Home Culture Marshall Mcluhan: The Prophet, The Ghost and The Machine

Marshall Mcluhan: The Prophet, The Ghost and The Machine

by Cypress Butane
Marshall Mcluhan

Marshall Mcluhan Breaking Down the Affects of Media Long Before the Internet and Social Meda

The date is March 4th, 1954.

If you know any kids who like jokes, you know this is the army’s favorite day. On this day, the New York Times happens to be running a small story in their paper, about a group of scientists who conducted a research experiment, with click-bait-title-worthy lead line: “Television is a First Class Teacher, easily surpassing Elder Cousin Radio”.

Roughly a hundred students were used to conduct the tests, which conveyed the same material over four different media transmission types. A group watched a lecture on television, another in a television studio, a third heard it over radio broadcast and a fourth read the lecture in print. They were then given an exam to test their comprehension, and the students who had received the transmission through television did best on the exam.

The group of scientists experimenting was under the supervision of one Marshall McLuhan, the infamous, pithy nineteen-sixties era counter-cultural media guru figure. He was the one who would make all sorts of pronouncements about new technologies in his career as prototype theorist of what is today an entire discipline of ‘media studies’. As Philip Marchand notes in his compelling biography of McLuhan, the headline the Times chose regarding McLuhan’s study already had the media confusing the point. From the beginning, McLuhan and his rotating gang of hangers-on were perceived as acolytes of television and new technologies on the horizon, reveling in their powered-up buzzing glow, to the point of misrepresenting mixed results of intricate but underpowered studies like the aforementioned as skewed in favor of new media. In fact, McLuhan was a very conservative man in many ways. He converted to Catholicism and mostly abhorred the changes new technology like television was having on the world at large. Beneath the word-playing trickster-intellectual, the prober of sockets with many-pronged-forks and electric tongue was a man who studied these new technologies, he claimed, in self-defense. 

I am resolutely opposed to all innovation, all change, but I am determined to understand what’s happening. Because I don’t choose just to sit and let the juggernaut roll over me. Many people seem to think that if you talk about something recent, you’re in favor of it. The exact opposite is true in my case. Anything I talk about is almost certainly something I’m resolutely against. And it seems to me the best way to oppose it is to understand it. And then you know where to turn off the buttons.

Marshall Mcluhan

Philosopher and Media Theorist Marshall Mcluhan
Philosopher and Media Theorist Marshall Mcluhan

Marshall Mcluhan: Prophet or Charlatan?

But before you take this as a very serious thing to say from someone who spoke of future technologies so presciently, consider also that the man once said, ‘I don’t necessarily agree with everything I say.’ Such was his operational mode.

Why the blind spot? Why is this theorist and prophet of the near future, now our present, from the beginning misrepresented and still under-represented in the discussion today?

As I hope to show in this article, he had plenty to say about growing assaults by technology and their relationships with our minds, spirits, and for lack of a stronger word, attention. You see, I want to examine Mcluhan as the prophet he is often said to be. The prophet who foresaw the internet, the global village and its tribal nature. So, rather than attention, let’s say McLuhan was interested in our devotions related to technologies, and through them to each other and our differentiated human cultures. “The Medium is the Message” is Marshall McLuhan’s most famous saying. Which means more than that we each share individual fears and beliefs and jokes across the internet, it matters that we all do so from separate chambers in contact only with blank glowing screens. Alone. That we face a corner computer desk, he would have plenty to say, as he already had plenty to say on how television was changing conversations and what personalities had appeal through that medium. 

But while many hailed him as a prophet, others dismissed him as a charlatan. Why this derangement of his signal, which though diffuse, runs deep and strong? Was it because, as McLuhan once declared about reactions to his pioneering studies of sensory perception personalities, people have resentment to such questions about how their minds behave simply because they view it as an invasion of their privacy. An affront to personal autonomy. Is there a psychological resistance to any theorist who may tell us truths about how we engage with media and the world in our everyday lives? Do we get spooked when the sensitive scientists’ instruments graze our naked skin?

