Anarchy and Hierarchy, by A. Griscom


McLuhan's Message

Calling media "the extensions of man," McLuhan based his theory on the fact that content follows form, and the insurgent technologies give rise to new structures of feeling and thought, new manners of perception. He saw media as "make happen agents" rather than "make-aware" agents, as systems "similar to roads and canals, not as precious art objects or uplifting models of behavior, and he repeatedly reminds his readers that his proposition is best understood as a literary trope, not as scientific theory" ("Wisdom of St. Marshall" 124). Delighting in the power of the pun, he constantly cites as his authorities the modernist idols of the Age of Print and quotes at length from the novels of James Joyce, particularly Finnegans Wake, and the poems of T.S. Eliot and William Blake, and the letters of John Ruskin.

McLuhan riddled his work and his everyday parlance with word-play, and became notorious for firing quips at his opponents such as: "You think my fallacy is all wrong?" According to this relentless deconstructionist, the pun is a "breakdown as breakthrough." The pun breaks down the movement of normal language revealing that something has been repressed. In other words, the pun is a breakthrough to reality when it breaks down some expected movement. McLuhan turns all literary techniques for crossing different kinds of discourse into different ways of grasping reality and uses all of them most effectively as devices to probe media. He applied this poetic alienation of language to his formula for addressing two things that our civilization (especially today) is concerned about --- the alienation of the self and the alienating influence of technology. In a Playboy interview from March, 1969, McLuhan said:

My work is designed for the pragmatic purpose of trying to understand our technological environment and its psychic and social consequences. But my books constitute the process rather than the completed product of discovery; my purpose is to employ facts as tentative probes, as means of insight, of pattern recognition... I want to map new terrain rather than chart old landmarks...

Needless to say, McLuhan, himself, was disturbed by his experience of alienation from new media --- he was alarmed as much as he was intrigued by it. His interest lay, as I said earlier, not in promoting media, but in making the public aware of media's overwhelming effects. And he drew the attentions of a vast audience through his positions as professor, author , and cultural critic. McLuhan's major works included The Gutenberg Galaxy, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, The Medium is the Massage --- his only bestseller, which combines word and image in a way that transformed his readership's expectations of what a book should be --- and his posthmously published work, The Global Village. The lasting themes of his works --- the ones that interest us most today --- revolve around the two quantum leaps in communications technology which I explore in this thesis. As Lewis Lapham explains in his introduction to Understanding Media:

Beginning with the premise that 'we become what we behold," that "we shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us,' McLuhan examines the diktats of two technological revolutions that overthrew a settled political and aesthetic order: first, in the mid-fifteenth century, the invention of printing with moveable type, which encouraged people to think in straight lines and to arrange their perception of the world in forms convenient to the visual order of the printed page; second, since the late nineteenth century, the new applications of electricity (telegraph, telephone, television, computers, etc.), which taught people to rearrange their perception of the world in ways convenient to the protocols of cyberspace. (xi-xii)

The Medium is the Message

Perhaps McLuhan is best remembered for his assesment of the subliminal effects of the medium --- its powers of hypnosis. He predicates his claims about the power of media on a belief in the mutability of man. We are the content of our media. therefore our modes of perception are unnatural. McLuhan rejects General David Sarnoff's statement that "We are too prone to make technological instruments the scapegoats for the sins of those who wield them. The products of modern science are not in themselves good or bad; it is the way that they are used that determines their value." According to McLuhan, Sarnoff ignores the fact that the nature of the medium, of any and all media, is to creep inside the participant unnoticed: "in the true Narcissus style, one is hypnotized by the amputation and extension of his own being in a new technical form... For any medium has the power of imposing its own assumption on the unwary. Prediction and control consist in avoiding this subliminal state of Narcissus trance" (Understanding Media 15).

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