Not the least of McLuhan’s contributions to the study of technology was that he transposed the literary principle of metaphor/metonymy (the play between structure and process) into a historical methodology for analysing the rise and fall of successive media of communication. In McLuhan’s discourse, novels are the already obsolescent content of television; writing “turned a spotlight on the high, dim Sierras of speech;”8 the movie is the “mechanization of movement and gesture;”9 the telegraph provides us with “diplomacy without walls;”10 just as “photography is the mechanization of the perspective painting and the arrested eye.”11 To read McLuhan is to enter into a “vortex” of the critical, cultural imagination, where “fixed perspective” drops off by the way, and where everything passes over instantaneously into its opposite. Even the pages of the texts in Explorations, The Medium is the Massage, The Vanishing Point, or From Cliche to Archetype are blasted apart, counterblasted actually, in an effort to make reading itself a more subversive act of the artistic imagination. Faithful to his general intellectual project of exposing the invisible environment of the technological sensorium, McLuhan sought to make of the text itself a “counter-gradient” or “probe” for forcing to the surface of consciousness the silent structural rules, the “imposed assumptions” of the technological environment within which we are both enclosed and “processed”. In The Medium is the Massage, McLuhan insisted that we cannot understand the technological experience from the outside. We can only comprehend how the electronic age “works us over” if we “recreate the experience” in depth and mythically, of the processed world of technology.
All media work us over completely. They are so persuasive in their personal, political, economic, aesthetic, psychological, moral, ethical, and social consequences that they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected, unaltered. The medium is the massage. Any understanding of social and cultural change is impossible without a knowledge of the way media work as environments.12
And McLuhan was adamant on the immanent relationship of technology and biology, on the fact that “the new media… are nature”13 and this for the reason that technology refers to the social and psychic “extensions” or “outerings” of the human body or senses. McLuhan could be so universal and expansive in his description of the media of communication – his studies of communication technologies range from writing and speech to the telephone, photography, television, money, comic books, chairs and wrenches – because he viewed all technology as the pushing of the “archetypal forms of the unconscious out into social consciousness.”14 When McLuhan noted in Counter Blast that “environment is process, not container,”15 he meant just this: the effect of all new technologies is to impose, silently and pervasively, their deep assumptions upon the human psyche by reworking the “ratio of the senses.”
All media are extensions of some human faculty – psychic or physical.16
Media, by altering the environment, evoke in us unique ratios of sense perceptions. The extension of any one sense alters the way we think and act – the way we perceive the world. When these ratios change, MEN CHANGE.17
For McLuhan, it’s a processed world now. As we enter the electronic age with its instantaneous and global movement of information, we are the first human beings to live completely within the mediated environment of the technostructure The “content” of the technostructure is largely irrelevant (the “content” of a new technology is always the technique which has just been superseded: movies are the content of television; novels are the content of movies) or, in fact, a red herring distracting our attention from the essential secret of technology as the medium, or environment, within which human experience is programmed. It was McLuhan’s special genius to grasp at once that the content (metonymy) of new technologies serves as a “screen”, obscuring from view the disenchanted locus of the technological experience in its purely “formal” or “spatial” properties. McLuhan wished to escape the “flat earth approach” to technology, to invent a “new metaphor” by which we might “restructure our thoughts and feelings” about the subliminal, imperceptible environments of media effects.18
In this understanding, technology is an “extension” of biology: the expansion of the electronic media as the “metaphor” or “environment” of twentieth-century experience implies that, for the first time, the central nervous system itself has been exteriorized. It is our plight to be processed through the technological simulacrum; to participate intensively and integrally in a “technostructure” which is nothing but a vast simulation and “amplification” of the bodily senses. Indeed, McLuhan often recurred to the “narcissus theme” in classical mythology as a way of explaining our fatal fascination with technology, viewed not as “something external” but as an extension, or projection, of the sensory faculties of the human species.
Media tend to isolate one or another sense from the others. The result is hypnosis. The other extreme is withdrawing of sensation with resulting hallucination as in dreams or DT’s, etc… Any medium, by dilating sense to fill the whole field, creates the necessary conditions of hypnosis in that area. This explains why at no time has any culture been aware of the effect of its media on its overall association, not even retrospectively.19
All of McLuhan’s writings are an attempt to break beyond the “Echo” of the narcissus myth, to show that the “technostructure” is an extension or “repetition” of ourselves. In his essay, “The Gadget Lover”, McLuhan noted precisely why the Greek myth of Narcissus is of such profound relevance to understanding the technological experience.
The youth Narcissus (narcissus means narcosis or numbing) mistook his own reflection in the water for another person. This extension of himself by mirror numbed his perceptions until he became the servomechanism of his own extended or repeated image. The nymph Echo tried to win his love with fragments of his own speech, but in vain. He was numb. He had adapted to his extension of himself and had become a closed system. Now the point of this myth is the fact that men at once become fascinated by any extension of themselves in any material other than themselves.20
Confronted with the hypnotic effect of the technological sensorium, McLuhan urged the use of any “probe” – humour, paradox, analogical juxtaposition, absurdity – as a way of making visible the “total field effect” of technology as medium. This is why, perhaps, McLuhan’s intellectual project actually circles back on itself, and is structured directly into the design of his texts. McLuhan makes the reader a “metonymy” to his “metaphor”: he transforms the act of “reading McLuhan” into dangerous participation in a radical experiment which has, as its end, the exploration of the numbing of consciousness in the technological massage. Indeed, to read McLuhan is to pass directly into the secret locus of the “medium is the massage”; to experience anew the “media” (this time the medium of writing) as a silent gradient of ground-rules.
