Saturday, April 21, 2018

Is Marshall McLuhan a Technological Determinist

by Bob Dobbs
19 April 2018

I’m going to present here an insight into Marshall McLuhan that no McLuhan scholar ever discovered. Even Don Theall missed it (The Medium is the Rear View Mirror, 1971, pp.152, 178, 187, 191, 193, 196, 207, 208, 215, 216, and 219).

Most McLuhan apologists take on the accusation that MM is a “technological determinist” and come up with some pattern to wiggle MM away from the stigma.

AND, Theall quotes Kenneth Burke on an additional deficiency in MM’s "theory of everything" - MM’s lack of appreciation for the “drama” in human experience.

Both charges are easily dismissed when one understands there is no “McLuhan” in his books (see MM’s RENASCENCE review of Richard Ellmann’s biography [1959] of James Joyce wherein MM says there is no Joyce in Joyce’s oeuvre… “All criticism is autobiography." - William Irwin Thompson).

BUT, it is obvious there is a “technological determinist” stance in the prose of MM’s books of 1962 and ’64 - The Gutenberg Gallaxy and Understanding Media.

The catalyst for epiphany is McLuhan’s little-known theater project he planned for Broadway in the mid-70s wherein the characters in the play are the media themselves - the media present their stories.

So, with this insight one can understand that MM’s books, The Gutenberg Gallaxy and Understanding Media, are written by the PRINTED BOOK as narrator itself.

These two books have to be “technologically determinist” in approach because the books are subject to the dictum that “the medium is the message”. In other words, these books are consciously expressing their visual-space bias at their foundation, i.e., written by the robotic (technologically determined). Gutenberg Man is a robot, said MM.

Hence, the “cold, frightening tone”, in The Gutenberg Gallaxy and Understanding Media that critics complained about, is intentional.

That’s why there is "no human drama” (Theall and Burke) in these early books. The style comes from the PRINTED BOOK (as author) itself. It shapes the theory, creates perspective, is the user that dominates the content.

Once this is noted, the next question pops up: where, in McLuhan’s oeuvre, are the characters representing the non-Gutenberg media?

They are found in MM’s TV and radio performances (and in his more expository style in his letters to newspapers and colleagues).

However, this is the ELECTRIC MEDIA doing the acting!!

They’re not so “determinist”: more the interactive - casually conversational - and more flexible, telephonic, telekinetic, ambivalent, transmitting and receiving, piloting and accommodating, in approach - ranging over the spectrum from headline to advertising, stylistically. Think of the “Bailiff” in Wyndham Lewis’ “The Childermass”, or the "Prince of the Air” (a great electric engineer, master of hardware and software), but far more relaxed.

Even McLuhan’s next seven books (1967-72) tend toward the tactile expression of mixed-media while always self-consciously commenting on the McLuhan “myth” itself and insulting/judging their dull competitors - no “technique of suspended judgment" here.

So, this is the strategic posturing of McLuhan’s role as an adjudicator in the Global Theatre - the greatest actor of the 20th Century - more autonomous, discontinuous and perfect-pitched, more multi-levelled, more blasé, and less commercially compromised, than anybody you could name - from Clark Gable, Katherine Hepburn, Marlon Brando, to Susan Sarandon, Robert Redford, Dr. Dre, or Meryl Streep. completely missed this!

Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty (who regularly went to L.A. beaches with a copy of Understanding Media in the 80s, according to Mary McLuhan) missed this… but they KNEW there was something they were missing, hence their Understanding Media fetish!!
Gloria Allred missed this!!

YOU missed this!!!

McLuhan invented a way to be the anti-environment (solving the artistic problem) to the Global Theater wherein "everybody is crew and there are no spectators”.

Only the CIA, KGB, and MI6 knew this (see Richard Barbrook’s IMAGINARY FUTURES, 2007) - McLuhan’s “triggermen” (see the June 22/51 letter to Ezra Pound wherein MM explains his motives in a world in which the “word” is THE drug).

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