Glen Cochrane on Chapters 8, 9 and 10 for #UMRG

Glen Cochrane wrote the following about chapters 8, 9 and 10:

Chapter 8 The Spoken Word

Back in chapter 6 (p.57 in my edition) McLuhan introduces the idea that spoken word is the first technology that allowed humans to consider themselves from an outside perspective. He builds on this idea in Chapter 8, which is a little more than 3 pages long.

McLuhan uses two examples to show that spoken experiences are much different than written experiences. Spoken word experiences are participatory, sensuous, unified, dramatic, and involved. Such orally based cultures even have a distaste for silence, and a strong affectionate characteristic, as illustrated by the travel guide to Greece excerpt.

Contrasting this, the phonetic written experience values privacy, separation of the senses, and the individual. McLuhan goes so far as to claim that individualism cannot occur without the written word. It is the speed or the automatic nature of the spoken word that affords situational reactions not only of language but also of tone or gesture or action, separating it from the detached, emotionless phonetic experience.

At this point McLuhan steps back and flips the script a bit. He considers the spoken word, or language itself, as the first fragmentation of humans – as written word is to speech, so is speech to instinct. Taking from Henri Bergson, he explains how the development of language increased consciousness of the individual at the expense of the consciousness of the collective mankind. The uniqueness of language, with its ability to contain style, created individuals.

McLuhan ends the chapter with a paragraph about how electronic technology has strong implications for the future of language, or, for a future without language. Electronic technology holds the potential return to some type of collective unconscious.

How would a future collective unconscious differ from the past collective unconscious?

To what extent is spoken word (language) an extension of man as opposed to a definition of man?

Chapter 9 The Written Word

Chapter 9 starts with an anecdote that shows the effect of the written word and how exciting this can be to discover. However, there is also much anxiety attached to this effect as the Western world has developed a dependence on the phonetic alphabet. The electric age foreshadows an end to this dependency. And the end may be abrupt, like a carpet pulled from underneath, because Western civilization hasn’t spent enough time trying to understand these effects.

Written words lack the emotional qualities that spoken word experiences contain. Yet, the individual and the ‘citizen’ arises more distinct from literate cultures. Tribal cultures also cannot accommodate a sense of linear progression; literate cultures act without reacting, act faster, transfer action, and apply knowledge. The myth of Camdus shows how this type of control that the technology of phonetic writing affords had shifted ancient power and authority into military hands.

The phonetic alphabet cultures have produced many successes, but it is merely one view of the world, one way of existing consciously. It assumes a linear cause and effect worldview that can be challenged at its core.

The next few paragraphs are challenging to summarize, as McLuhan restates some of his earlier points, and I think offers up a summary of his own, of sorts. He claims that the phonetic alphabet is the initial step in humans’ ability to be calculating, to have autonomy over their individual self (that emerged with the development of the spoken word in Chapter 8). This ability has been most notable (and perhaps he implies ‘surviving’) in the idea of military, that he mentions throughout the chapter.

Next, he comes back to the idea that it is the unawareness of western culture’s phonetic, fragmented disposition that is the real point behind his explorations. Phonetic technology has the ability to translate between cultures, where as other forms of writing could only separate cultures from each other. The last two paragraphs are a useful summary of the chapter.

How do we make sense of the homogeneity, uniformity, and continuity features of the Western phonetic alphabet (p.87) that produce a culture of fragmented, individual, citizens?

Chapter 10 Roads and Paper Routes

Chapter 10 is much longer than the previous two chapters, and right away McLuhan explains that the subject of this chapter is the prime example of how to “understand media”. Perhaps the scope of both chapters 8 and 9 are too large, and better addressed in books of their own.

Before the telegraph, communication was tied directly to physical travel routes. The rise of military powers and empires were a result of communication routes that allowed people like the Romans to command from a distance. Speed is the major determining factor of communication and command at a distance, as parts of empire (or any system?) will detach and form around faster control centers. Electricity changed all this, however.

Speed, like the phonetic alphabet, tends to makes things similar, uniform. Yet, change in speeds are not uniform, and the change brought on by the electric age is causing implosion of fragmented civilization into the global village. And this, McLuhan says, is difficult to understand as it happens.

The technologies of pack-animal, roads, aircraft, etc have determined the flow of goods, the division of labor and how people perceive concepts like ‘city’ and ‘country’. This acceleration creates infrastructure problems, which in turn affect human relationships and values.

The speed of communication has tends to strengthen central authorities, so that they can expand with greater ease. An increase in village size to city-state also tends to divide labor and functions among the people – the community itself accelerates human activity. With this increase in size comes a certain level of safety, but also numerous problems of competition and intensity of function. The balances of size and function struggle to maintain equilibrium, similar to how the human body tries to remain healthy surrounded by viruses.

For example, the Roman Empire saw its decline when communication access in the form of roads were blocked, and the means for distributing the written word were cut-off. It was centuries before another Empire started to make use of communication routes (combined with written technology) in such a way again. And, this use of communication routes has extended into the expansion (and struggle) of Western society into North America.

War between countries is again the struggle for equilibrium on a larger scale. With the increase in size of city-state to global-village, countries compete and intensify function. Following war is the demand for better communication routes, and in the 20th century this demand took the form of highways of the mind.

McLuhan brings back his earlier point that the electric age, with its leap to the instantaneous, has changed this pattern. It’s as if this jump in speed is an eye to the next level, degree, distinction, collection of area or specialty…the next medium.

Near the end of this chapter McLuhan brings up education as an aspect of 20th century society that has been lagging. How have changing communication routes shaped education ‘since sputnik’?