Thursday, March 8, 2018

The Psychopathology of ‘Time’ & ‘Life’

by Marshall McLuhan

It would seem a very good time to take stock of the performance of his trio now that Mr. Luce has begun to think seriously of adding a fourth star to his stable. The fourth member is to be definitely highbrow, as it appears. And in passing from glorified spot-news (Time) to nursery entertainment (Life) to managerial grand opera (Fortune) to high-brow criticism, Mr. Luce must still have an eye on Der Verlag Ullstein from whose activities and methods his own are so largely derivative.

Thus Ullstein's Querschnitt printed Pirandello, Proust, Cocteau, Woolf, Mann, and others in their original languages, and aimed to be "a monthly for the literary gourmet" and for the intellectually indulgent, the well read, the erudite, who sometimes preferred to smile superciliously than laugh outright."

Something between Mr. Eliot's Criterion and The New Yorker with, of course, an opulent lacquered finish would be the general character of such a magazine. Whether its somber sanity would be harmful or beneficial to present intellectual and artistic activity would be hard to predict. Benefits resulting would be wholly accidental, at any rate, Mr. Luce favors anonymous hackwork in his magazines for the reason that he has conceived each one within the coordinates of very simple stereotypes. And the men he would need for his new magazine would be less tractable to Luce cliché than the hackmen of Time, Life, and Fortune. Perhaps not utterly intractable. But the problem for Mr. Luce is first to reduce the present role of art and letters to a simple pattern which could be reproduced monthly without disturbing the existing affinities between his other three magazines. That problem solved, he could probably buy up quite a crowd of clercs for his new job.

I may as well say at once that I don't think the Luce brain can do it. Mr. Luce has a passion for glossy mediocrity and stereotypical order which derives from his obsession with mechanism. Even as a young man he must have been very fatigued, because he seems to have felt very strongly all the senescent and service appeal of the brittle and lifeless perfection of machined thoughts and feelings. Mr. Luce wants the best imitation of thought and feeling that the machine can produce. But like Northcliffe he succeeds not so much by cynical innerdetachment from his Punch and Judy show as by irremediable identity with the weary vacuum of his reader-mass. He loves to show-off the machine as much as any Hollywood director glories in camera show-off. But the machine as show-off is megalomaniac. And nobody will find either human dimensions, human order, or human complexity in Time, Life, or Fortune. These magazines are heavily farced mechanistic fantasies of a megalomaniac kind. And should Mr. Luce venture into the last sphere of human spontancity and free intelligence he would inevitably feel urged to reduce that world to the kind of sub-human order he does understand. In a word, he would attempt to annihilate it for its own good.

For the independent artist and intellectual, the stereotype of insubordinate mechanism is death. The loss of perception and the abeyance of judgment. But because the areas in which perception is cultivated or even tolerated have been ever more rapidly circumscribed, the artist and intellectual have had to turn to unmasking clichés and the mass mechanisms of sensibility as part of the business of survival, Even in this role of the enemy of bloated inanities and glossy fakes the artist and intellectual find the ultimate enemies of the human to be extremely elusive. The centers of political initiative today are as inaccessible as the accusers of a Kafka character.

In this respect Time, Life, and Fortune appear at first in an ambiguous light. On one hand they affect the role of spectators of events. And they make no bones about being omniscient and alert spectators of the March of Time. But on the other hand they are always recommending their own spectator role and penny-arcade vision to millions of readers. Vigorously thrusting an emotionally charged spectator role on their readers by every device of popularized snob appeal and the big stick of scientific know-how is surely taking political initiative. Basically, therefore, the Luce triumvirate is carefully engineered political action. Sub-doctrinaire and subrational action, it's true. But still much the strongest and most definite political action to be discerned in England or America.

Time, Life, and Fortune represent three levels of irresponsible politics in much the same sense as Hollywood is willy-nilly a political force. That is, neither T.L.F. nor Hollywood attempts to hold up any kind of object or program for detached observation or appraisal, But both arrange their exhibits in such aways as to manipulate the standardized reflexes of a semi-hypnotized and mentally helpless audience. So that the art of the movie is not to be judged by the invention and arrangement of images but by the effect which those images have on the contents of the mind or guts of a spectator. Likewise with T.L.F. It isn't the worth or character of the image or statement presented which is of any political significance but the effect which it is observed to have on a sharply focussed reader. Needless to say, the reader is not the one to do the focussing. He is held in position.

