Sense Ratios and the Global Village [Trenchant Edges]
The underlying trouble with McLuhan's Probe approach.
Good morning and welcome back to another Trenchant Edges. We’re unpacking another bit of what’s now fringe culture.
I’m your host, Stephen Fisher. Professional weirdo. And I accidentally wrote an email yesterday anyway and then only sent it out to subscribers. You can check it out here.
One of the reasons I wanted to talk about McLuhan is the main audience I write for are people interested in politics and psychedelic drugs. And McLuhan’s work is surprisingly suited for those two interests.
Among the most consistently amplified themes of psychedelic drugs is the notion that the world has some deeper, implicit order we didn’t initially see. And McLuhan’s theories take very much the same approach.
So we’re going to unpack a bit more about what he meant by the Global Village by examining the point he was making when he said it. Because that quote from Tuesday is one paragraph from a chapter not really talking about any kind of Global Village. It’s practically an aside.
The chapter is making a case for the core thesis of the book The Gutenberg Galaxy: Communication technologies reorder both perception and thought by emphasizing different senses. Oral culture exists in a continuous present, holistic and heard. They emphasize a balanced sense ratio, as each of the 5 classical senses is engaged in communication.
Print culture is different. It’s repetitive and fragmented, hyper-visual, and trained to mechanical abstraction.
I’m going to gloss over the evidence McLuhan uses for this here, but it’d be a worthy project in itself to see how much of the sources he treats as authoritative are actually colonialist gibberish. As a Canadian classicist who did no fieldwork for this, he just kinda assumes the people who write about the inability of uneducated tribal Africans to understand motion pictures in the way Europeans do are themselves perceiving the situation correctly and reporting it right.
Yeah, it’s pretty gnarly that his entire argument rests on what seem likely to be staggeringly racist descriptions of nonwhite people.
Just methodologically, if your argument is that oral and print cultures produce incommensurate ways of understanding the world you probably shouldn’t assume that print descriptions of oral behavior are valid, true, or trustworthy even if you don’t want to examine the colonialist tropes involved.
He also makes a claim that the reason Chinese people didn’t have an industrial revolution is tied to the holistic character of ideograms versus phonetic alphabets.
Doesn’t seem real reliable as a claim.
But setting all that aside, McLuhan argues that electromagnetic technology is collapsing the mechanized routine of print back into a more oral style. Only an oral space with no boundaries on the planet. So instead of a town square, we have television and radio creating a global village.
There’s a step beyond that, of course, that complicates the picture from our point of view. We’re a paradigm past McLuhan’s early theorizing into Digital. And I sure as hell don’t really understand what that means within McLuhan’s frameworks.
I think McLuhan’s focus on technology rather than economics or politics may have undermined his analysis of the effects of electromagnetic culture. In an oral society, everyone’s voice has pretty near the same potential to influence. Sure, the usual networks of trust and status exist so there are hard winners and losers in those influence games, but nobody’s playing with a thousand times or a million times the reach of anyone else.
Broadcast media, what McLuhan terms electromagnetic, are inherently pretty authoritarian because they fill the available spaces with uniform messages. Walter Cronkite was the “Most Trusted Man in America” not so much for his personal virtues but because he had those virtues on television when there wasn’t much competition.
Cable TV and later the Internet fucks with this dynamic by exploding the number of options. In 1960 you had 3 choices of what to watch and heaven help you if the president was giving a speech. In 1990 you had hundreds of choices if you could afford it.
By 2000, millions. Today, there are about 1.7 billion websites and who the hell knows how many TV channels, podcasts, radiostations, and so on. There are 31 million channels on youtube alone.
Point is, we’re not dealing with anything like an oral culture here, or even in 1962 when he published the book. It’s *more* oral than the print culture of 1750-1930 in Europe & its colonies, sure. But it’s a lot weirder.
With digital culture, the sense ratios vary far more widely than in anything as uniform as print or oral depending on the person and the content consumed. Hopefully, Eric McLuhan addresses this in some of his work because it’s the part I really have the most difficulty conceptualizing in a modern way.
I’d be doing you a disservice here if I didn’t bring up two books I hate which are insightful in this context, Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death and Ray Bradbury’s Ferenheight 451 (fun story, check my PO box number at the bottom of this email).
Both are kinda frustrating, “Old man yelling at clouds” screeds against this newfangled television. Damn kids having too much fun to do the real work of thinking and reading books. Setting aside all that and the mild conflict of interest of an author demanding people read more, they do make some strong points about roughly this Oral/Print culture divide.
Mind you, I haven’t read Postman in ten or twelve years now so I’m going by distant memory, but I recall him mentioning McLuhan by name while raising the alarm about the collapse of print culture, and thus serious thinking, in the USA.
I’m kinda torn on the “serious thinking” bit. As a writer myself, I’ve always relied on writing to hammer my thoughts into something resembling clarity. I assume everyone else can tell as easily as I can the difference between me just vomiting words onto a page like I am here, and writing that’s undergone several serious drafts.
My thinking patterns are kind of weirdly twisty and loopy and can always be stripped down into something more concise and focused.
How much of that is good is an open question in my book. Heh, my *book*, right?
Anyway, We’ll be seeing you tomorrow for another round of this.