[NOTE: This text has been reformatted to fit your screen … which is to say, I’ve made some changes to make it less an essay and more a blog entry. I’m still getting a feel for the genre.]
Quick note on what I’m trying to do by “reading McLuhan”
For me, a close reading is an excavation of a text, the retrieval of embedded symbols and meanings indicated by the circuitry of tropes and figures chosen and adapted by the author, provided by tradition, and selected for by reception. I try to discover the recurring images, the symbolic structures, deployed in a text that structure and ground its argument.
Symbolic structures are important, in my view, because they are generative forms that produce the complex discursive forms that we call texts, just as genes generate proteins. “The symbol gives rise to thought,” says Ricoeur—a close reading attempts to reverse engineer this process.
A close reading of McLuhan’s Massage is interesting because the book is a kind of post-text, a self-consciously post-literate construct that adopts what were then the new media forms of advertising (although even these date back to the propaganda forms of the earlier 20th century). A distinctive feature of this kind of text is the use of real images (particularly Life magazine style photos), which makes the task of excavating imagery interesting—how is this excavation, when the artifacts are just lying on the ground? But the task is the same—literal images in the text are not used to represent so much as to provide second-order significations—it is not the referent of the photo that matters, but the grainy, black-and-white form of the signifier that counts, the intimation of hard, photo-journalistic realism. The medium is the message in this sense too.
What is interesting about texts that deploy both prose and imagery is how rarely the two channels merely parallel each other. The images in Medieval illuminated manuscripts will often tell a different, complementary tale than that contained in the writing. This is not the cognitive style of PowerPoint, where the on-screen image is often a redundant representation of the speaker’s words (or, all too often, vice versa). Similarly, McLuhan’s images do not represent the embedded imagery in the written channel.
McLuhan’s deep images are actually quite simple, stable, and powerfully generative. But they are not necessarily the ones we associate with his strongest memes — such as “media are extensions of man,” and, of course, “the medium is the message.” A close reading shows a relatively simple cluster of images of which McLuhan’s memetic one-liners are indices. Their role is to entice you, by hyperbole and paradox, into grasping his symbolically structured conceptual frame, his ontology. Here, then, is a small inventory of these images.
A. Electric (not electronic)
New media for McLuhan are primarily electric. His prose is littered with the term. He writes of “an electric information environment,” “an environment of instant electric speeds.” Examples of electric media are film. telephones, television, and the assemblage of media associated with the music industry — records, “hi-fi” and stereo music systems, radio, electric guitars, rock concert sound and light equipment, etc.
Significantly, McLuhan does not often use the word “electronic,” and when he does, his intent changes, as we shall see below. He was criticized for confusing the two terms, but I think his usage is accurate. For better or for worse, McLuhan does not theorize the digital qua digital very well. He does not theorize the effects of discrete representation—if he did he would find Gutenberg lurking beneath the surface of the effects he describes in the form of the command line (another rich image (not his) to be explored at another time). He is much better at describing the social effects of the pervasive, pulsing, and fast electric world of in-your-face media that characterizes advertising and rock-and-roll (which becomes another of advertising’s many vehicles):
The world pool of information fathered by electric media—movies, Telstar, flight—far surpasses any possible influence mom and dad can now bring to bear.
Electric circuitry has overthrown the regime of “time” and “space” and pours upon us instantly and continuously the concerns of all other men …
Electric media are so powerful for McLuhan that they form an environment—a constructed, material space in which human action is situated and bound. McLuhan links new media so closely to environment that it seems clear that he is more interested in media as art and architecture than as means of information delivery. As art and architecture, new media comprise the aesthetic environment of the mass age, the human made forests of symbols that we call cities. (And this is consistent with the relative absence of the words electronic and digital in his prose. The electric is an interface as well as a visible motor; whereas the digital (at the time of his writing) is the hidden preserve of the numerati.)
It is easy to read in McLuhan a general theory of media that would associate all media with environments. But print media do not form an environment in the sense that electric media do, except for “book worms” — a telling image that reserves environmental immersion for the marginal, extreme case. Print media enforce a detachment from the bazaar into the cathedral. But electric media is a cheese that makes us all worms.