Do we shy from McLuhan because he is a ghost? 

The Medium is the Message
The Medium is the Message

The Medium is the Message 

Much of the appeal of McLuhan in his time was his slick, hip and entertaining style. He was a major media figure in the sixties until his spotlight dimmed in the early seventies. His interviews and speeches are usually a good listen. He covers a wide range of subjects, somewhat irreverently in tone for a purported academic, and could wax poetic about art and culture thanks to his literary criticism background.

He was a kind of sarcastic nerd-type before the actual invention of the canvas of nerd culture, doing a lot of the leg work of bridging science and academia with the “feelings” afloat in the counterculture drug scene of the sixties at large. 

If you look up a quick summary of his ideas nowadays, you’ll undoubtedly hear he came up with “the media is the message” and coined the term “the global village”, not to mention “sensory impact”. 

‘The Medium Is the Message’ a deceptively simplistic saying fitting McLuhan’s style of using analogical, cliche-destroying pithy one-liners, opens up vast realms of normally covered mental territory. The main purpose of this saying, I believe, is to re-sound the environment of where meaning takes place when we hear a song or watch a story unfold. If the song is performed live in a concert, the media is live instrumentation; sound bouncing off of walls. Likely, we are engaged in a very lively way, standing in front of a stage, dancing or at a small table with drinks having a rowdy time. Thus, the medium this entails makes the message the song, bubble and brew with all sorts of meanings that would be so very different if we heard the same song on a recording in our home. And if you can discern the differences in these two scenes (a very sixties sense I’d want to imply here) then you can understand the types of energies and meanings McLuhan hopes to awaken and tune us into regarding media theory and cultural critiques.

McCluhan didn’t make statements of scientific fact very often. Instead, he liked to play with ideas, and probe thoughts. His style was to keep things open-ended, to make things bounce and rebound with new insights rather than try to make anything settled. “Is the light bulb a medium like television or print?” He would ask. After all, it allows us to experience new realms of perceptive material. It extends the human apparatus through a technology. Or how about clothing? And if these mediums have any content, if your t-shirt has a picture of Bart Simpson or real vintage threads like something from fuckyeah1990s Tumblr, is the fact that you put a cloth over your body somehow pre-categorical of anything that may inhabit the ‘content’ of the threads, and be a level-above message, prior to what the medium communicates?

McLuhan’s speculations about moveable typeface and the invention of the printing press, delivered in his book The Gutenberg Galaxy, argue along the lines (pun intended?) that this technology made human thought conform to linear modes and a kind of rigid, step-by-step, spatial oriented pattern of motion. It sounds true because undoubtedly it is. The analog of running our minds through the maze of lines of text, millions of lab animals put through the same mazes over and over, (I.e. books), has us conforming in such ways. But with McLuhan, he makes this into a mystical truth and again churns up these magical muddy waters into a fervor of intellectual insight. What was clear and invisible, he makes particular-filled and opaque.

McLuhan argues before print and standardization of type, humanity lived in an “acoustic space” where the world was open and endless. After print, we were corralled into the measured, linear cultural strain that would both give us more of a sense of a personal inner world but also the assembly line and mass-produced everything. McLuhan always paid attention to what changed when old technologies gave way to ‘improvements’. In the case of the printing press, manuscript culture with monks laboring at reproducing select and rare texts by hand became obsolete. What was once an entire world and way of living became unnecessary because new conveniences could ease the hardships of hand-cramping work. 

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Marshall Mcluhan Theory about Hot and Cold Mediums

In McLuhan’s theories, mediums are either “Hot” or “Cool” according to the level of engagement they require of the audience. ‘Hot’ media has a lot of sensory engagement and so is ‘Hot’, needing little attention to complete the picture of a satisfactory media experience. This might be radio, television, movies, anything that keeps one’s attention in a continuous dream with not a lot of extra thinking on the part of the consumer. :Cool” media, on the contrary, might be things like a lecture, a photograph exhibit or a book. These being some of the examples from McLuhan’s time, it is curious to me to wonder whether McLuhan would view things like the internet or scrolling through a social media feed on a phone “Hot or ‘Cold”.

