The Medium and the Light:
Reflections on Religion

219 pages,
ISBN: 0773760318

Post Your Opinion
From Wychwood Sage to Media Guru - Probing McLuhan Post-Conversion
by Francois Lachance

Certain ways of reading can silence and certain publishing practices abet forgetfulness. Marshall McLuhan is perhaps remembered less as a media theorist than as a media guru. It has been over thirty years since he was featured in a Playboy interview and on the cover of Newsweek, over thirty years since the man who coined such memorable catch phrases as the "Global Village" and "The Medium is the Message" was a pop icon appearing on screen in a Woody Allen film.

Not only was McLuhan an expert PR hack, he was good at recycling material. In Understanding Media, he promoted the idea that technologies were extensions of the human body. In The Gutenberg Galaxy, he enshrined as dogma a shift in dominance from orality to literacy with the coming of the printing press. These themes are replayed in countless collaborations from The Medium is the Massage to Laws of Media via From Cliché to Archetype. McLuhan sought readers willing to dip in and out of his books. All of his works invite skimming.

Of course, such readers certainly suspend any belief in counter-evidence and any will to follow a reasoned argument. Readers clip choice bits. That was the way to read McLuhan thirty years ago. But is it now? Does McLuhan, the literary critic and media commentator, deserve closer attention and more sustained reading? One route to this latter type of reading is to appeal to biography and, in particular, to ponder the role that McLuhan's conversion to Catholicism played in his writing.

The posthumous collection, The Medium and the Light, gathers material from letters, interviews, reviews, and lectures, and even includes a segment from McLuhan's doctoral dissertation. The selection helps flesh out the portrait of McLuhan's Catholicism; but since the editors fail to give any indication of their selection criteria, it also creates a mystery. Because the pieces are not presented chronologically, the impression is created that there is no longer, post-conversion, any need for history. Concerned readers are left wondering why a certain selection fits in one section and not another. But they may be too enamoured of the questions he raises to let the inevitable repetition, the magic of recycling, cascade upon their psyche.

One way of ascertaining the degree of variation within repetition is to consult the index. This volume doesn't have one. This is odd, especially if one considers that, in the contemporary world, where even paper copy is produced from electronic text, the generation of an index can be simple and cheap. Of course, orthodox McLuhanites would contend that an index, a highly alphabetic and sequential form of writing, corrupts memory. However, I signal this lack because the structure of Eric McLuhan's book invites readers to piece together the talk that his father never gave because of the stroke that took away his power of speech. An index would help readers find the grain of the voice: they could locate all the passages taking up commonplaces that are similar, but varied ever so slightly to suit the occasion. Without an index, readers have to exert their memories, and perhaps even mark up the text, if they are to remain attuned to the recurring themes, sources, and authorities. Read enough McLuhan, and you know you've heard it before. Read only a little bit, and who knows what you will believe.

You just might be seduced by some of the man's finest totalizing images. At his best, McLuhan is crisp, vivid, and engagingly hyperbolic: "The answer then to the question of cui bono is ultimately this. Everybody loses. Society has been made into a machine but not a pinball machine. There are no beneficiaries. The Dagwoods and the billionaire power-gluttons are equally rushing...." More than the reference to Dagwood might be lost without an editorial annotation. And without any cross-references to connect this excerpt from an essay on Wyndham Lewis to other pieces by McLuhan, there is no explicit bridge between McLuhan's literary criticism and, for example, his media criticism in his first book, The Mechanical Bride. Editors have a responsibility to bring readers to other works, especially those by the same author. It is this ancillary work that one expects from Eric McLuhan and Jack Szklarek, but that they fail to provide.

Eric McLuhan and Jack Szklarek do add an appendix which begins to trace echoes and resemblances between the writings of T.S. Eliot and Cardinal Newman. McLuhan quotes Eliot often, but the editors-turned-essayists have difficulty in pointing to passages where McLuhan refers to the nineteenth-century Catholic apologist. Since there is, as yet, no concordance to the complete works of Marshall McLuhan, one would have to reread the opus to locate the relevant passages.

