Sense and Nonsense of McLuhan

Sidney Finkelstein

7

McLuhan’s Totalitarianism and Human Resilience


McLUHAN’S DESCRIPTION of the world rapidly approaching through the new electronic media and technology comes as balm to the heart of those lacerated by the troubles of our day. One world of humanity is at hand, whether we like it or not, he says. Are people worried, or indignant, over tensions in Africa and the Middle East, or by the barbarous spectacle of the most wealthy and industrially advanced country in the world employing all its technology to massacre the people of Vietnam? This, he says, is merely a rough form of bringing equilibrium among cultures. War was always “the speedy dumping of industrial products on an enemy market to the point of saturation. Way, in fact, can be seen as a process of achieving equilibrium among unequal technologies” (p. 299). Are white people worried about the ghetto uprisings or the clamor of Negro people against their condemnation to joblessness, slums and discrimination? Take heart, McLuhan says, brotherhood is being forced on us by electric technology. The world is becoming a village, with the kinship that characterized the primitive tribal village. “As electrically contracted, the globe is no more than a village.... It is this implosive factor that alters the position of the Negro, the teenager, and some

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other groups.... They are now involved in our lives, as we in theirs, thanks to the electric media" (p. 20).

McLuhan warns against “the folly of alarm about unemployment” (p. 304). Let automation throw more people out of work. It points to a future when nobody will have to work, and everybody will be rich, like coupon-clippers. A Land of Cockaigne is at hand, when the biggest problem of people will be that of finding something to do, or something to spend their money on. “The problem of discovering occupations or employment may prove as difficult as wealth is easy” (p. 65).

Although this may sound to the naive like socialism, McLuhan’s vision far transcends so stodgy a thought. He writes pityingly about Marx, who, he says, was obsessed by such matters as how people produced and distributed the necessities of life. Marx, to McLuhan, was utterly unaware that not people but media were the real propelling forces in history. Media even make people unnecessary. No socialist ever thought of a world where nobody would have to work. The sorry best that Marx and Engels could offer was: “From each according to his abilities; to each according to his needs.” Yet there are strange connections between Marx and McLuhan, which make it necessary to present a quick sketch of Marx’s thought for the full comprehension of McLuhan. Much of McLuhan seems like Marx seen through a distorting mirror.

Both Marx and McLuhan find qualities in early tribal society that were lost in the subsequent social changes, and will reappear in a new form in future society. An important element to Marx was that the means of production, like the hunting grounds, the land that was tilled, the waters that were fished, were held in common. The impelling force for change was the rise of private property, coming about through the development of tools, techniques, means for mastering nature and expanding production and the growth of trade. Slowly and in various forms, property accumulation

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and exchange turned into the private ownership of the means of production, accompanied by the exploitation of human beings, as with slavery. Around the organization of labor to serve the rulers, state structures rose, with the surplus product making possible the support of armies, priesthood, a hierarchy of officialdom, servants and workshops of craftsmen, all for the aggrandizement of the rulers, who became a ruling class. Great leaps in production took place, along with skills, arts, knowledge and technologies.

But because this progress occurs in a society divided into antagonistic classes, one profiting from the exploitation of another, leaps are inevitably followed by disasters, organization by chaos. The ruling class abhors changes in the social structure. Yet its need to retain its position, its drive for wealth, its intensification of production and exploitation, and the accompanying rise of new technologies, are a process of change which arrive at the point of threatening the social structure. There are external rivalries to seize its wealth, and wars both of defense and to gain more sources of labor. There are internal rivalries for power, with divisions and struggles among the rulers. As the burdens laid upon the workers become heavier, there are revolts. The ruling class can no longer control the forces it itself has set in motion. Production with its technological change reaches a point where its continued fruitful operation demands changes in the production relations, or the social structure. And since the ruling class cannot so transform itself, the economic machinery is clogged and crises arise, resulting eventually in revolutionary upheavals.

