McLuhan Studies : Issue 5

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Elena Lamberti


Elena Lamberti - University of Bologna

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,

A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,

I had not thought death had undone so many


You! Hypocrite lecteur! - mon semblable - mon frère!

T.S. Eliot, "The Waste Land"

Herbert Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980) is known world-wide as "the Media Prophet," as the first man to investigate the way the new electric media reshape our own environment and, subliminally, affect the human psyche. Most of his slogans ("the global village," "the medium is the message") are by now so commonly used that they have become clichés. My intention here is to present another, neglected yet fundamental aspect of Marshall McLuhan as a professor of English and a sagacious literary critic. It is important to underline that the two aspects of his versatile personality should not be separated from the famous one; on the contrary, and by his own admission, Marshall McLuhan’s literary formative background, together with his deep passion for both symbolist and modernist poetry, deeply conditioned his celebrated media analysis, acting as a sort of fil rouge that connected all aspects of his work.. McLuhan’s perception of the new media landscape was shaped by and embedded in his study of literature and the arts. It is not chance that the first pages of The Gutenberg Galaxy are dedicated to a detailed discussion of Shakespeare’s King Lear: if it is true, as Pound wrote and as McLuhan believed, that "literature is news that STAYS news", then it is inevitable that the critic approach and employ literature and art as instruments capable of probing the cultural environment. McLuhan investigated the hidden potential uses of language and developed, starting from his own literary analysis, a new, peculiar form of critical writing. Literary criticism is, in fact, a fundamental component of McLuhan’s prose, so much so that it is important to approach his works combining an original poetic exegesis to a more traditional and scientific one.

In 1943 McLuhan presented his doctoral dissertation at Cambridge. The more than four-hundred pages devoted to The Role of Thomas Nashe in the Learning of His Time, are in fact a careful analysis of the development of the liberal arts of the trivium, from their origins up to the English Renaissance. The peculiarity of this work lies in the fact that the history of the trivium is conducted from the point of view of the grammarian, as "exposition and interpretation of stated doctrines are grammatical problems; and derivative philosophy and almost all histories of philosophy are the product of grammarians." Similarly, McLuhan’s last book, Laws of Media. The New Science, written together with his son Eric and published posthumously in 1988, notes that: "The trivium is our concern: all three of its elements are arts and sciences of language. [...] Rhetoric concerns speech. [...] Grammar (Greek for ‘literature’) concerns the interpretation of written texts and the ground patterns in words, etymology. Dialectic specializes in the word as thought [...], is abstract and co-opts rhetoric and grammar as a sort of external ground. [...]The natural affinity between rhetoric and grammar springs in part from each having both figure and ground elements, and in part from both concerning words as presented to the exterior senses in writing and speech." These two quotations, taken from the very first and the very last book McLuhan wrote, invite us to reconsider the "media-guru" cliché; they invite us to turn, instead, to the professor of English who discovered how to use his humanistic learning as a heuristic tool. The reader has to investigate McLuhan’s critical writing in order to understand the different ways language and form can be used to counter-balance a shifting high-tech environment. Moving from Joyce’s example, McLuhan constantly searched for new forms of language capable of combining the formative precepts of the ancient paideia with more modern artistic achievements in order to reach, at once, different and heterogeneous audiences. And following the example of Richards and Leavis he investigated the techniques of Practical Criticism, constantly considering all literary and artistic "signs" as phenomena produced by and returning to a precise environment, as figures at once deriving from and reshaping a much wider ground. He intended not only to present the results of his observations in a compelling way, but also to "attack" the reader, to force him/her to a more serious interplay with a new and less reassuring form of écriture, thus contributing to a cultural awakening. He implicitly invited his readers to share the responsibilities of living in a world constantly in progress. McLuhan’s critical writing is a challenge addressed at once to all readers, as well as to those critics and academics devoted to a more traditional and abstract use of rhetoric.

