Training Perecption, Awakening to Experience

The challenge of McLuhan’s work, both in the sense that it is challenging to read and that it lays down a challenge to be taken up, involves the difficulty of thinking about that which shapes our thinking — it is akin to attempting to jump over your own shadow.

Not surprisingly, a good deal of his method, perplexing and infuriating as it could be, seems designed to coax readers over their shadows, to become aware of how their thinking has been formed by the media environment.  Biographer W. Terrence Gordon, citing McLuhan’s own description of his teachers at Cambridge, gets at this when he writes, “There could be no more succinct statement of his own aims, as he left Cambridge to begin a teaching career, than ‘the training of perception.'”

Later on, Gordon cites a letter to Mrs. Pound in which McLuhan writes, “The appeal must be to the young … they have been systematically deprived of all the linguistic tools by which they could nourish their own perceptions at first hand at the usual traditional sources.”

Walter Ong, a former student of McLuhan’s and outstanding scholar in his own right, classified teachers as follows:

A good teacher is one who can encourage others to think actively.  A superior teacher can make the thinking pleasant for the learners. A superb teacher can make the thinking an overpowering activity, delightful even when it is disturbing and exhausting.

“By this criteria,” Ong went on, “Marshall McLuhan was a superb teacher who could stir people’s minds.”  Ong also noted that, “… even with the most brilliant teacher, if the learners are to do any learning, they are the ones who have to do it.”

Putting all of this together yields, in my estimation, the nature of McLuhan’s enduring significance.  In one respect he may be likened to the hedgehog in Isaiah Berlin’s illustration who knows one big thing — changes in media environments change the way we think and the way we experience life.  But he was also a little like the fox who knows many things in that he approached the one big idea from countless angles and drawing promiscuously from the whole of experience.

As some have noted in taking the measure of McLuhan, he drove that one idea home so well that he rendered his work superfluous.  But this is not quite right.  While others have perhaps done a better job of articulating and systematizing the big idea, they have perhaps also domesticated it.  Knowledge has been imparted, but perceptions have not been trained.  Ironically, this may be attributed to a lack of sensitivity to the medium, i.e. McLuhan’s method.

McLuhan understood, as Ong put it, that if learners are too learn anything they are the ones who will have to do it.  All of the probes, the paradoxes, the gnomic statements, the quirkiness, the esotericisms, the inconsistencies, the absurdities, the juxtapositions, the koanish assertions, the puns — all of it aimed at drawing out the work of learning from the learner in such a way that their perceptions would be trained.  Simply clarifying the big idea, extracting and re-presenting the kernel of the thought only captured the data, it did not train perceptions, it did not heighten sensibilities, it did not lead to practical wisdom.  In the end it may very well darken and numb perception.

This insistence on the training of perception, fully embodied perception involving the whole human sensorium, may have been McLuhan’s chief contribution.  Perceiving the world, which is to say being alive to the world, is not a given and much less so in certain media environments.  McLuhan as a teacher seems bent on awakening us to experience; agitating, provoking, inciting us to perceive.  That is no small thing when some degree of variously imposed numbness becomes the cultural default.

McLuhan: 100

The medium is the message … five words, plump and alliterative though they may be, are wildly inadequate … he was born in Edmonton, Alberta on July 21, 1911 … He speaks in canned riddles … Speech as organized stutter is based on time. What does speech do to space? … “Clear prose indicates the absence of thought” … Watching McLuhan, you can’t quite decide whether he was a genius or just had a screw loose … he gave us language that made “media” into a thing …

It feels wistful to imagine a time when people didn’t go about their daily routine with the assumption that at any moment another massive media technology will be dumped on us by some geek in California … “I’m going to be a computer when I grow up” …