A new ruling class, coming to power after such an upheaval, is better able than the old to put the newly developed productive forces to work. But since this class also exists by exploitation, it is eventually faced by crises and disasters. So, in the ancient epoch of slavery, or exploitation through the ownership of human beings, great empires rose, one destroying another, until finally slavery itself was more or less

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replaced by serfdom, or various other forms of exploitation and feudal servitude of a peasantry on the land. And as the feudal system and an exploitative landed aristocracy rose to a peak of power in Europe, its very wars, rivalries, and need for products on which to expend its wealth, engendered the rise of city industries and a middle or bourgeois class which eventually drove the landed aristocracy out of power. This middle class, becoming the modern capitalist class, could carry on vast leaps in production, with factory and machinery. And it too was exploitative, the servitude taking place under the guise of “free bargaining.” In this bargaining the worker is really not free, since the means of production are privately owned or commanded, and it is to the owners or commanders that the worker must offer his labor power, in order to get the necessities of life. And capitalism is likewise faced by a series of crises, until its relatively small, or “free enterprise” character is changed to the domination of great monopolies and trusts. This twentieth-century capitalism of monopolies and trusts again moves through economic crises and disastrous wars.

To Marxists, through these leaps, disasters and changes that have made up the history of exploitative society, there has been a continuity of human progress. For if in early tribal or primitive society there was communal ownership of the means of production, human life was but one step above that of the animal kingdom, enslaved by nature, and anything but “free.” In the zig-zags of subsequent social history there were irrepressible development of means for mastering nature, of real knowledge of the external world, and with these, increasing human sensitivities and powers. There were successive stages in the knowledge of the makeup and nature of society itself, and in the ability of human beings collectively to control the forces they themselves set into motion. With the rising expansiveness and complexity of social life, and accumulated knowledge, there were flowerings of human mentality, individuality and personality. Through the social up-

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heavals, each such development, whether or not carried on around the needs of a particular ruling class, became the possession of a wider body of people. Thus history, for all its checkered character, is also one of successive stages of human freedom, or the growth of the human being and the ability to make the world outside of him his own.

Capitalism, to Marxism, is the last possible epoch of human exploitation. For in its monopoly stage it has organized production on a vast scale, both within the country in its manufacturing and distributive process, and over the world, in its investments, markets, and hunt for labor and raw materials. This “socialization” of production is accompanied by an intensification of the opposite of socialization; the individual, anarchic ownership and command of the means of production, with the competitive drive for profits and the constant need to expand its investments. These two “opposites” come into conflict. Monopoly capitalism cannot use its new and enormous technologies for general welfare, but only for private profit and war. It is racked by internal conflicts, the absorption of the weaker by the stronger, and also by revolt of the very peoples whose lives it has disrupted by forcing them into the grip of its operations. As disaster looms, as potentialities for material progress turn into new and greater threats of widespread human destruction, the working people, for their own protection, must move to take over the means of production in the name of society itself. An end will come to the self-alienation of the war of “all against all,” which had its inception in the private ownership of the means of production and reached its terrifying climax under capitalism. All people will work and share in the rising opportunities for a full life and culture made possible by their joint labor. Nations can live and progress in friendliness, mutual assistance and understanding. In a sense, the communal ownership of the land in early tribal life could be said to reappear on a world scale, but the differences are crucial. Precisely because of the growth of human knowledge of the

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external world and of depths within the human being himself, through the successive stages of society humanity approaches the collective task of mastering nature for human needs on a level not of enslavement but of freedom.

Even with this most schematic and sketchy outline, the possible source of McLuhan’s views and the drastic alterations he has made, become apparent. Thus the primitive tribe becomes to McLuhan a kind of model for the future society arising, but on a level of exaltation that removes it from the sphere of reality. The real element of communal ownership of the land is of no interest to McLuhan, and accordingly there is no interest in the fact of primitive enslavement to the unknown forces of nature, the short life-span, the incessant need for food and the destruction by tribes of one another in the hunt for food until better production allowed conquered people to be used for slaves. The only important element to him is that these tribes were “oral”; the people were happily within “the tribal trance of resonating word magic and the web of kinship.” Their senses were unified. They were untroubled by meditation. Each sensation aroused an immediate reaction. “Oral cultures act and react at the same time.” Thus the people were rounded, whole men, with complete brotherhood. “Tribal cultures cannot entertain the possibility of the individual or the separate citizen” (pp. 86, 87, 88).