Mcluhan Believed All Media was could be categorized as either "Hot" or "Cold"
Mcluhan Believed All Media was could be categorized as either "Hot" or "Cold"

I almost believe these things, as both interactive and acts of chasing a kind of contented-saturation state are both. Perhaps more cold than we are aware of, even. As we direct most of the action on these mediums but psychologically induce states where we are looking for meaning and resonance with something besides our directed conscious approach, in my experience. As if we seek to find a story by looking at enough random elements that might make up a coherent narrative.

Certain personalities are a better fit for television as a “Hot”, interactive medium. McLuhan believes radio was great for Hitler, but television would have ruined his chances. Overbearing personalities with controversial signals aren’t as easy to digest through TV as crisp and highly characteristic. At least, such was the case when television was fairly low definition. In the age of HD, pundits can get by with being slobby pasty blobs with untucked shirts, as the theory stipulates these would have been hard to pinpoint in the sixties era of TV. But nowadays in 4k and beyond, give ample ground for the wandering mind to cover.

The Cover of Marshall Mcluhan- The Medium and the Messenger by Phillip Marchand
The Cover of Marshall Mcluhan- The Medium and the Messenger by Phillip Marchand

Acoustic VS Visual Sensory

Speaking of politics, in reading Philip Marchand’s biography of Marshall McLuhan, it became apparent that McLuhan had a strong conservative bent, at least in certain respects. He shied away from a relationship with women in college, even wishing he could turn off his sexual appetite due to perceptions of it getting in the way of things that he was interested in more. And when he first fell in love, he wrote a long letter explaining that she was both a beautiful woman, which he was sensitive to, but also had a stainless character sufficient to arouse his chivalrous nature. If McLuhan spent his adult life criticizing society’s Frankenstein complex, it appears he was no stranger to a complimentary Jekyll and Hyde dichotomy of the intellectual soul.

But he was highly literate as well. As a budding theorist, he wrote his college thesis on George Meredith, a novelist and poet in the Victorian age who held bold views about psychology and scientific systems’ potential to improve mankind. The impression one gets in examining McLuhan’s interests is someone who understands human nature and the struggles to contain the natural liberalities of potential unreason therein. 

One may attribute his popularity to the appeal of a voice who advises avoiding sickness, death and sin from one who at the very least understands the appeal of their illicit flavors.

Following his theories about the printing press and the loss of the open ‘acoustic’ culture, McLuhan proposed a competing ‘visual’ style of sensory dominance. Whereas the acoustic culture of open-ended thought resonated with tactile sensoriums, the visual resulted from a culture wrung out through level lines of text imposing rational uniformity. The ear can sense what is coming around the corner because the sound does not drop out through the edge of line-of-sight, and in that way is more flexible, and more to McLuhan’s taste.

There were more studies done under McLuhan than the one I first mentioned at the beginning of this article, including a specially designed test of what type of sensory-landscape individual personalities tended towards. McLuhan theorized, in a way that was a precursor to entire disciplines of learning-style type testing and applications today. If we could understand how these energies appeared in the education system, we could also train these energies to grow stronger.

Marshall Mcluhan and The Knife that Unsheathes the Rubber from the Wire

Marhsall McLuhan is admirable and worth studying for the depth and breadth of his work, and also because he embodies so much of what today has become washed out, beyond the pale.

McLuhan was a Catholic who took communion daily and wrote articles about how men were being emasculated by the comic strip Dagwood. His wife nagging him and his job dead-end, Dagwood laying on the couch irked McLuhan who was obviously both sensitive to media and its representations, but also vigorous enough in his critical probing and resistance to target a popular image as a fulcrum of resistance. He hated advertising, and was frightened by new technologies and their power and reach. So he was looking for ways to fight back. Making serious academic salvos over ad-copy and comic strips was an innovative and ultimately winning track. 

