McLuhan's Core Insight[Trenchant Edges]

Welcome back to Trenchant Edges, the weekday newsletter where we explore ideas others ignore to see what’s good.

Yesterday I realized that both Terence McKenna and Marshall McLuhan were super into James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, a book I wish I had any kind of take on beyond what seems obvious: Joyce encoded a shitton of western culture and reinvented the English language.

You can literally spend decades studying the ways he interconnected symbolism and played with written rhyme and phonetics. I’m sure it’s a work of staggering genius but my brain is just… not galaxy enough for it.

Maybe I’m too literal or too abstract or maybe I didn’t get enough phonetics to really grok it as a child. No clue.

But the only book I’ve tried to read more without success is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s alleged masterpiece The Scarlett Letter.

What does any of this have to do with anything? Well, Joyce wrote in Ulysses a line I’ve kept close to my heart since I first heard it:

It always feels a little like a fourth wall break when I see my own name giving expression to something I’ve felt as long as I can remember but didn’t have the words for until reading the line.

Anyway, for a while there I took an interest in Finnegan’s Wake as a good sign in cultural commentators.

Enough Digression

So, McLuhan stumbled on his core insight while working on his dissertation on John Nashe. He had to read a ton of manuscripts because Nashe lived in the 16th century and print just wasn’t everywhere yet.

What Marhsall realized was that he was reading manuscripts (handwritten volumes) and printed books (movable type volumes) differently. With a manuscript you have to really look at every detail of the penmanship and take it in both in particular and as a totality to understand what word was written.

With print it’s more like skimming along the surface of a text, there is no character or personality. Every letter is identical to all its siblings. What this means is that even on a mechanical level, Looking and Reading are different processes.

The early part of The Gutenberg Galaxy zeroes in on this distinction coming down through history, with differences between ideogram and alphabet styles of writing being slowly internalized in culture.

The beginning of the classical age of Greece is a fascinating because in the three generations of teacher and student we can get some kind of sense of this in practice. Where Plato’s character of Socrates (and perhaps the person he was based on) arguing against writing because it will cause men to become forgetful. Plato, who wrote down the dialogue Phadreus where this happened, and his own student Aristotle working with strict formal logic.

From pure oral expression between two souls to generate and transfer understanding and wisdom between them to a hybrid of oral-as-writen, to very specialized written arguments in the form of formal logic.

Let’s look at the character of Socrates in The Phadreus recounting a conversation between the Egyptian god Theuth (Thoth) and a King named Thamus:

And so it is that you by reason of your tender regard for the writing that is your offspring have declared the very opposite of its true effect. If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls. They will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks.

What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder. And it is no true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only the semblance of wisdom, for by telling them of many things without teaching them you will make them seem to know much while for the most part they know nothing. And as men filled not with wisdom but with the conceit of wisdom they will be a burden to their fellows.

Real flex from Thamus to tell a god of writing to fuck off. Kinda love that for him.

Where we can see Plato’s complex hybrid in The Phadreus itself, with a written oral conversation and complex rhetoric on both sides. Writing a convincing philosophical dialogue is extremely difficult because it’s so easy to sock puppet and even Plato, master of the craft, slides into it sometimes.

And, of course, by Aristotle the magic of written language handed down from Thoth through the phonecians (to get an alphabet) was wholly integrated and his attitudes feel categorically different. To the point where I generally consider him the first modern philosopher and Socrates and Plato more of a last hurrah for the presocratics.

(I’m a Plato Man, myself, so far as appreciation of these guys goes)

There’s a more recent event, St Augistine expressing astonishment at his teacher Ambrose reading silently to himself and a whole discussion of how that shift happened. I don’t want to focus on that as much as the broad sweep here.

Armed With Insight

So, McLuhan noticed this detail about how his experience was different when looking at a text and when reading one. And over time he started noticing more details and fumbled for a coherent framework to talk about them in.

And eventually he put together the Gutenberg Galaxy where he put forth his technological determinism theories.

We’ll be coming back to this subject tomorrow as I need to get some more client work done.

See you soon.