Wednesday 14 July 2021

Marshall McLuhan - is he worth reading?

My 2014 book Addicted to distraction: psychological consequences of the modern Mass Media (probably my 'best selling' book - although this is an exceedingly low bar!) began with Marshall McLuhan's statement The medium is the message; and continued with the following tribute:

Although more than 99% of what he wrote was (in my opinion) either wrong or nonsense, Marshal McLuhan (1911-1980) was nevertheless the first to see clearly that the key fact, the primary reality about the Mass Media is not the vast multitude of its specific contents; but rather its form as a whole, its unifying nature as a phenomenon, its underlying operating-principles. McLuhan therefore defined the subject of the Mass Media, drew a line around it, made it an object for study. This whole book can be seen as, in a sense, an unpacking and elaboration of McLuhan’s pregnant phrase: “The medium is the message” – therefore it seems appropriate that it be dedicated to the memory of that maddeningly-inconsistent volcano of creativity.

So, the short answer to my question "is Marshall McLuhan worth reading" must be - Yes! However, this is very much a Yes - but...

I was brought to think again about McLuhan after reading Douglas Coupland's 2010 MM book - subtitled "You know nothing of my work!"  (quoting the scene in Annie Hall when Woody Allen hauls-out McLuhan from off camera, to refute a pompous fool bore who is pontificating in a cinema queue). Coupland's book is poor overall - marred by its superficial knowledge and journalistic tone, and its excruciating (assumed not argued, natch) political correctness/ virtue signaling. 

(For all his affectation of cool insouciance; Coupland is throughout very evidently running scared - pre-emptively groveling in the face of feared-anticipated woke denunciation.) 

Yet the book served to clarify 'what went wrong' with McLuhan - indeed, the several things that went wrong. 

Most importantly, MM's brain tumour and then the extensive operation to remove it in 1967 was lethal to his creativity; so we need to judge MM only by his mature works written before 1966 - which means just two books: The Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media.

A further problem with MM was that he was a brilliant/ inconsistent aphorist; who generated insights and nonsense in an unique and personal fashion; partly innate and partly from an unusual set of formative life experiences - including a rural Canadian upbringing, attendance at Cambridge University when it was the cutting edge of literary criticism, and being a devout Roman Catholic convert as an adult.  

But, from the 1960s, and as he began to become extremely famous; McLuhan went against his own gifts and tried to make his insights into a kind of science (or, at least, a bureaucratic project): raising huge grants, setting-up a university research centre employing many people, and training many students in standard techniques of analysis, and doing (half-baked) experiments on the psychological effects of media.

What began as the erratic but original and stimulating products of one man's mind; transformed into an overblown, grandiose, fake academicism. 

Yet, with all these provisos - there is a real (and timeless) energizing excitement that comes from those early McLuhan books, and from the first years of his fame. This was well captured in a excellent Penguin collection of excerpts, essays and interviews from 1968 called McLuhan: Hot & Cool and edited by GE Stearn. If you want to try McLuhan, maybe that is the best place to begin.   

Note: My Addicted to Distraction book is - in retrospect - significantly flawed by my failure to recognize that - although the medium is indeed the main message, and the bad effects of the mass media are mainly due to the media form - there is a small percentage of core, mandatory media content (the 'litmus test' issues) that is of crucial importance to media functioning. This became fully evident in 2020 when the mass media became the channel and mechanism of government; and when censorship of media content became international, explicit and widely publicized. At times, in the UK, government by media was commonplace; as the media disseminated 'official' diktat (e.g. TV or video footage of some Establishment individual setting out policy). This literal media-channeled-dictatorship was, at times, the sole and unsupported method of mass control (with political and bureaucratic mechanisms wholly absent, or trailing behind). The fact that, in these core matters, the mass media are globally unified and centrally controlled (albeit by covert mechanisms, the nature of which I do not know for sure) is by now surely undeniable; nonetheless I missed it back in 2014!  


Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

I've only read Understanding Media, but there's definitely a lot of good stuff in that one.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Wm - I think you'd enjoy GG even more.

agraves said...

I don't think there is a conscious solution to our problems today. However any solution to today's events need to take into account the effects of language, color, living conditions that are planned for harmony, space, and light. The excessive use of extremely casual language is evidence of our unorganized thinking. The ugliness of colors which most people use in their homes and buildings go unnoticed by most people. Same with our noisy environments and lack of planning. The effect of bad music being one of the worst influences of all, effectively stopping critical thinking. All this suggests solutions lie before us but will go unnoticed and not used. Just trying to "change things" will only make it worse.

Bruce Charlton said...

@g - All these make matters worse.

But people who live in some of the most beautiful and ancient environments (such as Oxford colleges) are among the most corrupt and evil of all humanity; so a beautiful, and even spiritual, environment without God/ in opposition to God is clearly useless.

Also even a stunningly beautiful and anciently-spiritual environment - such as the great English Cathedrals - is likewise demonstrably powerless to convert its residents (such as the Bishops and Deans of the Church of England) to repent their adherence to evil and join the side of God.

First things muct come first - as usual.

captOBV said...

The TV replaced the Bible as "the book" normies believe without question. And that was intended all along.

The Continental Op said...

Have you read Neil Postman, one of McLuhan's disciples? I found "Amusing Ourselves to Death" and especially "Technopoly" useful. Technopoly broke the spell of scientism for me.

Bruce Charlton said...

Yes, I've read 'Amusing...' - but not the other.