An internationally recognized scholar of cultural studies, Professor Huimin Jin is a 211 Distinguished Professor of Cultural Theory & Aesthetics at Shanghai International Studies University, and Professor of Literary Theory at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Beijing.
His English-language publications include Active Audience: A New Materialistic Interpretation of a Key Concept of Cultural Studies, ‘Simulacrum: An Aesthetization or An-esthetization’ (Theory, Culture & Society 25(6)). His many Chinese-language publications include Consequences of New Media: A Critical Theory Concerning the End of Literature, Postmodernity and Dialectical Hermeneutics, and Anti- Metaphysics and Contemporary Aesthetics. He is editor of the journal Differences (Henan University Press).
McLuhan’s Thesis ‘The Medium is the Message’ and Zhuang Zi’s Argument about Technology
(Chinese Academy of Social Sciences)
The title of this talk would perhaps look dubious in the eyes of the people who have not much knowledge of Marshal McLuhan and/or Zhuang Zi, an ancient Chinese sage of Daoism. At a first glance, there would be no similarities or connections at all between them: The former is a Western social theorist in the electronic age, whereas the latter is essentially a recluse in the ancient times of China, refusing to be bothered by the mundane affairs. But they do encounter at a point of technology.
In order to expose their inner relationship that has been still obscured for many, the following two questions need to be clarified: What is the thesis ‘The medium is the message’ really meant by McLuhan? And how is the argument of Zhuang Zi about technology? Both of the questions, though age-old and of many discussions and debates, have not been fully and convincingly responded.
The Medium is the Message: What does it really mean?
Perhaps the interpretation of this McLuhanian thesis made by Neil Postman is much authoritative and reliable. He indicated as follows:
[E]mbedded in every tool is an ideological bias, a predisposition to construct the world as one thing rather than another, to value one thing over another, to amplify one sense or skill or attitude more loudly than another. This is what Marshall McLuhan meant by his famous aphorism ‘The medium is the message.’ … to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail … To a man with a pencil, everything looks like a list. To a man with a camera, everything looks like an image. To a man with a computer, everything looks like data. And to a man with a grade sheet, everything looks like a number.
Postman takes the aphorism in a way of epistemology: that how people look at the world is simply determined by the technology that they employ. Man makes tools and in turn is made epistemologically by the tools he has just made. It is quite true of Postman’s interpretation but, what is characteristic of this epistemology of technology? When the technology is regarded as a perspective, a way of seeing the world, one will be trapped in a more complicated world of McLuhan, since technology for McLuhan never produces a perspective but all-spectives instead.
In my reading, McLuhan’s thesis addresses an Integrated Way of Thinking about the medium as the technology, which includes at least three aspects:
First, by the thesis, McLuhan promotes a model of Consequences Studies, in which technology cannot be regarded solely as a technology but its consequences as well. What Postman has seen is merely this aspect of the aphorism. This is also the tenet of the media ecology which is now very influential in North America.
Second, it is the ‘unified field theory’ where McLuhan situated his model of Consequences Studies. In terms of the Unified Field Theory, the interaction of various parts of a body, or their response to the outer world, will not be operating in a linear and sequential way but simultaneously and instantaneously, dominated by a central nerve system. Such interaction is marked with sense or perception.
Third, having introduced the “unified field” into the studies of media effects which is sensual, McLuhan’s media studies will be a kind of literary studies since it attaches much importance to sensibility in his media studies. He once manifested that his media studies is nothing but an “applied Joyce” who for him studied perception in his whole life.
By the way, as McLuhan used sensibility as a criterion to technology, his media theory is a kind of critical theory, though he favours no position.
How Does Zhuang Zi Supports McLuhan’s Thesis?
McLuhan did not read Zhuang Zi directly but through an article by Werner Heisenberg, a German physician, a Nobel Prize winner, who quoted Zhuang Zi as follows:
As Zi Gong was traveling through the regions north of the river Han, he saw an old man working in his vegetable garden. He had dug an irrigation ditch. The man would descend into a well, fetch up a vessel of water in his arms and pour it out into the ditch. While his efforts were tremendous, the results appeared to be very meager.
Zi Gong said, ‘There is a way whereby you can irrigate a hundred ditches in one day, and whereby you can do much with little effort. Would you not like to hear of it?’
Then the gardener stood up, looked at him and said, ‘And what would that be?’
Zi Gong replied, ‘You take a wooden lever, weighted at the back and light in front. In this way you can bring up water so quickly that it just gushes out. This is called a draw-well.’
Then anger rose up in the old man’s face, and he said, ‘I have heard my teacher say that whoever uses machines does all his work like a machine. He who does his work like a machine grows a heart like a machine, and he who carries the heart of a machine in his breast loses his simplicity. He who has lost his simplicity becomes unsure in the strivings of his soul. Uncertainty in the strivings of the soul is something which does not agree with honest sense. It is not that I do not know of such things; I am ashamed to use them.’
By this story, Heisenberg accused of modern technologies for their detrimental effects on man’s heart, whereas McLuhan has read more: first, the story tells him that technology is not only a technology but its consequences as well; second, the effects of technology on man operate heartedly and perceptively. In the Chinese context, the word ‘heart’ is associated with both perception and conception, but in the story above, more with perception.
It is more or less a violence McLuhan did to Zhuangzi and Heisenberg when he was trying to combine them together to support his media theory of perception which is something like a field of simultaneity and instantaneity. Obviously this story is not strong enough to assist what he was looking forward to.
Another story by Zhuangzi that McLuhan didn’t know seems much better than this one:
The ruler of the Southern Sea was called Shu. The ruler of the Northern Sea was called Hu. The ruler of the Central Empire was called Hun Tun.
Shu and Hu often met on Hun Tun’s territory, and being always well treated by him, determined to repay his kindness.
They said, ‘all men have seven holes, – for seeing, hearing, eating, and breathing. Hun Tun alone has none. We will bore some for him.’
So every day they bored one hole; but on the seventh day Hun Dun dies.
Hun Tun, meaning the primitive Chaos in Chinese, died of his perceptive integrity being replaced by a culture, if not only Western, of ‘splitting and dividing things as a means of’ pleasing friends. Shu and Hu, both meaning Rapid and Reckless in Chinese, cannot understand such integrated interaction with the world, and as a result, did such a stupid job. Hun Tun represents, in McLuhan’s terminology, ‘Automation’, while Shu and Hu, ‘Mechanization’. They belong to the culture of visual space and acoustic space respectively.
Zhuangzi distinguished technology into two kinds: one is machine-like, exemplified by the first story; another is aesthetic, as Hun Tun implicates. Which kind of technology do we want, or do we need, nowadays? One may not accept the technology Zhuangzi and McLuhan recommended, but definitely he or she will have a deeper understanding of the technology of the age.