September 20, 2019
The Psychology of the Machine: Some Thoughts on Mailer and McLuhan
|“||There was probably no impotence in all the world like knowing you were right and the wave of the world was wrong, and yet the wave came on. Floods of totalitarian architecture, totalitarian superhighways, totalitarian smog, totalitarian food (yes, frozen), totalitarian communications-the terror to a man so conservative as Mailer, was that nihilism might be the only answer to totalitarianism. The machine would work, grinding out mass man and his surrealistic wars until the machine was broken.||”|
|— Mailer, The Armies of the Night|
By the end of the sixties, Mailer was observing the end of the world. For Mailer, the sixties brought with it the steady erosion of the artist’s world to that of the scientist. Mailer observed that the novel was becoming less significant than the TV, that protest had culminated into violent demonstrations in civil rights and politics, that technological progress seemed to be gutting a more genuine existence of sensuality, risk, and self-discovery and replacing it with a sterile world of plastic and circuits that promised efficiency and equality but portended totalitarianism at best and apocalypse at worst.
Mailer’s misgivings are evident in his conversation with Marshall McLuhan in 1968. This is an odd “conversation” in that Mailer seems genuinely interested in debating the consequences of an increasingly high-tech world, while McLuhan seems aloof and de-centered — much like his writing — interested only in espousing pithy aphorisms and germane quotations to make himself look clever. Mailer here is smart and ready to get dirty while McLuhan is barely in the room.
What’s potentially interesting about this conversation is that both men have something to contribute about the effects of science and technology on the contemporary world, but it ultimately seems to go nowhere. Maybe that’s the only place it could go, since any prognostications about the future are truly unique, having no historical analog for reference. While McLuhan has been regarded as a prophet of the Internet Age (suggesting his advocacy of it), his work offers a warning about the effects of technology on the unwary, so in this regard, he and Mailer are both cautious of the world’s increasing reliance on how modern conveniences are changing society.[a]
McLuhan’s most famous assertion “the medium is the message” gives technology a kind of agency that has the “power of imposing its own assumption on the unwary.” McLuhan’s world is one already mediated by technology to such an extent that we only understand nature though our representations of it, so that “the environment is now technological thing.” McLuhan extends this observation into space: a world observed through the ubiquitous eyes of satellites ceases to be a part of nature, but becomes “an artwork” — information gleaned through the screen. For McLuhan the “environment is not visible. It’s information. It’s electronic.”
For McLuhan, artists deal in simulacra. Mailer, however, still sees the artist as a type of mage that can penetrate the surface to get to what’s genuine beneath. Mailer’s hero is the novelist, but one that is being superseded at a rapid pace by the hero of the late-sixties: the astronaut. Mailer’s concerns are detailed in his last book of the sixties: Of a Fire on the Moon.
Herein, Mailer becomes like the epic poet recounting the heroic expansion of humanity into space. It’s interesting to note that Mailer does not seem to question the moonshot itself, but the technology used to get us there. The astronauts seem less like humans and more like cyborgs — reducing any heroic and vital qualities to that of programming: “A human being totally determined is a machine” and “Obviously, the natural aim of technology was to make intuition obsolescent, and Armstrong was a shining knight of technology.” For Mailer, the entire NASA apparatus was a horrific culmination of engineering that looked “to the day when all of mankind would yet be part of one machine, with mechanical circuits, social flesh circuits, and combined electromagnetic and thought-transponder circuits, an instrument of divine endeavor put together by a Father to whom one might no longer be able to pray since the ardors of His embattled voyage could have driven Him mad.”
In his discussion with McLuhan, Mailer states it like this: “I think that there’s a kind of totalitarian prinicple present in this sort of avalanche of over-information, if you will.”
- Perhaps the greatest distinction in their analyses is that while McLuhan feels the world is already a product of media saturation, Mailer still feels that there’s a genuine-ness to be gleaned and fought for.
- Mailer, Norman (1994) . The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel, the Novel as History. New York: Plume. p. 176.
- Foley, Ken (Moderator) (1968). "Marshall McLuhan in Conversation with Norman Mailer" (PDF). The Summer Way (Television production). Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 2019-09-20.
- McLuhan, Marshall (1964). Understanding Media: the Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill. pp. 7, 15.
- Foley 1968, p. 8.
- Foley 1968, pp. 3–4.
- Foley 1968, p. 4.
- Mailer, Norman (2014) . Of a Fire on the Moon (Kindle ed.). New York: Random House. p. 160.
- Mailer 2014, p. 38.
- Mailer 2014, p. 148.
- Foley, p. 6.