Light Through McLuhan

'When faced with a totally new situation,' McLuhan famously says, 'we tend always to attach ourselves to the objects, to the flavor of the most recent past. We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.'1

He uses the example of Marx and Engels' tirade against capitalism in the Communist Manifesto (1848), arguing that 'By Karl Marx's time, a "communism" resulting from [the new service environments - the press, the highway, the postal routes ... steam and mail] so far surpassed the older private wealth and services contained within the new communal environment that it was quite natural for Marx to use it as a rear-view mirror for his Utopian hopes.'2

McLuhan says 'The Marxists spent their lives trying to promote a theory after the reality had been achieved. What they called the class struggle was a spectre of the old feudalism in the rear-view mirror.'3

He explains that:

Ordinary human instinct causes people to recoil from these new environments and to rely on the rear-view mirror as a kind of repeat or ricorso of the preceding environment, thus insuring total disorientation at all times. It is not that there is anything wrong with the old environment, but it simply will not serve as navigational guide to the new one.4

To McLuhan, it is only the artist who 'has the power to discern the current environment created by the latest technology'; 'the artist can show us how to "ride with the punch," instead of "taking it on the chin."'5

He says: 'The ability of the artist to sidestep the bully blow of new technology of any age, and to parry such violence with full awareness, is age-old. Equally age-old is the inability of the percussed victims, who cannot sidestep the new violence, to recognize their need of the artist.'6

McLuhan asserts that 'The same rear-view pattern appears in connection with every innovation whatever.'7

However, 'media determinism', he assures us, 'is only possible when the users are well-adjusted, i.e., sound asleep'.8

'[H]ow do we become aware of the effects of alphabet or print or telegraph in shaping behaviour?' he asks in The Gutenberg Galaxy; '[f]or it is absurd and ignoble to be shaped by such means.... And the influence of un-examined assumptions derived from technology leads quite unnecessarily to maximal determinism in human life.'9

The answer, McLuhan says, is the 'anti-environment' or 'probe'.