Marshall McLuhan 1968 – The End of Polite Society
Marshall McLuhan 1965 – The Future of Man in the Electric Age
Kermode: In a sense, you have been a historian as you’ve gone about your work. Let’s talk rst a little, if we may, about your book The Guten- berg Galaxy, where you argue that for a long time, without actually understanding it, we’ve been living in a culture in which our whole way of looking at the world has been determined by typography, by the successiveness of print and so on. Would you like to enlarge on that a bit?
McLuhan: Well, I remember I decided to write that book when I came across a piece by the psychiatrist, J.C. Carruthers, on the African mind in health and disease, describing the e ects of the printed word on the African populations – it startled me and decided me to plunge in. We have a better opportunity of seeing our old technologies when they confront other populations elsewhere in the world – the e ects they have on most people are so startling and so sud- den that we have an opportunity to see what happened to us over many centuries.
Kermode: Yes, which we couldn’t see because we’re inside the system.
Kermode: Don’t you say that what happened was that we got used to having our information processed as it is in print – that is to say it’s set out successively – whereas at the root of your thoughts, perhaps, there’s the view that we can see the world as an image instanta- neously, but that we’ve chosen, under the pressure of a technolo- gy, to set it out successively like a block of print.
Well, every technology has its own ground rules, as it were. It de- cides all sorts of arrangements in other spheres. The e ect of script and the ability to make inventories and collect data and store da- ta changed many social habits and processes back as early as 3000 BC. However, that’s about as early as scripts began. The e ects of rearranging one’s experience, organizing one’s experience by these new extensions of our powers, are quite unexpected. Per- haps one way of putting it is to say that writing represents a high degree of specializing of our powers.
Compared to pre-literate societies, there’s a considerable concen- tration on one faculty when you develop a skill like scripting.
Kermode: Well, this is the visual – what you call the visual sense.
Yes, this is a highly specialized stress, compared to anything in or- dinary aural societies. There’ve been many studies made of this in various ways, but in our own Western world the rise of the pho- netic alphabet seems to have had much to do with platonic culture and the ordering of experience in the terms of ideas – classifying of data and experience by ideas.
Kermode: You mean that sight has become the pre-eminent sense, as it was with Plato, and it went on being so in so-called civilized, as op- posed to primitive, societies?
Increasingly so, to the –
Kermode: – and climaxed with the invention of printing –
Printing stepped it up to a considerable pitch, yes.
Kermode: Now, how would you describe the impact of the invention of the printing press? Give us some instances of what happened as a con- sequence of it.
It created – almost overnight it created what we call a national- ism, what in e ect was a public. The old manuscript forms were not su ciently powerful instruments of technology to create pub- lics in the sense that print was able to do – uni ed, homogeneous, reading publics.
Everything that we prize in our Western world in matters of in- dividualism, separatism, and of unique point of view and private judgment – all those factors are highly favored by the printed word, and not really favored by other forms of culture like radio or earlier by the manuscript. But this stepping up of the fragmented, the private, the individual, the private judgment, the point of view, in fact our whole vocabularies, underwent huge change with the arrival of such technology.
Kermode: Now, could I ask you about the technology which, in your view, is superseding it and which is having its own e ect on our lives, com- parable with, though of course entirely di erently in kind to, the Gutenberg technology?
Well, the Gutenberg technology was mechanical to an extreme de- gree. In fact, it originated a good deal of the later mechanical revo- lution assembly-line style and the fragmentation of the operations and functions as the very rationale of industrialization.
This fragmentation had begun much earlier, after the hunter and the food Gatherers, with Neolithic man. I suppose, in an extreme way, one might say Gutenberg was the last phase of the Neolithic revolution. Gutenberg plus the industrial revolution that followed was a pushing of specialism that came in with the Neolithic man, the agrarian revolution – pushing of specialism all the way, and then suddenly we encountered the electric or electromagnetism, which seems to have a totally di erent principle. It is, some people feel, an extension of our nervous system, not an extension merely of our bodies?
If the wheel is an extension of feet, and tools of hands and arms, then electromagnetism seems to be in its technological manifes- tations an extension of our nerves and becomes mainly an infor- mation system. It is above all a feedback or looped system. But the peculiarity, you see, after the age of the wheel, you suddenly en- counter the age of the circuit. The wheel pushed to an extreme sud- denly acquires opposite characteristics. This seems to happen with a good many technologies – that if they get pushed to a very dis- tant point, they reverse their characteristics.
Kermode: What difference is the electric technology making to our interest in content in what the medium actually says?
One of the e ects of switching over to circuitry from mechanical moving parts and wheels is an enormous increase in the amount of information that is moving. You cannot cope with vast amounts of information in the old fragmentary classi ed patterns. You tend to go looking for mythic and structural forms in order to manage such complex data, moving at very high speeds, so the electric en- gineers often speak of pattern recognition as a normal need of peo- ple processing data electrically and by computers and so on – a need for pattern recognition. It’s a need which the poets foresaw a century ago in their drive back to mythic forms of organizing ex- perience.
Kermode: Well, here we are, a couple of archaic literate men, Gutenberg men, talking on the television. What is the audience getting from this? Is it listening to what we’re saying, or is it feeling the impact of a new electric medium?
