Understanding Marshall McLuhan: A Short Introduction

01Sep12

Understanding Marshall McLuhan

I’m not sure why the author of this piece, Jon Eckblad, subtitles it “a man’s guide”, but it is mostly a good short introduction. Republished by permission.

A Man’s Guide to One of the Great Writers   –   Written by Jon Eckblad 

Modern man is in a muddle.

Unprecedented affluence, unprecedented anxiety and mental illness. Knowledge never been more important, an education system woefully out of step. Rugged individualism the cultural ideal, collectivism and groupthink everywhere you go.

To paraphrase Bob Dylan, we know something’s happening here, but we don’t know what it is. If there was one person who seemed to know what’s happening, it was Marshall McLuhan.

A Life in Brief

Not all writers have remarkable lives. Born in 1911 in Canada. Grew up a Protestant, became an agnostic, converted to Catholicism. Remained religious throughout his life, but never talked about it much.

Majored in engineering, then switched to literature. Went to college in Manitoba, then got his Ph.D. at Cambridge. Taught English at Saint Louis University, Assumption College, St. Michael’s College—all of them Catholic institutions.

His mom an actress, he married an actress. Had a benign brain tumor and six kids.

His first book was The Mechanical Bride, a critical, funny look at the world of advertising. Followed it up ten years later with The Gutenberg Galaxy, an in-depth description of how printing changed Western civilization.  Two years later he published his masterpiece, Understanding Media, which took on all technology and media and how it affects us. This book also made him famous, a public intellectual, put him on the cover of Newsweek.

Among the phrases he coined: “The medium is the message,” “the global village,” “Turn on, tune in, drop out,” which was later appropriated by Timothy Leary [AlexK: this has been disputed and rejected by those who knew him the best, his family.]

Cameoed in a Woody Allen movie.

Had a stroke, which he never recovered from. Died in his sleep on December 31st, 1980.

Why You Should Read Him

To those of us with a more literary bent, devices like TV and computers sometimes seem like an affront to our humanity. Additionally, cell phones bug the shit out of me.

This used to be a great source of angst for me, but McLuhan helped me put it in perspective. TV and the Internet and cell phones form us into a kind of interconnected community—a village, if you will—in which everyone knows everyone’s business and there’s very little privacy and your individual mind and personal time are submerged into suffocating communal experience—or, as McLuhan calls it, a seamless web of kinship and interdependence.”

McLuhan died before the advent of the Internet, but his words are nothing short of prescient. Think of Facebook and Twitter and a thousand other things. All of which bug the shit out of me. Never knew why before, but now I do.

McLuhan opened my eyes to the fact that there is a real conflict between a print-based, visual sensibility and an ear-based, aural one. For four hundred years, Western civilization favored the former. Now it’s bending toward the latter. This change, this conflict, is the root of much of what’s getting us all shook up intellectually and lifestyle-wise.

The basis of all of McLuhan’s ideas is his theory that every new technological innovation is an extension of our own senses:

All media are extensions of some human faculty—psychic or physical. The wheel is an extension of the foot. The book is an extension of the eye. Clothing, an extension of the skin. Electric circuitry, an extension of the central nervous system.

Media, by altering the environment, evoke in us unique ratios of sense perceptions. The extension of any one sense alters the way we think and act—the way we perceive the world. When these ratios change, men change.

McLuhan gives you the key to make sense of not only the pros and cons of certain technology, but he provides a lens through which to view human civilization, history, art, culture, psychology—everything, basically. An epic, sweeping view.

Start With… [AlexK  – to this little classic I would add the Playboy interview (1969) in which McLuhan explains many of his most important ideas with great clarity; it is available online at http://tinyurl.com/y9c49le .] 

The Medium Is the Massage

The book is a collaboration with graphic designer Quentin Fiore, and since it is amply supplemented with compelling visuals and in it McLuhan summarizes his most important ideas, it’s the ideal way to start. It’s a McLuhan for Dummies, of sorts.

The title is a pun on his most famous phrase, “The medium is the message,” which means that the content of TV or movies or books or the Internet is irrelevant—the medium itself has its own agenda and worldview which it imposes on us.

This is in direct opposition to the still-common belief that content is all. “After all,” people often say, “it’s not TV that’s bad, it’s just that there’s so much trash on it. There is some very good educational programming.” Or, “Guns don’t kill people, people do.

No—new technology and media are like a super-evolved new species released into an ecosystem, and their effects are sometimes just as destructive. Says McLuhan, “Once a new technology comes into a social milieu it cannot cease to permeate that milieu until every institution is saturated.”

McLuhan changed the word “message” to “massage” in the title for two reasons. First of all, with his rise in popularity during the Sixties, the phrase The medium is the message became a catch-phrase bordering on a cliché, so he was trying to deflate it.

He also was trying to point out that any new medium, when first introduced, invokes a trance-like state of passive acceptance in its user, not unlike the feeling of getting a massage. When we acquire a new gadget, we become hypnotized by it and it has its way with us for quite a while before we become conscious of its effect—be it good or bad—on our lives.

To hearken back to Greek myth, we become a Narcissus obsessed by his own reflection in a pool. McLuhan saw it as his duty to snap us out of this hypnosis.

Another of McLuhan’s main assertions is that the phonetic alphabet and then later printing technology created modern, literate, individualistic, rational-minded man—and that electric media are helping to bring us back to the state we were in before that:

Ours is a brand-new world of allatonceness. “Time” has ceased, “space” has vanished. We now live in a global village… a simultaneous happening. We are back in acoustic space. We have begun again to structure the primordial feeling, the tribal emotions from which a few centuries of literacy divorced us.

It should be added that McLuhan doesn’t make too many value judgments about this state of things. To us, “primordial” and “tribal” might sound disparaging or maybe even racist, but to McLuhan, they were non-moralistic descriptors of human society.

What’s more, he did not share the view that somehow literary, Western man was superior to non-Western aural man:

But with electric media Western man himself experiences exactly the same inundation as the remote native. We are no more prepared to encounter radio and TV in our literate milieu than the native of Ghana is able to cope with the literacy that takes him out of his collective tribal world and beaches him in individual isolation. We are as numb in our electric world as the native involved in our literate and mechanical culture.

After That, You Should Read… 

Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man

Even though this is, as I’ve said, McLuhan’s masterpiece, it’s a tough read (that’s why I recommended The Medium Is the Massage first). Lent it to a friend a while back and he found it unreadable, said McLuhan didn’t know how to write.

Well, I can see my friend’s point—Understanding Media is a dizzying, non-sequential smorgasbord of ideas: visiting and revisiting theories on inventions and communication and psychology and art and science and language and advertising and the structure of our everyday lives.

But the book’s hard-to-followness is on purpose. McLuhan called it his “mosaic method.” Instead of a linear, classic-style essay format, he chose to piece his vision together tiny detail by tiny detail, which when regarded as a whole resembles something akin to reality. To him, it seemed absurd to try to depict the maelstrom of our modern lives with the academic, ivory-towerish tone of a textbook.

Are all of McLuhan’s theories airtight? No. Do they sometimes strike one as contradictory and counterintuitive? Yes. But they are a great gateway into a line of thought that doesn’t get thunk near enough.

Come on, Narcissus, snap out of it! [Or, as McLuhan liked to imagine Zeus warning Narcissus: “Watch yourself!’”    http://tinyurl.com/8mvoxdn

Marshall McLuhan was a leading 20th-century thinker on the impact of communications media on society.

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