Critical Mass, Introduction, Wise Guy


The better part of my work on media
is actually somewhat like a safe-cracker's.
I don't know what's inside; maybe it's nothing.
I just sit down and start to work. I grope,
I listen, I test, I accept and discard;
I try out different sequences — until
the tumblers fall and the doors spring open.

— Marshall McLuhan

What Sigmund Freud is to psychoanalysis, Dr. Herbert Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980) is to communication theory and cultural anthropology. One of the most influential intellectual mavericks of twentieth-century thought, McLuhan began his career working within the relatively obscure confines of the ivory tower where he toiled away polishing essays analysing literature and creating lectures on how to appreciate its merits and values.

Stylisation, not imitation, was the key to McLuhan's approach. His speciality was media and he simply overturned all assumptions concerning same: "All media are active metaphors in their power to translate experience into new forms. The spoken word was the first technology by which man was able to let go of his environment in order to grasp it in a new way," he explained in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964).

Something of a seer-savant, most likely a genius (but most assuredly a giant on our cultural landscape), Canada's best-known visionary imagined the future and mapped its contours in living colour. Now, his magical and initially bewildering signature, "the medium is the message," seamlessly supports his reputation as a "crisis" philosopher on the razor's edge of the information revolution, a crisis philosopher who'd crafted a lament for a world soon to be subsumed (or consumed) by the tyranny of technology.


Click for the 411 on Marshall McLuhan:  Un visionnaire (Translated by Hélène Rioux)


Perhaps, more than any other single individual in recent history, McLuhan adequately equipped humankind with the mental charts, graphs, maps, and practical means to learn its way through the maze of educating, illuminating, and reconciling the planet's current population with the onslaught of what he termed The Age of Information.

Through his ground-breaking explorations, investigations, and "probes" (supported by his belief a thinking person must poke and prod everything from language to reality to self-identity), McLuhan developed tools to respond to the overwhelming technological challenges confronting the information-glutted "contemporary anybodies" sleepwalking through life's miraculous vistas (through no fault of their own).

A humanist to the core, McLuhan accurately discerned the post-industrial world derives its unity from technological imperatives and corporate or political forces rather than from nature, social responsibilities, or human-scale requirements. Investigation of the electr(on)ic world's media and methods has replaced philosophical inquiry into worlds both natural and mechanical.

Taking his cue from author and painter Wyndham Lewis's observation that the "present cannot be revealed to people until it has become yesterday, McLuhan points out individuals see only the past as part and parcel of what he termed "the rear-view mirror phenomenon" obscuring the present and obliterating the future.

By contrast, his probing approach, a perceptually open one, provides the foundation for his insistence on differentiating between "concept" and "percept"; it is in this context that one of McLuhan's percepts further illuminates his reflections on the rear-view mirror phenomenon versus perceptions of unmediated (or unassisted or artificially enhanced) experience.

According to McLuhan, each new medium produces a new cultural environment that becomes invisible while making visible the one of the previous culture. Enter the artist, the only figure capable of apprehending what will happen since artists naturally see what is happening (or, by definition, they are not artists). The artist is a uniquely capable translator of the "invisible" cultural environment of the present.

The self-described satirist stresses that individuals intent on preserving both identity and self-reliant interdependence — in a world where everything's reduced to the lowest common denominator in order to realise maximum profits and returns — must arm themselves to the teeth with knowledge or risk a bite on the butt by ignorance.

Doffing his thinking cap to poet Robert Browning's "The Faultless Painter" as well as novelist James Joyce's zest for the palimpsest (an aphoristic phrase resonating with echoes of its genesis in a source outside itself), the incorrigible neologiser shamelessly promoted his agenda in one of his funniest — punniest? — messages: "A man's reach must exceed his grasp or what's a metaphor?"

Believing "we become what we behold," McLuhan went further: "We shape our tools and they in turn shape us." In all his work, in fact, it's not too far-fetched to suggest McLuhan penned a mournful eulogy for the billions of individuals (contemporary anybodies) afflicted with what he called "psychic rigor mortis," that state where the human being is stripped of personal identity, conscripted into uniform conformity, and thwarted from truly living and experiencing a full and fruitful life by the unrelenting demands media, corporate, and commercial interests make upon any and all who hang around the global village.

McLuhan intuitively understood that television signalled a threat to literacy and that computers would rapidly become extensions of the human being's central nervous system by expanding its range of sense perceptions. In reaching his conclusions and making his findings known, he helped rescue civilisation from a fate worse than fate by condemning the mind-numbing effects of the commodification and commercialisation of absolutelely everything (best evidenced in a society where the individual — the contemporary anybody — "prefers somnambulism to awareness").

The substance of his work and the style of his writing are considered to be apocalyptic, inscrutable, dogmatic, contradictory, bereft of traditional modes of scholarly or critical methodology, and dismissive of careful and close argumentation in favour of repetition, paradox, and dizzying digression. In response, McLuhan defends his collage-like approach — its splintered shapes amplified by jarring juxtapositions, tactile and textural contrasts, arresting arrangements, fractured variations, and the inclusion of foreign materials — as the only one capable of fully conveying the chaos, complexity, and contradictions of contemporary life.

An advocate of simultaneous perception (global thinking) from the moment he first discovered its benefits during his years at Cambridge (while studying with the duo largely responsible for the creation of the principles of New Criticism, I. A. Richards and F. R. Leavis), Professor McLuhan subsequently adopted the view that the only way to approach a work of literature was to examine it in terms of the way it works its magic or achieves its effects (rather than focusing exclusively on its major themes, representative motifs, or the biography of its creator).


