INDIVIDUAL CONSCIENCE ----Not a simple subject----
Tonight I watched a 2009 doco entitled: The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers.1
On the spectrum from heroic patriot to craven traitor, Daniel Ellsberg is portrayed in this doco as firmly on the side of the heroic. In this detailed, clearly told and persuasive film, directed by two nationally known documentary filmmakers, Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith. Viewers are shown what many have probably now forgotten. Given the changes and chances of this complex world, an event 40+ years ago is an eternity. The official Ellsberg story I’m sure has been forgotten by most people, except modern history scholars and teachers.
I found, as I often find with docos, that I am reminded of things I have forgotten in this changeful life with all its highways and byways. In our world of image and print-glut, we all drown in information. I’ve been drowning in information since the autumn of 1963 when I entered university. In some ways a doco like this is, for me at least, a rest for my brain from the complexities of contemporary reality in 2013 and a chance to enjoy some alpha-waves while returning, visually, to events long ago when I was young. There is a rich nostalgia there; sometimes it is not so rich, just a bit tedious. A good director, though, can bring it all alive again, some event in my young adulthood, my 20s in this case.
In 1969, US military analyst Daniel Ellsberg2
read a top-secret report commissioned by former secretary of defence Robert McNamara on America's involvement in Vietnam. While writing this piece I chanced upon another doco entitled: The Fog of War: Robert S. McNamara.
This latter doco was on ABC2TV
, 9:30-11:15 p.m. 3/3/’13.
TheDaniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers
docodetailed a history of lies in relation to the war in Vietnam by every president from Harry Truman, who financed the French to retake its former colony, to Eisenhower, who called for the cancelling of national elections there, through to Kennedy and Johnson. The latter claimed he sought no wider war while at the same time whipping-up the Gulf of Tonkin incident which happened in August 1964 just as I was about to start my honours history and philosophy course at a university in the lunch-pail city of Hamilton Ontario. I was at the time finishing my summer-job as an electrician’s assistant for Stelco of Canada, now US Steel Canada and living alone above a restaurant in Dundas at the centre of Ontario’s Golden Horseshoe. My father had died 3 months before and it was my first months of living alone. I was 20 years old.
The report commissioned by McNamara convinced Ellsberg that the war had been a crime from the start; he felt that he had to do something to stop it. In 1971, he leaked a series of classified documents, soon to be known as The Pentagon Papers
, to The New York Times
. I was just getting ready to come to Australia from Canada at the time. The Pentagon Papers
, their aftermath leading up to Watergate and the resignation of President Nixon, were historical events immersed in the complexities and burgeoning issues of my own life in Australia from 1971 to 1974, my years from primary school teacher to university tutor and from marriage number one to marriage number two.
Utterly gripping, this intimately rendered and, at times, sinister documentary goes inside Ellsberg's head, recounting how he arrived at what he felt was his act of honourable sedition. It was a journey, he believed, that stretched back to his boyhood when his father fell asleep while driving, killing his mother and sister. "It left an impression on me that someone you loved and respected, an authority, could fall asleep at the wheel, not because they were bad but because they were inattentive to the risks."-Ron Price with thanks to 1 The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers
, 8:30-10:15 p.m., first shown onABC1
, January 2011; and 2
For a summary of the life of Daniel Ellsberg go to Wikipedia.
A problem, of course, or perhaps the problem
is that, if you exalt…
individual conscience to the
position at the top of moral
trees around the planet, then
you exalt the individual over
the group and that can be, &
often is, dangerous delusion!(1)
(1) We have inherited a dangerous delusion from Christianity in one of its many modern dresses, among other historical sources, especially Protestantism’s and democracy’s complex and tortured history, that our individual conscience is supreme. In the end, in the context of both our role in the community and our role in the greater world, we must be prepared to sacrifice our personal convictions or opinions, at least some of them, if we are to participate, that is, in some formal group. Most people I have known in my 70 years are basically uncommitted except to family, job and self-interest, with the occasional flick at whales or women’s rights. The elevation of the private conscience in the West has been supreme all my life, especially in North America and Australia where I have lived and had my being.
