The Cool Revolution
Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man.
by Marshall McLuhan.
McGraw-Hill. 359 pp. $7.50.
The typical reader of COMMENTARY is living in a numbed and somnambulistic trance, self-hypnotized by his visual, linear bias. As for the magazine itself, it is an extremely hot medium (much hotter than Playboy) perversely devoting most of its space to matters which are peripheral to the real problems of modern culture. The ads are the best part of the journal.
These conclusions are forced upon anyone who accepts the main argument of Understanding Media. They are not the eccentric maunderings of a madman. On the contrary, Marshall McLuhan is one of the most brilliant socio-cultural theorists writing today. I have been shamelessly pilfering his work for years, and others have been doing it too: it is easy for a practiced eye to discern little bits of McLuhan nestling like fossils in the gritty prose of many a literary critic or sociologist. For all that, McLuhan is a somewhat lonely figure with many admirers but few disciples. His cocksure wisecracking manner, his extravagant generalizations, and his maddeningly repetitive style tend to repel fastidious readers. Even a strong sympathizer is likely to find irritation and illumination fairly evenly blended in his books. Understanding Media contains the mixture as before.
McLuhan, who is a professor of English at St. Michael’s College and Director of the Institute of Culture and Technology at the University of Toronto, brings an essentially Thomist and Catholic sensibility to a field of study which has been traditionally dominated by theorists with a Protestant or Jewish background. He acknowledges a considerable intellectual debt to the late Harold A. Innis (a Canadian economist whose contributions to the history and theory of communications have been inadequately recognized), but his recent books have carried him far beyond his mentor and, indeed, outside the main stream of contemporary thought about culture.
He began as a relatively conventional observer of the mass media. The Mechanical Bride is a brilliant application of the techniques of iconography and literary criticism to such hitherto neglected phenomena as advertisements, comic strips, and newspapers. Though McLuhan now apparently repudiates its essentially hostile and derisive tone, many will feel that this devastatingly witty and high-spirited work is his finest achievement. Between The Mechanical Bride and his next book, McLuhan edited Explorations, an extraordinary periodical devoted to the study and criticism of all types of communication. In its pages one can trace McLuhan’s gradual shift from ironic contemplation to total immersion in the destructive element of modern media. The Old and New Testaments of the faith that followed this baptism are The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) and its successor Understanding Media.
Subtitled “The Making of Typographic Man,” The Gutenberg Galaxy set out to analyze and describe the distortion of human consciousness that has resulted (according to McLuhan) from the domination of Western civilization by the phonetic alphabet and its offspring, the printed book. By translating all human experience into the visual, linear, sequential form of written sentences, and by mass-producing the result with the aid of the printing press, Western man has tended to alienate himself from deep involvement with his environment. “Numbed” into a “hypnotic trance” by his visual bias, “the bookman of detached private culture” cannot cope with reality until it is processed into the linear, mechanical order of print. The orderly, rational eye (in contrast to the muddled, emotional ear) is the individuating organ par excellence—such terms as “perspective,” “point of view,” “outlook” suggest this quality. The visually oriented civilization which reached its apogee early in this century culminated in the hard, lonely, anxious personality of the rugged individualist. It also developed techniques and institutions to serve him, all based on the linear rationalization of phenomena: the assembly line, the state examination system, the stock market, suburbia, bureaus of standards, research laboratories, and railway timetables.
The argument that there is some connection between these phenomena and our print-dominated culture is difficult to resist. All the same, in this book and its successor McLuhan faced an insoluble problem of method. How is it possible to diagnose and attack the distortions caused by phonetic literacy while using the very medium one is deploring? He has tried to resolve the dilemma by arranging his books in a “mosaic” of separate chapters which can be read in any order (thus making necessary a good deal of repetition). Since he regards the idea of cause and effect as an illusory linear abstraction, McLuhan tries to avoid making use of it, preferring to suggest the kind of configuration implied by the word “galaxy.” Unfortunately, the English language does not lend itself very well to this kind of non-syntactical juxtaposition, so he is forced to fall back on such vague rhetorical flourishes as “That is why . . .” or “In the same way. . . .” His favorite mode of discourse is the enthymeme (or incomplete syllogism) which bookmen of detached private character like myself may be forgiven for thinking a vice rather than a revolutionary method of apprehending the universe. Nevertheless, The Gutenberg Galaxy is a most exciting book, full of brilliant insights (if one may risk a visual metaphor) and valuable information about communication habits past and present. McLuhan is immensely well-read for a man with a grudge against print, and he quotes liberally from some fascinating and out-of-the-way writers and scholars.