No less critical than George Grant of the human fate in technological society, McLuhan’s imagination seeks a way out of our present predicament by recovering a highly ambivalent attitude towards the objects of technostructure. Thus, while Grant writes in William James’ sense of a “block universe” of the technological dynamo, seeing only tendencies towards domination, McLuhan privileges a historically specific study of the media of communication. In an early essay (1955), “A Historical Approach to the Media”, McLuhan said that if we weren’t “to go on being helpless illiterates” in the new world of technology, passive victims as the “media themselves act directly toward shaping our most intimate self-consciousness”, then we had to adopt the attitude of the artist.21 “The mind of the artist is always the point of maximal sensitivity and resourcefulness in exposing altered realities in the common culture.”22 McLuhan would make of us “the artist, the sleuth, the detective” in gaining a critical perspective on the history of technology which “just as it began with writing ends with television.”23 Unlike Grant’s reflections on technology which are particularistic and existential, following a downward spiral (the famous Haligonian “humbug”) into pure content: pure will, pure remembrance, pure duration, McLuhan’s thought remains projective, metaphorical, and emancipatory. Indeed, Grant’s perspective on technology is Protestant to the core in its contemplation of the nihilism of liberal society. But if Grant’s tragic inquiry finds its artistic analogue in Colville’s To Prince Edward Island then McLuhan’s discourse is more in the artistic tradition of Georges Seurat, the French painter, and particularly in one classic portrait, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. McLuhan always accorded Seurat a privileged position as the “art fulcrum between Renaissance visual and modern tactile. The coalescing of inner and outer, subject and object.”24 McLuhan was drawn to Seurat in making painting a “light source” (a “light through situation”). Seurat did that which was most difficult and decisive: he dipped the viewer into the “vanishing point” of the painting.25 Or as McLuhan said, and in prophetic terms, Seurat (this “precursor of TV”) presented us with a searing visual image of the age of the “anxious object.”26
Now, to be sure, the theme of anxiety runs deep through the liberal side of the Canadian mind. This is the world of Margaret Atwood’s “intolerable anxiety” and of Northrop Frye’s “anxiety structure.” But McLuhan is the Canadian thinker who undertook a phenomenology of anxiety, or more precisely a historically relative study of the sources of anxiety and stress in technological society. And he did so by the simple expedient of drawing us, quickly and in depth, into Seurat’s startling and menacing world of the anxious, stressful objects of technology. In his book, Through the Vanishing Point, McLuhan said of Seurat that “by utilizing the Newtonian analysis of the fragmentation of light, he came to the technique of divisionism, whereby each dot of paint becomes the equivalent of an actual light source, a sun, as it were. This device reversed the traditional perspective by making the viewer the vanishing point.”27 The significance of Seurat’s “reversal” of the rules of traditional perspective is that he abolished, once and for all, the medieval illusion that space is neutral, or what is the same, that we can somehow live “outside” the processed world of technology. With Seurat a great solitude and, paradoxically, a greater entanglement falls on modern being. “We are suddenly in the world of the “Anxious Object” which is prepared to take the audience inside the painting process itself.”28 Following C. S. Lewis in The Discarded Image, McLuhan noted exactly what this “flip” in spatial perspective meant. Rather than looking in according to the traditional spatial model of medieval discourse, modern man is suddenly “looking out. ” “Like one looking out from the saloon entrance onto the dark Atlantic, or from the lighted porch upon the dark and lonely moors.”29 The lesson of Seurat is this: modernity is coeval with the age of the “anxious object” because we live now, fully, within the designed environment of the technological sensorium.30 For McLuhan, we are like astronauts in the processed world of technology. We now take our “environment” with us in the form of technical “extensions” of the human body or senses. The technostructure is both the lens through which we experience the world, and, in fact, the “anxious object” with which human experience has become imperceptibly, almost subliminally, merged.31
Now, McLuhan often remarked that in pioneering the DEW line, Canada had also provided a working model for the artistic imagination as an “early warning system”32 in sensing coming shifts in the technostructure. Seurat’s artistic representation of the spatial reversal at work in the electronic age, a reversal which plunges us into active participation in the “field” of technological experience, was one such early warning system. It was, in fact, to counteract our “numbing” within the age of the anxious object that McLuhan’s literary and artistic imagination, indeed his whole textual strategy, ran to the baroque. As an intellectual strategy, McLuhan favoured the baroque for at least two reasons: it privileged “double perspective and contrapuntal theming;” and it sought to “capture the moment of change in order to release energy dramatically.”33 There is, of course, a clear and decisive connection between McLuhan’s attraction to Seurat as an artist who understood the spatial grammar of the electronic age and his fascination with the baroque as a method of literary imagination. If, indeed, we are now “looking out” from inside the technological sensorium; and if, in fact, in the merger of biology and technology which is the locus of the electronic age, “we” have become the vanishing points of technique, then a way had to be discovered for breaching the “invisible environment”34 within which we are now enclosed. For McLuhan, the use of the baroque in each of his writings, this constant resort to paradox, double perspective, to a carnival of the literary imagination in which the pages of the texts are forced to reveal their existence also as a “medium”, was also a specific strategy aimed at “recreating the experience” of technology as massage. Between Seurat (a radar for “space as process”) and baroque (a “counter-gradient”): that’s the artistic strategy at work in McLuhan’s imagination as he confronted the subliminal, processed world of electronic technologies.
Tracking Technology I: The Catholic Legacy
There is a deep, thematic unity in all of McLuhan’s writings, extending from his later studies of technology in Understanding Media, The Medium is the Massage, The Gutenberg Galaxy and Counter Blast to his earlier, more classical, writings in The Interior Landscape, The Vanishing Point and also including his various essays in reviews ranging from the Sewanee Review to the Teacher’s College Record. McLuhan’s discourse was culturally expansive, universalist, and spatially oriented precisely because his thought expresses the Catholic side of the Canadian, and by implication, modern mind. McLuhan’s Catholicism, in fact, provided him with an epistemological strategy that both gave him a privileged vantage-point on the processed world of technology and, in any event, drove him beyond literary studies to an historical exploration of technological media as the “dynamic” of modern culture. The essential aspect of McLuhan’s technological humanism is that he always remained a Catholic humanist in the Thomistic tradition: one who brought to the study of technology and culture the more ancient Catholic hope that even in a world of despair (in our “descent into the maelstrom”35 with Poe’s drowning sailor) that a way out of the labyrinth could be found by bringing to fruition the “reason” or “epiphany” of technological society. McLuhan’s thought often recurred to the sense that there is an immanent moment of “reason” and a possible new human order in technological society which could be captured on behalf of the preservation of “civilization.”
Thus, McLuhan was a technological humanist in a special sense. He often described the modern century as the “age of anxiety”36 because of our sudden exposure, without adequate means of understanding, to the imploded, instantaneous world of the new information order. Indeed, in The Medium is the Massage, he spoke of technology in highly ambivalent terms as, simultaneously, containing possibilities for emancipation and domination. For McLuhan, a critical humanism, one which dealt with the “central cultural tendencies.”37 of the twentieth-century, had to confront the technological experience in its role as environment, evolutionary principle, and as second nature itself.
Environments are not passive wrappings, but active processes which work us over completely, massaging the ratio of the senses and imposing their silent assumptions. But environments are invisible. Their ground-rules, pervasive structure, and overall patterns elude easy perception.38
McLuhan’s technological humanism was at the forward edge of a fundamental “paradigm shift” in human consciousness. When McLuhan spoke of electronic technology as an extension, or outering, of the central nervous system, he also meant that modern society had done a “flip”. In order to perceive the “invisible ground rules” of the technological media, we have to learn to think in reverse image: to perceive the subliminal grammar of technology as metaphor, as a simulacrum or sign-system, silently and pervasively processing human existence. After all, McLuhan was serious when he described the electric light bulb (all information, no content) as a perfect model, almost a precursor, of the highly mediated world of the “information society.” McLuhan’s thought was structural, analogical, and metaphorical because he sought to disclose the “semiological reduction”39 at work in the media of communication. But unlike, for example, the contemporary French thinker, Jean Baudrillard, who, influenced deeply by McLuhan, has teased out the Nietzschean side of the processed world of television, computers, and binary architecture but whose inquiry has now dissolved into fatalism, McLuhan was always more optimistic. Because McLuhan, even as he studied the “maelstrom” of high technology, never deviated from the classical Catholic project of seeking to recover the basis for a “new universal community”40 in the culture of technology. Unlike Grant or Innis, McLuhan could never be a nationalist because his Catholicism, with its tradition of civil humanism and its faith in the immanence of “reason”, committed him to the possibility of the coming of a universal world culture. In the best of the Catholic tradition, followed out by Etienne Gilson in philosophy as much as by Pierre Elliott Trudeau in politics, McLuhan sought a new “incarnation,” an “epiphany,” by releasing the reason in technological experience.