Since the Sixties, the morphology of McLuhan’s critical writing, combining literary references with anthropological and philosophical observations in order to comment the effects of new media on our environment, has always triggered extreme reactions either "pro" or "con." In Europe, the negative reactions have prevailed. In particular, critics reacted against McLuhan’s lack of lexical coherence, against his use of analogy and discontinuity instead of logic and linearity, against his puns and aphorisms, which they considered a sort of verbal trickery to disguise the lack of either a precise and coherent point of view or a serious scientific background. Yet, today, reading McLuhan’s critical writings after having absorbed Pound, Joyce and Eliot does prompt the possibility of developing a new way of perceiving what has been called "nonsensical mcluhanese." As Northrop Frye noted, the time span facilitates the task of the critic today:

In the Sixties, both the anti-intellectuals who wanted to hear that they had only to disregard books and watch television to get with, and the activists pursuing terror for its own sake, found much to misunderstand in McLuhan. He was hysterically celebrated in the Sixties and unreasonably neglected thereafter (...). So it is perhaps time for a sympathetic rereading (...) and reabsorption of McLuhan’s influence. (..) McLuhan raised questions that are deeply involved in any survey of contemporary culture, and in any attempt to define the boundaries of the emerging theory of society that I call "criticism" in its larger context.

Following Frye, we should not only reconsider McLuhan’s questions, but also his way of presenting them, for his "criticism in its larger context" (as well as the more specific "literary" criticism) is shaped and rendered in a new form: the "mosaic." Structurally, the mosaic displays the same technique of discontinuity considered typical of Modernist (and post-modernist) narrative strategy. As in the great Modernist writers, in McLuhan’s writing the poetic process—the formal frame—is an active part of the cognitive process, and the structure of the written text—the mosaic—retains a fundamental heuristic power.

McLuhan used literature and the arts in at least two different yet complementary ways. As a media "explorer," he openly turned to Belles Lettres and the visual arts to find ideas and attitudes and exempla to better approach and perceive the times. As a literary critic, and as a professor of English, he explored the formal achievements of different authors and poets; he acted as grammarian in searching out new ways to present ideas to counterbalance the numbing effect on the human psyche of a constantly transforming cultural environment.

Among the passages that McLuhan used when introducing his own observations of new media, one of the most celebrated is certainly Edgar Allan Poe’s A Descent into the Maelstrom. After the sinking of his boat, a mariner manages to survive because he stops to observe the way the vortex works. He notices that the water spirals slowly swallow all objects, but that some of them return to the surface. The mariner clings to one of these recurring objects and survives. McLuhan, in turn, approached his own cultural environment like Poe’s mariner: he detached himself from the vortex generated by the electric media in order to observe and counterbalance them. From literature comes an example suggesting, through imagination, new possible strategies of perception and reasoning which can help the reader to better interact with his/her own environment. If "inherent in the artist’s creative inspiration is the process of subliminally sniffing out environmental change," then it is the critic’s (and the reader’s) task to pore over every word, every statement and work out new "warning signals."

All of McLuhan’s works seem to be shaped by two important approaches that constitute his own modus operandi. Curiously, they are fundamental both to traditional scientific method, and to artistic technique. I’m referring to observation (perception) and identification (rendering). McLuhan’s ways of observation and identification, his ways of perceiving and rendering his world, somehow bridge the sciences and humanities: they are built upon an artist-like use of imagination, intuition and language, but they are applied, with a probing (and playful) attitude, to all cognitive fields, to all forms of knowledge, to all media (generally taken as both products and extensions of man and of his faculties). As Derrick de Kerckhove has pointed out, McLuhan explored "une zone du savoir normalement reservée aux sciences humaines, mais avec les methodes de l’art et par l’articulation du langage." This articulation du langage is important in McLuhan’s critical essays, as well as in his more celebrated books: language is to be understood as an arché unifying forma et substancia, thus becoming the cognitive agent shaped by McLuhan in an original aphoristic style, at once combining an ancient knowledge or paideia with more modern formal experiments.

As there is neither innocent reader nor neutral reading, the charge of "nonsensical mcluhanese," often used to denigrate McLuhan’s critical writing derives from a peculiar, if not biased, approach to the work of the Canadian critic. McLuhan’s explicit "generalism" has often been opposed to scientific precision and method. Critics have preferred to approach his writing"scientifically," applying academic paradigms to it and dismissing the formal wit and novelty as nonsense. But what if we admit first that McLuhan’s serious interest in language and its perceptual aspects led him to use different rhetorical strategies, and so wed a strict scientific exegesis to a more intuitional one? The mind goes immediately to I. A. Richards’s distinction between "scientific truth or statement" and "poetical truth or pseudo-statement":

It will be admitted—by those who distinguish between scientific statements, where truth is ultimately a matter of verification as this is understood in the laboratory, and emotive utterance, where "truth" is primarily acceptability by some attitude, and more remotely is the acceptability of this attitude itself—that is not the poet’s business to make scientific statements. Yet poetry has constantly the air of making statements, and important ones; which is one reason why some mathematicians cannot read it. They find the alleged statements to be false. It will be agreed that their approach to poetry and their expectations from it are mistaken. But what exactly is the other, the right, the poetic, approach and how does it differ from the mathematical?