One of the most obvious facts, then, about T.L.F. is their tempo. They insist that the reader move rapidly. Pictures and ads produce an aura of sentimental awe for the sub-national reception of rapid-fire prose, so that the mental situation of the reader is very nearly as low as that of a news-reel audience. Emphasizing the value of the movie medium for South America, R. S. Car of the Rockefeller Agency wrote:

The propaganda value of this simultaneous audio visual impression is very high, for it standardizes thought by supplying the spectator with a ready-made visual image before he has time to conjure up an interpretation of his OWN.

This commonplace of press, radio, and screen receives the utmost stress in T.L.F. and will get closer attention further on.

Perhaps the most persistently risible feature of T.L.F. is the assumption of "god-like heights of observation." It is an inseparable feature of paranoid megalomania shared by every Dagwood who dreams of flying his own plane or leading an expedition to the top of Mount Everest. In the March of Time the extremely adolescent emotionalism of this Olympian pose is obvious in the phoney dramaturgy and the Zeus-like resonance of the announcer's voice: "Who walks the bridge tonight, O King?" This god-like elevation sometimes assumes the air of god-like condescension, as in Time's comic boast that it answers every letter received. It is seen also in Time's arid assumption that "people are funny" which Fortune, of course, strives to hide with well-heeled sobriety. Most of all, this ludicrously facile and unearned elevation (contrast Swift's Lilliput) of Superman naiveté, is observable in the inevitable mockery accorded both by Time and Life to major talent.

Perhaps this last remark should be documented at once since nothing is more popularly accredited to these magazines than an enlightened awareness and appraisal of events and figures of significance. The August 12, 1946, issue of Life devotes a page of pictures and eight double columns of Time prose to Frank Lloyd Wright: "The titan of modern architecture still flings his houses and his insults at backward colleagues by Winthrop Sargeant." Under his photograph we read: "After 7 flamboyant years Wright is hale." And the first paragraph concludes after placing Wright's "bio graphical melodrama" in the company of Cellini and Casanova:

Fellow architects have hailed and damned him as everything from a great poet and visionary to an insupportable windbag. The clergy has deplored his morals. Creditors have deplored his financial habits, writers his literary style, wives his infidelities, politicians his opinions.

In this wiseguy tone and vein Sargeant parades the flamboyant bear for an audience assumed to be at once Philistine and cretinous. Wright is good for a thrill or two. Especially since he is a clear case of genius who must be debagged and reduced to the impotent condition of the T.L.F. public. Emasculation is necessarily the senescent Time process monotonously applied to every game cock. Only a fake virility can be tolerated. As one Time ad in Life put it, under the head of "A nose for news and a stomach for whiskey," the veteran reporter "knew bishops and gunmen, politicians and pickpockets, and treated both the great and the sham with the same casual impertinence." Thus to flaunt as a virtue one's resentful impercipience is the final degree of contempt for the mental impotence of the deluded reader. But the ad is true enough to the facts. The tough-guy pose, the self-dramatization of sentimental despair is the familiar persona of the reporter. Hemingway hadn't far to look for his protagonist--the dumb ox, the baleful and abbreviated member of the herd. Therefore it is quite possible that Sargeant himself admires Wright. He may even understand him. But, with the lethal weapon of Time prose in his hand, friend and foe alike are brought down:

"An incurable esthete, Wright approaches his building as though they were poems or symphonies instead of mere houses. ..." And the contents of his books: "provocative, poetic and preposterous by turns, include everything from house designing to morals and Utopian politics and read like rumblings of Old Testament prophecy."
That is the way in which Wright is interpreted and "placed" for what Life clearly regards as the "cretin crew." Let nobody date to be as virile as the monkey glandular hackmen of Time or he will soon have his manly parts thrown in his face as a reminder of his undemocratic stature. For that is the symbolic sense of the snide phrases under the candid camera shots in Time and the dissonant juxtapositions of Life.

