When you teach the same classes year after year as I have, one starts to realize that what seems like great material one year seems to fall flat in another. Many reasons exist for this, some of them obvious, such as whether or not you taught the lesson on a Tuesday or a Friday, or at the beginning or the end of the day. Sometimes more mysterious factors present themselves, such as whether or not you have a critical mass of students interested in the topic.
Thankfully, some things work even if you teach it last period on the day before Christmas vacation, such as Assyrian tortures with 8th grade boys, and the Kennedy-Nixon debates. I am always impressed how students, with very little context or introduction, immediately pick up that “somethin’ ain’t right” with Nixon–setting aside the infamous sweat on his lower lip.
What Nixon gets wrong has nothing to do with what he says. Students note, too, that the debate, while it suffers somewhat from the medium of television, has some actual substance to it from both candidates. The problem lies deeper, in the “atmosphere” around Nixon.
At times I think that Marshal McCluhan, for all his brilliance, sees everything as a nail, armed as he is with his significant insight into how the “medium is the message.” But his comments about this seminal debate in 1960 led me to following him down a rabbit hole of sorts, and wondering if our current cultural angst has its roots in transformation of our media landscape.
In a famous interview McCluhan describes the differences between what he calls “hot” and “cool” mediums, saying,
Basically, a hot medium excludes and a cool medium includes. Hot media are high in completion, and low in audience participation. Cool media are high in participation. A Hot medium extends a single sense with high definition . . . A photography for example, is “hot” whereas a rough sketch cartoon is “cool.” Radio is a hot medium because it sharply and intensely provides a great amount of high definition auditory information that leaves little or nothing to be filled in by the audience. A lecture is hot, a seminar is cool.
He continues by suggesting that television is not even a strictly visual medium. Its low definition (here we must remember that McCluhan is speaking around 1968. He might think differently about today’s “high definition” tv’s) means that we the audience have to be “drawn in.” Those who come across “hot” rather than “cool” will put off their audience. He continues
Kennedy was the first tv president . . . . TV is an inherently cool medium, and Kennedy had a compatible coolness and indifference to power, bred of personal wealth, which allowed him to adapt fully to tv. [Without this] any candidate will electrocute himself on television–as Richard Nixon did in his disastrous debates with Kennedy. Nixon was essentially hot, he presents a high-definition, sharply defined image . . . that contributed to his reputation as a phony. . . . He didn’t project the cool aura of disinterest and objectivity that Kennedy emanated so effortlessly and engagingly.
McCluhan’s analysis explains why those who listened to the debate on the radio gave the edge to Nixon. It has nothing per se to do with the content of their messages, but the medium itself.* Nixon’s earnest and direct manner worked much better on radio. McCluhan makes clear in the interview that the process of our interaction with this new media would transform western society–a society built upon the printing press.
I think McCluhan overstates his case a bit, but his analysis of media and culture have a great deal of explanatory power. I will try to present him as best as I can, starting with a long excerpt from the interview (slightly edited for clarity by myself–the ‘M’ is McCluhan):
M: Oral cultures act and react simultaneously, whereas the capacity to act without reacting, without involvement, is the special gift of literate man. Another basic characteristic of [pre-modern] man is that he lived in a world of acoustic space, which gave him a radically different concept of space-time relationships.
Q: Was phonetic literacy alone responsible for this shift in values from tribal ‘involvement’ to civilized detachment?
M: Yes. Any culture is an order of sensory preferences, and in the tribal world, the senses of touch, taste, smell, and hearing were more developed. Into this world, the phonetic alphabet fell like a bombshell . . . literacy put the eye above all else. Linear, visual values replaced an integral communal interplay. The writing of the Egyptians, Chinese, and Mayan were an extension of multiple senses–they gave pictorial expression to reality and used many signs to cover a wide range of data. The achievement of phonics demands the separation of both sight and sound from their semantic and dramatic meanings in order to render speech visually.
As knowledge is extended in alphabetic form, it is localized and fragmented into specialities, creating divisions of function, classes, nations. The rich interplay of the senses is sacrificed.
Q: But aren’t their corresponding gains in insight to compensate for the loss of tribal values?
M: Literacy . . . creates people who are less complex and diverse. . . . But he is also given a tremendous advantage over non-literate man, who is hamstrung by cultural pluralism–values that make the African as easy a prey for the European colonialist as the barbarian was for the Greeks and Romans. Only alphabetic cultures ever succeeded in mastering connected linear sequences as a means of social organization.
Q: Isn’t the thrust of your argument then, that the introduction of the phonetic alphabet was not progress, but a psychic and social disaster?
