Table of Contents
REVIEWING THE REVIEWS:
LAWS OF MEDIA AND THE CRITICS
"A good teacher saves you time," Marshall used to say. So does a good reviewer. But there seems to be a scarcity of good teachers and an overabundance of bad reviewers nowadays, with the obvious result of a lot of wasted time. Real work is postponed as students and readers try to decide how to invest their precious time, what to read and what to know something about. Second-hand opinion reigns supreme, group participation and togetherness being far more satisfying than individual interpretation. Marshall wrote scores of articles on this phenomenon; it is perfectly understandable, and yet it is somewhat ironic to see its negative aspects attached to the last great work of the man himself.
Jorge Luis Borges repeated after Pliny the Elder that there is hardly any book where you cannot find something good. I interpret it today as "there is hardly a bad review without some useful food for thought," a maxim I invented to console myself as I scanned thirty or so reviews of Laws of Media. I repeat now to fight off the feeling of solidarity with Jack Green's Fire the Bastards (described as "a scorching on the book review media using the critical reception of William Gaddi's 1955 novel, The Recognitions, as a case study").
Bad reviews, in our case, do not necessarily contain negative comments; only a few do, and these can be easily dismissed since they range from the insolent to the plainly ignorant. I define as bad reviews of Laws of Media those by people who avoid getting involved with such a text, even for a first reading. This doit-yourself kit must be tested to get a sense of what it is all about. After all, in science, when you want to be sure of a new discovery, you want to recreate the conditions of the first experiment in your test before you pass judgment. Here, in the majority of cases, it doesn't happen, and a lot of time is wasted in generalized groundless comments. Bad reviews inevitably result from cursory reading, often coupled with a resentful reaction to the "spectre" of Marshall McLuhan's authorship. This is exactly opposite to what he would have expected, and indeed demanded, for his last book. Lack of involvement and uneasiness to deal with the author(s) are expressed in several ways. I shall speak of these manifestations of critical anxiety as I proceed with my comments on the individual items of the dossier, and discuss the positive cognitive stimuli coming from good readings, by John Fekete, for instance, or by Bill Kuhns.
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An early review by Bob Spence, a short item in the "Entertainment Clips" of the Western Star (July 20, 1988), sets the pace: "Marshall McLuhan has been described as a genius who influenced our understanding of communication." Question: does the "our" include Bob Spence's understanding? Grammatically it does. Why, then, is Marshall "described" as a genius? Is he or is he not? Ah, Blake! The McLuhans forgot to include this "proverb of hell" in their introduction: "Prudence is a rich, ugly old maid courted by Incapacity."
A condescending tone pervades Paul Roberts' piece in Quill & Quire (Oct. 1988). There are several good informative points showing a cover to cover reading of LOM. But look no further: when a comment is expected, a tetrad tested or implemented, you find a detached skepticism, a fear of flying that leads to pathetically ironic dismissals or to plain nonsense. He writes,The very title of the book seems antithetical to McLuhan's message or medium. "Laws" implies a rigidity, a fixed attitude he was totally opposed to.
This is criticizing McLuhan with McLuhan. It appears deep, but it is just banal and ill informed. As Bill Kuhns pointed out, supplying indisputable evidence (vide his review of LOM), Marshall had been thinking about "laws" since the time he was a student at the University of Manitoba. Roberts insists,
Like many great men, McLuhan had a low tolerance for other great men but devoted much time to decidedly minor figures... his entire thesis hinges on... Lusseyran... Havelock... Cornford.
The most amusing of Roberts' tales regards the supposed "clash of sensibilities" of the LOM authors:To put it in McLuhanese, while Eric is a leftbrain thinker, his father was virtually an archetype of rightbrain man. Cloistered in universities all his life, McLuhan (witness the Letters) had little time for academe. Eric, despite his somewhat more worldly existence, is the quintessential academic.
With the help of his fervid imagination, the reviewer can easily discard the most provocative statement in the introduction where the laws are defined as the single biggest intellectual discovery of the last couple of centuries,[Marshall] was playful, even frivolous; Eric is serious, too serious... one can't picture McLuhan saying that with a straight face.
And that's it, end of the topic. There is not even the slightest consideration for the dazzling insights offered by the Laws which that statement was intended to emphasize. The reviewer prefers the playful and frivolous waste of time.
Books in Canada's piece (Dec. 1988) by Mavor Moore is equally useless. With a pretense of sobriety, the reviewer poses the real problem:
The difficulty is that... we have no means of knowing which McLuhan is the Marshall... Did Marshall's aphoristic, gnomic, witty, configurative style turn at the end into the pretentious rodomontade it was always on the edge of, or has Eric, in excessive emulation of his dad's chutzpah, pushed it over the brink?
