t byfield on Sat, 14 Dec 96 21:06 MET

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Re: nettime: "Wired?"

At 7:53 PM -0500 on 12/13/96, Mark Stahlman (via RadioMail) wrote:

> Just a small note on McLuhan (and Marcuse).  When asked if he was an
> optimist or a pessimist, McLuhan responded, "An apolcalypsist."  <...>
> What did McLuhan mean?

        "Apocalypse" means "revelation." Roughly speaking, there are two
opposing tendencies in Christian apocalypticism: on the one hand, the idea
that revelation is an internal realization, on the other, that it is a
world-transforming, material trauma. Your argument proceeds by chucking out
the first of these and interpreting apocalypticism as, basically,
millennialism. This is a bad mistake in general and a *really* bad one when
dealing with Catholic organicists like McLuhan. "Organicism" denotes, among
other things, a tendency toward holism and continuity--in practical terms,
it tends toward bourgeois scholasticism rather than literalist
fire-and-brimstone rupture-mongering.

> There was perhaps only one predictable thing about McLuhan's daily schedule
> -- he was at Mass every day.  As a extremely devout Catholic,
> "apocalypsist" is hardly a figure of speech.  I believe that he meant it
> literally.

        I'm quite certain he did, but to "literally mean" that one is an
apocalypticist and to mean that one is a "literal apocalypticist" are two
*completely* different statements.

>            As is the final judgement day, mark of the beast, four horsemen
> and all.

        This is "literal apocalypticism."

>          I'm also convinced that he deliberately suppressed his
> relgiousity and the theology behind his work because he believed
> (correctly) that he would be percieved as a crank and never "launched" (by
> the NY press) if he gave complete testimony.

        "Suppressed"? How? By failing to trumpet his Catholicism on very page
of his writings? This kind of secularist critique seems to assume that
religiosity makes it incumbent on someone to "confess" his or her beliefs
explicitly; it isn't.

>                                                                      Interested readers should
> also refer to his letters to Ezra Pound about power in society for more
> indications of his strategy of speaking in parables to confuse the censors.

        Leo Strauss would be better, IMO; I think you'd probably like his
writings a good bit. (You might also take a look at Jackson Lears's essay
on "intellectual and Intellectualism" in the Encyclopedia of American
Social History--there's very excellent analysis of McLuhan and that brand
of modernism.) Anyway, given McLuhan's plain-as-day theologically
inclinations, it's reasonable to assume that he understood scripture as
true on several levels: doxological, christological, ecclesiological,
eschatological, and so on. While it's quite possible that he beleived that
these things are "literally" true, it's more likely, given where he came
from and where he went, that his interests or emphasis focused on other
modalities of "truth."

> I formed this view a few years ago and I tried it out last winter when I
> visited Toronto and spent time with McLuhan's son Eric and his cohorts.
> They were senstitive and, it seemed to me, evasive -- but not correcting --
> about the hypothesis.  I have subsequently been told that McLuhan's mentor
> at Cambridge (and indeed many of his fellow "New Critics") was openly and
> literally anticipating the Biblical apocalyse.  It appears that this topic
> is also well covered in the various McLuhan lists on the Net.

        Believe it or not, for a few thousand years now lots of folks have
anticipated the apocalypse; lots still do.

> So, the evidence mounts.  It would be historically accurate, it seems, to
> view McLuhan as describing such concepts as the "Global Village" as the end
> of time and, indeed, the institutionalization of evil in anticipation of
> the Second Coming rather than the optimistic telling of good times to come.
>  Remember, a true believer in the Apocalypse is enthusiatic about its
> arrival.  It represents salvation.

        See above. This definitely isn't accurate.
        Don't think for a moment that I'm defending McLuhan--his contributions
were pretty trivial, IMO, and due mostly to slick PR and Quentin Fiore. But
if you're going to discuss the theological aspects of his work, you'd do
well to get a firmer grip on what that entails. "Religious" isn't reducible
to "crank," "theological" isn't reducible to "apocalyptic," and
"apocalyptic" isn't reducible to twiddling your thumbs waiting eagerly for
the antichrist.


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