Norm Friesen, Thompson Rivers University
(Published: November 7, 2011)
Media and the Senses
Next to media themselves, pedagogy or education—configured specifically as a “training the senses” (McLuhan & Leonard, “The Future”) or “sensuous education” (McLuhan, Understanding Media)—present one of the most conspicuous items in the “rag and bone shop” of McLuhan’s output. It is the focus of numerous articles published throughout his career and of two significant albeit relatively obscure monographs that effectively book-end his work on electronic media. As Janine Marchessault says, McLuhan articulates “a specifically argued pedagogical enterprise” that is central to his “aesthetically-based, highly performative and historically grounded contribution to the study of media” (xi, 10). In this paper, I focus on this pedagogical enterprise specifically as it develops from McLuhan’s highly original understanding of the senses. In doing so, I show how McLuhan’s contribution to media is indeed aesthetically, historically and performatively charged, and show how it is derived from a most unlikely combination of sources.
The first of McLuhan’s two book-length texts on education and the media is his 1960 “Report on Project in Understanding New Media,” commissioned by the National Association of Educational Broadcasters. This report, actually intended as a text-book for grade 11 students, provides material for Understanding Media: the Extensions of Man as well as for McLuhan’s second and final book on media and education, The City as Classroom: Understanding Language and Media. It is also in this text that McLuhan presents some of the frankest formulations of his pedagogical program and also of his theory of media. Early in this report, McLuhan draws the important distinction between the sensory impressions of media on the one hand, and their sensory effects, on the other:
Early in 1960 it dawned on me that the sensory impression, proffered by a medium like movie or radio, was not the sensory effect obtained. Radio, for example, has an intense visual effect on listeners. But then there is the telephone which also proffers an auditory impression, but has no visual effect. In the same way television is watched but has a very different effect from movies. (McLuhan, “Report” 4; emphasis in original)
The effects of media, according to McLuhan, are registered primarily on the human senses. But this effect is not simply an impression on the sense(s) to which they directly appeal. Instead, a given medium’s effects typically register on a different sense altogether, and it is this displaced sensory impact that is important. Thus, for McLuhan, a medium like television is primarily tactile in its effect, rather than being associated with the senses of sight and sound (“Report”). And a printed image can have its principle effect not on vision, but simultaneously on the registers of hearing and touch. It is worth noting that McLuhan exploits this multisensory effect of media performatively in texts developed in collaboration with Quentin Fiore (The Medium is the Massage and War and Peace in the Global Village). With their full-page photographic illustrations, and the use of juxtaposed and unconventional typographical arrangements, these books can be seen to represent pictorial and typographical “enactments” intended to play upon readers’ visual senses, ultimately to produce effects extending far beyond them. In particular, McLuhan saw his use of images and photographs as having the potential to produce powerful tactile effects. This is expressed in the title of one of these texts, The Medium is the Massage. Although the result of a happy accident, it substitutes the much more abstract notion of “message” (as in “the medium is the message”) with the emphatically tactile process of massage or bodily manipulation.
McLuhan understood the senses as constituting a closely interrelated synaesthetic system, a “five sense sensorium” (“Inside”), in which individual senses are in intricate interplay. McLuhan often speaks of the impressions of one sense being “translated” readily into another, of “sight translated into sound[,] and sound [translated] into movement, and taste and smell” (Understanding Media 60). So the effects of media on the senses are manifest in terms of their interrelationship:
…any medium which singles out one sense, writing or radio for example, by that very fact causes an exceptional disturbance among the other senses… . We may be forced, in the interests of human equilibrium, to suppress various media as radio or movies for long periods of time, or until the social organism is in a state to sustain such violent lopsided stimulus. (9)
Any question of a medium using or dependening on one sense is also a question of the reciprocity of that sense with all of the others in the sensorium.
In his 1964 text Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, McLuhan later subjected the terms “media” and “senses” to a kind of synecdochic substitution. Both categories are expanded to become much broader in signficance: The senses become the nervous system, the body, or “man” as a whole, and media become all devices and technologies–from the wheel to the computer. The latter are seen, moreover, as the externalization or extension of the former, with the wheel being an extension of the foot, the book being an extension of the eye, and clothing the extension of the skin (The Medium). This allows McLuhan to claim, for example, that “Our new electric technology now extends the instant processing of knowledge by interrelation that has long occurred within our central nervous system” (Understanding Media 249). It also allows him to explain that “the personal and social consequences of any medium—that is, of any extension of ourselves—result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology” (Understanding Media 7). In their sensory effects, in other words, media result in the amplification of some senses and the attenuation of others. In being thus extended and amplified, the senses produce still other effects that reach to all aspects of human affairs.
