Media Transatlantic Banner  

Listen to/download audio only (.mp3)
Norm Friesen & Theo Hug (Kamloops/Innsbruck) Education of the Senses: The Pedagogy of Marshall McLuhan

Next to media themselves, pedagogy or education --configured specifically as a “training the senses” (McLuhan & Leonard, 1967 p. 25) or “sensuous education” (McLuhan, 1964, p. 107)-- is one of the most prominent themes in McLuhan’s corpus. It is the focus of numerous articles published throughout his career and of two significant albeit relatively obscure monographs that effectively book-end his work on electronic media (the 1960 Project in Understanding New Media and the 1977 textbook, City as Classroom). As Janine Marchessault says, McLuhan articulates “a specifi cally argued pedagogical enterprise” that is central to his “aesthetically-based, highly performative and historically grounded contribution to the study of media” (2004 xi, 10, 34). In this paper, I focus on this pedagogical enterprise specifically as it develops from McLuhan’s unusual understanding of the senses. In doing so, I show how McLuhan’s contribution to media is indeed aesthetically, historically and performatively charged, and make the case for the ongoing currency of his pedagogical enterprise today. Referring to Aristotelian theories of the senses from Aquinas to the early Enlightenment, I recapitulate four of McLuhan’s basic points from about media and the senses: First, that a medium has its effects primarily on a sense other than those with which it directly communicates; second, that this medatic effect is registered secondarily on all senses as an interdependent sensorium in terms of their equilibrium or ratio; third, that this ratio is constitutive of rationality or consciousness itself; and fourth, that an imbalance of the senses induced by media can deprive one of one’s “rationality” or consciousness. The emphatically normative character of McLuhan’s understanding of these senses and their (im)balance ensures a particularly important place for both pedagogy and praxis in his thought. If the intensification of some media can affect the senses in such a way as to alter “the matrix of thought and concept and value,” then it is precisely a vigorous “training” of perception that is urgently needed to re-establish sensual interplay and unity. The “educational task,” as McLuhan explains, “is to provide… the basic tools of perception,” and also to utilize “sensory situations for the training of perception” (McLuhan & Parker, 1968 p. 5), resulting in a kind of education that is “more concerned with training the senses and perceptions than with stuffing brains” (italics added; McLuhan & Leonard, p. 25). McLuhan’s perceptual training does not occur simply by heightening the student’s self-awareness and self-possession as is the case in various forms of media literacy and critique. Instead, it arises through the suspension of this kind of “normal” sensory experience. Presenting students with the “sensory situation” of a Gestaltist diagram in his City as Classroom textbook, McLuhan first points out the oscillation it compels in perception between two possible interpretations or visual figures. But then he asks students to interrupt this multistability, invoking an experience in which there are “NO figures, just outlines and interfaces” (McLuhan, Hutchon & McLuhan, 1977, p. 10). And he deliberately contrasts this to common “experience [in which you] are always the figure, as long as you are conscious” (ibid). It follows that in the experience in which figure is not foregrounded, neither is an accompanying sense of self-possessed consciousness. What McLuhan is seeking, in other words, is to counteract one form of hypnotism and trance with another: The hypnosis produced by the 500 year hegemony of print is to be counteracted by one that is more “in touch” with our wits and sensibilities overall. In an age of twitchspeed and twitter, multitasking and multimedia, such a cultivation of alternative sensual orientations in education is both current and compelling.