Sense and Nonsense of McLuhan

Sidney Finkelstein

Hot, Cool and the Brainless Involvement

McLuhan however is not interested in what actually took place in jazz and the other arts, but only in undermining the “Gutenberg medium,” and entire humanist heritage, as something harmful and outmoded. He redefines “hot” as “non-involved” and “cool” as “involved.” He goes on to describe everything done with the written and printed word, all  “literate culture” as “hot” and “non-involved.” All the arts in their great humanist development from the Renaissance on, are also “hot” and “non-involved.” Television, however, is “cool” and “involved.”

It is of course better to be :involved” than “non-involved.” However, the true distinction in the arts, or in various forms of expression through media, is not between “involved” and “non-involved.” It is between different forms of involvement. The “hot” appeals straightforwardly to thought, emotion, experience of life, the awakening of empathy. It is in this sense, a complete and full statement. It pretends to be the experience it evokes. The “cool,” by comparison, works with a kind of disguise or reserve, pretending to be the opposite of the experience it evokes.

Thus Milton’s Paradise Lost is “hot,” in its direct dramatic and oratorical appeal. Milton announces that he will attempt “to justify the ways of God” to man, and to do this tells a dramatic story of the revolt of Satan, and the temptation of Adam and Eve. Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels on the other hand is “cool.” He doesn’t say at all that he is satirizing England. In fact, he appears to praise it. He tells a seemingly whismical fantasy. The reader however must pick up Swift’s hints, turn the fantasy upside down, bring it down to earth, realize that behind Swift’s poker-face, comic manner he is savagely berating the hypocrisy and inhumanity of his own England.

Wagner’s operas are the epitome of “hot”; Mozart’s comic operas and piano concertos are “cool.” Wagner thunders and tries to overwhelm the audience with the tragedies of his heroes. Mozart will ripple along lightly, even merrily, and then through a sudden twist, with a few notes that a dull listener might readily miss, he will open up an abyss of deep poignance—then close it again. Daumier will paint a directly affecting portrayal of a strong working woman, holding her little girl by the hand, with a bundle of laundry under her other arm. This is “hot.” But the cartoon and sculpture showing the Emperor Louis Napoleon as a seedy, bedraggled and degenerate roué is “cool,” for the spectator must “fill in” from his own experience, turn the picture “upside down,” as it were, gather that the elegant Emperor does not look like that at all, but that this is what he really is inside; a seedy, dissolute scoundrel playing about with the lives of the people.

Both “hot” and “cool” involve the audience or readers’ mind. The “hot” presents what appears to be a complete, simulated experience. It may expect the audience or readers to ponder over it. It may arouse disturbing questions, uncover heretofore unglimpsed aspects of inner or outer reality. But it opens up its heart and mind. The “cool” demands an analytic act in the very process of receiving the work. Instead of saying directly what it has in mind, it impels the audience, through various hints, to make the statement. For this reason the “cool” was used by “serious” jesters from at least the Middle Ages on, to evade censorship, to say things that would appear to be sheer innocuous nonsense to a hostile audience and make sense to those ready to receive the message.

How, then, does this relate to the humanist tradition on the one hand and the TV picture tube on the other? Why is the one, which has so often used satire, wit, understatement and reserve, “hot” and “non-involved,” while TV, with its sentimental soap-operas, its Western pseudo-dramas, its spy stories and sensational on-the-spot newscasts, is “cool” and “involved?” McLuhan’s trick is to shift from the mind to the mindless, from the conscious to the unconscious, from the brain to the body and viscera, and along with this to dazzle the reader with his apparently expert technical knowledge of what goes on in the television picture tube. “Hot” media, he says, are “filled with data,” while “cool” media are sparse in data. He then uses “data” to mean not information or evoked experience offered to the mind, but only the physical impact of the medium on the sense organs. Thus, “hot” media are hot because they offer “high definition.” “Cool” media offer “low definition.” A low-definition medium requires more physical filling in by the audience. And so, “Hot media are, therefore, low in participation, and cool media are high in participation, or completion by the audience” (p. 32).