Up to this point, McLuhan’s assertions about media and the senses are not incompatible with the terms of an analytic, mechanistic and otherwise positivist vocabulary. Indeed, as his references, above, to “nervous system,” “organism” “processing” and “stimulus” illustrate, McLuhan does not hesitate to borrow from the vocabulary of behaviorism and other positivisms. However, it is important to note that these borrowings are metaphorical or allusive rather than substantive or systematic. They are not expressive of a serious commitment to the principles, for example, of the British empiricists, Skinnerian behaviourists or Chomskyite cognitivists. McLuhan’s work instead exhibits a strong antipathy to these dominant Anglo-American constructs.
It is necessary to make this clear in order to understand the next major point in McLuhan’s conception of the relationship of media and the senses: Namely, the counterintuitive claim that the (im)balance or (dis)equilibrium of the senses is constitutive of rationality, intelligence or even of consciousness itself—an idea that finds no place in empiricism, behaviorism or computational cognitivism. In making this point, McLuhan goes well outside of the mainstream of a philosophical tradition in which the senses are regularly subsumed well below the synthetic, interpretive powers of the mind. McLuhan instead relies explicitly on the Thomistic and Aristotelian notions of ratio and sensus communis.
Thomas Aquinas endows the word “ratio” with an ambiguity that is important for McLuhan. One significant passage from Aquinas begins with the assertion that “…beautiful things are those which please when seen. Hence beauty consists in due proportion…” (Summa 26). In The Gutenberg Galaxy, McLuhan continues quoting this same passage as follows: “The senses delight in things duly proportioned as in something akin to them, for the sense, too, is a kind of reason as is every cognitive power” (Gutenberg Galaxy 107). These claims, articulated as if with same voice by McLuhan and Aquinas, can be restated as follows: First, beauty for Aquinas is a matter of due proportion, and this proportionality holds because the senses delight in things which reflect their own proportionality. Second, this delight reflects what is rational, since the senses are as much a kind of reason as any cognitive faculty. Proportion and balance as aesthetic qualities are first transferred in this argument to the senses, and the balance or equilibrium of the senses, in turn, is seen as constitutive of rationality, intelligence and consciousness.
Starting with Aristotle, sensus communis develops from a distinction between perceptions unique to specific senses (colour to sight, sound to hearing, flavor to taste), and perceptions that require multiple senses to be registered. The latter of these include “movement, rest, number, figure, magnitude [, which] are not peculiar to any one sense, but are common to all” (Aristotle, Basic Works 567).
Fig. 1: Comenius’s explanation of sensus communis
from Orbis Sensualium Pictus (1659): “The common
sense under the forepart of the head / comprehendeth
things taken from the outward Senses.”
According to Aristotle, sensus communis also refers to the fact that our perception or awareness of a given sense does not occur through that sense alone, but arises through a combination of perceptions from another sense. “Since we cannot perceive that we see and hear, it must be either by sight itself or by some other sense.” Our knowledge of our perceptions does not arise from the perceptions themselves, but from another perceptual faculty altogether. This other “sense,” Aristotle implies, is common sense, a combination or meeting up of the senses. The result is the unified, integral type of perception entailed in the awareness of phenomena such as movement, rest, number or magnitude. As is explained and illustrated in Comeius’ Baroque-era Orbis Sensualium Pictus (Figure 1), sensus communis represents an “inward sense,” which combines and thus comprehends those things outwardly perceived through the other five senses. As McLuhan explains, from “Aristotle onward, the traditional function of the sensus communis is to translate each sense into the other senses, so that a unified, integral image is offered at all times to the mind.” Thus, in the posthumously published Global Village, McLuhan explains that
Consciousness… may be thought of as a projection to the outside of an inner synesthesia, corresponding generally with that ancient definition of common sense. Common sense is that peculiar human power of translating one kind of experience of one sense into all other senses and presenting that result as a unified image of the mind. Erasmus and Moore said that a unified ratio among the senses was a mark of rationality. (94, emphasis in original)
The early modern conception of the mind also espoused by McLuhan, in other words, is one in which balance in the senses and their coordination is tantamount to psychological balance generally.
