McLuhan Studies : Premiere Issue

Home Page

Next Article

Previous Article

Table of Contents

Author Index

Title Index




"Keep in touch!" McLuhan's cheery goodbye was never perfunctory, and curiously effective. Trying to get into the feel of McLuhan, I've been moving around in Understanding Media. Chapter Eleven, "Number, Profile of the crowd" has intrigued and puzzled me before: "Just as writing is an extension and separation of our most neutral and objective sense, the sense of sight, number is an extension and separation of our most intimate and interrelating activity, our sense of touch."

As the realization grew in me of the importance of what McLuhan had said and done I was too exhilarated to sleep: gap, interval, interface-all that play of pix, headlines, quotes from Finnegans Wake, puns; his stress on the tactile.

The Greek haptic sense-touch, yes, but much more. It's perception, which is much more involving than what we mean even by sensing. The haptic sense meant much more "mind" since it meant grasping, getting something whole. Grasping means that in some sense I become what I know in its concrete reality and so get it whole. It is this complete act of knowing, that then allows me to analyze my percept intellectually as well as affirm its reality in judgement.

And it is this complete act of knowing that realizes my own centre.

McLuhan knew this well enough to teach it, well enough to write it, well enough to leave it with us to work on.

Of course, other people have attained this truth about the central importance of the haptic sense: it's in the Zeitgeist. Didn't McLuhan find lots of support and confirmation in the work of his contemporaries? His work (any important work someone has said) is a mosaic. In that chapter on Number, he draws on the Bauhaus and modern art, anthropology, Elias Canetti and the dynamism of sheer numbers, Tobias Dantzig.

Anything so important as wholeness in knowing, and anything so obvious, had to be mainstream. It's important in Jungians and neo-Freudians, existentialists, Fritz Perls's Gestalt; Cezanne, the cubists; tactile surfaces; encounter; mosaic-in-literature, illustration, the print, movie sequence, drama, music, whatever. The haptic sense has been the key to life in the Western world this century either by its presence or absence.

And McLuhan knew that and focused his work on that.

Electric Involvement Supersedes Visual Order

A million monkeys typing on a million typewriters for a million years would type the works of Shakespeare. It's physically impossible but statistically certain, perfectly 100% probable. The fantasy illuminates the nature of our phonetic alphabet-uniform, repeatable, abstract and meaningless units. Given enough time and space, by sheer accident even an "abced-minded" machine could line up every possible sequence.

But, McLuhan notes, "there is nothing linear or sequential about the total field of awareness that exists in any moment of consciousness."

Civilization is built on literacy because literacy is uniform processing of a culture by visual sense extended in space and time by the alphabet... The auditory sense, unlike the cool and neutral eye, is hyper-esthetic and delicate and all-inclusive. Oral cultures act and react at the same time. Phonetic culture endows men with the means of repressing their feelings and emotions when engaged in action. To act without reacting, without involvement, is the peculiar advantage of Western literate man.

Language was his entry into media study. A good ear helps; here are a few seconds he transcribed from a popular disc-jockey show:

That's Patty Baby and that's the girl with the dancing feet and that's Freddy Cannon there on the David Mickie Show in the night time ooohbah scubadoo how are you booboo. Next we'll be Swinging on a Star and sssshhhwwoooo and sliding on a moon beam.

Waaaaaa how about of the goodest guys with you...this is lovable kissable D.M. in the p.m. at 22 minutes past nine o'clock there, aahrightie, we're gonna have a Hitline, all you have to do is call...

All those gestural qualities that the printed page strips from language come back in the dark, and on the radio. Given only the sound of a play, we have to fill in all the senses, not just the sight of the action. So much do-it-yourself, or completion and "closure" of action, develops a kind of independent isolation in the young that makes them remote and inaccessible. The mystic screen of sound with which they are invested by their radios provides the privacy for their homework, and immunity from parental behest.