Indeed, in a formative essay, “Catholic Humanism,” McLuhan averred that he followed Gilson in viewing Catholicism as being directly involved in the “central cultural discoveries” of the modern age. “Knowledge of the creative process in art, science, and cognition shows the way to earthly paradise, or complete madness: the abyss or the top of mount purgatory.”41 Now McLuhan’s Catholicism was not a matter of traditional faith (he was a convert), but of a calculated assessment of the importance of the Catholic conception of “reason” for interpreting, and then civilizing, technological experience. Over and again in his writings, McLuhan returned to the theme that only a sharpening and refocusing of human perception could provide a way out of the labyrinth of the technostructure. His ideal value was that of the “creative process in art;”42 so much so in fact that McLuhan insisted that if the master struggle of the twentieth century was between reason and irrationality, then this struggle could only be won if individuals learned anew how to make of the simple act of “ordinary human perception” an opportunity for recovering the creative energies in human experience. McLuhan was a technological humanist of the blood: his conviction, repeated time and again, was that if we are to recover a new human possibility it will not be “outside” the technological experience, but must, of necessity, be “inside” the field of technology. What is really wagered in the struggle between the opposing tendencies towards domination and freedom in technology is that which is most personal, and intimate, to each individual: the blinding or revivification of ordinary human perception. Or, as McLuhan said in “Catholic Humanism”: “…the drama of ordinary human perception seen as the poetic process is the prime analogate, the magic casement opening on the secrets of created being.”43 And, of course, for McLuhan the “poetic process” – this recovery of the method of “sympathetic reconstruction,” this “recreation” of the technological experience as a “total communication,” this recovery of the “rational notes of beauty, integrity, consonance, and claritas” as the actual stages of human apprehension – was the key to redeeming the technological order.44 If only the mass media could be harmonized with the “poetic process;” if only the media of communication could be made supportive of the “creative process” in ordinary human perception: then technological society would, finally, be transformed into a wonderful opportunity for the “incarnation” of human experience. But, of course, this meant that, fully faithful to the Catholic interpretation of human experience as a working out of the (immanent) principle of natural, and then divine, reason, McLuhan viewed technological society as an incarnation in the making. Unlike the secular discourse of the modern century, McLuhan saw no artificial divisions between “ordinary human perception” and the technical apparatus of the mass media or, for that matter, between biology and technology. In this discourse, the supervening value is reason; and this to such an extent that the creative process of human perception as well as the technologies of comic books, mass media, photography, music, and movies are viewed as relative phases in the working out of a single process of apprehension. “…The more extensive the mass medium the closer it must approximate to the character of our cognitive faculties.”45 Or, on a different note:
As we trace the rise of successive communication channels or links, from writing to movies and TV it is borne in on us that for their exterior artifice to be effective it must partake of the character of that interior artifice by which in ordinary perception we incarnate the exterior world. because human perception is literally incarnation. So that each of us must poet the world or fashion it within us as our primary and constant mode of awareness.46
McLuhan’s political value may have been the creation of a universal community of humanity founded on reason, his axiology may have privileged the process of communication, and his moral dynamic may have been the “defence of civilization” from the dance of the irrational; but his ontology, the locus of his world vision, was the recovery of the “poetic process” as both a method of historical reconstruction of the mass media and a “miracle” by which technological society is to be illuminated, once again, with meaning.
In ordinary human perception, men perform the miracle of recreating within themselves – in their interior faculties – the exterior world. This miracle is the work of the nous poietikos or of the agent intellect – that is the poetic or creative process. The exterior world in every instant of perception is interiorized and recreated in a new manner. Ourselves. And in this creative work that is perception and cognition, we experience immediately that dance of Being within our faculties which provides the incessant intuition of Being.47
The significance of the “poetic process” as the master concept of McLuhan’s technological humanism is clear. It is only by creatively interiorizing (realistically perceiving) the “external” world of technology, by reabsorbing into the dance of the intellect mass media as extensions of the cognitive faculties of the human species, that we can recover “ourselves” anew. It is also individual freedom which is wagered in McLuhan’s recovery of the “miracle” of ordinary human perception. McLuhan’s intellectual strategy was not, of course, a matter of quietism. Quite the contrary, the teasing out of the “epiphany” in external experience meant intense and direct participation in the “objects” composing the technostructure. McLuhan wanted to see from the inside the topography of the technological media which horizon human experience. His Catholicism, with its central discovery of a “new method of study”, a new way of seeing technology, fated him to be a superb student of popular culture. Indeed, McLuhan’s thought could dwell on all aspects of popular culture – games, advertisements, radio, television, and detective stories – because he viewed each of these instances of technological society as somehow “magical”;48 providing new clues concerning how the technological massage alters the “ratios of the senses” and novel opportunities for improved human perception. In much the same way, but with a different purpose, McLuhan was a practitioner of Northrop Frye’s “improved binoculars.” Like his favourite symbolist poets, Poe, Joyce, Eliot, and Baudelaire, McLuhan always worked backwards from effects to cause. Much like the models of the detective and the artist, he wished to perfect in the method of the “suspended judgement,”49 in the technique of discovery itself, a new angle of vision on technological experience.
McLuhan was, in fact, a dynamic ecologist. He sought a new, internal balance among technique, imagination and nature. But his ecological sense was based on a grim sense of realism. In his view, the “electric age” is the historical period in which we are doomed to become simultaneously, the “sex of the lifeless machine world”50 or creative participants in a great cycle which turns society back to a new “Finn cycle.”51
McLuhan always privileged the connection between the immediacy and simultaneity of electric circuitry and “blind, all-hearing Homer.” 52 This was a “humanism” which wagered itself on a desperate encounter with the “objects” of the technological order. In Understanding Media, Counter Blast, and The Medium is the Massage, there emerges an almost cruel description of the technological sensorium as a sign-system to which the human mind is exteriorized. Electric technology, this latest sensation of the “genus sensation”, implies that we are now “outered” or “ablated” into a machine-processed world of information.53 It is the human destiny in the modern age to be programmed by an information order which operates on the basis of algorithmic and digital logic, and which, far from conscious human intervention, continues to move through the whirring of its own servomechanisms. Thus, in Understanding Media, McLuhan noted:
By putting our physical bodies inside our extended nervous systems by means of electric media, we set up a dynamic by which all previous technologies that are mere extensions of hands and feet and teeth and bodily controls – all such extensions of our bodies, including cities – will be translated into information systems. Electromagnetic technology requires utter human docility and quiescence of meditation such as now befits an organism that wears its brains outside its hide and its nerves outside its skin.54
And of this “semiological wash” through the technostructure, McLuhan said simply but starkly,
Man becomes as it were the sex organ of the machine world, as the bee of the plant world, enabling it to fecundate and to evolve ever new forms. The machine-world reciprocates man’s love by expediting his wishes and desires, namely by providing him with wealth.55
In McLuhan’s effort to humanize technology through “in-depth participation” there is reopened a more ancient debate in the western mind between the tragic imagination and the calculated optimism of the rhetoricians. In his essay, “An Ancient Quarrel in Modern America”, McLuhan described himself as a “Ciceronian humanist”56 (better, I suppose, than the early Scottish common-sense realists in Canada who labeled themselves “Caesars of the wilderness”). McLuhan was a “Ciceronian humanist” to this extent: he was, by intellectual habit, an historian of civilization and a rhetorician. McLuhan’s rhetoric stands, for example, to Grant’s tragic lament or to Innis’ “marginal man” in much the same way as that earlier debate between Lucretius and Virgil. Between the rhetorician and the tragic sensibility, there is always a contest between the attitude of intellectual futility, tinged by despair, and a pragmatic will to knowledge, between resigned melancholy and melancholy resignation.
But if McLuhan brings to bear on technology the skills of a rhetorician’s imagination, then he does so as a Catholic, and not Ciceronian, humanist. McLuhan’s mind represents one of the best syntheses yet achieved of the Catholic legacy as this was developed in Aquinas, Joyce, and Eliot. In a largely unremarked, but decisive, article – “Joyce, Aquinas and the Poetic Process” – McLuhan was explicit that his epistemological strategy for the study of technology was modeled on Aquinas’ method of the “respondeo dicendum”; the tracing and retracing of thought through the “cubist landscape” of the Thomistic article.57 McLuhan said of Aquinas that in his “method of thought” we see the fully modern mind at work. In Aquinas, as later in Joyce, there is the constant use of the “labyrinth figure” as the archetype of human cognition. “Whereas the total shape of each article, with its trinal divisions into objections, respondeo, and answers to objections, is an ‘S’ labyrinth, this figure is really traced and retraced by the mind many times in the course of a single article.”58 Aquinas’ central contribution to modern discourse was this: his “method” of study gave a new brilliance of expression to the “technique of discovery” as the locus of the modern mind.