If we change our mode of observation and assume that McLuhan’s statements use a "poetic" approach requiring first a perceptual response (and only later a rational analysis), and that, instead, they have been mostly read by "mathematicians" more interested in laboratory tests, it becomes evident that the gap between the "form" of the communication and the "method" has led readers to miss the heuristic potentialities in McLuhan’s language. To recover them, we must revise our approach to his writing, perceiving it as a new genre of critique, a sort of "hybrid" or heuristic pastiche which, by blending more traditional statements with aphoristic one-liners and puns, retrieves ancient pedagogical properties of both literature and the arts. Realising how he uses this old/new form of criticism could free us to enjoy McLuhan’s texts also for their literary qualities. Our cultural environment is itself a great man-made artefact: nature has been replaced by an artificial landscape which has precise effects on mankind, and must be perceived as any other artefact. In other words: it is necessary to apply the "method of art analysis to the critical evaluation of society"—a "method" followed by McLuhan both when perceiving (observing) his environment, and when rendering it.

With this assumption, it is not so important that McLuhan use historical data strictly: just like Ford Madox Ford (an author McLuhan knew quite well thanks to Ezra Pound’s critical "mediation"), McLuhan has often been attacked for his lack of historical precision, for reducing data and complex phenomena to anecdotes and aphorisms, for his lack of "scientific precision." But consider the effect his critical writing has on us readers. Note how, since our world tends to be increasingly artificial and to be constantly reshaped by new media capable of quickly modifying our social interactions as well as our anthropological structures, we have to rethink our ideas of both time and space, and turn linear and sequential categories into simultaneous and discontinuous ones. Critics must leave the rigid perspective offered by the "ivory tower" and look for a wider and more flexible view provided by the "control tower"; they must learn new dynamics of perception capable of providing a syncretic and simultaneous vision of the various phenomena acting all at once, hic et nunc.

If literate Western man were really interested in preserving the most creative aspects of his civilisation, he would not cower in his ivory tower bemoaning change, but would plunge himself into the vortex of electric technology and, by understanding it, dictate his new environment—turn ivory tower into control tower.

This means running some risks, leaving a secure refuge for a new and dangerous outpost, abandoning an old and sterile mode of observation in favour of a new one more in tune with the new evolving environment. It means following Poe’s mariner’s example and adopting a new way of observing and rendering one’s own time. Change, which inevitably contains some elements of fear and threat, can be counterbalanced by a hybrid of playful curiosity and art-like attitude: "humankind can no longer, through fear of the unknown, expend so much energy translating anything new into something old, but must do what the artist does: develop the habit of approaching the present as a task, as an environment to be discussed, analysed, coped with, so that the future may be seen more clearly." So to approach McLuhan’s critical writing poetically means first of all to refuse the "rear-view mirror perspective," and adopt a new way of perceiving, one which frees us from rigid "scientific" outlook triggers new heuristic insight. We can learn how from art and literature, as it is the same attitude we adopt when observing, for instance, a canvas by Franz Marc or when reading a book by Lewis Carroll: there are no blue horses or yellow cows or speaking rabbits, yet it is through paradox, through the association of remote and discordant events that epiphany arises.

