Thursday, November 29, 2012

Potent Quotables: The Gutenberg Galaxy Edition

The year is quickly reaching its conclusion, the nights growing longer as the hours of sunlight decline daily. Going through some of the unwritten or uncompleted pieces I had intended to write this year, it occurs to me that a long-planned review of Marshall McLuhan's The Gutenberg Galaxy just isn't going to happen in the way I'd hoped. So I'm going to do something different.

First, some background info:
This incredibly dense and thoughtful text occupied a good portion of my mental energy in the final months of 2011 and into early 2012. Though it sparked many new ideas for me that completely altered my perspective on things, I mostly found it as puzzling and challenging to get through as my first reading of Ulysses. It certainly lacks the pleasing poetic language of Ulysses, but is equally massive in its references and often cuts jarringly from one huge concept to the next. I approached it thinking it'd be like any other analytical academic text but it's something very different.

Published exactly 50 years ago in 1962, The Gutenberg Galaxy is an examination of the major effect the printing press had on human sensory awareness. It's presented in what McLuhan calls "a mosaic or field approach" which eschews chapters, instead splitting up into one-to-three page sections while using tons of quotations (sometimes extremely long ones) from a wide variety of books to illustrate his ideas (or, as he prefers to call them, "probes" or "percepts").

The basic premise is that prior to mass printing, human experience was shaped much differently. We stored vast information in our memory, had a more tribal all-encompassing outlook, and were much more in tune with the world of aural or acoustic space. The phonetic alphabet and eventually the printing press, McLuhan argued, made oral language into a material item and thus completely changed everything, spawning the phenomenon of individuality and a predominantly visual outlook. And now another major shift in human experience is upon us. With the growth of the new post-literary electronic technology, we are venturing back into the world of the collective tribal soul. A global village is forming.

McLuhan being a devout student of James Joyce, Finnegans Wake plays a major role in all of this. In fact, McLuhan's original title for The Gutenberg Galaxy was "The Road to Finnegans Wake". He considered the Wake to be the greatest textbook of media study ever devised and quotes from it frequently in all of his work. One of the keys of Finnegans Wake is that it intends to reawaken the tribal ear, it's very much an aural book, meant to be heard and read aloud, and McLuhan sees it as a declaration to the new electronic society that we need to "lift we our ears, eyes of the darkness" (p. 14 FW). Re-entering the tribal word of Finn again, we can now be aWake this time. Thus the imperative angle of the title "Finnegans: Wake!" As McLuhan puts it, "[Joyce] discovered the means of living simultaneously in all cultural modes while quite conscious." (GG p. 75)

With that oversimplified summary out of the way, I will now present a large sampling of quotations from The Gutenberg Galaxy very much in the "mosaic" fashion of the text itself.
"the present study will, it is hoped, elucidate a principal factor in social change which may lead to a genuine increase of human autonomy."
- p. 3

"Now, in the electric age, the very instantaneous nature of co-existence among our technological instruments has created a crisis quite new in human history. Our extended faculties and senses now constitute a single field of experience which demands that they become collectively conscious ... As long as our technologies were as slow as the wheel or the alphabet or money, the fact that they were separate, closed systems was socially and psychically supportable. This is not true now when sight and sound and movement are simultaneous and global in extent."
- p. 5

"I suggest that it was only when the written, and still more the printed, word appeared on the scene that the stage was set for words to lose their magic powers and vulnerabilities. Why so?
I developed the theme in an earlier article with reference to Africa, that the nonliterate rural population lives largely in a world of sound, in contrast to western Europeans who live largely in a world of vision. Sounds are in a sense dynamic things, or at least are always indicators of dynamic things---of movements, events, activities, for which man, when largely unprotected from the hazards of life in the bush or the veldt, must be ever on the alert ... Sounds lose much of this significance in western Europe, where man develops, and must develop a remarkable ability to disregard them. Whereas for Europeans, in general, seeing is believing, for rural Africans reality seems to reside far more in what is heard and what is said.
When words are written, they become, of course, a part of the visual world. Like most of the elements of the visual world, they become static things and lose, as such, the dynamism which is so characteristic of the auditory world in general, and of the spoken word in particular."
- p. 21 (itself a quote from psychiatrist J.C. Carothers)

"until literacy deprives language of his multi-dimensional resonance, every word is a poetic world unto itself, a 'momentary deity' or revelation, as it seemed to non-literate men."
- p. 25

"It is quite obvious that most civilized people are crude and numb in their perceptions, compared with the hyperesthesia of oral and auditory cultures. For the eye has none of the delicacy of the ear."
- p. 27

- p. 31

This "global village" is formed by "the cosmic membrane that has been snapped round the globe by the electric dilation of our various senses" (p. 32).
(I remind you: this book was written in 1962!)

