Is he or isn’t he?

In my experience the most common critique of Marshall McLuhan is that he is a technological determinist who oversimplifies the concept of “medium.” I don’t want to believe this is true. I respond positively to McLuhan’s work; there is something about his fast paced, hodgepodge prose that I find enjoyable. McLuhan’s work also strikes a common sense chord with me: “the medium is the message,” yeah, I can get behind that.

While I was reading Understanding Media this week, I kept the technological determinist critique in mind, and for the first 90% of the book, I was pretty sure I could rebuke the naysayers. One of McLuhan’s main arguments is that technology drastically influences everything about human life, including culture, psychology, and politics. I think that this is pretty hard to argue with. I remember reading about the shift from performative to silent reading in Alberto Manguel’s book, A History of Reading. This shift changed reading from a public, rhetorical activity to a private experience. The fact that this would impact writing, society, and culture seems obvious. Similarly, it would be hard to deny the impact of clocks, assembly lines, and automobiles not only on the practical, logistic parts of our lives, but also on the way we think. This is quite true of computers as well: after purchasing my first laptop, I found that when I was painting or drawing I would often mentally (or physically if I was really tired) reach for command Z.

I don’t think that such a view is technologically deterministic though. The part of technological determinism (at least as I understand it) that seems troubling to me is the idea that technology develops by its own laws, that its path is somehow predetermined and set. I didn’t get this impression from the beginning of McLuhan’s book. He does argue that there are certain inherent characteristic features of technology: “For electric light and power are separate from their uses, yet they eliminate time and space factors…” However, I read this to be a similar argument to the one that Heidegger and Habermas make, mainly that there is an ideology behind technology. I did not, however, take this to mean that the ideology is not informed by our values and culture. Since McLuhan views technology as an extension of humankind (well, actually mankind, but that’s a separate issue) it seemed to follow that technology would be an external representation of our own ideologies. That seems to make good sense.

Everything continued along in this vein until I reached page 352, when McLuhan drops the following: “the electric changes with automation have nothing to do with ideologies or social programs. If they had, they could be delayed or controlled. Instead, the technological extension of our central nervous system that we call the electric media began more than a century ago, subliminally. Subliminal have been the effects.” Why does something taking place subliminally preclude it being formed by ideology? As Habermas notes, technocratic consciousness, “today’s dominant, rather glassy background ideology, which makes a fetish of science, is more irresistible and farther-reaching than ideologies of the old type. For with the veiling of practical problems it justifies a particular class’s interest in domination…” Habermas (and Heidegger) seem to acknowledge that technology is an ideology that is dispersed subliminally, but originates within the human. Thus, recognizing this subliminal ideology results in the ability to alter the course of technology.

McLuhan admits neither to the ideological status of technology nor to the human ability to alter the course of technology. Strangely, McLuhan doesn’t seem worried about this; the end of Understanding Media felt a little to techno positive for me: “the social and education patterns latent in automation are thus of self-employment and artistic autonomy. Panic about the automation as a threat of uniformity on a world scale is the projection into the future of mechanical standardization….” I would beg to differ.

Another issue that I have with McLuhan (which perhaps is somewhat related) is his classification of “cool” and “hot” media. I agree that overall mediums are associated with certain characteristics: e.g. print is typically thought of as static and readerly while hypertext is dynamic and writerly. However, please don’t tell me that this is the same as this  I just don’t buy that all instances of a particular medium share the same set of intrinsic traits. A print copy Tristram Shandy (or House of Leaves) does not employ its medium in the same way as a print copy of Last of the Mohicans. Mediums bend.  

To end on a slightly more positive note, I think that McLuhan’s discussion of language as technology is fascinating. I believe McLuhan reminds us of something important: when we form our thoughts through language or art, that process is in and of itself an act of mediation. We can never escape media. To demonstrate this point, I will close with the following scene from Jane Eyre:

Rochester: “And you felt self-satisfied with the result of your ardent labours?”

Jane:“Far from it.  I was tormented by the contrast between my idea and my handiwork: in each case I had imagined something which I was quite powerless to realise.”

Rochester: “Not quite: you have secured the shadow of your thought; but no more, probably.”

3 thoughts on “Is he or isn’t he?

  1. Gabi,
    thanks for this great post and for having shared your well-balanced insight into the book. It helped me clarify a lot. I love the ending on language as technology and the lines from Jane Eyre. I don’t know if there is enough written on language & technology, but I feel any further inquiring into language is always helpful, for all discipline and especially for DH. I also have a problem with the hot/cold classification, it seems the weakest part of the book to me, but probably it is also the most dated part, the part that mostly “suffers” from having been written 40 years ago or so.

  2. I think the problem that nearly everyone we’ve read tries to deal with is the idea of technology as an autonomous force. As you say, McLuhan seems to suggest that automation is the end of human input into the system. It’s much in the vein of realizing Turing’s dream. Once Turing said it was possible, McLuhan seems to say, it’s going to happen. We can either understand the message (the medium) or remain ignorant. But the extension of ourselves will continue apace. I find that terrifying.

  3. “Ideology” and “determinism” are becoming the two most fraught terms in this class. I’m very interested in why we suppose that these two terms are opposed to one another (or if, in fact, Habermas, Heidegger, and McLuhan are all abusing the term).

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