Category Archives: McLuhans Idea of a New Science

Marshall McLuhan 1976 – Television as extension of tactility


Concept: Simultaneous/instantaneous world]

[McLuhan]At the speed of light there is no sequence. Everything happens at the same instant. That’s acoustic when everything happens at once. There’s no continuity; There’s no connection; There’s no follow through; It’s just all now. And that by the way is the way any sport is. Sports tend to be like that. And in terms of the new lingo of the hemispheres, it’s all right hemisphere. Games are all right hemisphere because they involve the whole man and they are all participatory and they are all uncertain. There’s no continuity. It’s just all a surprise, unexpectedness and total involvement.

[Snyder]Is that okay, do you think?

[McLuhan]The hemisphere thing?

[Snyder]Yes, but I mean the whole thing, all surprise, all spontaneity, no connection, just all at one time. Is that okay for people?

[McLuhan]Well, okay meaning is it good for people?


[McLuhan]We live in a world where everything is supposed to be one thing ata time, lineal, connected, logical, and goal oriented. So, obviously for that left hemisphere world, this new right hemisphere dominance is bad. We’re now living in a world which pushes the right hemisphere way up because it’s an all-at-once world. The right hemisphere it’s an all-at-once, simultaneous world. So the right hemisphere, by pushing up into dominance, is making the old left hemisphere world, which is our educational establishment, our political establishment, make it look very foolish.

[Concept: What TV does best]

[Snyder]What do you think is the most …I want to use the word effective, but that’s not the right word. I’m talking about television here. What has the greatest impact on the audience? Is television best when it covers an event like a space shot or the Olympics or a baseball game? Is it best when it tries to entertain with movies at night, when it tries to inform with news programs that have film of things that have already happened.

[McLuhan]The advantage of coverage of sports events is they are ritualistic. The group gathered there is participating in a ritual. Now the Olympics were even more a group ritual than the ordinary competitive event like a single ball game because they had a corporate meaning. It was not just local. It had a sort of worldwide meaning. This is itself a ritualistic participation in a large process. Television fosters and favors a world of corporate participation in ritualistic programming. That’s what I mean when I say it’s a cool medium. It’s not a hot medium. A hot medium like the newspaper can cover single events with very high intensity. TV is not good at covering single events. It needs a ritual, a rhythm and a pattern. And that’s why a lot of advertising on TV you see is too hot, too specialized, too fragmentary. It doesn’t have that ritualistic flow. But the advertisers are aware of this and they’re doing a lot to correct it. But I think that is the great secret of a thing like the Olympics. People have the feeling of participating as a group in a great meaningful ritual. And it doesn’t much matter who wins. That isn’t the point. I think TV tends to foster that type of pattern in events. Well, you might say it tends to foster patterns rather than events. I was here during the tornado or the…


[McLuhan]…hurricane and I was amazed at the excitement that it generated in everybody, the expectancy. And it was covered so thoroughly that it dissipated the storm itself. The coverage actually got rid of the storm. I think that is one of the functions of news, to blow up the storm so big that you can dissipate it by coverage. It’s a way of getting rid of the pressure by coverage. But you can actually dissipate a situation by giving it maximal coverage. It’s very disappointing from one angle, but it’s survival from another. It would be a kind of a hangover effect because it’s a very addictive medium and you take it away and people develop all the symptoms of a hangover, very uncomfortable. It was tried, remember? A few years ago they ctually paid people not to watch TV for a few months.

[Snyder]Now don’t you get into alarming people?

[McLuhan]That’s done by rumors not by coverage, but hints, suggestions. But the big coverage merely enables people to get together and enjoy the sort of a group emotion. It’s like being at a ball game, a big group emotion. But I do think that that taught me that one of the mysteries of coverage is it’s a way of releasing tension and pressure.

[Concept: TV is an addictive medium]

[Snyder]What would happen if you could shut off television for 30 days in the entire United States of America?

[McLuhan]It would be a kind of a hangover effect because it’s a very addictive medium and you take it away and people develop all the symptoms of a hangover, very uncomfortable. It was tried, remember? A few years ago they ctually paid people not to watch TV for a few months.

[Snyder]I don’t recall that but I’m sure…

[McLuhan]It was in Gemany. It was in the UK. And they discovered they had all the withdrawal symptoms of drug addicts, very uncomfortable, all the trauma of withdrawal symptoms. TV is a very involving medium and it is a form of inner trip and so people do miss it.

[Snyder]The thought just occurred to me that possibly if you turned off television there would be a lot of people who would say, at the end of the 30 day period, we will not permit you to turn it back on. Do you think that could happen?

[McLuhan]A great many of the teenagers have stopped watching television. They’re saturated. Saturation is a possibility. About the possibility of reneging on any future TV, I doubt it. I doubt that except through saturation. But the TV thing is so demanding and, therefore, so soporific, that it requires an enormous amount of energy to participate in. You don’t have that freedom of detachment.

[Snyder]We’re just talking about basic television programs.

[McLuhan]Yes, but one of the effects of television is to remove people’s private identity. They become corporate peer group people just by watching. They lose interest in being private individuals. And so this is one of the hidden and perhaps insidious effects of television.

