MARCH 2004


 Marshall McLuhan

(New York Magazine 17 March 1978)

        With TV, Shakespeare's "All the World's a stage"
 flipsinto "all the stage is a world", in which there is no
 audience and everybody has become an actor, or participant.

 When one says that "the medium is the message", it is to
 point out that every medium whatever creates an environment
 of services and disservices which constitutes the special 
effect and character of that medium. Tony Schwartz points 
out that one of the major aspects of the TV image is that 
it uses the eye as an ear, since it is a resonating 
audile-tactile form of innumerable gaps that have to be 
filled in by the viewer:
          In watching television, our eyes function like our
ears. They never see a picture, just as our ears never hear
 a word. The eye receives a few dots of light during each
successive millisecond, and sends these impulses to the 

        It is this open-mesh image that is so entirely
involving, even to the point of inducing semi-hypnotic 
trance;and this raises a matter that confuses many people
notfamiliar with the structural character of our sensory
experience. It was the symbolists who had stressed the
character of the discontinuous as the key to tactility and
involvement: their structures were never continuous or
connected statements so much as suggestive juxtapositions.
 As Mallarme put it: "To define is to kill. To suggest is to
create." The simultaneous world of electric information is
always lacking in visual connectedness and always structured
by resonant intervals. The resonant interval, as Heisenberg
explains, is the world of touch, so that acoustic space is
simultaneously tactile.

        Any medium presents a figure whose ground is always
hidden, or subliminal. In the case of TV, as of the 
telephone and radio, the subliminal ground could be called
the discarnate or disembodied user. This is to say that when
you are "on the telephone", or "on the air", you do not have a
physical body. In these media, the sender is sent, and is
instantaneously present everywhere. The disembodied user
extends to all those who are recipients of electric
information. It is these people who constitute the mass
audience, because mass is a factor of speed rather than
quantity, although popular speech permits the term mass to 
be used with large publics.

        Discarnate man, deprived of his physical body, is
also deprived of his relationship to Natural Law and 
physical law. As a discarnate intelligence, he is as 
weightless as an astronaut, but able to move very much 
faster. Minus the physical mesh of Natural Laws, the user 
of electronic services is largely deprived of his private 
identity. The TV experience is an inner trip, and is as 
addictive as many known drugs.The discarnate TV user lives 
in a world between fantasy and dream, and is in a typically 
hypnotic state which is the ultimate form and level of 

        The world of fantasy is an inner world whereas the
world of dreams tends toward outer orientation and 
aspiration and deferred gratification. On the other hand,
fantasies are instant and are their own satisfaction. The
discarnate TV user, with a strong bias toward fantasy,
dispenses with the real world, even in the newscasts. The
news automatically becomes the real world for the TV user
and is not a substitute for reality, but is itself an 
immediate reality.

 Death on TV is a form of fantasy:          On television,
violence is virtually the sole cause of death; it is only 
on soap operas, and then very rarely,that anyone dies of 
age or disease. But violence performs its death-dealing 
service quickly, and then the victim is whisked off camera. 
The connection of death to real people and real feelings is 
anonymous, clinical, and forgotten in the time it takes to 
spray on a new and longer-lasting deodorant.(2)

        The fantasy violence on TV is a reminder that the
violence of the real world is much motivated by people
questing for lost identity. Rollo May and others have 
pointed out that violence in the real world is the mark of 
those questing for identity. On the frontier everybody is a 
nobody,and therefore the frontier manifests the patterns of 
toughness and vigorous action on the part of those trying 
to find out who they are.

        A more characteristic form of identity quest under
electric conditions is the universal theme of nostalgia. 
When our world exists only in fantasy and memory, the 
natural strategy for identity is nostalgia, so that today 
revivals occur so frequently that they are now called 
"recurrences" (in the recording industry). 