As a devout Catholic, a convert to a faith he saw as cosmically significant and theologically granting to universal meaning, he saw in technology elements that threatened the hold of sense. The world being born of more aggressive communication technologies and their foreseeable growth to attention control creep up against common sense reality and 1:1 perception to actuality as a weedlike intrusion into his rational garden. He already possessed the religious technologies he needed to achieve salvation. He saw such developments and progress as a stumbling intoxicated trespass where humans could only break away from their spiritual needs being met into new appetites or distractions. If they could but come to the realizations of truth that he had already made, they might be spared a dark path that opened onto dangerous vistas of sin and death. 

His scrambling solution was to bring recognition that the advertisement business masters were artists. In today’s conservativist terms, he wanted to make people realize we were engaged in spiritual warfare. He wanted to ascribe to advertisers the qualities historically granted to artists; the wielding of power and weight of truth, the potential for genius, and yes, spiritual discipline. This was all in order to make apparent in contrast the new realms splitting opening beneath the spiritually foolish consumer’s feet. If they are artists, who employ techniques of symbol and strive to create discernable techniques in the audiences’ mind, this surely makes them craftsmen employing the same material; truth. He would declare that advertisement was no different from other forms now discerned to be high culture. In so doing he hoped to bring the culturally savvy, the critics, the bystanders who consumed without being affected into the fray.

But somewhere along the way, he must have realized that what he had done in his declaration of war on his own idiosyncratically feared sins of the culture to come, was open a new front for himself. The technologies he declared himself against, in terms of slicing the dialectical knife of critique so heartily into their workings, were not so easily slain. These dragons sat upon treasure mankind would not so easily steal back; an ideal of progress, futurist dreams, the visions of science and technology as a savior. Though McLuhan may have knicked his initials on the tender belly on the dragon’s more pure scientific intentions and left maps there that kept the dragon awake and restless, he did not penetrate deep enough to come close to slaying it.

McLuhan had his communion each day to reset himself with the world, his material existence within such, but he could not grant the peace of communion upon mankind. Could he grant it even to himself when, as his fame as a media figure grew, his speaking out against that which he saw as a threat to mankind’s salvation became his holy calling?

In Philip Marchand’s biography, we are told McLuhan used to wonder why priests so seldom gave homilies on hellfire. I do not know if McLuhan became so confused with what he was trying to chase away in his studies, becoming a media star critiquing the media, but I have to wonder the same about McLuhan himself. Why did the man hide his true belief? 

In 1963, Charles Silberman of Fortune Magazine was tasked with doing a planning study for the long-term future of the magazine, which was one of those put out by Luce Publications. He ended up contacting Marshall McLuhan who was gaining fame in the states just then and had made some comments on the magazines. Silberman asked McLuhan’s help on the study, and also did a profile piece on him. One has to wonder if they discussed openly McLuhan’s earlier academic article in Nuerotica in the late forties titled “The Psychopathology of Time, Life, and Fortune”. McLuhan was being absorbed into the workings of the machine, moving right along with the appropriating attitude he held toward new ideas.

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Marshall Mcluhan: Media Legend Criticizing the Media

The appeal of McLuhan is to call attention to the effects of media, which can often act as camouflage to what is communicated between individuals. If ongoing events like social media discussions are the message, do they have an implicit meaning or does it evolve on the level of millions of individuals and their attitudes toward the collective conversation? It’s possible to argue that by McLuhan’s terminology, television changed from a hot medium to a more cool medium over the years as it became more high definition and more complex in its understanding of itself, getting better at facilitating a passive audience (thus making it ‘cool’). Like a shaman who calls the tribe to a ritual dance and leads the pattern of non-inertia, McLuhan awakens dormant energies of a quest for awareness of our media platforms and facilitating active participation in their use. Thus, McLuhan no doubt comes to terms with not being able to “turn off” television. By being a force for combating its colonization on the individual mind-level.

