Will Monroe on Chapters 30 and 31 for #UMRG

Will Monroe wrote to me “I’m glad I was able to work with these chapters; they were among the most interesting that I’ve read so far.” Below his summary on chapters 30 and 31.


Chapter 30 – Radio: The Tribal Drum

“How does one understand Marshall McLuhan? The answer is a quintessentially McLuhanesque paradox: To understand McLuhan, you must read McLuhan, but to read McLuhan, you must first understand McLuhan”
On Reading McLuhan (p. 1)

Raised on Radio (Journey album

I’ve found reading Understanding Media to be something that has surprised and puzzled me but my ability to organize what I’ve read is proving to be quite difficult. Chapter 30 is no exception. Rather than event attempt a summary, I’m going to offer a few quotes from the chapter and provide my own reflections on it. Everyone has offered wonderful summaries so far, so I apologize for this lack. But, I would recommend both Mark Federman’s On Reading McLuhan and Terrence Gordon’s McLuhan for Beginners as excellent guides for someone who is struggling to learn how to read McLuhan, as I have.

“Since literacy had fostered an extreme of indvidualism, and radio had done just the oppositie in reviving the ancient experience of kinship webs of deep tribal involvement, the literate West tried to find some sort of compromise in a larger sense of collective responsibility” (p. 403)

“Radio is provided with its cloak of invisibility, like any other medium. It comes to us ostensibly with person-to-person directness that is private and intimate, while in more urgent fact, it is really a subliminal echo changer of magical power to touch remote and forgotten chords. All technological extensions of ourselves must be numb and subliminal, else we could not endure the leverage exerted upon us by such extension.” (p. 404)

The above quote is McLuhan re-presenting one his main themes in Understanding Media, first presented in Chapter Four: the application of Hans Selye’s theory of disease, originally intended to describe physical trauma. McLuhan uses this theory to describe the psychic trauma created by the shock of new media. Although I struggle to understand how radio effected the early 20th century cultures of the United States, England, and continental Europe, I finally feel that I have a grasp of McLuhan’s use of this theory, and what he means by “trauma”, “shock”, and “numbness” that he so often uses in the book. At this point in my reading, I appreciated Federman’s description of what it’s like to read McLuhan:

”His arguments and examples are easily caught, mainly because they are reiterated throughout all his works — if you miss it the first, second, third or seventh times through, you’re sure to catch it the tenth or fifteenth or twentieth time you see it.”

“…commercial interest who think to render media universally acceptable, invariably settle for ‘entertainments’ as a strategy of neutrality…[this] ensures maximal pervasisveness for any medium whatever…[this also] ensures maximum speed and force of impact for any medium…Just as we now try to control atom bomb fallout, so we will one day try to control media fallout. The only medium for which our education now offers some civil defense is the print medium. The educational establishment, founded on print, does not yet admit any other responsibilities” (p. 408)

This quote is fascinating. I think I can easily grasp what McLuhan is saying about how entertainment insures that a medium is adopted rapidly and deeply. And I think his prediction of a need for “media fallout” is prescient. What intrigues me though is his admonishment of educational institutions that are based upon print and are thus unprepared to address the effects of newer media and his assertions in Chapter 31 about the best way to be “inoculated” against media effects:

”’What possible immunity can there be from the subliminal operation of a new medium like television?’…To resist TV [or other new media], therefore, one must acquire the antidote of a related media like print.” (p. 436)

Again, On Reading McLuhan offers some helpful advice for the reader who might be tempted to question her grasp of McLuhan, “his body of work is remarkably consistent, except when it’s not. His evidence is clearly presented, except when it’s obscure.”

Question: As someone who works in an educational institution with the application of technology in learning environments, I’m keenly interested in understanding the shortcomings of an educational culture “founded on print”. But McLuhan seems to be suggesting that a medium like print is also the “antidote” to the effects of new media. My question for my fellow readers would be, what could McLuhan mean when he discusses “shortcomings”? How would they differ now with the array of new media that have emerged in the last 50 years? Also, in light of those shortcomings, what programs of “inoculation” would be reasonable? Is it even appropriate to think of organized “programs” of response?