McLuhan then neatly amputates the conscious mind, thought, the evoked recollection of past experience, out of any consideration of what is meant by audience “participation.” This to him is purely a matter of physical and tactile acts of “completion.” For example, he mentions the cartoon, as a “cool” medium, but has nothing to say about its wit or satire. It is “cool,” compared to the “hot” art of painting, only because it is sketchier, and “very little visual information is provided.” Television is the “coolest,” most “involved” of media, not because of any show or program that might be offered on it, but because of the operation of the picture tube, whatever the program. The onlooker is involved to the depths of his being without knowing it, because the picture on the tube is really a “mosaic” of tiny dots, which the observer must put together, without knowing it. “The TV image offers some three million dots per second to the receiver. From these he accepts only a few dozen each instant, from which to make an image.... The TV image requires each instant that we ‘close’ the spaces in the mesh by a convulsive sensuous participation that is profoundly kinetic and tactile, because tactility is the interplay of the senses” (p. 273).

The argument is absurd, when analyzed. For a Rembrandt drawing, with its sparse strokes, does not involve the observer more than a Rembrandt painting. And when one looks closely at a painting by Titian or Rembrandt, one sees thousands of little brush-strokes and spots of color that, at a greater distance, coalesce into evocation of textures and light. But painting like that of Titian and Rembrandt is, to McLuhan, the “hottest” of media. A printed photographic reproduction of a painting or photograph—likewise a “hot” medium to McLuhan—is actually a “screen” of tiny printed dots which coalesce to the eye as a picture. The act of the ear in putting together the innumerable different wave vibrations that reach it in each moment of a symphonic performance—likewise to McLuhan a “hot,” “nonparticipation” medium—is similarly a most complicated physical act. The printed word is the acme of “hot” media to McLuhan, yet silent reading, as we have seen, requires not only a complicated act of the eye and brain in “seeing” not isolated, individual letters but words and phrases as units, but also the “inner ear” and kinetic movements of the speech muscles.

However whether this special bodily impact of the television picture tube “mosaic” is really scientifically so, does not interest McLuhan. He is no more interested, as we have seen, than in whether his statements about history are really true. Like his pseudo-historical statements, so this physiological statement about the picture tube dots is only thrown into the hopper to further a thesis of much broader implications. This thesis is that all art or communication which involves the audience in a mediated way, which calls up thought, rational questioning, memories of past experience, reservoirs of knowledge, is “non-involved,” “non-participatory,” and therefore unhealthy, a thing of the past, a product of the Gutenberg medium’s fragmentation of human beings. The healthy art and communication replacing this is that which does not involve mind and thought, but makes an immediate, physical impact. It short-circuits the thinking mind. Only this strong physical reaction is what McLuhan calls audience “participation.”

To state the question in different terminology, McLuhan is attacking the humanist kind of realism which addressed itself to real life so that it could interpret it, probing the relation of the inner world of human mentality to the outer world of human affairs, nature and society. He hails, as replacing this, what can best be called a kind of naturalism, although he doesn’t use this term. It is the naturalism in which the concrete, immediate impact on the senses, and especially the viscera, is paramount; what is most real is what can be handled and touched, or arouses “touch” feelings, and establishes itself thus as an actual, physical part of environment.