Now, jumping back to discussing the changes that literacy and print originally wrought:
"from the invention of the alphabet there has been a continuous drive in the Western world toward the separation of the senses, of functions, of operations, of states emotional and political, as well as of tasks---a fragmentation"
- p. 43

"detribalization, individualization, and pictorialization are all one."
- p. 52

"It was not until the experience of mass production of exactly uniform and repeatable type, that the fission of the senses occurred, and the visual dimension broke away from the other senses."
- p. 54

"the dominance of one sense is the formula for hypnosis. And a culture can be locked in the sleep of any one sense. The sleeper awakes when challenged in any other sense."
- p. 73

"Among the Greeks the regular method of publication was by public recitation."
- p. 85

"as readers were few and hearers numerous, literature in its early days was produced very largely for public recitation."
- p. 89

"Doctors of ancient times used to recommend reading to their patients as a physical exercise on an equal level with walking, running, or ball-playing."
- p. 89

"Natives are often bewildered by their literate teachers and ask: 'Why do you write things down? Can't you remember?'"
- p. 92

"Indian students are able to learn a text-book by heart and to reproduce it word for word in an examination room; sacred texts are preserved intact by oral transmission alone. 'It is said that if all the written and printed copies of the Rigveda were lost, the text could be restored at once with complete accuracy.' This text is about as long as the Iliad and Odyssey combined."
- p. 93

"We are primitives of a new culture, " said Boccioni the sculptor in 1911.
- p. 135

- p. 161

"Phonetic letters, the language and mythic form of Western culture, have the power of translating or reducing all of our senses into visual and 'pictorial' or 'enclosed' space."
- p. 177

"is it not absurd for men to live involuntarily altered in their inmost lives by some mere technological extension of our inner senses? The shift in our sense ratios brought about by exteriorizations of our senses is not a situation before which we need be helpless."
- p. 183

"It is presumably impossible to make a grammatical error in a non-literate society, for nobody ever heard one."
- p. 239

"the first age of print introduced the first age of the unconscious. Since print allowed only a narrow segment of sense to dominate the other senses, the refugees had to discover another home for themselves ... The unconscious is a direct creation of print technology, the ever-mounting slag-heap of rejected awareness."
- p. 245

"the increasing separation of the visual faculty from the interplay with the other senses leads to the rejection from consciousness of most of our experience, and the consequent hypertrophy of the unconscious."
- p. 256

"The theme of this book is not that there is anything good or bad about print but that the unconsciousness of the effect of any force is a disaster, especially a force that we have made ourselves."
- p. 248

"If Perceptive organs vary, Objects of Perception seem to vary:
If the Perceptive Organs close, their Objects seem to close also."
- from Jerusalem by William Blake, quoted on p. 265

"myth is the mode of simultaneous awareness of a complex group of causes and effects. In an age of fragmented, lineal awareness, such as produced and was in turn greatly exaggerated by Gutenberg technology, mythological vision remains quite opaque."
- p. 266

"Joyce had devised for Western man individual pass-keys to the collective unconsciousness, as he declared on the last page of the Wake."
- p. 268

"Our liberation from the dilemma may, as Joyce felt, come from the new electric technology, with its profound organic character. For the electric puts the mythic or collective dimension of human experience fully into the conscious wake-a-day world. Such is the meaning of the title Finnegans Wake. While the old Finn cycles had been tribally entranced in the collective night of the unconscious, the new Finn cycle of totally interdependent man must be lived in the daylight of consciousness."
- p. 269


  1. Thoughtful and provocative post en extremis. McLuhan seems evermore a prophet, but an ironic, wild, crazy man too. He loved the world of literature and books and, contrary to what a very lot of people think, he didn't like the electronic world very much. In the logarithmic acceleration of hand-held portable Internet/cell phones with camera and thousands of Apps...we do seem to becoming more "tribal" but I see more of a downside than an upside to it, and it's probably my own preference for books/linearity/interiority/vision-dominance, coupled with the rapidity with which we're getting the New Tribalism.

    I fear it's a runaway thing, and as I stood there at 23 reading William Burroughs and Joyce and Pound and McLuhan and Robert Anton Wilson and feeling like an avant left-progressive, I continue to stand there 20 years later, reading the same authors and others like them, every now and then looking up to see an increasing BLUR of gadgets that I hope lead us to some semblance of sanity, or Teilhard's noosphere, but I haven't moved and I'm now some sort of reactionary about the surveillance state and texting-speak. I'm not on Facebook (big surprise?), but to all this hi-tech tribal dumbness and extensive shallows, I do not "Like."

    What's interesting to me: how incredibly spot-on McLuhan was, but also: how wrong he seems. Or was he? Like I said, read Marchand and T. Gordon, people who knew him: he didn't even like movies.

    Sorry for the ramble. But I enjoyed reading this post.

  2. Michael,
    You're perfectly welcome to come by here and ramble any time you want. Especially on McLuhan, who's become a favorite topic of mine.

    I've read a couple short bio books on MM plus a few of his original texts and looking forward to getting into the Marchand, Gordon, Theall, etc books. Surely, the man was NUTS in an extremely eloquent and profound way and I can't get enough of it. Been flipping through a collection of his letters to people like Pound, Lewis, etc and it's clear that McLuhan the person and McLuhan the poet/prophet/weirdo were very different people. He was a devout Catholic, kind of a grumpy old professor while also totally revolutionary and highly regarded at the height of hippie culture.

    I do share your reservations about the surveillance state aspect of the growth of our electronic nervous system and I'm also totally partial to paper books. Can't get used to reading e-books. Hell, I even do the majority of my writing in notebooks.

    What I think is important to marinate on with all of this is McLuhan's assertion that, yes, we are going back into the dark night of the collective tribal consciousness but we can be AWAKE this time. So while it's dizzying and disconcerting to witness the rapid growth of tech stuff, it's still entirely possible to balance ourselves between the two poles a bit.

    There's a great quote I heard from him once that I think sums up his work perfectly: "The best way to oppose something is to understand it, then you know where to turn off the buttons."

    And above all what intrigues me about him is his obsession with Finnegans Wake and how it fits into all this. My plan (down the road) is to write a study of the Wake through the McLuhan view.