So with the forces that disrupted tribal society, McLuhan shows no interest in such factors as private property in the means of production, the formation of social classes, the question of who did the labor and who owned the product, or even in the rise of production technologies. For a philosopher of “media,” McLuhan is highly selective even with “media.” Thus to McLuhan, what detribalized humanity and disrupted this peaceful “trance” was only the phonetic alphabet, literacy, reading, writing and their successive revolutions culminating in the printed book. The senses were thus disassociated from one another and the “visual” sense put on

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top of the disrupted hierarchy. Individualism came into being, along with logic, “lineal” and "sequential" thought, the pursuit of knowledge, humanism, the fragmentation of the human being, nations, nationalism, wars, and the ability to “act without reacting.” Such is the decline humanity has suffered.

The electric technology has now changed all this. By eliminating literacy and restoring the unity of the senses through their basis in touch, it is bringing back the happy tribal trance, but now on a world scale, making the entire globe into a single village. The basic conflict today is between those who shortsightedly are addicted to the old culture of literacy, logic and fragmentation, and those who understand and welcome the liberation that the electric technology like TV is bringing to their sense equipment. “Today we appear to be poised between two ages—one of detribalization and one of retribalization” (p. 299). Non-involvement, produced by literacy, is being replaced by total involvement. “In the electric age, when our central nervous system is technologically extended to involve us in the whole of mankind and to incorporate the whole of mankind in us, we necessarily participate, in depth, in the consequences of our every action” (p. 20).

One of the attractions of this picture is that the process of arriving at this happy state of affairs is so easy. All we have to do is sit back and let the electric technology reshape our senses. The old, benighted, angry social critics demanded that people study, learn the makeup of the world, society, and economics, master history, think for themselves, enter politics. McLuhan laughs at this. By participation in “depth,” and “involvement,” he does not mean anything like conscious study and understanding. People no longer need to read.

Words stand in the way of the single world consciousness that is coming upon us. Just as primitive tribal society had no need for words, but only sound and touch, so the future world tribal village will have no need for verbalization, with

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the conscious thinking and logic it entails. “Electricity points the way to an extension of the process of consciousness itself, on a world scale, and without any verbalization whatsoever. Such a state of collective awareness may have been the preverbal condition of men” (p. 83).

In fact, any conscious act of criticism or questioning is not only useless, but harmful. The only understanding demanded of us is that we understand, and so welcome, what the electronic age is doing to us. Docility is the road to the future. “Electromagnetic technology requires utter human docility and quiescence of meditation such as befits an organism that now wears its brain outside its skull and its nerves outside its hide” (p. 64). This is the triumphant liberation of man. TV and computers do our thinking for us, radiating their messages into our brain. McLuhan demands “higher education” for his future, but this education is only in how the electric technology is worked. There is no need for any knowledge other than applied techniques. “With electricity we extend our central nervous system globally, instantly interrelating every human experience” (p. 311).

Knowledge, to McLuhan, has nothing to do with understanding. It is simply accumulation of data, and computers do this for us. “Today it is the instant speed of electric information that, for the first time, permits easy recognition of the patterns and formal contours of change and development. The entire world, past and present, now reveals itself to us like a growing plant in an enormously accelerated movie” (p. 305). It could be pointed out that to watch a growing plant in an accelerated movie gives no clue to what makes the plant grow. And a mass of accumulated data is never a substitute for the difficult and literate brain process of understanding the forces behind them.

This move to the glowing future is being carried out by the great corporations. Antiquated are the old cries of alarm of the “trust-busters,” or of social critics demanding that the great banks and corporations be curbed, and prevented from

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taking over the country. The “harsh logic of industrial automation,” says McLuhan, has changed all this. “Totally new structures are needed to run a business or relate it to social needs and markets. With the electric technology, the new kinds of instant interdependence and interprocess that take over production also enter the market and social organization” (p. 310).

