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<nettime> Whatcha Doin', Marshall McLuhan?
McKenzie Wark on Sun, 21 Nov 1999 15:47:42 +0100 (CET)


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<nettime> Whatcha Doin', Marshall McLuhan?


Whatcha Doin', Marshall McLuhan?
McKenzie Wark
Media Studies
Macquarie University
mckenzie.wark {AT} mq.edu.au

"Whatcha doin', Marshall McLuhan?" You know something or someone has reached a certain threshold of ubiquity in the electronic media when there's a joke about them on as popular a TV show as Laugh In once was.1

What Marshall McLuhan has been doing lately is rising from the dead. He is the ghost who walks and never dies. Some of his classic works are back in print. There are new studies on him. He turned up on the cover of Wired magazine, for which he is a patron saint, of sorts.

One thing that is as noticeable now as it was in the 60s, is that McLuhan's presence in the media is not as himself. The media never represent McLuhan as McLuhan. It is not even accurate to say that the media represents him badly. Rather, his name and face and aphoristic catch lines have come to have a life of their own in the media, coming to mean anything and everything in the context in which they occur. His image has pushed out from the shore and become a free floating sign on the open seas of the media.

Or in other words, it's not McLuhan the messenger, but McLuhan the message that is in circulation. Contrary to his own, somewhat reductive and physicalist, explanations of the process of interpreting media, he proliferates as a free-floating sign.2 Contrary to the 'laws' McLuhan might have tried to impose, in his later work, on his own experimental findings, McLuhan as message turns out to work in the open, proliferating sense that once can glimpse in his best work.

I've been reading McLuhan, on and off, for some time now.3 In some ways he comes from far too different a cultural orientation for me to embrace him. McLuhan was a Catholic convert; I'm a Protestant pervert. He was a literary critic at heart; my background is in philosophy. He took sides with the ancients against the moderns; I take the side of the postmoderns against the moderns. He preferred the classical virtues of grammar as the basis of knowledge; I was schooled in argument and dialectic, the things McLuhan sees as having gotten out of hand. And of course he is world famous, long after his death, and I'm not. 

But principally, what makes McLuhan a figure who cannot be assimilated, not only to my tastes but to those of the times, is his overarching commitment to seeking the unity and continuity of all human knowledge and culture. Restoring the balance was his ethical goal. I think any honest assessment of what the modern world has wrought must see the proliferation of change and difference, what Marx described as the "all that is solid melts into air" quality of our experience, as a fundamental given.4

Untimely, unlikely as he is, McLuhan still speaks to us. It's not so much a question of putting aside one's differences in order to understand McLuhan, or remake him in more acceptable terms. His singular qualities, that he is what Toni Negri calls an 'anomaly' is precisely the thing to be valued.5 His work does not advance knowledge, as if it were an homogenous process of accumulating enlightenment. Rather, he differentiates it by showing just how singularly it can be constructed, on the basis of an image of thought itself that was uniquely his.6

In one way McLuhan's return from the dead is actually rather timely. He was profoundly opposed to economic rationalism. He looked deep into the western tradition to find out how and why the rationalising, specialising, productivist ethos had become dominant, from Machiavelli to Hume, Smith, Ricardo, Marx and Marshall. He was opposed to narrow and reductive rationalism in all fields, and sought to restore a lost holism to knowledge, as well as to it's communication. The analogical was to be reconnected to the analytical, both in the practice of thought and in it's communication. 

McLuhan's overriding concern was with spiritual unity. Not that you would know this from the cartoon images of McLuhan that still circulate in place of any real knowledge of his work. As Mark Dery notes, McLuhan has become a poster-boy for the cyber-libertarians of Silicon alley.7 But they have appropriated only part of his legacy, his image, not his actual thought. The idea that the internet alone is the medium that will reconnect the fragments he would have seen as just another fragmented, rationalist and partial project. 