[Concept: Charisma]

[Snyder]Have you watched enough of Jimmy Carter during all the primaries to figure out why he has been so effective with his presentations on television?

[McLuhan]Oh, I haven’t seen a great deal. But his charisma is very simply identified. He looks like an awful lot of other people. He looks like an all American boy, like all the American boys that ever were, which is charisma. Charisma means looking a lot of other people. If you just look like yourself, you have no charisma. So Carter has a lot of built in charisma of looking like a lot of other guys, very acceptable guys.

[Snyder]How helpful would you be to Mr. Carter or whomever the Republicans choose, if they were to come to you and say, “you know Mr. McLuhan, we’d like to hire you for a specified fee to advice us on a political campaign?”

[McLuhan]I could tell them when they were hot hotting up the image too much and phasing out that charisma. The temptation of any campaign manager is to hot up the image until it alienates everybody and they don’t realize when they’re doing it.

[Snyder]How do you know when the image is getting too hot?

[McLuhan]Specialized. The moment it begins to specialize and phases out the group.

[Snyder]What do you mean specialize?

[McLuhan]It begins to look more and more like one guy. It begins to look more and more like Jimmy Carter and less and less like the rest of America.

[Snyder]Forgive my impertinence, but has anybody asked you why you are sometimes difficult to understand?

[McLuhan]It’s because I use the right hemisphere when they’re trying to use the left one.

[Snyder]Okay well…


[Snyder]After I get back on one…

[McLuhan]You see, ordinarily, people are trained to try to follow you and to connect everything you say with what they last heard. They’re not prepared to use their wits. They’re only prepared to use the idea they picked the first time and try to connect it to another idea. So,if you’re in a situation that is flexible, where you have to use your wits and perceptions, they can’t follow you. They have preconceptions that phase them out at once. You see, that’s left hemisphere. But I use the right hemisphere a great deal which is a world of perception, no concepts.

[Snyder]Got you, got you, and you don’t try to connect things. You just let the right hemisphere take over and let it go.

[McLuhan]And watch what’s happening. So, that’s the way the cookie crumbles sort of thing, where you don’t know what’s going to happen, but you follow the crumble.

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Marshall McLuhan 1968 – The End of Polite Society

Marshall McLuhan 1968 – The End of Polite Society 



[Concept: The electric age is the dawn of the greatest of all human ages]

[McLuhan]Well, for heaven’s sake, this present time we’re moving into, this electric age, is the dawn of much the greatest of all human ages. There’s nothing to even remotely resemble the scope of human awareness and human –

[Fulford]Now a value judgment.

[McLuhan]No, this is quantity. Most people make their judgments in terms of quality. I’m merely saying, quantitatively, this is by far the greatest human age. What further valuations would you wish to make?

[Fulford]Oh, I thought when you said “greatest” you meant the finest, that is –


[Mailer]There would be biggest, more admirable than the Renaissance (unclear), or something. Do you mean the biggest or –

[McLuhan]Yes, we are a thousand times greater than the Victorian age –

[Muggeridge]In size but not in quality.

[McLuhan]I don’t know …

[Mailer]There must be some way. Let’s say if there is a God, it’s possible he might measure these affects by how a handful of air seemed to him … He might take a handful of air and say “Marvellous” and then take another and say “Automobile exhaust.”

[Muggeridge]Contrary to what Marshall has so brilliantly suggested in all his writing, I think there are absolute standards in this thing [called] culture – in art and literature. And that [through] these standards you can measure one age against another. And we happen to have lived – a great misfortune really – we happen to have lived in what amounts to a dark ages.

[McLuhan]We’re a highly integral civilization, and this is what distresses people who belong to he old specialist, disintegrated one. They can’t find a little place for themselves.

[Muggeridge]Are you sure … are you absolutely sure that this is the birth struggle of a new civilization?

[McLuhan]Oh yeah.

[Muggeridge]Are you absolutely sure that it’s not just the break –

[McLuhan]No, the circuit is new.

[Muggeridge]That’s what I think is perhaps the whole difference between North America and Europe, really: over here you do believe that. You do, you do.

[McLuhan]That’s because you have a bigger stake in the old technology.

[Muggeridge]Well, over here you’re inclined to think that all these things thatyou imagine to be of such enormous importance – for instance, this thing we’re doing now on television, because there are a lot of people who goop at television for hours every day – you’re inclined to think that’s an enormously important thing. And I just think it’s a sign of the kind of vacuity that comes when a civilization breaks down – like [the Roman circuses]. If there’d been a Marshall McLuhan then – Caius Marcus McLunicus – he would have written a great book about the circuses, and he’d have said here’s this new civilization.

[McLuhan]No, there was no new technology. Caesar, by the way, educated the Gauls by [means of] wars. The approved Western method of educating backward areas is warfare. Alexander the Great did it that way too, and Napoleon. I was reading a book on the Russian Revolution the other day in which the author explained enthusiastically that the great forward thrust in Russian institutions came from the Napoleonic invasions – and then from the Crimean War. What is happening in Vietnam now is a great educational forward thrust from us on the war front – on the war path.