Despite McLuhan’s disavowal of logic, a certain logic begins to appear in his picture: that of the great corporate structures adjusting their rivalries, dividing up the markets, and taking over the world. Other elements of the picture begin to fall into place. Labor would certainly not be eliminated. On the contrary, the structure would have to be fed by a vast amount of labor, presumably done mainly by the dark-skinned people. Around the corporate structure itself there could well be a considerable “aristocracy” of coupon-clippers, parasites, people with wealth and nothing to do, as well as those receiving the typical doles of a “welfare state.”

McLuhan makes some suggestions for what such people should do with themselves. One is to engage in art. “This would seem to be the fate that calls men to the role of artist in society” (ibid.). The art would not be of social humanity, showing man’s fellow human beings to be part of himself. McLuhan is quite explicit about what he feels the real role of art to be; a kind of adjustment of the mind to the way in which a new media environment reshapes the senses. Art is, he says, “exact information of how to arrange one’s psyche in order to anticipate the next blow from our own extended faculties” (p. 71). There could also be recourse to the psychoanalyst’s couch. True to his concept of media, McLuhan sees the couch itself, not anything that the analyst can say or do, as the means of adjustment. “As extension of man,” he says, the chair is “a sort of ablative absolute of backside,” while the couch, on the other hand, “extends the integral being” (p. 21).

But what about human kinship in this world-wide corpora-

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tion empire? McLuhan’s constant stress is not on kinship or brotherhood. The word he stresses continually is the tricky one, “involvement.”

While we don’t express any kinship for people the world over today, we are certainly involved with them. What is our burning and bombing of the land and people of Vietnam if not an “involvement?” Let some people on the other side of the globe nationalize their industry, and we are immediately “involved.” We are “involved” when England devalues the pound; or when some corrupt military and dictatorial government in Latin America or Africa is threatened by a popular movement. The owner of a factory and the workers on the machines don’t act with brotherhood and kinship, but they are certainly “involved” with one another. Let the workers leave and the machines are worthless. Let the factory close its doors and the workers must starve or go on relief.

A different kind of involvement among world peoples has grown in the twentieth century; one of genuinely awakened mutual understanding, and realization of common needs, problems and humanity. The rise of a world literature, assisted by other arts, has only begun to erase the alienation which makes one people look on another as strangers. Especially in countries struggling to throw off hidden and open colonialism and economic servitude and backwardness, the growth of a literature revealing the realities of the people’s existence and their human needs is prized as integral to the achievement of independence itself. As Frantz Fanon writes of Africa in The Wretched of the Earth (N.Y., 1966, p. 197), “We believe that the conscious and organized undertaking by a colonized people to re-establish the sovereignty of that nation constitutes the most complete and obvious cultural manifestation that exists. . . . The new humanity cannot do otherwise than define a new humanism both for itself and others.” It is exactly this literary growth that McLuhan proposes to cut off at the roots, to make way for

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the new world approaching. It is the outmoded “Gutenberg medium.”

Beneath the cloud of McLuhanese fantasy thrown over history and obscurantism thrown over media, lies the outline picture of a very real force growing in the world today, a move toward totalitarian control of the world’s natural resources, labor and markets by the great interlocking industrial corporations. McLuhan’s book is an exhortation to people to accept this new world a-coming as their happy fate. People must accept this coming servitude with docility, for what will control them is only an extension of themselves. They must cast away the obstructions to progress represented by rationality, thought, mediation, literacy, the humanist tradition of the arts themselves. They must give away their conscious mind for the happy blandishments of the kinesthetic appeal to the unity of the senses that shortcuts thought. The rounded person is a mindless person. Media or the extensions of man, are “‘make happen’ agents but not ‘make aware’ agents” (p. 57).