His ‘articles’ can be regarded as vivisections of the mind in act. The skill and wit with which he selects his objections constitute a cubist landscape, an ideal landscape of great intellectual extent seen from an airplane. The ideas or objects in this landscape are by their very contiguity set in a dramatic state of tension; and this dramatic tension is provided with a dramatic peripetieia in the respondeo, and with a resolution in the answers to the objections.59
Now, the significance of McLuhan’s recovery of Aquinas’ method of the “respondeo dicendum” is that this method is almost perfectly autobiographical of McLuhan’s own strategy for the study of technological experience. Long before McLuhan in, for example, The Medium is the Massage, discussed the creation of a “cubist landscape” as a counter-gradient for understanding technological media or in The Mechanical Bride appealed for the need to sharpen “perception”, he had already adopted the “Catholic method”, and Joyce’s adaptation of Aquinas’ “article” as his main epistemological tool for “understanding media.” Indeed, it was McLuhan’s achievement, fully faithful to the spirit of Joyce’s writings in Ulysses, Dubliners, and The Portrait, to translate the Thomistic analysis of cognition, “namely the fact of the creative process as the natural process of apprehension, arrested and retraced,”60 into a powerful intellectual procedure for grasping the inner movement in even the most prosaic objects of popular culture. “Ordinary experience is a riot of imprecision, of impressions enmeshed in preconceptions, cliches, profanities, and impercipience. But for the true artist every experience is capable of an epiphany.”61 McLuhan may have lived with the grimly pessimistic knowledge that we had become the “sex organs of the machine world”, but his intellectual spirit was optimistic, and indeed, combative. In the following passage, McLuhan is speaking of Joyce in relationship to Aquinas, but he might well have been writing his intellectual notice. Like Joyce, and for the same reason, he always preferred “comic to tragic art;”62 his conclusions may have been downbeat, but his “method” was distinctly upbeat. McLuhan’s very psychology was like a counter-gradient flailing against the technostructure; this in full awareness that the “technological massage” worked us over, not from outside, but from within. The “minotaurs” to be overcome in “understanding media” were also fully interiorized within the human mind and body.
Any movement of appetite within the labyrinth of cognition is a “minotaur” which must be slain by the hero artist. Anything which interferes with cognition, whether concupiscence, pride, imprecision, or vagueness is a minotaur ready to devour beauty. So that Joyce not only was the first to reveal the link between the stages of apprehension and the creative process, he was the first to understand how the drama of cognition itself was the key archetype of all human ritual myth and legend. And thus he was able to incorporate at every point in his work the body of the past in immediate relation to the slightest current of perception.63
McLuhan shared with Grant, and Nietzsche, a deep understanding of “technique as ourselves”, of our envelopment in the historical dynamic of technological media. But he differed from them, and consequently from the ‘lament’ of the Protestant mind, both by subscribing to the value of “creative freedom”, and by providing a precise intellectual itinerary through which the “creative process” might be generalized in human experience.
In McLuhan’s terms, everything now depends on the creation of an inner harmony, a concordance of the beauty of reason, between the “imprecision of ordinary experience” and the “cognitive power in act.” This is just to note, though, exactly how central McLuhan’s religious sensibility (his Catholic roots) was to his interpretation of technology. It was, in the end, from Joyce and Aquinas that he took an intellectual strategy for the exploration of technological experience: the method of “suspended judgment;” the privileging of the perception of the true artist in battle with the minotaurs which block the possible epiphany in every experience, the technique of reconstruction as discovery; a singular preference for the comic over the tragic; the abandonment of narrative in favour of the “analogical juxtaposition of character, scene, and situation.” Like other advocates of Catholic humanism in the twentieth-century, McLuhan was neither an impressionist nor an expressionist, but one who stood by the “method of the profoundly analogical drama of existence as it is mirrored in the cognitive power in act.”65 For McLuhan, the recovery of reason in technological experience was always part of a broader religious drama: what was also at stake in the contest with the minotaurs in the labyrinth of technology was individual redemption.
Tracking Technology II: Experimental Medicine
McLuhan often recurred in his writings to Poe’s figure of the “drowning sailor” who, trapped in the whirlpool without a visible means of escape, studied his situation with “calm detachment” in order to discover some thread which might lead out of the labyrinth.66 While the Catholic touch in McLuhan’s thought provided him with the necessary sense of critical detachment and, moreover, with the transcendent value of creative freedom; it was the particular genius of his discourse that he managed to combine an intellectual sensibility which was essentially Thomistic with the more ancient practice of exploring the crisis of technological society within the terms of experimental medicine. In McLuhan’s inquiry, there is rehearsed time and again a classically medical approach to understanding technology: an approach which, while it may be traced directly to Hippocrates’ Ancient Medicine, also has its origins in Thucydides’ method of historical writing. Very much in the tradition of Hippocrates, and then Thucydides, McLuhan’s historical study of the media of communication was structured by the three moments of semiology (classification of symptoms), diagnosis and therapeutics.67 Indeed, it might even be said that McLuhan’s adoption of the three stages of the Thomistic “article” – objections, respondeo, and answers to objections – was only a modern variation of the more classical method of experimental medicine. In both instances, the historical experience under interrogation is “recreated in depth”, with special emphasis placed on the historian (the cultural historian as doctor to a sick society) as a “vivisectionist” of the whole field of experience.68 When McLuhan recommended repeatedly that the cultural historian “trace and retrace” the field of technological experience, both as a means of understanding the “closure” effected upon human perspective and as a way of discovering an escape-hatch, he was only restating, in distinctly modern language, the experimental method of ancient medicine. McLuhan’s imagination always played at the interface of biology and technology. His discourse took as its working premise that the most insidious effect of technology lay in its deep colonization of biology, of the body itself; and, moreover, in its implicit claim, that technology is the new locus of the evolutionary principle. For McLuhan the technological “sensorium” was precisely that: an artificial amplification, and transferal, of human consciousness and sensory organs to the technical apparatus, which now, having achieved the electronic phase of “simultaneity” and “instantaneous scope”, returns to take its due on the human body.69 The “sensorium” presents itself to a humanity which has already passed over into “deep shock” over the inexplicable consequences of electronics as a practical simulation of evolution, of the biological process itself. This circling back of the technological sensorium, this silent merger of technology and biology, is the cataclysmic change in human history that so disturbed McLuhan. His discourse on technology begins and ends with an exploration of the “possession” of biology by the technological imperative. Indeed, in McLuhan’s estimation, technology works its effects upon biology much like a disease. It is also the tools of a doctor which are needed both for an accurate diagnosis of the causes of the disease, and for a prognosis of some cure which might be recuperative of the human sensibility in technological society.
