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The Cultural Metaphysics of Marshall McLuhan
by Charles Levin

"I am not a `culture critic' because I am not in any way interested in classifying cultural forms. I am a metaphysician, interested in the life of the forms and their surprising modalities."-Marshall McLuhan

Essential McLuhan is just what its title promises. The texts chosen are not only the essential McLuhan, representing the best in the wide range of his books, essays, lectures, and interviews; but, as the missing definite article seems to suggest, they may be considered basic reading in themselves, at least for those who are inclined to speculate about the condition of the world at the end of the second millennium.
In a brief but useful introduction, the editors argue that the significance of McLuhan's work has grown since his death in 1980. After achieving a degree of notoriety unparalleled by any university professor before or after, his reputation has generally declined since the late 1960s. But his influence has never ceased to grow and spread. His remarkable way of seeing the world has been so deeply and passively absorbed into the grain of our culture, between the pixels of the self-image of the postmodern world, that its sudden resurrection seems like the realization of a prophecy. "Marshall McLuhan's reputation has been in a sort of hiatus waiting for electronic reality to catch up," the editors explain.
This is a second coming that seems to run exactly parallel to the increasing integration, and digital synthesis, of electronic technologies. The rapid development of the personal computer in the last ten years has generated a feverish climate of utopian apprehension that self-consciously draws on the countercultural rhetoric of McLuhanism three decades before. A recent issue of Wired actually proclaims him as the "patron saint" of the electronic frontier, featuring a seance with McLuhan himself, appropriately conducted through the "medium" of cyberspace, where his digital phantom is said to be haunting a certain mailing list on the Internet.
The editors, Eric McLuhan and Frank Zingrone (of York University), are well-known in the communications field and, as the reader may easily guess, Eric is Marshall's son. He is also co-author, with his father, of Laws of Media, a brief excerpt of which appears in this collection. Zingrone and McLuhan have adopted the sensible strategy of dividing the mass of McLuhan's writings into a four-part structure that groups the texts according to themes: the commodification of culture; the transition from print to electronic media; McLuhan's inimitable interviews, aphorisms, and utterances; and finally, a showcase of his ideas about aesthetic perception as a form of social cognition. They have also provided a very welcome "annotated contents" at the back, which includes helpful summaries and background information for each selection. The only disappointment is a minor oversight: no page references have been supplied for those who wish to refer to the original sources.
As if in homage to McLuhan's talent, scandalous in his day, for discovering depth in commercial packaging, even the cover of Essential McLuhan offers a commentary on his conceptual legacy. The front of the book displays an oval black-and-white photo of the Toronto don himself, set off-centre against a cheerfully bright design, composed of blown-up segments of his hand, his eye (Cyclopean), and a few tangled flower leaves. He wears a wry smile and a somewhat clownish jacket, in a jaunty pose with three fingers casually spread downward, as if he were signalling to us in code. The impression is of a bemused jester waiting for his sovereign to "get with it." The emphasis here on the visual sensory modality, which was the focus of all McLuhan's ambivalence about Western civilization, suggests an ironic comment on the author himself. Perhaps it implies the need for a critical re-evaluation of his ideas about vision, which were based on an innovative, but overly reductionistic, theory of sensory ratios.
The back cover is just as apropos. One looks for the blurb and finds the conventional lines of type buried in a welter of horizontal and vertical icons and graphics. Something seems to be exploding through the neatly ordered surface of the text, and the eye is distracted from its printed track. With some internal resistance, we manage to read the first line: "Marshall McLuhan's insights are fresher and more applicable today than when he first announced them to a startled world in the 1960s."
Can this be true?
As I have suggested above, there is indeed a sense in which McLuhan's apparent significance has been "waiting for electronic reality to catch up." The next sentence in the blurb seems to confirm the truth of this: "A whole new generation is turning to his work to understand a global village made real by the information superhighway." Of course! The Internet and the World Wide Web merely reiterate what he had already perceived in the pattern of contemporary technological development: cool, decentralized, digital. The intuitive connections are immediate, and there seems no reason to dispute their prima facie validity.
But it is precisely the obviousness of these statements-the ease with which we acquiesce to the image of McLuhan as the prophet of cyberspace-which should make us wonder about, and reconsider, the terms in which his contemporary relevance is being posed. I suspect that he himself would have been uncomfortable with the neatness of the current electronic fit, the sheer congruence of McLuhanism and actuality. The implied transparency of word and world would have made him want to say something disruptive and satirical.