McLuhan advises the future ruling powers on how to preserve the happy servitude of the new world-wide tribal village. He does not believe the economically backward peoples should share the advantages that have accrued to the colonializing “West.” He raises an alarm: “With literacy now about to hybridize the cultures of the Chinese, the Indians, and the Africans, we are about to experience such a release of human power and aggressive violence as makes the previous history of phonetic alphabet technology seem quite tame” (p. 58). To get the full meaning of this, read “industrialization” for “literacy” and “phonetic alphabet technology.” By no means must the economically backward peoples be allowed to attain the new technologies of the West. “On the one hand, a new weapon or technology looms as a threat to all who lack it. On the other hand, when everybody has the same technological aids, there begins the competitive fury of the homogenized and egalitarian pattern

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against which the strategy of social class and caste has often been used in the past” (p. 299). We get an inkling of what he means by the new “tribalism” through the many references to the German Nazis as a “retribalized” people (pp. 204, 262, 264). Of course, says McLuhan, this was caused by Hitler through the “tribal magic” of radio, and radio is to McLuhan a “hot” medium. But radio is also part of the new electronic technology. And in the near future, as he envisages it, whole peoples can be kept in check through the adroit channeling of both “hot” radio and “cool” TV.  “We are certainly coming within conceivable range of a world automatically controlled,” he writes. “We could say, ‘Six less hours of radio in Indonesia next week or there will be a great falling off in literary attention.’ Or ‘We can program twenty more hours of TV in South Africa next week to cool down the tribal temperature raised by radio last week.’” Thus the new corporation totalitarianism can run quite smoothly. “Whole cultures could now be programmed to keep their emotional climate stable in the same way that we have begun to know something about maintaining equilibrium in the commercial economies of the world” (p. 41).

It could be that McLuhan believes the present methods of controlling an economically backward, dark-skinned people, in the service of the great investment corporations, are outmoded, and soon to be replaced by electronic media. The present methods are certainly unwieldy, expensive and unpleasant; bribery of a segment of the population, the overthrow of popular governments, police oppression, the setting up of military dictatorships. Of course,  “media” in the McLuhan sense do play a role, supplanting the local culture, and its potentialities of growth and self-consciousness, with outside cultural domination, including a cheap, imported, lowest common denominator” entertainment. But a future of hordes of miners and plantation workers presumably with radios attached to their ears and television sets strapped to

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their chests, so that their psyches can be properly heated or cooled, is a preposterous picture.

And the probability is that McLuhan knows this too: that this vision of an electronic, automated, computerized dictatorship controlling the population by beaming radio and TV waves at them is presented tongue in cheek, as a sick joke. For there is a good deal of this sick joking in McLuhan, like dancing on a grave. Some of his more bizarre historical misstatements are undoubtedly leg-pulling; as is his theory of war as a form of technological equalization. When questioned about United States intervention in Vietnam, and how he thought the conflict should be resolved, he wrote: “As a crash program of Westernization and education, the war consists of initiating the East in the mechanical technology of the industrial age” (Authors Take Sides on Vietnam, New York, 1967, p. 49). Certainly the pun on “crash” is a sick joke.

A form of putting the reader’s leg is McLuhan’s method of apparently proving or confirming ideas through authoritative quotations that don’t confirm these ideas at all. It was developed by McLuhan with remarkable finesse in his book The Gutenberg Galaxy (Toronto, 1962; U.S. edition, 1965). The meat of the book is the charge against the “Gutenberg technology” and “literacy” that is repeated in Understanding Media: man has become fragmented, he acts without reacting, he is addicted to logic and sequential thought, his senses are split apart, he is individualistic, nationalistic, one-sidedly visual. Here the quotations are from poets, philosophers, natural scientists, historians, anthropologists, sociologists, art critics. At a rough estimate, they seem to comprise about a third of the book or more. There is also an impressive bibliography. And the extent to which these quotations don’t at all make the points that McLuhan says they do is shocking.

