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What I had meant to say about Marshall McLuhan

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Location: Oregon

PostPosted: Mon Aug 01, 2011 3:46 am    Post subject: What I had meant to say about Marshall McLuhan Reply with quote

In a recent exchange, I tried to justify my brief negative appraisal of Marshall McLuhan in a short video clip. I said "Meh".

I give him a great deal of credit. More, now that I've finished reading his biography. Marshall was a great noticer, and he liked a good scrum. He had the perfect background to tell us about ourselves, once we noticed what television was doing to us. He was one of the "big idea" men of his age. I fault him however for what he wasn't.

Marshall McLuhan wasn't a scientist. He wasn't an analyst. He allowed his ideas to become hopelessly muddled, or his declarations were often what we would call "trolls", but he called "probes". He was not the kind to formally break down media into the detailed communication channels involved, but, by my impression, to try to fit ideas into his favorite schemes: hot/cold, the tetrad, the conflict within the trivium, the 5-fold whatever. He was not careful enough at doing this for his thinking to be accepted at face value. an example might be the light-from or light-through distinction, which appears today, to me, to be more of an accident of technology, not a fundamental distinction. He became such a star that he did not have peers to keep him honest, maybe.

There were, in the television age, and there are now, in the google/facebook/twitter age, gems to be found in Marshall's publications. I'm happy enough that others find things that are good enough to remind us of and to re-interpret for us. The man was an idea machine. He even formed a (failed) company to sell them, in the 50's. If you give him full credit for his best ideas (the "hearth" of the global "village" et al), he was in the top 10 of the century in defining what the air that we didn't see all around us really looked like.

Ultimately, though, I agree with Marshall himself, and find that his fallacy is indeed mistaken. That was one of his favorite little jokes, and I can imagine he tailored his response to the particulars of how the "bait" was taken. By saying that his fallacy is indeed wrong, I'm playing his game, and now it's his move!
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Joined: 20 Mar 2006
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Location: Kent (East Hill), WA

PostPosted: Sat Aug 13, 2011 10:37 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

In retrospect, I agree with your analysis of what he didn't do.

I guess my own view is that what he did do, in his own format, is so breathtaking, so sweeping and so revolutionary for understanding our world, that I just don't care.

My guess at why he never gave his own ideas the kind of academic traction that might be demanded is that it was too much, even for least during the 1960s and early 70s when the ideas were flowing out of him like water from a melting glacier.

To formally recognize that the new (and old) media that surround us have an effect on all of our thinking and perception is fantastically radical. Yes, after that, perhaps someone could make some axioms that would formalize predictions. I think at this point, many of us often do (probably in just as informal way as McLuhan).

It's interesting, but I was reading Dream Psychology, Psychoanalysis for Beginners by Sigmund Freud and the introduction described Freud's methods in a way that somewhat reminded me of McLuhan.

Freud's theories are anything but theoretical.

He was moved by the fact that there always seemed to be a close connection between his patients' dreams and their mental abnormalities, to collect thousands of dreams and to compare them with the case histories in his possession.

He did not start out with a preconceived bias, hoping to find evidence which might support his views. He looked at facts a thousand times "until they began to tell him something."

His attitude toward dream study was, in other words, that of a statistician who does not know, and has no means of foreseeing, what conclusions will be forced on him by the information he is gathering, but who is fully prepared to accept those unavoidable conclusions.

McLuhan as a literate man was in some sense thrilled by seeing what other had not yet seen, but also disconsolate, because he knew that it could mean the end of his (media) world as he and his colleagues knew it. In fact, reading some non-fiction historic stories from the 1900s, I am now struck by how much a single word could turn into an argument and how letters, contracts, and legalities seemed to carry more weight than even today. (I know, I guess I'm sounding like a vague McLuhanist.)

One shortcoming of McLuhan for me, is that he did not say enough about the coming age of two-way media communications. Even his so called predictions about "the Internet" were more top-down hierarchical (go to database and look up information) where the increasingly dominate media today is social, multi-point, communications where we are both readers and writers, producers of media and consumers. I think his ideas tend to reflect something coming from somewhere on high (TV antenna) and delivered into our homes for us to absorb (the "X-rays" as he called TV emanations).

So, there is a lot to be described and thought about with Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and all the rest taking up oodles of more time in a week than we now give to centralized TV, movies, radio. This was where I decided to pick up on McLuhan in my essay:


JA Bailo, The global village and you: give something in return, Computers in
14 (1994) (3), pp. 4446.,+John+A&pub=Computers+in+Libraries&desc=The+global+village+and+you:++Give+something+in+return
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