To illustrate this, let us think of some works of humanist realism. They present what seem to be replicas of life, nature and people in various relationships. But we do not think of the works as being actual reality. A painting of an ocean is not expected to be watery when we touch it. If it is a novel, we do not take it to be biography or documentary history. If it is a tragic drama, we know that the bodies on the stage are not really dead. If we thought they were, our reactions would be entirely different. The central aspect of this kind of art is that it illuminates or comments on reality, gives us new insights, but does not offer itself primarily as physical reality. This is true whether the art is directly realistic, or fantasy, or comedy, or the “inverted reality” of satire and caricature. We can be deeply moved by the memories such works of art awaken in us of our own past experience. They make us feel, even if we are not consciously aware of why we feel so, a sense of kinship to the human portrayals presented to us. We feel that if the work of art is talking about other people, it is also talking, in a way possible only to art, of ourselves. And so the empathy, participation, or involvement is a mediated one. It goes through a process. It stirs up our minds about a host of past events that are now drawn up to bear upon it. Even if much of the new sensibility and outlook the work gives to us, through its very style of exploring reality, is not something we can translate into words, still the process of appreciation is filtered through our mind, and has stirred up our thought.

When however in ancient Rome, gladiators were forced to actually kill each other, or Christians and other victims were actually eaten by lions, the audience reaction was far different. The physical impact is much greater, as with all naturalism, in its replacement of realism. The spectacle is not a commentary on life. However contrived, it becomes a slice of life. The audience can be said to participate strongly; the immediate shock power is greater. But there is nothing to filter through the mind and the memories. There is no thought process involved. This is what McLuhan means by “cool,” “involved,” and “high participation” media. The epitome of this, to him, is TV. Whether or not it is true that the stream of dots has the “kinetic” and “tactile” effect which he claims for it, and that “tactility is the interplay of the senses,” this comes close to describing in pseudo-scientific language the actual method of a TV commercial. The creators of a commercial do not quite trust McLuhan’s theory of the kinetic effect of the picture tube dots. But they consciously attempt to short-circuit the thinking and critical mind of the observer by keeping busy all the time and appealing to all the senses at once; picture, motion, music, speech, tactile feelings—all concentrated in a drive to drug the mind and create a subliminal conditioned reflex.

Aside from the picture-tube theory, McLuhan makes many shrewd observations about the kind of presentations that work best on TV, and these have earned him the respect and even admiration of those employed by the medium itself. The trend of his observations is that what has been described here as naturalism, although he avoids this term, is highly suited to TV, and there is probably a good deal of truth to this. And in pointing out that any production of the “Gutenberg era” needs considerable restructuring in order to become effective on TV, he is repeating what has long been known as a truth about all recreations of an art work in terms of a medium different from that in which it had been conceived. Such restructuring took place, for example, when Shakespeare’s plays, which had been conceived as swift successions of scenes for the open, curtainless, almost bare Elizabethan stage, were revived for the nineteenth century proscenium and curtained stage, with its sumptuous, unwieldy scenery. Scenes were cut, others were reshuffled, and the emphasis of the production was no longer, as Shakespeare had planned, on the protagonists’ action within a matrix of an entire society in motion. Underlined instead were the ordeals of the central characters.

Such transfers from one medium to another need not always be harmful. But extensive restructuring is demanded, as for example when a stage play becomes a motion picture. It may appear that these media are very close to one another. In both, the spectators see personages moving and hear them speaking. But no work of art worthy of the name is simply a replica of life. It is life restructured in terms of a medium, to embody thought about life, insight into life, or the artist’s involvement with life. The seeming naturalness of a great work of realistic art hides very subtle artifices, and in fact these artifices are necessary to make the work appear to be “natural.” When the “medium” is changed, the artifices are exposed. [….]

Such developments as the casual, informal “talk” show, the sensational “on-the-spot” newscasts, the transformation of certain competitive sports into big business due to their link-up with television networks, indicate that TV as a medium leans toward naturalism, no “illusion,” no interpretation, no insight, no thought about life, but the naked blunt fact; a hunk of reality wiped clean of all context and thrust up against the senses, with the appeal: “Can you disbelieve the testimony of your own ears, eyes and bodies?” But McLuhan, as we have seen, evades the term “naturalism,” just as he evades such matters as realism, the fact that there is an actual world that can be explored, the question of truth. He talks of processes, and “environment.” Thus he evades the important truth that naturalism can be one of the trickiest forms of deception, precisely because it offers itself as unadulterated reality, the concrete fact. McLuhan himself shows, unwittingly, how one kind of naturalism, the easy informality, is used by TV for calculated political deception:

“On the Jack Paar show for March 8, 1963, Richard Nixon was Paared down and remade into a suitable TV image. It turns out that Mr. Nixon is both a pianist and a composer. With sure tact for the character of the TV medium, Jack Paar brought out the pianoforte side of Mr. Nixon, with excellent effect. Instead of the slick, glib, legal Nixon, we saw the doggedly creative and modest performer” (p. 269).

