Still from the movie 'Taking Off'

I think Marshall McLuhan makes a lot more sense if you add the direct address “Dude,” followed by a comma, to the beginning of each paragraph or pithy sentence. As in,

Dude, we have extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace,


Dude, the essence of automation technology is integral and decentralist in depth, just as the machine was fragmentary, centralist, and superficial in its patterning of human relationships.


Dude, the past mechanical time was hot, and we of the TV age are cool.


Dude, we are suddenly eager to have things and people declare their beings totally.

Yeah, like, totally, dude. But please, sir, do not bogart that joint.

McLuhan’s writing is more comprehensible than the Walter Benjamin piece, which still deflects every attempt at comprehension, but this is likely because it’s easier to dismiss as simply incoherent nonsense. As with the Benjamin, I feel like we are entering the discussion in medias res.

Today, after more than a century of electric technology, we have extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace, abolishing both space and time as far as our planet is concerned.

What in the Sam Hill is he talking about? Is there an antecedent missing somewhere? How does electricity extend “our” central nervous system? And who you calling “we,” white man? Apparently it doesn’t include me, because two pages later there’s

It is this implosive factor that alters the position of the Negro, the teen-ager, and some other groups. They can no longer be contained, in the political sense of limited association. They are now involved in our lives, as we in theirs, thanks to the electric media.

I’m sorry, but “the Negro” has always been involved in my life, thank you very much.

I know, I know, he was writing in a different era. But still, presumably we are being asked to read this because it has something relevant to say to our current studies. Okay, what could that be?

It’s got to be something more profound than the simple “Wow! It’s like he wrote this yesterday!” section on page 30, where we learn that (a) violent movies and video games engender real-world violence, and (b) living in Orange Alert all the time is completely meaningless. It’s also got to be something more germane than the assertion that

A tribal and feudal hierarchy of traditional kind collapses quickly when it meets and hot medium of the mechanical, uniform, and repetitive kind. . . . Similarly, a very much greater speed-up, such as occurs with electricity, may serve to restore a tribal pattern of intense involvement such as took place with the introduction of radio in Europe, and is now tencing to happen as a result of TV in America.

which is expressed more clearly and concretely in Here Comes Everybody.

Is it the litany of hot and cold items, which is exactly as useful as (though significantly less amusing than) the game of dividing everything and everyone into “punk” or “goth”?

Hot Punk Cold Goth
waltz courtly and choral dance styles
radio telephone
movies TV
photographs cartoons
ballet speech
phonetic alphabet hieroglyphs
paper stone tablets
lecture seminar
book dialogue
steel axes stone axes


How does any of this relate to what we are doing? Is this a connection that’s obvious to everyone else in the program—are they all, like, Dude, that’s so profound? Am I alone in having a block against finding anything useful in this kind of free-floating jive? Is it simply meant to be provoking? If so, then it’s not working—every week, we seem to have less and less discussion about the reading.

I read steadily, if slowly. Mostly nonfiction, and novels from the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. I don’t think I’m a lazy reader; the kind of book I like best is one that helps you see things from a different perspective. But this kind of writing makes me want to pitch the book across the room. Every article we’ve had to read for this class is of the sort that causes my brain to completely shut down. These readings bring out in me what one of my friends calls “Republican moments”: they make me want to start hollering about those elitist, arugula-eating people who always have to go and use those ten-cent words.

It is, as I said weeks ago, precisely the kind of writing that made me decide, after suffering through plenty of it in college, not to apply to graduate school in English. Yet here I find myself, again. Is this merely the result of sleep deprivation?

In any case, since you asked, here’s my response: This is bullshit.

The one thing I did get out of this reading is a list of other—and, I hope, better—books to read that may be more illuminating. These include,

  • John Betjeman, Slick But Not Steamlined
  • Kenneth Boulding, The Image
  • J.C. Carothers, The African Mind in Health and Disease
  • Douglas Cater, The Forth Branch of Government
  • Alexis de Toqueville, Exploring Democracy in America
  • Leonard Doob, Communication in Africa
  • E.M. Forster, A Passage to India
  • Edward Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
  • E.H. Gombrich, Art and Illusion
  • Bernard Lam, The Art of Speaking
  • Wyndham Lewis, The Childermass
  • A.J. Liebling, The Press
  • Lewis Mumford, The City in History
  • J.U. Nef, War and Human Progress
  • Constance Rourke, American Humor
  • A.L. Rowse, Appeasement
  • G.B. Sansom, Japan
  • Wilbur Schramm, Television in the Lives of Our Children
  • J.M. Synge, Playboy of the Western World
  • Robert Theobald, The Rich and the Poor

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