Classic McLuhan Studies: Digital Humanism: The Processed World of Marshall McLuhan(1984)


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[cover] Digital Humanism: The Processed World of Marshall McLuhan

 was originally published as Chapter 3 (pp. 52 – 86) of –

Technology and the Canadian Mind: Innis/McLuhan/Grant

 by Arthur Kroker
©1984, New World Perspectives, CultureTexts Series

 Montreal: New World Perspectives, ISBN 0-920393-00-4
Published simultaneously in the USA by St. Martin’s Press, ISBN 0-31278-832-0

Note: Marshall McLuhan was never the technotopian that contemporary technophiles like to portray. To read McLuhan is to discover a thinker who had a decidedly ambivalent perspective on technoculture. Thus, while McLuhan might be the patron saint of technotopians, his imagination is also the memory that should haunt them. 

Digital Humanism: The Processed World of Marshall McLuhan

Arthur Kroker

Processed World

Not the least of McLuhan’s contributions to the study of technology was that he transposed the literary principle of metaphor/metonymy (the play between structure and process) into a historical methodology for analysing the rise and fall of successive media of communication. In McLuhan’s discourse, novels are the already obsolescent content of television; writing “turned a spotlight on the high, dim Sierras of speech;”8the movie is the “mechanization of movement and gesture;”9 the telegraph provides us with “diplomacy without walls;”10 just as “photography is the mechanization of the perspective painting and the arrested eye.”11 To read McLuhan is to enter into a “vortex” of the critical, cultural imagination, where “fixed perspective” drops off by the way, and where everything passes over instantaneously into its opposite. Even the pages of the texts in ExplorationsThe Medium is the MassageThe Vanishing Point, or From Cliche to Archetype are blasted apart, counterblasted actually, in an effort to make reading itself a more subversive act of the artistic imagination. Faithful to his general intellectual project of exposing the invisible environment of the technological sensorium, McLuhan sought to make of the text itself a “counter-gradient” or “probe” for forcing to the surface of consciousness the silent structural rules, the “imposed assumptions” of the technological environment within which we are both enclosed and “processed”. In The Medium is the Massage, McLuhan insisted that we cannot understand the technological experience from the outside. We can only comprehend how the electronic age “works us over” if we “recreate the experience” in depth and mythically, of the processed world of technology.

All media work us over completely. They are so persuasive in their personal, political, economic, aesthetic, psychological, moral, ethical, and social consequences that they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected, unaltered. The medium is the massage. Any understanding of social and cultural change is impossible without a knowledge of the way media work as environments.12

And McLuhan was adamant on the immanent relationship of technology and biology, on the fact that “the new media… are nature”13 and this for the reason that technology refers to the social and psychic “extensions” or “outerings” of the human body or senses. McLuhan could be so universal and expansive in his description of the media of communication – his studies of communication technologies range from writing and speech to the telephone, photography, television, money, comic books, chairs and wrenches – because he viewed all technology as the pushing of the “archetypal forms of the unconscious out into social consciousness.”14When McLuhan noted in Counter Blast that “environment is process, not container,”15 he meant just this: the effect of all new technologies is to impose, silently and pervasively, their deep assumptions upon the human psyche by reworking the “ratio of the senses.”

All media are extensions of some human faculty – psychic or physical.16

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.17

For McLuhan, it’s a processed world now. As we enter the electronic age with its instantaneous and global movement of information, we are the first human beings to live completely within the mediated environment of the technostructure The “content” of the technostructure is largely irrelevant (the “content” of a new technology is always the technique which has just been superseded: movies are the content of television; novels are the content of movies) or, in fact, a red herring distracting our attention from the essential secret of technology as the medium, or environment, within which human experience is programmed. It was McLuhan’s special genius to grasp at once that the content (metonymy) of new technologies serves as a “screen”, obscuring from view the disenchanted locus of the technological experience in its purely “formal” or “spatial” properties. McLuhan wished to escape the “flat earth approach” to technology, to invent a “new metaphor” by which we might “restructure our thoughts and feelings” about the subliminal, imperceptible environments of media effects.18

In this understanding, technology is an “extension” of biology: the expansion of the electronic media as the “metaphor” or “environment” of twentieth-century experience implies that, for the first time, the central nervous system itself has been exteriorized. It is our plight to be processed through the technological simulacrum; to participate intensively and integrally in a “technostructure” which is nothing but a vast simulation and “amplification” of the bodily senses. Indeed, McLuhan often recurred to the “narcissus theme” in classical mythology as a way of explaining our fatal fascination with technology, viewed not as “something external” but as an extension, or projection, of the sensory faculties of the human species.

Media tend to isolate one or another sense from the others. The result is hypnosis. The other extreme is withdrawing of sensation with resulting hallucination as in dreams or DT’s, etc… Any medium, by dilating sense to fill the whole field, creates the necessary conditions of hypnosis in that area. This explains why at no time has any culture been aware of the effect of its media on its overall association, not even retrospectively.19

All of McLuhan’s writings are an attempt to break beyond the “Echo” of the narcissus myth, to show that the “technostructure” is an extension or “repetition” of ourselves. In his essay, “The Gadget Lover”, McLuhan noted precisely why the Greek myth of Narcissus is of such profound relevance to understanding the technological experience.