In a similar vein, McLuhan impresses the reader with his magical insight into TV by declaring that Hitler could not have been a success, had there been television. Even if this were true, McLuhan neglects to state that the reactionary German trusts which financed Hitler could easily have found a different form of deception suitable for television. But at best, McLuhan is stating a half-truth. He is comparing television to radio, and the real point he makes is that Hitler’s speeches, which were so effective on radio, would not have made at all the same impact on television. Hitler however had more strings to his bow than radio; forms of naturalism, numbing the critical intelligence with their sense-data, visceral impact and implied messages of irresistible power. The frenzied mass rallies at Nuremberg would have made good television fare.

Seeing that what McLuhan extols as the special qualities of TV are also drastic limitations, we get some inkling of the reason that television has failed to produce a current of art works worthy of the name, and unique to its own medium. However useful it is for popular entertainment and mass communication, it cannot in itself satisfy the cultural needs of the people, nor can it supplant the humanist, and to McLuhan “hot” and “uninvolved” media productions, without savage cultural destruction. But it is exactly such a future that McLuhan sees for TV, hailing it as a liberation of humanity from the “fragmented” mentality of the era of literacy and Gutenberg. And true to his practice of generalizing the limitations of TV into a universal law media, his entire book becomes, aside from its glorification of TV and electronics, an argument for various forms of naturalism. The important aspect of reality to him is not the real world itself, as people progressively know it, but some isolated sensation, some concrete thing, process or artifice that happens to make a sheerly physical, concentrated assault upon the senses. Even McLuhan’s “media,” as he sees them, are not “media” at all. They do not act as a “medium” for anything. They are not tools for learning, thinking or exploring channels for enhanced perception. Their function is simply to be things in themselves, not operated by people but operating on them. It is like saying that the importance of the telescope lies not in the truer knowledge it gives us of the stars, of suns, planets and galaxies, of their make-up, movement and spatial order, but only in the physical impact its concentration of light waves has upon the eye.

McLuhan’s bent toward naturalism emerges again in his theory that out of literacy and the printed word came the error of rationality, and “linear sequences.” His argument is the puerile one that any moment of actual life is not at all logical or rational. “There is nothing lineal or sequential about the total field of awareness that exists in any moment of consciousness” (p. 87). But that is exactly why great art is not a substitute for life but a humanization of life, a clarification of the human involvement with the outer world; why science enables human beings to restructure elements of the world outside them; why philosophy tries to illuminate the values of life. If art were simply a moment by moment replica of actuality there would be no need for it. If philosophy were simply interested in statistics, if science did not look beneath surface phenomena to find pattern and structure, if art did not raise in the imagination the human desire to change the world, human beings would still be subhuman, close to wolves and pigs. And so McLuhan’s great rebuttal of logic and reason, or of any attempt to fathom reality, is again the naturalism of emphasizing the false realism of the immediate event or sensation, while short-cutting thought, understanding and socially transmitted experience. Even “stream of consciousness” music like that in Wagner’s operas, and “stream of consciousness” prose like that in Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past and Joyce’s Ulysses, are by no means transcripts of any actual “total fields of awareness” in moment after moment of consciousness. The “stream of consciousness” method is a highly selective form of commentary on life. It unfolds the mentality of a specific kind of personage in a specific social situation. The difference between this and more outgoing styles is its concentration on the “internal” world. It is “more true to life” only in that, historically, it has opened up a new realm of human sensibility in art, and it has often lost touch with certain important aspects of reality in the process of making contact with other aspects.