Chapter 31 – TV: The Timid Giant

Now that I’ve already jumped into Chapter 31, I’ll continue with some quotes from this, the longest chapter in Understanding Media.

Illustration for Edgar Allan Poes story Descent into the Maelstrom by Harry Clarke (1889-1931), published in 1919.

One of the reasons I’ve enjoyed reading McLuhan so much is how refreshing I’ve found his advocacy of perception over judgment. Elsewhere in the book, McLuhan describes the narrator in Poe’s A Descent into the Maelström as a model for this perception. In Chapter 31, he reinforces this point:

”For good or ill, the TV image has exerted a unifying synesthetic force on the sense-life of these intensely literate populations, such as they have lacked for centuries. It is wise to withhold all value judgments when studying these media matters, since their effects are not capable of being isolated.” (p. 420)

By now in my reading, I’m more comfortable with McLuhan’s notions of hot and cool media. Yet I’m still unsure about his characterization of a TV as a cool medium that demands audience participation. By contrast, film is a hot medium. This seems to be based on his assertion that, ”The TV image is visually low in data” (p. 418). But how this leaves much more for the viewer to do and how it demands more audience involvement is still unclear to me. It’s possible that his point is lost on me as a contemporary reader whose experience with films and TV has been blurred by years of watching “films” outside of theaters and the impact of high-definition televisions.

McLuhan also describes TV as a tactual or tactile medium in several places:

“One of the most vivid examples of the tactile quality of the TV image occurs in medical experience. In closed circuit instruction in surgery, medical students from the first reported a strange effect—that they seemed not to be watching an operation, but performing it. They felt they were holding the scalpel.” (p. 436)

”The TV image…is an extension of the sense of touch. Where it encounters a literate culture, it necessarily thickens the sense-mix…it blurs many cherished attitudes and procedures. It dims the efficacy of basic pedagogic techniques, and the relevance of the curriculum.” (p. 443)

Still from David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983)

This chapter merits much more attention than I’ve been able to provide but it is fascinating and the more I encounter McLuhan’s observations on education and the effects of media on child development, the more I appreciate the applicability of his ideas to my work as an instructional designer and teacher.

Question: My final question begins with McLuhan asserts that TV has created a need for roles rather than jobs in younger people:

”The TV child expects involvement and doesn’t want a specialist job in the future. He does want a role and a deep commitment to his society. Unbridled and misunderstood, this richly human need can manifest itself in the distorted forms portrayed in West Side Story.” (p. 443)

If McLuhan’s assertion holds for TV what could we say about the expectations of involvement for the “internet child”?

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3 thoughts on “Will Monroe on Chapters 30 and 31 for #UMRG

  1. Pingback: Dial-in Details for the Terry Gordon Lecture | Understanding Media

  2. Thanks for the summary, Will. In thinking about your first set of questions about radio: The shortcomings might have to do with awareness…this would also be one of those themes that seems to come up 2, 3 and seven times, again and again in his writing – awareness of the effects of media. These days, perhaps an idea like robustness (in media use, ie: multi-literacy) would be rule of thumb or, as you say, the inoculation.

  3. Thanks for taking a look at what I wrote, Glen. My tendency is also to think that the problems presented by new media can be addressed by “awareness”. But McLuhan seems to be saying that “awareness” or “mindfulness”, as one of the participants in today’s discussion put it, isn’t enough:

    “It is the theme of this book that not even the most lucid understanding of the peculiar force of a medium can head off the ordinary ‘closure’ of the senses that causes us to conform to the pattern of experience presented…To resist TV, therefore, one must acquire the antidote of a related media like print.” (p. 436)

    Perhaps I need to re-examine what could be meant by “awareness”. But it seems like he’s being very clear that we cannot outwit this phenomenon of “closure” and that we must allow other media to “pattern” our attention. This process seems to be more than just an intentional effort on our part and relies upon our capacity to be transformed by a medium. I think, at the conclusion of my reading for this group, this is the problem at which I have arrived and care about the most.

    So thanks again, Glen! You’ve given me a chance to get this articulated a little more clearly for myself.

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