In fact the shadow of the artiste manqué has hovered over these publications from the beginning. Time offers the free of its hand to big and small while affecting a mannered prose. The result is not unlike opera a la Spike Jones or Alec Templeton. The positive effects have to be good enough to convince the crowd that: "This is a darmed smart bunch. Bet they could do the real thing if they wanted to. They can cut capers all around these bigwigs in the news, for my money." Time made its debut not long after Ulysses had made young Harvard sedulously apish. The prim, as well as the encyclopedic, arrogance of Stephen Daedalus offered an easily adaptable pose for the restless young journalist. A pose which could also be called the Harvard version of Variety.

In a word, Time, Life, and Fortune (The New Yorker can be tossed in with them) are the American Bloomsbury, our psychological bureaucracy, inhabited by well-paid artist-apes. In America art must pay off before it can be respectable or even interesting. And the artist-ape must here assume the air of executive or engineer in order to circulate or prosper.

The "sophisticated" tone of Time, then, arises from nothing more than queasiness about the main march of the human affections, which issues as hard-boiled flippancy. And it is the whole world, of course, which is dear dirty Dublin to the omnivorous hackmen of T.LF. The world of popular science, of homo boobiens. That is, man is always homo boobiens in T.L.F., focus. But Jest the parallel between Joyce and T.L.F. should be thought creditable to the Luce trio, it needs only to be pointed out that whereas Joyce developed a variety of techniques as means to presenting a vision of the world, T.L.F, are merely esthetisch in exploiting these attitudes and techniques as exhibitionist devices which prove, after all, to be a personal indulgence, a narcissistic aggrandizement in which the reader is invited to share for less than $00.01 a day.

One would seek in vain, therefore, to discover any sort of hearty self-deprecation or any sense of unfitness for the highest tasks in the T.L.F. ranks. Readers and writers alike seem to enjoy a mood of self-congratulatory elation and robot-like unanimity as they keep briskly abreast of the Zeitgeist. They are encouraged to nurse a self-image of tweedy decorum and contented aplomb such as the "Men of Distinction" ads exhibit. So that altogether T.L.F. constitute the Hollywood of the East Coast enfolding their reader-mass in an hallucination appropriately more pretentious than that of the frontier. But Hollywood and T.L.F. are one in their dedication to the garish rhetoric of the machine.

Time is certainly a very forcible expression of what Sorokin calls the "deterioration of sensate culture by a host of scholars united in big research corporations led by social science managers and committees. Industriously they cultivate either misleading preciseness or scholarly emptiness, with all the Alexandrian thoroughness of trained incapacity." This applies even more forcibly to Life and Fortune, where a total absence of social and political thought is itself the major political fact. Hedonism of a self-indulgent nihilism is the reigning appetite which evokes the wonders of camera and laboratory as anodynes for trapped little men.

The "Letters" department then is always arranged as a nosegay for Time. But not too obviously so. Soreheads are given free rein since they could never be identified with Time readers. They are simply funny. Like the people in the news. But the true Time addict wears a relic of the mantle of Stephen Daedalus, which raises him above those who could possibly be bitten by a Time notice. Perhaps most common of all are letters from Time readers who are bona fide "inside men at the skunk Works." The little nobody can then say: "Ah, he's one of us." And how Time loves to admit small factual error: "We archly acknowledge our occasional limitations. But this should serve to remind you of our really superhuman encyclopedism."

Across from the letters stretches the enormous masthead. And beside the masthead is a plug for Time in the form of a description of its Morgue: "Now presided over by 55 librarians and helpers. ... They get about 5000 requests a month ... to determine (among other things) ... the form of poetry most similar to the thumba rhythm ... the Moslem stand on birth control." Obviously the Morgue is the driving shaft which whirls the big Mother Goose Windmill and provides that raucously musical breece in Time's waggish pages. Time's Morgue is the precise image of the graduate research futility we imported from Germany in the nineteenth century.

When it goes "serious" it becomes the Morgue of Fortune, which strives to emulate the geopolitik Morgues built up for the German General Staff in recent decades. The form of the activity and the appetites it serves are the same whether it is the Disney mind stunting cinematically or Disney providing identity symbols for B-29's. However, the Anglo-Saxon will pay any price to pursue a destructive appetite with benign countenance. And woe to the cad who undeceives him.

