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 "McLuhan as a Global Verbalizer",
a review by Carroll Quigley in The Washington Sunday Star, September 15, 1968,
of two books:
by Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore, co-ordinated by Jerome Agel.
New York: Bantam Books, 196x
THROUGH THE VANISHING POINT: Space in Poetry and Painting,
by Marshall McLuhan and Harley Parker.
New York: Harper and Row, 196x


"McLuhan as a Global Verbalizer"



By Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore, co-ordinated by Jerome Agel. Bantam
Books. 190 pages. $1.45.

THROUGH THE VANISHING POINT: Space in Poetry and Painting.
By Marshall McLuhan and Harley Parker.
Harper & Row. 267 pages. $7.50.


   The popularity of Marshall McLuhan — or, more accurately, his ability to make money — is not a function of his value as a teacher or writer, but is rather an indication of the confusions and corruptions of the society he adorns. Of these he is a perfect symbol.

   McLuhan is an example of a Celtic verbalizer, an individual intoxicated with words, for whom words replace both action and thought, and are mistaken for reality. Such a verbalizer lives by juggling words, collecting them, manipulating them, playing with them, often in complex and outrageous jokes and puns. Such a verbalizer has no concern with the meanings of words and is often oblivious to the fact that words, for the rest of us, should have some referents in reality. Why worry about referents when words themselves are the ultimate reality? Failure to establish definitions of terms may destroy communication, but that never troubles a real verbalizer like McLuhan. Why worry about communication, when words can simply be sold as words. If the world pays McLuhan $100,000 as a professor of communication and he knows nothing and cares less about that subject, too bad for the world.

   It is perfectly fitting that McLuhan's greatest hero, the hero of this book and quoted on almost every page, is James Joyce. Joyce is the greatest of Celtic verbalizers and the deity on whose altar this volume is reverently placed. The preface tells us that “Joyce was not only the greatest behavioral engineer who ever lived, he was also one of the funniest men.” The nonsense of this is not apparent to McLuhan, who really believes that verbalizers like himself are social engineers. Of the three areas of human activity: action, thought, and verbalizing, the verbalizer, by assuming that his activity is the only one, rejects the possibility of any thought or action outside of verbalizing, and, accordingly, has no way of distinguishing truth from nonsense.

   But why does the world listen with such reverence and reward so generously these victims of oral fixation? We Celts have made them the subject of some of our most interesting dramas, "The Playboy of the Western World," "Juno and the Paycock," or Shaw’s, "Candida"; we enjoy making fun of them, but we would hesitate to make them oracles. As a verbalizer, McLuhan is a compulsive talker and writer. But with all such people, if we listen a while we discover two things: that he has only a few basic ideas, and many of them from other people; McLuhan's few ideas, most of them untrue, came from Harold Innis of Toronto University.

   Although McLuhan poses as the sworn enemy of the written word, books flow from him in an endless stream. These books are not the products of thought or even of reading. It is quite evident that McLuhan cannot think, and there is considerable evidence, as I shall show, that he cannot read (certainly he misunderstands the majority of works and men he quotes).

   McLuhan's books are simply the collations of quotations from books and newspapers he has looked at. That is why "War and Peace in the Global Village" has no table of contents, no index, no running titles, no organization, no discussion, no argument. As a non-reader who spends all his time looking at printed materials (when he is not writing), McLuhan makes no effort to understand what these writers are trying to communicate (McLuhan is not interested in communication either as transmitter or receiver.) McLuhan does not read; he looks through written materials the way most of us look through the old photograph albums of casual acquaintances, looking for a familiar face. In McLuhan's case, a familiar face is some word he likes or some passage he believes, often mistakenly, can be used to support his few basic ideas. These favored passages are copied out and, after some weeks, are casually shuffled together, interspersed with a few confused passages from McLuhan; the whole is then peppered with brief, dogmatic, and usually erroneous statements by McLuhan himself, and the whole mess is sent off to his publisher. These conglomerations sell.

   About half of this book is made up of quoted passages or paraphrases of them. Most are taken from recent writings, often newspapers of 1966-1968. McLuhan is nothing if not up to date. In at least half of these quotations, the original writers are not saying what McLuhan thinks they are saying. Some of them whom I know well, like Lynn White and Ashley Montagu, wouldn't be found dead in McLuhan's camp.

   The gist of this effusion is the notion on which McLuhan has built his career: that contemporary communications have become so efficient and worldwide that the ordinary man-in-the-street of Sauk Center is the face-to-face intimate of the ordinary man-in-the-street of Dakar, even to they extent of suffering from his halitosis.

   As McLuhan puts it, the globe is now a village with everyone in face-to-face intimacy with everyone else. Of course this is untrue. The chief fact of life today is alienation of individuals, so that only a rare person, in Sauk Center or anywhere else, can establish a personal relationship with the person next door, or even with members of his own family. This alienation results from the fact that the intimate existential relationship which used to give us satisfying emotional relationships between persons and with nature have been weakened, and even destroyed, by the intrusion between individuals of artifacts, bureaucratic and other organizational structures, and abstract concepts and verbalisms, so that anyone who wants real relationships today must fight his way through these obstacles, as modern youths and artists and real social engineers are now trying to do. McLuhan does not see this because, as a person whose only contacts have been with words (mostly unmeaning words), he believes that wallowing in mountains of verbiage is not only living but is entertaining.