One pervasive theme running through McLuhan’s writings has to do with the double-effect of the technological experience in “wounding” the human persona by effecting a “closure” of human perception, and in “numbing” and thus “neutralizing” the area under stress.70 It was McLuhan’s melancholic observation that when confronted with new technologies, the population passes through, and this repeatedly, the normal cycle of shock: “alarm” at the disturbances occasioned by the introduction, often on a massive scale, of new extensions of the sensory organs; “resistance” which is typifically directed at the “content” of new technological innovations (McLuhan’s point was, of course, that the content of a new technology is only the already passe history of a superseded technology); and “exhaustion” in the face of our inability to understand the subliminal (formal) consequences of fundamental changes in the technostructure.71 It was his dour conclusion that, when confronted with the “paradigm-shift” typified by the transformation of technology from a mechanical, industrial model to an electronic one, the population rapidly enters into a permanent state of exhaustion and bewilderment. In McLuhan’s terms, the present century is characterized by an almost total unconsciousness of the real effects of the technological media. “The new media are blowing a lot of baby powder around the pendant cradle of the NEW MAN today. The dust gets in our eyes.”72
It was a source of great anxiety to McLuhan that electronic technologies, with their abrupt reversal of the structural laws of social and non-social evolution, had (without human consent or even social awareness) precipitated a new, almost autonomous, technical imperative in human experience.73 In Counter Blast, McLuhan had this to say of the new technological imperative:
Throughout previous evolution, we have protected the central nervous system by outering this or that physical organ in tools, housing, clothing, cities. But each outering of individual organs was also an acceleration and intensification of the general environment until the central nervous system did a flip. We turned turtle. The shell went inside, the organs outside. Turtles with soft shells become vicious. That’s our present state.74
A society of “vicious turtles” is also one in which technology works its “biological effects” in the language of stress. For McLuhan, the advent of electronic technology creates a collective sense of deep distress, precisely because this “outering” of the central nervous system induces an unprecedented level of stress on the individual organism. The “technological massage” reworks human biology and the social psyche at a deep, subliminal level. Having grasped the essential connection between technology and stress, it was not surprising that so much of McLuhan’s discourse on technology was influenced by Hans Selye’s pioneering work in the field of stress. Indeed, McLuhan adopted directly from Selye’s research a medical understanding of the relationship between stress and numbness. A central theme in McLuhan’s reflection on bio-technology was Selye’s original theorisation that under conditions of deep stress, the organism anesthetizes the area effected, making the shock felt in peripheral regions. And McLuhan always insisted that the age of electric circuity is a time of HIGH STRESS.
When an organ goes out (ablation) it goes numb. The central nervous system has gone numb (for survival). We enter the age of the unconscious with electronics, and consciousness shifts to the physical organs, even in the body politic. There is a great stepping up of physical awareness and a big drop in mental awareness when the central nervous system goes outward.75
Or again, and this in Counter Blast, although the same theme is also at the very beginning of Understanding Media:
The one area which is numb and unconscious is the area which receives the impact. Thus there is an exact parallel with ablation in experimental medicine but in medical ablation, observation is properly directed not to the numb area, but to all the other organs as they are affected by the numbing or ablation of the single organ.76
It was McLuhan’s overall project (his semiology) to probe the numbing of human perception by the technological innovations of the electronic age. In much the same way that McLuhan said of the movement from speech to writing that it illuminated the “high, dim Sierras of speech”, McLuhan’s “medical” understanding of technology lit up the darkness surrounding the invisible environment of the forms (rhetoric) of technology. All of McLuhan’s writings are, in fact a highly original effort at casting iron filings across the invisible “field” of electronic technologies in an effort to highlight their tacit assumptions. McLuhan’s intention was to break the seduction effect of technology, to disturb the hypnotic spell cast by the dynamism of the technological imperative. And thus, while he was in the habit of saying, about the “inclusive” circuitry of the electronic age, that it was composed of “code, language, mechanical medium – all (having) magical properties which transform, transfigure,”77 he was also accustomed to note that, on the down-side of the “new age”, its participants were daily “x-rayed by television images.”78
McLuhan could be so ambivalent on the legacy of the technological experience because, following Hans Selye and Adolphe Jonas, he viewed technological media as simultaneously extensions and auto-amputations of the sensory organs. The paradoxical character of technological media as both amplifications and cancellations was, of course, one basic theme of Understanding Media.
While it was no part of the intention of Jonas and Selye to provide an explanation of human invention and technology, they have given us a theory of disease (discomfort) that goes far to explain why man is impelled to extend various parts of his body by a kind of autoamputation.79
It was McLuhan’s special insight though, to recognize the deep relationship between the history of technological innovation and the theory of disease. McLuhan’s historical account of the evolution of technological media was structured around a (medical) account of technological innovation as “counter-irritants” to the “stress of acceleration of pace and increase of load.”80 Just as the body (in Hans Selye’s terms) resorts to an auto-amputative strategy when “the perceptual power cannot locate or avoid the cause of irritation,” so too (in McLuhan’s terms) in the stress of super-stimulation, “the central nervous system acts to protect itself by a strategy of amputation or isolation of the offending organ, sense, or function.”81 Technology is a “counter-irritant” which aids in the “equilibrium of the physical organs which protect the central nervous system.”82 Thus, the wheel (as an extension of the foot) is a counterirritant against the sudden pressure of “new burdens resulting from the acceleration of exchange by written and monetary media;” “movies and TV complete the cycle of mechanization of the human sensorium;” and computers are ablations or outerings of the human brain itself.83 Now, it was McLuhan’s thesis that the motive-force for technological innovation was always defensive and biological: the protection of the central nervous system against sudden changes in the “stimulus” of the external environment. Indeed, McLuhan often noted that “the function of the body” was the maintenance of an equilibrium among the media of our sensory organs. And consequently, the electronic age is all the more dangerous, and, in fact, suicidal when “in a desperate… autoamputation, as if the central nervous system could no longer depend on the physical organs to be protective buffers against the slings and arrows of outrageous mechanism,”84 the central nervous system itself is outered in the form of electric circuitry. McLuhan inquires, again and again, what is to be the human fate now that with the “extension of consciousness” we have put “one’s nerves outside, and one’s physical organs inside the nervous system, or brain.”85 For McLuhan, the modern century is typified by an information order which plays our nerves in public: a situation, in his estimation, of “dread”.
