McLuhan and the Unvironment
I wanted to try and explore what I see as a misunderstanding of emphasis in Marshall Mcluhan’s thought process. in a recent blog Lance Strate writes that Marshall Mcluhan saw how the televisual environment moved us away from a characteristically linear mode of thinking. Earlier he made the point that Mcluhan, being a Catholic, down played the influence of the Guttenberg press on the Reformation. The very Reformation that was, if you chose to see it that way, the first major foothold in the triumph of the left brain in modern times. I suspect that Strate did not engage with Mcluhan’s far more visual book “The Medium is the Massage”. In this book through a less linear and altogether more cut-up style he makes it unequivocally clear that he thinks the move away from the linear mode of thinking is a good thing. Yes the Guttenberg press made it easier to share knowledge but the technology demanded that we start to conceive of it in linear chunks.This book also makes clear that any interface, the alphabet for example, predisposes us to certain ways of thinking or experiencing life.
Mcluhan, perhaps rather naively, believed that modern electronic technology could return us to an horizonless multi-sensory state of being. He gives as an example by way of a photograph The Exploding Plastic Inevitable (EPI) in which participants and performers merge and “experience” a shared perceptual ritual. I am greatly intrigued that Mcluhan was a Catholic because despite the religion's many faults it does understand metaphor – the language of the right brain. Metaphor is not there to be unpicked and decoded, it just is. Mcluhan emphasises this point with the inclusion of the words of Wordsworth “The cock is crowing - The stream is flowing”. The writer and the reader are as one being present in the flow of life. (These "romantic" poets took the gamble of jetisoning self awareness and risking looking like fools so that we too may share their sense of wonder.)
I am not sure that electronic technology has redeemed us from a life that is un-experienced. If anything is seems to have thrust us further towards a physically withered way of being. Of course in a rich and diverse environment technology can facilitate a cohesive communality as witnessed in the riot clean up responses but the language that comes across loudest is still that of consumerism. The objects themselves have this language built into them. Consume me doesn’t need to be on a label around a smart-phone or trainer for even the most privileged and urbane human to feel like doing just that. The objects are adverts for themselves. This is the medium and this is the message. The tools are the extension of man yes? So what is man now? Take me, I love my smart phone. Or come as near to loving an inanimate object as a sane minded individual can come. It allows me to share and create simply and easily. Increasingly, however we are invited to share a homogenised version of events. Behold beautiful people at joyous festivals where Beady Eye are somehow messengers of the gods. But adverts don’t need to tell you to buy stuff anymore because the stuff itself is screaming that out loud all the time.
Here then is a conundrum. The Reformation sought to redress the balance of over fixation with what it saw as symbol and iconography. First this is a misinterpretation from a steadily bureaucratised mode of being brought about by enlightened thinking but secondly form and function really have morphed together into a free base version of efficiency. The function is to sell itself and if possible to sell other stuff too. How then do we stop the brooms from dividing and flooding the place? *music strikes up*
Yes in his article Strate says how McLuhan's insight was brought about by seeing the present and not the past “in the rear view mirror” but this being present is frowned upon by the urbane-cynic factory setting of modern man who is no one if he can’t demonstrate self-awareness. Perhaps if we allow are selves to be present we will see that the Victorian way of learning the basics is the wrong code. Children are sponges and we feed them the language of success from the moment they are born. I remember as a new father seeing product called “baby Einstein”. This product it seemed was all about helping your baby to distinguish black and white shapes because then when it came to reading they would be a genius. It doesn’t take a genius to see that this is akin to taking the most sophisticated automaton yet to be devised and showing it off at country fairs by getting it to shout “roll up roll up!” We teach children to succeed in the system. End of. This to me feels like madness and I am sick of art that justifies itself by claiming to reflect this madness back at us like an idiot with a dead rat on a shitty stick expecting a medal. I am sure that our obsession with detectives is part of a longing for an intuitive and experienced form of life. Remember the detective can only solve the case when he’s suspended from duty. These plots are far closer to a noble and enriching form of art than anything the white Saatchi cubes serve up. Think of how Raskolnikov was haunted by the spectre of the detective in crime and punishment. The detective who seemed to understand and know intuitively what drove him. Raskolnikov had rationalised goodness away and he was no longer present, living as he did in a hall of mirrors of over awareness. Today, I feel, a culture of over specialisation means there is a danger that no one is responsible and no one needs to use their intuition. The intuition I am referring to is the “whole” intelligence not just the words off the training manual for damage limitation (As a tutor assessing I actually have to tick a box on a scale indicating the students knowledge of health and safety) So would Mr McLuhan demand more detective dramas on TV? More programmes like “Unforgiven” that explore ideas of nature and nurture and redemption.
I have digressed and find myself circling the point I’m trying to make. It's something to do with the futility of trying to teach the ‘basics” to children growing up in an un-vironment. The young generation need to be present and recently they were certainly that. In this sense they were equally as articulate as the message coming out of the language of the physical world around them.