Doctoral work at Cambridge gave McLuhan a foothold in Renaissance culture. Then, acquaintance with Harold Innis and further probing led to his books The Mechanical Bride and The Gutenberg Galaxy. Already he was launched on his life work focussing on the decisive effect of the phonetic alphabet on oral culture, and its reversal at the instant speed of electric media. Gutenberg's invention of the printing press and movable type was a portent; Samuel Morse's telegraph, a revolution.

During the industrial age Western culture went from rural to urban, from tribe to modern states, from resonating tradition to books and bureaucracy, from craft to assembly line. The electric age reverses these. In Understanding Media McLuhan enunciated this effect as a cumulative, profound change of the whole form of culture from visual, detached and linear to oral, inclusive and tactile.


It is the artist's job to dislocate older media into postures that permit attention to the new, McLuhan noted. Working with men like Edmund Carpenter the anthropologist, Harley Parker the painter, the writer Wilfrid Watson, business consultants Drucker and Nevitt, and a host of students, he developed a media theatre. It was witty entertainment based on the play of visual and oral, multiple reference, puns.

With Carpenter, McLuhan produced nine numbers of Explorations which were rich mosaics of the media; and this work eventually culminated in Carpenter's very beautiful Eskimo Realities.

Watson shared McLuhan's fun with words. He too was a Renaissance scholar, and dramatist. With men like these what began as examinations of literary art tended to grow into total theatre productions.

The business world kept McLuhan in direct contact with new media. I recall waiting to go to lunch with him, while he finished a 45-minute phone call with Drucker in New York. The potency of the media were part of his life. And he was an adept. When he was flown to Paris for a TV interview he remarked: "It's cheaper."

Parker, I thought, made for a regular presence of the theatre: his style made it visible.

Altogether, McLuhan realized the metamorphosis from the linear, detached world to the tactile, involved electric age in his life. He himself embodied the new age, and his Centre for Culture and Technology radiated it.

From The Mechanical Bride to Culture Is Our Business

Symbols and metaphors, quips and one-liners, are alike in boosting the listener. The insight is offered without explanation. And it's a snapshot: the listener needs to be swift.

The Mechanical Bride, from his thirties, had the ingredients of all his later work. It was social comment, moral, earnest, committed, crusading. The chapters were mosaics, the message telegraphed by illustrated ads with his own captions-gag lines and word play:


sets up his


Again, photos of Men of Distinction for Lord Calvert whisky set up

"Is it what's in the jigger
that makes them bigger?"

His nimble intelligence kept his listeners and readers on the jump. McLuhan was a monologist, but with him you didn't doze. He perceived multidimensional reality, grasped worlds of meaning, threw them together in a symbol, played with words for fun-wraparound sound; news that stays news; keeping close watch through the rear-view mirror; the gap, the secret of the axle.

Twenty years after The Mechanical Bride in Culture Is Our Business GROWTH COUNTRY was McLuhan's title for his riffing off a Manufacturer's Hanover Trust ad-cowboys riding down Wall Street and the plug-"If you plan to explore growth country get a professional guide." He comments: "The canyon in the image here consists of printed stock quotations. The cowboys as stock men provide several visual puns... Man's reach must exceed his grasp or what's a metaphor?" Later on, he starts his chapter Help Beautify Junkyards with the caption Throw Something Lovely Away Today, that faced an Esquire cover girl in a garbage can with her story title "The New American Woman: through at 21."

Ad men and McLuhan understood each other. Today, expensive advertising, in glossy mags and on TV, is cool. Over and over, the targeted consumer gets involved in the fooling around and laughs as the sponsor emerges at last. Consumers flock to movie houses to see such fun, and buy videos that collect choice advertising. Laid-back ads go on and on... proving McLuhan right.

Living It

His own manner was casual, part of his long easy stride and posture. That was the feel of our first encounter at a University of Toronto senior English seminar:

"This course is listed as Contemporary British and American Critics this year, and Contemporary Poets next year. But there's really no difference." (Yeats, Pound, Eliot... flashing through our minds, we nodded: we were moving on.) "Now, for years I've wanted to do some work on Joyce and Pound. So, if nobody objects we'll concentrate on them."

