April 15 2012

I Buy It For The Articles

By The Philosophy Channel Editorial Staff

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I am not a “culture critic” because I am not in any way interested in classifying cultural forms. I am a metaphysician, interested in the life of the forms and their surprising modalities. --- (Letters of Marshall McLuhan)

For members of a particular gender and generation(s), the phrase that titles this particular contribution should evoke some memories - Playboy magazine memories. It was a phrase sometimes used by those wishing to express a certain level of disdain for the, well, larger purpose of the magazine, shall we say.

Of course, there was excellent writing in the publication and the interviews were occasional mini-media events, rising to be referenced in the mainstream press. 

The following excerpt from the 1969 Playboy interview with Marshall McLuhan may reveal a bit of what all the fuss was about – and how it stimulated some to even pick up a copy…. just for the articles…. 

PLAYBOY: Even accepting the principle that technological innovations generate far-reaching environmental changes, many of your readers find it difficult to understand how you can hold the development of printing responsible for such apparently unrelated phenomena as nationalism and industrialism.

McLUHAN: The key word is “apparently.” Look a bit closer at both nationalism and industrialism and you’ll see that both derived directly from the explosion of print technology in the 16th Century. Nationalism didn’t exist in Europe until after the Renaissance, when typography enabled every literate man to see his mother tongue analytically as a uniform reality. The printing press, by spreading mass-produced books and printed matter across Europe, turned the vernacular regional languages of the day into uniform closed systems of national languages—just another variant of what we call mass media – and gave birth to the entire concept of nationalism. 

The individual newly homogenized by print saw the nation concept as an intense and beguiling image of group destiny and status. With print, the homogeneity of money, markets and transport also became possible for the first time, thus creating economic as well as political unity and triggering all the dynamic centralizing energies of contemporary nationalism. By creating a speed of information movement unthinkable before printing, the Gutenberg revolution thus produced a new type of visual centralized national entity that was gradually merged with commercial expansion until Europe was a network of states.

By fostering continuity and competition within homogeneous and contiguous territory, nationalism not only forged new nations but sealed the doom of the old corporate, noncompetitive and discontinuous medieval order of guilds and family-structured social organization; print demanded both personal fragmentation and social uniformity, the natural expression of which was the nation-state. Literate nationalism’s tremendous speed-up of information movement accelerated the specialist function that was nurtured by phonetic literacy and nourished by Gutenberg, and rendered obsolete such generalist encyclopedic figures as Benvenuto Cellini, the goldsmith-cum-condottiere-cum-painter-cum-sculptor-cum-writer; it was the Renaissance that destroyed Renaissance man. 

PLAYBOY: Why do you feel that Gutenberg also laid the groundwork for the Industrial Revolution?

McLUHAN: The two go hand in hand. Printing, remember, was the first mechanization of a complex handicraft; by creating an analytic sequence of step-by-step processes, it became the blueprint of all mechanization to follow. The most important quality of print is its repeatability; it is a visual statement that can be reproduced indefinitely, and repeatability is the root of the mechanical principle that has transformed the world since Gutenberg. Typography, by producing the first uniformly repeatable commodity, also created Henry Ford, the first assembly line and the first mass production. Movable type was archetype and prototype for all subsequent industrial development. Without phonetic literacy and the printing press, modern industrialism would be impossible. It is necessary to recognize literacy as typographic technology, shaping not only production and marketing procedures but all other areas of life, from education to city planning.

PLAYBOY: You seem to be contending that practically every aspect of modern life is a direct consequence of Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press.

McLUHAN: Every aspect of Western mechanical culture was shaped by print technology, but the modern age is the age of the electric media, which forge environments and cultures antithetical to the mechanical consumer society derived from print. 

The words of media metaphysician and, decades later, adopted patron saint of Wired magazine. 

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