More compelling answers shake loose as we find the effervescence to bubble up, above the mindless consumption we sink into as a matter of gravity and conformity. McLuhan prods us to look at things differently, shift perspectives, and reapproach every day with a necessarily radical view. 

In his day, McLuhan called attention to things like the layout of a newspaper spread, with its juxtaposition of the word of geographically dispersed areas of the globe smattered across a gridded layout, bringing together time and space, annihilating distance. He claimed prehistoric man, the preliterate man, was a denizen of a “timeless world of seasonal recurrence”. By extrapolating the patterns of the destruction of distance and time horizons into the communication of information on a simple news spread while the television clicked into first life in just the next room, McLuhan made the bold or perhaps prophesied forecast in fear of some nightmare vision “may not post-historic man find himself in a similar situation?” That is a realm where history, space and time collide and collapse into a blur of here and now, “the awakening from the historically conditioned nightmare of the past into a timeless present”.

The audience is hard-pressed to tell if he is warning of some danger coming or heralding a wondrous golden age around the bend. McLuhan mixes these presages with studies of T.S. Eliot’s poetry and corresponding passages from James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, discussing media from the perspective of an art appreciator tuning their various bodily senses as receivers. There is less fear and anxiety in McLuhan than wonder and commotion.

The audio-tactile sense hears something coming around the corner. The future is on the way and is making a lot of noise as it rumbles, still out of clear view and the skin gets goosebumps. The tactile sensing has a kind of being-extended nebulous capacity to make itself into shape impressions. It’s sympathetic, because its imagination tells it what might be before it ever arrives. This feeling may resemble bracing for a crash, or it might be the anticipation of a kiss. It is McLuhan’s style, this hope, and energetic rushing to meet the unknown halfway.

The Lasting Legacy of Marshall Mcluhan

McLuhan was hailed as a genius by some, a charlatan by others. Perhaps, he was both. I’ll finish this piece with an offering of a picture of McLuhan’s style, set against an age today where when people want to fake it, they are far too sincere. When the ubiquitous scientist personality likewise perhaps has lost the taste for the flaky in a bit too harsh of terms. 

McLuhan, so vulnerable to the charge of being unscientific, exercised a kind of spell over these men of applied science. Of course, such scientists are not always as rigorous in their thinking as popular mythology insists; and McLuhan’s highly metaphoric flights of perception sometimes appealed to scientists in a particular mood — a what-the-hell-let’s-speculate mood.

McLuhan’s appeal to these professors, though, was more complex. Porter recalls:

Initially, I thought the man was crackers. But he aroused my curiosity. When he made certain assertions, for example, I thought, That’s queer. He understands information theory. How can a professor of English understand information theory — which is a highly mathematical, technical theory?

Of course, none of these scientists ever claimed that McLuhan’s grasp of their fields was incontestably firm. McLuhan’s grasp of any given scientific theory, like his grasp of empirical fact in general, was always a bit shaky, and sometimes he committed howlers. Once he used the phrase “exponential increase” in a conversation with his colleague Ernest Sirluck when then context called for “arithmetical progression.” When Sirluck pointed this out, McLuhan asked, “What’s the difference?

From Marshall Mcluhan: The Medium and the Messenger by Phillip Marchand

He used to mark his students’ papers in such fashion of judgment, scribbling his summation of their worth in the heading before returning them to his class, “contains two new ideas”, “contains three new ideas” or “contains NO new Ideas!”

A mind always searching, recombining information into fresh insights, questioning and fiending for new ideas and thought perspectives coming over his horizon of vision. One can only see in this a mind that is either desperately searching for something or which genuinely revels in the play of thoughts.

Hey, chum. These posts don't write themselves. If you wanna stay in the know, it's gotta be a two way street.*

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