Across from "US. Affairs," dwarfing an inset of Truman, Connally, and Byrnes, is a full page Boeing ad, Country club comfort in the air. The sleek studio photography underscores the seedy shot of the statesman. As though this weren't plain enough we are given a heavy dig in the ribs by the inscription: "Behind the tawdriness, a moral force?" The whole Time credo is in the crude counterpoint of this situation. It is the creed of savage simplicity contained in the concept of Technocracy. The engineer (plastic, mechanical, chemical, social) is god. The politico is stooge. This stylized theme really exhausts the entire political and social philosophy of T.L.F., senility. For between the extremes of engineer and politico lie the human playthings of these two figures. And they are also the playthings of the wondrous nursery world presided over by T.L.F.

To an eye with any human light in it the Boeing ad is "the air-conditioned nightmare" of human evisceration—the dream of the hollow men. To such an eye there appears much more to admire in the Erskine Caldwell "comer" on p. 9 than in the Barmecide feast of current technical virtuosity. Technics are the opium of the commuters. Candid camera shots of murder and mutilation, their signal to "wake up and live."

"Mr. Byrnes, just before flying eastward in the Sacred Cow, said hopefully: 'Peace must come from the hearts of men." That is the concluding item in the survey of "The Nation." Apart from the gratuitous mention of the ludicrous Sacred Cow, the Time word in this is "hopefully." Byrnes was probably grim rather than hopeful. But "hopefully" is true Time clack, giving a hefty tweak to the noses of Byrnes and the dozing public for the bright Time reader. All Time reporting is heavily loaded with superfluous emotion in this way. But most of the loading is done by juxtaposition of items, pseudo-honorifics, counterpointed inscriptions, and salience of rampant adjectives.

Of course, any critical reader can find some use for T.L.F. Quite apart from the political importance of the phenomenon for the analyst, some utility is to be found in its coverage. But there are better means of "keeping up." However, most intelligent people say: "I like Time's book reviews anyway." And occasionally Time will plug a good book. But in order to do this the review has to be written straight. The flip Time style is dropped even at the risk of frightening the bulk of its nursery changes. It's as though a big voice were to come over the P.A. system. "All play will now stop. Something serious has happened." Obviously this sort of thing can't be permitted too often. But the regulation Time review, on the other hand, is always the signal for heavy chortles, as with that of Gertrude Stein's Brewsie and Willie on page 51. The Mama of Dada is given the works, and the smug reader is left feeling that he is master of Stein stutter and credo alike. The present number features "Montreal's Mayor Houde Bingo" as cover man and follows up inside with "Montreal's Café An Lutin Qui Bouffe" and waggish reminiscence of the "sacred past" of churches and bordellos: "Gone was Madame Baby's. ... Gone also was Madame Cesar's... Only a memory was Madame Alice's where employees and customers alike had been required to wear evening dress." Typically, the entire scene is presented as very light opera indeed. Strictly musical politics again. George Gershwin's American in Paris is just about the level of Time's dealings with our world. Emotionally, a cut or two above Winnie the Pooh. A self satisfied reverie in a warm tub.

It is this omnipresent aura of narcissistic exhibitionism which, it must be clear, levels all human events in the Time mill. That is the Tinte stereotype. On page 16 the "International" section gets under way: "DESIGN or PROVIDENCE? This week on the banks of the River Meuse, France's ex-President Charles de Gaulle broke a long silence." The first phrase sets the stock sneer in position. The next sentence wheezes with broken-winded rhetoric originally called from Guedalla and Strachey. This, by way of training reader-sights on De Tocqueville. Unintentionally adolescent bathos. In this trick context, the towering De Tocqueville gets trimmed into a smart but small potato.

