Good morning my friends and welcome back to Trenchant Edges, the weekday newsletter where we talk about fringe ideas and what may come from them.
Estimated reading time: 5 minutes, 13 seconds. Contains 1046 words
I was scrambling for a topic for today and so I did what any hack would in my place: I flipped open McLuhan’s Medium is the Massage to a few random pages and found some interesting stuff.
The first, McLuhan saying the exact opposite of what his critics usually charge.
Wait, no, that’s a wisely cropped poster from a mutant action franchise that refuses to die.
Let’s try that again.
OK, so it’s not that cryptic. It’s just McLuhan dicking around with a right-justified type and taking a page to write a single sentence.
But we should take a moment to consider its larger placement in the book.
This happens on page 25, the climax of a series of pages that start on page 12: You; Your family; Your Neighborhood; Your Education; Your Job; Your Government; and finally, “the others”.
It’s a neat series of zones of declining influence: You, you, you, you, you, you, and then *lightning crashes* the others.
Well, you *were* supposed to find them. We’re gonna come back to the question of what the hell this was all about and focus on a page from the other end of the book. It’s a Canadian classicist professor’s take on the kids these days as of… 1967.
The Others and Education
The section just before this is several interrelated pages about the great clash between Print culture and Electric culture and the medieval dance of death by way of two young people kissing.
Point is, the youth are trapped between great sweeping technological forces of change they can’t understand or control.
Thus receiving mixed messages, they’re denied an established route into deep culture.
The most enduring feature of the 1960s was the breakdown of the short-lived postwar cultural consensus propped up by the very broadcast technology that McLuhan obsesses with the effects of here.
I have to wonder how much deep interaction McLuhan spent with actual kids outside his context as a professor versus how much he saw, uh, on television. This feels a ton more like the mediated corporate Boomer hippie image sold since the mid60s than any of the reflections of people of and in the moment.
This sense of mythic disconnect from modernity does bleed through in some accounts of the 1960s, but I can’t help wonder if that was more conscious mythmaking on their own parts than it was any kind of reality.
The hippies were only about 1% of the boomer population. Most of the generation was obsessed with the usual initiations into civilization as everyone else. As a rule, they didn’t so much sell out the revolution as much as they weren’t interested in it at all.
The anti-war movement was much larger, of course, and there were plenty of other weird “counter” cultures to join if that was your thing.
The rebellion against the Prussian influenced industrial mass education system in America as felt by plenty, but no real move to change it was made.
But what of the teach-in and drop-out? If a teach-in was supposed to brainwash teachers, its lasting impact has been as a kind of format for teachers (and activist leaders) to frame learning as a resistance activity.
McLuhan might say that just proves it worked, but I’m more skeptical.
I picked this section because I thought it made some interesting points and conveyed some interesting ideas but the closer I look at it the more skeptical I become.
The disconnect between electronic culture & established print culture is certainly interesting and consistent, but saying it’s there doesn’t really explain how it worked. Granted, Marshall was writing this in mid-contest when newspapers still existed and print still brought considerable prestige.
From now, with print mostly a vestigial culture and even broadcast’s electronic culture further disrupted by Digital culture students of the 1960s look very much moored in place to their cultural conventions. Perhaps that’s because we’re so much less rooted in any kind of meaningful history or political project.
USAians have traditionally been organized by our enemies and even that standby has gotten stale. How many #NeverForget? How many remember they’re supposed to fear and hate Islamic terrorism the way their parents feared and hated the Soviet Union?
It all feels rather proforma to me.
That’s why the corporate media was so delighted to find Donald Trump. He gave us a nice shot in the arm there. Whether you joined him or opposed him it didn’t really matter.
You got an enemy again.
Are we seeing a breakdown of the enemy lead America? Not really. Just another reshuffle.
Where Broadcast/Electric culture lends itself to mass movements and shared reference, Digital culture pushes everything into the passive fandom and active cabal. Fandoms do fan stuff, but it’s just empty acts of worship to a shared source of joy and frustration. Fan, as is so often noted, is short for fanatic.
Cabals are fandoms trying to reach some kind of escape velocity from passivity with varying success. They try to focus the kaleidoscope of possible experiences into some kind of action.
So far none have really broken into a mass movement and the most successful have been the anti-mask/vaccine protests and the George Floyd wave of Black Lives Matter, but both have suffered from severe demobilization.
Digital Culture means it’s your favorite television show all the time and you can always engage with more content about it. This naturally pushes people towards radicalization. We get the hot take economy.
We were sold digital culture as a way to liberate human desires from gatekeepers and mass control, only to find our desires hacked and sold back to us in ways even more abusive than broadcast technology could.
Boomers kvetched in the 1990s about kids being unable to tell the difference between reality and fantasy with all these newfangled electronic media. And they ended up the most susceptible to that very thing.
Emotionally and neurochemically, the Internet is a great mass of choose your own theme casinos (or Skinner Boxes), with all the addictive consequences of operant conditioning.
Many people are trying to push back against this, and perhaps there’s no resolving the corporate drive to optimize engagement and time on page and the human need for agency.
Instead of freedom from the shadows on the wall, we’ve moved from Plato’s Cave into Skinner’s casino.
Biological determinists would say this is inevitable.
But I have a different point of view.
Be seeing you.