In his book Do It, Jerry Rubin wrote after the trial:

          Television creates myths bigger than reality.
Whereas a demo drags on for hours and hours, TV packs all 
the action into two minutes - a commercial for the 
revolution. On the television screen, news is not so much 
reported as created. An event happens when it goes on TV 
and becomes a myth...Television is a non-verbal instrument,
so turn off the sound, since no one ever remembers any 
words that they hear,the mind being a technicolour movie of 
images, not words. There's no such thing as bad coverage 
for a demo. It makes no difference what's said: the pictures
are the stories.(3)

        The social myth is a kind of mask of one's time, a
"put on" which is also a form of body language. It is this
body language which relates the TV form of the right
hemisphere of the brain and brings us directly into relation
to TV politics. Whereas the left hemisphere is sequential 
and logical, verbally connected and syntactic, the right
hemisphere is simultaneous and acoustic, emotional and
intuitive. The electric environment tends to give a lot of
stress and power to the right hemisphere, just as the old
industrial and literate environment had given corresponding
dominance to the left hemisphere. The left hemisphere had 
been favored by the words of literacy, and of market 
organization with its quantitative goals and specialist 
structure. These worlds have been increasingly obsolesced 
by the instant environment and instant replays that enhance 
the simultaneous character of the right hemisphere.

        Electronic or discarnate man is automatically
committed to the primacy of the right hemisphere. In 
political terms the instant mask, a mythic structure, gives 
sudden prominence to the charismatic image of the political 
leader. He must evoke nostalgic memories of many figures 
that have been admired in the past. Policies and parties 
yield to the magic of the leader's image. The arguments in 
the  Ford/Carter debates were as insignificant as the fact 
of  their party affiliation.

        If discarnate man has a very weak awareness of 
private identity and has been relieved of all commitments to
law and morals, he has also moved steadily toward 
involvement in the occult, on one hand, and loyalty to the 
superstate as a substitute for the supernatural on the other 
hand. For discarnate man the only political regime that is 
reasonable  or in touch with him is totalitarian - the state
becomes religion. When loyalty to Natural Law declines, the
supernatural remains as an anchorage for discarnate man; and
the supernatural can even take the form of the sort of
megamachines of the state that Mumford talks about as 
existing in Mesopotamia and Egypt some 5,000 years ago. The
megamachines of North America, for example, can take the 
form of the fifty-three billion dollar ad industry for 
manipulating our corporate psyches, or they can be the 
equally vast security systems constituted by what Peter 
Drucker calls our "pension fund socialism":

          Through their pension funds, employees of American
business today own at least 25 percent of its equity capital,
which is more than enough for control. The pension funds of
the self-employed, of the public employees, and of school 
and college teachers own at least another 10 percent, giving
the workers of America ownership of more than one-third of 
the equity capital of American business.(4)

        Meantime, our own megamachine for daily living
presents us with the world as "a sum of lifeless artifacts",
as Erich Fromm explains:
         The world becomes a sum of lifeless artifacts; from
synthetic food to synthetic organs, the whole man becomes 
part of the total machinery that he controls and is 
simultaneously controlled by. He has no plan, no goal for 
life, except doing what the logic of technique determines 
him to do. He aspires to make robots as one of the greatest 
achievements of his technical mind, and some specialists 
assure us that the robot will hardly be distinguished from 
living men. This achievement will not seem so astonishing 
when man himself is hardly distinguishable from a robot.(5)

        When the viewer  himself becomes a kind of 
discarnate information pattern, the saturation of that 
pattern of an electric environment of similar patterns gives 
us the world of the contemporary TV user. This is a parallel 
to the computer - the only technology that lives on, and 
produces, the same material.
(1)-Tony Schwarz,"The Responsive Chord"[New York:Anchor
(2)-Frank Mankiewicz and Joel Swerlow,"RemoteControl:
Television and the Manipulation of American Life" [New York,
Quadrangle/the New York Times Book company,1978,from 
unrevised galley proofs.
(3)-Jerry Rubin "Do it",as quoted in Malcolm
Muggeridge,"Christ and the Media:London Lectures in
Contemporary Christianity"[Toronto:Ecclesia Books,Hodder
&Stoughton,1977) 67
(4)-Peter Drucker,"The Unseen Revolution"(New York, Harper &
(5)-Erich Fromm, "The Anatomy of Human
Destructiveness"[Greenwich:Fawcett 1975]389