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The background to the organized sound of Gregorian chant, in a mediaeval monastic community, was not random noise. Silence—the silence of nature itself, in which the random noises of culture were swallowed up—was one of the facts of mediaeval life, outside the cloister as inside it. Against the quietness that enveloped the ear, and the tracts of unaltered nature—wood, bramble, heath, swamp—that made up its solid equivalent, any designed structure of sound or stone acquired a corresponding rarity and singularity. In an ill-articulated world, a place not yet crammed with signs, images, and designed objects, the impact of a choir heard in the vast petrified forest of a Gothic cathedral might well have exceeded anything we take for “normal” cultural experience today. Now we see the same cathedral through a vast filter that includes our eclectic knowledge of all other cathedrals (visited or seen in photographs), all other styles of buildings from primitive nuraghi to the World Trade Centre, the ads in the street outside it, the desanctification of the building, its conversion into one more museum-to-itself, the secular essence of our culture, the memory of “mediaeval” sideshows at Disney World, and so and so forth; while similar transpositions have happened to the matrix in which we hear music. The choir competes, in our unconscious, with jack-hammers, car brakes, and passing 747s, not merely the rattle of a cart or the lowing of cattle. Nor does the chant necessarily seem unique, for one can go home and listen to something very like it on the stereo. Because nothing could be retrieved or reproduced, the pre-technological ear listened to—as the pre-technological eye was obliged to scrutinize—one thing at a time. Objects and images could not, except at the cost of great labour, be reproduced or multiplied. There was no print, no film, no cathode-ray tube. Each object, singular; each act of seeing transitive. The idea that we would live immersed in a haze of almost undifferentiated images, that the social function of this image-haze would be to erode distinctions rather than multiply the possible discriminations about reality, would have been unthinkable to our great-grandparents—let alone our remote ancestors.
We live in a world in which change is primarily driven by emergent technology. We live in a world in which, I suspect, technology trumps ideology, every time.
Our reaction to these things is amazingly similar to the reaction of the Victorians to technologies like the railroad and the gramophone. If you go back to first-person accounts—diary entries of individuals encountering those things—it wasn’t like, “Wow, that’s wonderful!” They were scared shitless. They were reeling with the shock of the new. They didn’t know where anything was headed, and it made them sort of angry, often as not. I think it’s the way we react to these things.
The surprising thing about it – I almost said the insidious thing, but I’m trying to be anthropological—the surprising thing, to me, is that once we have our gramophone, or iPad, or locomotive, we become that which has the gramophone, the iPad, or the locomotive, and thereby, are instantly incapable of recognizing what just happened to us, as I believe we’re incapable of understanding what broadcast television, or the radio, or telephony did to us.
I strongly suspect that prior to those things we were something else. In that regard, our predecessors are in a sense unknowable. Imagine a world without recorded music: I always come to the conclusion that it’s impossible for me to imagine that, because I have become that which lives with recorded music.
Minimalism in music is the avante-garde sound of absolute frequency. Listening to pulsed minimal music, hearing every repetition, is like having the experience not of one consumer, but of all consumers at once. You are the mass market, and you feel the entire pressure of the mass media’s power to construct desire—in other words, in a consumer society, the irresistible power to construct subjectivity itself—directly on your consciousness. The impossible attempt to represent that pressure directly gives the music its teleology, its content—and ultimately its shock and awe. It is not necessarily an unpleasant sensation; it can be quite literally entrancing, as the shoppers floating down the aisles of the local supermarket right now could tell you. In minimal music, the message is the (direct perception of the power of the) media. Or, more pithily, after McLuhan:
In minimal music, the media (sublime) is the message.
Earlier this year a friend of mine gave me a second-hand book for my birthday. My friend admitted it only cost him 50p and he hadn’t even bothered to wrap it. I already had a copy of the book.
Nonetheless, I was thrilled to receive it, as you can see from the image below, a scan of the inside front cover:
The book in question is a a 1968 Bantam paperback copy of War and Peace in the Global Village by Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore.
Thanks Paul! Brilliant…
Last June I discussed the print version of Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium Is The Massage. However, along with the print publication of it in 1967, there was also a “long-playing record” of the same name released by CBS.
