Understanding McLuhan;
or, How I Recovered my Cool.

When I first grabbed the book, I have to confess my reaction to McLuhan's philosophizing of media was very similar to that of the Duke of Gloucester's to Edward Gibbon: "Another damned fat book, eh…? Scribble, scribble, scribble, eh…?" (15). Retrospectively speaking, however, I have to say that McLuhan has managed to reconcile me to some of the philosophy thus far discussed in this blog — most specifically, to Kittler. McLuhan, although writing much earlier than Kittler, seems much less prescriptive — perhaps outrageous — in regards to meaning formation and reality, and his assertions, neatly packed in a series of allegories and analogies, are much easier to reconcile with technology as I personally experience it. And here may be the key to McLuhan: other than Kittler, who seems to make grand statements with (implicitly) universal applications, McLuhan focuses much more on the individual situation and context of experience — the experience of media as it is informed by the situation in which it itself exists.

Something about McLuhan is strangely comforting, especially when I consider applying his own theories not only to Kittler, but also to McLuhan himself. As he himself argues, "'Comfort' consists in abandoning a visual arrangement in favor of one that permits casual participation of the senses, a state that is excluded when any one sense, but especially the visual sense, is hotted up to the point of dominant command of a situation" (32). Perhaps I'm taking McLuhan's consideration of 'hot' vs. 'cool' media much too literally, but if 'hot' media require less participation than 'cool' media, then the reading of philosophies of technology (relatively speaking) would certainly be 'cool' (particularly in comparison to the reading of some pop-culture sparkling vampire stories, for example). In this sense, then, it is self-explanatory why reading literature (should we call it that?) that requires less mental involvement and participation seems so much more comforting than reading highly theoretical and philosophical considerations like McLuhan's.

On the contrary, the constant overstimulation of our senses, according to McLuhan, ultimately leads to a 'state of numbness', which then reverses the state of 'hotness' vs. 'coolness' insofar as we tend to escape the sense of discomfort via, how Jonas and Selye have called it, "a strategy of amputation" (McLuhan 42-43). But, since, as in the Narcissus myth, "self-amputation forbids self-recognition" (43), the self-imposed distancing from the material at hand necessarily leads to a 'cooling' of the medium, in other words, making it more comfortable again. And, in a weird backward spiral — or, perhaps, a double helix — "the cooling of all senses tends to result in hallucination" (32), by which, as we learned from Kittler last week, we mean little more than the creation of meaning in the recalling of experience stored in memory.

In understanding the books themselves as media, we begin to understand the limitations of the written word, particularly within philosophical considerations like these. Prince Modupe describes written language on the page as "trapped words" insofar as "the ink on the page trapped the thoughts" of the writer in symbolic form (cited in McLuhan 81). Language, because of its symbolic nature, is also severely limited, perhaps even more so in written form. The translation of thought into language, especially written language, forces the writer to adhere to a linearity of expression non-existent (or at least unmatched) in thought, a linearity which the reader, in turn, needs to overcome in the back-translation of the written words into his or her own experience, knowledge, and understanding. Yet such a back-translation necessarily is faulty — or, at the least, incomplete because it is colored by the individual experiences and memories of the reader.

In order to escape the Narcissus trap of complete and utter numbness, and self-amputation, McLuhan therefore cautions us to constantly be aware of media being self-reflective. In other words (and applied to McLuhan himself), his writing of his philosophy is a reflection of his thought, as if thrown as a reflection onto the surface of a pond. As his reader, I then need to recognize that the reflection I see on the pond, blurry and distorted as it naturally becomes, resembles McLuhan, but becomes, in fact, a reflection of myself. As McLuhan asserts, "the 'common sense' was for many centuries held to be the peculiar human power of translating one kind of experience of one sense into all the senses, and presenting the result continuously as a unified image to the mind" (60). This unification process, however fragmentary, can take place only in the mind of the person, making knowledge and information processes peculiarly personal.

It is perhaps precisely this apparent return to individuality and re-humanization in McLuhan that makes reading his book so much more comforting than Kittler's (in contrast). McLuhan thinks of media (if understood and evaluated correctly) much more as an extension of humanity than a replacement of it. The value of human consciousness — even on such an individual level as mine — seems reaffirmed here. As mentioned earlier, I personally tend to take McLuhan's advice very literally, especially in regard to the consideration of 'hot' versus 'cool.' After all, even the apparently all-knowing computer needs fans to keep it cool. So, that's what I'll do in moving forward through these texts. Keep cool.

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