McDonald on McLuhan’s utopianism

A passage on McLuhan from Peter McDonald’s Artefacts of Writing: Ideas of the State and Communities of Letters from Matthew Arnold to Xu Bing has been discussed previously. Here a second passage will be examined (with running commentary in footnotes):1

Read alongside [Goody and Watt’s] ‘The Consequences of Literacy’, Marshall McLuhan’s The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962), which appeared a year earlier, seems like an uncannily preemptive rebuke. For one thing, McLuhan rejected the idea that oral cultures show no ‘capacity or opportunity for independent and original thought’;2 for another, he saw the advent of ‘phonetic writing’ as a cultural catastrophe.3 ‘Literate man, when we meet him in the Greek world’, he insisted, ‘is a split man, a schizophrenic, as all literate men4 have been since the invention of the phonetic alphabet’.5 He did not use the word ‘schizophrenic’ lightly or entirely metaphorically. ‘Only the phonetic alphabet makes a break between eye and ear, between semantic meaning and visual code’, thereby instituting6 a wholly new set of ‘ratios or proportions among the senses’, rupturing the primal integrity of the ‘human sensorium’.7
As we have seen, given the evidence for the ongoing interconnectedness
of the phonological, the orthographic, and the lexical in the literate brain, this sensory-cognitive version of the Judeo-Christian Fall narrative makes no sense in contemporary neuroscientific terms, though for McLuhan it was central.8 The dissociation the Greeks effected was not just psychic, however: it was cultural, since ‘only phonetic writing has the power to translate man from the tribal to the civilized sphere’. In McLuhan’s primitivist lexicon ‘civilized’ was synonymous with ‘schizophrenic’, ‘abstract’, and ‘visual’, whereas ‘tribal’ signified ‘wholeness’, ‘concreteness’, and the ‘audile-tactile’, associative patterns he had no hesitation in projecting onto his own idiosyncratic cultural map of the world.9 While ‘areas like China and India are all still audile-tactiIe in the main’, he claimed, ‘Africa’ epitomized ‘the implicit, magical world of the resonant oral word’.10 In the end, however, McLuhan’s analysis was less an anticipatory repudiation of the world according to Goody and Watt, than a direct inversion of it.11 Like them, he saw Greek ‘phonetic writing’ as an exclusively ‘visual code for speech’, but he recast their positive account of its transformative effects in starkly negative terms.12 In his view, the future lay in the new ‘post-literate’ media of the ‘electronic age’ — namely the telegraph, radio, film, and television — that promised13 to overcome ‘the detribalizing power of the phonetic alphabet’, cure Western ‘schizophrenia’ by reclaiming the repressed ‘Africa within’, and unite ‘the entire human family into a single global tribe’—hence his utopian vision of the ‘global village’ to come.14

Here is McLuhan over 50 years ago with “an uncannily preemptive rebuke” to McDonald’s reading :

Many are now disposed to reject the entire achievement of literate Western man in an effort to recover integral values.15 But surely this temper is not very different from that which emerged in the early phases of literacy, when leaders were prepared to dismantle and detribalize their world in favour of a visual, lineal, individualistic stress in the organization of experience.16 To embark now on a reverse course [with an aural, simultaneous, crowd stress] is the immediate suggestion and mandate of electric technology. And to pro or con this reverse course is merely to accept the mechanical fate of a new technology. Is there no third course? How can we elude the merely technical closure in our inner lives and recover autonomy? What if any is the cultural strategy of the suspended judgment, of the open-ended proposition? (The Electronic Age – The Age of Implosion, 1962)