It was in an equally desperate gamble at increasing popular awareness of the “flip” done to us by the age of electric circuitry that McLuhan undertook an essentially medical survey of technological society. McLuhan’s “classification of symptoms” took the form of an elaborate and historical description of the evolution of technology from the “mechanical” extensions of man (wheels, tools, printing) to the mythic, inclusive technologies of the electric age (television, movies, computers, telephone, phonograph). His “diagnosis” was that the crisis induced by technological society had much to do with the “closures” (numbing) effected among the sense ratios by new technical inventions. McLuhan was explicit about the technological origins of the modern stress syndrome: “the outering or extension of our bodies and senses in a new invention compels the whole of our bodies and senses to shift into new positions in order to maintain equilibrium.”86 A new “closure” is occasioned in our sensory organs and faculties, both private and public, by new technical extension of man. And McLuhan’s “therapeutic”: the deployment of the “creative imagination” as a new way of seeing technology, and of responding, mythically and in depth, to the challenges of the age of electric circuitry. For McLuhan, the stress syndrome associated with the coming-to-be of the technostructure could only be met with the assistance of educated perspective. If it is the human fate to live within its (own) central nervous system in the form of the electronic simulation of consciousness, then it is also the human challenge to respond creatively to the “dread” and “anxiety” of the modern age. We may be the servomechanisms, the body bits, of a technical apparatus which substitutes a language of codes, of processed information, for “natural” experience, but this is a human experience which is double-edged. Without the education of perspective or, for that matter, in the absence of a “multidimensional perspective”87 on technique, it will surely be the human destiny to be imprinted by the structural imperatives, the silent grammar, of the new world information order. But it was also McLuhan’s hope, occasioned by his faith in the universality of reason that the electronic age could be transformed in the direction of creative freedom. After all, it was his over-arching thesis that the era of electric circuitry represented a great break-point in human experience: the end of “visual, uniform culture”88 based on mechanical technologies, and the ushering in of a popular culture of the “new man”. which would be fully tribal and organic. In all his texts, but particularly in The Medium is the Massage, McLuhan insisted on teasing out the emancipatory tendencies in new technologies. Against the blandishments of an “official culture” to impose old meanings on novel technologies, McLuhan sympathized with “anti-social perspectives”: the creative perspectives of the artist, the poet, and even the young, who respond with “untaught delight to the poetry, and the beauty of the new technological environment.”89 In his intellectual commitment to the development of a new perspective on technology, McLuhan was, of course, only following Joyce in his willingness to respond to the technological environment with a sense of its “creative process.” “He (Joyce) saw that the wake of human progress can disappear again into the night of sacral or auditory man. The Finn cycle of tribal institutions can return in the electric age, but if again, then let’s make it awake or awake or both.”90 Anyway in McLuhan’s world, in a society which has sound as its environment, we have no choice. “We simply are not equipped with earlids.”91
McLuhan was the last and best exponent of the liberal imagination in Canadian letters. His thought brings to a new threshold of intellectual expression the fascination with the question of technology which has always, both in political and private practice, so intrigued liberal discourse in Canada. McLuhan’s thought provides a new eloquence, and indeed, nobility of meaning to “creative freedom” as a worthwhile public value; and this as much as it reasserts the importance of a renewed sense of “individualism”, both as the locus of a revived political community and as a creative site (the “agent intellect”) for releasing, again and again, the possible “epiphanies” in technological experience. In McLuhan’s writings, the traditional liberal faith in the reason of technological experience, a reason which could be the basis of a rational and universal political community, was all the more ennobled to the extent that the search for the “reason” in technology was combined with the Catholic quest for a new “incarnation.” McLuhan’s communication theory was a direct outgrowth of his Catholicism; and his religious sensibility fused perfectly with a classically liberal perspective on the question of technology and civilization. In the present orthodoxy of intellectual discourse, it is not customary to find a thinker whose inquiry is both infused by a transcendent religious sensibility and whose intellectual scholarship is motivated, not only by a desperate sense of the eclipse of reason in modern society, but by the disappearance of “civilization” itself through its own vanishing-point. As quixotic as it might be, McLuhan’s intellectual project was of such an inclusive and all-embracing nature. His thought could be liberal, Catholic, and structuralist (before his time) precisely because the gravitation-point of McLuhan’s thought was the preservation of the fullest degree possible of creative freedom in a modern century, which, due to the stress induced by its technology, was under a constant state of emergency. In McLuhan’s discourse, individual freedom as well as civil culture itself were wagered in the contest with technology. The technological experience also made the possibility of a new “incarnation” fully ambivalent: it was also the Catholic, and by extension, liberal belief in a progressive, rational, and evolutionary history which was gambled in the discourse on technology.
But if McLuhan provides an important key to exploring the technological media, then it must also be noted that there are, at least, two major limitations in his thought which reduce his value, either as a guide to understanding technology in the Canadian circumstance or, for that matter, to a full inquiry into the meaning of the technological experience in the New World. First, McLuhan had no systematic, or even eclectic, theory of the relationship between economy and technology; and certainly no critical appreciation of the appropriation, and thus privatisation, of technology by the lead institutions, multinational corporations and the state, in advanced industrial societies. It was not, of course, that McLuhan was unaware of the relationship of corporate power and technology. One searing sub-text of Understanding Media and The Mechanical Bride had to do with the almost malignant significance of the corporate control of electronic technologies. In McLuhan’s estimation, “technology is part of our bodies;”92 and to the extent that corporations acquire private control over the electronic media then we have, in effect, “leased out” our eyes, ears, fingers, legs, and the brain itself, to an exterior power.93 In the electronic age, this era of collective and integral consciousness, those with control of technological media are allowed “to play the strings of our nerves in public.”94 The body is fully externalized, and exposed, in the interstices of the technological sensorium. For McLuhan, just like Grant, the technological dynamo breeds a new formation of power, demonic and mythic, which is capable, as one of its reflexes of vapourizing the individual subject, and of undermining all “public” communities. But if McLuhan understood the full dangers of corporate control of technological media, nowhere did he extend this insight into a reflection on the relationship of capitalism and technology. Now, it may be, as in the case of Jacques Ellul, another civil humanist, that McLuhan’s intellectual preference was to privilege the question of technology over all other aspects of social experience, including the economic foundations of society. McLuhan may have been a technological determinist, or at the minimum, a “technological monist” who took technique to be the primary locus for the interpretation of society as a whole. If this was so, then it is particularly unfortunate since McLuhan’s “blindspot” on the question of capitalism and technology undermined, in the end, his own injunction for an “historical understanding” of the evolution of technological media. In “Catholic Humanism” and, for that matter, in all of his writings, McLuhan urged the use of the historical imagination – an historical perspective which was to be sympathetic, realistic, and reconstructive – as our only way of understanding the great watershed in human experience precipitated by the appearance of electronic society. His was, however, a curious and somewhat constricted vision of the historical imagination: for it omitted any analysis of the precise historical conditions surrounding the development of the technological experience in North America. McLuhan was as insensitive, and indifferent, to the problem of the political economy of technology as he was to the relationship of technology and ideological hegemony in the creation of liberal society, and the liberal state, in North America. McLuhan’s primary value was, of course, creative freedom, not “justice;” and his political preference was for a universal community founded on the rights of “reason”, not for the “ethic of charity.” This is to say, however, that McLuhan’s “historical sense” already embraced, from its very beginnings, the deepest assumptions of technological society. McLuhan’s mind was a magisterial account of the technological imagination itself. This was a discourse which evinced a fatal fascination with the utopian possibilities of technology. Indeed, McLuhan liked to speculate about the almost religious utopia immanent in the age of information.
Language as the technology of human extension, whose powers of division and separation we know so well, may have been the “Tower of Babel” by which men sought to scale the highest heavens. Today computers hold out the promise of a means of instant translation of any code or language into any other code or language. The computer, in short, promises by technology a Pentecostal condition of universal understanding and unity. The next logical step would seem to be, not to translate, but to by-pass languages in favour of a general cosmic consciousness which might be very like the collective unconscious dreamt by Bergson. The condition of “weightlessness” that biologists say promises a physical immortality, may be paralleled by the condition of speechlessness that could confer a perpetuity of collective harmony and peace.95
Everything in McLuhan’s thought strained towards the liberation of the “Pentecostal condition” of technology: the privileging of space over time; the fascination with the exteriorisation in electronic technology of an “inner experience” which is electric, mythic, inclusive, and configurational; the primacy of “field” over event; the vision of “processed information” as somehow consonant with the perfectibility of the human faculties. And it was this utopian, and transcendent, strain in McLuhan’s thought which may, perhaps, have made it impossible for his inquiry to embrace the problematic of capitalism and technology. In McLuhan’s lexicon, the privileging of the “economic” relationship belonged to an obsolete era: the now superseded age of specialism, fragmentation, and segmentation of work of the industrial revolution. McLuhan viewed himself as living on the other side, the far side, of technological history: the coming age of “cosmic man” typified by “mythic or iconic awareness” and by the substitution of the “multi-faceted for the point-of-view.”96 What was capitalism? It was the obsolescent content of the new era of the electronic simulation of consciousness. For McLuhan, economy had also gone electronic and thus even the corporate world, with its “magic” of advertisements and its plenitude of computers, could be subsumed into the more general project of surfacing the reason in technological society. Consequently, it might be said that McLuhan’s blindspot on the question of economy was due not so much to a strain of “technological determinism” in his thought, and least not in the first instance; but due rather to his, transparently Catholic expectation that if the electronic economy of the corporate world was not an “agent intellect” in the creation of a new technological horizon, it was, at least, a necessary catalyst in setting the conditions for “cosmic man.” McLuhan was a “missionary” to the power centres of the technological experience; and he could so faithfully, and guilelessly, discuss the civilizing moment in technology because there never was any incompatibility between the Catholic foundations of his communication theory and the will to empire. If McLuhan was a deeply compromised thinker, then it was because his Catholic humanism allowed him to subordinate, and forget the question of the private appropriation of technology. And what was, in the final instance, tragic and not comic about his intellectual fate was simply this: it was precisely the control over the speed, dissemination, and implanting of new technologies by the corporate command centres of North America which would subvert the very possibility of an age of “creative freedom.”
