First appeared in The Guardian
One can find fault with his showy, wilfully obscure style, but the world he predicted 50 years ago is the one we live in
Fifty years ago, Marshall McLuhan was musing about how media served to extend the human brain. At the time, though some had an inkling of his genius, few understood what he was talking about. The internet makes clear what McLuhan was saying.
Every supper table remark that’s made can now be proven or disproven in minutes. No more Uncle Vernon bullshitting about cricket scores, or aunt Petunia refusing to believe Cary Grant was the lead in His Girl Friday. Think of anything and you can now get your fill of multimedia feedback and facts at the press of a button.
McLuhan saw this coming, and wrote about its impact on us as individuals and members of the “global village” in The Gutenberg Galaxy. Revisiting it, as I did recently, is a revelation.
True, you have to get past the fact that it’s a hastily written, over-padded undergraduate term paper. It consists of little more than a series of lengthy, brain-cramping quotations about the alphabet and typography, and scatterings of slick bite-sized ad copy, unborn ideas and incomprehensible references. A cast of brilliant writers including Cervantes, James Joyce, Edgar Allan Poe, Plato, and Shakespeare walk across the book’s stage in roles that, while entertaining if you’re into literature, are more perplexing than illuminative.
But to dismiss it as frustrating gibberish, tempting though this may be, would be foolish. McLuhan, the crafty gadfly, knew exactly what he was doing. For the serious, patient reader, this book reveals, over time, powerful insights into the impact of communications technology on human existence.
In communicating his message, McLuhan eschews clear, linear writing for the “grotesque,” an approach that, in principle, expresses truths by throwing together collections of symbols, leaving it up to the “beholder” to make the connections; truths that would otherwise take much longer to express verbally; a kind of “witty jazz” with no point of view, no linear connection and no sequential order, where the reader participates as co-author.
This may explain why the book starts by leaping immediately to its conclusion, as McLuhan invokes William Blake to explain his delivery:
The Reasoning Spectre Stands between the Vegetative Man & his Immortal Imagination.
By beginning at the end, and throwing all sorts of ideas around in a “mosaic pattern of perception and observation” McLuhan is drawing attention to the fact that print is biased in favour of organised, logical, segmented thinking … when really there’s a whole lot more going on. Reason, he seeks to show, offers only incomplete understanding of the world.
The book’s main topic has to do with the senses we use to make sense of the world. When this orientation changes, men change. And they change when any one sense, or bodily or mental function, is externalised by technology. Imagination is the balance that exists when there is unity of experience, an entire, natural interplay among the senses; when no senses are “outered”. When outered, each sense becomes a closed system, and in “beholding this new thing, man is compelled to become it”.
Plato is quoted as saying that the onset of literacy diminished ontological awareness, thereby impoverishing experience. The stated purpose of The Gutenberg Galaxy is to discover how far the restrictive visual bias was pushed by introduction of the alphabet, then manuscripts, then typography. The message of the book is not that print, or any other communications technology, is good or bad, but rather that to be unconscious of its effect is disastrous. Print-biased man, for example, is unwittingly subjected to “its remorseless power of homogenisation” and is therefore in jeopardy of losing the capacity to imagine freely and independently.
Standing on mentor Harold Innis’s shoulders, McLuhan suggests that revolution takes place as personal and social life adjusts to new models of perception produced by new technologies. From the alphabet on, he says, there has been a continuous drive in the West toward a separation of the senses which has had a profound impact on our emotional and political existence.
Non-literate modes, says McLuhan, are implicit, simultaneous and discontinuous (much like his text). They existed in the primitive past, and as he predicted, seem to be shaping the future.