McLuhan - Understanding Media - Summary of Chapters 11-14

My contribution to the Understanding Media Reading Group

Chapter 11

McLuhan writes, in Chapter 11 of Understanding Media, that "The mysterious need of crowds to grow and to reach out, equally characteristic of large accumulations of wealth, can be understood if money and numbers are, indeed, technologies that extend the power of touch and the grasp of the hand."

Numbers, he writes, grip us and keep us in their thrall. The driver toward unlimited growth, the pleasure of being among the masses - these both illustrate an anti-intellectualism that has long been subject to the suspicions of the rational among us. The power of number can be contrasted with the light of reason that is the hallmark of the written word.

Numbers are related to the sensual and tactile in the way that language and literacy relate to the visual. "Just as writing is an extension and separation of our most neutral and objective sense, the sense of sight, number is an extension and separation of our most intimate and interrelating activity, our sense of touch."

Because numbers represent a form of pre-literacy and pre-civilization, it may seem off that someone like Oswald Spengler in 'The Decline of the West' express concern with 'the new math' as a retreat from numbers, and specifically, the rise of non-Euclidian geometries and the rise of functions in number theory. But, argues McLuhan, the primacy of literacy isn't the the primacy of reason, it is the primacy of the visual sense.

But the primacy of the literal isn't the the primacy of reason, it is the primacy of the visual sense. And the fragmentation of civilization results not from the rise of science and mathematics, but from the elevation of one sense over the others. The fragmentation occurs when we isolate properties that can be detected visually, but are beyond the reach of the other senses.

Indeed, the modern properties of numbers are not derived from primitive society at all. As Tobias Dantzig writes in 'Number: The Language of Science' "the parity or kinesthetic sense of these [primitive] people is stronger than their number sense." They counted in terms of "One, two, heap." The new math Spengler railed against resulted from the introduction of key ideas of language to numbers, specifically, "correspondence and succession." The awareness of zero, and of infinity, in particular, have their origins in the application of ideas from language to numbers.

As an aside, interestingly, McLuhan writes, "Western man, were he determined to cling to the fragmented and individualist ways that he has derived from the printed word in particular, would be well advised to scrap all his electric technology" because fragmentation by visual stress occurs in isolation of moment or space beyond the power of touch, etc., and "by imposing unvisualizable relationships that are the result of instant speed, electric technology dethrones the visual sense and restores us to the dominion of synesthesia, and the close interinvolvement of the other senses."

Chapter 12

"Clothing," writes McLuhan, "as an extension of the skin, can be seen both as a heat-control mechanism and as a means of denning the self socially." Changes in clothing reflect changes in society. For example, post-war Europe emphasized fashion and style at the same time American society seemed to be revolting against it. Europe, in turn, had its own revolution in the late 18th century as the courtly dress, once vastly different from the peasant style, was replaced (sometimes by necessity) by more common attire.

Clothing, when presented as an object of art or sculpture, represents a society that is visually oriented. But the new styles are reflecting a society that is incorporating all the senses once again. "In a word, the American woman for the first time presents herself as a person to be touched and handled, not just to be looked at." It is now easy, says McLuhan, to see clothing as an extension of the skin.

Chapter 13

McLuhan writes, "Recently an imaginative school principal in a slum area provided each student in the school with a photograph of himself. The classrooms of the school were abundantly supplied with large mirrors. The result was an astounding increase in the learning rate. The slum child has ordinarily very little visual orientation. He does not see himself as becoming something. He does not envisage distant goals and objectives. He has deeply involved in his own world from day to day, and can establish no beachhead in the highly specialized sense life of visual man. The plight of the slum child, via the TV image, is increasingly extended to the entire population."

The intent of this chapter is to show not only that housing is, like clothing, an extension of our skin, but also, to depict housing as a means of communication. Included in this idea is an important definition of the concept: clothing and housing are media of communication "in the sense that they shape and rearrange the patterns of human association and community."