If one limitation in McLuhan’s discourse on technology was his forgetfulness of the mediation of technology by political economy, then a second limitation, or arrest, concerned McLuhan’s contempt for the “national question” in Canada. It would be unfair to criticize a thinker for not violating the internal unity of his own viewpoint. McLuhan was always firm in his belief that the dawn of the “global village”, this new era of “universal understanding and unity” required the by-passing of “national” political communities. The universalism of reason and the potentially new “Finn cycle” of an all-inclusive and mythic technological experience rendered obsolete particularistic political concerns. McLuhan’s polis was the world; and his, not inaccurate, understanding of that world had it that the United States, by virtue of its leadership in electronic technologies, was the “new world environment.”97 It was, consequently, with a noble conscience that McLuhan, like Galbraith, Easton, and Johnson before him, could turn his attention southward, passing easily and with no sign of disaffection, into the intellectual centres of the American empire. And, of course, in prophesying the end of nationalist sensibility, or the more regional sense of a “love of one’s own”, McLuhan was only following the flight beyond “romanticism” of the liberal political leadership of Canada, and, in particular, the “creative leadership” of Trudeau. Indeed, that Trudeau could so instantly and enthusiastically embrace McLuhan’s world sensibility was only because the latter’s sense of an underlying reason in the technological order confirmed the deepest prejudices of Trudeau’s own political perspective. Indeed. between Trudeau and McLuhan a parallel project was in the making: on Trudeau’s part (Federalism and the French-Canadians) a political challenge against the “obsolete” world of ethnicity (and thus nationalism) in Quebec and an invitation to Quebec to join the technological (rational) society of North America; and on McLuhan’s part, an epistemological and then moral decision to join in the feast of corporate advantages spread out by the masters of the empire. The common trajectories traced by Trudeau’s technocratic politics and by McLuhan’s sense of technological utopia reveals, powerfully so, the importance of the Catholic touch in Canadian politics and letters; just as much as it reflects, that for the empire at least, Catholicism is, indeed, intimate with the “central cultural discoveries” of the modern age. Moreover, the very existence of a “McLuhan” or a “Trudeau” as the locus of the Canadian discourse discloses the indelible character of Canada, not just as a witness to empire, but, perhaps, as a radical experiment in the working out of the intellectual and political basis of the technological imagination in North America. Canada is, and has always been, the most modern of the New World societies; because the character of its colonialism, of its domination of the land by technologies of communication, and of its imposition of an “abstract nation” upon a divergent population by a fully technological polity, has made of it a leading expression of technological liberalism in North America.
It was, consequently, the fate of McLuhan to be welcomed into the privileged circles of the corporate and intellectual elites of the United States. This was not unanticipated. The Canadian philosopher, Charles Norris Cochrane, noted that it is the peculiar feature of imperialisms that, as their energies focus, in the most mature phase of empire, on the “pragmatic will” to conquer, to expand, to live, they are often forced to seek out in the peripheral regions of the empire some new source of intellectual energy, some inspiring historical justification, which would counter the dawning sense of “intellectual futility” that so often accompanies, and undermines, the greatest successes of the will to empire.98 McLuhan was such an “historical energizer.” His utopian vision of technological society provided the corporate leadership of the American empire with a sense of historical destiny; and, at least, with the passing illusion that their narrow-minded concentration on the “business” of technology might make of them the “Atlas” of the new world of cosmic man. It was McLuhan’s special ability, done, no doubt, sometimes tongue in cheek and with a proper sense of intellectual cynicism, to transfigure the grubby leadership (Grant’s “creative leaders”) of the American business world, and then of a good part of the new class of technocrats in the West, into the dizzying heights of a greater historical destiny, that made him such a favoured courtesan of the technological empire. Grant might say of the “creative leaders” of empire that their nihilism is such that they would always prefer to will rather than not to will, but McLuhan provided another, more radical, alternative. In the face of the incipient nihilism of the technological experience, McLuhan dangled that most precious of gifts: a sense of historical purpose (the age of communications as “cosmic consciousness”); and an intellectual justification (the technological imperative as both necessary and good).
While Grant’s austere and forbidding description of technological dependency revolved around a consideration of technique as will, McLuhan thought of technique as possessing, at least potentially, the poetry of consciousness. Thus, it was not with bad faith but with the curious amorality of a thinker whose ethic, being as it was abstract freedom and reason, and who could thus screen out the barbarism of the technological dynamo, that McLuhan could associate with the leadership of technological society. And just to the extent that Grant’s ruminations on technological society have led him into, almost self-imposed, solitude in Halifax (far from the “dynamic centre” of the technological dynamo in the Great Lakes region of North America), McLuhan could be a dandy of the New York intelligentsia. McLuhan’s association of the values of reason and “universal unity” with the expansive momentum of the technostructure was, of course, a highly fortuitous compromise. It allowed him to serve a legitimation function for the technological dynamo, while all the while maintaining his sang-froid as a civil humanist who was above the fray, a Catholic intellectual among the barbarians.
McLuhan’s political commitments, represented both by his rejection of the “national question” in Canada and by his participation, in depth, in the futurology of technological empire, are of direct consequence to his contributions to a master theory of communications. That McLuhan could find no moment of deviation between his civil humanism, founded on the defence of “civilization”, and his absorption into the intellectual appendages of empire, indicates, starkly and dramatically, precisely how inert and uncritical is the supervening value of “civilization”. McLuhan’s lasting legacy is, perhaps, a historical one: the inherent contradiction of his discourse in remaining committed to the very technostructure which had destroyed the possibility of “civilization” indicates the ultimate failure of civil humanism in modern politics. McLuhan’s humanism, and indeed his abiding Catholicism, could provide an inspiring vision of a more utopian human future; but in remaining tied to the “primacy of reason”, a reason which was fully abstracted from history and ontology, McLuhan’s discourse could always be easily turned from within. This was the comic aspect of the whole affair: the technological dynamo could also accept as its dominant value the “primacy of reason”; and, by extension, the application of technical reason, in politics, bureaucracy, science, and industry, to the proliferation of technological media. The technostructure thus absorbed McLuhan’s discourse on his own terms: it transposed his search for a new, universal civilization into an historical justification of technological necessitarianism; and it showed precisely how compatible the Catholic conception of “transcendent reason” is with the rationalising impulses of the technological system. McLuhan’s one possible avenue of escape: the recovery of a “grounded” and emergent cultural practice or, at least, some sense of “intimations of deprival” which had been silenced by the technological dynamo was, of course, firmly closed to him by his commitment to the universal over the local, and to the metaphorical over the historical. To dismiss McLuhan as a technological determinist is to miss entirely the point of his intellectual contribution. McLuhan’s value as a theorist of culture and technology began just when he went over the hill to the side of the alien and surrealistic world of mass communications: the “real world” of technology where the nervous system is exteriorised and everyone is videoated daily like sitting screens for television. Just because McLuhan sought to see the real world of technology, and even to celebrate technological reason as freedom, he could provide such superb, first-hand accounts of the new society of electronic technologies. McLuhan was fated to be trapped in the deterministic world of technology, indeed to become one of the intellectual servomechanisms of the machine-world, because his Catholicism failed to provide him with an adequate cultural theory by which to escape the hegemony of the abstract media systems that he had sought to explore. Paradoxically, however, it was just when McLuhan became most cynical and most deterministic, when he became fully aware of the nightmarish quality of the “medium as massage”, that his thought becomes most important as an entirely creative account of the great paradigm-shift now going on in twentieth-century experience. McLuhan was then, in the end, trapped in the “figure” of his own making. His discourse could provide a brilliant understanding of the inner functioning of the technological media; but no illumination concerning how “creative freedom” might be won through in the “age of anxiety, and dread.” In a fully tragic sense, McLuhan’s final legacy was this: he was the playful perpetrator, and then victim, of a sign-crime.99
