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Michael MacDonald (Waterloo) Martial McLuhan

Although the work of Marshall McLuhan is enjoying a “renaissance for a wired world,” as Gary Genosko aptly puts it, scholars still tend to dismiss McLuhan as a “guru,” “oracle,” or “metaphysician” who mistook the global information ecology for a “media Eden” (Virilio). Paul Virilio, for example, contends that McLuhan was “drooling” over the spiritual properties of cyberspace, while Friedrich Kittler rejects McLuhan’s ideal of “understanding” media as a mirage produced by the “silent theology” that governs his media theory as a whole: the dominant media of our time, argues Kittler, “control all understanding” (not to mention our very “schematism of perceptibility”), and for this reason understanding media remains an “impossibility.” This essay will complicate this image of McLuhan as a “technological idealist” (Baudrillard) by exploring an important but neglected dimension of his work: his foundational contribution to the study of media technologies as vectors of political and military power. Far from ignoring the military aspects of media, as Kittler and Virilio suggest, McLuhan wrote extensively about the impact of communications technologies – from papyrus, parchment, paper, and printing press to telegraph, radio, television, and computer – on war, revolution, and “imperial political economy” (Innis). In fact, as this essay will demonstrate, for McLuhan it is war that reveals the deepest “epistemological and even ontological significance” of media technologies (Cavell and Friesen). I begin by showing how the military aspects of media technologies preoccupied McLuhan all the way from The Mechanical Bride (1951) and its description of mediatized subjectivity as a “patchwork quilt of occupied and unoccupied territory” to The Global Village (1986) and its definition of the atomic bomb as “pure information.” With this context in mind I then argue (against Kittler and Virilio) that McLuhan’s media theory provides a useful analytical framework for understanding contemporary forms of information warfare. As McLuhan noted at the peak of the Cold War (a de facto “hot war of information”), material war waged by men and machines (the “outer conquest of space”) would become ever more closely allied with immaterial war waged by media and information against the mind and nervous system (the “inner conquest of spirit”): the decisive wars of the future will be “guerrilla information wars with no division between military and civilian participation.” In the course of approaching McLuhan as a thinker of information warfare I plan explore the following topics: information and the softening or “etherialization” of military power; information as a kinetic weapon that “reprograms” the sensorium; satellites as vehicles of “womb to tomb surveillance” (Virilio’s “pouvoir satelittaire”); infowar as a “battle” of icons, images and simulacra designed to destroy the credibility of target audiences; information as the new locus or center of gravity (Schwerpunkt) of military conflict (“real, total war has become information war”); infowar as a new mode of military conflict conducted by “subtle electric informational media – under cold conditions, and constantly”; the “irregularization” of conventional war in the age of nuclear deterrence (“all war is civil war in the global village”); the global village as a “global theatre” of war, a staging area for “maximal conflict” and “colossal violence”; infowar as “omnifrontal” war that dissolves the boundary between civilian and military media networks, public information and military deception, and even the boundary between war and peace; and others. By focusing attention on McLuhan as a thinker of media war (the martial McLuhan), this paper will offer a timely and original reassessment of the “most often cited – but least understood – theorist of the information age” (Deibert).