old politics had parties, policies, planks, opposition.
The new politics is concerned only with images. The problem
in the new politics is to find the right image. Image
hunting is the new thing, and policies no longer matter
because whether your electric light is provided by Republicans
or Democrats is rather unimportant compared to the service
of light and power and all the other kinds of services
that go with our cities. Service environment's the thing
in place of political parties."
is Marshall McLuhan speaking to the students of Florida
State University in 1970. Virtually forgotten in the years
after his death in 1980, McLuhan was the sixties media
guru who predicted the death of the book, yet who saw
his own books go out of print and his own reputation consigned
to history's dustbin. McLuhan was described in the eighties
as "laughably inadequate as an intellectual guide to our
times," but his reputation was revived at the beginning
of the nineties by the online generation and the spread
of the Internet. Nevertheless, outside of a handful of
familiar mantrasthe medium is the message, the concept
of the global villageand a famous cameo appearance
in Annie Hall, as a cultural figure he is a museum
piece who remains ahead of the times. His powers of prescience
are uncanny, and his emphasis on the role of technological
evolution rather than biological and genetic determinism
is a vital tool for negotiating the brave new digital
his own idiosyncratic modes of communicationpart
medicine show huckster, part Zen masterhe foresaw
how television rather than the voting booth would win
elections. He may not have foreseen the elevation of Dubya
to the White Housebanned by nervous advisors from
committing his inarticulateness to e-mailbut he
predicted the global village of e-mail culture, and he
imagined cybersex encounters between people across the
world decades before the technology was in place. His
aphorisms, what he called probes, included envisioning
the computer age as "an extension of the human nervous
system" just as clothes were an extension of the skin,
the wheel an extension of the foot, and the book an extension
of the eye.
year California-based Gingko Press launched a major publishing
program that extends through 2007 with new editions of
McLuhan's late sixties classics The Medium Is the Massage
and its sequel, War and Peace in the Global Village.
Forthcoming are a new edition of his first book The
Mechanical Bride, an unbound box of eighteen McLuhan
essaysthe first of three such volumesand Anthology:
A Book of Probes, containing McLuhanisms from his
is important because he was the first to articulate a
radical and contemporary understanding of the new media
and the information environment. He noted, accurately,
that in times of innovation "we look at the present through
a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future."
The corporate invasion of the Internet is an example of
this. As the virtual bubble created by venture capitalists
evaporates into the new dot.gone culture, the prospect
of a technological meltdown affects us all. The medium
itself is under threat. With McLuhan to massage our brains
with his probes, we can stop looking backwards and start
looking around us at what virtuality really is.
the 21st century, The Medium Is the Massage is
both a classic Pop Artifact and a futuristic joke manual
for negotiating our new media. It doesn't even matter,
argues McLuhan, if you never log on, turn on, tune in.
"Electronic information comes from all directions at once,
and when information comes from all directions simultaneously,
you are living in an acoustic world [cyberspace in today's
parlance]. It doesn't matter whether you're listening
or not, the fact is you're getting this acoustic pattern."
Medium Is the Massage was his one bestseller, the
book that put him on the cover of Time. It is of
its time, of course, but its matter, its message, is way
ahead of us still. We are still looking back, while McLuhan
the media guru never did. He didn't even write his books,
but dictated them. He rarely revised. He was careless,
too, of his own legacy and reputation, instigating crackpot
schemes such as an underwear deodorant called Prohtex
to enhance "legitimate body odors." Thus the culture that
made him an icon soon tired of him.
The Medium Is the Massage he actually provided
only the book's title. Jerome Agel collected the McLuhanisms,
the "probes" that could be as enlightening as they were
confusing, and Quentin Fiore created the design. Together
they forged a sixties classic infused with the vernacular
of the times, but whose implications transcend the era.
The book's text-graphic interface carries its own political
message. One passage quotes Indonesia's President Sukarno
on the revolutionary role Hollywood's depiction of Western
affluence played in the post-Colonial upheavals of Asia.
I Love Lucy, it seems, can move mountains as much
as Chairman Mao. Black activists such as Angela Davis
numbered among McLuhan's students. What liberation ideologies
did they take with them from his classes? His revolutionary
focus on the medium exposed American society's subliminal
messages on race, gender, age, consumption. McLuhan's
was the meta approach. Where he first trod, political,
radical text artists such as Barbara Kruger later followed.
Gingko Press edition is a facsimile of the original, and
though historians of culture may well have a dog-eared
first edition somewhere on their shelves, this new edition
offers the full-blown head massage to a new generation.
Open it, and you're opening a time capsule, electronic
culture's first prophetic book. Its spiky juxtapositions
of text and image, sometimes explanatory and often disturbingly
dislocated, are some way from McLuhan's early, notoriously
dense, difficult texts, The Mechanical Bride (1951),
The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) and Understanding
Media (1964). McLuhan gained a reputation early on
as a bad communicator who nevertheless had brilliant insights
into modern communication. To his critics he came to represent
obscurity and pretension; to his supporters he was a right-brained
genius. It didn't matter if what he said was wrongand
it often waswhat was important was the method, and
how it made you stop and consider the defining environments
of communication you had never considered before. A lover
of puns, of wit over reason, an indefatigable talker,
and a voracious reader, McLuhan himself remained unplugged.
"I am resolutely opposed to all innovation, all change,"
he wrote, "but I am determined to understand what is happening,
because I don't choose just to sit and let the juggernaut
roll over me." As such, McLuhan is in some ways an odd
choice for the Internet generation's guru. Born in 1911
in Edmonton, Alberta, and a convert to Catholicism in
1937, a religious mystic and political conservative, he
was already in his fifties by the time he became the sixties'
oddest youth icon. Nor did he engage with the actual media
he studiedhe was more bookworm than couch potato.
The mediums he studied were personally foreign to him.
early academic works argued for a kind of technological
determinism, stretching back to the discovery of the alphabet.
Just as the historian Lyn White suggested that the technology
of the stirrup created the Middle Ages, so McLuhan argued
for an explicit awareness of the technology of communication.
Civilization, he says, proceeded through four major stages.
The earliest oral tribal cultures were superceded by the
technology of the alphabet, which led to the concept of
the individual, because writing is a visual medium; we
don't read collectively, but alone. The invention of moveable
type drove the linear development of civilization, as
well as concepts of nationhood and conquest, while the
technology of the new mediathe multimediahas
returned society to an acoustic, oral tribalism. The mode
of society's communication is for McLuhan much more significant
than its content. Behind the effects lie the pattern,
and it is the pattern with which McLuhan concerned himself.
It is the pattern, he says, in which we see where we really
are. Take a newspaper, for instance, with its headings,
subheadings, stand-firsts, advertisements. "People don't
actually read newspapers," he remarked, "they get into
them every morning like a hot bath." Rather than climbing
into them himself, McLuhan was more inclined to test the
temperature, measure the leveland pull the plug.
adopting the McLuhan mindset, you can make your own media
probes to embark on your own head massage. His legacy
is more medium than message. It is yours to use; make
of it what you will. The Medium Is the Massage is
a wakeup call to look around you rather than in the rearview
mirror. McLuhan was neither cheerleader nor Cassandra
for the new medium. "Value judgements create smog in our
culture," he wrote, "and distract attention from processes."
By identifying the processes, we can liberate ourselves
from them. It is up, or down, to us. We may even end up
like the private McLuhan, who yearned for the pre-electronic
era and wished, while aware of its futility, that the
global village he saw shaping up before him had never
Medium is the Massage
and War and Peace in the Global Village are published
by Gingko Press, California.