He was the intellectual equivalent of Edgar Allen Poe's "imp of the perverse" (as pictured on the front cover). Not to appreciate this is to misunderstand the McLuhan spirit, to overlook the deep commitment to a controversial exploration that drove his academic career. Had he suspected that people would take his theories so literally, he would immediately have set about sabotaging the theories. The possibility of a linear relationship to reality would have appalled him. Remember, he was schooled in early modernism and the literary New Criticism, the world of T. S. Eliot and James Joyce, of texts as exotic worlds unto themselves, the death of God (in whom he believed nevertheless), and "the seven types of ambiguity". Nothing would have inclined him more to skepticism than the thought of playing spokesperson for the technological establishment.
If we have finally caught up to "electronic reality"-if it has at last become our conventional environment-then McLuhan would have resisted it through the perverse celebration of an "anti-environment". He made precisely this conjecture about William Blake, who also explored relations between media, and combined them with prophetic acumen: "Had he encountered the electric age," McLuhan imagined, "Blake would not have met its challenge with a mere repetition of electric form." All McLuhan's propositions about media cast doubt on the possibility of a mimetic, or purely descriptive, relationship to "reality". If his ghost were indeed haunting our global village, it would have refused the seance with Wired.
I think that the metaphor of the "information superhighway" would have suggested to McLuhan that our huckstering electronic ethos has actually failed to "catch up to electronic reality." According to McLuhan, in The Medium is the Massage, "when faced with a totally new situation, we tend always to attach ourselves to the objects, to the flavour of the most recent past. We look at the present through a rear-view mirror, we march backwards into the future." The rhetoric of the superhighway exemplifies all of his reservations about the linear thinking of industrial growth societies, and the visual bias of "typographic" man. He believed that the invention of perspective technique in Renaissance painting went hand in hand with the invention of the printing press: both heralded the isolation and specialization of the visual sense characteristic of much modern rationality.
The image of the superhighway is a perfect image of the linearity that McLuhan ascribed to the overheated visual sense. In contrast to the superhighway, which proceeds from point to point without reference to the surrounding environment, the cyberspace of computerized communication is an imaginary space of digitized relationships. It has no centre and no direction. Unlike a highway, the Internet cannot be controlled or blocked from a central point. It is everywhere. The Internet is in fact an outgrowth of ARPANet, an intricate system of computer communication links designed by American military-funded research to resist failure in nuclear war.
McLuhan would have pointed out that the technological principle of the computer is entirely different from that of the internal combustion engine; and cyberspace is not a perspectival strip at a vanishing point on the horizon. Nor would he have been impressed by the sight-byte of the personal computer as a suburban station wagon, letting us commute into the city of stockpiled knowledge for a day's shopping. This whole cultural formation is tangential to him. Rather than merely blend in with it, he would, I think, have adopted an attitude of ironic detachment.
The problem with the "wired" account of McLuhan's contemporary significance is that it underestimates the depth of his literary persona. His understanding of technology has little to do with social science or expert knowledge. The secret of his insight lay in his trained talent for interpreting anything and everything through the literary tradition and its great resources of humour and critical distance. The naive idea that he was "right" about "electronic reality" or that he made predictions that have "come true" does him a disservice, because it reduces his contribution to his own caricature of himself as a pop sociologist who possesses the truth about society. It implies that he would not have evolved skeptically in relation to the conventional wisdom of the day; that he would have waited, unchanged, until it caught up with him.
McLuhan always liked to challenge the cultural supremacy of the intellectually detached individual, but he was one of the best examples of this species himself. He was typographic man incarnate, like the symbolist poets and cubist painters, like his own word god Joyce, intellectually delighting in the power to manipulate discrete and fungible units of signification on the unresisting blank sheet. The editors have made no effort to minimize this aspect of his sensibility, which is his greatest strength as a social thinker. To their credit, they have actually highlighted the literary and aestheticist character of his writing, which, like his perceptions, always gravitated toward the opaque, the idiosyncratic, and the arcane.
