McLuhan on Burroughs

In 1964, the same year that Understanding Media appeared, McLuhan published a review of two of William Burroughs’ novels, Naked Lunch (1959) and Nova Express (1964).1 Here are excerpts from McLuhan’s review:

  • We have made our environment out of our own nervous systems.2    
  • Each technological extension involves an act of collective cannibalism. The previous environment with all its private and social values, is swallowed by the new environment and reprocessed for whatever values are digestible.3  
  • During the process of digestion of the old environment, man finds it expedient to anesthetize himself as much as possible. He pays as little attention to the action of the environment as the patient heeds the surgeon’s scalpel. The gulping or swallowing of Nature by the machine was attended by a complete change of the ground rules of both the sensory ratios of the individual nervous system and the patterns of the social order as well. Today, when the environment has become the extension of the entire mesh of the nervous system, anesthesia numbs our bodies into hydraulic jacks.4
  • The moment one achieves this environmental state all things and people are submitted to you to be processed. Whether a man takes the road of junk or the road of art, the entire world must submit to his processing. The world becomes his “content.”5
  • The vision of the city as a physiological and psychic extension of the body he [Baudelaire in Fleurs du Mal] experienced as a nightmare of illness and self-alienation. Wyndham Lewis, in his trilogy The Human Age, began with The Childermass. Its theme is the massacre of innocents and the rape of entire populations by the popular media of press and film.
  • There is no privacy and no private parts. In a world in which we are all ingesting and digesting one another there can be no obscenity or pornography or decency. Such is the law of electric media which stretch the nerves to form a global membrane of enclosure.
  • The power of the image to beget image, and of technology to reproduce itself via human intervention, is utterly in excess of our power to control the psychic and social consequences.
  • It is the medium that is the message because the medium creates an environment that is as indelible as it is lethal.
  1. ‘Notes on Burroughs’, Nation, 28 December 1964, pp 517-519. It is noteworthy that Burroughs’ grandfather, after whom he was named, made the Burroughs family fortune through the invention of the adding machine — a step on the way to the complete outering of the human nervous system. A newspaper article from 1890 reports: “William S Burroughs, a young St Louisan, who ten years ago did not know he had mechanical genius enough to use a file, has perfected in a strong, durable, compact machine of 2,165 pieces, an adjunct to the counting house that is already in successful operation in fifty banks. It is an adding-machine which is said to work more rapidly and more correctly than the most expert accountant.” Like T.S. Eliot (on whom McLuhan wrote many essays, including one on Eliot’s St Louis connection), Burroughs (1914-1997) was born in St Louis where McLuhan taught from 1937 to 1944.
  2. Before the last centuries, most tools — the great exception being language — extended the physical capabilities of humans. But with the new media ways were found to replicate the internal networks of the senses and of conscious and unconscious mentation. The effects of these innovations may still be too close to us for definitive study, but the irritation they introduce into the individual and social body is plain. Here is McLuhan in 1962: “In our time, instead of putting out this or that organ such as feet into wheels or (…) our skin into city walls, we have projected our brains and nerves outside. Telegraph, radio, television, telephone really are extensions of our central nervous system, not of our physical organs. We’re putting our central nervous system, our most intimate selves, outside (…) These new forms — television and radio — are new languages. They’re huge extensions of ourselves which enable us to participate in one another’s lives, much as a language does. But these forms lay down their own ground rules. (…) Now, when we put our nerves outside, we become of course vulnerable to the nth degree; in fact, we barely survive from day to day. Mere existence becomes one of perpetual anxiety. At least while we had our physical organs outside to protect the central nervous system, we had a relatively low-geared comfortable life which we like to call “the olden days.” We now have an unimaginably harassed one by putting our nerves outside ourselves; it is like living without a skin.” (‘Prospect’, Canadian Art, # 81, 1962) The order of the passages cited here has been changed.
  3. ‘Values’ here echoes ‘social values’ earlier in the sentence. McLuhan’s ever-repeated point was that social values are grounded in a specific environment and are in great danger when that environment is undermined and so disappears as ground. It would doubtless have been more accurate to say that the previous environment is reprocessed for whatever the new environment finds digestible in it, not only its values.  But as is not unusual in McLuhan, he sacrificed a general point for a particular one.
  4. Why “hydraulic jacks”? Because this is a “a world in which we are all ingesting and digesting one another”. As “hydraulic jacks” we enact the penetration and fragmentation of the old forms of identity which supported what each of us once were.
  5. When everything is “content”, a dissolution into nothing is precipitated. Nietzsche: “The true world — we have abolished. What world has remained? The apparent one perhaps? But no! With the true world we also have abolished the apparent one!!” (‘History of an Error’ in Twilight of the Idols). “The true world” was a world that was there before all consideration of how it was seen. That world no longer existed. There was nothing that was not what it was by being seen in some particular way. But with the destruction of “the true world”,  Nietzsche saw, also the “apparent” world is abolished — for how was it seen?