The belief that individual conscience is supreme is fine to a point, but if people are to function as a group within an institutional form to give formal expression to that group then, in the end, individual conscience must be subsumed within the collective conscience, so to speak, of the group. Most people, again, in my experience, never find any group with which to affiliate and thus commit themselves to a larger cause, except, as I often say: sport, gardening, having fun, perhaps whales for a day or a series of quixotic quests.
With reference to the absolute pacifists, or conscientious objectors of war, for example, their attitude, judged from this collective consciousness/group standpoint, is quite anti-social. Due to its exaltation of the individual conscience it leads inevitably to disorder and chaos in society. Extreme pacifists are thus very close to the anarchists, in the sense that both of these groups lay an undue emphasis on the rights and merits of the individual. The other main objection to the conscientious objectors is that their method of establishing peace is too negative. Non-co-operation is too passive a philosophy to become an effective way for social reconstruction. Their refusal to bear arms can never establish peace. There should first be a spiritual revitalization and how that will come about is the 64 thousand dollar question which only history and the future will reveal.
The conception of social life I am advocating here is essentially based on the subordination of the individual will to that of society. It neither suppresses the individual nor does it exalt him to the point of making him an anti-social creature, a menace to society. As in everything, what I am recommending follows what you might call ‘the golden mean'. The only way that society can function is for the minority to follow the will of the majority.
For an extended discussion of this concept, a difficult one for individuals in modern society, a society which in many ways exalts the individual over the group, go to this link(1) http://info.bahai.org/article-1-9-1-3.html
(1)Wendy M. Heller explores the religious origins of the organizing principles of civil society, tracks their secularization in the modern era, and examines the prospect of an inclusive global moral order based on the enduring concept of covenant. This article appeared in the 1995-96 edition of The Bahá'í World,
21/11/’11 to 5/3/’13.
I have added below a piece on Robert McNamara, viewed through the insights of communication theorist Marshall McLuhan(1911-1980) who died just as I got a job in a tin mine on the wet-west coast of Tasmania and six months after I finally was diagnosed as having bipolar disorder after a near 20 year hiatus. I wrote the following piece after watching The Fog of War: Robert S. McNamara, ABC2TV, 9:30 to 11:15 p.m., 3/3/’13. The above and what is below makes a total of nearly 7000 words, far too much for the average reader at internet sites. McNAMARA: A CONTEXT
I want to thank David Skinner, who was an associate editor of the Weekly Standard,
an American neoconservative opinion magazine published 48 times per year for much of the following. Skinner wrote this piece, from which I am quoting liberally, in an essay published in 2000 in a journal entitled The Public Interest. The Public Interest
(1965-2005) was a quarterly public policy journal
founded by the New York intellectuals Daniel Bell and Irving Kristol in 1965. I had been a Daniel Bell enthusiast as far back as the mid-1960s when I was studying history, philosophy and sociology at my hometown university. Skinner’s essay appeared during the first year that I was retired from FT work after a 50 year student-working life. Skinner is now editor of Humanities,
a magazine published by the National Endowment for the Humanities.1
Much of what follows is from Skinner which I had the pleasure of reading after I had also retired from PT and most casual-volunteer work in 2006.1
I have just added a few personal notes and comments to provide for me, and for those readers who have come into my life in cyberspace, some context for Skinner’s excellent overview of the famous communication theorist Marshall McLuhan. I have appended this piece to my comment on that TV doco on Robert S. McNamara
which I watched the day before yesterday.3
These 7000 words provide, I hope, a context of relevance in relation to both McLuhan and Robert McNamara for those readers with the time and the inclination. For those without the time and with little inclination, I encourage you to skim and scan what follows. If the worst comes to the worst or, to put the idea a little differently, if you do not have much interest in the topics under review here, just stop reading now and get on with what turns you on and stimulates your sensory and intellectual emporium.
“A new non-literary culture exists today”, writes Skinner quoting Susan Sontag, “of whose existence, not to mention significance, most literary intellectuals are entirely unaware." These words of Sontag’s are found in her ground-breaking 1965 essay, "One Culture and the New Sensibility."
