Why did Marx miss the communication bus? (American Model 1795, 1957)
In Explorations 8 (unpaginated ‘item’ #2) McLuhan foresaw the breakup of the USSR that would occur thirty years later:
Now launched on a program entirely antithetic to their oral culture, the Russians (…) ignore and discount all that is basic in their own make-up.1 (…) The intense individualism and even more ferocious nationalism that is born out of (…) print-processing is just now being discovered in the Soviet area. It will eventually splinter the Soviet area as effectively as it splintered England and Europe in the sixteenth century. Is it not strange that the Marxists should have no awareness of the means of communication as the constitutive social factor? That Marx should not have noticed that English and American industry were merely projections of print technology?2
McLuhan’s foresight was remarkable and is increasingly recognized today, 40 years after his death in 1980. What he could see then, we are just beginning to see now. But the most important implication of his foresight is ignored today as much as it was during his lifetime. Namely, if he could perceive what would unfold in the future,3 the seemingly obvious question is: how did he do it? On what basis was he able to foresee so accurately?
If a chemist were able to make reliable predictions about the consequences of reactions that other chemists did not understand, there would be enormous interest in trying to replicate her results and to tease out their implications for the field. With McLuhan, however, although his predictions themselves are beginning to win some recognition, there is still inexplicably no interest in the question of just how he was able to make them.
McLuhan himself was fully conscious that this was the case and he had many explanations for it: specialists protecting their turf (ie, their reputations, salaries, bennies, and especially their self-importance); the lineal bias against revision and starting again; the ‘free’ individual’s reluctance to admit subliminal determination — und so weiter! But this was exactly the case when chemistry was first securing its foundations 200 years ago. Most contemporary researchers were not interested in the findings of Priestley and Lavoissier because they had their own findings and these findings had roots in their education and current practices which they were unwilling to give up. Only slowly in the first half of the nineteenth century was it possible for new investigators to establish the field of element-based chemistry, above all by discovering practical applications for it.
What is remarkable about McLuhan’s NAEB Understanding Media project in 1959-1960 (within a wider frame stretching roughly from 1957 to 1964) is that this was the time when McLuhan investigated questions like these in regard to his own thinking. “The medium is the message” was an admonition addressed above all to himself! He had to turn himself inside out in a ‘through the looking glass’ attempt to understand where he himself was coming from.4 Thanks to the remarkable Unlocking the Airwaves project, with its comprehensive NAEB files, this is a process we can now follow in great detail.
- McLuhan enlarged on “all that is basic” in the Russian “make-up” as follows: “For many centuries the Soviet area has been as oral as a pre-literate society. The Greek Orthodox Church has an oral tradition compared to the legalistic and individual Roman tradition. As Geoffrey Gorer puts it in The People of Great Russia: ‘The central sacrament of Western Christianity is Communion, the intimate connexion between the individual worshipper and Jesus Christ; in the Orthodox Church the central experience is Sobornost, the Pentecostal descent of the Holy Ghost on the whole congregation simultaneously.’ ↩
- ‘American Model 1795’. The order of these sentences has been reversed. ↩
- McLuhan always maintained, of course, that the future was the present if you knew how to look. ↩
- See Birthpains of the new: “an arduous metamorphosis”. ↩