Here’s a summary of Chapter 8 of Understanding Media – The Spoken Word. I’ll publish summaries of Chapters 9 and 10 in future posts. I’ll also add some extended commentary below each summary about an interesting point or quote from each chapter.
Chapter 8 – The Spoken Word: Flower of Evil?
Back in chapter 6 (p.57 in my edition) McLuhan introduces the idea that spoken word is the first technology that allowed humans to consider themselves from an outside perspective. He builds on this idea in Chapter 8, which is a little more than 3 pages long.
McLuhan uses two examples to show that spoken experiences are much different than written experiences. Spoken word experiences are participatory, sensuous, unified, dramatic, and involved. Such orally based cultures even have a distaste for silence, and a strong affectionate characteristic, as illustrated by the travel guide to Greece excerpt.
Contrasting this, the phonetic written experience values privacy, separation of the senses, and the individual. McLuhan goes so far as to claim that individualism cannot occur without the written word. It is the speed or the automatic nature of the spoken word that affords situational reactions not only of language but also of tone or gesture or action, separating it from the detached, emotionless phonetic experience.
At this point McLuhan steps back and flips the script a bit. He considers the spoken word, or language itself, as the first fragmentation of humans – as written word is to speech, so is speech to instinct. Taking from Henri Bergson, he explains how the development of language increased consciousness of the individual at the expense of the consciousness of the collective mankind. The uniqueness of language, with its ability to contain style, created individuals.
McLuhan ends the chapter with a paragraph about how electronic technology has strong implications for the future of language, or, for a future without language. Electronic technology holds the potential return to some type of collective unconscious.
How would a future collective unconscious differ from the past collective unconscious?
To what extent is spoken word (language) an extension of man as opposed to a definition of man?
I’m not exactly sure what McLuhan means with his subtitle to this chapter (The Flower of Evil). It makes me think of the Jungle Book, but that’s fire. Maybe it’s meant to be sarcastic or, alluringly dramatic.
Twice in this very short chapter McLuhan mentions the act of reacting to oneself. This concept of being able to relate to the self is a major aspect of consciousness, I believe, and found in the idea of higher order thinking or learning. It’s stepping outside a self and being able to see is from a larger or smaller scale. It’s the process of reflecting. Dewey would simply call this thinking.
The affordances of (first electric media, and now) digital media have created a different level in which society can relate to itself. “Big Data” gives us this view of society, action, experience, that we don’t get to see in a daily, face-to-face. Technology can give us this ability to relate to ourselves at different scales, however the cost is that often we become numb of the individual at the one-to-one level. Consciousness, created by the emergence of spoken language itself, may be great…but is that evil flower progressing without me?
“…always reacting to his own actions.” (p77)
“…reacting in tone and gesture even to our own act of speaking.” (p79)