To shed further light on this unconventional intuition—and to illustrate its pivotal role in McLuhan’s thought—it is worth citing some related passages from McLuhan, arranged chronologically. The shift from sanguine pronouncements through to a much more guarded optimism to an even alarmist tone is rather overt in McLuhan’s thinking. For example, in an article titled “New Media in Arts Education,” McLuhan speaks of the possibility of an orchestration of media and the senses:
The stage of development of the media of communication today is such that it invites a reassembly of our senses of perception. The mechanical media have helped us to rediscover [means for the] orchestration of our sense experience. And this discovery has in turn carried us back to the kind of integral awareness possessed by primeval man. (17)
Here it is the mechanical media of print and graphical reproduction that are capable of “orchestrating” the senses, to restore to them an integral awareness that is nothing short of “primeval.” And this provides an opportunity, as McLuhan goes on to argue, for their deliberate use in an educational “reassembly” of the senses (17).
These ideas achieve more complete articulation in McLuhan’s Report on Project in Understanding New Media, in which he describes the sensory effects of media somewhat less positively: “It is the ratio among our senses,” he explains, “which is violently disturbed by media technology. And any upset in our sense-ratios alters the matrix of thought and concept and value” (9).
The aesthetic principles of proportion, balance and ratio are transferred by McLuhan through means of Aristotelian analogy to the senses. From there, they are linked to “thought and concept and value.” But by the time this set of ideas is re-articulated in The Gutenberg Galaxy and in Understanding Media later in the 60s, it acquires a more ominous inflection. The violent disruption of human sense ratio is no longer simply observed as if from a distance, but becomes a matter of grave normative concern:
Our technologies, like our private senses, now demand an interplay and ratio that makes rational co-existence possible… . A ratio of interplay among these extensions of our human functions is now as necessary collectively as it has always been for our private and personal rationality in terms of our private senses or ‘wits’ as they were once called. (Gutenberg Galaxy 5)
In Understanding Media, the imbalance of the senses that would rob us of our “wits” is described in terms of hallucination, with McLuhan warning of the “endless power of men to hypnotize themselves into unawareness in the presence of challenge” (70). The Germany of Spengler and Hitler serves as McLuhan’s ultimate negative example of a hypnotized society.
Speaking of “how easily men of any one particular culture will panic when some familiar pattern or landmark gets smudged or shifted because of the indirect pressure of new media” (112), McLuhan concludes:
Spengler, as much as Hitler, had derived from radio a subconscious mandate to announce the end of all “rational” and visual values. …Spengler and Hitler and many more of the would-be “irrationalists” of our century are like singing-telegram delivery boys, who are quite innocent of any understanding of the medium that prompts the song they sing. (Understanding Media 112-113)
It is the medium’s effects upon the senses—in this case radio’s challenge to visuality—that poses a challenge to their “ratio,” and by extension, cultivates the irrationality of a Spengler or even a Hitler. What begins in the aesthetic is taken, by means of epistemology, to the realm of the ethical or normative.
Training the Senses
The first part of this paper presented four basic points from McLuhan related to the senses:
1. A medium has its effects on sense(s) other than those with which it communicates.
2. This effect is registered on all senses as an interdependent sensorium, in terms of their equilibrium or ratio.
3. This ratio is constitutive of rationality or even consciousness.
4. An imbalance of the senses induced by media can deprive an individual or a society of rationality or consciousness.
This second part of this paper focuses on the educational implications of the points listed above—particuarly of the fourth and final normative observation concerning sensory and psychological imbalances.
McLuhan’s warnings about the dangers of losing our wits, our rationality, or even our consciousness ensure a particularly important place for both pedagogy and praxis in his thought. If the intensification of some media can affect the senses in such a way as to alter “the matrix of thought and concept and value,” then it is precisely a vigorous “training” of the senses and of perception that is urgently needed to re-establish sensual interplay and unity. The “educational task,” as McLuhan explains, “is to provide… the basic tools of perception” (McLuhan, “Report” 3). This task, he asserts in Through the Vanishing Point, is to occur through the provision of “sensory situations for the training of perception” (McLuhan and Parker 3), resulting in a kind of education that is “more concerned with training the senses and perceptions than with stuffing brains” (“The Future” 24; italics added).