What a deep question! "The edge... push it over the brink," the abyss: a real existential puzzle in the world of journalism! We should start a philological project to solve the mystery, and then, perhaps, we'll be ready to read the book.
The review year 1988 (the book was published in late Fall) is luckily redeemed by the balanced account of LOM given by John Fekete in the journal, Letters in Canada. He too finds the much derided statement in the Introduction to be hyperbolic, but he is not ensnared by it. Rather, he correctly senses its meaning indicating its context in the humanistic tradition of Francis Bacon and Giovan Battista Vico. Fekete sees what really counts in LOM, "a powerful tool for training awareness" whether or not Popper's theory, invoked by the authors to certify it as scientific, would apply. He points to the clear definition of McLuhan's formal logic as the cornerstone of his theory.
It may be, in the long run, that the most enduring value of this book lies in its deeper structure, underneath the specific "laws of media." After all, this was meant to be different from McLuhan's customarily aphoristic phenomenology of culture. It was to be not a mythos but a logos of media; it was to be McLuhan's Logic. And the form of this logic, beyond the particular results is has so far generated, is itself of real interest.
The only objection, and a serious one, that Fekete presents pertains to the "groundlessness" of the number four, fixed by the McLuhans as a metaphysically privileged explanatory structure-in effect, as a figure minus a ground-a flaw and contradiction in their argument.
Sure enough, the ground of the number four does not appear to be explained by the McLuhans; and, certainly, to say that it simply manifests itself in all human activities seems a tautology (the ground of four is human activity because human activity is four). Perhaps this number is just a figure waiting to be discovered (Blake, and Frye perhaps, could help in this regard by shifting McLuhan's emphasis from the five divisions of rhetoric to the Four Zoas). After all, it was Marshall who taught us that the effect always precedes its cause. But to stay within LOM, one has only to turn to page 7, and read that the "laws" are intended as a "heuristic" device that allows for adjustments and implementations, as is proved, for example by Frank Zingrone's "pentad" (cf. McLuhan Studies 1, 1991).
The extensive 1989 review series begins with a very amusing piece in the Ottawa Citizen (Jan. 8). In point of fact, this is not a review at all, but a mindless attack on McLuhan's reputation; the article doesn't say much about McLuhan, but it is very explicit on the critic's shortcomings. From his obviously uncomfortable "Critic's corner," Louis Dudek sets the record straight for the world.People sometimes ask, "What's a celebrity?" I answer: a hollow image, a vain idol... There are celebrity writers who are hollow... and one of these, I'm afraid, was Marshall McLuhan.
He justifies his position very convincingly, with skillful and refined logical arguments, "No one could ever explain what he meant or said. You didn't have to read him, in fact you couldn't. And yet," says our profound commentator, "everyone bandied his name about, as the great media guru." Wrong, wrong, wrong, thunders Dudek Censor, especially because McLuhan "prevented people from discussing relevant questions" and "encouraged young people to think badly." A chief example of McLuhan's pernicious educational theory is offered by Frank Zingrone, we hear from the "Corner," a "disciple" who wrote the entry on him in The Canadian Encyclopedia, containing a comparison with the work of Darwin and Freud, "an utter absurdity to anyone interested in the history of ideas."
Two days after the appearance of Dudek's piece, the Ottawa Citizen published a more decent article, by Harry J. Boyle, who tried to rectify some of his colleague's blunders. Dudek's statement, "McLuhan said the book is dead," is "corrected:"He was ridiculed for saying that books were dead even as he used them to convey his ideas. Actually he never said that books were dead but rather that they had been nudged from their central role by other media.
The actual review of LOM is pretty bland and uncommitted, but contains a good number of Marshall's aphorisms well put to use.
"McLunacy is the message" is another funny story, by Christopher Dornan (The Montreal Gazette, Jan. 18, 1989). The McLuhans' argument is "impish" and "hopelessly passé," decides Monsieur Dornan, the well known arbiter of the contemporary cultural debate.What's faintly ridiculous about Laws of Media is its blind, pellmell progress down an avenue of inquiry that has long since been abandoned by everyone else, like a tapped out mine shaft. Communications studies retain the fundamental concern with the role of the media in the maintenance of the social order but not in the loopy sense conceived by McLuhan. And there is a revolution going on in the corridors of university departments, but it has nothing to do with tetradic reasoning or shifts in sensory apprehension. Rather, it has to do... with the whole gamut of developments subsumed under the shorthand rubric of "postmodernism."
