This review has an Introduction, a Book Review in two sections, a Conclusion, and a Personal Reflections section.
There is a movement in tech and business right now that focuses on “rethinking our defaults.” From Tristan Harris saying “infinite scroll is dangerous and should be avoided” to John Zeratsky and Jake Knapp saying “we don’t need to be notified every time an app thinks we should be,” to Andy Crouch saying “tech should support us, not rule us,” influential people in tech are saying what Ella declared the Prince in Disney’s Cinderella (2015): “Just because it’s what’s done doesn’t mean it’s what should be done!”
“Just because it’s what’s done doesn’t mean it’s what should be done!”
This greater question, “what defaults exist that affect us without our knowledge” is addressed in Marshall McLuhan’s treatise The Gutenberg Galaxy, his sweeping summary of civilization and culture, and how language (and the way it is used) shapes people. It begs the modern reader to ask, “what defaults of language, writing, and publication have changed us unknowingly?” McLuhan is certainly qualified to address this question, as he is “universally regarded as the father of communications and media studies and prophet of the information age.”
Over the last 18 or so months, I’ve been stumbling my way through this dense work. In this (abridged) book review, I will highlight key insights from McLuhan’s masterpiece and comment on how the work has shaped my understanding of what it is to be human.
Perhaps the weightiest implication of all, and a summation of the book, is that “the stripping of the senses and the interruption of their interplay in tactile synesthesia may well have been one of the effects of the Gutenberg technology.” (20) I’ll unpack what this means below.
NOTE: I estimate that I comprehended about 40% of what McLuhan argued. His library is so wide, his language so dense, his experience so comprehensive, that I more-often-than-I-would-like-to-admit found myself feeling like I did when I was a senior in high school sitting in a Music Theory IV course on a college visit because I “liked music.” They were artists of their craft, I was a tinkerer of a hobby. So it is at the feet of McLuhan. Not only that, but I admit that as the text became more historical and topical in nature it became easier for me to skip sections that weren’t “worth my time,” otherwise I truly would’ve never finished the book at all.
Language and its manifestation changes people. Period.
The book follows language and its manifestation in the following movements:
Spoken word → written word → published word → mass-published word.
In doing so, he investigates the changes and implications that follow each shift. This “changing people” business that language does is a slow process, as it is “only gradually [that] literacy alters substructures of language and sensibility.” (25) As such, McLuhan begins at the tribal man and makes his way to the modern man.
I will unpack the book in two phases, spending more time on the first than the second (simply because it was more interesting to me):
- From Non-Literate Man to “Civilized” Man
- From Civilized Man to Modern Man
From Non-Literate Man to “Civilized” Man
In quoting J.C. Carothers, McLuhan explores the notion that non-reading peoples are “a rather insignificant part of a much larger organism — the family and the clan — and not [an] independent, self-reliant unit.” (When discussing published books far later McLuhan argues that “the portability of the book…added much to the new cult of individualism.” (235) In other words, when people are can read, they can truly be individuals and separate from their tribe, family, or clan.
Not only are tribal folk far more… well, tribal… than the literate individual in regards to the greater whole, but in how they view the world at all. For the tribal folk, there is no sense of linear progression in their mind — there is only then and now. Unexposed to narratives like novels and cinema, they are confused when exposed to simple stories on film (41–44). Their understanding of narratives, of story, of history, differs from the literate man.
Unlike the literate man, the tribal person’s lack of linear-ness allows them to thrive in the now-ness of life, that which has been crushed by the “single-level” that the “developed” world lives in. Quoting Carothers again, “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 world in general.” (23)
To summarize, the “developed” man condenses (or “flattens”) multi-sensory experience into writing, a uni-sensory practice. The non-literate person, however, is a multi-sensory, even fully-sensory person. They cannot remove voice from story, nor can they remove touch from sight. They operate in a tribe as opposed to operating solely within themselves, and they live in a robust multi-sensory world.
“The ‘developed’ man condenses (or ‘flattens’) multi-sensory experience into writing, a uni-sensory practice.”
Indeed, as modern people we feel that progress is akin to positive progression, and such is not necessarily the case. We value innovation for the sake of innovation, progress for the sake of progress, and efficiency for the sake of efficiency. It makes sense, then, that the “developed,” “civilized” man was quick to write speech on parchment… but at what cost?
In Plato’s Socratic Dialogues (Phaedrus), Plato writes that:
- “the [written word] will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember in themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you will give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”
As McLuhan studies the narrative of the transition from oral to literate to scribal man, he unpacks the great trades of the written language, namely that…
- It is uni-sensory (visual) as opposed to multi-sensory (visual, aural, physical).
- It creates libraries of volume but does not guarantee true knowledge or wisdom.
- The alphabet was a “reduction of a complex, organic interplay of spaces into a single space.” (51)
On the uni-sensory nature of print, he aptly states that “with print the eye speeded up and the voice quieted down.” (50) Indeed, civilized man is literate, but to what end? One of his boldest statements comes on page 58 when he claims that it is “by the meaningless sign (written word) linked to meaningless sound (spoken word) we have built the shape and meaning of Western man.” What does it mean to be a Western man?, he asks. It means to have linked writing to speech.