McLuhan does not care to define these different, sensuous, instructional situations, tools and tasks in detail. But whether he refers to the training of the senses or perceptions, the educational provision of tools of perception, or education as a specifically “sensuous” affair, his meaning does not vary. With a few notable exceptions, McLuhan was not concerned with the lexicon and distinctions entailed in education as a specialization of either theory or practice. Moreover, he sees the senses or “man” overall as being formed through the total environment, and not through narrowly defined pedagogical techniques confined to the classroom. Instead of looking to the classroom, McLuhan emphasized the role of the larger urban environment and the increasingly interconnected world, the global village, or as he often simply called it, “the city.” Drawing on his synecdochic vocabulary of extension and externalization, McLuhan writes to Jacqueline Tyrwhitt in 1960 about education, the sensus communis and the city as follows:
Now that by electricity we have externalized all of our senses, we are in the desperate position of not having any sensus communis. Prior to electricity, the city was the sensus communis for such specialized and externalized senses as technology had developed. The city performs that function for the scattered and distracted senses, and spaces and times, of agrarian cultures. (Letters 277-278)
Sensus communis itself is externalized to the city or cosmopolitan environment that is responsible for organizing and balancing the senses. McLuhan makes it clear that electricity and electronics are creating a global village, but indicates that this might imply more a kind of universal parochialism than increased cosmopolitanism. For he goes on to suggest to Tyrwhitt that there is still a need for a cosmopolitan centre to properly direct and focus the senses:
Today with electronics we have discovered that we live in a global village, and the job is to create a global city, as center for the village margins. Perhaps the city needed to coordinate and concert the distracted sense programs of our global village will have to be built by computers in the way in which a big airport has to coordinate multiple flights. (Letters 277-278)
Despite the fact that it applies to all elements of the environment, education, formation and training of the senses are still seen by McLuhan as potentially benefitting from coordinated and concerted efforts. And such efforts, McLuhan further implies, can only be provided through specialization and institutional contextualization (possibly by computers coordinating the social environment as if from a centralized control tower). Perhaps that is why McLuhan was willing, at some points, to allow that some aspects of this training of perception might actually “belong in the classroom” (City as Classroom 165), or at least in variations on the classroom environment (“The Future”). In fact, McLuhan’s most detailed outline for pedagogical praxis is provided in a book deliberately designed for use in the classroom—City as Classroom: Understanding Language and Media, a co-authored textbook developed specifically for high school students, and the last of his book-length works to be published during his lifetime.
This text is almost entirely performative or praxis-oriented. In fact, it can be said to practice, through questions, exercises and imperatives addressed to its putative student readers, many aspects of McLuhan’s life-long mediatic and pedagogical enterprise. Appropriately, it begins with a direct address to these readers:
Let us begin by wondering just what you are doing sitting there at your desk. Here [in the pages that follow] are some questions for you to explore… . The questions and experiments you will find in this book are all concerned with important, relatively unexplored areas of our social environment. The research you choose to do will be important and original. (City as Classroom 1)
The book presents dozens of these kinds of “questions and experiments,” getting students to manipulate and explore a wide range of characteristics of their social environments, focusing specifically on the environments presented by the classroom, the community and also by a wide range of contemporary mediatic forms, from the magazine to video recording technologies. For example, students are asked to take a given medium (e.g. a newspaper, magazine or radio program) and dissect it and recombine its components “to discover which of its elements are essential and which can be left out, and what different effects it can be made to have” on its audience. As another example, students are asked to explore the classroom itself as a medium, by tring to hold a class in a small space such as large closet, or a restricted or privileged space, such as the teachers' lounge.
One of the first sets of research questions and experiments in the book focuses on a relatively simple gestaltist diagram (Figure 2). McLuhan and his co-authors use this particular, diagrammatic, performative “sensory situation for the training of perception” as a way of getting students to work with the interrelationship of figure and ground:
Some curious aspects of figure/ground relationships can be seen here. First, note that the outline of the one image [the dogs] is also the outline of the other [the telephone]. This is always true of structural relations: it is just as true of the drawing as figure in relation to the page as ground. Secondly, because of the shared outline, figure and ground create and define each other… the parts are reciprocal. Thirdly, contrary to a common misconception, both figures can be seen simultaneously and held in the visual field. This simultaneous perception is, at first, easier for some people than for others, because it requires a certain amount of "un-learning". (City as Classroom 10)
The training of perception that McLuhan and his co-authors are performing involves first of all a recognition of the binary multistability of figure and ground—the apparently zero sum game between one visual configuration with another. But more important is the text’s subsequent encouragement for students to engage in what McLuhan and his co-authors refer to as the task of “un-learning” that is required for the “simultaneous perception [of] figure and ground” (City as Classroom 10). A number of strategies are put forward for students to achieve this simultaneous perception, including “squinting” at the image, looking at it with one eye closed, and even holding the page up to the light. The idea is to be able to “retain your sensibility of the dogs’ presence, and gradually become aware of the rest of the complete bounding line [so] the telephone [also] becomes visible” (10). The text justifies its emphasis on this visual effect by telling its readers that the “interplay” between figure and ground, when simultaneously perceived, “requires interval or a gap, like the space between the wheel and the axle.” And it asserts provocatively that “the interplay between figure and ground is ‘where the action is’” (City as Classroom 9).