It is worth naming some of the contours of his thought that set him apart and make him a unique figure in western letters. For one thing, he did more than anyone else to show how the study of media can be a way of rethinking the whole western tradition. Media wasn't just some new fangled gadget of modern times. Culture has always existed in some media or other, and that media shaped the possibilities for what that culture could become. The argument between Socrates and the sophists, for which we have only biased sources -- biased towards writing -- was fundamentally a debate about media.8

'Media' doesn't just mean print, TV, radio, movies, it means any vector along which information moves. It includes architecture. It includes then alphabet. Media is any surface, any material, via which human activity might transmit an action from one place or time to another. The significance of this classic McLuhan move is to circumvent the tendency to think about media in the privileged terms of the media of the day. Of McLuhan's interpreters, Friedrich Kittler has done the most to stress how the historical constitution of a "discourse network" affects not only the terms in which media and communication are conceived, but the who discursive construction of subjectivity itself.9

"The medium is the message" as McLuhan's most famous aphoristic "probe" put it. This way of seeing things has profound consequences for how we think about the western tradition. To make a fetish of "great books" is to fundamentally misunderstand classical culture, which made no such fetish and regarded books with some suspicion. To see the past of culture in terms of great books is to make the past look exactly like the present. It is a pseudo-conservative gesture, as even some defenders of the classical texts have, since McLuhan, come to recognise.10

A genuinely conservative perspective on the past, which is what I think McLuhan strove for, looks at the distinctive media of transmission and preservation that shaped each culture, and tries to assess the 'heath' of that culture in terms of the balance or bias such media created. Thus his ideal was not the great book, it was the well rounded knowledge of someone like Cicero, who could read and write, but also speak and listen, who knew something of every branch of knowledge but did not have too strong a bias toward logic over rhetoric.

McLuhan was interested in the whole communication environment, and would surely have seen an obsession with the great book over all of the other arts of knowledge as pathological. Media form matters as much as content, and the bias towards abstract reasoning in purely textual media was for him the reason for the fall into fragmented and meaningless life in modern times. 

This is where McLuhan cuts a diagonal across some of the prejudices of his times, and ours. He took a serious interest in popular visual culture, from comics and advertising to radio and television. But he neither embraced the popular, nor critiqued it in the name of a supposedly 'superior' media competence, that of literacy. His earlier, apparently more critical work despaired of the fragmented nature of modern media experience. His later work did not celebrate 'popular culture', but rather tried to illuminate the spiritual potential latent in a media reduced to fragments. The fragments illuminate each other in The Medium is the Massage, whereas in The Mechanical Bride we see the fragment as something fallen.11 But these books differ only in their rhetorical strategy, the practice remain remarkably consistent throughout McLuhan's major works. The Adilkno group's apt description for it is "satirical theory".12

McLuhan grasped communication as a whole. He did not pass over the channel, or the vector, along which communication passes in an unseemly rush to talk about the codes and signs that pass along it, as semiotic theories of communication inevitably do. His was a theory not of signs, but of sense.13 He understood sense as something produced by particular material means of communication, each with its own bias in terms of the space and time it opens up for human action and interaction.

While avoiding the fetish of the text and the sign, McLuhan also avoids the fetish of the social and social interaction. The social, as we see clearly in McLuhan, doesn't exist. All human interaction is mediated. Both social and textual analysis have to be rethought in terms of media. There is always a material media vector in between the person and the sign. Since the subject and the sign only come together at via a particular vector, it makes sense to start thinking from the properties of the vector, in its technical specifications and historical determinations, as post-McLuhan thinkers such as Friedrich Kittler and Norbert Boltz have attempted. 

McLuhan is sometimes derided as a "technological determinist", not least by sociologists wanting to claim the high ground in the name of "social constructionism". But this frequently devolves into a mere social determinism, in which the category of the social is obliged to perform the quasi-theological work of animating the understanding of media with the spirit of a now humanist "free will". The strange thing about McLuhan's Catholicism is that it liberated him from the debilitating effects of a humanism that acts in the place of faith in social science in an unreflected way. Faith in God freed McLuhan from faith in the social, and enabled him to stand as a precursor to more radical questionings of the constitution of the social and the subjective by media that has ever been possible within the confines of sociology. 

