McLuhan, Baudrillard and Cultural Theory
Lecture One: Introduction
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For better and for worse, a McLuhan renaissance is in full swing. Although most of his books are out of print and his journals such as The Dew-Line Newsletter and Explorations have acquired rare book status in some quarters, Marshall McLuhan, a thinker of the end of the book, is at home in today's electronic environments, where he has been firmly and very much posthumously ensconced, and elevated to the status of, in some instances, a saint. He is, to be precise, a patron saint of Wired magazine and a regular virtual sidekick of Camille Paglia. In order to understand why McLuhan is again on the menu, McLuhan, Baudrillard and Cultural Theory considers the diffusion and lasting effects of his ideas primarily in France and secondarily in Québec. My first step in understanding McLuhan today is, then, to place him in historical perspective among the francophones. The French reception of McLuhan cannot, of course, be isolated from his international influence in the 1960s and 1970s. Further work needs to be done on his influence in Japan, for instance, with special attention given to the debates over the relevancy of the "cult of McLuhanism" in the Tokyo press recounted to McLuhan in unpublished correspondence by Kenichi Takemura (MP. 38-80). From the very outset it needs to be stated that these series of lectures do not Frenchify McLuhan but, rather, concern themselves with the McLuhanization of French intellectuals and media workers interested and operating in communications and media in general. These lectures also owe a debt to the rhetoric, still very much in evidence, of figuring French intellectuals as if they were in some manner equivalent to McLuhan or 'French McLuhans'.
The debates in French intellectual circles around McLuhan's ideas not only raged widely and intensely during the decades of his greatest influence in the 1960s and 1970s, but the effects of these debates are still being felt today. The McLuhan renaissance is a second coming, of sorts, another quasi-global outpouring of interest and influence tied once again to emerging communications technologies and information systems and the cunning of capital as it expands into, and transforms for its own ends, these new infrastructures. McLuhanism remains compatible with capital's new means of expansion in the deregulated post-industrial cyberscape. During the 1980s, it needs to be said, McLuhan's work had largely disappeared from view. My investigation of McLuhan's French reception puts this latency period into perspective. The 1980s were also the period of the 'Baudrillard Scene', a pop intellectual phenomenon that spread like wildfire through English-speaking countries in the same delirious manner as McLuhan's notions had done earlier in the 1960s and 1970s. For Baudrillard was, for many critics, the postmodern scene par excellence.
When I employ the phrase the 'Baudrillard Scene', I am denoting the sub-title of the collection of essays, Seduced and Abandoned, edited by André Frankovits (1984). In his self-effacing introductory letter, Frankovits makes the astute observation that with Baudrillard's appearance on the Australian academic and art scenes, books by Baudrillard seemed like "after-effects of the circulation of the name." When this scene developed in a Canadian context in the writings of Arthur Kroker and Charles Levin (1984: 13), the scene became a challenge to the "big numbers of the real, power, sex and meaning." "Baudrillard's world," they wrote, "is that of the electronic mass media, and specifically, of television." This world challenges meaning and signifiance by neutralizing and devalorizing them, leaving only resistance-as-object as a critical political option, what is tagged hyperconformist simulation or giving back to the media the gift of its own cynicism; this came to be identified as both a punk and new wave style. Hence, Baudrillard is thought of as a 'French McLuhan'. The scene and the challenge both signal the end of the book and the beginning of television; the end of the reading group and the insatiable desire to make the scene.
Revisiting a text such as Raymond Rosenthal's edited collection McLuhan: Pro & Con (1968) puts us in a similar scene: the end of the book-oriented culture and the rise of electronic communications. Book-men will be rendered redundant for who needs books when we have television? What will become of 'us'? Rosenthal notes that McLuhan is 'hazy' on this question: in a proto-Baudrillardian vein, it seems that holding one's ground or point of view means "getting into the act of electronic disintegration," that is, hyperconformity. Rosenthal will have none of this. He believes in critical distance, solitary thinking, and writes against the myths of the McLuhan cult: the big numbers of the real will remain standing; scientific objectivity and practicality will win out; authenticity and resistant artistic genius will prevail; consciousness can survive sensation; and mystical participation needs enlightened individuals. This is all resistance-as-subject. McLuhan's challenge is still hazy, not quite as pronounced as Baudrillard's, but just as fearful.
