Posted by: soniahs | September 7, 2010

Exam reading: “Essential McLuhan”

This book includes selected works by Marshall McLuhan, a popular figure in cultural criticism:

Summary: McLuhan’s main thesis is that the media by which we communicate are powerful shapers of psychology and culture. Media are our ways of extending human sense organs into the environment. When new media technologies are introduced, the levels of different senses used by people shift (e.g., writing started to emphasize vision, and eventually print enabled logic, 3-D perception, and the individual ego). There’s a fundamental difference between vision (acts to separate people from their environment) and all other senses (immerse people in their environment). Non-literate cultures (he includes those using non-alphabetic writing in this group) exist in primarily auditory, tribal societies, while alphabet-using cultures are visual and civilized. Electronic media are in the process of making the entire world auditory and tribal; these media affect feeling, not thought. Media are more important than the message, in terms of influencing society. Even visual media are changing-the juxtaposition of multiple visual elements creates a symbolic landscape, in contrast to single linear chains of argument & evidence. Holistic/systems thinking is the new paradigm; we will no longer need specialists, because generalists immersed in the new sensory paradigm will be able to figure everything out.

Comments: McLuhan’s formulation of the relationship between media use & culture is strongly deterministic. Distinguishes between “hot” (aural, “hyperesthetic,” demand low participation by audence) and “cool” (visual, detached, demand high audience participation) media, but contradicts himself about which technologies are which and where writing fits in- I don’t find this formulation convincing (I’m sticking with the vision/other senses distinction, which at least he’s consistent about). Uses some questionable (from a sociology perspective) interpretations of examples from Africa and China to support his ideas about alphabetic literacy. McLuhan’s style of writing and futuristic bent is horoscope-like: it’s easy to pick out predictions that seem to have come true while ignoring those that have not.

Links to: Feenberg (technological determinism); Ong (more scholarly analysis of media & representation); Brown & Duguid (knowledge work cheerleader)

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