Many who come to this now lengthy essay, this essay which places the life and views of Robert McNamara on the Vietnam war as viewed through a McLuhan lens, will know nothing of Sontag. Rather than reinventing the wheel, I will encourage those who would like to have some background on Sontag, another famous writer who came into the lives of many readers and thinkers from the 1960s onward, to do a little googling.
I was just starting my third year of university in an honours sociology program in Ontario Canada when Sontag and McLuhan were making their first big-literary-hay. “This new sensibility”, Sontag argued, “collapsed the distinction between highbrow and lowbrow. It embraced popular culture and celebrated modernist music as well as painting. The masses had little taste for much that was the literary culture. This new sensibility advanced a new understanding of the senses.”
In a milieu that took as its dictate to "modify consciousness" and to "organize new modes of sensibility," Marshall McLuhan played the role of leading commentator, explaining this new world to the rest of us. At least this idea, this role of McLuhan’s, had some significance back in the 1960s when I was at university, dealing with the rigors of an undiagnosed bipolar disorder, working an endless stream of summer-jobs, and starting out in my teaching career, my first marriage and my relationship to a new organization, a new religion which I had been, by then, associated with for more than a decade.2
McLuhan was born in 1911 in Edmonton, the capital of Alberta, Canada. His interest in literature and a well-earned scholarship brought him to Cambridge for his graduate work where he met F.R. Leavis. He studied under I.A. Richards, and became consumed with G.K. Chesterton. After Cambridge, and during the first Baha’i teaching Plan, 1937 to 1944, he taught at the University of Wisconsin and St. Louis University where, in 1943, he completed his Ph.D. thesis on Thomas Nashe, the seventeenth-century satirist and thinker. I mention this Baha’i program because I have been associated with its extension for 60 years.
In many ways, McLuhan’s life was and is a story of contradictions. A Catholic with six children, he was famous among an increasingly anti-religious cultural elite that was suspicious of family life. He became a scholar interested in all the obscurities that had ever flowed from the pen of James Joyce; he first made a reputation outside the academy for intensely cerebral commentary on the nature of everyday language, and that of newspapers and advertisements. A compulsive letter writer, and as bookish as any professor of history or English, he made a career of declaring the demise of print. I found McLuhan a stimulating writer in my tumultuous days at university, 1963 to 1967, and into the early 1970s.
His many books include The Mechanical Bride
in 1951, a deconstruction of advertising as both art and propaganda, and The Gutenberg Galaxy
in 1962, an often impenetrable whirlwind of a book described by the historian E.H. Carr as "a unique and unforgettable experience." But it was McLuhan’s 1964 Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man,
at one point the best-selling nonfiction book at Harvard University, that made him a truly famous serious person. I was just starting my honours history and philosophy program in 1964 and read everything that McLuhan wrote.
His 10 or so books, many of them co-written, and dozens of articles and essays comprise a formidable pile of literature. But the most difficult task in writing about McLuhan is explaining, aside from his off-the-cuff opinions, what he actually thought. Quoting him at any length can have the unfortunate effect of mystifying the reader. Many a McLuhan sentence will work like a koan which is a paradox to be meditated upon and is used to train Zen Buddhist monks to abandon ultimate dependence on reason as well as to force them into gaining sudden intuitive enlightenment. A koan, once explained, loses its purpose along with its edge. At the high point of his fame, McLuhan’s often impenetrable style seemed to offer proof of his importance as a thinker.
Around the time of Sontag’s essay, McLuhan was becoming a genuine celebrity whose name would later come up in all sorts of places. Woody Allen gave him a hilarious cameo in Annie Hall, in which McLuhan explained to a pretentious communications professor who had the gall to invoke the author’s name in public that he, in fact, knew nothing of McLuhan’s work. His name was regularly mentioned on television and in newspapers and magazines. He was a famous author and a very successful lecturer who confounded corporate seminars with riffs from his cultural dialectic.
