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McLuhan, Baudrillard and Cultural Theory

Instructor: Gary Genosko

Lecture Eight

copyright 1998, Gary Genosko.



We're in an age of implosion after 3,000 years of explosion.
-- McLuhan, Counterblast
Let's consider a few areas in which further work on McLuhan's French reception may be undertaken on the basis of the groundwork laid by the themes discussed thus far in these lectures.

Translating McLuhan into French was not an easy task, especially since a translator often had to work in concert with a designer in order to ensure that the concrete aspects of the texts were not lost. One may think of Gilles Robert, for instance, as a kind of French Harley Parker. Robert's company adapted Parker's design of Counterblast to suit Paré's translation, all the while grappling with word-objects of a text whose letters lent themselves in different ways in French to iconic expressions of, for example, how 'a chair outers the human posterior'.

Figure 1.

The difference between bum and cul called for ingenious postural correctives. Translation became a kind of chiropractic: with the loss of the iconic elements of the letter 'B', the u-shaped seat, and m-shaped chair supports, new conventions were required for 'outering' a seated, spreading behind. But cul is no derrière, a spreading bottom. The number of letters remained conveniently the same -- despite Robert's need to repeat c-u-l in the shape of a shoulder, arm, and breast (or is it a nose?) -- but cul is laden with off-colour shades of meaning which lay bare the vulgar 'piece of ass' (and a gendered leg) at issue in a profile rather than from a legless behind. The inverted 'u' does not so much 'outer' the posterior as place it on a pedestal; and not so much of the posterior is outered! But, cul accomplishes what bum could not, and does so by adding a layer of proprietary sexualization. The inclusion of the leg through the arrangement of 'l' looks forward to McLuhan's point that the outering of the posterior involved in the chair led directly to the development of the table, under which one's legs must be made to fit.

The general point is that translating McLuhan into French was a multi-dimensional undertaking the study of which helps one to understand how his texts were of necessity reinvented on several semiotic planes; it is especially important to note how the translation gendered the image, enabling the word-object to objectify women's bodies. But imagine, for a moment, what this process of translation would have entailed in other languages (Japanese, etc.).

The confusion and controversy surrounding the translation of From Cliché to Archetype (with Watson 1970 and in translation 1973) reveals another facet of the transformation of McLuhan's texts for French readers. The journalist Dumur (1972: 37) reported in Le nouvel observateur that McLuhan 'is preparing to publish a commentary on Dictionnaire des idées reçus that he will sign Gustave Flaubert and Marshall MacLuhan'. When the work appeared the following year with the title Du cliché à l'archétype: La foire du sens, Accompagné du Dictionnaire des idées reçues de Gustave Flaubert, McLuhan's scandalous advance publicity was tempered by the exigencies of publishing and authorship; that is, McLuhan's co-author Wilfred Watson may have disappeared from the cover, but Flaubert did not take his place. It was the translator De Kerckhove who turned From Cliché to Archetype into a quasi-symbolist masterpiece.

The translation was immediately met, however, with criticism. Writing in Le Devoir, Gilles Marcotte (1974: 17) commented on the translator that : 'He has cut here, and added there; replaced quotations from English authors with quotations from French authors (Montaigne, Racine, Blanchot, etc.), which are not always solidly anchored to the text -- but, neither are those of McLuhan'. Marcotte concluded that De Kerckhove's version was less well-developed than McLuhan's original. While McLuhan and De Kerckhove received support for the translation from a variety of quarters, in 1976 McLuhan was still defending De Kerckhove's work in an unpublished letter to Gertrude Le Moyne at La Presse (MP. 22-20).

Consider this rewriting of the text in the following terms which revisit my discussion of 'happenings'. In the original English version, McLuhan and Watson emphasized, following analyses of happenings by several prominent intellectuals such as Susan Sontag, the non-verbal matrix (visual and temporal frames) of such events, the inclusion of an active audience in the proceedings, and the manipulation and radical juxtapositions of everyday environments in the clash of clichés borrowed from different media. Although McLuhan and Watson resisted certain elements of Sontag's definition such as the tendency of happenings to use persons as material objects rather than as characters, Sontag's ideas were the main board from which McLuhan and Watson sprang. Read in conjunction with De Kerckhove's sanctioned rewriting, especially the section on 'Théâtre', the English text must have served as a kind of happening for the translator. First, McLuhan's book was not first rewritten in English before it was translated into French. De Kerckhove's 'exploratory and probe functions' -- to use McLuhan's terminology -- led him to erase numerous references and import new examples to give content and context to McLuhan's concepts for a culturally different readership. Secondly, De Kerckhove cannot be said to have failed to provide a literal translation; nor did he arbitrarily substitute French for English quotations. Watson, it is evident, did not participate in the rewriting. De Kerckhove's process of rewriting was intensely participatory -- even in the banal sense of the working meetings he had with McLuhan over the course of the translation. It is equally participatory for the reader attuned to issues surrounding the translation and French reception of McLuhan's writings. The text is a mosaic of the close translation of selected paragraphs; the exclusion of references to and quotations by such notables as Joyce, Coleridge, Paul Goodman, Chaucer and Charlie Chaplin; bold substitutions which did not miss the point (Baudelaire for Blake); wild media mixes that must have delighted McLuhan (substituting experiments with sound technologies for newspapers); the insertion of current events familiar to French readers (an Italian troupe's performance of Orlando Furioso at Les Halles in 1970 -- the only happening cited in either text); and the insertion of details merely suggested in the original (i.e., the names of the Fellini films McLuhan was thinking about at the time but did not name). All of these examples are drawn from only a few pages of the book! Du cliché à l'archétype was remade by De Kerckhove in a complex way that included many of McLuhan's own 'new ' examples in what was considered by both of them to be the superior edition that used Flaubert's definitions as a readymade framework. This remaking did not put De Kerckhove on the list of those nominated for the position of 'French McLuhan'.