One way to translate "the medium is the message" is to say that "the media is the virtual", or "the virtual is the media". Media means connection, in McLuhan, be it the rational connection of linear differences or the leap across the line in the analogical discovery of unexpected sameness. New media create new possibilities. Or as Pierre Levy would have it, open new domains of virtuality.14 Like Levy, I've drawn in my own work on Gilles Deleuze's understanding of virtuality.15 I've seem the history of media as the creation of new zones of virtuality.16 Understanding media becomes then an empirical study of the plane of possibility inaugurated by a given vector or matrix of vectors. 

Media studies, on this view, is not another specialised branch of knowledge, it is a way of achieving an integrated vision of all knowledge and culture. Media studies is about the means via which knowledge and culture operate. McLuhan, like Marx, developed his insights into the dynamic, unstable, proliferating virtuality of modern life by clinging to a teleology. The fall into disorder could be embraced as a prelude to a return to unity. In McLuhan's case, a spiritual unity; in Marx's case, a social one. What makes them both precursors to postmodern thought is that the teleology can -- and must -- be abandoned as mere fable, while the substance of their insights into the uncertain dynamics of capital and communication form the basis of a new empiricism in knowledge.

This is not a vision that equips McLuhan's though too well for the specialised and fragmented world of the contemporary academy. This is not knowledge that can be put in a box. But McLuhan's retort is that it is the academy that has become a distorted and misshapen thing, by putting so much stress on fragmentation and specialisation. It's obsession with the book has led the academy astray. Here McLuhan's practice ("whatcha doin'?") is as enlightening as his theory. It may seem strange to say that his work is "empirical", but then it also calls for a revaluing of what might count as the empirical. If by the empirical we mean the attempt to expose critical presupposition to the open flow of difference that comes from emersion in the world, then in this -- Deleuzian -- sense, McLuhan's practice is empirical.17

It is also -- and I wonder if he was aware of this -- a sacrifice, and a scandal. The unseemly haste with which McLuhan's program as shut down is testament enough to its scandalous quality.18 Given McLuhan's pedigree, as an alternative descendant from Cambridge English to the cultural studies canon of Leavis, Williams, Hoggart and Hall, it seems to me worth acknowledging the radically different direction in which he took the literary-critical impulse. He makes even Stuart Hall look like a reformist, in his sturdy disregard for the institutional forms of knowledge and culture that cultural studies wanted merely to democratise. McLuhan gave up the chance to pass on the baton within the established institutions of knowledge and culture in order to project his image, if not his thought, into the unknown world of the media itself. It's an experiment from which we can only now start to glimpse some results. 

It follows from McLuhan's critique of modern knowledge that media studies of a McLuhanesque kind has to find quite a different way of operating. It can't just become another specialisation, if specialisation is a pathological condition brought about by the bias toward one kind of media over others. McLuhan's style of writing, his public performances, his interest in reintegrating the visual arts into book culture, are all part of a practice of doing media studies that was an attempt to live up to his critique of specialised and fragmented knowledge.

While McLuhan was critical of what had become of knowledge in the grip of the book within the academy, the decline of the book relative to new electric media filled him with horror. While Wired magazine might want to identify itself with a McLuhan who embraced the electric and electronic media, his own relation to it was I think far more complex and troubled. Here McLuhan really does anticipate the multimedia age -- not as a triumphalist prophet of its benefits but as a precious worrier about its problems. In the era of broadcast media, literacy had the charm of an elitist alternative. In this, the postbroadcast age, there are no longer clear distinctions between high and low, no neat markers between civilisation and the barbarians. McLuhan, who always drew the map differently anyway, anticipates the problem of constructing knowledge, both within and within the academy, in a world where writing is just one medium among many.

McLuhan's expression "global village" has been misunderstood.19 Under no illusions about ancient Greek tribal life, he saw the village as riven by war and conflict, not peace and harmony. He was no follower of Rousseau. He thought electric media broke down the ability to think abstractly that print fostered, returning us to a tribal world of identities in conflict. The Balkan wars, far from being evidence against the global village, are pure fulfilment of McLuhan's prophesy. 