L > R: Jerome Agel, Quentin Fiore, McLuhan, and John Simon of CBS.
The whole thing is presented as an audio collage focused around McLuhan’s own voice reading parts of the book. There are other “character” voices—’the old man’, ‘the Hippie chick’, ‘the Irishman’, ‘Mom’, ‘the little girl’, etc.—who utter McLuhanisms, snatches from Pop culture, and excerpts from Finnegans Wake and The Iliad. Weaving amongst these is a very 1960s selection of jazz, classical, and psychedelic pop musics. This is all topped off with incursions from the recording engineer, backwards tape effects, sped-up and slowed-down voices, ambient recordings, and a whole jungle of other Foley and sound FX. Crazy, man!
Perhaps the worst part of it are the character voices: some of them really are quite bad. Why is that when producers want ‘an old man’ they don’t just get a real old man; it’s not like they’re in short supply. But, no: rather than use an old man to read these parts, we’ll get someone to imitate an old man! Sheesh. Why bother? As my old man used to say: “If you’re going to do a job, do it properly.”
So there we have it. I’m not sure what these recordings add to the McLuhan ouvre, other than to highlight this one point: McLuhan works very well as speech. His public speaking was an important facet of his professional life, and his capacity for talk was legendary. Most of his books were dictated. He’s a very oral person.
Anyway, judge for yourself:
Eric Havelock’s Preface To Plato is a book I’d come across often: McLuhan frequently cites it, as does Walter Ong in Orality & Literacy. Well just before Xmas I got round to reading it, and I’ve just re-read it this week. I have been deeply impressed by the book because of its wealth of ideas, its deep sense of scholarship, and because it is so well written: for a book on such a relatively obscure and ancient subject it is a surprisingly good read. Despite being an overtly academic text it manages to provoke a deep sense of wonder about ancient Greek culture, and offers a tantalizing glimpse of the unfathomable alien-ness of their ways of thinking.
The book begins by asking why Plato makes such a sustained and vehement attack on poetry in The Republic. Havelock suggests it is because ‘poetry’ for the Greeks at that time—around 360 BC—bears almost no relation to the rather ephemeral art form we now know, but was an “encyclopedic” repository for the culture’s storehouse of knowledge. It was central to the preservation of the culture’s history, traditions, belief systems, social mores, and technology. It was as important didactically as it was for entertainment.
Because this culture was primarily an oral culture, memorization was achieved through repetition. This is because sound is an ephemeral medium where each utterance disappears the moment it has ceased, and it is only through ritualistic and incessant repetition that information can be maintained in the group consciousness. This creates a hypnotic, trance-like, mental state that Havelock likens to indoctrination, where “the task of education could be described as putting the whole community into a formulaic state of mind”. It was this that Plato was railing against.
Havelock’s argument is that Plato represented a new type of man: the literate man. Literacy allowed information to be stored externally. This “preserved knowledge” broke the spell over the hypnotized oral culture and allowed new means of expression, categorization, abstract thought, and the creation of ‘subject’ and ‘object’. That is, rationalism, and the “supreme music” of philosophy. Havelock goes on to say that Plato, and later Aristotle:
… created ‘knowledge’ as an object and as the proper content of an educational system, divided into the areas of ethics, politics, psychology, physics, and metaphysics. Man’s experience of his society, of himself and of his environment was now given separate organised existence in the abstract word.
This then is the conceptual core of Preface To Plato. It’s a marvelous book. Along the way there’s lots of good stuff about narrative, performance, the relation of performers to their audience, and plenty of interesting textual analysis of The Iliad.
However, although I do basically agree with Havelock’s position, I think he has overstated the influence and importance of epic poetry as an oral culture’s means of storing knowledge (which in this particular context means overstating the importance of Homer). There are certainly other ways of remembering things without writing—images, song, ritual, plays, sculpture, and story, for example. This criticism is borne out by critics such as Halverson.
Nonetheless, wholeheartedly recommended.
Halverson, J. (1992) ‘Havelock on Greek Orality and Literacy’ in the Journal of The History of Ideas.
Havelock, E. (1963) Preface To Plato. Cambridge, London: Belknap Press.