These few considerations clear the way for a more detailed analysis of the translation and reinvention of McLuhan for French and other audiences; the belief (see MP. 20-81) that certain of his books (Through the Vanishing Point) were simply, according to his publishers, too difficult to translate, should not be neglected. In addition, such integral questions of translation turn back toward the study of the claims made on his work from all quarters, especially by groups whose concerns and adaptations were, in some instances, quite mysterious.

The popular French journal Planète was launched by Louis Pauwels in1961. The editorial commmittee included his close colleague Jacques Bergier, with whom he wrote Le matin des magiciens (1960). Pauwels was born in Paris in 1920. His work as a journalist involved him in Carrefour, Figaro littéraire, and Combat (which he edited from 1949-55). He is currently the director of Figaro Magazine. He is best known for his esoteric theorizing and novels of fantastic realism which include a wide range of themes from eastern religions, exorcism, alchemy, and secret societies. He is a connoisseur of the paranormal, perhaps even the paranoid. For his part, Bergier may be counted among 'non-conformist scientific popularizers' and 'science fiction propagandists' in France whose mainstream interests (translating American scientific texts into French) and editorial positions (as the 'house intellectual' for the journal Fiction) gave way to an overriding interest in the occult and the development, in Le matin des magiciens and Planète, of 'the first French ideology of science fiction' (Ory (1991: 107). In the late 1960s (Thomas 1968; Veyrac 1969), McLuhan took his rightful place alongside the free-spirited futurologists, psychedelic artists, astrologists, wild urbanists, and counter-cultural figures of all sorts favoured by Planète. Once again, McLuhan as visionary was embraced by cultural animateurs -- who, incidentally, eventually came to package alternative experiences for sale as seminars and vacations -- committed to the expression of interdisciplinary knowledges excluded from the magisterial discourses watched over by the professors and other keepers of so-called 'closed systems' of thought. There is an image, however, which captures the lingering resentment over McLuhan's French revolution. On 8 mai 1974, Le Monde carried a full page advertisement for La Presse Quotidienne Régionale in which an angry Gutenberg gave his response to McLuhan's claim that we have left his galaxy of the printed word for the electric media of Marconi. The figure of Gutenberg gave McLuhan what is known informally as the 'Italian salute'! Less a response in French than a response by the French, this rather rude gesture of ill-will came from the newspaper sector in the heat of its struggle against television and its perceived demiurge: MacLuhan. Still, as I have argued, MacLuhan was hard to hit, even with hard-hitting advertorial content. His very indistinctness perhaps accounts, in some measure, for his user- and seeker-friendliness.

My exploration of the complex relationship between McLuhan and Baudrillard emphasized the concepts of massage and semiurgy, implosion, participation, and the vicissitudes of the phrase 'the medium is the message'. In several interviews, Baudrillard has readily acknowledged his debts to McLuhan and stated his basic agreement with the latter's analysis of the media, especially television. Baudrillard inverts, however, McLuhan's sense of a global village overflowing with information access to which increases liberty (Baudrillard 1984b). Baudrillard's inversion takes this course. There is no shared code, he believes, between media senders and mass receivers; there is neither a village atmosphere nor any 'right to reply' since the Baudrillardian problematic is focused on the theorization of symbolically effective forms of response. Baudrillard does not valorize communicative contact. He understands McLuhan's sense of tactility, a somewhat cryptic notion carried forward by De Kerckhove (1991: 47) and others through speculation about sub-muscular responses as the 'deep effects' of television, as nothing more than 'communication-contact ... [in] which there is a kind of short-circuit between sender and receiver' (Baudrillard 1996: 166). At the level of the individual, Baudrillard notes, information overload and communicative saturation create a short-circuit described as a 'tactile ambience', a generalized, undifferentiated environment of telephasis.