Art critics and artists, critical theorists, social philosophers, and bluffers of all stripes and disciplines attempted to come to some terms with the phenomenon of the Baudrillard Scene. Like McLuhan's body of work, Baudrillard's writings travel well. Baudrillard came aboard Artforum as a contributing editor in 1984-85, where several translations of his articles have appeared. The European art magazine Flash Art published critical assessments, as did Canadian art magazines Parachute and Impulse, echoing the Australian proliferation of translations, interviews and critical articles by the Feral Collective, Art & Text, On the Beach, etc. By 1984, 'simulation' and 'hyperreality' had become passwords in the art world. The American publications are too numerous to mention, but the trail was blazed by the Telos group and by Semiotext(e). Baudrillard toured London, New York, Buenos Aires ... and the small town of Missoula, Montana. Even the Economist reviewed America. Kroker began to follow Baudrillard around. The American painter Peter Hally thought he could paint the hyperreal. Baseball caps emblazoned with simulacrum began to appear on the streets of Toronto. Not even sportswear survived the Baudrillard Scene. All the while critical theorists hotly debated whether or not Baudrillard articulated a form of oppositional practice, taking wild swipes at hyperconformist simulation. The term 'silent majorities' re-entered the critical lexicon, even if no one seemed to remember the fatal pronouncement of Richard Nixon on November 3, 1969, in his address to the nation on the pursuit of peace in Vietnam, in which he spoke out against the vocal minority who would have America lose the war and bring the troops home: "And so tonight - to you, the great silent majority of my fellow Americans- I ask for your support." The 'peace with honor' speech was absorbed into the mass. When 1972 rolled around and ballots were cast and Nixon won the election no one, not even Baudrillard, could measure the effects of this hyperconformity: peace without honor, a nation traumatized, a helicopter hanging over the embassy in Saigon, and Watergate. The masses, as Baudrillard once quipped, prefer media to messages.
The writings of Baudrillard represent, then, a vector for the transmission of McLuhan's ideas, often in distorted forms, to be sure. The McLuhan renaissance is an effect of postmodern theory and the enormously influential role played by French social and cultural theory as it has been, and continues to be, translated into English. My strategies for understanding the McLuhan renaissance are to investigate, firstly, McLuhan's influence on francophone consciousness in general and, secondly, more specifically, to provide a detailed reading of what every reader of Baudrillard already in some respect knows: Baudrillard's debts to McLuhan are substantial. Further, McLuhan and Baudrillard are the key thinkers to whom postmodernists turn to situate their deviations from them. These strategies provide both historical and theoretical contexts for understanding the significance of Baudrillard for the McLuhan renaissance as a thinker who carried forward and simultaneously spread macluhanisme, thus forming, in a way, a bridge between the 'McLuhancy' of the 1960s and 1970s and the renaissance of the 1990s. The 'Baudrillard Scene' contained a good deal of McLunacy. Baudrillard is not, of course, the only vector transmitting macluhanisme, but he is the main carrier. Indeed, the writings of French urbanist Paul Virilio are filled with McLuhanisms, none more evident than a concern with the consequences of the speeding up of communication in its most general sense, which was for McLuhan what enabled implosion to replace explosion as the defining feature of the whirling electric, and soon to be electronic, world. In his remarks on Expo '92 in Seville, which was centred around the theme of the putative 'discovery' of America 500 years earlier and the role played by maritime transportation, Virilio (1992) drew a direct line from the imperial ambition of Ceasar to make the world a Roman city to the global village of late capital realized through the agora cathodique prophesized by McLuhan. My exploration of McLuhan's French reception or, perhaps better, his French revolution, which I will spend several lectures unravelling, establishes a context for my explicit reflections on the concepts and modes of theorizing shared by McLuhan and Baudrillard, among others, in later lectures.At the heart of this project is an obvious relationship between the theories and careers of McLuhan and Baudrillard. This relation is obvious in the Barthesean sense of the naturalness of myth in popular culture and wired ideology and, importantly, of media theory itself as it bears on the relation at issue. Andreas Huyssen (1989) sketched this relation in broad strokes in terms of an inquiry into the 'hidden referent' of Baudrillard's media based theory of simulation, a "postmodern recycling of McLuhan" for the 1980s and beyond. The trope of recycling employed by Huyssen is not fully played out in his writing- not everything is recyclable since, after all, only a few key concepts such as the explosion/implosion distinction and the grand, tripartite, periodizing of history remain the primary recoverable and convertible materials for Huyssen. Nonetheless, Huyssen's significant contribution highlights the aforementioned issue of the mastery of implosion in the shift from McLuhan's optimism to Baudrillard's cynicism, drawing special attention to the role of media in the theological desires of both thinkers to accede to a postmodern potlatch or a cool, retribalized culture, whose very rhythm would be that of television.
