McLuhan’s approach to media studies is almost always characterized as deterministic. The entry for McLuhan in the Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory states in part: “McLuhan’s version of technological determinism is extreme […] the most striking feature of his studies of the media is their total failure to discuss the ownership and control of means of communication.” McLuhan addresses the issue of determinism early on in The Gutenberg Galaxy, writing: “Far from being deterministic, however, the present study will, it is hoped, elucidate a principal factor in social change which may lead to a genuine increase of human autonomy.” Rather than tackle the issue of whether McLuhan “really was” a technological determinist, I will take McLuhan at his word regarding the stated goal of his media studies: “Study the modes of the media, in order to hoick all assumptions out of the subliminal, non-verbal realm for scrutiny and for prediction and control of human purposes.” So if McLuhan’s goal in The Gutenberg Galaxy is to increase human autonomy in the electronic age, what does that look like in practice and how would it be accomplished?
As noted in one of the introductions to The Gutenberg Galaxy, literature is major touchstone for McLuhan’s work. His frequent use of literary allusions and the stylistic decisions employed in his works have caused some critics to consider his books more literary exercises than scholarship or theory. One such literary reference in Gutenberg Galaxy is the short story “A Descent into the Maelstrom” by Edgar Allan Poe. In Poe’s story, three brothers on a fishing trip are drawn into a whirlpool. As their ship is pulled into the vortex, two of the brothers drown. The fate of the third brother is described in this excerpt from the Wikipedia summary of the story: “At first [he] only saw hideous terror in the spectacle. In a moment of revelation, he saw that the Maelstrom is a beautiful and awesome creation. Observing how objects around him were pulled into it, he deduced that “the larger the bodies, the more rapid their descent” and that spherical-shaped objects were pulled in the fastest. Unlike his brother, he abandoned ship and held on to a cylindrical barrel until he was saved several hours later.”
McLuhan alludes to the vortex in Poe’s story to describe the plight of individuals making sense of a world caught between literary culture and post-literate technology. He writes: “May not it be our job in the new electronic age to study the action of the new vortex on the body of other cultures?” (p. 88). Extending this metaphor, McLuhan is ostensibly equating his approach to media studies with the sailor’s study of the actions of the objects in the vortex. This suggests that by understanding the effects brought on by the interaction of various media in the electronic era we can consciously act and thereby not be drawn under the water, as the sailor in the story survived by acting deliberately and not succumbing to panic and terror as his brothers did.
The notion of conscious acts seems key to McLuhan’s project of increasing human autonomy in the face of wide-sweeping technological determinism. The Gutenberg Galaxy is peppered with references to Finnegan’s Wake, often accompanied by allusions to waking up and regaining consciousness. McLuhan writes about “hypnotic” and “entrancing” effects of media, of the “involuntary and subliminal character” of perspective engendered by print. He says that “the influence of unexamined assumptions derived from technology leads quite unnecessarily to maximal determinism in human life” (p. 280). This returns us to McLuhan’s stated goal in his media studies, of unearthing subliminal assumptions for scrutiny and the basis of conscious decision-making. In essence, the aim of McLuhan’s probes, puns, and provocations could be summed up in a single sentiment: “Wake up!” Returning now to my initial question: how does McLuhan propose that we “wake up” and become more conscious of media effects? The Gutenberg Galaxy ends on a cliffhanger, and with a promise that McLuhan will return in the sequel, but the concluding chapter makes the case that it is the function of art to rouse the sleeping to consciousness, and draw attention from a focus on content to an awareness of form.