One of the qualities that lifts human beings above the animal world is that their actions are no longer simply immediate responses to sensations and impulses. The more that people have replaced ignorance of the world about them with true knowledge of its make-up and laws, the more they have been able to plan their actions in terms not merely of immediate effect but of the wider repercussions of the forces they set in motion. McLuhan, turning not only to naturalism but to a kind of primitivism, attacks this rational mode of planning human actions. He uses the old chestnut that thought inhibits action and chills the responses to life.

It is true enough that rational thought and the knowledge brought by sharing others’ experience help control and temper action. But far from stultifying action, their longer-term result is action more in accordance with human desires. This is seen as well in the impact of realist and humanist works of art, which throw light on reality and appeal not only to the sensations but to the conscious and thinking mind. The audience is not expected to respond by a single action. Instead the effect of the work is to alter or expand the mind and perceptions of the audience, so that all its responses to life, or human relations, will be different; educated, in a sense, by the art work. McLuhan writes, however, “Understanding stops action, as Nietzsche observed” (p. 30).

Actually, the great, progressive actions, in art, science and politics were carried on by people who also had deep understanding. Hamlet did say,

“And thus the native hue of resolution

Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought”

but the line before this reads, “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all.” It is not simply thought in itself, but conscience that deters him. He is faced with a complicated moral problem. And once Hamlet understands what he has to do, he proceeds to do it. Certainly there are people who are hung up on a dilemma, where conflicting pulls paralyze action. But in general, the more one understands a problem, the clearer one sees what must be done to solve it. Certainly in the Second World War, a vast number of people engaged themselves in the fight against fascism precisely because they understood it.

But McLuhan insists that literacy has made people no longer respond to human appeals. Thus: “Western man acquired from the technology of literacy the power to act without reacting” (p. 20). This to him is a “fragmentation” of the human being, and the example he uses is that of a surgeon operating. “The advantages of fragmenting himself in this way are seen in the case of the surgeon who would be quite helpless if he were to become humanly involved in his operation” (ibid.). But most surgeons are deeply involved in the struggle for life against death in which their operation plays a part. And it is precisely this involvement which demands that they draw upon all their knowledge, skill and self-control, that they do not respond impulsively to any immediate sensation without considering the total picture. It is fortunate that McLuhan’s book was not written 200 years ago. For how would Colonel Prescott at the battle of Bunker Hill have been able to tell the fighters for independence, “Don't shoot until you see the whites of their eyes,” knowing that by inhibiting their trigger response to the first sight of the English, he was transforming his men into non-involved, fragmented robots?

There is of course a gruesome form of “acting without reacting” in our time: from the commanders and doctors at the Hitler murder camps, to the strategists who now treat wars and human destruction simply in terms of statistics. The strategists of the Vietnam war, for example, plan increasingly brutal methods of wiping out Vietnam villagers and destroying their land itself, simply because the “Vietcong” is rooted among them. This kind of “detachment”—another favorite McLuhan epithet—has nothing to do with literacy, the “Gutenberg medium,” and the humanist tradition. This “detachment” is a modern relic of the ancient civilizations based on slavery and of the feudalism of the Middle Ages, when life was held very cheap. It was challenged, if not eradicated, by humanism. And it has risen again to become a major phenomenon in modern times, when great numbers of scientists, people of education, and “specialists,” find themselves seemingly hopelessly in the grip of super-powerful governmental and corporation structures, that appear to be beyond human control. In their service to these forces, they become truly “fragmented,” or alienated, estranged from any attachments to, or involvement with, the mass of their fellow human beings, and estranged from their own humanity. This is anti-humanism. It is fostered by the modern attack against the humanist tradition, an attack in which McLuhan does his part. It is, in its modern grotesque form, a product not of the age of “literacy” but of the age of the electronic technologies.

