The Heterodox

The Heterodox


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Global Village Idiot

August 21, 2012 , , , , ,

Even with it being still a little too premature to give a final pronouncement or any other such historical adjudication on the social utility of so called social networks, criticism is in its own function perennial and necessary for the examination and understanding of such advents within our culture. And since we are dealing here with the modern manifestations of media, it should I would hope appear rather elementary to initiate one’s inquiry by scrutinizing the cultural dialogs surrounding this actuality within the media itself. In my own attempt in this endeavor I have come across from time to time (yet not as often as I would have thought) varying media pundits announcing that Facebook has conclusively inaugurated our society’s transformation into a Global Village. Now before we can even argue if such an assertion is even tenable, it would seem that a re-examination of Marshall McLuhan and his pop cultural and intellectual legacy are in order. In spite of this critical necessity, I have yet to come across one media/technology commentator bring up McLuhan’s name in any discussion about Facebook. How could this be?

My guess would be that just plain lack of knowledge of history is to blame here, but this would simply be an acknowledgement of one of our culture’s greatest and most virulent intellectual pathologies and is not in any way a new critical epiphany. And since I do not want to commit the same error as those whom I criticize, I feel it to be entirely prudent to not assume total prior knowledge of this man and his ideas. So, I hope that those of you “in the know” will now forgive me as I attempt a terse apercu for the uninitiated.

Marshall McLuhan was a Canadian professor of Medieval Literature primarily at the University of Toronto and became a media and cultural phenomenon (to say the least) in the nineteen sixties with the publication of a series of books: The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962), Understanding Media (1964), and The Medium is the Massage (1967). By using the term phenomenon, I mean it in its most pungent syntax. Keeping in mind that his global celebrity was actualized some fifty years before YouTube would be making the banal and mediocre famous, should give you some idea as to the heft and gravitas that this man generated within all cultural and intellectual circles as well as all forms of extant media. But when one applies even the most casual hindsight to examining his token ideas and beliefs (his adult conversion to Catholicism often gets left out of these inquiries, an important detail I shall get to later), it quickly becomes quite conspicuous that McLuhan could not have achieved his notoriety in any other milieu than the nineteen sixties; a decade rife with cultural mountebanks, gurus, and crackpots of every stripe and abstraction all finding an eager audience as they spoke of what the people eagerly wanted to hear (always a portentous combination).

As with most historical examinations of this type, it is more than a little illuminating if not just plain necessitous to re-read the contemporary criticisms and defenses of contentious ideas. After re-reading McLuhan’s books (an obvious first task for the critic), I have found for some time now that the best book to follow up with is a collection of essays entitled McLuhan: Pro & Con (1968) edited by Raymond Rosenthal. This collection has an impressive breadth of Literature professors, Sociologists, Cultural critics, and Philosophers arguing for and against the need to take seriously the intellectual notions of McLuhan which have catapulted him to such unprecedented fame and cultural eminence, at least for a university professor. A fair portion of the critical essays place their rhetorical stance firmly in examining The Gutenberg Galaxy and its cardinal proposition which undergirds all of McLuhan’s subsequent ideations from that point on.

The basic premise of the Galaxy is that our modern era and all of its problems can be traced back to the invention of the printing press and that this advent was ultimately calamitous to our species as it ended the era of the spoken word as the chief method of the promulgation of ideas (i.e culture). In its place, our species has become enslaved to the eye and the visual transmission of ideas which print necessitates. This allows for the cloistering of men and their being cut off from their fellows as reading became a solitary act: hence the final abrogation of tribal or village society (as if this could be anything but a social anodyne!). In the aforementioned collection, Professor Neil Compton encapsulates the Galaxy and its bizarre and eccentric thesis brilliantly in his essay The Paradox of Marshall McLuhan when he explains that McLuhan would have us view history in such a way as to believe that:

“Until the fifteenth century, aural and visual modes of thought continued to coexist in relatively fruitful tension. However, with the invention of printing (a characteristically “visual” attempt to achieve quantity, uniformity, and repeat-ability) the visual bias of European culture began to assume murderous proportions. All values that could not be reconciled with mathematical order, utility, or empirical rationalism were undermined and subverted. From the triumph of Gutenberg technology stems everything that McLuhan most detests about the modern world–capitalism, secularism, industrialism, nationalism, specialization, and socialism. Worse than that, those who ought to lead their fellows back to a saner mode of life–the intellectual and academic elite–are so “stunned” and brainwashed by their dependence upon print that they are incapable of understanding what is happening to them. These “bookmen of detached and private culture” mistake for reality what is really the pre-packaged, homogenized, and denatured product of assembly-line Gutenberg thought processes.” (emphasis mine)

And sociology professor, Tom Nairn, rams this McLuhanian historical synthesis even further which also exposes McLuhan’s rather bizarre notions on media’s influence on our biology:

“…the “implosion” of instantaneous electric communication has thrown back together what Gutenberg sundered, and brought about a new multisensible world of wholeness and all-at-onceness. Intellect is no longer isolated in a corner, or on a professional rostrum; it can literally be everywhere at once, in the “cosmic membrane that has been snapped round the globe by the electric dilation of our various senses”.(…) A part of McLuhan’s thesis is that this social history is not the history of a constant “human nature.” Because the communication media are “extensions” of the senses (or even of the nervous system as a whole, in the case of electric media), they shape our psychology as well as the fabric of society.(…) The contemporary age made by the new forms of communication is an age of myth. By contrast, the age of the printed word was one of literalness, and books were the original “square” things. The new media environment we call “popular culture” is one in which the mind reaches for an immediate, sensible explanation, an image, an involving experience–for a “mythic dimension” of knowing, a new totemism. McLuhan’s own work is—and is seen by him—as part of this dimension.”

Yes, it was rather prescient (in this case at least) to announce that pop culture would evolve into the search for and satisfaction of immediacy and sensation, but anyone could have seen that as a logical progression of mass media based on and fed by the visual, and many other critics did at the time. So of course I fully admit there are grains of interesting thought to be found in McLuhanism, but they are just that, twee and far between. Nonetheless this kind of insight always gets blighted by his more, shall we say, eccentric ideas such as that electric communication is literally an extension of our nervous system and not merely a metaphorical extended phenotype.

What was so clear back then and even more so now is that it only takes the simplest application of rudimentary logic to highlight what drivel McLuhan was overall peddling. And it is not even really important what a nonsensical and a historical interpretation of history McLuhan’s notions are because ultimately they are more frightening and dangerous in what they portend. As I am sure you recall I alluded earlier to there being relevance to McLuhan’s adult conversion to Catholicism which I would hope is now plain with what has just been laid bare about his thought processes and views of the world. Because all of his thought, affected or not, was underlain with an acute and pernicious reactionarism which I feel definitely had its locus in his Catholicism. This is why I have always found it so odd that anyone could have interpreted his thought as visionary or even more absurdly mantic and radical in how they viewed history and its contingencies. Under this light, it then becomes easier to also see McLuhan’s notions as stemming from his hatred of Marxian thought and the materialist conception of history. His felt that he had found the true key to history in his facile and most popular maxim, The Medium is the Message, as adumbrated in Understanding Media.

After McLuhan had done away with the printed word and the intellectual content it carried in Galaxy, he establishes in Understanding Media, that in our mass media and technological present, all that truly matters is the way in which media is transmitted, content is negligible if not undesirable. Once again, we can see the bullshit continuing to expand prodigiously. This is why I contend it was only in the sixties that such nonsense could have been taken seriously even for a second. Who now would be so fatuous as to contend that television or Internet programming has its utility solely in the way in which it transmits data and that the data itself is not important? Is it not now so depressingly obvious that we are all drowning within a deluge of imagery at all waking moments? If anything, it is image and imagery that has now become so regnant within our daily existence; so much so, that how anything but content could be of the highest concern to those who promulgate the images and ensuing thoughts which control the way so many interpret reality is beyond consideration.

Ultimately with this babble McLuhan wanted us to believe that mass media/communication (or the Internet as McLuhan would have undoubtedly said if he were alive today) transmission is reconnecting our species without the linear written word and its supposed divisive and homogenized thought, in a sense bringing us back to a pre-industrial tribal society, what he termed a Global Village.

So how can it now ever be thought tenable and apposite to use McLuhan’s Village to describe Facebook and their ilk? Social Networking, whatever its teleological ramifications end up being, is in no way “connecting” anyone. Technology is an artifice and cyberspace involves an existential reality divorced from the corporeal. Whatever connection there socially is, is purely in a vitiated form. But even disregarding this fact, how is it helpful correlating Mark Zuckerberg’s exploits with the reactionary ideas of Marshall McLuhan? And further still, even if you wanted to give the intellectual benefit of the doubt to McLuhan’s notions, they are still blatantly self-contradictory to an absurd extent.

The man who so fiercely derided Academia stayed where? Why he stayed all is adult life in Academia. The man who so inveighed against the written word and the transmission of ideas through books, still wrote and promulgated his thoughts through what? Books! This bizarre mentality was perfectly encapsulated by Gore Vidal in his pungent analysis of Henry Miller when he stated that, “The paradox is that if he really meant what he writes, he would not write at all. But then he is not the first messiah to be crucified upon a contradition.” And not even flagrant hypocrisy begins to explain this paradox either. I’m afraid in the end McLuhan was just another example of the intellectual fallacy that believes that obscurantism can portend profundity. And even though there still is intellectual merit to studying and analyzing McLuhan’s place in the thought of the past century, it has become pointless to even try to deny that he can in no way or fashion help us to understand the social implications and continuing evolution of media and the Internet. At best, his thought is a cache of anachronistic and glib slogans best now only viewed as sociological curiosities from an all too often intellectually gelastic era.

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