M: It was both. . . . the old Greek myth has Cadmus, who brought the alphabet to man, sowing dragons teeth that sprang up from the earth as armed men. The age of print, which held sway from 1500-1900, had its obituary tapped out by the telegraph, the first of the new electric media, and further obsequies were registered by the perception of curved space and non-Euclidean mathematics in the early years of the century, which revived [pre-modern] man’s discontinuous space-time concepts–and which even Spengler dimly perceived as the death-knell of Western literate values. The development of tv, film, and the computer have driven further nails into the coffin. It is tv that is primarily responsible for ending the visual supremacy that characterized all mechanical technology.
Q: But isn’t TV primarily a visual medium?
M: No, quite the opposite. . . . The TV image is a mosaic mesh not only of horizontal lines but of millions of tiny dots, of which the viewer is only able to pick out 50 or 60 from which he shapes the image; thus he is constantly bringing himself into involvement with the screen and acting out a creative dialog with the iconoscope, which tattoos its message directly onto our skins. Each viewer is thus an unconscious pointilist painter, like Seurat.
Q: How is tv reshaping our political institutions?
M: For one thing, it is creating an entirely new type of national leader, a man who is much more a tribal chieftain than a politician.
In his The Medium is the Message McCluhan quotes a poem of Yeats,
Locke sank into a swoon;
The garden died;
God took the spinning jenny
Out of his side
McCluhan sees the man’s interaction with media thusly:
- Pre-literate man was essentially oral. He lived in an sensory integrated world, and an “immediate” world. He lived in a world he could cohere into a totality of experience. His sense of space-time, how he got his information, etc. came within an embodied context.
- True–a few unusual people might have been merchants who traveled a lot, whose sense of time and space might have been somewhat different, but these people were rare, on the fringe of society.
- The printing press both mechanized information and intensified how we received it, “assuring the eye a position of total dominance in man’s sensorium. . . . The schism between thought and action was institutionalized, and fragmented man, first sundered by the alphabet, was at last diced into bite-sized tidbits.”
Commenting on the poem above, McCluhan writes, “Yeats presents Locke, the philosopher of linear and mechanical association, as hypnotized by his own image, but the “garden” of unified consciousness had ended.”
“Literate Man,” as McCluhan names western man from 1500-1900, valued highly the detachment cultivated by textual interaction. Indeed–we have to detach ourselves to a degree to read at all. We see the values of literate man producing “detached” scientific exploration and experimentation, promoting distance, toleration, and a political transformation away from the directly personal monarchies to impersonal democratic republics. Perhaps we can say that such values peaked in the late 18th century. We begin to see with 19th century Romanticism a yearning for a more holistic way of life. McCluhan’s focus stays on media, with
- The invention of the telegraph for McCluhan was the beginning of the end of “Literate Man,” a point he admits to borrowing from the enigmatic Oswald Spengler. The telegraph both began the process of altering our perception of time and space, and made information more direct and immediate, a feature of pre-literate experience.
- The radio followed suit quickly, then tv, etc. We saw cultural conflict and disintegration in the 1960’s because television accelerated the process of a cultural transference away from literate man. Our educational system offered all of the values of literate man, a complete mismatch with the desire for holistic integration our interaction with modern media produces.**
- Had McCluhan lived to see the internet (some say he clearly predicted it), he would likely say that such instantly available means of breaking down time and space might very well put the nails in the coffin of Literate Man and cause a deep cultural division. Indeed, McCluhan’s analysis can shed light on the division between Gen X–the last generation not raised with the internet–and Millennials, etc. Many under 30 today care little for the Literate Man values that helped found our country, i.e., rational debate, give and take, etc. They want a more integrated communal experience.^
Our current political struggle, then, pits not Republicans against Democrats–who knows what it means to be a Republican or Democrat anyway now?–but against literate/printing press man values of privacy, debate, and individualism vs. the tribal/internet man values of community and integrated life. We see this conflict running through different aspects of our society, such as in journalism. The old journalistic ethic taught that the reporter should cultivate distance and a degree of objectivity. The new school of reporting seeks engagement, communal change, etc.
McCluhan admitted that early in his career he saw the decline of “Literate Man” as a moral catastrophe, but by the late 1960’s he committed himself to trying to observe (ironically, perhaps, a quintessential Literate Man pose) and not attach value judgments to his preferences. But with an additional 50 years of perspective on the influence of new media, I think we should venture some conclusions about its impact.
I agree that no absolute moral difference exists between Printing Press Man and Integrated/Tribal Man. McCluhan’s focus on the telegraph makes one realize that the technological/cultural changes many of us think are 15-20 years in the making are really 150 years old. McCluhan points out rightly that the advent of the printing press, industrialization, etc. into traditional societies was at least in part “a psychic and social disaster.” But he put less attention on the switch back the other way–it too will be experienced as a “disaster” by Literate Man for society to go back to Integrated Man.