There is a book called Is Anybody Listening? It’s what worries the advertising men a great deal. The idea of feedback, of being in- volved in one’s own participation, in one’s own audience partici- pation, is a natural product of circuitry. Everything under electric conditions is looped. You become folded over into yourself. Your image of yourself changes completely.
Kermode: In the other book, Understanding Media, where you … use a kind of slogan, I think the expression is the “medium is the message.” Would you like to illuminate that?
I think it is more satisfactory to say that any medium, be it radio or be it wheel, tends to create a completely new human environ- ment.
The human environment, as such, tends to have a kind of invisible character about it. The unawareness of the environmental is com- pensated for by the attention to the content of the environment. The environment as merely a set of ground rules and as a kind of overall enveloping force gets very little recognition as a form, ex- cept from the artist. I think our arts, if you look at them in this con- nection, do throw quite a lot of light on environments. The artist is usually engaged in somewhat excitedly explaining to people the character of new environments and new strategies of culture nec- essary to cope with them. Blake is an extreme case of a man who was absolutely panicked by the kind of new environment that he saw forming around him under the auspices of Newton and Locke and industrialism – he thought it was going to smash the unity of the imaginative and sensory life all to bits. But the artist, what he was insisting upon in his own lifetime, became quite a popular and widespread movement later.
Kermode: Can I return to television because here we are, whoever’s listening to us, is also undergoing the impact of television at the moment. On your view, they’re all deceiving themselves insofar as they’re paying attention to what we’re saying, because what’s going on is a medium which is in itself the image that they ought to be concern- ing themselves with.
As the Western world has invested every aspect of its waking life with visual order, with procedures and spaces that are uniform, continuous and connected, it has progressively alienated iteself from needful involvement in its subconscious life.
Our manner of juxtaposing a poem with a painting is designed to illuminate the world of verbal space – speech – through an understanding of spaces as they have been defined and explored through the plastic arts – sculpture -. The verbal medium is so completely environmental as to escape all perceptual study in terms of its plastic values. Everybody can talk, but few can paint. A dialogue between the different forms and qualities of the sister arts of poetry and painting needs no defense, but there has been little exercise of such a dialogue, especially with particular references. There has been some speculation from time to time on the lines of ul pictura poesis. The advantage of using two arts, both poetry and painting, simultaneously is that one permits a journey inward, the other a journey outward to the appearance of things.
(ICONIC modes) POETRIE —> INWARD
OUTWARD<— PAINTING (ILLUSTRATIVE modes)
The continuity of interface and dialogue between the sister arts should provide a rich means of training perception and sensibility.
SENSE <—> SENSIBILITY
We hope that the jagged edges of our iconic thrusts and queries will serve to open up, rather than to close, the imagery of the perceptual field.
In many of the sections of the book the reader will encounter a concern with the differences between iconic and illustrative modes in art and poetry. It is our purpose to provide a contemporary audience with the tools for discovery of a common ground among the manifestations of art in the world. Though the artistic intentions of the primitive artist and the Renaissance artist may be poles apart, the artistic effect under all conditions is a situation that serves to highten percetion. All the arts might be considered to act as counterenvironments or countergradients.
= COUNTER – GRADIENTS (the absence of a clear-cut boundary between one category and another, for example between cup andmug in semantics.)
Any environmental form whatsoever saturates perception so that its own character is imperceptible; it has the power to distort or deflect human awareness. Even the most popular arts can serve to increase the level of awareness, at least until they become entirely environmental and unperceived. (like the every day objects in POP ART) A liberating perspective on the art’s effect upon human limited sense of foresight.
HUMAN’s have a peculiar sense of foresight. It manifests itself in the ability to endure time for a goals in the far future. Nature has no foresight in itself other than what evolution’s fines product is able to deduce from its investigation.
THE RETURN OF FORMAL SPACE
To be continued
by Herbert Marshall McLuhan and Harley Parker
Since the advent of electric circuitry in the early nineteenth century, the need for sensory awareness has become more acute. Perhaps the mere speed-up of human events and the resulting increase in interfaces among all men and institutions insure a multitude of innovations that upset all existing arrangements whetever.
By the same token, men have moved along with difficulty toward the arts in the hope of increased sensory awareness. The artist has the power to discern the current environment created by the latest technology. Ordinary human instinct causes people to flinch back in fear from these new environments and to rely on the rear-view mirror as a kind of repeat or ricorso of the preceding environment, thus insuring total disorientation at all times. It is not that there is anything wrong with the old environment, but it simply will not serve as navigational guide to the new one.
Paradoxically, war as an educational institution serves to bring people into contact with the new technological environments that the artist had seen much earlier. Complementarily, education can be seen as a kind of war conducted by the Establishment to keep the sensory life in line with existing commitments. It also serves to keep the sensory life out of touch with innovation. ” History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”
If war can become a form of education, art ceases to be a form of self-expression in the electric age. Indeed, it becomes a necessary kind of research and probing. Ashley Montagu has pointed out that the more civilization, the more violence. What he fails to note is the reason for this.
Civilization is founded upon the isolation and domination of society by the visual sense. The visual sense created a kind of human identity of the self requires persistent violence, both to one’s self and to others. As Joyce put it, “Love thy label as thyself.” Labels as classification are extreme forms of visual culture. As the visual bias declines, the other senses come into play once more, The arts have been expounding this fact for more than a century.