   To most of us, the world of electronics, of television, and the computer is a world of increasing barriers of artifacts (and organizations) to real intimacy. But McLuhan says, "Electronics and automation make mandatory that everyone adjust to the vast global environment as if it were his little home town. The artist is the only person who does not shrink from this challenge." Or again, "The electric information systems are live environment in the full organic sense." That could appear true only to a person who has never lived in a "full organic sense," just as the previous remark about artists (the one group most in revolt against the world of the computer and the IBM) could only have been made by a person who has never met an artist, but it is quite evident from his writings that McLuhan has never really met any other person.

Computer Alien

   All information systems and all computors are quantitative categorizations alien to the qualitative existential experience of organic life. That is their whole purpose, to be substitutes, analytical for purposes, of those organic processes which cannot be analyzed and manipulated directly. That is why "model-building" is so much part of this process of substitution, but McLuhan neither knows not cares to know how electronic systems really operate. Instead he pounds away at these misconceptions, telling us, "The computer is by all odds the most extraordinary of all technological clothing ever devised by man since it is the extension of our central nervous system. . . In the new electronics environment we end the Pavlovian laboratory of mechanical civilization and are primitive once more.” He defends the child who wishes to stay home from school to watch television, as he defends the users of marijuana and LSD. For: "Television is not a credit course in anything, but it very definitely has the marks of a natural environment in which the child forages and finds his way as much as any Indian ever did out of doors . . . Today television is only one of the tactile agents transferring popular awareness. Of course, color TV is very much more tactile than black and white TV. Tactility in the integral sense." (p. 77.)

   An expert on communications who is so ignorant that he regards reading as "visual" experience and TV as "tactile" is ignorant enough to believe anything, even that TV is "natural environment" in the sense that the out-of-doors was to the Indians.

   McLuhan 's ignorance is monumental, almost total. He believes that man became dominated by the visual sense at a time which he dates, interchangeably, with the invention of the alphabet in the sixth century B.C. or with the invention of printing in the fifteenth century, A. D. and that contemporary technology is now returning man to his primitive tactile (?) dominance. Everything in this theory is mistaken, since primates have always been visual-dominated (from aboreal living for millions of years), the alphabet was invented a millennium before the sixth century, and neither that invention nor printing made man a "visual" creature, although both gave great impetus to his development as a conceptualizing and symbolizing creature. In fact, McLuhan, the great authority on communications, does not even know the difference between the invention of writing as ideographic symbols, about 5,000 years ago and the invention of the phonetic alphabet about 3,500 years ago which he dates 2,500 years ago). He says, "It helps to know that civilization is entirely the product of phonetic literacy and as it dissolves with the electronic revolution we discover a tribal, integral awareness that manifests itself in a complete shift in our sensory lives." Since phonetic literacy never existed in ancient Egypt, or in China, or in a half-dozen other civilizations, this is a flat error.

Errors Cited

   But the whole volume is a morass of errors. On the same page (p.25), we read: "The Romans were the first people to enclose space, the first to achieve what is genuine pictorial space, architecturally. This occurred in the Roman arch. Neither the Greeks nor any earlier society had ever discovered the arch." Not only was the arch used in Mesopotamia before 3000 B. C. and came to the Romans through the Etruscans, but the idea that the arch is a necessary element in enclosure of space is brilliantly refuted by such pre-Roman buildings as the Egyptian temple of Ammon at Karnak (14th century B. C.) or the Parthaenon in Athens (5th century B. C.).

   It would be possible to go through this volume page by page pointing out a continuous series of such errors of factual information. but it is hardly worth the space. The big question, however, still remains: How could a man like this win the fame and fortune our society provides to him? The answer, I believe, is that the corruption of money-grabbing has pervaded our society so deeply, including the academic world and the mass media, and the qualities of discrimination and good taste have been pushed so far from the controls of power in our society that it is possible for those who make billions of dollars out of the “electronic revolution" to put a man like this into positions of notoriety and reward simply because he says, contrary to all evidence, that electronic gadgets, computers, and IBM are the only, source of vibrant, intimate, human experience. That is the big lie for which McLuhan gets suitably rewarded. And that is why so many people, especially the young, who are not yet trapped in the system, are in revolt against it, opting out, turning to drugs, sex, alcohol, speed, and violence, or abandoning their classrooms in a futile effort to influence the political process.