He was paid very well to do so. McLuhan was a forerunner of today’s celebrity intellectual who can become famous, if not rich, for his scholarship. Tom Wolfe wondered if McLuhan was the "most important thinker since Newton, Darwin, Freud, Einstein and Pavlov." In the sixties, and for a good part of the seventies, McLuhan enjoyed the life of a prophet with honour. He was certainly a seminal influence on both my thinking and my writing, as well as the direction of my commitments in religion and philosophy.
Rather fittingly, one of the best examples of McLuhan’s thought comes straight from the realm of the senses, Playboy
magazine. In a 25-page interview in the March 1969 issue, McLuhan’s ideas emerge straightforward and well explained, in large part due to the interviewer’s willingness to risk looking dumb for asking obvious questions. It turned out that many of McLuhan’s opinions, despite his reputation for being some kind of super-scholar and untimely thinker, were standard radical chic, while others were radical even by the heady standards of 1969. I did not read that article in Playboy i
n 1969 working at the time with the white goods manufacturer Bad Boy P/L in Toronto Canada, and recuperating from six months in two mental hospitals and two psychiatric wards from June to December 1968.
McLuhan explained: Black Americans are more in touch with the ancient rhythm of tribal memory; the black power movement was good; hippies dropped out because they just couldn’t relate to the rat race; TV had precipitated a showdown between the young and their print-oriented elders; the artist is a social prophet; "LSD ... gives the potential of instant and total involvement with one’s environment, both all-at-once-ness and all-at-oneness"; there’s no point in making marijuana or other drugs illegal; like the "Negro," the American Indian is "under tremendous social and economic pressure to ... detribalize and this generates great psychic pain"; the United States is balkanized by a war of identities and will eventually wither away; "political democracy as we know it is finished."
"If he is right," Tom Wolfe wrote, "it matters." Right about what, though, is not always clear. Wolfe nicely summarized McLuhan’s thinking and put it in a readable context that is missing from McLuhan’s own writing. Quoting McLuhan, Wolfe starts, "‘Print gave tribal man an eye for an ear.’" Children, Wolfe explicated, were growing up in a new sensorial environment, one dominated by television, and had distinctly different sensorial habits, which alienated them from their print-oriented elders. The schools were falling apart? Well, that’s because teachers were print-oriented. Young people were dropping out? Well, that’s because the hustle and bustle of cities, with their lateral buildings and grid formations, just didn’t seem important to the new generation.
Of course, by now the schools that are falling apart have teachers who were raised on television and the sixties drop-outs now have careers and families to protect, so what they once dismissed, the rat race and all that, is now quite important to them. Even the decidedly print-generation presidential candidate Richard Nixon, whose loss to John F. Kennedy in a televised debate is often used to explain the demise of such politicians, went on to be elected to the White House twice.
The predicted print versus TV generation showdown never came to pass. Not that this has stopped contemporary commentators, many of whom look to McLuhan for inspiration, from making the same predictions about computers and the Internet. And yet, McLuhan, in spite of his singular talent for bombastic overstatement, was onto something: Modern media has changed life irrevocably. Since the 1950s, it has often been said that today’s children are raised on television. For many years now, that idea could be taken literally. A popular cable sitcom of the early 1990s used as its main gag TV and movie clips from the 1950s to illustrate a middle-aged character’s inner life. The permanently boyish character’s entire frame of reference seemed to be comprised of old westerns and screwball comedies. Returning the compliment, people who realize the role TV played in their lives have granted old shows - their theme songs, regular characters, and standby plot devices - a semi-serious mythical status. And this is just the lighter side of modern media.
Specific habits and resulting social types have been changed by television. Reading seems to have become a mere life-style choice, and the "bookworm" seems to be a thing of the past, a type that lives only in old movies: the ugly, four-eyed sister with no social skills. Describing what McLuhan discovered about the society that produced such people, Wolfe wrote, “The visual or print man is an individualist; he is ‘cooler,’ with built-in safeguards. He always has the feeling that no matter what anybody says, he can go check it out. The necessary information is filed away somewhere, categorized. He can look it up.”