For example, at the very opening McLuhan quotes from the first act of Shakespeare’s King Lear, where Lear announces that he is retiring from kingship except in keeping the title,

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and the respect due it, and will split up his kingdom in three parts, giving each to one of his daughters and her consort. Now if there is one concept on which all Shakespearean critics agree, it is that Shakespeare prized a unified nation and felt that the medieval and feudal fragmentation of the land under the rule of little independent nobles, barons and soldiers of fortune only tore up the land in rivalries and wars. But McLuhan, “explaining” this quotation, makes a complete somersault. Lear in dividing his kingdom was not taking a backward step, but “proposing an extremely modern idea of delegation of authority from center to margin” (The Gutenberg Galaxy, p. 11). In other words, according to McLuhan, Shakespeare is not castigating Lear’s backwardness but projecting, through Lear, a daring vision of the modern world where a state has various departments, operatives and specialized tasks. But even Shakespeare’s Fool in Lear knows better: “When thou clovest thy crown in the middle, and gavest away both parts, thou borest thine own ass on thy back o’er the dirt.” To hammer home the point of Lear’s prophetic vision, McLuhan quotes his line, “Give me the map there,” and says, “The map was also a novelty in the sixteenth century . . . key to the new vision of peripheries of power and wealth” (ibid.). But the map is older than writing. Ptolemy in the second century was famed for his maps. Lear is using the map not to plan explorations, but only, in the age-old customary sense, to mark out divisions of his land.

The contempt for the public implied in McLuhan’s misuse of quotations is another manifestation of the undercutting of the human spirit, human resiliency, human creativity, and the human urge to freedom, that glares throughout McLuhan’s view of history and approach to the present.

This gaping hole in McLuhan’s thought was apparent in his first book The Mechanical Bride (1951; paperback, Boston, 1967). Written before McLuhan became aware of the significance of TV, and when the McLuhanese jargon itself was only in a germinal stage, it is a dramatically presented,

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caustic, keen and witty exposure of the “mythology” of modern merchandizing, advertising and popular arts, including magazines, detective stories, movies and comic strips. He used such phrases as, “controlling the childish mental processes of those locked in the mass dream,” and the “trek toward the voluntary annihilation of our individual humanity.” He wrote sharply of “Planned obsolescence. . . . Production for use? Yes. But for the briefest possible use consistent with the rigging of the market for the pyramiding of profits” (p. 128).

He appealed for the restoration of sanity, to the heritage of rationality, thought, humanism, meditation, knowledge; in other words, to everything that he would later deride as “literacy” with its product of “split man,” the “Gutenberg technology” with its unrealistic creation of reason. “Much hope, however, still emerges from those parts of the scene where rational self-awareness and reasonable programs of self-restraint can be cultivated . . . The friendly dialogue of rational beings can also be as catching as it is civilizing” (p. 34). Or again: “Freedom, like taste, is an activity of perception and judgment based on a great range of particular acts and experiences. Whatever fosters mere passivity and submission is the enemy of this vital activity” (p. 22).

Yet this book does not make an all-over effect commensurate with the fireworks set off on each page. Narrow in scope, it seems to make the same point over and over again. It hammers at the most vulnerable points, at the expense of attempting something of a rounded picture of American life and popular culture. It gives the impression that the mass of people have no real life of their own, other than being imprisoned in the “mass dream” of the movies, slick fiction, and magazine ads. But they do have such a life. And McLuhan gives no inkling of the fact that this actual life is sometimes, if inadequately, reflected in the popular arts themselves.

It would be wrong, of course, to underestimate the power

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over the mind exercised by mass advertising campaigns, and by the thick streams of manufactured novels, tawdry songs, vacant-minded motion pictures. And yet works of independence, imagination and a sense of reality and humanity appear, which the people welcome. Popular music might be pointed to. Amid its streams of claptrap there appeared the songs of Gershwin, Handy, Kern, Porter, Carmichael, Rodgers. Jazz improvisation was created by the Negro people, and there appeared the rollicking and poignant musical expression, with its inner humanity and flag of freedom, of Armstrong, Morton, Ellington, Basie, Lester Young, Parker, Billie Holiday, Gillespie, Rollins and a host of others. Amid the claptrap of science-fiction appeared genuine criticisms of present-day society and concern for the future of humanity. Motion pictures, comic and realistic, have been powerful human documents. There has been the popular wave of revival of American folk song, and on its heels, the determined “election” by an immense, youthful public of its own favorite singers, and socially critical song writers, who break the standard mold. The commercial mentality still dominates the control of these popular arts, but at least there is a struggle.

