Religion, Fundamentalism, Gnosticism, BLM: Part IX

In 1964, Marshall McLuhan taunted Marxists for paying insufficient attention to words:

“Wedded as they are to nineteenth-century industrial technology as the basis of class liberation, nothing could be more subversive of the Marxian dialectic than the idea that linguistic media shape social development, as much as do the means of production.”

They paid attention:

McLuhan viewed technologies, including media, as prosthetic “extensions of man” entailing an “amputation” or “numbness” of the faculties which they enhance. For example, if you walk twenty miles, you feel it, but replace, so to speak, your feet with an automobile, and you become numb to travel. Numbness allows a reorganization of society which previously would have been intolerable. Among the most important of all prosthetics was the “Gutenberg Revolution”: 

“[I]t is necessary to see literacy as typographic technology, applied not only to the rationalizing of the entire procedures of production and marketing, but to law and education and city planning, as well. The principles of continuity, uniformity, and repeatability derived from print technology have, in England and America, long permeated every phase of communal life. In those areas a child learns literacy from traffic and street, from every car and toy and garment. Learning to read and write is a minor facet of literacy in the uniform, continuous environments of the English-speaking world. Stress on literacy is a distinguishing mark of areas that are striving to initiate that process of standardization that leads to the visual organization of work and space. Without psychic transformation of the inner life into segmented visual terms by literacy, there cannot be the economic ‘take-off’ that ensures a continual movement of augmented production and perpetually accelerated change-and-exchange of goods and services.”

Much of McLuhan’s Understanding Media is dedicated to exploring the ramifications of continuity, uniformity, and repeatability. The “visual” and “linear” bias of the printed word, he claims, lay behind the Reformation, the scientific method, rationality, individualism, emotional detachment, nationalism, calculus, and money, and inflected the development of roads, clothing, housing, and our understanding of time.

This partial catalogue should be sufficient for the reader to perceive the influence of McLuhan on the Smithsonian’s “Aspects & Assumptions of Whiteness & White Culture,” whose authors have pressed his description of typographic culture into the service of a tribalist fundamentalism, identifying literacy and its consequences with “whiteness,” and pronouncing both evil. This would not have surprised McLuhan:

“Western man, were he determined to cling to the fragmented and individualist ways that he has derived from the printed word in particular, would be well advised to scrap all his electric technology since the telegraph. The implosive (compressional) character of the electric technology plays the disk or film of Western man backward, into the heart of tribal darkness, or into what Joseph Conrad called ‘the Africa within.’ The instant character of electric information movement does not enlarge, but involves, the family of man in the cohesive state of village living.”

Also in this series:

Part I; Part II; Part III; Part IV; Part V; Part VI; Part VII; Part VIII

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