Welcome back to the Trenchant Edges, the newsletter I misspell about half the time I write it ;-)
This is the newsletter where we take deep dives into fringe thinkers and culture.
One of the major criticisms of McLuhan’s theories of communication is they’re overly deterministic. And at face value, I think there’s some real truth to that complaint.
In the Gutenberg Galaxy, McLuhan claims that literacy makes one less susceptible to alcoholism and this is why indigenous people tend to be such awful drunks. It’s a pretty bad take and based on a tremendous amount of nothing.
Just a random take he pronounces as fact and then moves on from.
McLuhan, frankly, does this shit all the time. His most famous work, The Medium is the Massage, is structured around what he called Probes: Provacative statements designed to evoke a response rather than to be correct.
Mostly, it’s not as clumsy as his hot take on alcohol.
To really get why McLuhan approaches culture from this direction we have to go back to his dissertaiton on the Trivium. McLuhan’s core insight, the one that generated the rest, was observing the differences in his reading print (that is, printed text like what you’re reading now) vs handwritten manuscripts.
He realized they weren’t really the same process. That Reading print involved a great deal more chunking and abstracting than looking at handwriting.
Over the next few decades he extrapolated that to other areas and eventually developed his theories.
Ultimately, I don’t think he’s a technological determinist as much as he recognized the fact that technology does shape how we experience the world and it’s messy to figure out exactly how.
Tomrrow we’ll talk more about what lines he drew there and why.