Manitoba, and then decamped for England for another bachelor’s degree, this one from Cambridge University. He earned an upper second — not the first-class degree he had hoped for, the kind of degree that would have marked him out as having a clear academic future. Nevertheless, he was allowed to return to Cambridge a few years later to write a doctoral dissertation, which he successfully completed in 1943.

McLuhan’s periods in Cambridge would prove decisive for his intellectual future, for several reasons. First of all, his decision to focus on the bawdy and energetic Elizabethan writer Thomas Nashe led McLuhan into some unexpected intellectual territory. Nashe wrote everything from plays to political pamphlets to scurrilously erotic verse, and was about as of-his-moment as a writer could possibly be. Yet McLuhan discovered that Nashe, himself Cambridge-educated, was deeply learned in classical rhetoric; its tropes and techniques saturated his work. So there near the beginning of the age of print, in a London raucous with ballads, playhouses, and pamphleteers, were people who were at one and the same time thoroughly classical and utterly contemporary. The lesson would not be lost on McLuhan.

But in Cambridge McLuhan also encountered major critics — especially F. R. Leavis and I. A. Richards — who were intimately connected with literary Modernism. If today literature and criticism seem to be running on parallel tracks, rarely threatening to meet, such was not the case in the early twentieth century. For one thing, some of the most important poets — T. S. Eliot above all, but also Ezra Pound — were deeply influential critics as well. But more decisive was the willingness of professors to intervene in literary disputes as champions of certain authors and styles. For instance, Leavis celebrated D. H. Lawrence as a worthy heir of what he called “The Great Tradition,” while Richards allied himself with the more experimental Modernists, such as Eliot, who returned the favor by citing his work in their criticism.

McLuhan seems to have adopted Leavis’s assured lawgiving manner, while embracing Richards’s critical judgments. The writers Richards celebrated — James Joyce and Ezra Pound especially — became touchstones for McLuhan, and later for some of his students and younger colleagues (including the brilliant polymathic literary critic Hugh Kenner). But it is vital to understand, if we wish to grasp these thinkers’ influence on McLuhan, that the Modernists were anything but sympathetic to the basic character of the modern world. Eliot commended Joyce’s Ulysses because he thought that it found a way to address “the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history”; he envied the writers of the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras because they “possessed a mechanism of sensibility which could devour any kind of experience,” a power of assimilating everything that might happen to someone — a power we have lost: “in the seventeenth century a dissociation of sensibility set in, from which we have never recovered.”

Similarly, Ezra Pound celebrated the Troubadours and Trouveres of twelfth-century Provence, along with certain ancient Greek and Chinese poets, for finding a comprehensively elegant style that he felt was impossible in his own day. For much the same reason, William Butler Yeats longed for “the holy city of Byzantium”: “I think if I could be given a month of Antiquity and leave to spend it where I chose, I would spend it in Byzantium a little before Justinian opened St. Sophia and closed the Academy of Plato…. I think that in early Byzantium, maybe never before or since in recorded history, religious, aesthetic and practical life were one.” The great Modernists were united in little but their distaste for their own period, and their sense that it offered them few and shabby resources in comparison to what many of their distant predecessors had been able to draw upon.

This lesson too was not lost on McLuhan. Everything he wrote that would make him famous he wrote as a professor of English literature, rooted as a scholar in the technological, scientific, and religious upheavals of the early-modern world, and fascinated as a thinker by the immensely ambitious attempts of the great Modernists to use the resources of the past to respond, critically but constructively, to the twentieth century. Perhaps the best way to think of McLuhan is as a belated Modernist: born a generation or so later than Eliot, Pound, and Joyce, and working in a different intellectual medium than they worked in, but one with them in interest and ambition. The Gutenberg Galaxy is as much a document of magisterial Modernism as Ulysses, the Cantos, or The Waste Land.

The Gutenberg Galaxy, published in 1962, made McLuhan famous. Like other major texts of Modernism, this one repudiates conventional forms of organization. It begins with a page explaining, in discreet small type, that the book “develops a mosaic or field approach to its problems. Such a mosaic image of numerous data and quotations in evidence offers the only practical means of revealing causal operations in history.” (The only practical means? So all the historians have been wrong?) For anyone confused or troubled by this method, McLuhan gently suggests that “the last section of the book, ‘The Galaxy Reconfigured,’ deals with the clash of electric and mechanical, or print, technologies, and the reader may find it the best prologue.” So The Gutenberg Galaxy opens, before the beginning as it were, with a suggestion that one might want to start at the end: a classically Modernist bit of deliberately disorienting stagecraft. ——————–[section skipped]————————–

And it must also be remembered that it is not likely that Postman, Kenner, Ong, and many others would have achieved anything like what they did had it not been for the example and the provocation of McLuhan. He was, to borrow a useful phrase from Michel Foucault, a “founder of discursivity” — someone who didn’t just have strong ideas but who invented a whole new way of talking, who created vocabularies that others could appropriate, adopt, adapt, improve, extend. In his recent book The Information: A Theory, a History, a Flood, James Gleick cites a classically provocative McLuhanian assertion — “Man the food-gatherer reappears incongruously as information-gatherer” — and comments, “He wrote this an instant too soon, in the first dawn of computation and cyberspace.” Much of what McLuhan wrote came an instant too soon, and perhaps that’s the best reason to read him, infuriating and confusing though that experience may be. To read McLuhan is to gain at least an inkling of what it might be like to look around the next corner of history.


Alan Jacobs, a New Atlantis contributing editor and the author of the Text Patterns blog, is a professor of English at Wheaton College. His most recent book is The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction (Oxford, 2011).
Alan Jacobs, “Why Bother with Marshall McLuhan?,” The New Atlantis, Number 31, Spring 2011, pp. 123-135.

Read the section not included here at http://tinyurl.com/3ky4gzr .

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