Although reports of McLuhan's activities began to appear in the French press as early as 1965, he was not well-known in French intellectual circles until 1967, the year the first translation of his work, La galaxie gutenberg, was published in Paris and Montréal. The Gutenbery Galaxy originally appeared in 1962. In 1966, however, reports of McLuhan's activities in North America began to appear regularly in learned and popular French publications such as La Quinzaine littéraire, Le Figaro, and Critique. The French journalist Naïm Kattan (1965 and 1967; also McLuhan 1966), whose location in Montréal gave him access to the places (Toronto and New York) where McLuhan was most active, published widely on his life and work in France and Québec.
In the momentous year of Expo 1967, an anglophone "intellectual comet" - to use Kattan's imagery - landed in Québec, precisely in the Québec Pavillion, the very site from which McLuhan entered francophone consciousness. It seemed that the dailies Le Devoir and La Presse covered every step McLuhan took that month in la belle province! The launch of La galaxie gutenberg at the Québec Pavillon on 7 July was a major media event. To be avec le maître à l'Expo was a mediatic obsession, whether it was Sept-Jours, Carrefour, Science et Vie or the Québec dailies covering the events. Alain Pontaut (1967; 1967a) praised Jean Paré's translation while remaining critical of McLuhan's very clever 'mosaic method', which was no method at all. Pontaut realized that Expo was a living mosaic of cultures, buildings and tourists that played perfectly into McLuhan's hands, as well as those of his local publisher, Claude Hurtubise. There were critical moments in this coverage already in evidence in 1966 in the separatist journal Partis Pris (p.s. 1966) in which McLuhan, the prophet of the electric age, is not to be confused with his delirious interpretation of electricity, but best "seated on the chair of the age in question!" French Canadian 'tribalism' was, after all, as McLuhan himself believed, a consequence of the age of electricity. For McLuhan, the Canadian Prime Minister of the time, Pierre Trudeau, was as tribal as the Beatles.
In France, L'Express, Le Monde, L'Aurore and others followed suit with coverage of McLuhan in 1967; this reporting ranged from the whimsical - overcoming consumer society through macluhanisme (Bonnot 1967) - through mild questioning - McLuhan's affirmations are not always convincing (Dommergues 1967) - to full-blown speculation about what should be the proper Gallic response to la pensée McLuhanienne (Garric 1967). In 1968, the virulent responses had been institutionalized to such an extent that one could ask in the pages of L'Express why these attacks focused on McLuhan and not on consumer society (Ferrier 1968-69). By 1970, however, McLuhan had achieved both fame and notoriety among the French intelligenstia, for many of whom he had become an intellectual impostor unable to live up to his initial promises. By the early 1970s, McLuhan was disciplined for university courses in mass communications, after having mesmerized a significant number of sociologists and teachers. Basic works introducing McLuhan's ideas to French students began to appear (Bourdin 1970; Balle 1972). Explication occasionally went against the grain of McLuhan's liberal notion of exploration since his phrase j'explique rien was oft-quoted as evidence that he did and did not belong in the university. The so-called 'revolutionary' aspects of McLuhan's thought were developed by Jean Marabini (1973) through the oft-repeated grouping, sometimes for no more than the purposes of homophony, of Marx-Marcuse-Mao-M(a)cLuhan, and the electronic theology of Pierre Babin found new contexts, applications and audiences for McLuhan's ideas. The radical cell and the church were both perfused with macluhanisme. McLuhan's public profile declined rapidly as the late 1970s arrived, and by 1980 it seemed he could only be read nostalgically. McLuhan's main French translator Paré was a well-known teacher in Québec with strong connections with the Hydro-Québec magazine Forces, in which his lengthy, favorable interview with McLuhan had been published (McLuhan 1973). Today, Paré is editor of the mainstream news magazine L'Actualité, in whose pages McLuhan's prognostications last appeared in 1980, the year of his death. While McLuhan correctly predicted the reflux of conservatism and nostalgia that would mark the 1980s, it was not evident that anyone was listening. As he was accustomed to saying, he only predicts things that have already happened, anyway. But the media guru of the 1960s and 1970s has not been forgotten and his ideas remain vital to recent developments in French sociological and cultural theory.