Fig. 2: Multistable image of dogs and
phone based on a diagram provided in
McLuhan’s City as Classroom.
The book never reveals explicitly to its readers exactly why the suspension of figure and ground is “where the action is,” and why their “interplay” is of such concern. Nor does it clarify why perception would need to be retrained in order to provide access to this action or play. The answers to these questions lie not in this “highly performative” text, but in the understanding of the senses and their interrelationship that underlie it.
A gestaltist figure, after all, can be seen as a kind of latter-day, functionalist example of the type of due proportion that Aquinas observed to be characteristic of beauty. It allows the viewer to engage in the performance and maintenance of “a very delicate equilibrium” that is of the utmost importance for McLuhan and his co-authors in this textbook:
This perception depends on a very delicate equilibrium: the moment one or another figure begins to exaggerate itself or to dominate the situation, the balance is destroyed, and the other elements begin to recede and to form a ground for it. Now consider: all figures at once means NO figures—just outlines and interfaces, just structure. In your own experience, you are always the figure, as long as you are conscious. (City as Classroom 10; capitals in original)
This moment of simultaneous perception, for McLuhan, is a moment not just of a delicate visual equilibrium, but more generally of an all-encompassing sensual equilibrium. Although it is concerned intensively with a visual impression, the effect of this perception is ultimately registered on a completely different sense. Ultimately, this sensual effect—described by McLuhan in terms of “interplay” “interval” and “interface”—would seem to be one of touch. “Touch,” as McLuhan explains, “is not skin but the interplay of the senses” (Understanding Media 60). Like the equilibrium between figure and ground is “the resonant interval and frontier of change and process” (Global Village 13). It is, furthermore, the site of “a fruitful meeting of the senses, of sight translated into sound and sound into movement…” (Understanding Media 60) And it is through this awakening of the translating, interfacing power of touch that this diagram is intended to have its sensual effect. It is in this way that this “situation for the training of perception” attempts to take the reader and viewer away from the “violent lopsided stimulus” that has developed through the 500-year domination of print. It is also in this way that it can perform attainment of ratio and “sensus communis” that McLuhan tirelessly sought to restore and sustain.
The significance of McLuhan’s pronouncements, and the sensory psychology and performances associated with them, paint a picture of “sensuous education” that is ultimately ambivalent. On the one hand, McLuhan’s late collaboration on City as Classroom suggests a pedagogy of the senses that is broadly compatible with humanized and humanizing education as it persists in the classroom today. On the other hand, McLuhan’s lifelong instance on a clear, causal relationship between sensory inputs and psychology suggests a rather different interpretation. Given that he believes reason and consciousness to be be engendered (and also undermined) by mediatic inputs to the senses, McLuhan is repeatedly led to speculate on ways of achieving these vital, broadly pedagogical ends on the scale of the mass media themselves. Education in these speculations appears as little more than a set of techniques for social control and engineering, in which the senses are manipulated through the coordinated use and intervention of different mediatic forms. In concluding this paper, I consider both of these interpretations of McLuhan’s pedagogical program, and show how the first and more modest (and perhaps more palatible) possibility is consistently in danger of being subsumed to the second, more ambitious program.
McLuhan’s City as Classroom provides many examples of activities germane to the school and (of course) the classroom. However, even in the most apparently innocent explorations of mass media, or the classroom as a medium, there is arguably a tendency in this book to subvert the school and the teacher. For example, although the book takes great pains to directly address the student in his or her classroom setting, the teacher receives scant mention, appearing more often as an object of abstract analysis than as an integral part of the educational process.