But reading, especially rereading, is not listening for what was in the air: "Newman wrote his Essay more than 70 years before Eliot his, but whether the latter derived from the former is immaterial. McLuhan, well aware of contemporary literary and theological matters and controversies while at Cambridge, knew both and found them complementary." Tradition becomes the antidote to history and materialism. The editors suggest that Eliot's essay provides "a succinct re-statement of an intensely grammatical perception. Mere chronology, on which logical sequence depends, is set aside." By implication, McLuhan does the same for tradition and authority.

But grammar does include the category of tense. There are not so subtle differences between the past and the present, let alone the preterite ("we were able"), the pluperfect ("we had been able"), and the future anterior ("we will have been able"). Given that some of the pieces collected in The Medium and the Light are back translations of interviews conducted in English and translated into French, the question of the influence of linguistic resources (such as the system of verbal tenses) on styles of expression and modalities of thought becomes interesting. It is even perhaps more interesting to pose questions of grammar and logic in relation to McLuhan's approach to the Latin of Aquinas.

As the editors have duly noted, and as is emphasized by their inclusion of an excerpt from McLuhan's doctoral dissertation on Thomas Nashe, McLuhan's approach to the traditional trivium of grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic is closely linked to his historiography of communication media. In the stories he tells, McLuhan often pits dialectic against rhetoric. This dialectic is a function of a core dualism in his discourse between concepts and percepts, thinking and feeling.

In one tract, McLuhan contrasts "Protestant obsession with efficient causality" with Aquinas' theological exposition of formal cause. McLuhan, selective as usual, fails to note that the fourfold division of material, efficient, formal, and final causes derives from Aristotle. But, in the interests of informing readers lacking theological or philosophical baggage, the editors should not miss this point.

Despite the lack of contextual support, the materials the editors do collect offer a charitable view of the psychodynamics of the media guru: a Protestant coming to Catholicism without the benefit of the stories of the pantheon of saints or the everyday practice of praying for their intercession. There is never a middle ground in the worlds portrayed by McLuhan. Indifference is too close to scepticism for the convert. With less generosity, we may declare that the sceptic asks the questions which challenge faith. The sceptic embodies an intellectual attitude which undermines some rather fabulous equations. Without a critical editor, the well-rehearsed analogies between the visual/aural and the active/contemplative remain unexamined, untested, and unreliable.

McLuhan may have read Thomas Aquinas, not so much through the eyes and experience of a convert to Catholicism, as through the filter of an abiding anti-intellectualism. Witness his commentary on formal causality: "They are total in their action upon us. It doesn't matter what theory we may have about them: their effect upon us is quite independent of any thought we have about them."

And he goes on about works of art bypassing intellect: "It is the same with a work of art... It invades your senses. It re-structures your outlook. It completely changes your attitudes, your wave-lengths. So our attitudes, our sensibilities, are completely altered by new forms, regardless of what we think about them. This is not an irrational statement, or a philosophical notion. It is a simple fact of experience." There is here the wonderful fluidity of the English pronoun "you"-at times collective, at times individual. But there is nothing of the tripartite complexities of Aquinas carefully distinguishing the effects of mind, body, and soul upon each other.

Surely, McLuhan's editors would grant that rhetoric, especially when allied with dialectic, does concern itself with rules of evidence. Dialectic is the art of asking questions. McLuhan's aphorisms and provocative statements function like questions. McLuhan himself says he provides probes. Pierre Babin, interviewing McLuhan, most felicitously characterizes the probes as "interpretative keys". Surely, it is also the role of editors to parse the questions and situate the probes in their historical context, lest the reader be left with a clanging bunch of keys and no lock to pick.

Without dialectic, McLuhan's grammar loses its critical edge. It does not matter if the sage of Wychwood denied the validity of dialectic. There is no doubt that McLuhan's probes functioned as questions, trenchant questions, and it is up to his editors to strop the text. 

François Lachance places faith in questions and is untroubled by locks.


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