In one of my classes we’re reading McLuhan’s Understanding Media, and today I called my students’ attention to this passage:
Alexis de Tocqueville was the first to master the grammar of print and typography. He was thus able to read off the message of coming change in France and America as if he were reading aloud from a text that had been handed to him…. Tocqueville was a highly literate aristocrat who was quite able to be detached from the values and assumptions of typography. That is why he alone understood the grammar of typography. And it is only on those terms, standing aside from any structure or medium, that its principles and lines of force can be discerned. For any medium has the power of imposing its own assumption on the unwary. Prediction and control consist in avoiding this subliminal state of Narcissus trance. But the greatest aid to this end is simply in knowing that the spell can occur immediately upon contact, as in the first bars of a melody.
I pointed out to them McLuhan’s implicit claim: that he stands in the same relation to the new electronic age as Tocqueville stood to “typographic man.” He is an acute observer of the world he is describing to us, but not a native of it, and his slight distance is the key to his perceptiveness. I asked them to be especially attentive to his metaphor of “the spell” – and then I told them, “Basically, McLuhan is applying for the position of Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher for our entire culture.”
Most of them looked blankly at me.