All The Candidates Are Asleep

In 1968, Marshall McLuhan said, "An election is a period of programmed violence, because it is a quest for new images of national identity. The present election is a "tragic" one, because the American sense of identity has been in jeopardy from new technology for some time. Every new technology creates a new sensory environment that rearranges the images we make of ourselves. To discover and to elect representatives in a period of deep personal uncertainty is to be involved in a struggle for goals.

"A tragic hero has no goal. He has to find out who he is when the foundations of his world have fled. His "irrational violence" is a probing of the unknown. Like our own TV generation, he cannot "fit in" to a world that has changed radically...The Vietnam war has taught Americans that they cannot have a hot war in a cool, or involved, age. When electric immediacy has got everybody involved in everybody, mechanized violence is no more tolerable than mechanized education or mechanized politics or mechanized charity.

"The ballot box is a "hot box" that is hard to cool in an election year. An old-fashioned hot campaign is hard to accomidate to a TV public engaged in the "first world war ever fought on American soil."

All wars are world wars, under electric conditions. TV brings them into our homes, and some American parents have seen their own sons killed on TV news programs. Seeing them on TV, moreover, we experience all sons as our own.

"None of the candidates understands TV, either in its effect on him or society. If Canada's Pierre Trudeau is a great TV image in politics, it is because he is indifferent to political power. Anyone who looks as if he WANTS to be elected had best stay off TV. TV demands sophistication--that is, multi-level perception. It is a depth medium, an X-ray that penetrates the viewer...TV, of course, has transformed the Primaries from regional popularity contests into national image-making shows.
Radio and jet travel, like press coverage, still count on the candidate's having a special slogan, a special issue, that identifies him. TV has ended that. The press can only tag along to comment on what happened on TV.

"An all-at-once world, fashioned by electric information, demands a candidate full of puns and unexpected nuances. Such a man is one who knows so much about the contemporary interface of all cultures that he cannot possibly be deluded into any earnest regard for any one of them. The new changes are not moral but technological...

"In merely media terms, a black in the White House would have the most soothing and cooling effect on both national and international politics. Blacks make enormously better color-TV images than whites, because the contour of this image does not depend upon light and shade...

Radio politics produced a new race of tribal chieftains who "represented" nobody. They "put on" their public, like any star or any emperor. The media are the emperor's new clothes, as it were. Mussolini, Stalin, Churchill, FDR--these men were made by radio.

"Jack Kennedy was the first TV President, He had that indifference to power without which the TV candidate merely electrocutes himself. When a man has enormous wealth or power, his human survival depends on his indifference to these things. Anybody who pretends to WANT such things proclaims his inability to perceive their terrifiying responsibilities. In a word, he acts like a somnambulist, a highly motivated dreamer who prefers to remain insulated from a frightening world. But the human element itself has gone from power in the satellite age. Excess makes power, as such, silly and unacceptable.

"The TV generation has been robbed of its identity by an establishment consisting of highly motivated somnambulists. Any new technology that creates a new envirnment alters the image that people have of themselves. It changes their relationships to others. The gap so created can only be filled by violence. Such violence has no goal except the need to form a new image, to create a new meaning for the individual or the group.

"Radio & TV both create global envirnments of "software." They envelope us in radiation and information. Radio retribalized world politics, bringing people very much closer together by eliminating space and time. Great violence was released by radio technology, in the course of the pursuit of images of identity.

"The Second World War was a radio war, the first software war, the first guerrila war of decentralized forces fighting on many fronts at once. War, now as always, is education, an accelerated distribution of data and information. It is compulsory education, especially for the enemy. In this sense war has always been a major "progressive" force, both in the ancient and modern worlds. War is also a quest for identity. "Hardware" wars follow the "territorial imperative," but this is also the quest for a corporate image.

"The American colonies began with print. The entire educational, industrial and political structure of the USA stems from the printed word, as de Tocqueville explained long ago. All other cultures had centuries of pre-print existence and political organization. Hence, unlike other cultures, the North American colonies began as a decentralized group and moved toward bureaucratic centralization. In the age of software this trend will reverse, and, of course, the United States has much to lose from decentralization...

"The Establishment is centralized and specialized in politics, in education and in business. The Establishment is goal-oriented. The new software environment is is a total field of simultaneous data in which no goals are possible, no detachment is possible, and involvement is mandatory.

"Faced with an educational plant devoted to separate subjects, and training in special skills, the TV generation is baffled...The backward individual, like the backward country, has no stake in the old hardware, the old literacy and the old specialism. He is immediately "turned on" by the new software electric culture.

"By contrast, the possessors of the old hardware, the Establishment, are "turned off" by the new electric environment. Age-old habits of classification, detachment and specialism make it impossible for them to come to terms with an electric technology that offers total integration of life and knowledge.

"The TV generation is dedicated to the "inner trip" and the erosion of private identity. It can form a new image of itself by destroying the old hardware environment. Yet destruction of the hardware environment is not the goal for the TV generation. It can have no goal. It can only be involved in the struggle. The new core of the TV generation is now 12 to 14 years of age (I think it's known as MySpace).

"The sort of themes and issues that the present candidates consider it necessary to mention have nothing whatever to do with what is going on in the world. Moral concern over poverty and injustice and stupidity is not new. What is new is that the victims of poverty and stupidity are now steeped in a software environment of affluent images. The discrepancy between the old and the new images enrages the victims.

"The child standing in his crib wallows in TV images of adult life as much as the poor are enveloped in images of physical splendor (Russians were fascinated by the TV series Dallas during the Cold War for its images alone). The result is that the young TV watcher decides to bypass childhood and adolescence. The poor quite naturally decide to bypass the bureaucratic maze that denies them cornflakes.

"The new software environment of images is not nearly as invisible to the victims as it is to the Establishment that witlessly perpetrates it. The effects are the same whether the causes are noted or not. For centuries the literate world in general has been concerned with events rather than causes...

"The TV generation has been robbed of its identity by the inventors and managers of an electric software environment of global services. These managers, it cannot be insisted upon too strongly, are highly motivated somnambulists...

"Without exception, the (candidates) are men of integrity and good will who will find it expedient to sleep out the current time. Why should the old wake up, merely to confront a violent struggle for the new identity, which the young and the backward alike find it necessary to pursue in order to attain any image of themselves?

Marshall McLuhan, 8-10-68, The Saturday Evening Post

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

thanks for making this available to everyone.