It's hard to take this condescending piece seriously, but just for the record: I have demonstrated in "McLuhan and Postmodernity" (McLuhan Studies 1, 1991) that the most intellectually useful way of interpreting "modernity" is to equate it with "Gutenberg Galaxy." "Postmodernity," therefore, can only be the "Marconi Constellation," our present electric environment. Whether the reviewer likes it or not, any shifting in sensory apprehension determines cultural transformations. This is not carved in stone, of course; it is simply the best theory of cultural transformations we have, and the attempt to erase it with the impish argument à la mode of Monsieur Dornan is a waste of time. A footnote: Leslie Fiedler, a legitimate "father of postmodernism" in the United States, referred specifically to McLuhan as a prime example of postmodern thinking ("Cross the Border-Close the Gap: PostModernism," in Postmodernism in American Literature, M. Pütz and Peter Freese, eds. Darmstadt: Verlag, 1984, 15167).
The only interesting note in the otherwise flat review by Trevor Lautens for the Vancouver Sun (Feb. 4, 1989) is a reference to JeanPaul Sartre ("man is the being who is not what he is and is what he is not") that could fruitfully be invoked to discuss the process of discarnation brought about by electronic media. Unfortunately, in the review this is only a parenthetical sentence, concluded by this ridiculous statement: "Was McLuhan a secret agent of subliminal Christianity? A prankster? A puzzle as tantalizing as the 'poetry' of his words."
John Sturrock reviewed LOM for The New York Times (Feb. 26, 1989) beginning with an ironic pronouncement which, I think, should be taken at face value: "My brain, I realize, is the wrong model for me to be receptive of Marshall McLuhan." What follows is predictable. "The socalled tetrads, or four finger exercises, prove nothing." Like so many other reviewers, Sturrock must think he is writing for a fashion magazine: as people don't wear McLuhan anymore, he must be passé. This underestimates the intelligence of thousands of people touched by McLuhan's insights. That there might be some new cognitive ground in the pages of this unusual book is a hypothesis that never crosses the mind of fashionable reviewers. For Sturrock, a book is a book is a book, and this is a book that isn't a book, ergo it doesn't exist, "it proves nothing."
A concise review by Timothy Buell, "Actually, it's the tetrad that's the message," (The Toronto Star, Saturday Magazine, March 25, 1989) goes right to the point when he states that "the main act ... is the tetrad." But while he hails the eloquence and the universality of it, Buell singles out "the cognitive process of the brain's two hemispheres" as the weakest part of the book. I happen to think so too; but even if the two hemispheres were the wrong referents for a contemporary scientific treatise, one should remember that the complementarity of the linear with the audiotactile dimensions that they symbolize is real indeed, and that it makes up the dispositio of our rhetorical perception of any turnedinto- word artifact, or verbalized medium.
Ronald Collins, the next reviewer in the dossier, presents a highly readable piece about three books, LOM, The Global Village by McLuhan and Bruce Powers, and The Medium and the Messenger by Philip Marchand (The Philadelphia Inquirer, April 30, 1989). He reports several of McLuhan's anecdotes and maxims which, however, he doesn't develop at all. As in many other articles, this one offers nothing new to someone who has a basic acquaintance with McLuhan's work, while leaving a new reader puzzled and disoriented.
Paul Attallah (Content, MayJune 1989) must be praised for having been able to fill two magazine pages with colorful comments on a theory he knows absolutely nothing about. His freewheeling creative imagination makes his statements worth remembering:This is a seductive theory. But to see media as extensions of human faculties eludes the way in which all media are rooted in social contexts and therefore denies human agency itself.
How does one respond to such nonsense? Attallah continues with pompous ignorance:Indeed, from the "McLuhanist" perspective, what can we say of television? Only that it extends human sight [!] and may or may not induce particular modes of personal involvement.
To conclude, "The approach is sociologically naive, contextually insensitive, and historically ignorant." Obviously, this is not a review as a solipsistic exercise.
In the short review of four books, Marchand's, SandersonMacDonald's, The Global Village, and LOM (The Washington Times, July 3, 1989), David Gress shows a fascination with the McLuhan persona. He is particularly captivated by his Catholicism, which again he stresses in a second piece in the same magazine ("The Prophet of a New Media Age," Aug. 7). In both articles he stimulates intellectual curiosity, and may indeed encourage younger readers to confront McLuhan's "classic" books.
Also well balanced and informative is the triple review (Marchand's biography, Letters, and LOM) by Paul Connolly (Commonweal, Oct. 6, 1989), but there are no novelties of general interpretation or specific comments on single issues.