Complementing McLuhan’s constant explicit references to environments are his implicit references to bodies, and media as “extensions of ourselves.” If media form an environment, that environment is largely comprised of the extended selves of others–in a literal sense, the bodies of others. With electric media, we are like giants on the world stage, bumping into each other, “working over” each other, massaging and seducing each other under the guise of communication and travel.
Two images in Massage illustrate this point, though implicitly. The first is the image of the large woman that you can walk inside of. Depicted to make a point about the role of art, the literal image illustrates the implicit image in the text quite well. With the new media, we (or at least some of us) have the power to become big bodies that others can inhabit.
The second is the image of the concert. Again, it is not explicit, but evoked. Reference to rock and roll conjures up the Oz-like image of a band on a stage—the Beatles at Shea stadium—larger than life, plugged into a sound apparatus that projects the guitar (itself an extension). Think of Jagger in his Jumpin’ Jack Flash phase, and the huge inflatable penis on stage.
D. Ritual and myth
The image of the concert connects to another of McLuhan’s deep image—ritual. The electric environment of new media creates forms of social participation that are constantly described in terms of ritual, drama, and mystic participation. McLuhan describes new media as “the total electric drama” and frequently refers to images of tribal interaction and myth: “Electric circuitry confers a mythic dimension” he tells us, and “the Finn cycle of tribal institutions can return in the electric age.”
Perhaps the single most important assertion in McLuhan’s symbolic armature is his depiction of the ritual quality of the electric environment as a liminal space, a place where boundaries of space, time, and social class are obviated and transcended. To draw out the symbolism a bit, as virtual, electric bodies, we constantly run into each other, intersect and interpenetrate, not necessarily in any sensual way (although it is hard to avoid that image), but as immaterial holographic projections who have not yet learned how to behave on this virtual stage. For now, it is a free-for-all of electric interaction, like the streets of Chiba City in Gibson’s Neuromancer.
According to the anthropologist Victor Turner, liminality is characterized by communitas—a short-lived state of fellow-feeling that many societies intentionally create from time to time in order to regenerate the social order (such Christmas or the Swazi rite of ncwala). McLuhan’s words are textbook descriptions of the limnal state (emphases mine):
Electric technology fosters and encourages unification and involvement …
Electric circuitry profoundly involves men with one another …
In McLuhan’s time, communitas was really achieved by events such as Woodstock, and it seems clear that the actual ritual form that McLuhan is referring to is the rock concert—a relatively new cultural form at the time—especially given his (surprisingly understated) references to Warhol, Dylan, and the Beatles.
E. Tribe, community, village
Constant reference to images of tribal ritual indicates McLuhan’s endgame—that electric media, in what must count as one of the most counter-intuitive unintended consequences of the century, are not alienating and disempowering, as Orwell depicted in novels such as 1984 and Keep the Aspidistra Flying, but generative of authentic community in opposition to alienating mass society. By making us giants on the world stage, the new media have created a global village, our best hope to achieve Tonnie’s gemeinschaft. The old culture, associated with print and bureaucracy, can only reproduce gesellschaft, the oppressive square world of establishment society.
So new media create a ritualistic electric environment capable of engendering a return to human community; it can be a cure to the problem of “man against mass society.” So why does society continue to be oppressive?
The global village is an ideal for McLuhan, not a realized situation. Tyranny remains in the form of information devices, or computers (emphases mine again):
Electrical information devices for universal, tyrannical womb-to-tomb surveillance are causing a very serious dilemma between our claim to privacy and the community’s need to know.
The older, traditional ideas of private, isolated thoughts and actions— the patterns of mechanistic technologies—are very seriously threatened by new methods of instantaneous electric information retrieval, by the electrically computerized dossier bank—that one big gossip column that is unforgiving, unforgetful and from which there is no redemption, no erasure of early “mistakes.”