What was happening to people under the influence of television, McLuhan pointed out, couldn’t be discovered at the library or in public records. The Dewey decimal system held few clues to the mysteries of post-print life. One had to look to oral culture for answers: The medium that Orson Welles used to scare the bejabbers out of housewives in New York and New Jersey with his reading of The War of the Worlds
had more to teach us than all the texts in the New York Public Library.
McLuhan opened up a world of inquiry to thoughtful people. The medium may not have literally been the message, but it was a message. New media create new environments, he told everyone. He overstated the extent to which new media determine new environments, but he was pretty much right that life was being reshaped by these media.
Vietnam in many ways is an excellent example of the new environment that TV helped create. The sheer number of Baby Boomers coming of age and filling the ranks of the student movement gave antiwar protests social heft, but it was television that transmitted these same images to living rooms across the country. Similarly, the faces of American soldiers and their enemies came home via television. A Vietnam veteran once told me that the one thing he’ll always remember about the war was the TV cameras. For much of the time, it was like being on a movie set, he said, with news reporters and their equipment following him and his fellow soldiers all over the country. Thus did the narrative of the war gain flesh and motion, turning it into something to react to.
Vietnam was also the drama of print man struggling in this new environment. Robert McNamara, the man who brought quantitative analysis and corporate leadership to the job of secretary of defence, was viewed as quite modern in his thinking. But the war abroad and the conflicts at home showed otherwise; this was a new kind of war because it was in a new kind of environment. Indeed, as McLuhan described life then, it was tribal. The American creed meant little to the draft dodgers, the drop-outs, the various splinters of the new Left. The doco, The Fog of War: Robert S. McNamara3
shows the dilemma that McNamara faced in a war whose context was so-complex that, on reflection many years later, McNamara preferred not to think about it.
McLuhan should be credited with teaching us to deconstruct these communications phenomena and their social aspects. While the world was changing McLuhan the literary critic, who had already taught readers of serious journals and magazines how to think about media, became enough of a celebrity to be able to tell everyone that television and other technologies were changing their lives.
Describing McLuhan’s opus has left many commentators in a bind. Some writers resorted to making lists to describe what might be called McLuhan’s main ideas: "ratio of senses," "the medium is the message," "global village," "media as extensions of man." Unfortunately, the more specific one gets with McLuhan’s ideas, the worse he comes off. Despite this, he is and was a significant figure, though hardly a first-rate thinker.
It was McLuhan’s contention that man’s nature is divisible. Like many thinkers who have wrestled with the exact parts of human nature - e.g., Plato with his division of the soul into three parts (reason, appetite, and passion) - McLuhan argued that the key to understanding human phenomena was isolating the dominant part. According to him, in the post-Gutenberg world, man’s sense of sight was dominant as a result of the new importance of literacy and the declining importance of oral media.
The obvious contrast here is with tribal cultures, wherein one’s sense of self and community is established through hearing. Visually these communities make for a small world, but hearing, or rather listening, connects the present with the past and each member of the tribe with the whole tribe. Though it may seem trivial, McLuhan contended that the big loser in the sensorial shift that resulted from the printing press was the sense of smell. Oral tribal societies place less emphasis on the importance of not smelling bad, because the scent of a person is one way his presence becomes known; his scent connected him to the tribe. One of the problems, McLuhan surmised, with the twentieth century is that people disguise their natural scent. The new global village, he ruefully reported, didn’t smell like a village. All this may be true, but from here McLuhan got really carried away: He came up with an idea for a new underwear line that would actually harness body odour to bring individuals closer to each other.
Probably McLuhan’s most famous coinage after "global village," was “the medium is the message.” This one sentence did more to articulate the most original part of his thought than any other. McLuhan used a famous T.S. Eliot quotation to explain his argument. The purpose of a poem’s content, Eliot wrote, is "to satisfy one habit of the reader, to keep his mind diverted and quiet, while the poem does its work upon him: much as the imaginary burglar is always provided with a nice bit of meat for the house-dog." As a description of Eliot’s own poetic method, it’s a useful reminder of the formalist ambitions of modernist poetry; it is not an explanation of any other kind of poetry. Yet it works for McLuhan, who took a great interest in modernist poetry, painting, and music. Like a lot of other half-radicals, he believed that artists make up a class of intellectual vanguards who see the future before the rest of us. If modern art has divided and dissolved form, it is because reality itself is no longer unified enough to give us the portraits and landscapes of earlier periods.