Lon Dubinsky's review article (Dalhousie Review), devoted to LOM as well as Marchand's biography ("companion pieces"), displays a rather ambiguous perception of McLuhan.
[LOM] provides McLuhan detractors with ammunition given its parade of pronouncements and largely unsubstantiated arguments. Yet its very weaknesses are its strengths. The promotion of a science of the media is so unconvincing that the book shows why the study of communications can at best be a limited scientific enterprise, at least in the positivistic sense... By contrast, Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger is a clearheaded and enjoyable biography. The author, Philip Marchand, distills McLuhan's massive output showing why some work is highly significant and why other contributions are very suspect, including Laws of Media.
Dubinsky's uneasiness in dealing with McLuhan (whom he cannot help but define "a great pedagogue") is derived, I think, from an unclear distinction between efficient and formal causes, which is absolutely fundamental for an intellectually profitable reading of LOM. The reviewer writes, in fact, that whenReturning to the book's primary concern, it is not that the questions which compose the tetrad are bogus and illinformed. Objectionable is the reductionism which is so integral to the approach... An historical treatment is necessary as is an acknowledgment that all artifacts and ideas are socially constructed forms as are the methods and models through which sense is made of them. Indeed, one essential feature of communication as product or process is that it is social in its formation and in its consequences. This has escaped the authors.
This, rather, has not escaped the authors at all, since all four laws show a clear dynamic nature that requires not only a consideration of history, but also a constant awareness of being immersed in it. If one looks at the pattern of an historical event (considering "Retrieval" and "Reversal" laws primarily-formal cause), the understanding of it would be far greater than simply looking at the linear sequence of efficient causes which inevitably tend to "freeze" an occurrence in its unicity.
A well informed and, generally speaking, a well balanced review comes from Paul Levinson (The Journal of Communication, Spring 1990), who comments on LOM, The Global Village, Letters, and The Medium and the Messenger. He begins with an essential point by linking McLuhan's work to our present cultural realities. On acoustic space, for instance, he says,
Today, we call it "cyberspace..." It is a place that violates our common physical space-for example, unlike our physical bodies, our electronic surrogates can be in an infinity of places simultaneously-and thus seems metaphoric and even illusory. Metaphoric it may be (for everything radiates with metaphor), but unreal it is not.
For once, we find here a reader who does praise McLuhan's readability, "I have always found McLuhan's work enormously valuable, and yes, comprehensible." For the last work by McLuhan, Levinson prefers The Global Village to LOM, and yet he affirms that "Marshall's and Eric's treatment is the more profound and stimulating, and no doubt reflects more of what Marshall thought." The article closes with the hope that the hypertext version of McLuhan's work will soon be available. This is indeed a necessity; for future generations it will enhance the permeability of McLuhan's ideas which have always shown a certain resistance to be encapsulated in book formats.
An interesting review by Lorraine Weir (New Vico Studies 9, 1990) stresses the similarities between McLuhan and Vico, which fully justify the subtitle of LOM, The New Science. Weir defines tetrads as "encoded etymologies," functioning "simultaneously in Vichian historical mode." It is somewhat refreshing, after so much nonsense on the "scientific rigor" of the laws, to hear the word of a specialist of the old New Science,
Like Vico, McLuhan develops his poetics of cognitive/technological process in terms of a neoAristotelian rhetoric of processual mimesis informed by Francis Bacon as much as by Vico, Joyce, and Scholastic theology.
The necessarily short size of the review proved insufficient for Lorraine Weir for a detailed description of the Vichian influence on McLuhan: her article on it cannot be discussed in this "review of reviews," but I strongly recommended it for Vico's as well as McLuhan's scholars.
The Canadian Journal of Communication published a special issue on McLuhan (Jan. 1990) containing two reviews of LOM (by R. Dreyer Berg and Bill Kuhns), both excellent, but different in depth and value. Berg begins with a critical illustration of some fundamental axioms of McLuhan's method. He then offers food for thought by indicating a few "shortcomings" of the book.Concentrating on defining media in relation to the tetrad and their appositional categories takes attention away from the environment in which the artifact exists and interacts.
This critique we have encountered already, but it might be worth repeating that the laws allow for human events to be "opened up" in all of their complexity (historical and sociological, environmental in the widest sense). A single law, in fact, is a structure that can sustain glosses spanning the length of an entire book (as the earlier Take Today, for instance, demonstrated for the Reversal law). One should not confuse, or separate, McLuhan's sense of synthesis with analytical description of single events: they integrate each other: the first establishes the method; the latter proves it, although not necessarily in that order. Berg also notices thatmuch of the bibliography is dated and omits relevant books on computers. Newer media such as high definition TV and desktop publishing are ignored.
