A historical approach to the media

McLuhan's hourglass

I should have called this article a reminiscence of Herbert Marshall McLuhan’s view on the media, but it is, in particular, something differing a bit from it, that the essay I red deals with. McLuhan tried to change the peoples’ view on the media his whole life long. This essay, I am relating to, he wrote for an educational journal. The title should be named a bit different, because McLuhan provides the reader with a very special view on the history of men. He is convinced that cultural changes go hand in hand with changes in and with media technologies, and that the media are influencing our way of living. Senses and sensations are externalized through media, and certain modes of sensation always are predominant in some time on the timeline of mankind. For us it is to adapt to the different forms of externalization if we wanted to survive (cf. p. 104).

But as McLuhan thought of it, we didn’t always acquire to the requests of media, that is to say,

“[a]s our original book technology has been succeeded by movie and television we have lost book literacy without acquiring visual literacy” (ibid.).

A provocative statement followed:

“So now the principle of natural selection unexpectedly favors the Chinese and Japanese, for example; their pictorial mode of writing, once a great disadvantage in relation to the abstract culture of print, now favors them in a world of visual communication” (ibid.).

– I would like to say: I agree entirely. But let’s step further into the subject. McLuhan’s view on media is a very broad one. For him a bunch of things can be called media. Light, furniture… kind of everything that can be called an externalization of men’s bodies functions. Imagine how light influences in just one aspect the ratio between day and night. Think of this as a very easy example and try to imagine whatelse and how is influenced by the invention of light?! Make notes, take your time. You’ll see that this , at first view, easy example is much more complex when we consider what consequences it brings to modern societies and how it influences our environments. A system of media is even more complex.

“And because of the complexity of the components in this process, prediction and control are not possible” (ibid.).

We’re not in control of the media, but they’re to control our lifes?! Not only a technocratic but a very particular point of view McLuhan took. As we watch the history of mankind, we can nowadays filter past cultures through the eyes of modern media. According to McLuhan we’re not even close to fulfill the demands that are given by this process, but are limping one or more steps behind. We have to apprehend that the way biological evolution took us is put on its head when introducing new electronic media into our world, for it reverses the process of organization in one entity. Today we’re taking a step outside;

“the evolution of the central nervous system made high consciousness possible, while wireless and television appea to be making it impossible” (ibid., p. 105).

McLuhan creates an appreciation of media that in his eyes should not be pessimistic at least. We’re able to differentiate our world into acoustic and visual space and to think of modes of perception and what they come out with in the end. In this context we might understand writing as a visual abstraction of language, for example (cf. ibid., p 106). We made our way from manuscript to print. At that point we called ourselves literates and we lived in a literate society. But,

“[l]iterate man experiences an inner psychic withdrawal from his external senses which gives him a heavy psychic and social limp. But the rewards are very rich” (ibid.).

For the influences media have on men and their psychic, their behaviour, ours, our society, McLuhan suggests to provide a history of media that takes this aspects into consideration. A history of media, according to McLuhan, should implement internal, societal facts (cf. ibid.). Print "[a]nd our four-century preoccupation with" (ibid.) it has fixed our attention to just one sense and limited it not to "release our attention to the whole range of media influence." Furthermore McLuhan thought that nobody had

“begun to consider the present impact of the new media on languages as such” (ibid., p. 107).

To start with some aspect on influence, McLuhan refered to historical examples of media change and how they changed work in class; he had to stick to this point just because he wrote the essay for an educational journal. I won’t take a step further into this for now, but still have to mention that media, in McLuhan’s eyes, are a kind of expression of what mankind is and how men are living. We should take our time to examine the relationship between media and society, shall consider the influences on our daily lifes. In reference to Plato McLuhan insists that writing and manuscript allowed forgetfulness to become typical

“in the learner’s souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves” (ibid., p. 107f.).

In McLuhan’s essay this was the point from which he started reviewing some steps in medial evolution and how it affected to classwork. As I said before I will not dig any further from now. Just for those, who are interested in, here is as following the bibliography of the McLuhan-essay.

McLuhan, Herbert Marshall: A Historical Approach to the Media. In: Teachers College Record (1955), 57:2, p. 104-110.

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