Leonard Doob, in his report Communication in Africa, tells of one African who took great pains to listen each evening to the BBC news, even though he could understand nothing of it. Just to be in the presence of those sounds at 7 P.M. each day was important for him. His attitude to speech was like ours to melody— the resonant intonation was meaning enough.
There are many ideas in McLuhan’s essay that I sympathize with. He excoriates a general who argued that the “products of modern science” are not inherently good or bad; their value is only revealed in their use. I agree with McLuhan here–the General is peddling a more eloquent version of “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”. We should be critical of firearms regardless of whom they are fired on. McLuhan responds to the General with sarcasm: “Apple pie is in itself neither good nor bad; it is the way it is used that determines its value.” His point being that apple pie is a form of technology, and a person can certainly come to a conclusion about some of its qualities before taking a bite, or throwing the pie in someone’s face. Though there are many possible “uses” for an apple pie, but it does not sit in an objective neutral state until it gets used.
I also think about McLuhan’s essay with regards to an artist I know. Though she trained as a visual artist for many years, a few years ago she decided she wanted to pursue poetry instead. I am a writer (but not a poet), and I found myself very frustrated by her pivot. She had spent years studying visual art, and is really good at it! It seemed so presumptuous to simply decide to become a poet.
I recall her finding a dead moth on a windowsill, squealing with joy at the providence of finding such a beautiful dead thing, and sitting down to write a poem. I read the poem–and I thought it was terrible. I thought to myself, shouldn’t she have just drawn the fucking moth? The girl can draw, she can’t write!
I felt like she was doing the world a disservice by creating a dumb poem, rather than a good drawing. But it’s also fair to say that the world doesn’t need a drawing of a dead moth either, even if it’s quite a good drawing. It makes me wonder, what does a poem do that a painting simply can’t? Why did she find herself so enchanted with poetry, and so disenchanted with drawing? I’m trying to ask, are there merits of writing a bad poem because of the nature of the medium?
When I return to McLuhan’s quote above, I find myself irritated–a similar kind of irritation I had towards the bad poem. What is the man really gaining from listening to a radio broadcast he can’t understand? He is well within his rights to do so, but wouldn’t his time be better served elsewhere? McLuhan argues that radio can communicate something outside of its content, such that it may well be worthwhile to listen to a radio show in a language you can’t understand. But what is that thing being communicated? Intonation? I would argue that intonation becomes much more important when it is partnered with content, language. McLuhan says that it doesn’t matter if a train carries gunpowder or grain. It matters to a militia if there is no gunpowder. It matters to a starving town if there is no grain.