[Fulford]It’s very pleasant to think of it that way.

[McLuhan]I think it’s horrible – it’s like roast pig, you know, Charles Lamb’s theory of –


[McLuhan]You want roast pig? Then burn your house down.

[Muggeridge]Yes. I’m a bit inclined to agree with you. But I don’t think it’s done consciously.

[McLuhan]Oh no, we’d never do anything consciously.

[Fulford]Would you say that this North American society is basically optimistic still?

[Muggeridge]Yes, I would.

[Fulford]European is basically pessimistic?

[Muggeridge]In a very general term, and I would – rather sticking my neck out, and Marshall may disagree with me very strongly – say this, that you over here do believe that the environment men create governs their nature and their lives. And I don’t believe in that. I think that this is only a very small part.

[McLuhan]We are of 18th-century origin, and it was precisely at that time that Rousseau suggested the theory that the environment was the great educator.

[Muggeridge]That’s right. And a load of rubbish it was. Absolutely rubbish which has produced the present chaotic state.

[McLuhan]The nature of the teaching machine is now capable of being programmed by human intention.

[Muggeridge]Yes, but you see this in a way, Marshall, that’s just words.


[Muggeridge]You program it like men program computers. You mean they put in something and –


[Muggeridge]– then the computer. But you see that’s –

[McLuhan]It’s like programming lighting levels, sound levels, temperature levels –

[Muggeridge]This is my great point that I’m trying to make: that that is not life, that’s a surface thing, you see.


[Muggeridge]And I think that life’s about something more than that.

[McLuhan]It’s like saying, though, isn’t it, that disease is not just a matter of symptoms. On the other hand, if you can get rid of all the symptoms, who cares about what disease you have?

[Muggeridge]Yes, but the simple fact, taking that analogy, is that treating the symptoms does not kill the disease.

[McLuhan]No, but getting rid of the symptoms does.

[Muggeridge]Well, not completely. Very often if you just treat a symptom and get rid of it, you get another one

[Fulford]What do you think of the young people who are in this hippie thing? You’re one of their favorite people. Are they among your favorite people?

[McLuhan]Well, I can’t say that I have given them too much cause for comfort or I haven’t done very much beside just observe what they …or what sort of form that their behaviour seems to indicate is behind their life. And I can see clearly that they are desirous of a very much more rich involvement in social life, and the mere finding of little niches and jobs and so on will not satisfy them.

[Fulford]Aren’t they becoming tribalized the way you say the whole world is, and they’re actually doing it? They even use the word, don’t they?

[McLuhan]I don’t know, but tribal is not a new form exactly. But post-literate tribal is a very different matter from pre-literate tribal. And we’re tribalizing simply by virtue of a much closer family, a sense of the human family.

[Muggeridge]In this part of the world, you are inclined to say now, as Marshall, that 200 years ago printing was invented –

[McLuhan]Five hundred.

[Muggeridge]Five hundred years ago, printing was invented.

[Mailer]Life’s never been the same since then.

[Muggeridge]I don’t agree with that. I think that printing or television, all these things, they affect the surface of man, but the fascination of life to me is the exact opposite – what I find in Socrates and Augustine and St. Paul, all those people who lived before printing –

[McLuhan]But not before writing. By the way, Socrates … there’s a wonderful book by Eric Havelock called Preface to Plato in which he just mentions in passing that what Socrates’ great contribution was to the dialectic was the ability to say, “Would you mind repeating that please.” This kind of Socratic irony, the Socratic questioning,was a playback. With the coming of writing, the possibility of playback came into human society for the first time. Socrates was very much a product of technology, new technology.

[Muggeridge]But I wouldn’t … Marshall, wouldn’t presume to dispute it. But what I would say is that if you, as far as I’ve been able in a very sort of amateur way to read and think about the various contributions to knowledge which have been produced at different times, the thing that astonishes me about them is the huge area which is the same, which is constant, and how narrow is the area that belongs to particular environmental changes where a civilization is in a very stable or advanced state or where it’s in a chaotic state. You know, there are two questions that you can ask about life, really. You can ask the question “How?” and you can ask the question “Why?” Now I’m passionately interested in the question Why, and I’m not much interested in the question How. But I think you’re enormously interested in the question How.

[Concept: The end of polite society]

[McLuhan]You know the phrase “polite society”? That, when that came in,this historically meant a society that established its values on theword or the behaviour that was capable of inspection, that would bear looking at. And polite society no longer is with us because we no longer live in a visual culture. And so the values of polite society are for the birds. And I’m not free of the nostalgic look back at some of those old values. On the other hand, I can see why they’ve gone down the drain and I can see why new ones are forming right under our noses. I can see why the new ones create such revulsion, total recoil.



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Marshall McLuhan 1965 – The Future of Man in the Electric Age

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.

Kermode: Yes.

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.

Kermode: Yes.

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?

Kermode: Hm.

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.

Kermode: Yeah.

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.


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Through The Vanishing Point – First – Sensory Modes

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.



The continuity of interface and dialogue between the sister arts should provide a rich means of training perception and 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.


To be continued

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Through The Vanishing Point – Space in Poetry and Painting

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.

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