With the growth of TV from a starry-eyed baby to a lusty young monster, the “mass medium” most devoted to the service of the corporation structure and most integrated into that structure, McLuhan appears to have gone through a considerable change of mind. He has abandoned his critical view of mass media of today, and aims his shafts at their rivals from the past. That TV is the mass medium least responsive to popular creativity, imagination and pressures, that it devotes itself most single-mindedly to treating the public as an object of manipulation, a victim, is now to him an asset. Advertising, which he derided for its falseness in The Mechanical Bride, is now to him, “happy news.” It is the most artistic, attractive part of magazines and newspapers, as well as an admirable feature of TV. In 1950, he spoke of

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content, being highly critical of the imposed “mythology” and “dream life” in the mass media and the popular arts. He now derides the view that content has any importance. The “medium” itself is the “message.” Where he once attacked “submission,” he now applauds “docility” on the part of the public. Where he formerly found recourse in reason, mediation, rational thought, he now derides these as outmoded products of the fast disappearing “Gutenberg technology.” They inspired “fragmented” and “one-sided” man. The core of his world view has now become what was already apparent as an undercurrent in The Mechanical Bride, for all its sardonic criticism of manipulations of the public mind. This is his blindness to the resilience of the human spirit, to the creativity, independence and urge to freedom of the masses of people; qualities that have continually shown themselves in sudden and unexpected ways.

In Understanding Media, this blindness on McLuhan’s part appears as a total distortion of history; human history with the humans who created it left out. “If the student of media will but meditate on the power of the medium of electric light to transform every structure of time and space and work and society it penetrates or contacts, he will have the key to the form of the power that is in all media to reshape any lives they touch” (Understanding Media, p. 60). All he can admit in his history is that electric light came like a mysterious genie and altered the senses with its magic wand. But who turned electricity from lightning that destroyed people into electric current that could be a tool for change? Who transformed the world with its use, and made it an immense, productive tool? Who envisaged and carried out the vast extensions of literacy and art that electric light made possible? McLuhan robs the human being of all his creativity and injects it into the media he created, so that the media become the creators and the human beings become the passive recipients, the slaves.

Although McLuhan wraps his “media” fantasy of history

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in whimsy, he is serious about his surrender to the corporate structure. An occasional barb indicates that he is chafing at his enlistment in its service. He has taken the path of other minds of our time, who have no love for the great corporation imperialism, but have decided it is too powerful to oppose. Most ironic is the spectacle of a man who bears the title of Albert Schweitzer Professor of Humanities, at a great university, engaging in undermining the heritage of the humanities themselves, along with the sciences and history. A professor of the humanities is now the one against whom a defense must be raised of the humanities, of knowledge so far as it has been painfully achieved, of reason, logic and humanism. And this defense is raised not out of any nostalgia for the past, but because with the many real and awesome problems confronting us, the loss of this heritage leaves us the more impotent.

This irony is part of the greater irony of our times. This is that when knowledge of the world is available such as society never possessed before, knowledge embracing not only natural science but also art, history and the makeup of society itself, there rises in the intellectual world itself forces stifling the use of this knowledge. These are the forces of obscurantism. There is a vested interest in obscurantism. If its most prevalent form is an assertion of the impossibility of human beings ever to know anything, McLuhan can be credited with a novel and bizarre form of obscurantism. It is that of writing a travesty on knowledge.


SOURCE: Finkelstein, Sidney. Sense and Nonsense of McLuhan (New York: International Publishers, 1968), Chapter 7, "McLuhan’s Totalitarianism and Human Resilience," pp. 105-122.


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