“What if he is right”? … “Instead of the book as a fixed package of repeatable and uniform character suited to the market with pricing, the book is increasingly taking on the character of a service … and the book as an information service is tailor-made and custom-built” … First of all – and I’m sorry to have to repeat this disclaimer – I’m not advocating anything … “The next medium, whatever it is – it may be the extension of consciousness – will include television as its content, not as its environment” …

an alchemical mix of his vast historical and literary knowledge, his bombastic personality and a range of behaviors we might now place on the very mild end of the autistic spectrum … McLuhan’s mind was probably situated at the mild end of the autism spectrum. He also suffered from a couple of major cerebral traumas …

First, that McLuhan never made arguments, only assertions … a fixture of culture both nerd and pop, which are increasingly the same thing. He is the patron saint of Wired … what mattered was merely the fact that you were watching TV. The act of analysing the content of TV – or of other mediums – is either sentimental or it’s beside the point … Annie Hallthe fastest brain of anyone I have ever met, and I never knew whether what he was saying was profound or garbage… He wanted his words to knock readers out of their intellectual comfort zones, to get them to entertain the possibility that their accepted patterns of perception might need reordering ..McLuhan was an information canary …

“He writes by paradox — that makes him hard to read (or hard on the reader),” wrote McLuhan … he loved Chesterton’s rhetorical flourishes, imbibed his playfulness, turned his impulse to try out new combinations of ideas into the hallmark of the McLuhan method … He became a daily Mass-goer …

There is absolutely no inevitability … what will be the psychic fallout of these technologies on our inner lives? … Like Marx and Freud, he was an intellectual agitator, a conceptual mind expander, the yeast in the dough …  James Joyce and Ezra Pound especially … The web. The web, with its feeds and flows and rivers and streams … That kaleidoscopic, almost psychedelic style … In that Playboy interview … a celebrity-seeking charlatan …

lost all hope “that the world might become a better place with new technology” …  people who classify McLuhan as a techno-utopian aren’t simply making stuff up … Resenting a new technology will not halt its progress … Many people seem to think that if you talk about something recent, you’re in favor of it … And so eschatological hope appears as nothing more than an early manifestation of cyber-utopianism … Look at what these media are doing to our souls … “Once we have surrendered our senses and nervous systems to the private manipulation of those who would try to benefit by taking a lease on our eyes and ears and nerves, we don’t really have any rights left” …

Your question reflects the usual panic of people confronted with unexplored technologies. I’m not saying such panic isn’t justified … merely that such reactions are useless and distracting … “Man the food-gatherer reappears incongruously as information-gatherer” … But an understanding of media’s effects constitutes a civil defense against media fallout … someone who didn’t just have strong ideas but who invented a whole new way of talking … all a teacher can ever do is get people to think …

outlived his fame … he died in a state of wordlessness …

That’s what McLuhan did.


In case it is not apparent, only a very few of these words are mine.  Sources:

Webs and whirligigs:  Marshall McLuhan in his time and ours by Megan Garber
Why McLuhan’s chilling vision still matters today by Douglas Coupland
McLuhan at 100 and McLuhan on the Cloud by Nicholas Carr
Why Bother With Marshall McLuhan by Alan Jacobs
Divine Inspiration by Jeet Heer
Marshall McLuhan:  Escape into Understanding by W. Terrence Gordon
McLuhan, Chesterton, and the Pursuit of Joy
McLuhan as Teacher by Walter Ong

Marx, Freud, and … McLuhan

Just wanted to pass along Jeet Heer’s piece, “Divine Inspiration” in The Walrus, on Marshall McLuhan, his legacy, and his Catholicism.  Excerpts below.  Click through for the whole piece which is not long at all.

