Tuesday, August 13, 2013

McLuhan on Typewriters

I recently picked up at Brattle for a whole dollar Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The extensions of Man (New York: McGraw Hill, 1966). Perhaps I paid too much, but the book was appropriately used. Underlining in red and blue ball point point pen, many pages with a super-abundance of check marks, and inane comments thrown in for nothing. Like the claim that "post hoc ergo propter hoc" is a "confusion of cause and effect." It may well be that McLuhan is often guilty of confusing the two, but this is not the same as confusing mere temporal succession as a causal relation. The book had the reader it deserved—or so I think. I am, of course, a mere meta-reader.

I liked the comment by Dwight MacDonald in the New York Herald Tribune, reprinted on the back cover: "Compared with Mr. McLuhan, Spengler is cautious and Toynbee positively pedantic." Ah well ...

One of "the extensions of man" is, of course, the typewriter (258-264). Except, it turns out it that if we believe McLuhan it is really more an extension of woman, as wave after wave "of female typists hit the business office" beginning in 1890 (259). As to the typist: "She was a style-maker who was also eager to follow style" (259). And, as "much as the typewriter, the typist brought into business a new dimension of the uniform, the homogeneous, and the continuous that has made the typewriter indispensable to every aspect of mechanical industry" (259). Remember, "post hoc, ergo ..."?

"An army needs more typewriters than medium and light artillery pieces, even in the field, suggesting that the typewriter now fuses the functions of the pen and the sword" (259). But, the "poet or novelist now composes on the typewriter" (260). Henry James is the example he uses: he "found dictating not only easier but more inspiring than composing by hand. 'It all seems to be so much more effectively and unceasingly pulled out of me than in writing'" (260). Nice ... but this is at best incidentally related to typewriters. Typewriters are neither necessary nor entirely sufficient for the practice of dictation. But the non-sequitur is necessary for the rest of McLuhan's account which somehow issues in the claim that E. E. Cummings used the typewriter "to provide a poem with a musical score for choral speech" (261).

And so on:
Just how much the typewriter has contributed by its unjustified right-hand margin to the development of vers libre would be hard to discover, but free verse was really recovery of spoken, dramatic stress in poetry, and the typewriter encouraged exactly this quality (261).
Isn't it interesting that the "typewriter carried the Gutenberg technology into every nook and cranny of our culture and economy", produced also "these opposite oral effects"? Perhaps it would, if it did. McLuhan is confident just because "such a reversal of form happens in all extremes of advance technology, as with the wheel today" (262).

He seems to have nothing to say about how the typewriter might influence our thinking—at least not in this context. It's just that he thinks the typewriter makes the author into printer and publisher and thus serves to end "old dichotomies" between culture and technology, between art and commerce, and between work and leisure" (346f.). Sure it did ...

The same thing seems to hold for "automation" or "the invasion of the mechanical world by the instantaneous character of electricity" (349). It is not an extension of the mechanical principle of fragmentation and separation of operations, but serves to unify.[1]

1. I am glad that it is only the "instantaneous character of electricity" that invades, for electricity itself might have the opposite effect. I am also glad to find out that a "conscious computer would still be one that was an extension of our consciousness, as a telescope is an extension of our eyes, or as a ventriloquist's dummy is an extension of the ventriloquist" (351), though I am left to wonder about the "self-amputation" that accompany such technologies (see p. 45f.).

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