Baudrillard still, on occasion, holds out the possibility that there is some way of mastering implosion and in this sense may be said to flirt with McLuhan's optimism, even if surfing the 'tactile ambience' of media culture means that the mass created by media technologies is a neutralizing, implosive energy rather than a positive, expansive explosion. Baudrillard retains the notion of mass in his remarks on media against current trends in communication theory to investigate the conditions of 'post-(mass)media' and 'multimedia' environments. But he aligns advanced media technologies with indetermination and indifferentiation, to which the mass form, his spongy referent, responds in kind with indifference. The orgy really is over.

McLuhan masters implosion through creative involvement buoyed by religious optimism, downplaying the deleterious effects of technological change, while Baudrillard wallows in a pessimism produced by the effects of simulation, while refusing to relinguish the somewhat mystical hope of a radical anthropological antidote. For both thinkers, implosion is a subtractive form in which loss (whether of space and time or meaning and the social) is regained but in different ways; for McLuhan, in a global community the development of whose means of involvement remains unchecked and, for Baudrillard, in an involving, controlled, centripetal collapse which is threatened by a catastrophic explosion. Regardless of these differences, implosion is inevitable and the failure to intellectually master it is the straight gate to irrelevance for any media theorist.


Notes

McLuhan (1970a: 39) Counterblast, Harley Parker (design), London: rapp + whiting; (1972a: 39) Counterblast: Un ABC du McLuhanisme, Jean Paré (trans.), and Gilles Robert & Associés (design), Montréal/Paris: Hurtubise HMH and Maison mame.
Back to where you left off.

McLuhan and Watson (1970) From Cliché to Archetype, New York: Viking; (1973) Du cliché à l'archétype. La foire du sens. Accompagné du Dictionnaire des idées reçues de Gustave Flaubert, Derrick de Kerckhove (trans.), Montréal/Paris: Hurtubise HMH and Maison mame.
On the journalistic front, see Guy Dumur (1972) "La galaxie MacLuhan," Le Nouvel observateur 401 (23 juillet): 36-7. The best one can say about Dumur is that, after meeting McLuhan at the ORTF during the master's appearance on "Dossiers de l'écran (5 juillet 1972), he admitted that he could not understand him, resorting to a typical refrain: he is too anglo-saxon!
In Montréal, the publication of the French translation of From Cliché to Archetype brought out the McLuhan-bashers. Gilles Marcotte (1974) "Marshall McLuhan et l'énérgie du banal," Le Devoir (15 juin). His criticisms were twofold: it was not a good idea to use Flaubert, and de Kerckhove's cuts and additions were not always grounded in the text, but neither were those of McLuhan! Finally, "it would have been preferable to follow more closely the original text, which is more explicit and better developed than De Kerckhove's version." See also (MP. 22-20) McLuhan-Mrs. Gertrude Le Moyne [La Presse] (3 Aug. 1976). McLuhan defends his colleague and interlocutor de Kerkhove who has not merely translated but re-written the book, and this says nothing about his ability to translate directly. Again, on the question of translation and re-writing, see (MP. 20-81) Claude Cartier-Bresson-McLuhan (21 Sept. 1973). Both Cartier-Bresson in Paris and Claude Hurtubise in Montréal were concerned about the difficulties of finding appropriate substitute citations for the French version of Through the Vanishing Point, a concern raised by de Kerckhove's translation of From Cliché to Archetype.
Back to where you left off.

Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier (1960) Le matin des magiciens, Paris: Gallimard. On the place of Pauwels's brand of fantastic realism, see P. Ory (1991) "The Introduction of Science Fiction into France," in France and the Mass Media, Brian Rigby and Nicolas Hewitt (eds.), London: Macmillan. The Planète articles are: Bernard Thomas (1968) "H.M. MacLuhan: nous sortons de la galaxie Gutenberg pour entrer dans la galaxies Faraday," Planète 38 (jan-fév.): 141-49; Luc Veyrac (1969) "McLuhan: ça sera pire," Planète 8 [new series] (juin): 14-19. The motif of inter-galactic travel was played out in many ways. As early as 1966, performance artist and Fluxus member Al Hansen, with the support of Something Else Press in New York, was staging a happening in the form of a "McLuhan Megillah" in his Time/Space Theatre loft. An invitation to the event from "Al Hansen, the well-known rocketeer" is in MP. 9-36.
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The two interviews in which McLuhan is discussed at some length are Baudrillard (1984b) "Game with Vestiges," Salvatore Mele and Mark Titmarsh (interview), Ross Gibson and Paul Patton (trans.), On the Beach 5 (Winter): 19-25; and idem (1996) "Entrevue avec Jean Baudrillard," Graham Knight and Caroline Bayard (interview), RSSI 16/1-2: 165-83.
Back to where you left off.


copyright 1998, Gary Genosko.

Send a comment or question to Gary Genosko: genosko@mist.lakeheadu.ca



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