Following the example of the avant-garde artists, McLuhan experimented with new forms of writing also in the critical field, and by doing so turned upside-down classifications and scientific criteria consolidated within the Academy. This is true especially for a series of "pocket books" edited in the second half of the 1960s, in which images and literary references (mostly from Joyce’s Finnegans Wake) seem to "visually" expand dadaist and modernist experiments in language. Despite his assertion that "no one could be less enthusiastic about radical changes" than himself, McLuhan started to look at his own time as a grammarian trying to read the Book of Nature. He determined to probe the new electric environment, first to grasp its new language, then deduce its new "grammar." As he considered the new environment a great man-made artefact or "poem" (the result of poesis—making) he applied a sort of poetical exegesis to the world about him, thus shaping his scientific approach through his literary training. He took into consideration all man’s activities in all domains, scientific and humanistic, all cultural aspects, including also forms of art and communication traditionally omitted by academic investigators. For instance, his first published book, The Mechanical Bride: The Folklore of Industrial Man, surveys the changing world seen through then-new advertisements, and analysed according to the rhetorical methods of Practical Criticism. The change of perspective in observing the world is mirrored by a change in the way of rendering the observations. New ideas are explored and presented through a language fragmented into a mosaic of puns, nonsense, paradoxes, verbal attacks on the reader, and aphorisms (even though The Mechanical Bride does not reach the "dadaist-like" format of later books). Each chapter discusses an image—usually one taken from the popular press—and introduces a peculiar aspect of the "Folklore of Industrial Man." Each image is first probed by a list of rhetorical questions, often in the form of aphorisms or puns, specifically built to attack and provoke the reader into both an emotional and a rational reaction. The accompanying critical essay then aims, througha subtle analysis of the new mass "myths," to unmask the subliminal forces at work under the surface. Literary references are used to support ideas and theories.

Today, more than fifty years after the publication of The Mechanical Bride, McLuhan’s writing gains in clarity. The "nonsense" pervading his most famous books and once soundly condemned by rigorous, academic philologists seems to acquire new meaning, and some of McLuhan’s so called "prophecies" lose their ability to shock. As a matter of fact, the "prophetic" aspect of McLuhan’s books and critical essays is due more to a gap between his mode of perceiving and rendering the world about him and the audience’s mode of perception, than to "mystical" powers. All that McLuhan, a grammarian and a professor of English, possessed was a training of sensibility similar to the one enabling the artist, in all times, to anticipate and state truths that others will admit only later on. At first, avant-garde movements confuse and irritate the audience; only later it is possible to sentimentalise them.

"Nonsensical mcluhanese" must be revised: the reader can either enjoy McLuhan’s critical writing or abhor it, but he/she must, in the end, recognize in the polysemous potentialities of the "mosaic" a sort of "verbal hyper-text" ante litteram. Each line, each pun is carefully constructed so as to shock (and shake) the reader. The lack of linearity, the use of analogy—these are intended by McLuhan to give shape to his new attitude to knowledge, an attitude he characterised in one of his more celebrated "slogans": "I’m not an explainer; I’m an explorer." Like a true explorer he ventured onto the frontier of language as reshaped by electric media in the form of what Walter Ong called "secondary orality," and dismissed more traditional analysis. "As an investigator, I have no fixed point of view, no commitment to any theory—my own or anyone else’s. (...) I consider myself a generalist, not a specialist." McLuhan’s "verbal playfulness" could, in fact, be inscribed within an ancient, rhetorical tradition, favouring the aphoristic narration against the discursive one, as theorised by Francis Bacon in his essay On The Advancement of Learning. Not surprisingly, McLuhan quotes Bacon in The Gutenberg Galaxy:

But the writing of aphorisms hath many excellent virtues, whereto the writing in method doth not approach. For first, it trieth the writer, whether he be superficial or solid; for aphorisms, except they should be rediculous, cannot be made but of the pith and heart of sciences; for discourse of illustration is cut off: recitals of examples are cut off; discourse of connection and order is cut off; descriptions of practice are cut off. So there remaineth nothing to fill the Aphorisms but some good quantity of observation: and therefore no man can suffice, nor in reason will attempt to write aphorisms but he that is sound and grounded."

The "technique of discontinuity," which Bacon here prefigures, provided a perfect objective correlative to McLuhan’s search "not for goals but for roles," enabling him to give rhetorical shape to what he considered "the greatest discovery of the twentieth century," that is the technique of "suspended judgement." In the age of information overload, it is no more possible to master everything using our traditional, cognitive methods: as the Modernist writers learned, aporias replace established truths and language itself becomes a powerful heuristic tool. Therefore, all hermeneutics approaching McLuhan’s critical writing should start from a renewed exegesis which, unifying scientific and humanistic criteria, disclose new cognitive spaces while wittily pervading the reader’s inner sensibility.

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