Graham has a post up on McCluhan and I’m not going to wade into a debate on his work. But I was wondering about these two claims, made at different points in his post defending him from the charge of technological determinism:
(1) “It’s easy to see why people say he is. After all, McLuhan’s key principle is that background medium is everything, conscious content is nothing. And this does seem to imply that all our thoughts and actions are the marionettes of some invisible deeper medium.”
(2) “it can’t be determinism given that the future course of events is completely indeterminate for McLuhan. To be a true technological determinist, in other words, McLuhan would have to hold that one medium leads to the next and that leads to the next and that leads to the next, by an inner logic of the media that lies beyond human control.”
Of course, though, I think marionettes are unpredictable since human actions are not fully determined—thus in that analogy even if I took the object to be wholly controlled by the human hands working its strings (which I don’t), it still wouldn’t be predictable. And this brings me to (b). This is a genuine question, since I wonder if this discussion is led by an implicit premise that humans are free beings and objects, systems, and ideas are not. (Read his post with this in mind and you’ll see what I mean.) I note this because it’s a shorthand way of thinking about determinism that’s usually of a type that Graham is found to be critiquing.
Of course, all depends on what you mean by determinism. If you mean that human actions are epiphenomenal, Harman only notes that McCluhan thinks the future is contingent. But that only raises the questions of whether the various media are (a) determinative of human activity, and/or (b) the march of history (it’s “logic”) of one media to another is wholly predictable from within that logic. I think Harman is granting (a) but more importantly I want to think about (b) since in fact I think one can hold (a) and not think that the future of “objects” (according to this usage) is wholly determined.
Quantum mechanics is but one example; set theory another. These are means for thinking the ultimate indeterminacy ontologically (not just epistemologically) of the the future. And thus, I could see (and this is not an argument from within McCluhan’s work—but a larger point about the indeterminacy of systems) arguing for human actions being epiphenomenal without needing to argue that one media must lead into the next. This is not simply, say, on Sartre’s account that the practico-inert must dialectically relate to a certain human freedom, but rather that freedom is not simply human. This is, in a way, a point from which to think all of Continental philosophy on freedom after Nietzsche’s critique of free will. Give up that hobgoblin, and one must account for freedom not as a factum only of human existence. (Thus the whole thinking of the “free spirit” in spite of the will to power passing through, in a sense, the various overmen.) Thus I think McCluhan could argue (a) and still hold, as Harman says, that media are inherently “multifaceted. There are several possible ways in which it can be reversed.” This is not to give into (a) (not least because “epiphenomenal” is a philosophical term used too often to do the work for a number of other concepts), but simply to wonder about the non-relation between the two.