Sunday, February 12, 2012

Reading, Thinking, and Reflecting #6

 My Book ... Too Full of Ideas to Contain! 

Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, chapters 12-22 and chapters 22-33:One of McLuhan's running themes is the difference between tribal and literate societies. I have been tracking this thread ...

- "Literacy creates very much simpler kinds of people than those that develop in the complex web of ordinary tribal and oral societies. For the fragmented man creates the homogenized Western world, while oral societies are made up of people differentiated, not by their specialist skills or visible marks, but by their unique emotional mixes. The oral man's inner world is a tangle of complex emotions and feelings that the Western practical man has long ago eroded or suppressed within himself in the interest of efficiency and practicality" (75).

- "Civilization is built on literacy because literacy is a uniform processing of a culture by a visual sense extended in space and time by the alphabet. In tribal cultures, experience is arranged by a dominant auditory sense-life that represses visual values. The auditory sense, unlike the cool and neutral eye, is hyper-esthetic and delicate and all-inclusive. Oral cultures act and react at the same time. Phonetic culture endows men with the means of repressing their feelings and emotions when engaged in action. To act without reacting, without involvement, is the peculiar advantage of the Western literate man" (122).

- "The ear is hypersensitive. The eye is cool and detached. The ear turns man over to universal panic while the eye, extended by literacy and mechanical time, leaves some gaps and some islands free from the unremitting acoustic pressure and reverberation" (211).

- "The decision to homogenize comes easily to the highly literate population of the English-speaking world. Yet it is hard for oral cultures to agree on this program of homogenization, for they are only too prone to translate the message of radio into tribal politics, rather than into a news means of pushing Cadillacs" (308).
Each time he brings these ideas into his arguments strikes a chord in me because they read as strong and widely (wildly) ranging opinions rather than researched facts. However, even as I wonder about his basis for these opinions about entire cultures, I see the evidence today of that which he wrote about nearly 50 years ago. We have certainly seen the homogenization of the world through literacy, but much of it in the last two decades has been TV then Internet shows/videos (aural and visual) versus writing. Certainly, when McLuhan was writing, literacy was very much the written word -- to question why he did not anticipate YouTube and 21st century literacies (a concept even NCTE defined only in 2009) is not fair. Whatever the means, the proliferation of McDonald's everywhere in the world...
McDonald's Travels to Russia
and the similar fashion choices from Virginia to China ...
Chinese-American Fashion Relations
... clearly shows "the homogenized Western world" (75) stretching far from the traditional boundaries of the Western world.
My Latin-teaching husband and I tried to try to tease out what might be the factual basis for McLuhan's judgements of oral versus literate cultures. We had a fascinating conversation that made me realize I had forgotten to consider a key aspect of the oral culture: the audience. I realize my own being steeped in a literate culture had seen all orality the same -- whether it was a speech by Marc Antony in the Roman Forum and immortalized by Shakespeare on the stage or a YouTube video rap ...

But what is absolutely different about these is what McLuhan has been saying to me all along -- something spoken aloud (the orality of tribal and even much Roman culture despite its high literacy as well) is always connected in a complex way to the audience. The reaction of the audience is inevitably part of the action of the speaker because they are there together. When these young men rap, they did so first only with each other and a video camera -- the reacting YouTube audience is delayed and may never even have an effect on them in their oral work. An interesting side note to this is how social media is allowing the audience's reactions back in through the comment feature. Maybe these rappers might change their oral performances in the future based on the comment of KittyKitty640 asking who the hotdog is!

I am left now trying to reason through the ear being hypersensitive and the eye cool ... I have decided he must not be talking about his definition of cool media when he says the eye is cool, but I have not yet teased out the facts behind this opinion that make it clear to me. My mind is working on how he might be considering the eye that is an extension of man through media ... which leaves me wondering if the actual eye in my head is cool as well.

I like to read for myself before reading things about what I am reading, so now that I am finished with this book, I poked around a bit to see what others think of McLuhan's ideas. Happily, I found I was not just missing something as I tried to put his puzzle together. "Though his books are written in a difficult style — at once enigmatic, epigrammatic and overgrown with arcane literary and historic allusions — the revolutionary ideas lurking in them have made McLuhan a best-selling author" (Playboy).

I also found much to ponder here: "McLuhan contends that all media — in and of themselves and regardless of the messages they communicate — exert a compelling influence on man and society. Prehistoric, or tribal, man existed in a harmonious balance of the senses, perceiving the world equally through hearing, smell, touch, sight and taste. But technological innovations are extensions of human abilities and senses that alter this sensory balance — an alteration that, in turn, inexorably reshapes the society that created the technology. According to McLuhan, there have been three basic technological innovations: the invention of the phonetic alphabet, which jolted tribal man out of his sensory balance and gave dominance to the eye; the introduction of movable type in the 16th Century, which accelerated this process; and the invention of the telegraph in 1844, which heralded an electronics revolution that will ultimately retribalize man by restoring his sensory balance." (Playboy). This starts to close the circle for me by addressing the niggling concerns I have about his judgments of literate society. I completely agree that electronics have brought us a multi-sensory world, and I will be returning to this interview as my partner and I plan out how to present this book to our classmates.


McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Critical Edition. Ed.

Gordon, Terrence. Berkeley, CA: Gingko Press, 2003. Print.

Playboy. "The Playboy Interview: Marshall McLuhan «" – Exploring the Nature Caused by People. 24 Dec. 2009. Web. 19 Feb. 2012. .


  1. Susanne, I love how you use color to position McLuhan's literate society against an oral society. It emphasizes at once his threaded position throughout the book. I find his arguments about the eye and ear very compelling, especially as I've been thinking about how we speak and hear when we compose. I am wondering about your comment on the rap video. Their audience is a public, complicated by the nature of YouTube which confuses space and time. I wonder though about aural composing. What if these boys create a second persona in the act of making this video? What if they compose to themselves, driven to create this video a a way of externalizing an idea that they might internalizing it themselves?

  2. "Oral cultures act and react at the same time. Phonetic culture endows men with the means of repressing their feelings and emotions when engaged in action. To act without reacting, without involvement, is the peculiar advantage of the Western literate man" (122.)

    I just need to say woah here. Woah. This quote just hit me, and a million thoughts rushed through my mind. I will attempt to articulate them now, but I feel this is one of those quotes that just stay with you and encourage contemplation (perhaps since it was written out??).

    My first reaction is: well, we must be in an ever-increasing oral culture because asw I sit here with the political pundits babbling in the background with a ticker across the bottom of the screen and Tweets posted in real time from the audience (MSNBC), it occurs to me that we are acting and reacting in the same moment. It strikes me as a problem.

    Technology has indeed moved us toward an orally exchanged culture as we increasingly rely on the "sound bite" to get information, the You Tube clip to illuminate an idea or concept, the immediacy of the social network to immediately act and react to things around us - posting photos and comments about things in almost real-time. There is something to be said for having time to think. Where is the time to think in today's world? Everything has an urgency to it. I think the dying off of the newspaper as a written medium signals another place where the boundary between the usefulness and destructivness of technology is blurred. When someone has to read an article, then read others, compose a letter, wait for that latter to be printed, wait longer to read responses to that letter, then there is an exchange of ideas more than jut the initial exchange of heated emotions. Our first reaction is always the gut, emotional one. If we react at the same time we act, then there is no time for the second phase of reaction - the thoughtful judgments - that comes after the emotional one.

    I think we must work, as members of the English discipline, to preserve the written culture that allows people the necessary time to think, digest, and reason in a space of reflection. The heated rhetoric of the immediacy of media is not helping move us toward a better world.