His candor was refreshing and engaging; it amused and braced us. Definitely we were on the move.

McLuhan had a good start. Under those big prairie skies life after the First War was exhilarating. His father. Well, his father stands out vividly from an afternoon making wine with him-easy, humorous, alert: he must have been a great teacher. His mother. A visit with her in intensive care towards the end of her life embedded her in my mind like a precious stone-a woman of truly memorable strength.

He was a family man. When McLuhan joined the St. Michael's faculty at the University of Toronto, he had a young and growing family. The college had a large old house at the edge of the campus, just behind St. Basil's Church. It was a good place for keeping in touch. He liked his family, and was proud of his children.

Your independent thinker leaves home to learn. McLuhan entered engineering at the University of Manitoba, became fascinated with literature, and went to Cambridge for a Ph.D. He became a Catholic and grew into an educated, prayerful man. Once when I expressed regret at interrupting my work to study theology he pulled me up with his poised response: "I'd love to have four years to study theology."

One evening he went to hear an eminent colleague deliver a lecture on Browning. He rose to disagree with the view his colleague had elaborated on, and enforced his own position, quoting from memory hundreds of lines of Browning's poetry.

A good memory won't generate great achievements, but they're not possible without one: McLuhan had a remarkable memory. Not just a filing system. His works testify to instant access to a vast fund of reading, and listening. Casual conversation with him was enlivened by an astonishing range of interest, that furnished his mind with Gargantuan stores always on call.

"There are 35,000 new titles every year in English," he told a graduate seminar. "When I pick up a book, I know I'll never read it again. When I come across something important I mark it and make a note of the page on the flyleaf. If it's memorable I commit it to memory then and there." His keen mind grasped the meaning of thoroughly relevant perceptions.

In 1967 he went to New York to occupy the prestigious Albert Schweitzer Chair in Humanities. There he was operated on for a lemon-sized tumour on the top of his cerebellum. The operation impaired his memory. ("I have to re-learn everything," he told me when he fumbled my name.) But it didn't dull his wit. Of anaesthesia he quipped: "The pain comes later."

McLuhan was a great teacher. Was he also a prophet? They're both earnest, but the prophet pur sang doesn't worry about his prophecies, and leaves their coming-to-pass to the Other. McLuhan cared too much about his insights to merely deliver them: he urged them, he repeated them, he taught them, so well that some commentators sound as if they blame him for their realization. But his message was: "The West thinks it's in a mechanical age, and acts like that, but we're NOT....D'y see? Now, can't we DO something about it."

Would-be saviours have a hard time.

But fifteen years after his death, everybody has an inkling of what he was saying.

Information Processing

We go into a big store, take a package off the shelf, to give it to the cashier, who passes it over an electronic eye. S/he insists on doing that because, s/he says if you ask, that's the way they replace it on the shelf. "My consumers, are they not my producers," McLuhan quoted from Joyce.

A number, a code, gets read off, filed in a computer that will spit out a new order at an assigned moment. It could, and may, fax the order to another computer that will fill it and send it out. There only remains electronically to move the package to the shelf and the circuit is complete. It could be done from your kitchen, charging it to your credit card, like the purchase of a multitude of things right now from your TV. And we still have a long way to go in becoming information processors.

Global Village

McLuhan sketched a much more exciting dream.

In a retribalized world of people in touch with one another we may develop skill in arriving at our own real desires. We may abandon shove and grab as modes of getting what we think we want. We may grope, in concert, towards our perceptions, join in trying to understand them, and negociate choices. In that interplay, in that va-et-vient we may attain our very selves. Truly in touch at last we could come to love our very selves.

Mirage or prophecy?

"THE WEST SHALL SHAKE THE EAST AWAKE." Noting that Hollywood had canned and exported industrial America to Africa, McLuhan held out the possibility of the culture of Eastern Europe, still deeply oral, leapfrogging the visual, linear, detached Age through immersion in the electric media: "The Russians had only to adapt their traditions of Eastern icon and image-building to the new electric media in order to be aggressively effective in the modern world of information."