Somehow the artist’s senses and sensibility are ready to greet the future while the rest of us have to wait for the formal announcement. Eliot’s announcement about the key to modernist poetry is, for McLuhan, an announcement about the key to all media. Rather than concentrate on the rivalry between form and content, McLuhan was mainly concerned with more common categories of media: newspapers, magazines, movies, radio, television. What these media share is that none of them is crucial to survival, yet we consume their products as if they were food, clothing, and shelter.
The content of newspapers is news, or as McLuhan put it, bad news. Newspapers as a general matter don’t carry much else, except for advertisements. This distinction gave McLuhan one of his best quips ever: Advertisements were the good news in newspapers. It matters not that the makers of advertisements have something else in mind. When ads appear in newspapers, they become an antistrophe to the bad news reporters bring in. The same holds true for the news part of the newspapers: Their content is predetermined by the medium. They reflect and confirm the societies from which they spring. They can bring to their readership only what is already within the readership’s experience. Thus the content of a newspaper is already decided. The medium dominates, or even is, the message.
And as a matter of experience, newspapers reduce events to visual matter that are measured in inches and column size. Newspapers hierarchize events by the placement of stories: local versus national, human interest versus business, front-page versus miscellaneous two-inch slug. The very environment of a newspaper suggests relationships between events that are imaginary. Or as McLuhan said, "A man does not read a newspaper so much as bathe in it." Newspaper reading is a ritual comfort.
This makes for the kind of discussion that usually starts with a statement like, "If a Martian were to come down and look at us humans right now, doing what we’re doing, this is what he might conclude." The fictional Martian might conclude that the talking heads on the evening news have no legs and live inside the television set, or might reach any number of conclusions that have no bearing on what the great percentage of humans actually understand about what other humans and their institutions do. Only a Martian would mistake a newspaper for that which it purports to represent.
Nevertheless, the Martian conceit gives us a weirdly revealing perspective. We say someone is "in the know" because every morning he sits down with dozens of long broad sheets of paper, scans through nationwide events of the last 24 hours or so, learns the names of scores of people who are historically insignificant, and has nothing but dirty newsprint on his hands to show for it. Obviously, it is something of a ritual, a custom as opposed to a really important activity.
Global village Modern communications technology: from the telegraph and the newspaper, to the telephone and to radio and television---has connected people. Technology connects individuals and societies. One no longer need wait for traders to pass through town to learn what’s going on in other parts of the world. Information can be transmitted instantaneously. Like a village in which little that is important remains private, the lives of individuals and societies are made known to other nations by way of modern communications. Modern man and the modern nation-state are connected to other men and other nation-states like the residents of a small town. McLuhan is on to something here but then, typically, takes it too far.
At one point, for example, McLuhan proposed staging a musical about the Cold War, which he believed would generate such mutual understanding between the Soviet Union and the United States that the Cold War itself would be defused. Nor is it surprising to find out that when McLuhan was rated A-1 draft status by the U.S. government during World War II, he quickly started looking for another academic post in his native Canada. McLuhan was unconvinced that the Cold War was the result of any kind of substantive, life-or-death disagreement. However, he was capable of some interesting observations about the respective natures of capitalism and communism. For example, in Understanding Media
, he wrote that it was possible for capitalism to simply out-perform communism in delivering material goods and thereby undermine communism’s appeal. Yet even this is more a measure of his faith in technology than an indication that he understood or appreciated the economics and politics of the Cold War or the differences between communism and capitalism.
