Why bother with Marshall McLuhan?
August 10, 2011
In light of my recent posts on Marshall McLuhan, it was really interesting to see this article from The New Atlantis, entitled “Why bother with Marshall McLuhan?”. Although I know that McLuhan is a fairly influential communications theorist, I was wondering this myself.
The article gives some very helpful background. One particularly unsettling story involves McLuhan’s responses to those who didn’t understand Understanding Media; his original response to bafflement was that baffled readers were simply “unable to recognize the very large structural changes in human outlook that are occurring today.”
Another way to interpret that is that readers who didn’t understand what McLuhan wrote are simply not intelligent. His followup response is even worse: “Clear prose indicates the absence of thought”. When an intellectual says something like this, it always strikes me as a cover for lack of thought on their part. Clarity and profundity should go together.
This points me back toward the “river of ideas” approach that I articulated in my post on why to read challenging books. I said that one way to read a complex book is to treat it like standing in a river; you let the ideas wash over you and get what you can rather than trying to understand every nuance of what was written.
If clarity and profundity are indeed opposed in McLuhan’s writing, the “river method” is perhaps the only way to read his books. And here’s what Tom Wolfe had to say about McLuhan, according to the article:
“Perfect! Delphic! Cryptic! Metaphorical! Epigrammatic!… With this even, even, even voice, this utter scholarly aplomb — with these pronouncements — ‘Art is always one technology behind. The content of the art of any age is the technology of the previous age’ — with all this Nietzschean certitude — McLuhan has become an intellectual star of the West.
And of course Delphic pronouncements are brief, obscure, laden with apparent meaning, and often deeply influential. Suited for the “river method”.
This “fishing for meaning” approach makes sense in the context of McLuhan’s style, too. In both Understanding Media and also in one of his early books, The Gutenberg Galaxy, he developed the idea of writing as a “mosaic image”, with lots of tiny chapters that don’t necessarily build on one another. These chapters could be appreciated in very small pieces, enabling an approach of getting what you can.
So, I guess I’m making a case for a somewhat passive appreciation of McLuhan’s work, partly because an active appreciation seems to be impossible. I am, according to the writer of the article, a bad reader.
There are several ways to read McLuhan badly. One is to take the slogans and run with them: “The medium is the message” — Go! (I think I managed to avoid this.)
A second is to take any one of his isometric exercises, in which one communications technology is set against another, and see it as a free-standing illustration of his overall view of something — of anything. _(I also didn’t do this, but I wasn’t really looking for a coherent message.) _
A third is to swallow his vast bland assertions without a great deal of mastication and, if necessary (and it’s often necessary), regurgitation. (Yes, I suppose this is probably what I did. But again, is reading McLuhan just a waste of time if, even if you put forth this effort, you may not get to anything understandable?)
A fourth, and the most understandable of them all, is to mistake his specifically Christian eschatological hope for a purely secular and material utopianism. (I did not know before reading this article that McLuhan was actually a fairly strict Catholic who “preached the dangers of Hell”. Wow. So his work is somehow fundamentally religious? I’m not convinced.)
But what I want to say to accusations of bad reading is that the alternative is probably not to read McLuhan at all. In fact, it may be to reduce reading challenging books (the “Don’t” heading in my previous post) as many of them probably share a similar oracular obscurity. The article says that that is correct. Don’t read McLuhan.
I am tempted to suggest that McLuhan now be ignored — to argue that his greatest long-term value has been his ability to provoke people who are, if not simply smarter than he was, then more patient, methodical, and scholarly.
But we also get this:
Much of what McLuhan wrote came an instant too soon, and perhaps that’s the best reason to read him, infuriating and confusing though that experience may be. To read McLuhan is to gain at least an inkling of what it might be like to look around the next corner of history.
So, I am on the right track here? The article, while informative, seems almost as Delphic as McLuhan himself on this point.