What was up with Marshall McLuhan?

Culture Is Our Business (1970)

  • World War III is a guerrilla information war with no division between military and civilian participation. (p.66)
  • The newspaper is a corporate symbolist poem, environmental and invisible, as poem.
  • Since Sputnik there is no Nature. Nature is an item contained in a man-made environment of satellites and information.

  • The only cool PR is provided by one’s enemies. They toil incessantly and for free.

(this video is part of some kind of presentation for a class?)

Take Today : The Executive as Dropout (1972)

  • Only puny secrets need protection. Big secrets are protected by public incredulity. You can actually dissipate a situation by giving it maximal coverage. As to alarming people, that’s done by rumours, not by coverage. (p. 92)

The fact that Marshall McLuhan is perhaps best known for a brief appearance in a movie would not surprise him at all, I don’t think.  What was this guy going on about?  I’ve never read an entire one of his books, but why I wouldn’t bother to read a Marshall McLuhan book is exactly the kind of thing he was getting at.

One of the things that happens at the speed of light is that people lose their goals in life. So what takes the place of goals and objectives? Well, role-playing is coming in very fast.

  • Interview between Californian Governor Jerry Brown and Marshall McLuhan, 1977

The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962)

  • The medieval student had to be paleographer, editor, and publisher of the authors he read. (p. 109)
    • Scribal culture and Gothic architecture were both concerned with light through, not light on. (p. 120)
  • Electric technology is directly related to our central nervous systems, so it is ridiculous to talk of “what the public wants” played over its own nerves. (p. 68)

From Cliché to Archetype (1970)

  • Since Sputnik and the satellites, the planet is enclosed in a manmade environment that ends “Nature” and turns the globe into a repertory theater to be programmed. Shakespeare at the Globe mentioning “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players” (As You Like It, Act II, Scene 7) has been justified by recent events in ways that would have struck him as entirely paradoxical. The results of living inside a proscenium arch of satellites is that the young now accept the public spaces of the earth as role-playing areas. Sensing this, they adopt costumes and roles and are ready to “do their thing” everywhere.” (p.9-10)

The longest thing I’ve read of McLuhan is this interview in a 1969 Playboy magazine:

Interviewer: If personal freedom will still exist—although restricted by certain consensual taboos— in this new tribal world, what about the political system most closely associated with individual freedom: democracy? Will it, too, survive the transition to your global village?

McLuhan: No, it will not. The day of political democracy as we know it today is finished. Let me stress again that individual freedom itself will not be submerged in the new tribal society, but it will certainly assume different and more complex dimensions. The ballot box, for example, is the product of literate Western culture—a hot box in a cool world—and thus obsolescent. The tribal will is consensually expressed through the simultaneous interplay of all members of a community that is deeply interrelated and involved, and would thus consider the casting of a “private” ballot in a shrouded polling booth a ludicrous anachronism. The TV networks’ computers, by “projecting” a victor in a Presidential race while the polls are still open, have already rendered the traditional electoral process obsolescent. In our software world of instant electric communications movement, politics is shifting from the old patterns of political representation by electoral delegation to a new form of spontaneous and instantaneous communal involvement in all areas of decision making. In a tribal all-at-once culture, the idea of the “public” as a differentiated agglomerate of fragmented individuals, all dissimilar but all capable of acting in basically the same way, like interchangeable mechanical cogs in a production line, is supplanted by a mass society in which personal diversity is encouraged while at the same time everybody reacts and interacts simultaneously to every stimulus. The election as we know it today will be meaningless in such a society.

Interviewer: How will the popular will be registered in the new tribal society if elections are pass?

McLuhan: The electric media open up totally new means of registering popular opinion. The old concept of the plebiscite, for example, may take on new relevance; TV could conduct daily plebiscites by presenting facts to 200,000,000 people and providing a computerized feedback of the popular will. But voting, in the traditional sense, is through as we leave the age of political parties, political issues and political goals, and enter an age where the collective tribal image and the iconic image of the tribal chieftain is the overriding political reality. But that’s only one of countless new realities we’ll be confronted with in the tribal village. We must understand that a totally new society is coming into being, one that rejects all our old values, conditioned responses, attitudes and institutions. If you have difficulty envisioning something as trivial as the imminent end of elections, you’ll be totally unprepared to cope with the prospect of the forthcoming demise of spoken language and its replacement by a global consciousness.

More:

Interviewer: How is television reshaping our political institutions?

McLuhan: TV is revolutionizing every political system in the Western world. For one thing, it’s creating a totally new type of national leader, a man who is much more of a tribal chieftain than a politician. Castro is a good example of the new tribal chieftain who rules his country by a mass-participational TV dialog and feedback; he governs his country on camera, by giving the 11 Cuban people the experience of being directly and intimately involved in the process of collective decision making. Castro’s adroit blend of political education, propaganda and avuncular guidance is the pattern for tribal chieftains in other countries. The new political showman has to literally as well as figuratively put on his audience as he would a suit of clothes and become a corporate tribal image—like Mussolini, Hitler and F.D.R. in the days of radio, and Jack Kennedy in the television era. All these men were tribal emperors on a scale theretofore unknown in the world, because they all mastered their media. . . . The overhauling of our traditional political system is only one manifestation of the retribalizing process wrought by the electric media, which is turning the planet into a global village.

found that here, at a UC Davis class website.

McLuhan was so good at taxonomies — consider what Tom Wolfe recounts him telling IBM, at 47:00-48:00 below:

 

This is the coolest McLuhan quote, in my opinion:

I’ve always been careful never to predict anything that had not already happened.

  • Interview: Tom Wolfe, TVOntario, August 1970


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