Frans de Waal, “What I learned tickling apes,” NY Times Sunday Review, 10 April 2016

4  “The term anthropomorphism, which means ‘human form,’ comes from the Greek philosopher Xenophanes, who protested in the fifth century B.C. against Homer’s poetry because it described the gods as though they [4] looked human. Xenophanes mocked this assumption, reportedly saying that if horses had hands they would ‘draw their gods like horses.’ Nowadays the term has a broader meaning. It is typically used to censure the attribution of humanlike traits and experiences to other species.”

4 “Betty [the crow] achieved instant fame by offering proof of tool making outside the primate order. Since this capacity has now been confirmed by other studies … we can safely do away with the 1949 book ‘Man the Tool-Maker’ by the British anthropologist Ken-[5]neth Oakley, which declared tool fabrication humanity’s defining characteristic.”

5  The “accusation [of anthropomorphism] works only because of the premise of human exceptionalism. Rooted in religion but also permeating large areas of science, this premise is out of line with modern evolutionary biology and neuroscience. Our brains share the same basic structure  [with those of] other mammals—no different parts, the same old neurotransmitters. … This is why science nowadays often starts from the opposite end, assuming continuity between humans and animals, while shifting the burden of proof to those who insist on differences [emphasis added].”


  • Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, The Shock of the Anthropocene: The Earth, History and Us, trans. David Fernbach (London: Verso, 2016)

61ff:  “Simulations (computer models, war games or strategy games around the control of resources) thus played a determining role in the emergence of a new relationship to the Earth seen as a ‘system.’ The elites of two post-war blocs conceived the planet as a ‘closed world,’ a unified theatre where the battle between the two superpowers was played out; a vast reserve of supplies of strategic resources to make possible a faster growth than the other bloc and ensure social peace; a ‘gigantic laboratory’ with its thousands of nuclear explosions, whose ecological and health effects were studied. …The Anthropocene inherits  second element from the Cold War: a view of the Earth—and of our earthly issues—from above. The V-2 missiles developed by Nazi technology were already used by the US Army in 1946 to measure solar radiation above the ozone layer and show the protective role this played. Since the Cold War was global, the whole Earth became a strategic terrain to study. To guide ballistic missiles, a better knowledge of the atmosphere and geomagnetism was necessary. To cross and control the oceans, the oceanography of great depths had to be developed. To survey the movement of hostile submarines, it was necessary to know when and where they surfaced, and so to observe by satellite the polar ice caps and their seasonal change. …

The scientific imaginary of the Anthropocene inherited ideologies, knowledge and technologies from the Cold War. Marshall McLuhan already proclaimed the end of Earth-nature and the emergence of a man-made Earth in a celebrated article of 1974:

Sputnik created a new environment for the planet. For the first time the natural world was completely enclosed in a man-made container. At the moment that the Earth went inside this new artefact, nature ended and Ecology was born. ‘Ecological’ thinking became inevitable as soon as the planet moved up into the status of a work of art.

… Since Sputnik, thousands of satellites have circled the Earth in ninety-minute orbits. Their electromagnetic waves now envelop the globe in a second atmosphere, a technosphere. The dense network of data gleaned from satellite observations, and the heavy computer infrastructure enabling this to be processed, are both part of the solution, by enabling us to know better the human impacts on the Earth, and part of the problem, the project of absolute domination of the planet that is one of the causes of our further swing into the Anthropocene after 1945.”

  • Boris Groys, In the Flow (London: Verso, 2016)

145-146: “Today, we are back in the realm not only of nature or physis but also of metaphysics. Actually, we are almost back to the medieval condition of total divine control. Instead of nature and theology, we have the Internet and conspiracy theory. As Nietzsche wrote in his famous ‘God is dead’ passage, we have lost the spectator of our souls, and because of that, the soul itself. After Nietzsche and during the whole epoch of mechanical reproduction, we heard a lot about this demise of subjectivity. We heard from Heidegger that die Sprache spricht (‘the language speaks’), rather than the individual who is using the language. We have heard from Marshall McLuhan that the message of the medium undermines,  subverts and shifts every individual message transmitted through the medium. Later, Derridian deconstruction and Deleuzian machines of desire rid us of our last illusions concerning the possibility of stabilizing an individual message. Mastery over communication is revealed by modern media theory as a subjective illusion. This incapacity of the subject to formulate, stabilize and communicate a message through the media is often characterized as the death of the subject. However, now we have once more a universal spectator, because our ‘virtual’ or ‘digital souls’ are individually traceable. These ‘virtual souls’ are digital reproductions of our off-line behaviour—reproductions that we can only partly control. Our experience of contemporaneity is defined not so much by the presence of things to us as spectators, but rather by the presence of our virtuals souls to the gaze of the hidden spectator.”