  1. McDonald, Artefacts of Writing, 10. Phrases in single quotation marks are citations from McLuhan’s Gutenberg Galaxy.
  2. McDonald is importantly correct here. McLuhan took it that all human experience, oral or literate, is the result of a creative encounter with the range of possibilities before it — much as language may be considered after Saussure as the result of a selective encounter with the range of sounds and grammatical forms before it. (‘Before’ in both these cases is to be understood temporally, but also implicates a non-physical ‘space of generation’.) So although oral and literate experience differ fundamentally, the process through which both sorts of experience is generated is the same. In a comparable way, elements like hydrogen and gold differ fundamentally, but exhibit the same elementary structure. Mendeleev’s table sets out the spectrum of ways in which that one structure can be expressed.
  3. In McLuhan’s view, ‘catastrophe’ here should be understood in its etymological sense, as a ‘turning over’ (like a furrow of soil) to expose and promote new possibility. Regarding the negative sense of ‘catastrophe’ as apparently intended by McDonald, the advent of writing for McLuhan was, in fact, like all human events, neither only bad nor only good. It was both. But just how it was both requires detailed study — study that might equally be applied to the advent of new media today.
  4. Regarding ‘all literate men’ it must be noted that nobody is ‘literate’ all the time. Not in sleep, for example. The need is therefore for specific identification which would then enable ongoing collective study in a ‘classroom without walls’.
  5. ‘Schizophrenic’ here is used to indicate the extent of the split that characterizes the Gutenberg galaxy in all its dimensions. All humans, including preliterate humans, generate their experience through the relative emphasis on ‘split’ ear/eye ratios of possibility.
  6. The ratios institute us, not we them. The exposure of new ratios occurs through literacy, but the reality and vitality of those ratios is synchronic, not diachronic.
  7. ‘Primal integrity’ here is McDonald’s phrase. While McLuhan does use phrases like this at times, they should be taken to indicate a relative ‘integrity’ along a ‘primal’ synchronic spectrum, not an absolute integrity along a chronological course.
  8. There are two great problems to McDonald’s explication here. First, McLuhan explicitly rejected this ‘Fall’ narrative: “For many years, until I wrote my first book, The Mechanical Bride (1951), I adopted an extremely moralistic approach to all environmental technology. I loathed machinery, I abominated cities, I equated the Industrial Revolution with original sin and mass media with the Fall. In short, I rejected almost every element of modern life in favor of a Rousseauvian utopianism. But gradually I perceived how sterile and useless this attitude was…” (Playboy Interview). Second: as seen in McDonald’s doubling of “sensory-cognitive” and “makes no sense”, it is anything but clear just what ‘sense’ is (let alone “sensory-cognitive”!). McLuhan’s suggestion was to focus not on supposedly well-known units, like the individual senses, or like the sense of some proposition, but on ratios and, in focusing on ratios, specifically on their middles or media: ‘the medium is the message’. Sense was to be understood through ratios, not ratios through sense.
  9. McLuhan also associated ‘tribal’ with violence and unconsciousness. This considerably complicates McDonald’s purported “primitivist lexicon”!
  10. McDonald does not wonder if the “resonant (…) word” is an object, a subject, or a medium. Perhaps it might be considered in all three ways, separately and together. But then the imperative would be actually to carry out the consideration!
  11. Leaving aside the questions if ‘the world according to Goody and Watt’ is anything more than a turn of phrase, and if it is something subject to “inversion”, McLuhan would like to know if the ratio reported by McDonald between Goody/Watt and McLuhan has a range of possible realization. If yes, what is that range and how does it work? If no, how account for this singularity?
  12. McLuhan never tired of pointing out the obvious fact that he was a teacher of literature. His own values were entirely caught up with letters. In attempting to defend those values, he was accused of attacking them. As he repeatedly noted, he was like a man sounding a fire alarm who is charged with arson.
  13. Elsewhere, McDonald offhandedly refers to the “deterministic aspects of McLuhan’s thesis” (12). Presumably the “promised” “utopian” future has this basis. But McDonald does not explain this characterization which bears no relation to McLuhan’s work. In fact, McLuhan took it that the electric environment would place human beings in a sink-or-swim situation where they would either figure out at last how to study their own actions in the world — or perish from them.
  14. It is hard to see these purported goals as “starkly negative”. And it is simply mistaken to read McLuhan as having “utopian” expectations of the ongoing media revolution or revolutions. He thought survival of the human species and of the planet itself was now at stake. But this was a “starkly negative” view entirely at variance with McDonald’s reading of the man.
  15. Exactly what McDonald attributes to McLuhan!
  16. The constant “temper”, or temptation, is to allow or encourage the takeover of our inner and outer lives by new technology without consideration of the cost.