t byfield on Tue, 17 Dec 96 04:17 MET

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Re: nettime: "Wired?"

At 4:27 PM -0500 on 12/16/96, Mark Stahlman (via RadioMail) wrote:

        First, it's certainly my sense that McLuhan is wilfully misunderstood,
as you suggest; that he's misunderstood along predictable lines would seem
to go without saying. I can't say that I've investigated the hows and whys
very diligently, because there are other things I'd rather read. The
pessimistic quotes you cite definitely strike a chord, though, and make me
think--certainly more than you first remarks did--that you're probably
right about his less than passive suppression of his theological bent.[*]
One possible "emic" explanation: a condescending hierophantism that
conveniently permits him to reconcile his private faith (pessimistic
apocalypticism) with the public (relations) persona we all know. To the
extent that it is a Catholic's (or at least an Augustinian's) duty to
confess his or her faith--to speak in ways, literal or figurative, that
foster the truth--then his redacted public faith would, in my eyes, be a
sin of omission: the persona he cultivated was definitely closer to  an
"aphoristic cheerleader" than to a pessimistic or antitechnical skeptic.
Whether your theory that his hope for an imminent End is provided the
universal "optimism" necessary to bridge this divide--a kind of agent
provocateur of the apocalypse, to put it cynically--that's anyone guess.
I'd be surprised if he documented such a thought.
        [* In my response to you, I wrote: "...given McLuhan's plain-as-day
theologically inclinations..." This was poorly put: I meant to say that
it's plain-as-day that he was tehologically inclined, not that his specific
theological inclinations are clear.]
        For the rest, I can't say I've given much thought to his relationship
to Teilhard, but a rubric like "organicism" is broad enough to encompass
very diverse thinkers. My intent in mentioning his organicism was to point
up certain tendencies--holism, a search for continuities, etc.--that would
"wrap around" in ways that would surely bear on McLuhan's eschatology. An
interesting comparison might be Abbe Lemaitre and his "atom primitif" a/k/a
the ur-expression of the Big Bang: the same old kid (universal pessimism)
in brand new drag (scientism). It was this, I think, that Goerge Gamow
picked up on when he "formulated" the Big Bang ca. 1947.

> And, at the very least, McLuhan clearly intended "apocalypse" to mean both
> insight *and* wrenching change.  In a 1966 CBC interview he said:
> "I am resolutely opposed to all innovation, all change, but I am determined
> to understand what's happening.  Because I don't choose just to sit and let
> the juggernaut roll over me.  Many people seem to think that if you talk
> about something recent, you in favor of it.  The exact opposite is true in
> my case.  Anything I talk about is almost certainly something I'm
> resolutely against.  And it seems to me the best way to oppose it is to
> understand it.  And then you know where to turn off the buttons."

        This is a rationalization that smacks of defeatism; of course,
defeatism is just another word for grace, hey? His "opposition" may be true
on the level of sentiment or ideal, and "understanding" may be what he
preached, but an understanding tending toward opposition is hardly the
fruit his efforts bore.

> I'll have to ask Louis Rossetto if he's incorporated that quote into the
> "patron saint" cathecism yet.


> Since he characterized what was coming as "feudal" and "tribal" (terms
> which he frequently interchanged), and I have been investigating the theme
> of a coming Global/Tribal "New Dark Age", I'm fascinated with what he
> really meant.  So naturally, I wish to understand his theology.

        A very similar pattern--an awed skepticism about modernist promises
and a haughty disdain for its popular manifestations--can be found in Lewis
Mumford's work, e.g., _The Pentagon of Power_; and there's yet another
parallel (which is far more explicit) in Walter Miller's dystopian sci-fi
novel _A Canticle for Leibowitz_. And, frankly, in its basic outlines it
looks a lot like the futurism/barbarism ("kitchen of tomorrow"/"juvenile
delinquent") dichotomy that so bedeviled the postwar "new class." So: you
may want to consider the possibility that McLuhan's cheerleader/reactionary
schizophrenia stems more from sloppy bourgeois discourse than from his
"vanguard" intellect.

> Could or should what is still happening be stopped or redirected?  What
> would happen to faith in the process?  In what sense (and how literally) is
> the end of civilization, which he foresaw, the "endtime" in terms of his
> own theology?  What happens to McLuhan interpretation in the process of
> integrating his theology with his deliberately confusing aphoristic style?
> "Thomist", "Augustinian", "organicist" -- you tell me (with references
> please).

        No need to, I think. If he placed more faith in grace than in
mankind's ability to perfect itself, then his talk about "turning off the
buttons" is irrelevant: G?d, not man, pushes the buttons. The cause of this
hubris, this false talk of human power, is the falseness of his public
writings vis-a-vis his own convictions. (NB: "false" according to McLuhan's
beliefs, not mine.)
        All of this with the caveat that these are my gut instincts talking
(quite possibly out the logical orifice); you'll notice the absence of
citations of McLuhan's work.


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