McLuhan's impact in France and Québec was not only deeply felt but came to be regretted in many circles. This phenomenon has not been critically recounted, theorized and scrutinized. I take up this multiple task by returning to the popular reports and intellectual debates which accompanied McLuhan's emergence as a fashionable public intellectual, with the goal of reconsidering the key debates of the period. In France as elsewhere, McLuhan was simultaneously a revolutionary, a reactionary, a prophet and an impostor. What, however, do these contradictory figures tell us about the conditions informing the production and legitimation of knowledge in the French context? In Lecture 2, 'The End of the book and the beginning of television', I offer a critical overview of how French intellectuals understood McLuhan's ideas in relation to the question of écriture posed by Jacques Derrida and others. As the title of this chapter suggests, the post-book age is not that of a general writing but, rather, of television. Indeed, Derrida (1974: 8) ironically pointed out in his essay "The End of the Book and the Beginning of Writing" that the "death of the civilization of the book, of which so much is said ... manifests itself particularly through a convulsive proliferation of libraries." Whereas Derrida considered this death of the book to be nothing less than the metaphysical exhaustion of full speech, the intimate proximity or presence of voice to thought, the concept and meaning, McLuhan rediscovered the audible universe as the primary space of a tactile electronic culture, and debased writing (the phonetic alphabet, the printing press) as visual and therefore an abstraction from speech concentrated in one sense. Simultaneously, then, McLuhan reaffirms the metaphysics of presence and the secondarity of writing but aligns himself, at the end of book and the beginning of television, with a 'grammatology' of sorts based upon his complex sense of a multisensorial acoustic space. McLuhan's ideas were also becoming influential in the formation of communications policy, which I explore through the important role played by Jean Cazeneuve in the dissemination of the master's words through his writings on mass communications and administrative work in a series of influential public posts. In addition, I note several places, for example, in Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari's Anti Oedipus, where McLuhan's notions appeared for the sake of the critique of the signifier and the release of flows of language in electric environments. What I call a 'Big Mac Attack' employs, in Lecture 3, Jacques Lacan's concept of the objet petit a to appreciate the little a in the French rendering of M(a)cLuhan's name, not merely in a psychoanalytic sense, but in terms of the genuine intellectual class struggles in Parisian intellectual circles that raged around who could claim whom as an intellectual. Additionally, it needs to be recalled that Lacan conquered the medium of television in a manner worthy of M(a)cLuhan and that both were thought of as masters of that medium. In 'Before the Letter', Lecture 4, I discuss the 'obvious' parallels between McLuhan and Roland Barthes that were widely noted. It is precisely this obviousness that will be interrogated in light of the double tradition of comparing their early writings on popular culture and the attempts to read them together in an entirely unconvincing way as fellow structuralists. The rhetoric of associating McLuhan with Derrida, for example, as well as with Barthes and Levi-Strauss, was a way of legitimating his work even if this bringing together of thinkers did not result in detailed analyses of their texts. McLuhan, Barthes, and Richard Hoggart (read through the lens of his 'French reception'), I will claim, constitute the international cultural studies triumvirate of the 1950s. In the somewhat rarified specialty area of French cultural studies, it is in the work of Brian Rigby (1994) that one finds detailed consideration of the issues surrounding the French translation of British cultural studies such as those of Hoggart, although no mention is made in his work to the French reception of McLuhan. In addition to the incorporative gestures that turned McLuhan into a structuralist of sorts, a later development in both the English and French literatures emerged positioning him as a postmodernist before the letter. In a dizzy logic reminiscent of McLuhan himself, this development implies that he was both a cause and an effect of postmodernism.
