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.
- In an article for Haaretz reflecting on last week’s terror attacks in Paris, Michael Handelzalts invokes McLuhan’s infamous aphorism in relation to the emergence of print culture in the Islamic world:
So, in the Muslim world, books and literacy became generally accessible (instead of being accessible only to the educated male and the wealthy) about a quarter of a millennium later than in European-Western culture. I found this information, together with an assessment of the damage this 250-year lag caused to Muslim society and culture, in the works of Muslim scholars.
This lag could be made up in the blink of an eye as the cultural world moved from Johannes Gutenberg’s galaxy into the era when “The medium is the message,” and with the development of the virtual and digital world (at the expense of the printed one, of course).
- Today the Santa Barbara Independent published an article by Dean Stewart looking at McLuhan’s message 50 years after the publication of Understanding Media:
McLuhan had a lot of ideas and subsets of ideas. But he had one very big idea: that human civilization had passed through two stages of communication history, oral and print, and was embarking on another: electronic media. He believed the new media would change the way people relate to themselves and others and would change societies dramatically. Is the computer, then, the ubiquitous laptop and other devices, the McLuhan “audile-tactile” dream come true? There is no way to know. And it will take at least another 50 years to make a full evaluation of the work of Marshall McLuhan.
- At TechCrunch, Tadhg Kelly uses McLuhan’s famous formula to consider how mobile games are marketed:
Taking a leaf from McLuhan then, I submit that the message is the product. The tone, approach and strategy of how marketing is conducted shapes what kinds of product can be allowed by a product’s developer. What kind of ad you’ll run determines what kind of game you’ll believe can work, and therefore what kind of game you’ll fund and make.
The medium is the message and the message is the product, remember. In Marvel’s case the medium of cinema sends the message of the big experience, and the message disseminated through a high value trailer leads to the will to make a high value product: a big splashy movie. That’s how it earned the right to be thought of as premium. That’s how games do that too.
- At Newsday, Clarence Page uses McLuhan’s media theory to argue that the Internet can be used to undermine freedom:
When media guru Marshall McLuhan declared back in the 1960s that “Every innovation has within itself the seeds of its reversal,” I had no idea what he meant. But, like his other catchy quotables — “global village,” “cool media,” “the medium is the message” — it stayed with me. Now, in the Internet age, I am seeing proof of his prophecy every day.
For example, McLuhan predicted that a rapidly expanding automobile culture would lead to more traffic jams, air pollution and longing for space to take long walks or ride bicycles. I’m sure he’d give a knowing I-told-you-so nod to today’s battles between car people and bike people for asphalt space.
But more recently and less happily, I see far more sinister seeds of reversal in this era’s greatest innovation, the Internet. We greeted the Web as a liberator, but in today’s age of terrorism and post-Cold War autocrats it also poses a growing menace to the press freedoms it otherwise has invigorated.
- Lastly, Hervé St-Louis at ComicBookBin considers whether McLuhan is still relevant:
Two common critiques of McLuhan’s are his obliviousness to political economy and his technological determinism. McLuhan’s prognosis on media appears to celebrate a burgeoning world order and global capitalism. The way he foreshadows cognitive capitalism appears deterministic. Critics attack McLuhan for being silent on the transformation of global capitalism. This criticism focuses on what McLuhan did not write inUnderstanding Media as opposed to what he did. It is interesting to note that European scholars, even those who with political economic inclinations do not scorn McLuhan the way North Americans do. They do not blame him for being the messenger of a cognitive capitalist message.
McLuhan rightly described and to some extent predicted how messages need not be unidirectional. When he argued that technology is an extension of the senses, he did not argue that a select few had agency over the shaping of the message. He argued that any person had that potential. Specifically, he described how alternates modes of literacy allowed non literary people to participate in a global discourse. This is McLuhan’s legacy and part of why his work should be celebrated today.