Ong, W. (2002) Orality and Literacy. London: Routledge.
I recently bought Marshall McLuhan: Escape Into Understanding, a biography by W. Terrence Gordon. Originally published in 1997, the book has become available again due to the Gingko Press‘s laudable and long overdue McLuhan reissue programme.
However, before reading it I decided to re-read the first McLuhan biog, Phillip Marchand’s Marshall McLuhan: The Medium And The Messenger. This was originally released in 1989 (but again remains available in the form of a 1998 MIT reissue with a new introduction by Neil Postman). I read it sometime in the early 1990s—a long time ago—and my getting the W. Terrence Gordon book seemed like an ideal opportunity to revisit it:
It’s a very good book: it’s written very clearly and really does attempt to get McLuhan’s difficult ideas across in plain English. The facts of McLuhan’s life are presented in a straightforward narrative, and in particular his difficult relationship with his influential mother really leaps off the page.
Gordon’s book is quite different. Although the basic narrative remains the same—the facts of McLuhan’s life seem unproblematic—the emphasis is quite different. McLuhan’s mother barely registers, whereas the relationship with his wife is touchingly and convincingly portrayed.
Far more of the book is given over to McLuhan’s ideas, which is both a blessing and a curse: on the one hand Gordon really does try to (say) fillet out and summarize the complex ideas in Understanding Media in a compact form, but on the other hand his explanations can be as confusing and as jargon-laden as the ideas he’s trying to explain. As a linguist and semiotician he’s far too immured in his own academic discourses.
The two books have many similarities. Both are written by ex-University of Toronto students. Both begin with almost identical opening sentences that unfold into stories outlining the authors’ initial contact with McLuhan. And as I’ve said, their basic narratives of McLuhan’s life are almost identical, albeit with different emphases. Perhaps the biggest difference between them, therefore, is the fact that the Gordon book comes from the Internet age whereas the Marchand book just precedes it. In those intervening ten years McLuhan’s ideas gained new currency as a result of the profound integration of computer networks into society, and the resulting (and ongoing) reconfiguration of all levels of society that this provoked. Gordon’s book therefore reflects this current re-analysis and re-evaluation of McLuhan in ways that Marchand’s book simply cannot.
For myself, I came away from these books with a renewed respect for McLuhan, and—ironically—a sense that I understood his work less than I did before. However, what this really means is that I’ve discovered new levels of meaning that I didn’t even know were there: McLuhan’s work on the Trivium (and the implications of this); his in-depth understanding of ideas like ’cause and effect’; the origin and effects of his compressed and aphoristic writing style; metaphor; etc.. I’ve discovered that even many of his most obvious and oft-used ideas are not straightforward: for example, what exactly did he mean when talking about ‘acoustic space’? Why is ‘visual space’ three-dimensional and ‘acoustic space’ only two-dimensional? And finally, is McLuhan a linguist? A communications theorist? Surrealist poet? Not that he would have cared what you called him, but you get the idea…
Truly fascinating stuff.
There’s a 1968 TV show called The Summer Way that has been posted online by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation featuring Norman Mailer and Marshall McLuhan in conversation.
Fabulous it is too: two intellectual heavyweights delicately tip-toeing around one another in front of a live audience and, presumably in those days, also broadcast live. Mailer looks very nervous early on and is clearly at sea, and in the end just muscles his way out of trouble. McLuhan is very calm, very cool, and seems completely in control. He just flies loops around Mailer, and the amused looks on his face at some of Mailer’s comments are absolutely priceless.
It’s about half an hour long and is pure historical gold. [Edit December 2017: original link now broken.]
In designing all functions and all data structures, a computer programmer tries always to use variables rather than constants. On the level of the human-computer interface, this principle means that the user is given many options to modify the performance of a program or a media object, be it a computer game, Web site, Web browser, or the operating system itself. The user can change the profile of a game character, modify how folders appear on the desktop, how files are displayed, what icons are used, and so forth. If we apply this principle to culture at large, it would mean that every choice responsible for giving a cultural object a unique identity can potentially always remain open.
The method of our time is to use not a single but multiple models for exploration—the technique of the suspended judgment is the discovery of the twentieth century as the technique of invention was the discovery of the nineteenth.