McLuhan for Edupunks

[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 …

B. Envi­ron­ments

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.

C. Bod­ies

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?

F. Infor­ma­tion

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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *