Who Cares about Marshall McLuhan Anyway? [Trenchant Edges]
Welcome back to the Trenchant Edges, the daily-ish Email Newsletter about weird ideas and the people who embrace them.
Short and to the point today.
I don’t really have an edge to work against the McLuhan material on. I’m mostly surveying his stuff and reacting to is, which is fine, but isn’t really enough to go on.
With McKenna, I kinda took an approach of relevance. We’re almost at a decade past the point he predicted would hit infinite novelty, do any of his grand theories have any relevance or use to us today?
But what about McLuhan? Unlike Terence, his research project didn’t stall. Media studies has gone through several generations of theory since the 60s and several varieties of relationship with McLuhan himself.
Many of his intuitions have borne out not in the electric era of broadcast, but in the digital era of the Internet.
His legacy is more as an intellectual poet/provocateur than a founding theorist. And how does his son Eric, who continued his research project, fit in?
But really though, why should anyone care?
For me, this is pretty clear: McLuhan is an excellent example of someone who saw weirdness and started chasing it. His work with manuscripts drove curiosity in how education styles and technologies shape the building blocks of the human experience, which in turn shape what we build and do.
That’s what “media as the extensions of man” means. We use tools to extend our senses and mind, and those tools teach us contextual lessons.
All this matters because we’re trapped in a kaleidoscopic carnival of noise pumped through all mediums. If we want to cut through the noise we need some sense for how we’re being changed and some way to enhance the changes we prefer and muffle the changes we don’t want.
OK, so this is the thing I needed to think about. We’re not really here for some general interest in McLuhan. We’re here because McLuhan had considerable stable insights into how communication and communication technology remake humanity.
Civilization, as we think of it, is a kind of cybernetic enhancement, it extends our powers with encoding and specialization which allows us to store inhuman amount of information. We’ve been posthuman since those early grain agriculture cities in Mesopotamia.
The downside has been, for the most part, tyranny. Mao once said that political power comes from the barrel of a gun, but that quip misses the real WMD: One gun isn’t political power. Sufficiently organized numbers of guns complete w/ logistical support are political power.
Scale is the WMD. And the thing no ideology has really figured out how to make human thusfar.
We’re cyborgs who don’t recognize that our original parts and operating systems have been traded out for the convenience of the system. Even our instincts to rebel are mostly tamed towards supporting the system.
McLuhan offers a pile of tools that might help us at least make sense of that situation by, as Leary put it, going out of our minds and getting back to our senses. That is, to stop abstracting and feel goddamnit.
So here’s the question: What, if any, of the tools and ideas McLuhan developed can help us reckon through the noise of our historic moment to see the signals?
Which is to say, Propaganda Therapy.