Without Walls: A Possible History of the Present
In 1964, McLuhan described the advent of the telephone as “speech without walls”, the phonograph as a “music hall without walls”, the photograph as a “museum without walls” and electric light as “space without walls”. Similarly, he described film, radio and television as “classroom[s] without walls”. More presciently still, he would describe the emergence of electricity as a form of technology which was particular and world-changing in its own right insofar as it was “directly related to our central nervous systems”. (See M. McLuhan, Understanding Media, 1964 as cited in P. Benedetti & N. Dehart (eds) On McLuhan (Toronto: Prentice Hall Canada, 1996 at 102, 180, 184). He then warned, against any further handing over of common speech to a privatized and for-profit media. In this way, he foresaw both the coming of the digital commons and its rapid privatization in the passage from the twentieth to the twenty-first century in so called “Big Data” monopolies like Google, Facebook and Twitter. He also foresaw some of the core weaknesses which have manifest themselves in the liberal system of politics, the sovereignty and the state.
The proposed paper focuses specifically on the way in which McLuhan tied what he imagined to be the progressive technological destruction of walls to a developing crisis in the heart of western liberalism itself. McLuhan critiqued, rather than praised, the concept of progress which lies at the heart of the liberal form of political and legal theory in western modernity and suggested that a new electronic mode of production was itself challenge to the presumption of progress. It is in this sense that McLuhan insisted upon himself as theorist of the present rather than as a historian or a futurist. He understood the present to be everything one needed to understand both. Hence, a radical refusal of linear time or teleology like many critical left thinkers in the twentieth century. Also, not a classical liberal:
“When you hear the word progress, you know you are dealing with a 19th century mind. Progress literally stopped with electricity because we now have everything at once. You don’t move on from one thing at a time to the next thing. There is no more history; it’s all here. There isn’t any part of the past that isn’t with us thanks to electricity. But, it’s not thanks to print, it’s not thanks to photography, its thanks to electricity. Speed, huge speed-up, means there’s no more past. Now, there is no more history.” (Ideas, CBC Radio, 1969 as cited by P. Pnedetti & N. Dehan eds).
This is strangely reminiscent of Francis Fukuyama’s famous declaration in his 1992 book, The End of History and The Last Man, political and legal history, at least in the west, was closing with the twentieth century. In other words, that the spread of liberal democracy and the western enlightenment project was assured to utterly consolidate itself in the west and spread throughout the world with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. Hegel’s telos arrived at. Game over.
The proposed paper begins by asking what McLuhan meant by the idea of communications technology as the destroyer of walls. It also considers how the internet, which had not been conceived in 1969, might embody the de-territorializing and globalizing quality of electronic communications about which McLuhan was so prescient. At the core of the paper will be a comparison with the work of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri who are equally interested in these phenomena and their relationship to changing forms of labour, including the production of meaning and of affect.
The purpose of the proposed paper is not simply to ask if the internet a classroom, or perhaps a malevolent propaganda machine, without walls. It is clear that it is both, and more, simultaneously. Although it is not usually a formal legal question or normative political question, we must therefore ask how McLuhan might distinguish electronic communications, specifically in terms of the manipulation of affect and of collective subjectivity, from earlier forms of communications? The paper asks these questions outside of behavioral or neuro psychology, both of which admittedly might have much to add, but instead through the lens of legal and political theory. In so doing, the proposed paper addresses emerging twenty-first century conceptualizations of sovereignty, the rule of law and democracy against the backdrop of McLuhan’s theorization of electronic communications as a destroyer of walls.