The youth Narcissus (narcissus means narcosis or numbing) mistook his own reflection in the water for another person. This extension of himself by mirror numbed his perceptions until he became the servomechanism of his own extended or repeated image. The nymph Echo tried to win his love with fragments of his own speech, but in vain. He was numb. He had adapted to his extension of himself and had become a closed system. Now the point of this myth is the fact that men at once become fascinated by any extension of themselves in any material other than themselves.20

Confronted with the hypnotic effect of the technological sensorium, McLuhan urged the use of any “probe” – humour, paradox, analogical juxtaposition, absurdity – as a way of making visible the “total field effect” of technology as medium. This is why, perhaps, McLuhan’s intellectual project actually circles back on itself, and is structured directly into the design of his texts. McLuhan makes the reader a “metonymy” to his “metaphor”: he transforms the act of “reading McLuhan” into dangerous participation in a radical experiment which has, as its end, the exploration of the numbing of consciousness in the technological massage. Indeed, to read McLuhan is to pass directly into the secret locus of the “medium is the massage”; to experience anew the “media” (this time the medium of writing) as a silent gradient of ground-rules.

No less critical than George Grant of the human fate in technological society, McLuhan’s imagination seeks a way out of our present predicament by recovering a highly ambivalent attitude towards theobjects of technostructure. Thus, while Grant writes in William James’ sense of a “block universe” of the technological dynamo, seeing only tendencies towards domination, McLuhan privileges a historically specific study of the media of communication. In an early essay (1955), “A Historical Approach to the Media”, McLuhan said that if we weren’t “to go on being helpless illiterates” in the new world of technology, passive victims as the “media themselves act directly toward shaping our most intimate self-consciousness”, then we had to adopt the attitude of the artist.21 “The mind of the artist is always the point of maximal sensitivity and resourcefulness in exposing altered realities in the common culture.”22 McLuhan would make of us “the artist, the sleuth, the detective” in gaining a critical perspective on the history of technology which “just as it began with writing ends with television.”23 Unlike Grant’s reflections on technology which are particularistic and existential, following a downward spiral (the famous Haligonian “humbug”) into pure content: pure will, pure remembrance, pure duration, McLuhan’s thought remains projective, metaphorical, and emancipatory. Indeed, Grant’s perspective on technology is Protestant to the core in its contemplation of the nihilism of liberal society. But if Grant’s tragic inquiry finds its artistic analogue in Colville’s To Prince Edward Island then McLuhan’s discourse is more in the artistic tradition of Georges Seurat, the French painter, and particularly in one classic portrait, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. McLuhan always accorded Seurat a privileged position as the “art fulcrum between Renaissance visual and modern tactile. The coalescing of inner and outer, subject and object.”24 McLuhan was drawn to Seurat in making painting a “light source” (a “light through situation”). Seurat did that which was most difficult and decisive: he dipped the viewer into the “vanishing point” of the painting.25 Or as McLuhan said, and in prophetic terms, Seurat (this “precursor of TV”) presented us with a searing visual image of the age of the “anxious object.”26

Now, to be sure, the theme of anxiety runs deep through the liberal side of the Canadian mind. This is the world of Margaret Atwood’s “intolerable anxiety” and of Northrop Frye’s “anxiety structure.” But McLuhan is the Canadian thinker who undertook a phenomenology of anxiety, or more precisely a historically relative study of the sources of anxiety and stress in technological society. And he did so by the simple expedient of drawing us, quickly and in depth, into Seurat’s startling and menacing world of the anxious, stressful objects of technology. In his book, Through the Vanishing Point, McLuhan said of Seurat that “by utilizing the Newtonian analysis of the fragmentation of light, he came to the technique of divisionism, whereby each dot of paint becomes the equivalent of an actual light source, a sun, as it were. This device reversed the traditional perspective by making the viewer the vanishing point.”27 The significance of Seurat’s “reversal” of the rules of traditional perspective is that he abolished, once and for all, the medieval illusion that space is neutral, or what is the same, that we can somehow live “outside” the processed world of technology. With Seurat a great solitude and, paradoxically, a greater entanglement falls on modern being. “We are suddenly in the world of the “Anxious Object” which is prepared to take the audience inside the painting process itself.”28 Following C. S. Lewis in The Discarded Image, McLuhan noted exactly what this “flip” in spatial perspective meant. Rather than looking in according to the traditional spatial model of medieval discourse, modern man is suddenly “looking out. ” “Like one looking out from the saloon entrance onto the dark Atlantic, or from the lighted porch upon the dark and lonely moors.”29 The lesson of Seurat is this: modernity is coeval with the age of the “anxious object” because we live now, fully, within the designed environment of the technological sensorium.30 For McLuhan, we are like astronauts in the processed world of technology. We now take our “environment” with us in the form of technical “extensions” of the human body or senses. The technostructure is both the lens through which we experience the world, and, in fact, the “anxious object” with which human experience has become imperceptibly, almost subliminally, merged.31

