Carroll, McLuhan, and the Electronic Future
Notes from Noël Carroll's “Marshall McLuhan and the Electronic Future”, in Noël Carroll, A Philosophy of Mass Art. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1998).
Like Walter Benjamin in "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," Marshall McLuhan defends the mass media on the basis of their inherent structural possibilities, not of the specfic contents they reproduce. For McLuhan, “The medium is the message”: which means that “the content of mass media is less important than their structures, since it is at the level of structure, McLuhan contends, that the mass media engage and shape human consciousness”.
Technology as a prothesis, as extension of human powers. Media symbolize consciousness at a certain stage of development, but they also expand the range of the human sensorium and raise consciousness to new levels. (See in this respect W. J. Ong's notion of the interiorization of communicative technology).
For McLuhan, new forms of consciousness are created by new media. E.g.: print gives rise to individualism. In McLuhan we find technological determinism, but not historical materialism. The key to historical process is not the ensemble of forces of production, but only communication technologies. Not the development of capitalism, but the "Gutenberg galaxy".
And the end result is not the socialist utopia, but the electronic global village. Mass art is on the side of history, it has an inherent progressivism for McLuhan. The story of humankind is the story of the enlarging of human consciousness. TV was the center of his theories in the 60s, but much of what McLuhan says applies even better to computer technology. The World Wide Web as the realization of McLuhan's global electronic village—uncannily prophetic.
Historical development can be seen as process of abstraction from multidimensional sign communication in spoken language. Progressively abstract alphabets are developed. The separation of sight and sound leads to separation of imaginative, emotional and sense life. Alphabetic writing is biased in favour of linear thinking. It achieves greater power, but it is power at a price—the decay of orality. Print technology intensifies the standardizing and mechanizing procedures of alphabetization.
New media expand the alphabet-limited consciousness. E.g. development of photography calls atention to bodily postures, records actual gestures; new attention is paid to these. Visual technologies restore dimensions of consciousness alienated by print culture, and favour non-linear thinking.
TV addresses the whole human sensorium: TV as a "tactile" art for McLuhan. Media that exclude senses are hot, McLuhan says: they possess a high definition, are full of information, and self-sufficient. Cool media promote interaction, the participation of the audience. They are superior to hot media. According to McLuhan, “Society will become a global village, decentralized, communitarian, and fraternal, with people involved in one another’s concerns with scarcely a taint of individualism”.
Print is authoritarian, TV democratic. McLuhan rejects the charges of passivity fostered by mass art; they are profoundly interactional. And they are not subordinate or derivative from previous arts or media: instead, they are a new more total form of art.
There is a danger in McLuhan of taking literally the biological side of media as extensions of senses and physical limitation or extension of sensorium. Also, the notion of dominant media is insufficiently defined (from Carroll's viewpoint). Dominant, in which context? Etc.
Carroll also mistrusts McLuhan's superficial critique of linear thought—McLuhan's notions here are sweeping and loose.
A critique of cool media: communication not concerned with conveying whole of original experience, but with selection and focus; for Carroll, “too much inclusiveness is likely to thwart communication, rather than to realize its essence”
And print not necessarily biased towards linear thinking. Again, Carroll questions McLuhan's notion of an inherent de-centralization in electronic media. Neither print nor "the electronic media, indeed no media, have a pre-established moral destiny”. There is a basic mistake here: the automatic perceptual response engendered by new media is interpreted by McLuhan as active engagement of spectator: this is not the case for Carroll. There is in McLuhan an illegitimate assumption of a continuity between avant-garde or modernism and media art.
(... a confusion, I should say, which is replayed after McLuhan by naively enthusiastic advocates of Web utopianism, the interactive liberation of the mind through hypertext, and the "coolness" of social networking...- JAGL).