I don't think electric media retribalise -- here we are deep in the circular understanding of history that McLuhan shared with Vico and Joyce. But they are a medium with a message of their own, creating new spaces within which culture grows in different patterns. But then I have no faith in the possibility of a return to an ideal balance between the senses. There is no harmonious environment, the unstable and transformative nature of media environments is a constitutive part of our experience. There was  no fall from Eden, from Adamic knowledge -- and no return to it. 

Here, like McLuhan, I think we have a lot to learn from artists, who perceive the media environment in ways scholars don't. McLuhan learned form Eliot and Eisenstein and Joyce.20 I think we can continue to learn, as his successor, from their successors. McLuhan showed the fecundity and profundity of symbolist and modernist art for media studies. I think there are good reasons to pay attention to their postmodern epigones. I've never supported a cultural studies that looked only to popular culture. McLuhan sought to see culture whole, and in the same spirit, if somewhat perversely, I think we need to get Nietzsche and Nick Cave into the same sentence.21 Both Nietzsche and Nick Cave, in different ways, made the same discovery -- that God is dead. Both embrace in an untimely fashion the unstable state of affairs that McLuhan and his modernist heroes lamented and detested. 

What I think we learn from the arts today is that while no return to a unified Ciceronian knowledge and culture is possible, contemporary media forms do make possible new networks of sense making, new configurations of time and space. Now, in the postbroadcast age, some of the virtues of previous eras of media form can be rediscovered and brought into new creative syntheses. There's no way to undo the fall, but there is a way to become conscious of the fact that culture is constantly in freefall, tumbling out of balance with itself, inventing new assemblages of human senses with their media extensions. 

Notes
1 See Eric McLuhan and Frank Zingrone, Essential McLuhan, Routledge, London, 1997, p. 236

2 Marshall McLuhan with Eric McLuhan, Laws of Media: The New Science, Toronto University Press, Toronto, 1988

3 Starting with McKenzie Wark, 'Sprit Freed From Flesh: Cultural Technologies and the Information Landscape', Intervention, No. 21/22 1987, pp89-96

4 Karl Marx, The Revolutions of 1848, Penguin in association with New Left Review, London, 1973, pp. 70-1. 

5 Antonio Negri, The Savage Anomaly, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1991. McLuhan might less a savage anomaly than a civil one.

6 Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, What is Philosophy?, Verso, London, 1994

7 Mark Dery, Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century, Grove Press, New York, 1996, p. 8

8 See John Durham Peters, Speaking into Air: A History of the Idea of Communication, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1995

9 Friedrich Kittler, Discourse Networks 1800/1900, Stanford University Press, Los Angeles, 1990; Friedrich Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, Stanford University Press, Los Angeles, 1999; Friedrich Kittler, Literature, Media, Information Systems, G+B International, Amsterdam, 1999

10 See for example James J. O'Donnell, Avatars of the Word: From Papyrus to Cyberspace, Harvard University Press, Massachusetts, 1998

11 Marhsll McLuhan and Quentin Fiore, The Medium is ther Massage, Hardwired Books, San Francisco, 1996; The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man, Vanguard, New York, 1951

12 Adilkno [The Foundation for the Advancement of Illegal Knowledge], Media Archive, Autonomedia, New York,  p. 42

13 See Gilles Deleuze, The Logic of Sense, Athlone Press, London, 1990

14 Pierre Levy, Becoming Virtual: Reality in the Digital Age, Plenum, New York, 1998

15In particular, Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, Athlone Press, London, 1994

16 McKenzie Wark, The Virtual Republic, Allen & Unwin, 1997, pp. 30-59

17  Gilles Deleuze, Empiricism and Subjectivity, Columbia University Press, New York, 1991; Gilles Deleuze and Claire Parnet, Dialogues, Columbia University Press, New York, 1987, pp. 54-55

18 W. Terrence Gordon, Marshall McLuhan: Escape into Understanding, Basic Books, New York, 1997, p. 290ff

19 Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore, War and Peace in the Global Village, Touchstone Books, New York, 1989

20 See Glenn Willmott, McLuhan, or Modernism in Reverse, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1997

21 McKenzie Wark, Celebrities, Culture and Cyberspace, Pluto Press, Sydney, 1999

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