We can see this by drawing out the distinctions between housing in pre-literate and literacte societies. Housing for preliterate societies was connected to the world, while "Literate man, civilized man, tends to restrict and enclose space and to separate functions, whereas tribal man had freely extended the form of his body to include the universe." Pre-literate houses were round houses, or triangles, shapes that these are not visual spaces,  not 'enclosed' because they follow dynamic lines of force, while a square moves 'beyond' such kinetic pressures. "The square room or house speaks the language of the sedentary specialist, while the round hut or igloo, like the conical wigwam, tells of the integral nomadic ways of food-gathering communities."

The bulk of the chapter describes ways elements of housing can shape and rearrange patterns of living, how (for example) with glass, "the world is put in a frame" and industry and commerce can now proceed without regard to rain or wind, or (for example) they way we can paint with light, both inside houses, with light on walls, or beyond the enclosure, with Gyorgy Kepes's  "landscape by light through" rather than "light on." McLuhan writes, "Painting with light is a kind of housing without walls."

Chapter 14

McLuhan describes the progression of money from its origination as a commodity to its modern incarnation as a medium of information, a language of exchange. "Today, even natural resources have an informational aspect. They exist by virtue of the culture and skill of some community."

The birth of money as commodity is well known, with McLuhan relating examples such as the use of whales' teeth on Fiji or rats on Easter Island. Even in literate society, commodities may be used as money in extreme circumstances, with the trading of jewels and cigarettes, for example, common in occupied territories.

The function of money in this "commodity and community character" is of  "extending the grasp of men from their nearest staples and commodities to more distant one." In early usage, this function is very small, and the utility of money is not clear. McLuhan describes the confusion created by "the dramatic arrival of paper currency, or 'representative money,' as a substitute for commodity money."

To use currency, he observes, requires a "letting go" of objects, letting go of the commodities that first serve as money, in order to extend trading to society as a whole. Elias Canetti , in 'Crowds and Power', draws the analogy of learning to swing on vines in the forest. "The primitive grasping, calculating, and timing of the greater arboreal apes he sees as a translation into financial terms of one of the oldest movement patterns."

But money has always had value as more than just a medium of exchange, as early societies knew well. The tradition of the potlach, for example, or ceremonial exposure of rice to the rain in Borneo, demonstrates the social and cultural dimension of money. McLuhan writes, "Money, like writing, has the power to specialize and to rechannel human energies and to separate functions, just as it translates and reduces one kind of work to another."

In the age of paper currency, money becomes less personal and more sterile. The modern use of money is tied intrinsically to literacy, and with literacy "money, as a social means of extending and amplifying work and skill in an easily accessible and portable form, lost much of its magical power" (as money becomes more like a language, and less like number, money becomes more literal and less sensual and tactile).

The phrase "money talks" resonates because money is a communications medium. We have seen already that money is a storehouse of communally achieved work, skill, and experience. But just as the clock separates time and space, money separates work from other aspects of human experience. "Time is money," it is said, and money is the storehouse of time spent at work.

It is important, writes McLuhan, to understand the underpinnings of literacy that are required to make sense of money. "The West is little aware of the way in which the world of prices and numbering is supported by the pervasive visual culture of literacy." Early societies would make no sense of the concept at all. "The fragmentation of the inner life by prices seemed as mysterious in the eighteenth century, as the minute fragmentation of space by means of calculus had seemed a century earlier."

In primitive society, money has intrinsic value, and the whole concept of 'work' doesn't exist. But in literate society, money is a means of storing and transferring 'work', where 'work' begins with the division of labour and the role of money is enormously increased after money begins to foster specialism and separation of social functions. Money both fosters and represents this transition from a cohesive and unified society to a literate, fragmented, separated one.

As money becomes less and less like currency, however, and more and more like information, it begins to regain some of its commodity value. "All media," writes McLuhan, "or extension of man - are natural resources that exist by virtue of the shared knowledge and skill of a community."

"Today information gathering resumes the inclusive concept of 'culture,' exactly as the primitive food-gatherer worked in complete equilibrium with his entire environment. Our quarry now, in this new nomadic and 'work-less world', is knowledge and insight into the creative processes of life and society."

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