Understanding Marshal McLuhan

This review, written by Dennis Lewis, first appeared in “Explorations” (Number 14, August 1968), a monthly magazine published by Exploration Publishing Company, Berkeley CA.

McLuhan bookRight now you probably think you’re awake. It isn’t true. You’re in a kind of hypnotic trance. But you don’t know it. That, essentially, is the theme of Marshall McLuhan’s book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man.

The medium itself is the message, warns McLuhan. The very form in which the message appears is itself the message. And what we’ve been doing is paying attention to the message but ignoring the message-quality of the medium. Meanwhile, our perception is transformed by the process itself. The medium, as message, takes us unawares, influencing us without our knowledge: hypnotizing us.

Right here it might be well to point out that McLuhan includes technology as a medium-as-message. Technology’s “message,” he writes, “is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs.”

Not only did the railway introduce more rapid movement, it also “accelerated and enlarged the scale of previous human functions, creating totally new kinds of cities and new kinds of work and leisure.” Likewise, the airplane did much more than contribute a further acceleration. It tended to dissolve the older railway form of city. “The railways require a uniform political and economic space. On the other hand, airplane and radio permit the utmost discontinuity and diversity in spatial organization.”

The electric light has a “message” (i.e., unconscious effect), too. “The message of the electric light,” McLuhan contends, “is like the message of electric power in industry, totally radical, pervasive, and decentralized. For electric light and power are separate from their uses, yet they eliminate time and space factors in human association exactly as do radio, telegraph, telephone, and TV, creating involvement in depth.” (Involvement is caused by a “cool” medium in which little information is given, thus demanding that the audience participate more; “hot” media do not leave so much to be completed by the audience. The telephone is cool; a movie is hot.)

Electric light does more than illuminate. It alters the pattern of our living. Man is no longer as much a slave to the cycle of day and night. What were formerly daytime activities now extend into the night. Sports, medicine, the arts, reading, sleeping, lovemaking, business–nearly every human activity–have felt the effects of this instant illumination which makes possible a permanent daytime. The electric age has established a “global network,” quite analogous to the central nervous system, though on a larger scale, where the slightest impulse in one area has immediate reverberations in others.

A more subtle example of the medium as message is the alphabet. Not only is our alphabet a simplified medium for creating words, it unconsciously conditions us to adopt a way of experiencing reality which is lineal and causative–a kind of “assembly-line” mode of perception that is primarily visual and, more important, that is seldom in touch with the actual rhythms of human experience.

The clock, which produces uniform seconds, minutes , and hours, reinforces this attitude of lineality. But infinitely repeated seconds, like the infinitely repeatable letters which make up the alphabet, have no real counterpart in human experience.

In contrast, the Chinese ideogram or Egyptian hieroglyph springs out of an intense oral and tactile–as well as visual–tradition. It’s a tradition that depends on a more balanced relationship among the senses. No one sense predominates.

Our emphasis on the visual sense, extended by phonetic literacy, declares McLuhan, “fosters the analytic habit of perceiving the single facet in the life of forms. The visual power enables us to isolate the single incident in time and space, as in representational art. In visual representations of a person or an object, a single phase or moment or aspect is separated from the multitude of known or felt phases, moments and aspects of the person or object. By contrast, iconographic art uses the eye as we use our hand in seeking to create an inclusive image, made up of many moments, phases, and aspects…” Man finds himself fragmented as a result of the predominance of one sense over another. The possibility of a “whole” experience, an experience of the total field, depends on the degree to which a man is able to allow his various senses to co-operate with each other.

What this means is that Western man has become trapped in the fixed point of view. What he needs to get out of this is the discovery of an iconographic, or inclusive, approach to experience. The fixed point of view excludes those moments, phases, or aspects which do not fit into its framework.

By itself, the eye can know only a limited part of reality. And when conditioned by literacy, its limitations are even more severe.

Television, McLuhan contends, will bring about a more balanced mixing of the senses. “The TV image…is an extension of the sense of touch. Where it encounters a literate culture, it necessarily thickens the sense-mix, transforming fragmented and specialist extensions into a seamless web of experience.”

Now, McLuhan may be right in his contention that TV involves more of man’s senses in depth. But, even granting that this is the case, McLuhan does not seem to notice that this involvement may still be very representational, or “fixed point of view.” The person who identifies completely with his hero is unable to understand another’s hero. The viewer’s submersion may be so complete that he forgets he is sitting in front of an electronic box, experiencing feelings, thoughts, and actions suggested to him from without. This is hypnotism par excellence and seems to have little to do with awareness.

Awareness depends not only on involvement, but detachment as well. McLuhan himself points this out when he tells us that “when we want to get the bearings in our own culture, and have the need to stand aside from the bias and pressure exerted by any technical form of human experience, we have only to visit a society where that particular form has not been felt, or a historical period in which it was unknown.”

And in order to be more aware of ourselves, to awaken from our hypnotic trance, it is necessary somehow to get outside of the most habitual pressures of our own psychological structure.

Share This Page!