McLuhan summarizes his honest examination of the “civilized” man by declaring that “technically the ‘civilized’ man is, whether crude or stupid, a man of strong visual bias in his entire culture, a bias derived from only one source, the phonetic alphabet.” (124) It doesn’t matter how foolish we are — the thing that makes us “civilized” is a visual bias and an alphabet, and nothing more.
Having linked writing to speech, what then are the unintended consequences? What happens to mankind as the multi-sensory world is flattened into a uni-sensory activity?What defaults are a part of my life that have consequences I had yet to consider?
“Civilized man shows achievement with no sacrament.”
It is this “examination of defaults” that has had an impact on me. On page 79 he quotes Mircea Eliade who writes:
- “For modern consciousness, a physiological act — eating, sex and so on — is in some only an organic phenomenon … But for the primitive, such an act is never simply physiological; it is, or can become, a sacrament, that is, a communion with the sacred.”
I am reminded at this point of Dr. Elwin Ransom’s trip to Mars in C.S. Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet. On it, Ransom met a poet, Hyoi, whose life was far simpler than Ransom’s academic earthly life. Hyoi’s species was created for the explicit purpose of creating and admiring beauty in the world around them. For them, a good meal gives nourishment for a lifetime. Sex, rarely accomplished, feeds the soul for years to come. Ransom’s “modern consciousness” could hardly comprehend this, for his world is built on achieving more. Now the ripples of Plato’s above writings seem to extrapolate far beyond where the stone was first tossed. Not only does the written word “shows wisdom with no reality,” but civilized man shows achievement with no sacrament.
From Civilized Man to Modern Man
Quoting James Frazer: “Two or three generations of literature may do more to change thought than two or three thousand years of traditional life…” (104). Simply put, the written word changes mankind… fast.
The chapter beginning on page 94 reads, “In antiquity and the Middle Ages, reading was necessarily reading aloud.” He peels back the pages of history to uncover what manuscript culture was, how the Holy Scriptures were studied, what the role of musicians and performers were in the realm of knowledge and festivities, and more. He presents the facts that the printed word was no longer as multi-sensory as it could be… but it was still engaged with in a multi-sensory experience, a “muscular memory of the words pronounced and an aural memory of the words heard.”
The point he is making is that mankind throughout history has “flattened” the senses in order to achieve efficiency, education, and progress… and there is a cost. The power of the written word, spoken or unspoken, lies partially in the fulfillment of Plato’s prophesy: we may be exposed to more, but we do not know more. Quoting Chaytor, “Our memories have been impaired by print; we know that we need not burden our memories with matter which we can find merely by taking a book from a shelf.” To this, McLuhan replies that “the more fundamental reason for imperfect recall is that with print there is more complete separation of the visual sense from the audile-tactile.” (106)
“Our memories have been impaired by print; we know that we need not burden our memories with matter which we can find merely by taking a book from a shelf.”
He goes on: “Print gradually made reading aloud pointless, and accelerated the act of reading till the reader could feel ‘in the hands of’ his author.” (143).
Print, as we all know, boomed into further cultural and historical relevance with mass production and the “homogenization of men and materials, the great program of the Gutenberg era, the source to wealth and power unknown to any other time or technology.” (146) To that end, “print was in itself a commodity, a new natural resource which also showed us how to tap all other kinds of resources including ourselves.” (187) It was through print that we are able to have centralized national groupings, delegation of function and duties, market or price system. (189) Print, when mass produced, succeeds in flattening civilizations and human experience to make the modern world a possibility.
There are far more things that McLuhan covered that were, above all, interesting. A study on the medieval view of deity & king (138–142), the theological reduction that occurs when we use “trespasses” in the stead of “debts” in the Lord’s Prayer (277), the origins of textbooks (109), the reduction of women by media (241), and why Socrates, Christ, and Pythagoras avoided the publications of their teachings (113).
Ultimately though, McLuhan’s main point (as I understand it), remains that the written & printed language takes what is multi-sensory and made it uni-sensory. Or, to quote King Lear, it has “[Struck] flat the thick rotundity of the world.” McLuhan responds, “…and the striking flat, the isolation of the visual is the greatest achievement of Gutenberg and the Mercator projection.” (207)
“…the striking flat, the isolation of the visual is the greatest achievement of Gutenberg and the Mercator projection.”
If “man is language” (263), what does our language say about man? What unknown consequences and implications does the way we communicate have? This is the work of McLuhan in his great volume.
McLuhan is overwhelmingly well researched and can simultaneously see things at a 30,000 ft. level and a 500 ft. level. His insights into the impact that communication has on a civilization are, in my (limited) experience, unparalleled. I am all-the-more intrigued by his book The Medium is the Massage (which seems to be far more approachable), and look forward to seeing the impact this has made on my life.
What impact has it had on me? Transparently, I hope quite a bit. It has made me reconsider my interaction with words, both spoken and unspoken. It has lead me to read Scripture out loud more than I previously did. It has lead to me seeking after “multi-sensory” interactions (calling instead of texting, making music with my guitar instead of playing music from Spotify). It has challenged me to think about how I interact with clients and remote coworkers at work, and the importance of sensory interaction for the sake of operating as a team and unit. It has challenged me to think about the life of the “commoner” and their many “sacraments,” as opposed to the life of the “modern man” with little ceremony or beauty at all.
Ultimately, this book has helped me think more about what it is to be human, both in word and in deed. For that, I am thankful.