Life magazine needs much less attention, for it is written down from the Time level just as Fortune is written up. In place of the dry crackle and monotonous rhetorical clack of Time, the reader-mass is paraded through a richly scented seraglio. The cicerone oozes mock earnestness. The August 12, 1946 issue will serve here since the Frank Lloyd Wright item has already been drawn from it. Cover item: "Loretta Young models a decade of nightgowns and pajamas." One ploughs through a good many ads before reaching the "Contents" column, but the ads are worth it, of course. The "best brains in America" snap their synopses in those ads to make your heart (and purse) go pita-pat with wonder and awe. Thus the contents column is flanked on the left (p. 18) by a huge close-up of the most exciting legs in the sheerest black silk. It is as obvious as in Vogue that even voluptuous figures are given a definite narcissistic patina and abstraction. On the right, with tight breasties simply popping, is a saucy little semi-clad: "That blouse will catch more than the eye, chick!"

That is not only the theme but the inevitable accompaniment to Life's whirl through the week's events. "Blood Runs in Palestine Violence," (p. 21) and Sex. "Boss Crump Rides a Roller Coaster" (p. 27) and Sex. "Bolivian Dictator Villarroel Hangs From a Lamp Post Outside His Palace" (p. 29) and Sex. "Baker Day at Bikini" (p: 30-31 and Sex. "Midsummer at Jones Beach" (p. 32-34) and Sex. "Ten Years of Nightgowns" (p. 41-42) in technicolor, sex's own proper hue. "Confidence Games" (p. 45-52) heavily flanked by Sex. But especially The Razor's Edge (p. 7584) and Sex. In this last item occurs the great meeting ground of technology and criticism, the mysterious wedding between which is consummated in every issue of Life. A pox on the fuddy-duddy ethos of our age which has so long frustrated the natural development of Life and Hollywood. These agencies have been panting from their inception to turn the camera loose on the great drama of the ages. A close-up of the sexual act given from every angle, during every stage, and as effected by every variety of insect, animal, and homo boobiens. Where is the freedom of the press?

Meantime, there are many compromises to be made, as here with the scene from The Razor's Edge. "To explain the enormously complicated process of making such a movie, Life has selected a single sequence. .. . It shows the near-seduction of the hero, Tyrone Power, by the heroine, Gene Tierney." It all concludes with the great technological achievement: "Small Army Helps Shoot Final Kiss."

The Life stereotype, therefore, is technology and sex. Stress on eroticism, nudism, and primitivism being only too obviously the futile efforts of the mechanized slave to get the machine out of his guts. The child of these twain, in thriller and comic-strip well, is death. And death romps through Life's every issue. In this issue it is Palestine violence with detail of human hand still in coat-cuff, etc. Close-up of Villarroel hanging from lamp post. How a rattler strikes. A Life camera man can't let an agonized woman be carried out of a burning theater without licking his candid chops over her writhing thighs and backside. (Dec. 2. '42, p. 44) The common touch?

But the feature item in this department consists of three pages of pictures: "As part of a six-week photographic seminar at Chicago's Institute of Design, the stubby, untidy, cigar-chewing Manhattan photographer who calls himself Weegee and who is famous for his pictures of mayhem and murder recently enlivened his course in spot-news photography by showing students how to photograph a corpse."

Back in tender-minded 1938 under pictures of a corpse strewn battlefield, the Jan. 24 editor felt an apologia was necessary for Life's obsession with mayhem and murder:

Once again Life prints grim pictures of War, well-knowing once again they will dismay and outrage thousands and thousands of readers. ... The important thing that happens in a prize fight is that one man hits another. Only a picture of a blow shows a fight. The important thing that happens in a war is that something or somebody gets destroyed, Victory comes to the side that destroys the greatest number of somebodies and some things. ... But even the best pictures... leave unrecorded the terrible will to kill, the even more terrible will to live...

Let anybody spend ten minutes with this document of selfless dedication to truth and welfare if he would find all the perfect images of lethal sentimentality. Rationally, of course, the prose moves well below the level of sophistry. Another candid shot of Life's editorial feeling for what it starkly insists is homo boobiens occurs under the headline This Great Moment in Oct. 21, 1940:

Paradoxically, therefore, the readers of Life, as I understand them, want their Editor to talk with them in deepest sincerity about this election; but they don't want him to tell them how to vote. It is a difficult assignment. Here goes.

