McLuhan for the New Millenium:|
A Guide to the Digital Age
by Paul Levinson,
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|Digital Undoing Of Media Determinism
by François Lachance
Levinson is affable. He will trot out personal anecdotal hooks. He will relate his trepidation at meeting Marshall McLuhan. He will almost gush with recreated schoolboy delight at the approval he received. He will warmly mention the hospitality provided by McLuhan’s wife, Corrine. He will quote from his letter to Doubleday urging the publisher to consider McLuhan’s last book. He will gloss his failure at that time to persuade the publisher as due to the eclipse of McLuhan’s reputation or his own lack of clout. The pathos is endearing. Levinson, memoir-style, draws his place as disciple in the twilight years of the famous media guru. It is a conventional way to bear witness and to establish one’s credentials for a revivalist account. Being there at the end situates one well for new beginnings.
Since Levinson considers McLuhan to be a prophet, it is no wonder that there is an undertow of religious sentiment to the stories he weaves in Digital McLuhan. But, however much he is willing to view his own anecdotal experience through the filter of his great affection and respect for the work of McLuhan, Levinson retains a smidgen of scepticism which saves his explanations from lapsing into catechism. This is especially evident in his consideration of the limits of McLuhan’s dichotomy between “hot” and “cool” media. Less so when Levinson bravely tries to update the relevance of such arcane dichotomies as “light through” versus “light on”. Whether or not he succeeds, Levinson does provide a significant guide to a partial intellectual history of some of the buzzwords and aphorisms circulating in the McLuhan-inspired branch of media studies.
That guide is upbeat and celebratory. Levinson is ready to credit the spread of digital technologies with “a dynamic of increased and enlightened human control.” This is no surprise. In arguing that there is in McLuhan’s work an implicit prediction of the “digital undoing of media determinism”, Levinson echoes his previously published work that posits what he calls an “anthropotropic” model of media development. Basically, Levinson believes in the pull of “unmediated biological communication”, also known as face-to-face communication, as a selector for which types of media will survive in an evolutionary scheme where the good guys win. Levinson places humans in control. Nice sentiment.
I whince when this kind of theoretical position is translated into unfounded generalizations. Levinson’s is a very Americano-centric global village. He forgets to set some geographical limits to his assertions of the Monika Lewinsky affair preempting the Pope’s visit to Cuba. Levinson spins his catchy but limited riff from McLuhan’s own assertion in Understanding Media that it was the medium (radio versus television) that affected audience perception of the Nixon-Kennedy debates. However, in updating the topical references, Levinson overlooks the fact that McLuhan, in that very chapter of Understanding Media, predicted the end of bloc voting in politics, let alone asserted as a fait accompli the dissolution of the “nationalist diversity of a splintered Europe” due to electronic implosion. We can suffer the adorers of the prophet and concede that, given the current mix of media, the details of any previous prediction might not completely undermine the explanatory power of the initial insight.
Still, I want to quibble. I want to ask how the external readers and the editors at Routledge failed to query Levinson’s assertion that Narcissus drowned. In my recollection of the tale, the youth wasted away until all that was left was the flower. Double-checking Ovid’s Metamorphoses, one also realizes that McLuhan’s own assertion that “the wisdom of the Narcissus myth does not convey any idea that Narcissus fell in love with anything he regarded as himself” substitutes the clever saw, “Narcissus as Narcosis”, for textual accuracy. Oral tradition trumps written transmission. Fine.
Not fine when factual error slips into Levinson’s account of the publication history of the essay on acoustic space which was originally authored by Carl Williams. Levinson claims that the article appeared under the byline of Edmund Carpenter and Marshall McLuhan in the number four (1955) issue of the journal, Explorations. The joint Carpenter-McLuhan byline only appears in the 1960 reprint of selections from the journal. Levinson and his research assistants may perhaps be spared any criticism for overlooking Robert Fulford’s 1991 article in Canadian Notes and Queries, which in passing provides additional details on the puzzling incident by reporting a very telling conversation with Carl Williams himself. Levinson cannot, however, deny that two of his sources, the Philip Marchand biography and the published letters of McLuhan, both point out the shift in bylines. The bold thrust of the story McLuhan repeats over and over again—the great return to acoustic space in the electronic age rests on some fancy rewrites. Levinson’s hero-worship would suffer much damage if the vagaries of accreditation were wed to a careful sifting of the source material.
Admiration can be a noble virtue in a memoir, a sordid vice in a textbook. Levinson deserves praise for his wonderfully suggestive and, I might add, non-McLuhanesque formulation that the appropriation of new media proceeds stepwise through three stages: play, work, art. I was delighted to apply this to my own reception of McLuhan. As a teenager, I found McLuhan’s collage collaboration with Quintin Fiore, The Medium is the Massage, a most playful romp worthy of an advertising genius. It was fun to read. As a graduate student, I certainly engaged McLuhan’s writings as the serious business of a metaphor masher and dichotomy pusher. It was a chore. I’m not sure I can quite appreciate the McLuhan phenomenon in its truly aesthetic dimension, though, unless more of the audiovisual archive becomes available and gives us takes on the man in action, or an electronic edition of the complete works provides the basis for some stylistic analysis. Meanwhile, I can admire the corpus as a source of inspiration for Levinson’s brilliant turn of phrase, “to imagine is to disperse to infinity the prospect of a single, unavoidable result.” I imagine it is, finally, this anti-deterministic and anti-idolatrous sentiment which motivates Levinson’s ever-affable invitation to reread McLuhan. With the good of rereading, I will not quibble. •
François Lachance is a Toronto-based cultural critic.