I agree too that something mysterious exists with our relationship to media, which includes not just radio and the internet, but all of the ways in which we seek to extend our being, including our clothes. A meshing of man and media leads to a switch in perception and how we act. For example, our reaction to COVID had just as much to do with the media we use as it did with the disease itself. I am not saying that COVID is just the flu, but it is not the Black Plague either. Without online shopping, Zoom, etc. we would never have taken the measures we did with COVID. Some will say, “Thank goodness we had Zoom so we did not have to go into work, and more lives were saved.” Others, like myself, see something not so much sinister as deeply skewed. The media we use focuses our attention, and our view of the world is “made” from where we direct our attention. COVID and the internet worked symbiotically to form our decisions.
McCluhan rightly points out the many advantages of pre-modern societies. He saw us recapturing some of those values as our media landscape transformed. I wouldn’t mind a return of some pre-modern values. But contrary to McCluhan (if I understand him rightly), we don’t see these values returning. Or rather, we see them returning, but in a distorted way. No question, visiting a waterfall would be an “integrative” experience–sight, smell, touch, etc.–in ways that seeing the waterfall online would not. The continual availability of a fragmented online experience has not given us a holistic society but one where, according to some accounts, one in four young adults take some form of anti-depressant. McCluhan might say that this is exactly what we should expect when we ask kids to spend 7 hours a day in a detached, “Literate” environment when the media they use calls them to an entirely different way of life. I would perhaps argue that what we see now is a combination of
- Literate Man reaching the end of its days
- No good Integrated Man alternative available.
One can argue that there was an “Anti-Nature” strand in the history of Literate Man, with its extreme focus on linear thought and the eye. But so far, the new Integrated Man all in all shows no signs of actually wanting to create a holistic society. For example,
- Many of the same environmentalists who want us to be closer to nature also tell us not to have children. But few other things are more “natural” than men and women getting married and having children. How can one speak of integration of our experience while excluding humanity from that experience?
- Many advocates of an extreme individual fluidty/”rights” with their bodies (abortion, sexual differences, etc.) also are quite rigid about certain other areas around race, speech, etc.
Most all of us use the internet not as a tool of integration but escape. Television, in some ways at least, brought people together, i.e., we all watched “I Love Lucy,” “The Cosby Show,” and the Super Bowl.
Richard Rohlin noted that one can define conservatism simply as love of one’s parents. By that he meant our biological parents, but also our spiritual fathers, our culture, our past. We need not believe that our parents are perfect, or even particularly “good.” We love ourselves and hopefully know that we have deep flaws that need work, but we cannot build or change anything by starting with a void, a negative. America’s problem, as it relates to McCluhan, can be boiled down to
- Conservatives should embrace tradition, but American “Conservatives” hearken back to a tradition of individually oriented, linear, and “cool” world. This is perhaps one reason why appeals to the past in American politics never quite seem to work, and only seem to further individualism.
- Modern progressives seem to seek a more communal and holistic vision of society, which has the earmarks of “Tradition.” However, progressives tend to reject the past outright as evil. They seek the impossibility of a traditional society constructed out of revolutionary ideology.
If neither vision can succeed, then our solution has to lie beyond adaptation or understanding of our new media. McCluhan shows us where we are better than most, but he can’t say where we need to go.
*McCluhan commented about Lyndon Johnson in a spot-on analysis . . . “[Johnson] botched [tv] in the same way that Nixon did in 1960. He was too intense, too obsessed with making his audience love and revere him as father and teacher. Johnson became a stereotype–even a parody–of himself, and earned the same reputation as a phony that plagued Nixon for so long. The people wouldn’t have cared about Kennedy lying to them on tv, but they couldn’t stomach Johnson even when he told them the truth.”
He also noted how Nixon rehabilitated his image by changing his tv demeanor, starting with his appearance on the Jack Parr show in 1963. “In the recent  election,” he comments, “it was Nixon who was cool and Humphrey who was hot.” Correctly, he noticed in 1968 that this was a mask for Nixon. His presidency would prove this the case. If there is anything one can say about Nixon–he was not someone who “invited people in.”
**We see the maddening apotheosis of literate man in the form of the ultra-scholar who only seeks to point out facts, and never wants to commit to a conclusion, never wants to integrate his knowledge into anything cohesive or final. As for McCluhan’s point about “immediacy” and “participation,” think of the impact of television on the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s. Everyone could see the images, the marches, and participate to a degree in the “cultural moment.”
^Note the stereotype of the detached, unengaged Gen X’er, with slacker anti-heroes, i.e., The Breakfast Club and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, etc. — very different movies, but with the same overall theme. Today’s heroes tend to be about “family”–think Amazon’s series The Expanse and the Fast and Furious franchise.