1. H. A. Innis, Empire and Communications, Toronto: University of Toronto Press,1972, pp. 1-2.
2. M. McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Toronto: McGraw-Hill, 1964, p. 2.
3. The image of the “probe” runs through all of McLuhan’s writings, from Understanding Media to The Medium is the Massage.
4. M. McLuhan, “Catholic Humanism & Modern Letters”, Christian Humanism in Letters, Hartford, Connecticut: St. Joseph’s College, 1954, p. 78.
5. M. McLuhan, Counter Blast, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1969, p. 42.
6. The relationship of Empire, Inc. to the Canadian imagination was first developed by Michael Dorland in a brilliant essay, “Power, TV & the National Question: A Reproach”, Symposium on Television & Popular Culture, Queen’s University, March 2, 1983.
7. McLuhan’s most vivid description of the “technological sensorium” is provided in his writing, The Medium is the Massage. (with Quentin Fiore), New York: Bantam,1967, p. 26.
8. M . McLuhan, Counter Blast, p. 14.
9. For McLuhan’s extended analysis of the movie as a “mechanizing” medium see “The Reel World”, Understanding Media, pp. 284-296.
10. McLuhan also described the telegraph as a “social hormone”, Understanding Media, pp. 246-257.
11. M. McLuhan, Counter Blast, p. 16.
12. M. McLuhan, The Medium is the Massage, p. 26.
13. M. McLuhan, Counter Blast, p. 14.
14. Ibid., p. 31.
15. Ibid., p. 30.
16. Ibid., p. 26.
17. Ibid., p. 41.
18. Ibid., p. 14.
19. Ibid., pp. 22-23.
20. M. McLuhan, Understanding Media, p. 51.
21. M. McLuhan, “A Historical Approach to the Media”, Teacher’s College Record, 57(2), November, 1955, p. 110.
22. Ibid., p. 109.
23. Ibid., p. 110.
24. M. McLuhan, Through the Vanishing Point: Space in Poetry and Painting, New York: Harper and Row, 1968, p. 181.
26. Ibid., pp. 24-25.
27. Ibid., p. 24.
28. Ibid., p. 25.
29. Ibid., p. 24.
31. Ibid., p. 181.
32. The arts as “radar feedback” is a major theme of Understanding Media. See particularly the introductory comments, pp. vii-xi.
33. M. McLuhan, Through the Vanishing Point, p. 21.
34. M. McLuhan, Counter Blast, p. 31.
35. See particularly, M. McLuhan, The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man, New York: The Vanguard Press, 1951.
36. McLuhan wrote in Understanding Media, “To put one’s nerves outside, and one’s physical organs inside the nervous system, or brain, is to initiate a situation – if not a concept – of dread.” p. 222.
37. McLuhan’s most expansive statement on the relationship of the Catholic mind to the study of modern civilization is located in his article, “Catholic Humanism & Modern Letters”.
38. M. McLuhan, The Medium is the Massage, p. 68.
39. Jean Baudrillard, L’echange symbolique et la mort, Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1976, pp. 89-95.
40. McLuhan’s sense of communications as a new universalism is a unifying theme across his texts, from The Medium is the Massage to Understanding Media and Counter Blast. It was also a Catholic ethic which was at work in his thought about the media.
41. M. McLuhan, “Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters”, p. 75.
42. Ibid., p. 74.
43. Ibid., p. 80.
44. Ibid., pp. 75-76.
45. Ibid., p. 75.
46. Ibid., pp. 82-83.
47. Ibid., p. 80.
48. Indeed, McLuhan describes the “new media” of communication (…as…) magical art forms, “Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters”, p. 79.
49. M. McLuhan, The Medium is the Massage, p. 69.
50. M. McLuhan, Understanding Media, p. 56.
51. M. McLuhan, The Medium is the Massage, p. 120.
52. Ibid., p. 114.
53. See particularly, M. McLuhan, Counter Blast, p. 42.
54. M. McLuhan, Understanding Media, p. 64.
55. Ibid., p. 56.
56. M. McLuhan, “An Ancient Quarrel in Modern America” in The Interior Landscape: The Literary Criticism of Marshall McLuhan, 1943-62, edited by Eugene McNamara. Toronto: McGraw-Hill, 1969, p. 231.
57. M. McLuhan, “Joyce, Aquinas, and the Poetic Process”, Renascence 4(1), Autumn, 1951, pp. 3-4.
58. Ibid., p. 3.
60. Ibid., p. 7.
61. Ibid., p. 4.
62. Ibid., p. 5.
64. Ibid., p. 9.
65. Ibid., p. 8.
66. M. McLuhan and Quentin Fiore, The Medium is the Massage, p. 151.
67. For an illuminating account of the significance of Thucydides’ epistemology to modern consciousness, see Charles Cochrane, Thucydides and the Science of History, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1929.
68. See particularly, M. McLuhan’s “Joyce, Aquinas and the Poetic Process”, p. 3, and “Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters”, p.72.
69. McLuhan’s understanding of the creative possibilities of “simultaneity” and “instantaneous scope” is developed in The Medium is the Massage.
70. While McLuhan analyzes the phenomenon of “closure” in many of his writings, this concept is the locus of Counter Blast and Understanding Media.
71. M. McLuhan, Understanding Media, p. 26.
72. M. McLuhan, Counter Blast, p. 5.
73. Ibid., p. 42.
77. Ibid., p. 62.
78. M. McLuhan, Understanding Media.
79. Ibid., p. 42.
82. Ibid., p. 43.
83. See particularly, M. McLuhan, Understanding Media, p. 42, and Counter Blast, p. 17.
84. M. McLuhan, Understanding Media, p. 43.
85. Ibid., p. 252.
87. Ibid., p. 142.
88. McLuhan always counterposed the mythic, inclusive and in-depth viewpoint to the homogeneity of visual culture.
89. This was a main thematic of The Medium is the Massage, pp. 112-117.
90. Ibid., p. 120.
91. M. McLuhan and Quentin Fiore, The Medium is the Massage, p.142.
92. See especially, M. McLuhan, Understanding Media, p. 68.
95. Ibid., p. 80.
96. Ibid., p. 141.
97. M. McLuhan, “The Relation of Environment & Anti-Environment”, in F. Marsen’s The Human Dialogue: Perspectives on Communications, New York: The Free Press, 1967, p. 43.
98. Charles Norris Cochrane, “The Latin Spirit in Literature”, University of Toronto Quarterly, Vol. 2, No. 3, (1932 – 33), pp. 315-338.
99. Professor Andrew Wernick coined this term in describing the interplay of power/media in the thought of the contemporary French social theorist, Jean Baudrillard.