McLuhan Light and Dark

Marshall Soules

Like Innis, McLuhan’s best work focuses on the impact of communications technology on culture. In many ways, McLuhan’s work updates Empire and Communications and The Bias of Communication for an electronic age. (While Innis began an assessment of radio, he was deeply ambivalent and skeptical about its effects, since one of the most powerful models of its use in his experience was by Adolph Hitler.) McLuhan shares with Innis a bias for the oral over the written, and for many of the same reasons: the oral was more inclusive, less alienating than print; whereas oral communications fostered community and involvement, print culture fostered isolation, the distancing of perspective, and the cult of the individual.

McLuhan’s commentary on the media is characterized by an irrepressible playfulness and creative manipulation of ideas. He conveys a sense of optimism in the face of confusing sensory overload. He constantly uses analogy, metaphor, and other poetic figures to communicate his ideas about the media. For McLuhan, "The artist is the person who invents the means to bridge between biological inheritance and the environments created by technological innovation" (Laws of Media, 98). The artist connects linear, analytical left-brain activity with analogical, holistic right-brain activity. The trickster is the cultural archetype who mediates between these two functions--to keep society in balance--and McLuhan fashioned himself after the trickster. His work constantly asks us to abandon our fixed points of view to perceive what we take for granted in new ways.

In the "Preface" to The Mechanical Bride (1951), McLuhan proposes a strategy for counteracting the concerted effort of advertisers and media strategists to "get inside the public mind." He takes his analogy from the Edgar Allan Poe story, "Descent into the Maelstrom":

Poe’s sailor saved himself by studying the action of the whirlpool and by cooperating with it. The present book likewise makes few attempts to attack the very considerable currents and pressures set up around us today by the mechanical agencies of the press, radio, movies, and advertising. It does attempt to set the reader at the centre of the revolving picture created by these affairs where he may observe the action that is in progress and in which everybody is involved. From the analysis of that action, it is hoped, many individual strategies may suggest themselves. (Essential McLuhan, 21)
It is this strategic stance which distinguishes McLuhan from many media critics--like those associated with the Frankfurt or Birmingham Schools, or like Neil Postman, Mark Miller, Stewart Ewen and others--whose views imply an idealized literate culture corrupted by popular, commercialized, and manipulative media. McLuhan used his training as a literary critic to engage in a dialogue with the media from the centre of the maelstrom.

The Medium is the Message?

McLuhan is especially insistent that an analysis of media content is meaningless--misses the point--since it is the medium which carries the lion’s share of the communication. Simply put, the medium affects the body and the psyche in relatively unconscious ways; thus it is more powerful than the message, which largely appeals to the conscious mind. In their Introduction to the Essential McLuhan, Eric McLuhan and Frank Zingrone write:
The perception of reality now depends upon the structure of information. The form of each medium is associated with a different arrangement, or ratio, among the senses, which creates new forms of awareness. These perceptual transformations, the new ways of experiencing that each medium creates, occur in the user regardless of the program content. This is what the paradox, "the medium is the message," means. (3)
Speaking of paradoxes, McLuhan was untroubled by them. He reveled in paradox, much to the annoyance of his critics. His method as a media critic was to launch what he called "probes" and hope that when they landed they would generate more light than heat. For example, McLuhan illustrates the concept "the medium is the message" as follows in Understanding Media:
The instance of the electric light may prove illuminating in this connection. The electric light is pure information. It is a medium without a message, as it were, unless it is used to spell out some verbal ad or name. This fact, characteristic of all media, means that the "content" of any medium is always another medium. The content of writing is speech, just as the written word is the content of print, and print is the content of the telegraph. (151)
This passage is often quoted to demonstrate that either (1) McLuhan was a genius, or (2) that McLuhan was an intellectual quack. However, a reading of his work, especially his earlier books, reveals that McLuhan held to a relatively coherent set of principles for approaching the media, and that he was ultimately in the enlightenment business. In his interview with Playboy, McLuhan seeks to clarify some of the mis-understanding of media that has resulted from his work:
By stressing that the medium is the message rather than the content, I’m not suggesting that content plays no role--merely that it plays a distinctly subordinate role. Even if Hitler had delivered botany lectures, some other demagogue would have used the radio to retribalize the Germans and rekindle the dark atavistic side of the tribal nature that created European fascism in the Twenties and Thirties. By placing all the stress on content and practically none on the medium, we lose all chance of perceiving and influencing the impact of new technologies on man, and thus we are always dumfounded by--and unprepared for--the revolutionary environmental transformations induced by new media. (247)
I’m quoting McLuhan at length in these last two passages because they illustrate his characteristic intellectual style of juxtaposing ideas in close succession. He was a student of the symbolist poets and James Joyce, he was adept at the use of analogy to illustrate his ideas, and he cultivated an impression that he was comfortable with non-linear thinking. Reading McLuhan, we are impressed or not by the way he approaches media--using the vehicle of his mind, if you like--more than what he has to say.

