Review of Remediating McLuhan

Remediating McLuhan
by Richard Cavell

Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam, NL, 2016

202 pp. Trade, $99.00

ISBN: 9789089649508

Reviewed by
Anthony Enns
August 2017

Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan became a minor celebrity following the publication of his seminal works The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) and Understanding Media (1964). In subsequent decades, however, his work was often ridiculed as either impenetrable or politically naïve. Richard Cavell’s new book, Remediating McLuhan, argues that the rejection of McLuhan’s work was largely due to the fact that he was more interested in the effects of media technologies than the content of media texts, which placed him in opposition to the New Left, yet many of his ideas anticipated and were in some cases even more radical than those of subsequent theorists, which makes his work more relevant today than ever before. Cavell’s book thus has two major objectives: to provide an introduction to McLuhan’s key concepts, and to identify the connections between his ideas and those of contemporary critics.

One of these key concepts is McLuhan’s emphasis on the cognitive effects of media technologies. According to McLuhan, for example, the shift from print to electronic media represented a shift from visual to acoustic space, which “challenges received notions of subjectivity, cannot be limited to a single point of view, and questions rationalist assumptions about experiential phenomena” (34). The linear patterns of thought associated with Enlightenment rationality were thus based on the material properties of the book, while electronic media inspired non-linear ways of thinking that privilege dialogue over monologue. This idea anticipated Robert Darnton and Anthony Grafton’s claim that electronic media transform the practice of reading and academic research as well as N. Katherine Hayles’ and Daniel Pink’s claim that electronic media influence how we think—a field that is often referred to as “media epistemology.” Cavell also argues that McLuhan’s historical analysis of medial shifts was more radical than Michel Foucault’s historical analysis of epistemic shifts, as Foucault failed to take into account how mediation influences the formation of knowledge. McLuhan’s work thus anticipated Friedrich Kittler’s concept of “discourse networks,” which led to the rise of “media archeology.”

Another key concept is McLuhan’s claim that media technologies do not simply transfer but also transform information and that the speed of this transformation creates diverse patterns of organization. Instead of promoting technological determinism, McLuhan thus saw media effects as inherently indeterminate. According to Cavell, this idea anticipated “the contemporary turn in physics from laws to probability” (96), such as the work of Luciano Floridi, who similarly claims that computational determinism is fundamentally impossible.

McLuhan also argued that media technologies represent extensions of consciousness, as consciousness emerges from the interaction between individual subjects and material interfaces. McLuhan consequently rejected the notion of individual identity in favor of the concept of corporate identity, as the self only exists in relation to others. This rejection of self-presence anticipated Jacques Derrida’s famous critique of speech as presence as well as Andy Clark and David Chalmers’ theory of extended mind and Antonio Damasio’s post-Cartesian concept of consciousness.

McLuhan also characterized media technologies as extensions of the body, which blurred the boundaries between humans and machines. The larger implication of this idea was that the category of the human was actually based on forms of mediation: “We are human through our technologies: they are the pre-condition of our being human” (11). McLuhan thus anticipated the rise of posthuman theory, such as Freeman Dyson’s vision of the future of biotechnology, Vilém Flusser’s biological notion of mediation, Eugene Thacker’s notion of the body as a medium, and Bernard Stiegler’s notion that the human is constituted through its exteriorization in technical objects.

McLuhan also claimed that mediation constitutes an environment, which blurred the boundaries between nature and culture or the organic and the technological. McLuhan thus saw culture as “a continuation of nature, rather than its overcoming” (113), which anticipated Jean-Luc Nancy’s concept of “ecotechnics” and the rise of “media ecology.”

Lastly, McLuhan attempted to expose the invisible effects of media environments through the creation of counter-environments. His method of media critique thus reflected a dialogic structure borrowed from literacy, which allowed him to retain “aspects of print culture to which he had often proclaimed his loyalty” (105). Cavell also refutes the idea that McLuhan’s work was politically naïve by arguing that his approach was gradually recognized as more politically relevant than Marxist ideology critique: “It was only with the collapse of the New Left... that McLuhan’s work re-entered a critical discourse that now easily meshes media theory with social critique” (111).

While Cavell does an excellent job of outlining McLuhan’s key concepts and establishing connections between his ideas and those of subsequent theorists, the political dimensions of McLuhan’s media critique still remain somewhat unclear. This seems to be a particularly significant gap considering the fact that McLuhan’s lack of political engagement was often seen as the primary reason for the widespread rejection of his work, and it would have been helpful to provide a more detailed explanation of the political implications of McLuhan’s work and how it relates to contemporary social issues. McLuhan’s concept of the “global village” was also frequently ridiculed as a form of naïve utopianism, and although Cavell notes that this ridicule was largely based on a misinterpretation and oversimplification of the concept it still remains unclear how it relates to—or potentially anticipates—contemporary theories of globalization. Nevertheless, Cavell’s book still provides an extremely valuable introduction to McLuhan’s work, and his central claim that “McLuhan was and remains foundational to the discipline of media studies as we know it today” (58) is not only convincing but long overdue.