Friday, January 25, 2008

The McLuhan Galaxy

Nice essay on Marshall McLuhan in the LRC (literary review of canada), via Arts & Letters Daily.

One spark, often overlooked, but crucial, I found buried in The Gutenburg Galaxy, a book often passed over by those who prefer his later, more popular works. Philosophers have always asked what drives history. Is it revolutionary ideas, manifest destiny, great individuals, something called “the life force”? McLuhan denied none of these causes but, following one of his most influential mentors at U of T, Harold Innis, he asked: “How about tools?” We may think the end of the slave trade on the Atlantic was powered by humanitarians and abolitionists in England and America, and McLuhan would not disagree. But the main impetus, he would say, was the steam engine, a tool that reduced the need for muscle. This example is not one I have taken from McLuhan’s writings. As far as I know I arrived at it all by myself. But I would never have thought of it if I had not read McLuhan. That’s how his probes work.

The strangely under-read Gutenburg Galaxy has more to offer. King Lear, says McLuhan, has gone along with what Goneril and Regan say, and denied what he feels about Cordelia. He has broken what Shakespeare calls “the precious square of sense.” He has allowed the Renaissance emphasis on what the eye sees (appearance) to smother the earlier sense of felt reality (the fluent interplay of all the senses). Lear will suffer for it. It is not that the eye is inferior to the ear or vice versa. It is that the balanced “ratio of the senses” has become skewed by the tyranny of the visual ordering of experience brought on by print culture.

Like all original thinkers from Blake to Einstein, McLuhan was much misunderstood. He never promoted TV over books as popular accounts gave out. He never expressed a preference for tribal culture over individualism. He never said the patterns of perception imposed by the ear are superior to those of the eye. One small aphorism sticks with me: “When the globe becomes a single electronic web with all its languages and culture recorded on a single tribal drum, the fixed point of view of print culture becomes irrelevant, however precious.” However precious! Those are the operative words, about as far as McLuhan went in taking sides. But they also bring his innermost sympathies to the fore.

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