Granted, for the most part, Eric decided to leave LOM's examples as they were when his father died; he included UM media and enough others to demonstrate all features of the tetrad. But that is a rather naive expectation for a book that purports to present a method rather than an encyclopedia of applications of it. Another comment, the last in the review, also appears to be only partially relevant:Paradoxically, the electronic computer is "the ultimate assembly line" of literate, mechanical culture. It limits and controls many of the cognitive and social effects of "secondary orality" that peaked in the 1960's as the result of television, and that Marshall McLuhan described so capably then.
True, the computer opens the way to the "ultimate assembly line" of mechanical culture, but only if one concentrates attention on robots rather than on the pure electronic information that controls them. Besides, this is still a historical period of cultural interface, between mechanical and electric ages, or "galaxies." Just as in the late Renaissance, when the passage from a manuscript (audiotactile) to a print culture (visual) was marked by "blitz and metamorphoses" (The Gutenberg Galaxy, 195), now that the reverse is happening (from print to new orality), again we are witnessing a colossal mixture of opposite media. We are still far from a well adjusted electric culture. And this is why "machines" still play a vital role. And yes, the computer may well be the "ultimate assembly line," but it is obviously going to become more and more recognizable as a random assembler of creative information, rather than a linear collector of mechanical data. The casual reference to the 1960s is very interesting; they are coming back in a big way (witness the Camille Paglia phenomenon). Perhaps the 70s and 80s were periods of adjustments, of negative remission; but now that the conservative or neoconservative "restoration" has proved its inadequacies, it is time to go back to the genuine sense of freedom and human awareness of the 60s, and with Marshall McLuhan.
The best review of the entire series was written by Bill Kuhns. He opens by describing four detailed categories of contemporary phenomena, each of them synthesized by a law in the tetrad. Kuhns is one of the best informed scholars on McLuhan, if not the best. Given the large amount of unpublished writings McLuhan left behind, this testifies to a total commitment to his body of ideas. It is no surprise, then, to find the reviewer making a very lucid connection between the "massive breakthrough" of LOM with "another excitement, 16 years earlier, when he had linked the alphabet to the proliferation of Euclidean (or visual) space." All Kuhn's quotations, some of which I have seen for the first time, are pertinent to the specific task of showing McLuhan's coherent development of his method, culminating with this book completed and brought to light by his son, Eric.
[LOM] gives McLuhan's deepest apprehension of such processes as 15minute media, ubiquitous obsolescence, exhaustive retrievals, and the flipping of politics into newscasting and showbiz. Indeed, it explores McLuhan's own understanding of the tenets that are the grounding of his own mature thought. Laws of Media is the metaphysical coda of McLuhan's career: a vision of history, language, metaphor, and technology compressed into the diamondlike facets of the amplify/obsolesce/retrieve/reverse tetrads.
Great relevance is given to what counts the most in terms of advancement in McLuhan's thinking: the fusion of any artifact with the word.
He proposes that since the first utterance of a human tongue... we have modulated our world with devices born on that innate urge of metaphor, devices that share in the transition powers of every metaphor. The four laws, he intimates, are language's own idea of the primal causes; and they emerge from the same crucible of necessity that originally forged our first language. Indeed, as language evolves and exfoliates into new "outering and utterings," the four laws are the primordial dynamics... that both contain all events within a consistent framework, and continually reconstitute the world anew.
I shall not describe the illuminating comments on each portion of the book, on its shape, on the format of the chapters, and even on the style of its authors, fused in one voice. Instead, I would like to reproduce Kuhn's "piece of evidence" of McLuhan's constant preoccupation with the laws: two diary entries by the young Marshall at 19, when he entered the University of Manitoba:When I have had a bit more philosophy and psychology... I am going to work out some of the great [unexamined and universal] "laws" that govern the affairs of men, temporal and spiritual...
What I should do would be to take this field of the "laws" and show that in spheres of science, literature, history, tho[ugh]t, action, human and superhuman, everything is a mass of timeless truth and consistent order. I would take a number of concrete examples and work them out in detail... I feel that if I am to make a contribution here, that it will be one of stimulating minds better fitted than mine to elaborate the theory. [That theory of the laws] possesses the advantage of simplicity and I am convinced that it is ever so close to the truth.
To all those who spoke of a casual approach to the science in LOM, here is the proof of a tremendously serious lifelong commitment. The laws are the result of that commitment. They are the legacy of Marshall McLuhan. We should remember that as we stumble over our next tetrad. His sixty years of tenacious research offer much more than a simple fourfinger exercise.