Tag Archives: Marshall McLuhan

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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The Medium and The Light – Reflections on Religion

The ‘fact that Christianity began in Greco-Roman culture really is of enormous significance’ for McLuhan who ‘discovered fairly soon that a thing has to be tested on its terms’. Eric Havelock explains that it was the greek medium of the phonetic alphabet that made it possible for ‘men to have for the first time in human history a sense of private identity. A sense of private substantial identity – a self – is to this day utterly unknown to tribal society.’ In this sense McLuhan argue that under Ghengis Khan Christianity could have become what it is now. A centralized, bureaucratic institution with little awareness about the way technology it employs shapes its characteristics.Literacy in Traditional Societies edited by Jack Goody ‘shows not the slightest awareness that the many non-phonetic forms of literacy have no civilizing effects whatever. Civilization is a technical event. There is no other alphabet that has the effect of upgrading the visual powers at the expense of all the other senses. It is the dominance of the visual faculty that creates civilized values.’ McLuhan explains that ‘Havelock was the person who explored the fact that the private individual person was in fact an artifact, or development, from the technology of the phonetic alphabet’ and less an ‘inevitable aspect of the human condition’.

Christians, however, have a peculiar war to fight which concerns their identity. The Christian feels the downward mania of the earth and its treasures, and is just as inclined to conform his sensibilities to man-made environments as anyone else. When the secular man senses a new technology is offering a threat to his hard-won human image of self-identity, he struggles to escape from this new pressure. When a community is threatened in its image of itself by rivals or neighbors, it goes to war. Any technology that weakens a conventional identity image creates a response of panic and rage which we call “war”. Heinrich Hertz, the inventor of radio, put the matter very briefly: “The consequence of the image will be the image of the consequences.”
When the identity image which we enjoy is shattered by new technological environments or by invaders of our lives who possess new weaponry, we lash back first by acquiring their weaponry and then by using it. What we ignore is that in acquiring their weaponry we also destroy our former identity. That is, we create new sensory environements which ‘scrub’ our old images of ourselves. Thus war is not only education but also a means of accelerated social evolution. It is these changes that only the Christian can afford to laugh at.

The ‘body of Christ’ is the mental landscape for a Christian for whom faith, as a way of knowing, operates in the realm of percepts, not that of concepts. ‘It is a mode of spiritual awareness and knowing, as acute and as real as vision, touch, smell, hearing. . but a spiritual rather than a bodily sense’. Nobody needs to tell oneself to smell, if you smell something you know that you do it. And the same is true for the faith. In Nietsche’s phrase ‘god is dead’ he interprets ‘that the Incarnation was His death because He became visible. Now in the non-visual time, the visual alienates them… the God who is dead, of course, is the Newtonian God, the visual image of a visually-organized cosmos. With the dethronement of the visual sense by the audile-tactile media of radio and TV, religion, or the relating to the divine, can no longer have a primarily visual bias. The present irrelevance of our political and educational establishments stems from the same situation. God, of course, is not involved in any of this.’

The foundations of social survival are, however, to be found in a switch from reason to passion, from fear to love. And the possibility of the switchover resides in our capacity today to discover the creative dynamics of norm-making. Norm, the region of passion and flux, was no basis for any past city. But norm seen as a produce of an individual and collective creative activity may be a clue to a new social dynamics.

Its a good book with material relating Mcluhan to his complex relationship with the Christian faith. A blog that talks about it is helpful but the best recipe is to read the whole book. It relates also Mcluhan with memetics in which I am interested in. The impact of Mass Media on the Church is a fairly recent doctoral thesis from a polish clerk Father Dariusz Gronowski. If anyone reads my lines and has a copy in english, drop me a line.

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