Media as Extensions

Central to McLuhan’s method was the conviction that communications media alter the equilibrium of our senses. Media, in extending the senses, emphasize certain ones at the expense of others. To maintain a sense of balance, the psyche therefore alters in a corresponding way. McLuhan owes the idea of media as extensions of the body to Edward Hall: "Today man has developed extensions for practically everything he used to do with his body. The evolution of weapons begins with the teeth and the fist and ends with the atom bomb...Money is a way of extending and storing labor..." (Silent Language, 79) In Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, and The Medium is the Massage McLuhan elaborated on this central premise: the wheel extends the feet, the automobile the whole body, writing the eye, clothing the skin, satellite the planet, radio the ear. If the mechanical/industrial age extended the limbs and external organs, the electronic age extends the central nervous system.

McLuhan extended Hall’s concept with his insistence that the extension of one or another of the senses disturbed all the other faculties as a result. His books of the early 1960’s--The Gutenburg Galaxy and Understanding Media (1964)--struck a resonant chord with readers because McLuhan traced the psychic disturbances of the electric age to a global level of consciousness:

But the price we pay for special technological tools, whether the wheel or the alphabet or radio, is that these massive extensions of sense constitute closed systems. Our private senses are not closed systems but are endlessly translated into each other in that experience which we call con-sciousness...Now, in the electric age, the very instantaneous nature of co-existence among our technological instruments has created a crisis quite new in human history. Our extended faculties and senses now constitute a single field of experience which demands that they become collectively conscious. (EM,101)
Written in the early 60’s, these words seem strangely prophetic of the networking of computers into the Internet. In 1971, McLuhan suggested that "with the computer there has risen the possibility of extending consciousness itself as a technological environment. If this is to be done, it cannot be done on the basis of any existing notion of rationality."While the computer imposes a rigid dialectic of 1’s and 0’s onto all of knowledge, the human psyche, in its search for balance, seeks the reassuring inclusiveness of community. I think McLuhan felt he was on a mission to extend the notions of rationality to better fit us for the shock of transformational media.

The Laws of Media

Towards the end of his life, McLuhan and his son Eric embarked on a project to up-date the 1964 Understanding Media; the unexpected result was Laws of Media: The New Science (1988), published after McLuhan’s death (in 1980) by his son. Laws of Media seeks to answer the following questions: What statements can we make about media that anyone can test--prove or disprove? What do all media have in common? What do they do? These questions resulted in the formulation of the following four laws of media:
  1. Extension/Enhancement: Every technology extends or amplifies some organ or faculty of the user. What does the medium enhance or intensify?

  2. Closure/Obsolescence: Because there is equilibrium in sensibility, when one area of experience is heightened or intensified, another is diminished or numbed. What is pushed aside or obsolesced by the new medium?

  3. Reversal: Every form, pushed to the limit of its potential, reverses its characteristics.

  4. Retrieval: The content of any medium is an older medium.

This tetrad of the effects of technologies is not sequential, but rather simultaneous. All four aspects are inherent from the start, and all four aspects are complementary.

The &

212 Week-to-Week