Had McLuhan devoted himself to an honest, sober evaluation of TV, with its special contributions, potentialities and limitations, even ignoring its economic connections and structure, treating it solely as a medium for communication or expression, or in its character as an “extension of the senses,” he might have written a useful book. For TV has a place in the cultural and educational scene, and can make a valuable contribution. Instead he extols it in sensational terms as a revolution which will liberate the human race whether it wants to be liberated or not, and which must “overthrow” all previous “media.” There are a stick and a carrot in his argument. The stick is a “practical” fatalism: there is no use fighting a changing world, you are being altered by the electronic media whether you like it or not. The carrot is the promise of a harmonious, conflictless future, the new “tribalism.” And his exaltation of this fake “revolution” is an abstraction of the competitive, “dog eat dog” spirit that spurs the modern media. All rivals must be wiped out. The past must not be allowed to compete with the present. To make room for the hegemony of TV and the modem electronic media, McLuhan undercuts and abuses the entire humanist heritage of non-electronic or “Gutenberg” and “literate” culture. It is outmoded and harmful. It has created logic, individualism and fragmented man.

The arts and sciences, however, are not utensils or even social institutions that can be thrown away in favor of improvements. The scientific heritage embodies the accumulated knowledge of the physical world. The artistic heritage embodies the development of the human being’s sensitivity to nature, society, his fellow human beings and himself. They must be used critically, and they cannot satisfy the scientific and artistic needs of today. But they are part of the necessary education of the human being of today, the accumulated experience of his predecessors, the preparation needed to face new problems.

Social institutions and social systems are discarded in the course of human progress, to be replaced by others. And the achievements of art and science, as well as all culture, can be linked to the social systems within which they appeared. But they are not synonymous with these social systems. The systems pass away but the achievements of art and science remain alive and necessary, and they speak to later generations. So the great drama, sculpture, poetry and science of “classic” Greece appeared in a social system that had fashioned the first democratic institutions in the ancient world, but erected them on a base of human slavery. Only the “free citizens” of a city like Athens enjoyed democracy. Masses of slaves worked for them. Now slavery has passed away. But the Greek arts and sciences, while reflecting the limitations of an age which intellectually accepted slavery, still speak to us. For they also embody a testament to a stage in the growth of the human spirit, a stage in consciousness, the stature born out of the confidence that human beings could begin to think about and try to control their environment.

So it is with the achievements of later epochs. We need them, not for imitation but to let us know how we came to be what we are. To McLuhan, all this heritage is like debris that must be swept away to make room for the new electronic mentality. And the eternal “war of media” he invokes to justify the necessity for this destruction is bolstered by presenting a history of society that leaves out society. He records some of the real characteristics of an era, making what appears to be a convincing argument, and then ascribes the change to the mysterious, magical activity upon the senses of the people of a selected “technology” or “medium.” And so, when he is writing about the intellectual and artistic products of the age of capitalism, he simply leaves out the term “capitalism,” as well as anything denoting a social and economic structure, and instead calls it the era of the “Gutenberg technology.” The effect is to muddy the waters of comprehension and undercut any attempt to understand the real forces operating in the world.

So with the situation today, McLuhan, knowing quite well that the real conflict he is writing about is the replacement of “free enterprise” capitalism by a system in which great corporations, banks and trusts dominate not only economic life but also the government policies, transforms this into his own “media conflict” approach to history: “The electric technology is within the gates, and we are numb, deaf, blind and mute about its encounter with the Gutenberg technology” (p. 32). Thus he can follow with the cheery advice to “understand” the new (as technology, not economic and social structure, of course), live with it, accept it, ready ourselves for the new, happy revolutionary future it is inevitably bringing.