  • It’s a measure of McLuhan’s ability to recalibrate the intellectual universe that in this debate, [Norman] Mailer — a Charlie Sheen–style roughneck with a history of substance abuse, domestic violence, and public mental breakdowns — comes across as the voice of sobriety and sweet reason. Mailer once observed that McLuhan “had the fastest brain of anyone I have ever met, and I never knew whether what he was saying was profound or garbage.”
  • Indeed, his faith made him a more ambitious and far-reaching thinker. Belonging to a Church that gloried in cathedrals and stained glass windows made him responsive to the visual environment, and liberated him from the textual prison inhabited by most intellectuals of his era. The global reach and ancient lineage of the Church encouraged him to frame his theories as broadly as possible, to encompass the whole of human history and the fate of the planet. The Church had suffered a grievous blow in the Gutenberg era, with the rise of printed Bibles leading to the Protestant Reformation. This perhaps explains McLuhan’s interest in technology as a shaper of history. More deeply, the security he felt in the promise of redemption allowed him to look unflinchingly at trends others were too timid to notice.
  • Like Marx and Freud, he was an intellectual agitator, a conceptual mind expander, the yeast in the dough. After Marx, we can no longer ignore the reality of class difference; after Freud, we can’t pretend that our mental life isn’t saturated with sexual impulses; after McLuhan, we can’t imagine that technology is just a neutral tool. Moreover, like Darwin and Marx, McLuhan is no longer just one man but rather a living and evolving body of thought.

A few months ago I posted a link to a YouTube clip of the Mailer/McLuhan debate here, and here is a piece on Chesterton’s influence on McLuhan.

Incidentally, while pairing McLuhan with the likes of Marx, Darwin, and Freud is in some respects incongruous, what they do have in common is an awareness, sometimes overplayed, of the external forces shaping and influencing human thought  and personality.  What may set McLuhan apart on this score is his unwillingness to slide into determinism:

“There is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening.”  — Marshall McLuhan, The Medium is the Massage

No, I Don’t Want To Be A Medieval Peasant

Admittedly, most days I tend toward critique, not praise of digital media and technology.  Aware of my proclivity, I try to compensate and hope that I strike a reasonable balance.  I’m sure everyone thinks they are successful in their efforts to achieve balanced views, so I’m probably the last person to judge how well I do or don’t.  That said, I do get into a fair number of discussions about technology in a variety of settings, and, more often than not, I’m raising certain questions and concerns, urging for discernment, moderation, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera … (The last bit best read in Yule Brenner tones.)  What this usually is taken to mean, judging from typical responses, is that I would like to be Amish, live without electricity, farm my own food, and wear black homespun clothes in the heat of the summer sun.   Okay, so maybe, there is a tiny part of me that wouldn’t mind trying that out for awhile, but generally speaking this actually isn’t my goal, and much less, the point.

What the reaction reveals, however, is that we tend to think in binary oppositions — this or that, either/or — and that the binary opposite of contemporary technology, in many people’s minds, is some past technological state, for some reason often associated with the 19th century religious sectarianism or Medieval Europe.  So it seems that on the assumption of this binary opposition, any critique of present technology necessarily groups you with either the Amish or the “bring out your dead” crowd.  In fact, there is a good deal of wisdom residing in the past and in intentional communities, but this is beside the more narrow point I’d like to make here.

Binary oppositions are often inherently unstable or else false dilemmas.  But even if we were to set up a binary opposition with present day technology being one member of the pair, who says that some past technological state must be the other member?  We could just as easily imagine the other member being some ideal future state.  I don’t mean this is in some strong utopian sense.  The idealized future is  more dangerous than the idealized past.  However, most of us have certain ideas about what a marginally better world might look like, even if only on the very limited scale of our own personal lives.   So why not make this desire for a better way, which at its best is informed by the past, the other of the present ecology of technology?  In this light, we might consider reasonable critiques of our technologies not as interventions in favor of an unrecoverable past, but rather as steps toward a better, attainable future.

It may be worth remembering that one very famous critic of technology, Marshall McLuhan, believed  that, “There is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening” (The Medium is the Massage).  Sometimes, however, it is precisely the contemplation part that we struggle with.  Perhaps because in technology, as in politics, binary oppositions tend to undermine, rather than encourage, thought.

McLuhan, Chesterton, and the Pursuit of Joy

The ability to attract the attention, sustain the interest, and even earn the admiration of readers from diverse and even antithetical intellectual and moral traditions is surely suggestive of an impressive mind and a generous personality.    That G. K. Chesterton can count the radical, critical theorist Slavoj Zizek and the traditionalist Catholic Marshall McLuhan among those who have engaged his work with penetrating insight tells us a great deal about Chesterton, who also happens to be the source of this blog’s tag line.