Again, Quebec's rejection of Canadianism could be their move towards the retribalizing that we're all heading towards:

Political unification of populations by means of vernacular and language groupings was unthinkable before printing turned each vernacular into an extensive mass medium. The tribe, an extended form of a family of blood relatives, is exploded by print, and is replaced by an association of men homogeneously trained to be individuals. Nationalism itself came as an intense new visual image of group destiny and status, and depended on a speed of information movement unknown before printing. Today nationalism as an image still depends on the press but has all the electric media against it. Many a confrontation of late fulfils this prognosis.

Wholeness In Knowing, Wholeness In Being

Whatever made McLuhan call TV a cool medium of low definition and high participation?

A cool medium, whether the spoken word or the manuscript or TV, leaves much more for the listener or user to do than a hot medium. If the medium is of high definition, participation is low. If the medium is of low intensity, the participation is high. Perhaps this is why lovers mumble so.

Because the low definition of TV insures a high degree of audience involvement, the most effective programs are those that present situations which consist of some process to be completed.

With TV, the viewer is the screen....The TV image is visually low in data. The TV image is not a still shot. It is not a photo in any sense, but a ceaselessly forming contour of things limned by the scanning finger. The resulting plastic contour appears by light through, not light on, and the image so formed has the quality of sculpture and icon, rather than of picture. The TV image offers some three million dots per second to the receiver. From these he accepts only a few dozen each instant, from which to make an image.

The TV image requires each instant that we "close" the spaces in the mesh by a convulsive participation that is profoundly kinetic and tactile, because tactility is the interplay of the senses, rather than the isolated contact of skin and object.

The bias of phonetic literacy for visual uniformity and repeatability, linear continuity, point-of-view and perspective, Olympian detachment, leads to lots of bad TV programs, which set off the ads (that doesn't bother the sponsors). Yet, McLuhan points out, "TV can illustrate the interplay of process and growth of forms of all kinds as nothing else can." (Suzuki's "The Nature of Things" owes a lot to McLuhan.)

The young people who have experienced a decade of TV have naturally imbibed an urge toward involvement in depth that makes all the remote visualized goals of usual culture seem not only unreal but irrelevant, and not only irrelevant but anemic. It is the total involvement in all-inclusive nowness that occurs in young lives via TV's mosaic image.... The TV child expects involvement and doesn't want a specialist job in the future. He does want a role and a deep commitment to his society.

Again and again the prophet proves right. We are learning to think differently. Wholeness has grown attractive as we move out of the visual linear perspective into an oral, tactile world. Apparently, keeping in touch will soon be the only way to go. Our reluctance McLuhan puts down to media lag: we're unable to let go the old ways. But our discomfort is a sign of rear-view mirror vision: when we grasp where we are, we'll be in touch. So the discomfort is good.

Individual pain and tribal turmoil are signs that the electric age is here: we are New Age people whether we like it or not. But that need not be cause for gloom: the transformation could be an immense gain for each and all.

Referring to J.Z. Young's Doubt and Certainty in Science McLuhan pointed out that electricity isn't something that is conveyed by or carried in anything, electricity isn't a current flowing, nor is it discharged like a gun but "electricity is the condition we observe when there are certain spacial relations between things." Comparing our minds to the unified field of electricity, Young remarks that it "allows us to react to the world as a whole to a much greater degree than most other animals."

Instant total presence in the field, in our minds as in electricity, makes for wholeness in ourselves as in the globe. Telegraph and telephone, radio and television, as well as other forms of electric media, "instantly and constantly create a total field of interacting events in which all men participate" with "the same inclusive scope of integral interplay that has hitherto characterized only our private nervous systems....The simultaneity of electric communication, also characteristic of our nervous system, makes each of us present and accessible to every other person in the world."

Return to top of page