The obscurantism of McLuhan's “technology” theory of history is not simply his omission of economic, political and other social considerations. More abysmal is that he omits entirely the creative human spirit, the great human conquests of obstacles and problems, the visions and bold transformations of the world, the daring explorations of reality, the battles of ideas. In McLuhan’s history, the human being dwindles to almost nothing. But if people today seem to be dominated by electronic technology and media this is only another example of what has happened in the past. Forces set in motion by people have gotten out of hand. But just as in the past such forces were eventually taken in hand, so today there is no reason to believe that human beings will remain puppets of their own technology.

Much of the theory with which McLuhan extols television as the avenue to a new mind and a new world is drawn from pseudo-scientific theories that appeared in the 1930’s around various forms of non-objective art. Writers like Georgy Kepes, constructing optical illusions or tricks with perspective (many of which were well known to Renaissance and Dutch painters), proclaimed that only through such altering or “opening up” of the vision could the mind be freed for new ideas. This theory stood psychology on its head. For while human sensitivities have continually grown and changed, and the mind with them, it was always in collaboration with labor, thought and active involvement with reality. Through the process of actually doing, or working with the outer world, a richer and deeper sensory response developed, an awakening to hitherto unperceived qualities in the real world. Out of the actual process of change, ideas rose in the imagination for further change. If the eye is temporarily deluded, as with a flat plane with slanted lines so drawn on it that they make it appear to be three-dimensional space, the result is only a temporary bewilderment between the report of the eye and the report of other senses, along with the memories of past experience. If the disparity between the report by the eye, and the experience of the other senses, as well as past knowledge, is artificially intensified, the result is not an opening of the mind to new ideas. It can well be neurosis or paralysis, as has happened with animals in laboratory experiments. In real life, the other senses, and the accumulation of socially transmitted knowledge, are always correcting the eye. Thus when we see a sunrise, we no longer think that a ball of fire is rising over the rim of a flat, plate-like world. According to the modern topsy-turvy theory, however, a new artificial “environment” has to be created, and this, by deluding the eye, alters the mind.

McLuhan revives this sham theory for the argument that each new medium creates a new environment, and that this utterly changes the senses. It not only serves his argument that television, simply because it presents a picture actually made up of innumerable tiny dots, has created a new “environment” and radically altered human psychology. It also helps make him a spokesman for various other art trends—abstract expressionism, op art, aleatory music and the “theater of cruelty”—that also claim to be “environment” involving the viscera and not the mind. He refers to such trends as signs of the brave new world of anti-Gutenberg. Actually they play out the sad drama of the modern artist’s alienation or self-estrangement from his own social humanity.

An example of modern “environmental” art is a work by the painter and sculptor Robert Rauschenberg, as reviewed by Grace Glueck in the New York Times of May 27, 1967:

“In line with his often-expressed ideas of encouraging audience involvement, Mr. Rauschenberg’s ‘revolvers,’ big plexiglass wheels mounted one behind the other in motorized aluminum stands, invite—indeed depend on—the spectator’s participation. The wheels, five to a stand, are stenciled with random words and photo-images—a tennis match, a trailer truck, Batman, an archaic statue, the labeled chassis of a car. Using push buttons, one can play a kind of visual roulette with them, spinning the disks to effect the chance relationship of the images.”

This exemplifies what McLuhan calls “involvement”; namely physical involvement, tactile, brainless; the opposite to mediated, thoughtful, humanist involvement, which he calls “non-involvement” and “detachment.” He doesn’t mention Rauschenberg, or the transitory art fashion of which such work is a part. But he does refer briefly to some greater artists. It is part of his cunning to draw upon all sorts of great names for confirmation of his theories, while trusting the reader not to realize that they don’t confirm his theories at all. So he cites Seurat, Cezanne and Roualt, as typical modern artists, and writes about them: “The nonvisual mosaic structures of modern art, like those of modern physics and electric-information patterns, permit little detachment. The mosaic form of the TV image demands participation and involvement in depth of the whole being, as does the sense of touch” (p. 291).