Now, McLuhan often remarked that in pioneering the DEW line, Canada had also provided a working model for the artistic imagination as an “early warning system”32 in sensing coming shifts in the technostructure. Seurat’s artistic representation of the spatial reversal at work in the electronic age, a reversal which plunges us into active participation in the “field” of technological experience, was one such early warning system. It was, in fact, to counteract our “numbing” within the age of the anxious object that McLuhan’s literary and artistic imagination, indeed his whole textual strategy, ran to the baroque. As an intellectual strategy, McLuhan favoured the baroque for at least two reasons: it privileged “double perspective and contrapuntal theming;” and it sought to “capture the moment of change in order to release energy dramatically.”33 There is, of course, a clear and decisive connection between McLuhan’s attraction to Seurat as an artist who understood the spatial grammar of the electronic age and his fascination with the baroque as a method of literary imagination. If, indeed, we are now “looking out” from inside the technological sensorium; and if, in fact, in the merger of biology and technology which is the locus of the electronic age, “we” have become the vanishing points of technique, then a way had to be discovered for breaching the “invisible environment”34 within which we are now enclosed. For McLuhan, the use of the baroque in each of his writings, this constant resort to paradox, double perspective, to a carnival of the literary imagination in which the pages of the texts are forced to reveal their existence also as a “medium”, was also a specific strategy aimed at “recreating the experience” of technology as massage. Between Seurat (a radar for “space as process”) and baroque (a “counter-gradient”): that’s the artistic strategy at work in McLuhan’s imagination as he confronted the subliminal, processed world of electronic technologies.

Continue reading at:

Notes1. H. A. Innis, Empire and Communications, Toronto: University of Toronto Press,1972, pp. 1-2.

2. M. McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Toronto: McGraw-Hill, 1964, p. 2.

3. The image of the “probe” runs through all of McLuhan’s writings, fromUnderstanding Media to The Medium is the Massage.

4. M. McLuhan, “Catholic Humanism & Modern Letters”, Christian Humanism in Letters, Hartford, Connecticut: St. Joseph’s College, 1954, p. 78.

5. M. McLuhan, Counter Blast, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1969, p. 42.

6. The relationship of Empire, Inc. to the Canadian imagination was first developed by Michael Dorland in a brilliant essay, “Power, TV & the National Question: A Reproach”, Symposium on Television & Popular Culture, Queen’s University, March 2, 1983.

7. McLuhan’s most vivid description of the “technological sensorium” is provided in his writing, The Medium is the Massage. (with Quentin Fiore), New York: Bantam,1967, p. 26.

8. M . McLuhan, Counter Blast, p. 14.

9. For McLuhan’s extended analysis of the movie as a “mechanizing” medium see “The Reel World”, Understanding Media, pp. 284-296.

10. McLuhan also described the telegraph as a “social hormone”,Understanding Media, pp. 246-257.

11. M. McLuhan, Counter Blast, p. 16.

12. M. McLuhan, The Medium is the Massage, p. 26.

13. M. McLuhan, Counter Blast, p. 14.

14. Ibid., p. 31.

15. Ibid., p. 30.

16. Ibid., p. 26.

17. Ibid., p. 41.

18. Ibid., p. 14.

19. Ibid., pp. 22-23.

20. M. McLuhan, Understanding Media, p. 51.

21. M. McLuhan, “A Historical Approach to the Media”, Teacher’s College Record, 57(2), November, 1955, p. 110.

22. Ibid., p. 109.

23. Ibid., p. 110.

24. M. McLuhan, Through the Vanishing Point: Space in Poetry and Painting, New York: Harper and Row, 1968, p. 181.

25. Ibid.

26. Ibid., pp. 24-25.

27. Ibid., p. 24.

28. Ibid., p. 25.

29. Ibid., p. 24.

30. Ibid.

31. Ibid., p. 181.

32. The arts as “radar feedback” is a major theme of Understanding Media. See particularly the introductory comments, pp. vii-xi.

33. M. McLuhan, Through the Vanishing Point, p. 21.

34. M. McLuhan, Counter Blast, p. 31.

Arthure Kroker Dr. Arthur Kroker

Arthur Kroker is Canada Research Chair in Technology, Culture and Theory, Professor of Political Science, and the Director of the Pacific Centre for Technology and Culture (PACTAC) at the University of Victoria. He is the editor with Marilouise Kroker of the internationally acclaimed scholarly, peer-reviewed journal CTheory and Critical Digital Studies: A Reader (University of Toronto Press). His recent publications include The Will to Technology and the Culture of Nihilism: Heidegger, Nietzsche, and Marx (University of Toronto Press) and Born Again Ideology: Religion, Technology and Terrorism. In addition to the recent Japanese translation of The Will to Technology, eleven of Dr. Kroker’s books have been published in translation including German, Italian, Japanese and Croatian. Dr. Kroker’s current research focuses on the new area of critical digital studies and the politics of the body in contemporary techno-culture. (

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