Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Thursday, July 21, 2011

McLuhan centennial

Marshall McLuhan would have been 100 today. I am a little baffled over Google's failure to mark the occasion with a special graphic. I call it a case of the anxiety of influence.

But there are plenty of notices online. The official McLuhan site has a huge list on its main page of events happening (both online and out on the surface of the Earth) during the whole year. Graham Harman has a short post here, and Douglas Coupland, whose brief study of McLuhan You know nothing of my work (titled for a line from McLuhan's cameo in Annie Hall), has an article in the Guardian. (A couple of reviews of Coupland's book here and here.)

I won't try to sum up McLuhan or go on about how he saw what was coming. Anyone who reads him can tell he knew which way the wind was blowing. His reputation suffered--like Derrida's later--from people adopting his style and nomenclature, without really bothering to read him. To some degree it's still the case.

One thing that is striking about McLuhan is how much a child of Gutenberg he was. His experiments in form were very much grounded in what was possible on the printed page. He was a Joyce critic, and in some ways his conversion to Roman Catholicism mirrored Joyce's exodus away from it. Eric McLuhan has edited a collection of his father's writings on religion and they are indispensable for understanding his work.

What people often still (and, in my opinion, scandalously) don't seem to get about McLuhan that for all his attention to the way innovations in media were re-shaping human experience he wasn't such a fan of the trends he described. He is frequently writing not straight-ahead description but satire, and he was less than sanguine about what he was satirizing. It may be that people's incomprehension of this point is a function of the very thing McLuhan was addressing. Media does not just impact what we perceive, but what we can perceive.

For all that, McLuhan is not a "technological determinist," as some stupid reductions would have it, but rather, as my friend Alf Seegert once put it, a technological co-evolutionist. We are able to make choices about media, but media will also shape the very manner of our choosing.

McLuhan remarked in a 1966 interview:
Many people seem to think that if you talk about something recent, you're in favor of it, The exact opposite is true in my case. Anything I talk about is almost certain to be something I'm resolutely against, and it seems to me the best way of opposing it is to understand it, and then you know where to turn off the button. (McLuhan, Understanding Me: Lectures and interviews p 102)
McLuhan believed it was important to be clear-sighted about how those effects happened. Others came along afterward and tried to celebrate what he limited himself to depicting (albeit sometimes with a wicked gleam in his eye). Some of their excesses may have magnified some of McLuhan's own defects, not leat that wicked gleam. I am sure I am not the first to point out the irony that McLuhan's message was swamped by his medium. We are only barely beginning to catch on to what he was saying. And why.

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