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Essays: Archives as Medium

Robert Babe: McLuhan and the Electronic Archives

By Robert E. Babe, Professor, Jean Monty\BCE Chair in Media Studies, Faculty of Information and Media Studies, University of Western Ontario

Marshall McLuhan viewed all human artefacts as constituting media of communication. Artefacts, he maintained, extend or amplify aspects of the human organism. For example, the wheel extends the leg, the axe extends the hand, microphones extend the ear and spectacles the eye. Artefacts, for McLuhan, are human "outerings," or prostheses, and people are joined by or meet within their extensions, which, consequently, mediate human interactions.

McLuhan attributed momentous consequences to technological innovation. In the seminal anthology, Explorations in Communication, he declared: "Revolutions in the packaging and distribution of ideas and feelings modified not only human relations but also sensibilities." 1 Since media are particularistic in what they amplify (eye or ear; hand or foot), there is no question of their neutrality. Of greatest significance for McLuhan were those media amplifying human sensory preceptors (particularly the eye and the ear) and those magnifying the central nervous system (such as computers).

McLuhan developed several modes for analyzing the historical and anticipated consequences of changes in media. One of these methods was to apply tools of literary criticism to the non-verbal world. McLuhan claimed that language, being an artefact or technology, can properly be compared to other artefacts or technologies; this justified his use of literary criticism as an approach to analyzing media.

Before suggesting what McLuhan might have made of the electronic archives, we should inquire into the nature of archives. Historically, archives constituted assemblages of largely unpublished documents located in central repositories, accessed mainly by specialized researchers. With digitization, however, hitherto tangible documents are increasingly accessible electronically by all interested parties from sites and at times of their choosing. McLuhan, of course, insisted upon the distinction between medium and message, as illustrated amply by his famous aphorism that "the medium is [more important than] the message." Any particular document in an archival collection can be considered a "message," with the archive itself as the medium making available or transmitting particular documents or messages to contemporary researchers. The emerging electronic archive is, substantially, a new medium for delivering documents to users.

As noted above, one of McLuhan's responses to the advent of electronic archives would undoubtedly have been to employ tools of literary criticism. In this regard, he frequently invoked notions of cliché and archetype in his media analyses. 2 Every innovation, he maintained, recalls an older form (a former cliché), and, by doing so, it becomes an archetype. A flag waving on a flagpole, for example, is a present-day commonplace or cliché, but in the way that it recalls a spear with a banner, according to McLuhan, it becomes an archetype.

McLuhan, then, might have suggested that the electronic archive becomes an archetype by recalling ancient storytelling and oral histories. Oral storytellers helped maintain cultural and communal identity in the era prior to writing. For the modernist era of print, McLuhan proposed, artists like Joyce and Eliot fulfilled a similar role by juxtaposing fragments from cultures past and present in their writings, thereby making enduring patterns evident and constructing archetypes; these writers thus restored for audiences a sense of meaning and stability in the face of accelerating change. It is likely that McLuhan would have contemplated a similar role for the electronic archives, as audiences accessing the archives become more aware of enduring patterns.

A second category from literary criticism that McLuhan employed in his media analyses was that of myth. According to McLuhan, there are essentially two modes of discourse. One is the logical, linear mode of western science and philosophy. The other is the mythopoeic mode of discourse. Myth is discourse, in narrative form, which incorporates and illustrates timeless truths through particularistic stories or examples. McLuhan believed that in the electronic era, due to information acceleration and overload, people increasingly return to mythic modes of information processing as a strategy for coping. McLuhan declared, "Myth is a succinct statement of a complex social process." 3 The electronic archive certainly adds to the "information overload" that characterizes contemporary society, but it also makes apparent the "solution" to this overabundance of information by making instances of recurrence more accessible.

Finally, McLuhan employed the literary critic's categories of metaphor and chiasmus in his media analyses. The term metaphor comes from the Greek, metapherein, meaning to carry across or transport. Before the age of electricity, communication was closely linked with roads, bridges, sea routes, canals and other modes of carrying across, making the notion of metaphor an apt descriptor of communicatory processes. With electronics, the need to transport physically inscribed messages abated, but, according to McLuhan, the notion of media as metaphor retained cogency as users themselves became grafted into their technological extensions. He wrote, "In this electric era we see ourselves being translated more and more into the form of information, moving toward the technological extension of consciousness." 4

Chiasmus is a rhetorical figure of speech denoting reversal or inversion. McLuhan invoked the term chiasmus to indicate the principle that "every process pushed far enough tends to reverse or flip suddenly." 5 Compared to hearing, for example, vision encourages division and individualism, but when sped up by electronics, vision flips back into auditory or mythic modes of information processing, encouraging "retribalization." Combining these two tools of media analysis, namely metaphor and chiasmus, and applying them to the electronic archive, McLuhan might have suggested that hitherto specialized archival researchers "flip" into generalists with the ready availability and reproducibility of all sorts of archival documents, and that, indeed, the documents themselves "flip" into components of modern, even popular culture.


1. Marshall McLuhan, "Introduction," Explorations in Communication,edited by Edmund Carpenter and Marshall McLuhan (Boston: Beacon Press, 1960), p. ix.

2. Marshall McLuhan and Wilfred Watson, From Cliché to Archetype (New York: Pocket Books, 1971).

3. Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1962), p. 25.

4. Marshall McLuhan and Bruce Powers, The Global Village: Transformations in World Life and Media in the 21st Century (New York: Oxford, 1989), p. 64-5.

5. Marshall McLuhan and Barrington Nevitt, Take Today: The Executive as Dropout (Don Mills: Longman, 1972), p. 3-4.

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