   In "Through the Vanishing Point" McLuhan once again goes through the same old nonsense, that Electronic Man is like Paleolithic Man (his capitals) because he is freed from the space outlook of visual, reading man and can capture all experience, including art, in one inclusive, total experience. To illustrate this, he gives us 49 pictures and accompanying verbal passages, both prose and poetry. They do nothing of the sort. Lest I be unfair, I'll quote the oracle himself on the message of his book (pp. 6-7): "The primitive lived in a world in which all knowledge and skill were simultaneously accessible to all members of the group: contemporary man has created an information environment that embraces all technologies and all cultures in an inclusive experience. The Balinese, who have no word for art, say, 'We do everything as well as possible.' This delightful observation draws attention to the fact that primitive art serves quite a different end from Western art. Like the Balinese, however, Electronic Man approaches the condition in which it is possible to deal with the entire environment as a work of art. . . . Today, in the age of electric circuitry, when information retrieval can be both instant and total, the intervening ages of specialism between us and Paleolithic Man seem quaint and odd."

   As I read this, I recall that the established science of "Information Theory” finds its chief problem to be that of separating the "bits" of information out of the background "noise" of the medium. To McLuhan, to whom "the medium is the message," there is no need to distinguish "bits" from "noise," so that his work is an indiscriminant mixture of both. Those who like such a mixture can rejoice that the supply is inexhaustible, for the waiting world has just been informed that they may subscribe to the '"Marshall McLuhan Dew-Line News Letter” for $50 a year.

LETTERS> Washington Post Book Week
20 October, 1968

"One page of McLuhan"

   I wish to protest against Tom Wolfe's review of Marshall McLuhan [Sept. 15th], especially his statement that McLuhan “is a true scholar, in the fine sense that word attained in the first quarter of this century.”

   McLuhan is a charlatan, in the sense that word has always had. His books are full of outrageous errors of fact that would be recognized as such by any reasonably educated person, and his documentation is fraudulent. Please give me space to prove these assertions. I shall restrict my comment to a single page (page 25) of War and Peace in the Global Village.

   That page reads (in part): “In The Beginnings of Architecture" Siegfried Giedion explains how the Romans were the first people to enclose space, the first to achieve what is genuine pictorial space, architecturally. This occurred in the Roman arch. Neither the Greeks nor any earlier society had ever discovered the arch. . . . There is a great gap between Greek and Roman culture, and it may well have had much to do with the innovation of papyrus in the Roman world. . . . A large wave of Egyptian nationalism submerged the papyrus industry and forbade its export to the Romans. The only person who seems to have paid much attention to this is Harold Innis in his The Bias of Communication. The Greeks had not any papyrus materials and so they were not inclined to build the road systems that papyrus, and later paper, strongly supported. . . . Papyrus meant control and direction of armies at a distance from a central bureaucracy. No such resource had been available to Alexander the Great or to any Greek generals.”

   I shall mention only eight errors in the passage:

1. Anyone with any knowledge of architecture knows that the Romans got the arch from the Etruscans, who obtained it from Western Asia, where it was used in Mesopotamia by 4000 B. C.

2. That the arch is necessary to enclose space is refuted by innumerable Egyptian and Greek buildings built without arches.

3. The reference to Giedion’s book as authority for the statement that the Romans were the first to have the arch is typical of McLuhan’s “scholarship,” for Giedion’s book is not concerned with Roman architecture at all, but is entirely on the architecture of the period before 1000 B. C. In more than 500 pages it has only two references to the arch: On page 207 it says that the Mesopotamians built arches of brick; on page 512 it says, "Vaults and domes were employed from the beginnings of architecture and the oldest pointed arch, found in Eridu, goes back to the fourth millennium.”

4. There is no connection whatever between Roman roads and possession of papyrus, and the military use of papyrus was minimal.

5. The Greeks had papyrus and wrote on it when Rome was still a village, and we still have the Persae written on papyrus about the time Alexander was born.

6. Alexander knew papyrus and wrote on it.

7. Reduction in the supply of papyrus (which was not due to "nationalism") was after the fall of Rome, not the cause of it, and occurred after there had been a substantial shift voluntarily from papyrus to parchment.

8. McLuhan should be very familiar with Harold Innis’ book, not only because he took all his basic ideas from it, but because he wrote an Introduction to it when it was published in 1951. In that Introduction, McLuhan gives special praise to the first chapter. In that chapter, on page 7, we read: "Opening of Egyptian ports to the Greeks in 670 B. C. and the establishment of Naucratis about 650 B. C. made papyrus more accessible. The burst of Greek lyric poetry in the seventh century has been attributed to the spread of cheap papyrus.” Innis makes clear that parchment was replacing papyrus in Rome several centuries before Rome fell (page 14) and that the supply of papyrus from Egypt to Rome was cut off in the seventh century A. D., two hundred years after the “fall of Rome.”

   What are we to make of scholarship like this? Is this deliberate fraud, or is McLuhan unable to read? I think that the latter may well be the case. At least it is more charitable. But let us not call work like this “scholarship.” And my example is in no way untypical. Much of the volume is exactly like this, with three or four errors of fact on many pages.

CARROLL QUIGLEY> Department of History
Georgetown University
Washington, D. C.

BOOK WORLD October 20, 1968



Scans of originals

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