  • Robert Everett-Green, “Two artists channel McLuhan’s extensions,” The Globe and Mail 29 June 2016 L2

“Marshall McLuhan’s most radical idea was that everything we make also remakes us. Two new exhibitions at Montreal’s Musée d’art contemporain grapple with this proposition from very different perspectives. Liz Magor, who was born in 1948, works with what McLuhan called the material extensions of the body—clothes especially, but also shelters and implements. Ryan Trecartin, who was born in 1981, is all about electronic extensions, particularly cellphone cameras, social media and reality TV.”


  • Florian Sprenger, “Academic Networks 1982/2016: The Provocations of a Reading,” Grey Room 63 (Spring 2016) 70-89.

83: “The preface [written by Friedrich Kittler to satisfy a request from his habilitation committee that he clarify the text subsequently published in English as Discourse Networks, but without this preface] often [mentions] Marshall McLuhan [and] […] carries out a similar shift in perspective from the message to the medium and, much like the work of the Canadian literary critic [sic!], associates them with the thesis that technology is an extension of man. Literature, according to Kittler, is an ‘extension or replacement of the central nervous system.’ Unlike McLuhan’s however, Kittler’s orientation is based on information theory.”


  • Friedrich A. Kittler, “Unpublished Preface to Discourse Networks,” trans. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young, Grey Room 63 (Spring 2016) 90-107.

90: “It is no doubt of importance to literary historians to study how writers experienced trains as devices that saved muscular exertion [as in Schivelbusch, The Railway Journey]. But how literature itself functions as an extension or replacement of the central nervous system is a great deal more important.”

92:  “Books, to put it bluntly, are masses of printed words. […] The goal, then, is to design a blueprint for the data stream we call literature, to identify the particular agents and positions that according to Shannon’s model act as source, sender, channel, and receiver.”

95: “With regard to the second rupture under investigation, there can be no doubt that once the data-processing devices typewriter (Remington II of 1878), phonograph (1887), and film (1895) had reached their maturity, the significance of literature changed. A historically unprecedented gap opens up between writing, acoustics, and optics—on this, at least, scholars of literature and media agree. (Leaving aside the typewriter; only McLuhan, originally [sic] a literary scholar, paid sufficient attention to it.)”

99: “According to McLuhan, the content of a medium is always another medium. In line with this insight, the following study will inquire into those powers that for a given time defined the matter of literature and the playground of its language.”

106: “–And if you ask me what became of love? … –To which the only answer can be that cultural techniques are always also body techniques.”


  • Armin Medosch, New Tendencies: Art at the Threshold of the Information Revolution (1961-1978) (Cambridge MA: MIT P, 2016)

35-6: “[Reinhold] Martin has thrown light on the fact that when [Sigfried] Giedion conducted his studies [for Mechanization Takes Command] he was part of a web of relationships that included Làszló Moholy-Nagy, Gyöorgy Kepes, Norbert Wiener, and Marshall McLuhan. Giedion wrote a preface to Kepes’s Language of Vision, a richly illustrated book that tried to make the visual knowledge developed by the avant-gardes productive for advertisement and design. Kepes’s aim, of [36] which Giedion approved, was to bring order and ‘formal coherence into the images saturating everyday life.’

In the postwar cyber-matrix, an important nexus arose between artists and theorists who were keenly aware of the influence of technologies on the environment and human psyche, and scientists of a liberal, humanist orientation, such as Wiener. The overarching theme was the ‘restoration of balance in an environment overrun by machines.’”

175-6: “[V]isual poetry was the catalyst for the new art practices that emerged in the 1960s in Yugoslavia. Concrete poetry, such as the Lettrism of the Oulipo group and the Wiener Gruppe (Vienna Group), had played an important part in the prehistory of New Tendencies [a nonaligned modernist art movement which emerged in the early 1960s in the former Yugoslavia]. Artists such as Marc Adrian personified the link among typographic [176] experiment, Concrete poetry, and computer art. Furthermore, in the double issue 5 and 6 of Bit International, Vera Horvat-Pintarić elaborated on the relationship between visual poetry and computer art in the wider sociohistorical context.

Horvat-Pintarić provided a critical introduction to McLuhan’s main works, Understanding Media and The Gutenberg Galaxy. ‘McLuhan has radicalized the problem of technology of the new media but he has also drastically simplified the complex problems of the growth, decay, and extinction of traditional media,’ Horvat-Pintarić argued. While keeping to the basis of McLuhan’s argument, according to which media have an influence on cognition, Horvat-Pintarić investigated how commercial image culture influenced the innovations of the avant-garde and vice versa, starting with Stephane Mallarmé. … [177] The effect of modern media on cultural production led to the rise of a new visual culture of images, type, and text produced by technical means and disseminated through McLuhan’s ‘magical channels.’”