Click for the 411 on Marshall McLuhan:  Un visionnaire (Translated by Hélène Rioux)


Hence, when it comes to media, messages, culture, and technology, McLuhan sings the body electronic to underscore his number-one obsession, that is, that breakdown inevitably leads to breakthrough which always yields to greater understanding and the fine art of meaningful communication.

Another of McLuhan's celebrated percepts brings this notion into relief. It was sparked, oddly enough, by a passing comment from a European acquaintance. In America, it was observed, a person goes out "for a drive" for privacy because the home — largely under the influence of media — has become a public space. The automobile promises and provides refuge, serving as a temporary wrap-around haven for the harrassed and harried, in perhaps one of the few remaining enclosed spaces where a human being still retains some sense of integration, autonomy, and control.

In the 1960s, when the relatively new medium of television was radical, instant, and global, McLuhan was frequently mentioned on Martin and Rowan's hip comedy programme, Laugh-In. At the same time, the metaphysician of media was informing GE, Bell Telephone, and IBM they were not in the business of light bulbs, telephones, and business machines; rather, they were in the business of moving information. The medium is the message.

American novelist and social critic Norman Mailer referred to McLuhan's famous five-word pronouncement as an "irremovable harpoon" that would be "tormenting the vitals" of the culterati long after he'd departed the planet. In 1980, the year McLuhan did meet his Maker, CNN was up and running while personal computers were quickly becoming affordable acquisitions throughout the Western world.

"McLuhan," Northrop Frye astutely observed in 1988, "was celebrated for the wrong reasons in the 1960s, and then neglected for the wrong reasons later." Frye generously called for a long overdue reassessment of McLuhan's work and its value. Four years later, a Mondo 2000 scribe marvelled that "reading McLuhan is like reading Shakespeare — you keep stumbling on phrases that you thought were clichés, only this guy made them up!"

By the time the Internet was old news, McLuhan's considerable influence was everywhere evident and virtually impossible to mistake. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's Electronic Town-Hall Meetings? Aluminium soft-drink cans? David Letterman's Top-Ten Lists? Reality TV? Electronic garage-door openers? Television platters (or videocassettes)? Ubiquitous surveillance systems? Mass-murder epidemics? Check, check, check.

The name is McLuhan, Marshall McLuhan. The Oxford English Dictionary lists it in three-hundred-and-forty-six entries, one of which cites Quentin Fiore, the gifted artist-designer who teamed up with McLuhan to collaborate on The Medium Is the Massage, the volume featuring playful and exhilarating spins, swirls, and comminglings of texts, images, and graphics that would come to serve as the template for magazines such as Shift, Details, and Wired thirty-odd years after the bestseller appeared in 1967.

At that time, McLuhan's initial percepts on the "retribalisation" of culture appeared to be directly applicable to the "counterculture" of disillusioned youth experimenting with new definitions of social organisation by way of communes, drugs, sex, peace, free love, world travel, and rock-and-roll music or, at least, that was the gist of what the mass media reported daily. (For a few brief years, regardless of the way the media ultimately defined what was happening, a touch of magical enchantment pacified the Western world, even for those who missed Woodstock in 1969.)

The new (or now or next) generation, fed up with the rut-race, heeded the warnings in collections of poetry such as Energy of Slaves (1972) and Lies (1973) by poets the stature of Leonard Cohen and John Newlove respectively. The new generation similarly took popular lyrics encouraging it to get back to the garden (Joni Mitchell's "Woodstock") or to find a farm and grow grass and apples there (Cohen's "Stories Of The Street") to heart. The beads and Roman sandals of that era gave way to ear, eyebrow, nose, and navel rings while body piercings, tattoos, and scarification decorated every conceivable location on the human body. Of course, only the costumes changed when the communes gave up the tribal beat to Charlie Manson's "family" and the Bloods and Crips.

Most importantly, though, McLuhan's observations have since come into their own as profound commentaries on the ways in which relationships among individuals have been altered in Cyberia, where the body remains parked (or paralysed) while the mind of the techno-traveller jacks in and roams the gratification grids of the information galaxy.

As with many of McLuhan's pronouncements (including those that seem to have divined the nature and dynamics of the Internet many years before it even existed), this one seems to have been made by one of those unique individuals capable, in some ineffable way, of peering into the future. A number of his observations baffled and astonished audiences at the time — the outrageousness of some of them tempted his apoplectic critics to describe his theories as "McLuhanacy." Now, in the first decade of the new millennium, they seem perfectly intelligible.

It's no surprise the prophet designation was — and continues to be — bandied about by many who search for a word to adequately describe the impact of insights and "outerings" (utterances) that boggle most minds. In his examination of the individual in the context of the global via the national, McLuhan correctly perceived electronic media would annihilate local culture. In the neo-tribalist global village where personality has been erased, sex sells and violence erupts as a quest for identity writ graphic.


Click for the 411 on Marshall McLuhan:  Wise Guy at XYZ Publishing


As McLuhan astutely observed, new technologies would extend the range of both body and mind in ways that irrevocably altered an individual's relationships with both the environment and every other resident of the global village, creating a universal nervous system of vast complexity and sophistication shared by any and all in possession of the inclination and the equipment to participate.

Since the modern world seems now to have achieved that "complete break with five-thousand years of mechanical technology" McLuhan identifies as his "main theme," the "outerings" of the human sensorium (the senses considered collectively) combine and recombine to produce what he called network consciousness and what individuals have come to recognise as the realisation of his "percept" that human beings will experience a world where the illusion of depth proliferates and all-inclusive nowness reaches critical mass.

Not surprisingly, then, when one of McLuhan's friends asked him whether he really believed there was life after death, McLuhan had cagily answered the question with one of his own: "Do you really believe there is any life before death?"


Canada Day 2001
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