If the earlier book concentrated on the past and its consequences for the present, Understanding Media is mainly devoted to the contemporary revolution in communications and its consequences for the future. It ought to be the fulfillment of the author’s career as a cultural prophet. Unfortunately, though there is more than enough to reward persevering readers (one of the publisher’s editors complained to McLuhan that 75 per cent of his material is new), the book lacks the concentration and coherence of its predecessor. Perhaps it was produced in haste: there are certainly a great many misprints and errors of fact.
McLuhan calls the media “extensions of man” because they each increase the range and power of one part of the human body. In so doing, they effect a modification of consciousness by altering the ratio between the various senses and faculties. His definition of a medium is broad: he devotes twenty-six separate chapters not only to such obvious media as paper, print, telegraph, and radio, but also to wheels, weapons, clocks, money, and houses.
The half-truth which he wishes to establish is that “the medium is the message.” He scoffs at old fogies who fuss over the content of books, newspapers, radio and television programs, but ignore the more radical modifications of sensibility effected by the media themselves. So far as he is concerned, “the ‘content’ of a medium is like the juicy bit of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watch-dog of the mind.” So much for COMMENTARY, documentary film, television news, and Walter Lippmann. So much also for Understanding Medial
The message of the mechanical media of the past, he says, has been fragmentation and dissociation. By “extending” only one sense or part of the body, print, wheel, and assembly line have made possible explosive increases in knowledge and production, but they have done so at the cost of human wholeness. What we call civilization is, in the West, largely the history of this progressive disintegration of man and his relation to nature. McLuhan argues, however, that the new electronic media such as television and computers are extensions, not just of one part of the body, but of the central nervous system itself. They extend the whole man. Electronic technology, instead of exploding and fragmenting the human body, tends to be implosive and integrating. It can make all knowledge instantly available, any event anywhere instantly present, and create factories that will mass-produce products individually manufactured to the taste of each consumer. It is making the world one village.
The crisis of our time is that our visual and fragmented culture is inadequate to the electronic technology with which we have to cope. McLuhan reserves his most mordant wit to jeer at literary intellectuals whom he thinks more remote from understanding the world in which they live than the teen-age fans of any disc-jockey. And so long as the educated remain obstinately wedded to the irrelevant values of print-culture, the danger increases that man will slip back into that “Africa of the mind” from which the alphabet liberated our remote ancestors.
McLuhan confuses his thesis by an abortive—and at times even ludicrous—attempt to categorize media as “hot” and “cool.” A hot medium extends one single sense in “high definition” (i.e., well filled with data). Cool media are low in definition and therefore require participation or completion by the audience. Photographs, radio, and print are hot; cartoons, television, and telephones are cool. More exotically, lectures, hardcover books, waltzes, “city slickers,” FDR, the “hot line,” and girls with glasses are hot, while seminars, paperback books, the twist, farmers’ daughters, Calvin Coolidge, and girls with dark glasses are cool. There is the making of a maddening party game here. How would you classify LBJ, nuclear submarines, elephant jokes, or the Wall Street Journal?
Hot media are supposed to be explosive, specialist, and individuating, while cool media are communal, casual, and participant. The coolest of all is television. McLuhan is so anxious to distinguish TV from old-fashioned hot media that he tries to deny that it is visual: because the TV screen shows “light through” rather than “light on,” and the image is a low-definition shifting mosaic mesh, it has a haptic or tactile quality—in contrast to cinema which is highly visual and therefore hot. Eccentric judgments of this kind seem to arise from McLuhan’s apparent compulsion to relate every phenomenon of modern life to his theories. Almost casually he “explains” why Kennedy beat Nixon (what would he have said if a few thousand votes had shifted the election the other way?), why mesh nylons are more sensuous than sheer (are they?), why base-ball is declining (is it?), why the guards let Jack Ruby kill Lee Oswald, and why B.O. is unforgivable in literate societies. His critics understandably make fun of this intellectual megalomania.
But no review of Understanding Media should close on such a note. In this apocalyptic age, a pusillanimous correctness may be far more foolish than the wildest of insufficiently supported generalizations. While most scholars bury their heads in the private little sand plots they have marked out as their “field,” McLuhan obstinately takes all knowledge for his province. Like the great writers that he admires—Rabelais, Cervantes, Pope, Joyce—he strives to be a man of “integral awareness.” I expect to be equally inspired and infuriated by his next book.