  • Jamie Hilder, Designed Words for a Designed World: The International Concrete Poetry Movement 1955-1971 (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s UP, 2016)

69:  “McLuhan and Fiore [in The Medium is the Massage], as well as the concrete poets, emphasize the materiality of language and its implications for the body in an increasingly mediated sensory environment, and use similar techniques to argue their position. Both use the fingerprint as metaphor for embodied information: an example of how the body is written, as well as how, by even the most basic interaction with a mark and surface, it writes, and is physically interpellated into an order of signification.”


  • Marshall McLuhan, On the Nature of Media: Essays 1952-1978, compiled and edited by Richard Cavell (Berkeley/Hamburg: Gingko P, 2016)

Richard Cavell, “Introduction”

9 :  “The essays that follow take us from McLuhan’s first articulation of his post-mechanical theory of media to one of his last contemplations of bio-mediation. The backbone of the essays is constituted by McLuhan’s three essays on communications theorist Harold Adams Innis, in which he acknowledges his debt to Innis’s work while taking his distance from it.”


  • Richard Cavell, Remediating McLuhan (Amsterdam: Amsterdam UP, 2016)

127: “[I]f today ‘we have to read the Greek gods for allegories of media theory’ … as Geert Lovink has suggested, then such readings find their context in the mediatic discourse inaugurated by Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy.”


  • Cybernetics: The Macy Conferences 1946-1953: The Complete Transactions, ed. Claus Pias (Zurich/Berlin: Diaphanes, 2016)

Claus Pias, “The Age of Cybernetics” (11-26)

11: “In his typically aphoristic fashion, Marshall McLuhan once wrote: ‘[T]he electric age of cybernetics is unifying and integrating.’”

  • Robert Kanigel, Eyes on the Street: The Life of Jane Jacobs (New York: Knopf, 2016)

[loc 5418] “Among other foes [circa 1970] of the Spadina Expressway was Marshall McLuhan, who suggested to Jane that they collaborate on a movie about it. ‘You and I can do the script.’

‘But I don’t know a thing about scriptwriting,’ she said. No worries, he didn’t either. They’d do it together.

The two of them convened at his University of Toronto office, where McLuhan called in his secretary to record everything they said. After an hour of throwing around ideas, they were finished. ‘Got it all down?’ McLuhan asked his secretary. ‘Well, that’s it,’ he said, turning to Jane. ‘We’ve got the script.’

Jane was horrified. They had no script at all, just a collection of variants of ‘Hey, what about this?’ When she finally saw the transcript, that’s all it was, words and ideas jumping around, ‘without beginning or end,’ the flimsiest of threads holding it together. ‘This did not bother McLuhan,’ she said, ‘but it did bother me.’

Yet miraculously, they wound up with a fourteen-minute film called The Burning Would (apologies to James Joyce), thick with noisy construction scenes, jackhammers, and demolition derbies, awful screeching sounds, ruthless destruction, all set against the peaceful humanity the expressway would erase—a burbling brook, a little boy playing with his plastic pail in a spot of greenery. Nothing subtle here, voice-over scarcely required, yet oddly effective. ‘I couldn’t have been more astonished,’ Jane recalled. McLuhan had really worked it over. ‘There was a shape to it’ now. ‘It had music. It did have a thread, and raised a lot of important issues.’ In Toronto, The Burning Would made its mark against the Spadina [Expressway], and ended up being shown all over the U.S. and Canada too. ‘It’s a mystery to me,’ Jane reminisced, ‘that something tangible, coherent and constructive could come out of that mess.’”


  • Roberto Simanowski, Data Love: The Seduction and Betrayal of Digital Technologies (New York: Columbia UP, 2016)

[loc 409] “Marshall McLuhan, one of the founders of media studies, once upon a time called media ‘extensions of man’: the elongation of arms (hammer, pistol), of legs (bicycle, car), of eyes (binoculars, microscope), and of memory (writing, photography). With the Internet of things, the computer now not only takes over calculation but also the observation and analysis of our environment (reasoning). For McLuhan, the dark side of the extension of organs was also an amputation because the advent of script does not train our memory any more than our legs develop muscles while we are driving. With the Internet of things a new amputation takes place, namely that of privacy. Not only do smart things cause our reasoning to atrophy, but they do so in the process of assimilating all possible personal data about us.”

Jefferson Pooley, “How to Become a Famous Media Scholar: The Case of Marshall McLuhan,” Los Angeles Review of Books (20 December 2016)

McLuhan’s medium-is-the-message formalism has indeed provoked lots of important work in media studies. He’s the fountainhead for the modish “German media theory” that’s gaining fast syllabus traction in the English-speaking academy. The most interesting American media thinker, John Durham Peters, credits McLuhan as an “unmissable destination for media theorists.” In some ways, though, McLuhan was more a product of the media culture than its student. He seduced Esquire and the ad men (and later Wired) because what he had to say resonated with Americans already primed for the good news about technology. That’s no reason to stop reading him: McLuhan’s probes, taken as truth-indifferent provocations, really are good to think with. It’s just that the man — rewarded for closeting his gloom — is more instructive than his books.



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