This general pattern, a figurative drifting away from conventional education arrangements, can be seen in the paragraph considered above, in which McLuhan asks his student reader to attempt to see both figure and ground at once in the diagram provided. In doing so, McLuhan invokes a kind of perception in which, as he says, there are “NO figures, just outlines and interfaces.” He deliberately contrasts this to common “experience [in which you] are always the figure, as long as you are conscious” (City as Classroom 10). It can only follow from these statements that when the figure is not foregrounded, neither is an accompanying sense of self-possessed consciousness. If there is no figure or ground being perceived, there consequently is no clear awareness of either the diagram or the self. What McLuhan is seeking, in other words, is very different from the heightened self-awareness and self-possession that are part of the 500-year hegemony of print-based, linear, compartmentalized education. In an era of “twitchspeed” (Prensky, “Digital Natives” ) and Twitter, multitasking and multimedia, the cultivation of alternative sensual orientations of this kind rest uneasily within conventional curricula; but one could make the case that the educational implications of such orientations should continue to be the subject of interest, if not also of exploration and experimentation.
McLuhan’s suggestions for a more programmatic and widespread training of the senses, however, suggest rather different conclusions. This paper has already discussed McLuhan’s 1960 epistle to Jacqueline Tyrwhitt outlining a vision of a large-scale “coordination” of the “sense programs”of the global village—taking place as if from a large airport control tower. In his 1961 essay, “Inside the Five-Sense Sensorium,” McLuhan expands on this, albiet obliquely. He presents to his readers “the hypothesis that television offers a massive Bauhaus program of the re-education for North American sense life” (50). By this he means “a fulfilment on a popular plane of the aesthetic program of Hildebrand, Berenson, Wölfflin, Paul Klee, and Giedion” (50).
What was the aesthetic program of these formalists and modernists? According to McLuhan it was and is nothing less than a “stepped-up interplay of the senses,” the “reconquest of synesthesia,” a hastening of an end to “the peculiar monopoly and separation of visual experience” (50). These are clearly some of the same ends McLuhan is pursuing in City as Classroom. But the means that McLuhan will proposes to achieve them in the “Five Sense Sensorium” are quite different. At this relatively early stage in his writing, though, McLuhan seems only able to vaguely underscore the urgency of this type of program, and to hope that it might somehow be aided by television as a tactile, synesthetic medium. Again drawing a parallel to the sense experience of the city, McLuhan concludes by presenting his reader with a series of questions that are now familiar:
Is it not time that we began to think seriously about a consensus for our media, as we already try to think of some social relevance for structure and design in our buildings? If our massive new electric media are direct extensions of sight and sound and touch and kinesthesia, is there not urgent need to consider a possibility of a consensus or ratio and balance among these for our collective sanity? (50)
Only later does McLuhan arrive at a possible solution for the widespread realization of a “stepped up interplay of the senses” that would be based on modernist aesthetic principles. What is to take the place of the human air traffic controllers described in his letter to Tyrwhitt, and blind forces of mediatic change invoked in his 1961 paper, is the computer. McLuhan sees this newly commercialized technology (in its 1960s configuration of a centralized mainframe) as having the power to regulate media use proliferating around the globe. It is in an interview appearing in Playboy magazine in 1969 where he makes some of his most confident claims about a program of mass education based on this theory of media. He speaks in this text of
putting computers in the position where they will be able to conduct carefully orchestrated programing of the sensory life of whole populations... . The computer could program the media ... [to create] a total media experience absorbed and patterned by all the senses. We could program five hours less of TV in Italy to promote the reading of newspapers during an election, or lay on an additional 25 hours of TV in Venezuela to cool down the tribal temperature raised by radio the preceding month. (“Playboy Interview” 263; see also Cliché to Archetype 9)
“The computer,” McLuhan concludes, “can be used to direct a network of global thermostats to pattern life in ways that will optimize human awareness” (“Playboy Interview” 263).
This vision of sensory education as a kind of carefully-controlled media reception is decidedly not one of humanist education; it is a program best directed to the crowd, most readily conceivable using mass control of mass media. It reveals McLuhan’s life-long performative, pedagogical enterprise as entailing of the most improbable combination of elements: the cultivation of “altered” states of consciousness, justified in terms of a sensory psychology originating in the scholastic and baroque eras, and to be implemented on a scale ranging from the individual student in the classroom to vast, global systems of cybernetic social and sensory control.
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