Monday, February 5, 2018

Antidotes to the Narcotic Effects of Media

from Teaching McLuhan: Understanding ‘Understanding Media’
by David Bobbitt, Wesleyan College


One of McLuhan’s more intriguing ideas, and one that shows how dynamic and dialectical his theories are, is his concept of the reversal of the overheated medium, or break boundaries, discussed in chapter 3 of Understanding Media where he writes:

“The present chapter is concerned with showing that in any medium or structure there is what Kenneth Boulding calls a ‘break boundary at which the system suddenly changes into another or passes some point of no return in its dynamic process’” (38).

The principle that at some point during their development, processes and methods go too far and reverse into their opposite, McLuhan finds to be “an ancient doctrine” (34). He cites the example from classical Greek drama of the concept of hubris, when a character’s overweening pride leads to his own fall, as well as the ancient Chinese Taoist text the Tao Te Ching, which refers to the same concept of excess leading to its opposite (38-39). McLuhan notes the way roads and highways designed to provide freedom of movement have reversed into traffic congestion and urban sprawl and the irony that mobile, nomadic tribal societies were socially static while contemporary, sedentary, specialist societies are socially dynamic and progressive (38).

McLuhan considers one of the most common causes of break boundaries in any system to be cross-fertilization or hybridization, which is when two (or more) mediums or processes come together (39), an event which releases “great new force and energy” (48). He explores this force more fully in chapter 5 of Understanding Media on “Hybrid Energy.” These explosive hybridizations occur when a society is moving from one dominant medium to another, as in the transition from orality to literacy that unleashed modernism in the Western world and in the transition from literacy to electronic media that is today transforming our world (49-50). In McLuhan’s view, oral societies create people of complex emotions and feeling, while the power of literacy is in teaching people how to suppress their emotions in the interests of efficiency and practicality. Electronic media create the “global village” (93), transforming us into people who are complex, depth-structured and emotionally aware of our interdependence with all of human society (50-51). Yet these transitions, or hybridizations, can be “a moment of truth and revelation” by providing a release of freedom and energy by snapping us out of the usual sensory numbness and narcosis our media forms induce in us (55).

The chance to snap out of our numbness, provided by processes of break boundaries or hybridization, is one of several possible antidotes to the narcotic effects of media. McLuhan wrote Understanding Media, in part, as a warning about the effects of media that we are ignoring. One of McLuhan’s antidotes is awareness; by being aware of the effects our media have on us we can be in a better position to counteract them. But that is only the first step. Awareness itself is not enough. McLuhan writes in chapter 31 on television:

It is the theme of this book that not even the most lucid understanding of the peculiar force of a medium can head off the ordinary "closure" of the senses that causes us to conform to the pattern of experience presented. . . . To resist TV, therefore one must acquire the antidote of related media like print. (329)

So one antidote to the numbing effect of a particular medium is to use another medium that has a counter-effect: “When the technology of a time is powerfully thrusting in one direction, wisdom may well call for a countervailing thrust” (70-71). So turn off the TV (or the computer or the cell phone) after some time and read a book or take a walk in the woods. After enough reading, have a conversation with another human being. McLuhan thus is arguing that a “cure” for the effects of a dominant medium or pattern of the time can be a countervailing force in the opposite direction of the dominating force.

Another antidote to technological narcosis is for people to assume the attitude of the artist. McLuhan writes:

The effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinion or concepts, but alter sense ratios or patterns of perception steadily and without any resistance. The serious artist is the only person able to encounter technology with impunity, just because he is an expert aware of the changes in sense perception. (18)

He further claims that the “artist picks up the message of cultural and technological challenge decades before its transforming impact occurs” and so “the artist is indispensible in the shaping and analysis and understanding of the life of forms, and structures, created by electric technology” (65). But by “artist” McLuhan does not mean just the person who formally engages in some artistic endeavor as a profession but the person of “integral awareness,” a point he makes clear when he says: “The artist is the man, in any field, scientific or humanistic, who grasps the implications of his actions and of new knowledge in his own time. He is the man of integral awareness” (65). Thus, the artistic perspective serves as an antidote to media narcosis because it allows us to see the big picture and the interrelationship among things, as well as to anticipate technological changes, and their social and cultural implications, before they happen.

McLuhan’s frequent use of terms such as “integral awareness" (12), “organic interrelation” (93), “organic whole” (353), and “organic unity” (461) points to another antidote: use of myth to help us explain and understand our reality. For example, speaking approvingly of William Blake’s response to the effects of mechanical technology, McLuhan writes: “Blake’s counterstrategy for his age was to meet mechanism with organic myth. . . . For myth is the instant vision of a complex process that ordinarily extends over a long period. Myth is contraction or implosion of any process . . .” (25) [emphasis in original]. Later in the book, McLuhan argues that the “mythic or iconic mode of awareness” substitutes a “multi-faceted” perspective for a single, fixed point of view (153). Thus, myth, like the artistic temperament, serves as an antidote to media narcosis because it allows us to see many things at once by collapsing complex processes into understandable, simplified forms.

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