The Gutenberg Galaxy by Marshall McLuhan University of Toronto Press 1962
This book reads like a hastily written, over-padded undergraduate term paper. It consists of little more than a series of lengthy, brain-cramping quotations about the alphabet and typography, and scatterings of slick bite-sized ad copy, unborn ideas and incomprehensible references. A cast of brilliant writers including Cervantes, James Joyce, Edgar Allan Poe, Plato, and Shakespeare walk across the book’s stage in roles that, while entertaining if you’re into literature, are more perplexing than illuminative.
As a result, night after night, for months on end, within minutes of pages being opened, a great veil of slumber descended over this reviewer’s head, transporting him away from the task at hand.
Reading The Gutenberg Galaxy taxes all the senses. But to dismiss it as frustrating gibberish, tempting though this may be, would be foolish. Marshall McLuhan, the crafty gadfly, knew exactly what he was doing. For the serious, patient reader, this book (a Governor General’s Award winner for non-fiction) reveals, over time, powerful insights into the impact of communications technology on human existence.
Starting right on the cover with a big stylized "e " which bears striking resemblance to the e-commerce logos that today, 40 years on, so stuff our visual diet, the book is packed with prescient aphorisms and truths about life in a multi-media, multi-sensual world.
In communicating his message, McLuhan eschews clear, linear writing for the "grotesque," an approach that, in principal, expresses truths by throwing together collections of symbols, leaving it up to the "beholder" to make the connections; truths that would otherwise take much longer to express verbally; a kind of "witty jazz" with no point of view, no linear connection and no sequential order, where the reader participates as co-author.
This may explain why the book starts at the end, where McLuhan calls upon the great 18th century English poet/illustrator William Blake to explain his delivery. It has to do with sense ratios (hearing, seeing, touching etc.). When they change, men change. And they change when any one sense or bodily or mental function is externalized by technology. Imagination is the ratio that exists when there is unity of experience, an entire, natural interplay among the senses; when no senses are "outered." Because, when outered, each sense becomes a closed system, and in "beholding this new thing, man is compelled to become it."
Inclusive wisdom " the unity of all senses" is diminished says McLuhan, when one sense (visual, in the case of printing) is stressed to the detriment of others. Plato is quoted as saying that the onset of literacy diminished ontological awareness, resulting in an impoverishment of being and a loss of richness in experience. The stated purpose of The Gutenberg Galaxy is to discover how far the restrictive visual bias was pushed by introduction of the alphabet, then manuscripts then typography.
McLuhan’s objective in The Gutenberg Galaxy is to show the process by which forms of experience, mental outlook and expression have been modified, first by phonetics, then by printing. He plays the psychoanalyst trying to identify and explain early patterns of behavior in order to understand and control their impact on current and future experiences. The message of the book is not that print, or any other communications technology, is good or bad, but rather that to be unconscious of its effect is disastrous.
Standing on mentor Harold Innis’s shoulders, McLuhan suggests that revolution takes place as personal and social life adjusts to new models of perception brought on by new technologies. From the alphabet on, he says, there has been a continuous drive in the West toward a separation of the senses which has had a profound impact on our emotional and political existence.
The alphabet made possible invention of logical "grammars" of thought. Science during the Renaissance meant translating force and energy into visual graphs and experiments. According to McLuhan, introduction of printing and typography in the 16th Century fostered homogeneity in every phase of human sensibility. A visual-print bias emphasizes the explicit, uniform, and sequential in everything: the arts, history, economics, recreation, industry. Non-literate modes, says McLuhan, are implicit, simultaneous and discontinuous (much like his text). They existed in the primitive past, and now, in the multi-media present where, thanks to broadcast, there is less of a print bias.
Students processed through print technology translate problems and experience into visual linear order. Words are carefully reduced to homogenized entities so that they can be applied. For a society in need of a workforce to perform the common tasks of commerce, finance, production and marketing, this kind of education was essential. "Without uniform processing by literacy, there can be no market or price system."
With the Renaissance came a new passion for exact time and precise measurement, a need to itemize, classify, organize, mechanize, to squeeze the senses into visual space.
Print culture, suggests McLuhan, is consumer-oriented, concerned with author, oral fidelity, exact quotation, and labels of authenticity. Manuscript culture before it was producer-oriented. It valued relevance and usability of items rather than their sources. Authorship before print was seen largely as a collective process, the building of a mosaic. Medieval students treated books as part of a total body of knowledge passed down from the ancient sages, rather than the expression of an author’s opinions or personality.
It has been observed, unfavorably, that McLuhan fails to offer any opinions in his work. This pre-print trait, plus the fact that he uses a book to communicate what it probably better told in a multi-media presentation, are just two among many ways in which he frustrates us into an awareness of medium. Just as Joyce does with his impenetrable musical prose, and Gertrude Stein with her lack of punctuation.
According to McLuhan, effort to assert personality against the restrictive leveling claims of society defines the prevailing philosophy of human nature since the Renaissance. It is ironic that in part by following the humble medieval path, deliberately suppressing personal opinion on the good or evil of multi-media technology, McLuhan gained enormous notoriety and celebrity.
In addition to deliberately using the medium to make its message, The Gutenberg Galaxy, as mentioned above, contains plenty of aphorisms and puns, devices designed to break and twist knowledge, to stimulate engagement and thought. The famous "global village" makes an early appearance on page 31, describing each of us as now simultaneously present in every corner of the earth. Famed American educator John Dewey is described as "surf-boarding" along on the new "electronic wave" in his struggle to restore education to its primitive, pre-print phase. And of course that powerful ‘e’ stares out on the very (albeit designer created) cover of the book. All of this in pre-Internet, pre-satellite, pre-CNN, 1962. And more.
The most powerful line in the book, one that reinforces a post-September 11 belief in McLuhan’s prescient genius, is this:
"Terror is the normal state of any oral society, for in it, everything affects everything all the time. in our striving to recover a unity of sensibility and of thought and feeling we have no more been prepared to accept the tribal consequences of such unity than we were ready for the fragmentation of the human psyche by print culture."
No wonder he was called an oracle.
Copyright © Nigel Beale.