McLuhan made the idea that the media were extensions of man the subtitle of Understanding Media
. It is easy to overlook how radical McLuhan’s thesis was, partly out of our not-unjustified habit of accepting metaphors as metaphors. McLuhan believed that metaphors, similes, puns, and other literary tricks have the power to reveal the true nature of things, rather than just expedite the writer’s task of getting points and information across. One of his favourites, "ABCD-minded," by which he meant absent-minded, came from James Joyce. McLuhan used it to pinpoint the obliviousness of literate print-oriented man to other media; literate man literally forgets his other senses.
The relationship of media to man’s senses isn’t just a matter of emphasis but of mental response and resulting social consequences. Any changes in the hierarchy of man’s senses changes man himself. Industrial or visual man, who, by way of economics, is divided into rational parts, is the ultimate individualist because of the divisions he has learned from the alphabet and the printing press. Tribal or audio-tactile man is the ultimate communitarian because of the sense of oneness he has with his immediate surroundings - the result of his reliance on his hearing and sense of touch. The primary media of these different cases, print and speech respectively, literally extend the senses to which they correspond, eyes and ears, and the world is recreated in their image.
Technology makes the man. And if print gave tribal man an eye for an ear, electricity returned man to sensorial balance. Tribal man, in no way an individualist, enjoyed a feeling of connectedness to the rest of his world. Living in a village, physically unremoved, within shouting distance, enveloped by the scent of his people, his self was inseparable from the tribe. His senses had the capacity to contain the entirety of his social life. Whereas print, McLuhan argued, turned man into an individualist with new abstract commitments, electricity brought man back to the tribe.
Man’s return to tribal, sensorial balance started with the telegraph and was completed with television - which McLuhan considered audio-tactile, and not primarily a visual technology. Movie stars, he pointed out, who took television work found that fans no longer kept their distance but suddenly treated them with great familiarity. Their voices, their bodies, their appearances, were suddenly domesticated by their presence in the TV viewers’ living rooms and by the cool, low-definition technology of television itself. Television, he argued, closed the gap that print had opened up between man and the tribe. "It is the total involvement in all-inclusive now-ness that occurs in young lives via TV’s mosaic image." The child of TV "wants a deep commitment from society."
McLuhan’s argument about the changes in man’s sensorial life is literary in nature, and it is an argument only a literary critic would make. McLuhan saw life as a kind of text, or rather something outside of man to which man’s mind responds and then connects with. This connection ends up altering that which man is connected to, and it changes man himself. Reality is merely perceived. There is no underlying truth, outside of those revelatory moments when man’s technological inventions effect a change in perception - McLuhan believed he was living in such a moment - after which political and social change rush in. Outside of the five senses, there is nothing that really concerns McLuhan, making him the ultimate hedonist. For McLuhan, everything (and I mean everything) is but a by-product of the meeting of technology and the senses.
And not only are media extensions of man, but man is an extension of media. On the second to last page of Understanding Media McLuhan wrote, "As the machine and the motorcar released the horse and projected it onto the plain of entertainment, so does automation with men." Released from the labour of pulling carriages and ploughs, the horse went into the circus, professional racing, and the kiddy-ride business. Automation and cybernation (or computerization), McLuhan contended, will similarly turn man into an unnecessary organism, one without any essential purpose, a circus animal the world keeps around for laughs.
Possibly the most troubling aspect of McLuhan’s ideas is how they apply to historically significant events. The following paragraph from Understanding Media expresses a most peculiar understanding of celebrity and demagoguery:
It was no accident that Senator McCarthy lasted such a very short time when he switched [from radio] to TV. Soon the press decided "He isn’t news anymore." Neither McCarthy nor the press knew what had happened. TV is a cool medium. It rejects hot figures and hot issues and hot people from the hot press media. Fred Allen was a casualty of TV. Was Marilyn Monroe? Had TV occurred on a large scale during Hitler’s reign he would have vanished quickly. Had TV come first there would have been no Hitler at all.
One could dismiss this passage, and countless others like it, on the basis that it is no more than an early attempt to gauge the consequences of television. The only problem is that the passage actually means what it says: Television levels the important, the historical, and the merely entertaining, forcing them all to win and lose and live and die by the same rules - ratings, newsworthiness, the success and endurance of "image." Because Hitler was no Jack Parr, McLuhan’s favorite TV personality, he would never have made it, not just in the TV business but in the world remade by television.
