McLuhan to Skornia 3/14/59

The funding application for McLuhan’s Understanding Media project with the NAEB was finalized early in 1959. During this time, after McLuhan’s very long letter to Harry Skornia in January, he wrote another to him in March — this on top of the short letters McLuhan was sending to Skornia weekly or even more frequently. Here are highlights from his long letter of March 14, 1959:

  • Our media now must be contact-oriented, rather than protective devices for private prestige.  
  • Detribalization of backward countries we carry out via (…) industrial culture. Result is individualism and nationalism in these [formerly tribalized] areas, as it was with us in the 16th century, etc. Meantime we, via electricity [= beyond industrial culture], are retribalizing ourselves. That is, we create a global village in which every event vibrates with every other event — including the violent effects of swift detribalization. But retribalization [also has its own “violent effects” since it] evokes new yearning for stability, security, and equilibrium in the old centers of technological innovation [the formerly detribalized areas].1   
  • “Transaction” amounts to simultaneous interacting field. Let me suggest that we keep in mind that the impact of media forms has always been subliminal and nonverbal until hoicked up into daylight by artists. Most people seem to feel “safe” so long as their assumptions are unspoken and non-verbal. Artists as blabs and revealers of inner postures and attitudes used to be a nuisance. Now they are indispensable. From ivory-tower-to-control- tower…  
  • One theme, Harry, of which I am increasingly aware is the new problem of [maintaining] continuity in a world of accelerating change.
  • [Peter] Drucker points out that in the business world the awareness that technological change could put them, any of them, out of action in a few years has led to capital investment in research as by far the heaviest item of expenditure. In other words, don’t wait for change, rather become change and control it from within.
  • We shall have to institutionalize change educationally just as business has done. And this means spending perhaps ten times our total present budgets on research. We must effect a means of (…) transition2 at all levels and in all age groups simultaneously. So that we must abolish our present idea of education as that done for the young. In our kind of electric technology education becomes inclusive of all ages and all interests. The global community of learning can be nothing less than that literally. For hundreds of years we have gloried in the discontinuities and destruction caused in society and its institutions by innovation. In the age of simultaneity this becomes intolerable.
  • Everybody can see the advantages and excellence, however limited, of that which is to be scrapped. So they begin to want inclusive [both-and] rather than exclusive [either-or] modes of experience. 
  • As Peter Drucker insists at the outset in his recent Landmarks of Tomorrow, in the past two decades we have moved out of the modern age into one for which we have yet no name or concept. The new media are themselves the image and motive-power of this new age. So that Understanding Media must become a book by the same means and procedures that necessitate such a book, following the contours of the new reality. In the electric age of simultaneous data from many fields, there is an overwhelming drive back to the human dialogue as the instrument of discovery and awareness. Understanding Media will show what we already know about media and their action upon human institutions by setting up the basis for dialogue between student and teacher, student and student, expert and expert. Since most of us live in and through the new media all our waking lives, we already share with all age groups the implicit non-verbal knowledge and experience which education seeks always to make articulate, verbal and explicit. The discovery of the wealth of such shared experience via dialogue and utterance is a perennial creative experience which, since the fifteenth century, book culture may have done something to diminish. But Understanding Media will proceed to show the unique properties of older media including the book in a variety of ways. For example, the older media of book and press are now detribalizing many backward countries where it is easy to study the effect some of these media once had on ourselves in the Western world. Our contemporary world is, from a technological point of view, almost a continuous historical movie of episodes from the Western past, and our own past achievements are revealing monuments to the shaping powers of phonetic script and print in the development of human freedoms and our own patterns of culture. The transforming effect of the TV image on habits of reading in depth, the relation of radio to habits of study, and of the typewriter upon habits of thought, speech and writing, are nowhere gathered together in one place for thoughtful inspection. But they have been known to scattered students for some time. To get most of this kind of knowledge and insight into Understanding Media would entail a variety of procedures in presentation…
  • The co-existence and inter-action of media both in the past and especially today offers the richest and most natural procedure of study and evaluation of the powers and bias of each of the media.  
  • Today, the co-existence of all media easily reveals their quite unique properties and also calls for a new kind of many-levelled training in perception for the young.
  • it would seem necessary to devise a means of making Understanding Media an occasion of two-way discovery via dialogue and discussion. Few teachers know anything about the subliminal effects of print which they could teach to a class. But both teacher and class can discover, explicate, and verbalize a great deal about the nature of print, photography, movies, telephone, television, radio, and typewriter.
  1. Although a whole market niche has been created around the notion of McLuhan as a Pollyanna optimist, in fact he was very much aware of the unprecedented dangers posed in the “global village’ by electric culture. A great part of this danger, as already foreseen by Nietzsche in the 1880s, had, indeed has, to do with attempts at “security”. As he immediately went on to note to Skornia: “One theme, Harry, of which I am increasingly aware is the new problem of continuity in a world of accelerating change.”
  2. McLuhan has “continuous transition” here. The problem, of course, is that he usually deploys “continuous” to designate Gutenbergian perception and practice. Here he has in mind unity in diversity, hendiadys, as indicated by his specification at the end of the sentence of “simultaneously”.