It is true that Seurat painted with dots of color, like a “mosaic,” but his drawings are not mosaics, and both his paintings and drawings speak of his tender regard for the people of Paris. Cezanne created powerful structures on canvas, but these works also demonstrate his tender feelings toward nature and people. Roualt is the very opposite of a painter whose aim is solely to create “touch” feelings. Of course his work has these tactile sensations, a characteristic of any artistic drawing, found throughout the history of art. It is difficult to think of painting more “tactile” than that of Michelangelo, El Greco and Rubens, for example. Characteristic of the entire art of painting and sculpture is that the movement of the artist’s hands and his touch sensitivities translate themselves into pictorial line and contour. But to the artists, this was a tool of their craft, enabling them to give an intense sense of life to their visual imagery, and the thought behind it. Roualt especially, of twentieth century painters, carries on the great humanist tradition. His work, with its suffering clowns, crucified Christs, satiric portrayals of judges, bitter portrayals of prostitutes, cries out against the grossness, injustice and oppression of the forces that rule society. An idea of his artistic thinking can be gotten from the titles he appended to his set of copperplates, Miserere; “Jesus reviled,” “Are we not all convicts?,” “It would be so sweet to love,” “His lawyer in hollow phrases proclaims his entire unawareness,” “Street of the lonely,” “My sweet homeland, what has become of you?” He would be somewhat shocked to know that his art is cited as support for the brainlessness of TV, as McLuhan expounds it; a medium in which the image is of no account, and the “message” that is important is only the tactile twist given the body by the procession of dots on the picture tube.

The dramas of Shakespeare, the Sistine Chapel of Michelangelo, the portrayals of the poor by Rembrandt, the great social novels of the nineteenth century, the symphonies of Beethoven, the operas of Verdi, the poetry of Walt Whitman—all of the age of “literacy”—are imbued by the involvement of the artist with the troubles of his fellow human beings. If in the course of this they carried on great transformations of style, developments of word sounds and rhythms, intensifications of color and tactile feelings in their art, it was accessory; a necessary sharpening of their tools to be able to move the audiences and spectators with their thought and imagery. But McLuhan thinks otherwise: “Literacy, in contrast, had, by extending the visual power to the uniform organization of time and space, psychically and socially, conferred the power of detachment and noninvolvement” (p. 291).

McLuhan becomes ecstatic over the way in which TV, through its tactile feelings, opens up a new world. It replaces the old “hot” and “non-involved” medium of reading and literacy. By concentrating on touch, which brings all the senses together at one blow, it recreates, he says, the whole man, as against the detached and fragmentary man of the literacy era. Does the TV child become backward in reading? That, to McLuhan, is a sign of progress. That reading is a primary key to acquaintance with the other human beings in the world, and the interior as well as exterior history of society is inconsequential to McLuhan. Involvement has nothing to do with fellow human beings, but only with the TV dots. “The tactual mode of perceiving is sudden but not specialist. It is total, synesthetic, involving all the senses. Pervaded by the mosaic TV image, the TV child encounters the world in a spirit antithetic to literacy” (p. 291). And “The TV child cannot see ahead because he wants involvement, and he cannot accept a fragmentary and merely visualized goal or destiny in learning or in life” (p. 292).

Wielding the loaded word “fragmented,” McLuhan enthusiastically tears up the entire humanist cultural past, in favor of the new TV brainless multi-sense appeal, or “synasthesia.”

One might demur that cultural life from the Renaissance on was not quite so fragmented. The same person could read a novel, and also look at a painting and listen to music. It is true enough that from the first appearance in society of a division between those who worked and those who ruled, there was further division of labor, both physical and intellectual. There were specialized crafts and skills. And so long as these specializations were controlled for service to the rulers, the pressure was for each worker to devote himself solely to his appointed task. But this confinement has continually been defied.

SOURCE: Finkelstein, Sidney. Sense and Nonsense of McLuhan (New York: International Publishers, 1968), Chapter 6, "Hot, Cool and the Brainless Involvement," extracts, pp. 80-87, 90-102.

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