Lectures 5, 6 and 7 all concern the relationship between the writings of Baudrillard and McLuhan. Anyone familiar with the work of Baudrillard, for example, would not fail to be struck by the important influence of McLuhan's ideas on his thinking. A critical understanding of Baudrillard's - among others' - work demands, then, a return to McLuhan in the context of a consideration of the extensions and reworkings of his ideas across the field of French sociological and cultural writing over the last thirty years. I ease into this approach by means of a reflection on the meaning of the term semiurgy and similar semiologically-inspired neologisms circulated by French intellectuals in the early 1970s, and later capitalized upon by excremental postmodernists such as Kroker in the mid-1980s. Semiurgy is not, I argue against its popular postmodern intellectual definitions, reducible to what McLuhan meant by massage, although the terms are closely related, and even seem to form a kind of retroactively constitutable lineage. My sixth lecture "More McLuhan than McLuhan" uses the standard Baudrillardian formula of potentialization stated as "more x than x" to describe in general terms Baudrillard's appropriation and distortion of McLuhan's ideas in the context of a detailed commentary upon how concepts such as participation, reversibility, the primitive/tribal, and, importantly, implosion, have passed from hand to hand. I will also consider several of Baudrillard's reponses to a very common question posed to him in interviews regarding the importance of McLuhan's ideas on his intellectual development. In lecture 7, I compare McLuhan's and Baudrillard's models of historical phases contained in the theses of The Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media with Baudrillard's original tri-phasal model of simulation he developed in Symbolic Exchange and Death (1976; trans. 1993). While Baudrillard was, like many others, initially critical of McLuhan's technological reductionism, the vagueness of his central concepts such as 'hot' and 'cool', and the 'implicit finality' of American culture, Baudrillard later adopts some of the worst excesses of McLuhan's sense of historical phases and their blank spots, which I bring into focus in my analysis of McLuhan's comments on the political situation in Québec in the 1970s and the ongoing stuggles there against federalism and the politics of language. Baudrillard's published engagement with McLuhan's ideas dates from 1967 when he published a review of the 'brilliant and fragile' Understanding Media.
Why study French manifestations of macluhanisme? Why now? Today, many Canadian intellectuals and cultural workers like myself concerned with information technologies dwell in the shadow of McLuhan, regardless of whether we intentionally seek out the cool shade or are only momentarily escaping the hot sun. Put bluntly: McLuhan is unavoidable. No one would deny that a new generation - mark them with an x or any other letter for that matter - is coming of age in the information environment whose emergence McLuhan predicted but did not live to witness. While certain members of an older generation are busily maintaining McLuhan's legacy through personal reminiscences and what they consider to be the long overdue institutional recognition of his accomplishments, especially at the University of Toronto, this new generation is recoding McLuhan's ideas in pop music, alternative theatre and across the cybersphere.The old medium is the content of the new media. Claims of misinterpretation are regularly fired from both generations across their respective screens. In between these extremes, in what McLuhan called the resonant interval of tactile interfaces, new contacts and intergenerational connections are being made between academics, artists and businesspersons that shadow things to come and provide more of the same. Unfortunately, when it comes to McLuhan, everything new is old again. It's business, as usual.
To put it somewhat crudely, there are two wildly divergent streams of Canadian work on McLuhan whose leading practitioners are the Director of the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology at the University of Toronto, Derrick de Kerckhove, and at Concordia University in Montréal, the political scientist and performer of theory as fiction, Arthur Kroker. This is the contemporary context in which readers of McLuhan concerned with his French legacy find themselves. Intergenerational struggles around the uses and abuses of the McLuhan legacy go hand and hand with struggles around the profit motive. In one respect, McLuhan is a controlled substance. His work is carefully managed by his literary agent Matie Molinaro and his widow, Corinne McLuhan. It was only recently with the publication of The Essential McLuhan (1995) a 'reader', edited by Eric McLuhan and Frank Zingrone, with a selection of the master's buzzphrases cobbled together by William Kuhns, that McLuhan was collected at all for purposes of undergraduate teaching. This selective re-editing of McLuhan is far removed from a critique of consumerism. Rather, McLuhanism serves as a navigational device that captures the spirit of a wired, cutting edge youth culture in a business-friendly manner. For what sort of activity is McLuhan a patron saint? The answer is simple: for the electronic counterculture the saint is an oppositional figure and for business a familiar device for the corporate work of colonization; I do not mean to imply, however, that cyberculture is in its whole at odds with corporate interests, a claim which would be ridiculous. Here, then, the broad audiences already recognize the product and on this basis constitute a receptive mass audience. In a 1992 advertisement, Bell Canada promoted its electronic data interchange network (EDI) for business communications with the famous phrase 'the medium is the message': EDI or DIE! Anagrammatic corporate propaganda surfs the new communications technologies. While surfing the net is a standard buzzphrase employed to diverse ends, it was also a figure that appeared in McLuhan and Quentin Fiore's The Medium is the Massage (1967: 150-51) in the form of a black and white photograph of the master on a surfboard, holding onto his hat, as he rode the wave of the electrically-configured whirl. One of McLuhan's favourite nautical metaphors was taken from Edgar Alan Poe's mariner in the story "The Descent into the Maelstrom." Surfing delivers one from the task of criticism in the same manner as Baudrillard's mode of travelling across the deserts of America in a hermeneutical vehicle figures disappearance as deliverance from critical thought. Recall also that an aesthetics of business was the stock in trade of McLuhan as he delivered his fragmented ideas in boardrooms around North America, picking up commissions from ABC (American Broadcasting Corporation)(McLuhan 1971b) to valorize the team concept, dubbed 'friendly teamness', in tv news reporting pioneered by ABC, etc. Perhaps Sidney Finkelstein (1968: 122) got it right when he observed that "McLuhan advises the future ruling powers on how to preserve the happy servitude of the new world-wide tribal village." What I am suggesting is that the McLuhan renaissance is a specific effect of the well-established consonance between postmodernism and late capital; in fact, McLuhan's famous phrases function as globally recognizable jingles for the work of multinational trading in digital commodities; yet, the plasticity of McLuhan's thought has and continues to serve just as well as a sign - servitude with a happy face - of resistance to consumer capitalism. This is a contradiction central to the McLuhan legacy. And it is also, as many have pointed out, the double bind of Baudrillard's notion of resistance-as-object. In another repect, then, McLuhan's legacy is controllable in some domains (print) but fundamentally undisciplinable as it escapes into the antipodes of the cybersphere in which the very notion of control (copyright, the struggles around encryption) is being called into question.
