The Gutenberg Galaxy [Trenchant Edges]

Welcome back to the Trenchant Edges, a weekday Newsletter where we explore some of the overlooked or dismissed ideas that might be worth saving.

I finally started reading Surveillance Capitalism this past week and it made a point about individualization that’s relevant to our discussion of McLuhan: Individuals start to become more central in culture when the life of children has the potential to be substantially different than their parent’s lives. A kind of descent into linear “progressive” time from cyclical time.

In Europe, this really kicked off with the black death killing something like a third of the people in the region. It started in the middle of the 14th century and it doesn’t seem accidental that the next few centuries kicked off the Renaissance, Protestant Reformation, reconnecting global trade, and the so-called “Age of Discovery”.

This kind of focus on the individual is distinct from either the self-help individualization of Abraham Maslow and his successors and the individualism of Neoliberalism but is a shift from families and dynasties as a major driver of history to single people being able to build enough to dramatically shift their circumstances in a short period of time.

Kinda easy to see how this shift in opportunity for the aristocracy to opportunity for most people mixed in with the growing technological sophistication of Europe and worked itself into a virtuous cycle.

Of course, this kind of mass depopulation worked out far worse in North and South America with hundreds of nations being weakened where European colonizers had already taken their hits from the Euroasian disease pool hundreds of years already.

Mix that with the complex forces driving colonization and you get what’s arguably the worst atrocity committed by humans only even challenged in scale by World War 2 and Ghenghis Khan’s invasions.

But I’m rambling again and this isn’t even what this newsletter was supposed to be about, lol.

The Gutenberg Galaxy

Marshall McLuhan’s second book is best explained in its own words:

“This book will try to explain why print culture confers on man a language which leaves him quite unready to face the language of his own electromagnetic technology. “

TLDR: Communication tech changes how we perceive the world and we’re in for a reckoning between old tech and new.

He goes on to quote Willhelm von Humboldt as quoted by Ernst Cassirer in Language and Myth:

“Man lives with his objects chiefly— in fact, since his feeling and acting depends on his perceptions, one may say exclusively— as language presents them to him. By the same process whereby he spins language out of his own being; and each language draws a magic circle round the people to which it belongs, a circle from which their is no save by stepping out of it into another.

“Such awareness as this has generated in our time the technique of the suspended judgement by which we can transcend the limitations of our assumptions by a critique of them.”

In short, language mediates understanding. And we can attempt to see beyond our own assumptions through pausing our kneejerk reactions and criticizing those assumptions.

This is Tim Leary and Robert Anton Wilson’s reality tunnels and other similar ideas. These linguistic magic circles aren’t just a matter of whole languages or even dialects but in very specific and often overlapping subgroups. This is where code-switching comes into play, where a person fluent or partially fluent can change how they frame what they say to fit the language circle they’re dealing with.

I’d expect these to get down to the near-individual level with most of us ultimately having somewhat private definitions of most of the words we use even if they usually overlap with larger categories.

This is why communicating without ambiguity is difficult and impossible if you don’t know and understand your audience. See also, every difficulty in meaningful conversation on Twitter.

“We can now live, not just amphibously in divided and distinguished worlds, but pluralistically in many worlds and cultures simultaneously. We are no more committed to one culture— to a single ratio among the human senses— any more than to one book or to one language or to one technology.”

The sense ratio thing needs clarified here: He means the habitual emphasis certain technological conditions put on how we order our perceptions.

Print has a strong visual and abstract bias as the regularity of the type letters simplifies away the nuance you’d get with handwriting. We do this so unconsciously that it felt like a revelation when I discovered for myself that reading print and looking at handwriting were almost unrelated visual processes.

I low key suspect this kind of easy access to abstract, decontextualized mental space is what drives the Flynn effect (The need to renorm every IQ test every decade or so to keep the average score at 100 because IQs keep raising). The more pervasive this technology gets the more ingrained.

“Our need today is, culturally, the same as the scient’s who seeks to become aware of the bias of the instruments of research in order to correct that bias. Compartmentalizing of human potential by single cultures will soon be as absurd as specialism inan subject or discipline has become. It is not likely that our age is more obsessional than any other, but it has become sensitively aware of the conditions and fact of obsession beyond any other age. However, our fascination with all phases of the unconscious, personal and collective, as with all modes of primitive awareness, began in the eighteeth century with the first violent revolution against print culture and mechanical industry.”

Here McLuhan offers a possible solution: Figure out what our biases are so we can shift our opinion in the right direction as a scientist might. But our biases aren’t so simple as noting we see through a glass darkly and then imagining a little more light coming through.

Then he completely flubs a shot on specialization. Granted, in professional and academic circles it’s common to work in cross-functional or cross-discipline teams now, but that’s pushing against the steady trend of increasing specialization.

In our last section, he connects our self-aware obsession with our own occulted content and secret motivations with a rejection of the instrumental reason and utilitarian point of view created by Print Culture and Industrialization.

“What began as a “Romantic reaction” towards organic wholeness may or may not have hastened the discovery of electromagnetic waves. But certainly the electro-magnetic discoveries have recreated the simultaneous “field” in all human affairs so the human family now exists under conditions of a “Global village.” We live in a single constricted space resonant with tribal drums. So that concern with the “primitive” today is as banal as ninteenth-century concern with “progress,” and as irrelevant to our problems.”

Holy hot takes, Batman.

While it certainly feels silly to read someone claiming that a bunch of poets trying to reclaim some felt delight and irrational passion in their lives lead to a hard scientific advance, anyone who’s read even a smattering of physicists from 1800 to 1950 will have no trouble identifying the frustration, terror, and awe of shifting between classical mechanics to the world of Einstein and Quantum Theory.

The gap between the determinism of classical mechanics and the superpositional, counterintuitive weirdness of Quantum physics cannot be overstated.

Anyway, the more McLuhan I read the more I think he’s gathered a really interesting bundle of ideas but I’m not sure his overarching framework is really coherent or accurate.

Lots to chew through at least.

We’ll see you tomorrow.