After posting a link to Nicholas Carr’s review of Douglas Coupland’s new biography of McLuhan, I decided to pull out my copy of an older, well regarded biography by W. Terrence Gordon, Marshall McLuhan: Escape into Understanding.  While rather aimlessly perusing through the biography I was struck by Chesterton’s significance for the development of McLuhan’s thought:

Nearly forty years later [from his time in Cambridge], McLuhan said: “I know every word of [Chesterton]: he’s responsible for bringing me into the church.  He writes by paradox — that makes him hard to read (or hard on the reader).”  Chesterton and St. Thomas Aquinas, he said, were his two biggest influences.  He loved Chesterton’s rhetorical flourishes, imbibed his playfulness, turned his impulse to try out new combinations of ideas into the hallmark of the McLuhan method.  (54)

No doubt many have said the same about McLuhan’s paradoxical and gnomic style as well as the relative (un)ease McLuhan presents for the reader.

The significance McLuhan gives to Aquinas parallels his estimation of Plato and Aristotle.  Speaking of an influential Cambridge professor, McLuhan wrote:

Lodge is a decided Platonist, and I learned [to think] that way as long as I was trying to interpret Christianity in terms of comparative religion.  Having perceived the sterility of that process, I now realize that Aristotle is the soundest basis for Christian doctrine. (53)

Aristotle, of course, is the philosopher whose thought Aquinas brought into synthesis with Christian doctrine, and among Chesterton’s expansive corpus is a short, insightful biography of Aquinas, Saint Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox.

Demonstrating early on his characteristically wide-ranging and, in Gordon’s words, “synthesizing impulses,” McLuhan links Platonism with Protestantism:

Plato was, of course, a Puritan in his artistic views, and his philosophy when fully developed as by the 15th century Augustinian monks (of whom Luther was one) leads definitely to the Calvinist position. (51)

And while Aristotle, Thomas, and Chesterton receive high marks from McLuhan, Protestants get a lashing:

Catholic culture produced Don Quixote and St. Francis and Rabelais . . . Everything that is especially hateful and devilish and inhuman about the conditions and strains of modern industrial society is not only Protestant in origin, but it is their boast (!) to have originated it.  (55)

These insights and formulations from McLuhan give us a sense that in his religious thought and cultural criticism he is after something we might simply call joy.  The link between his cultural criticism and religious thought is explicit and centered on Chesterton:

He opened my eyes to European culture and encouraged me to know it more closely.  He taught me the reasons for all that in me was blind anger and misery . . . . (56)

He goes on to write,

You see my ‘religion-hunting’ began with a rather priggish ‘culture-hunting.’ I simply couldn’t believe that men had to live in the mean, mechanical, joyless, rootless fashion that I saw in Winnipeg . . . . It was a long time before I finally perceived that the character of every society, its food, clothing, arts, and amusements are ultimately determined by its religion — It was longer still before I could believe that religion was as great and joyful as these things which it creates — or destroys.  (56)

His criticisms of Protestantism and its consequences also circle around the affective sensibilities he perceives it to engender.  In a letter McLuhan writes of “the dull dead daylight of Protestant rationalism which ruinously bathes every object from a beer parlour to a gasoline station . . . ” (56)

In all of this, the appeal of Chesterton who appears continuously mesmerized by the sheer gratuity and giftedness of existence becomes apparent.  Borrowing Chesterton’s own words and re-applying them to Chesterton himself, McLuhan noted that he “had somehow made a giant stride from babyhood to manhood, and missed that crisis in youth when most of us grow old.” (59)  Likewise, Gordon is correct in reapplying McLuhan’s words regarding Chesterton to McLuhan himself,

There is no hue of meaning amidst the dizziest crags of thought that is safe from his swift, darting pursuit. (60)

And ultimately, it appears that it was the pursuit of joy.