Self-immolation is a curious feint for a psychological butcher, but it is perhaps the only way to reserve for the reader-ox his last proud and defiant gesture of licking the butcher behind the car. But what about the splendid pages of art reproduction in Life? Nothing can be said against them. They correspond to the occasional good book reviews of Time. They are to be described simply by their incongruity. Sterilized by context. And they serve to remind the dubious reader that after all these boys know "a good thing when they see it."

Everybody talks about the return of panem et circenses. Life is just that. Technology and sex and blood. The yellow press has ratted. Instead of prodding the public to the barricades it sends it to the newsstands. By sending Life to a party each week the dreamfast readers are given a share in the exotic fooleries of their economic superiors. Thus does Life draw the teeth of democratic envy of the rich by representing the rich as unbelievably moronic. And Time achieves the same end on a different level by its nihilistic stereotype.

It is easy to see where Fortune fits into this scheme. It is simply Life minus the sex and blood. The bureaucracy behind the panem et circenses is presumed to be dedicated austerely to know-how. Public opinion processes and industrial processes are Fortune's stereotype. How to gauge and manage the public. How to gauge and manage production and distribution. The economic and psychologic strata of the nation are frankly viewed as a reservoir of raw power to be analyzed and put to work. And the rhetorical music accompanying this libretto is fittingly Wagnerian, From engulfing sentiment to wild brassy bombast, the scale of both obliterates the human dimension. The two can't co-exist. Whether Fortune is taken seriously as a consultative aid in industrial and bureaucratic quarters is doubtful. But it is also unimportant. For the magazine is dedicated solely to self-heroics which must be at least gratifying to the tired tycoon. It is the pattern of drunken power that is significant. Going Gatsby one better. The success of success. The world is my milkshake.

There is surely no reason to suppose that the actions of scientists and tycoons at this moment are less trancelike than those of the Dagwood commuter. Physics is now, directly, politics. But the physicist can't any more get reasonableness and order into atomic politics than a university president can get them into mass education. The sort of rationalism and order which finally recommends itself to these men is that which Fortune pumps for. The rationalism of the machine. It is a pseudo-order. But, they say, "it's the best we can get now." And it's quite true that once the bulk of society has been pulped into passivity by brainless routines imposed from above by industrial logic, then the greatest philosopher-king would be a tyrant such as Priscus Tarquin.

So the process of renewal can't come from above. It can only take the form of reawakened critical faculties. The untrancing of millions of individuals by millions of individual acts of the will. Psychological decentralization. A merely provisional image of how it might (not how it should) occur could be formed by supposing every mechanical agency of communication in the world to be suspended for six months. No press. No radio. No movies. Just people finding out who lived near them. Forming small communities within big cities. It would be agony. All psychological drugs cut off. No capsulated thoughts or melodies. To say that anything like this could never happen, or that it should never be allowed to happen is a remark worthy of those mesmerized practical men who are efficiently arranging for the obsequies of our world's mind and body alike, If something like this doesn't happen it is quite plain what will happen.

The only practical problem which remains today is that of restoring human dimensions so that a merely human order can be come relevant and practical once more. It is obvious that, humbly envisaged, the machine could have helped to do this, But any rational hope in that quarter is now gone. The machine is power. And practical politics mean quite simply that the machine must assume increasingly its most powerful form. The shape and rational form of man is now irrelevant. The will of all society has persisted in this direction for more than a century. Enthusiastic abdication on behalf of the machine. Eager embrace of man when deloused of his humanity by technics. That is the impatient wish, the wider hope embedded in the Luce publications examined here.

Thus, announcing Life as "America's most potent editorial force" in the January 1940 issue, Fortune tells us that after 20,000 interviews it is possible now "to replace undependable conjecture with dependable knowledge," and also that Life has 19,800,000 readers. Such absurd knowledge is a type of the dependable bomb proof coffins which are now ready for all of us. The abject ant-like industry by which this "knowledge" is acquired is worthy of the mortician-like smile with which it is communicated and employed. Wherever this kind of certitude is sought or valued will be found a socially destructive force and hatred of man. It is time we knew how to recognize the universal new flunkeyism. That of the human beings who, contemptuous of their own humanity, professedly look for a serial number and hope to get a hair of the dog that bit them.

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