He still resists easy application. He was almost entirely user-unfriendly, completely ivory-tower in his vision of the world. This is what, in retrospect, makes the magnitude of his influence so startling. Here was a literary sensibility in the grand style, soaked through and through with the abstract techniques and traditions of purely verbal mental processes, refusing or reversing the usual compromises that might have brokered his ideas to a serious and literal-minded public. He made no concession to realism whatsoever. He just read the world as metaphysical poetry, and the world sat up!
In the magazine Explorations, and classic paperbacks like The Medium is the Massage and War and Peace in the Global Village, McLuhan co-produced texts that seem to anticipate the logic of electronic hypertext, and look like wild Web site displays. But one need not rely on the gyrating word and image pastiche to appreciate his literary originality. In his superb scholarly monograph, "Joyce, Mallarmé, and the Press", originally published in the Sewanee Review in 1953, he is already at a peak, with flashes of intellectual wit that still take us right to the core of modern experience. He reads off cultural history from impossible texts like Finnegan's Wake with astonishing facility and felicity, knitting together the rise of science and chunks of economic history with sweeping transformations of sensibility. Of course, the literary perception of the world has always been acute-much finer and more accurate than it is usually given credit for. McLuhan found a way to cash it in. Through sheer verbal agility, he was able to convert into an electronic frame of reference depth-cultural experiences that hitherto had been available only through a specialized and sequestered relationship to the universe of the written word. In the same stroke, he translated the argot of the new media back into the canonical language of the book, which has shaped the civilization of Europe. No contemporary cultural theorist has done more to vitalize the formal connections between tradition and the volatile present.
In the arts faculties of Canadian universities today, Western culture stands in the dock, accused of racism, sexism, imperialism, colonialism, Cartesianism, what have you. McLuhan had well-known quarrels with Western civilization, and shared some of our reservations, particularly towards the previous four centuries of "print culture" rationalism-"single vision and Newton's sleep", as Blake called it . McLuhan's analysis of the brittle sexism of North American culture in his first book-length study, The Mechanical Bride, is still pertinent and readable today. But his style of criticism avoids ressentiment. He was a modern in Milan Kundera's sense of the tradition that begins with Rabelais and Cervantes: the bawdiness that dissolves superego anxiety in favour of critical awareness. McLuhan illustrates this lesson through Edgar Allen Poe's "A Descent into the Maelstrom", where he notes the observant amusement of the narrator as he is being sucked into the vortex. The attitude of detached humour allowed him to perceive the structure of the descending currents, and to calculate his escape. As McLuhan says of his own critical exploration of modern culture, it is "offered as an amusement. Many who are accustomed to the note of moral indignation will mistake this amusement for mere indifference. But the time for anger and protest is in the early stages of a new process. The present stage is extremely advanced. Moreover, it is full, not only of destructiveness but also of promises of rich new developments to which moral indignation is a very poor guide."
Critical as he was, McLuhan clearly delighted in the richness of the European tradition, and the tensions between East and West, "primitive" and "modern". To read him now, and to share his delight, is to realize how much, in the interim, we have turned against our own cultural legacy. Contemporary scholarship sometimes expresses a mood of guilt-ridden solemnity and self-hatred which was simply not present in the 1960s. McLuhan was a critical thinker, because he was interested in getting beneath phenomena, in pointing up what was behind awareness, in revealing the constitutive hypocrisy of official conscious culture. But he was not interested in meting out judgement or preaching salvation.
I well remember the excitement I found in the English department at McGill University when I arrived there as a student in the 1970s. Don Theall (now at Trent where he has been president) was the chair, and he had already opened up English literature to the quantum universe of interdisciplinary studies. It was bewildering at first. Theall had been a Ph.D. student of McLuhan's at the University of Toronto, and he was a Joyce scholar in his own right. At McGill, he encouraged the study of film and television, and founded the first graduate program in communications in Canada, which has since launched more than its fair share of flourishing careers in the field. Stirring in the air were all the more enlightened forms of Marxism, and other reworkings of European traditions, together with Chicago-school pragmatism and symbolic interactionism, existentialism and phenomenology, structuralism and post-structuralism, feminism and reader-response theory, systems theory and cybernetics. Postmodernism was just around the corner! Looking back, it is now easy to see that the entire pot-pourri, and our readiness to receive it all, could be traced, through Professor Theall and the Zeitgeist, to McLuhan's expansive influence on Canadian arts and letters.
