Hannah Arendt & Marshall McLuhan: Violence, Power, Technology & Identity

09Dec11

These are a couple of excerpts from Lance Strate’s thoughtful essay on Hannah Arendt, which quotes liberally from the work of Marshall McLuhan. It was published as a guest blog by the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics & Humanities ( http://www.hannaharendtcenter.org ). Follow the link at bottom to read the full essay…..AlexK

 Hannah Arendt (1906-1975)

….. what she’s saying here is very much in keeping with the intellectual tradition known as media ecology, the type of approach associated with scholars such as Marshall McLuhan, Walter Ong, and Neil Postman.  Whereas McLuhan said that “the medium is the message,” for all intents and purposes, Arendt here is saying that the means is the message!

Arendt goes on to note that traditionally, violence has been seen as an instrument of power, but that technological advances in warfare (she mentions the possibility of robot soldiers!), weapons of mass destruction (especially biological weapons that can be used by small groups rather than large states), and guerrilla warfare (and what we now call terrorism) have led to a reversal of that relationship. 

….. There is also some further common ground between Arendt and McLuhan (a point first brought to my attention by my old classmate Paul Lippert, who was also in attendance at Bernstein’s lecture).  For Arendt, violence requires technology.  For McLuhan, technology is a form of violence.  The relationship between the two is certainly worth considering, even in relation to the seemingly benign technologies we refer to as new media.  What is the violence that they do, to our political arrangements, our economic and financial arrangements, our social organization and way of life?

….. Arendt’s essay also made me think about the close association that Marshall McLuhan made between violence and identity.  According to McLuhan, violence is a response to the loss of identity, and constitutes an attempt to regain identity.  In his final television appearance, with Mike McManus at the end of 1977, McLuhan stated,

All forms of violence are quests for identity.  When you live out on the frontier, you have no identity. You’re a nobody.  Therefore you get very tough. You have to prove that you are somebody, and so you become very violent. And so identity is always accompanied by violence. This seems paradoxical to you?  Ordinary people find the need for violence as they lose their identities.  So it’s only the threat to people’s identity that makes them violent. Terrorists, hijackers, these are people minus identity. They are determined to make it somehow, to get coverage, to get noticed.

Adding McLuhan’s insight to Arendt’s commentary, we can equate identity with power, loss or lack of identity with a loss of power and impotency.  Identity not only tells us who we are, it binds us together in common cause, as a group identity. http://www.hannaharendtcenter.org/?tag=marshall-mcluhan

-Lance Strate

Dr. Lance Strate is Professor of Communication and Media Studies and Director of the Professional Studies in New Media program at Fordham University.  He is the author of Echoes and Reflections:  On Media Ecology as a Field of Study, and On the Binding Biases of Time and Other Essays on General Semantics and Media Ecology.
Click here to visit his blog. 

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