Here we see why McLuhan implicitly separates the electric from the electronic: the latter is associated with what can only be called a dark side of new media for McLuhan, the persistence of hierarchical, class-ridden societas in the forms of databases and surveillance. And this is consistent with his characterization of print culture–information technologies are the inheritors of print literacy, maximizing the effects of the ditto device to unprecedented degrees. I am not sure if McLuhan ever comes out an makes this opposition clear (between electric media and electronic information), but it seems clear enough from his ontology.
The implication of this opposition is, I think, profound: it means that McLuhan is not opposed to the loss of privacy. Note that it is not Big Brother who wants to know, it is “the community.” And his reference to gossip–the quintessential mechanism of social control in villages and small towns–must be viewed in light of his commitments to a tribal, ritualized sociality. As any anthropologist who has done fieldwork in a small, remote, non-literate setting will tell you, privacy does not exist in those worlds. McLuhan knows this, and he implies strongly that for our global village to emerge, we need to lose our old notions of privacy, and become devoted to service and collaboration:
Under conditions of electric circuitry, all the fragmented job patterns tend to blend once more into involving and demanding roles or forms of work that more and more resemble teaching, learning, and “human” service, in the older sense of dedicated loyalty.
G. Old and New
So, the media transgress social boundaries of nation and property, threatening privacy, sovereignty, and class. This is the most profound message McLuhan has to offer — new media have returned us to a mythic, ritual consciousness, or at least they have the power to do so. But accepting this means getting over privacy concerns and other “hang-ups.”
Now, this is (finally) where McLuhan’s media determinism comes into play. The problem that we should concern ourselves with is not our loss of privacy, but our being caught between two worlds, two regimes of media. Our value of privacy is just a carry over from the print world of class separations and hierarchical organizations. Our problem is that print culture persists and continues to hold back the emergence of community:
The interplay between the old and the new environments creates many problems and confusions.
We impose the form of the old on the content of the new. The malady lingers on.
Some conclusions and questions
OK, then, these are some of the images that can be retrieved from McLuhan’s text, and I’ve tried to set them out in a kind of logical progression. Electric media have created a world of extended bodies and transgressive environments that have the capacity to destroy social boundaries and create a global village of ritual communitas. However, print culture persists in the form of information technology (e.g. databases) as well as the inertia of old forms trying to contain new content. If we want to realize the vision of a global village, we need to embrace the collaborative and ritualistic affordances of the new media, and oppose the centralizing, classifying, and hierarchical influence of the electronic.
Having written this, it strikes me as incomplete (of course it should be!), but I think it works as an ontology, or world picture, that persists to this day in, say, Michael Wesch, whose Spaceship Earth narrative (from Buckminster Fuller) is very close to McLuhan’s global vilage. For him the classroom is the agent of persistent print culture, and new media provide a means of engaging students in participatory culture. And I can even see viewing Lyotard in this framework, his agonistic language games being one of the devices of playing with new media to oppose the effects of computerization on knowledge and society.
If I were to summarize the view, I’d call it the Truman Show model of social life. For it is hard to escape the importance of literacy in the model, and the futility of countering it with ritual and play. Literacy (in the form of code and the command line, in addition to books and ledgers) remains the dominant media form of the world’s elite strata, whereas new media continues to play the role propaganda tool. Behind the Sex Pistols is EMI. It’s for another post, but I think we should be concerned with appropriating the informational (in this ontology).
But what about YouTube and the balancing of influence between media elites and commoners afforded by Web 2.0 and prosumption? Aren’t the mainstream media declining as more egalitarian social networks are emerging? Didn’t blogs kill Dan Rather? I think this is the exception that proves my reading: McLuhan does not provide us with the tools to theorize the effects of the new social media, since he separates the electric from the electronic, media from information. The cool thing about the new new media is the convergence of these. But I would suggest we start paying attention to the algorthms behind the services, to what I call the datasphere, and not take the outward purposes of Google and Facebook for granted. Facebook is primarily an engine of capital and a consumer research tool, not a community building tool. It’s hard to image a global coomunity in McLuhan’s sense ever emerging from it.
OK, nuff said for now.