But at the time, we considered McLuhan passé. Our indifference to him can be explained partly in his own terms. His ideas were our environment, he was in the air we breathed, and we couldn't see him very clearly because he was right in front of our noses. I remember Abbie Hoffman doing an interview on "As It Happens" after being turned back at the Canadian border on his way to a speaking engagement. It was probably the late Barbara Frum who asked Hoffman what he knew about Canada. I think he was caught a bit off guard, for he blurted out, "Oh yeah, I really dig McLuhan"-or some statement of that order. When asked to expand on what he dug, he admitted he had never actually read McLuhan. No. His respect for McLuhan was much more significant than that. After all, he had organized his entire political strategy around McLuhan's theory! And what was that theory? Why, the medium is the message, of course!
The same kind of exploitation occurs among those who have read McLuhan. To take one of many possible examples: Benedict Anderson's praiseworthy study of nationalism cites him not once, and buries a single reference to his work in a six-page bibliography. But the entire book is based on what McLuhan was able to summarize off the cuff in a paragraph of his famous 1969 Playboy interview. The same can be said even of imported French semiotic theory, much of which is pilfered McLuhan, with nary a footnote in sight. The point is that McLuhan is simply taken for granted. He wrote the constitution of the contemporary arts faculty curriculum: interdisciplinary studies, popular culture, popular arts, mixed media, communications, film and video.the idea of culture as a text, the idea of society as a psychodynamic process, the idea of a cultural unconscious, the idea that social observation is not about social reality, but a part of it.
Long before his notoriety, when computers weaker than the average domestic PC were still housed in buildings the size of a city block, McLuhan was showing how the media-fostered world, of which advertising was an early symptom, makes us more aware of culture as a rhetorical environment. His recommendations in 1950 are still radical today. He thought that there was no longer much to be gained from worrying about how to preserve a traditional way of life. Like Baudelaire or Mallarmé, he saw tradition as a resource to be turned upside-down and used: to "intervene in a new way and manipulate the new media of communication by a precise and delicate adjustment of the relations of words, things, and events." Trying to preserve tradition, in the sense of continuing to speak Latin, is to shackle oneself with a naive faith in culture as an historical essence, a "natural" expression of the people. Instead of acting out the inherited cultural patterns around us, which would be a form of repetitious somnambulism, McLuhan invites us to read the patterns, and learn to play with them, the way he played with words on the printed page. He would have us wondering about how to create cognitive "anti-environments". He thought that these might give us some distance from the confusion of social experience, which is so full of our perceptual habits and unconscious projections.
The rhetoric of the McLuhan revival draws heavily on his predictions of mythic immersion in corporate identity and the retribalizing effects of electronic media. But the literary foundation of McLuhan's work suggests another interpretation entirely. The global village refers to the increasing abstraction of time and contraction of space in the electronic environment, but this has nothing to do with human interaction at the level of the community. Like the book culture of the literary tradition, the "electric circus" is just another layer of cultural abstraction. It does not reverse the spin of the Gutenberg Galaxy. Rather, it accelerates the fragmentation and recycling of traditional cultures.
When McLuhan gets the full reading he deserves, I suspect that the outcome will refer us not to tribalism as a response to modern individualism, but to even more individualism; not to collective emotionalism in opposition to rationality, but to recognition of the organizing function of emotional life. McLuhan always advocated the rational exploration and appropriation of our emotional resources, and I think he would eventually have seen that this can only take place in a cultural environment that is constitutionally protected from state control and the tyranny of collective identity. (Remember: for McLuhan it is the forms, the frames, the process that really matter; the content is much less significant in the long run.) McLuhanism ends the isolation of the village, and spells the death of the tribe-indeed, of any culture based on tradition. For him, "only by standing aside from any phenomenon and taking an overview can you discover its operative principles and lines of force." Our electronic culture is gripping, but it does not embrace us totally. Both the centralized mediascape and the decentralized Internet presuppose the libertarian and cosmopolitan culture of literary modernism in which they are nested, and upon which they depend for all their references and organizing structures. The unsung hymn of McLuhanism is not integration, equalization, communification, but increasing diversification, detachment, liberalization. It is only through a deepening of modern literary values that we shall succeed in being "wide awake this time as we re-enter the tribal night."

Charles Levin is a practising member of the Canadian Psychoanalytic Society, and also teaches in the Graduate Program in Communications, McGill University. His most recent publication is Jean Baudrillard: A Study in Cultural Metaphysics (Prentice Hall).


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