What exactly about television McLuhan believed would neutralize Hitler, with all other things being equal, is never clear. What is clear is that McLuhan believed only an already re-tribalizing people that hadn’t yet reached sensorial balance could accept a hot, high-definition leader like Hitler. According to McLuhan, the Weimar Republic never had a chance; the policy of appeasement carried out by England and other nations was irrelevant; statesmanship, laws, the study of politics and history are all powerless against the ebb and flow of sensorial balance.
While political philosophers may believe education in ideas is important, McLuhan believed an education in media was necessary. He thought an understanding of media was key to any defence against its machinations. His argument may be understood as a bid for power: An education in media, obviously, would place authority in the hands of mediologists.
McLuhan, always the showman, established, through his book Understanding Media
and other books, a reputation as the single person who could justify the ways of technology to man. His account of man’s lost tribalism not only credits technology with the role of supreme and sole cause of historical change but also credits it with eventually making man superfluous. McLuhan’s vague understanding of economics and naive faith in machines led him to conclude that ultimately automation and computers will do all of man’s work for him. In turn, he completely undervalued humanity’s resilience. For McLuhan, man is but the object of technology’s mysterious powers.
McLuhan’s writings and prognostications have been taken up by a new generation of writers and thinkers looking to explain the social consequences of the newest technologies. In the September 1998 issue of Civilization,
the magazine of the Library of Congress, guest editor Jarod Lanier, a pioneer in virtual technology and a contributing editor to Wired
magazine, wrote, "In these days of the endgame of humanism, we see technophobic militancy against new abortion methods, MTV and other identity-transforming technologies. There is more militancy there than militant activism against economic or political injustice." There is, in this view, nothing that can be done about partial-birth abortion, drugs, and music videos because man operates at the behest of his technologies, not the other way around.
While some have adopted McLuhan’s more apocalyptic rhetoric, current trends are accomplishing a correction of sorts. In a recent issue of Wired magazine, "the voice of the digital revolution," one writer had the terrific idea that perhaps the good capitalist Peter Drucker had more to teach them than their "patron saint" Marshall McLuhan. Drucker was an Austrian-born American management consultant, educator, and author, whose writings contributed to the philosophical and practical foundations of the modern business corporation. He was also a leader in the development of management education, and he invented the concept known as management by objectives.
All the same, the McLuhanish point that people who do not understand technology should be afraid, very afraid, gets a lot of mileage. The words McLuhan spoke resonate for many young professionals in the computer industry and their cheerleaders in the computer-industry press. Take the following snippet from McLuhan’s Playboy
“Through radio, TV, and the computer, we are already entering a global theatre in which the entire world is a Happening. Our whole cultural habitat, which we once viewed as a mere container of people, is being transformed by these media and by space satellites into a living organism, itself contained within a new macrocosm or a connubium of a supra-terrestrial nature. The day of the individualist, of privacy, of fragmented or "applied" knowledge, of "points of view" and specialist goals is being replaced by the over-all awareness of a mosaic world in which space and time are overcome by television, jets and computers - a simultaneous "all-at-once" world in which everything resonates with everything else as in a total electronic field, a world in which energy is generated and perceived not by the traditional connections that create linear, causative thought processes, but by the intervals, or gaps.”
This is a vision of change in which the only people who play any role in their own fates are programmers, designers, and producers, where the computer- and media-illiterate are but pebbles on the side of the road to a new world. It’s a self-serving vision - one that gratified McLuhan’s disciples but should be resisted by the rest of us.-Ron Price with thanks to 1David Skinner, McLuhan’s World and Ours, The Public Interest,Vol. 138, Winter 2000, pp. 52-64; 2By 1965 I had been involved with the Baha’i Faith for a dozen years; and 3The Fog of War: Robert S. McNamara, ABC2TV, 9:30-11:15 p.m. 3/3/’13.
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