Under the direction of De Kerckhove, a close associate of McLuhan and a secondary translator of his work into French, the McLuhan Program has become an interface of academics, artists and businesspeople all working with interactive new media. The Virtual Reality Artists Access Program (VRAAP), headed by Graham Smith, provides virtual reality tools such as David Rokeby' s Mac-based Very Nervous System which renders sonorous bodily movement. The importance of artist-engineer's like Smith and Rokeby was recognized by the Canadian pianist and musical theorist Glenn Gould in 1968 when he heralded the collaborative effort of engineer Walter Carlos and musicologist Benjamin Folkman on the recording Switched-On Bach (Gould 1984: 429-34). Just as, today, the Moog synthesizer seems like a relic, in the future contemporary VR technology may also seem like a museum piece. During 1995, De Kerckhove curated several exhibitions on technology and art, one of which was 'TechnoArt' at the Ontario Scien 17217l1120r ce Centre (OSC) in Toronto. It was organized around the theme of interactivity and called into question the traditional exhibition and its distancing mechanisms. Indeed, the OSC's mandate is to provide a tactile interactive environment. Many of the installations at TechnoArt, including those of Rokeby, Nancy Paterson's ride in the virtual countryside Bicycle TV, and Hiroyuki Moriwaki's electric mirror Rayo-Graphy, put the participant's body to work in the virtual environments created by each piece.
VRAAP also has a high-resolution video conferencing system (PictureTel's System 4000) which makes possible virtual seminars bringing together academics and performers across vast spaces and time zones. Taking as a cue Nam June Paik's (1986: 219-22) experiments in what he called 'satellite art', such as the New Year's Day 1984 simultaneous broadcast of Good Morning, Mr. Orwell from Paris, New York and San Francisco, De Kerckhove has orchestrated several ground-breaking transatlantic contacts. The artistic exploration of interactivity at a distance and the emergence of new spatial sensibilities through the medium of video conferencing has, in the projects with which De Kerckhove has been involved since 1986, exposed by trial and error many bugs and, on occasion, fallen back on faxes and telephones and e-mail. For technical reasons the 'trans' doesn't always come off. Transinteractivity is conceived of as a kind of intimacy at a distance, a dialogue of bodies interacting in a virtual tactile space. Many of the performances designed for Les Transinteractifs, a transatlantic colloquium in Paris at the Canadian Cultural Centre and in Toronto at the OSC in 1988, emphasized telephatic communication: Christian Sevette's Le toucher transatlantique would have allowed members of both audiences to bring together two pieces of Michelangelo's The Creation of Man in an act of divine inspiration; in Le baiser transatlantique, performance artist Orlan proposed to project on a screen the profiles of two persons from each city, turned toward one another, whose lips would meet in a kiss as they continued to speak French and English respectively (De Kerckhove and Sevette 1990: 15ff). Recently, the McLuhan Program has organized transatlantic and inter-university Canadian video conferences of the more traditional academic sort such as the 'World Series on Culture and Technology' between the Program and leading cultural theorists of various host countries, including Baudrillard. These are now a staple of its formidable battery of electronic pedagogical tools. Fifteen years after McLuhan's death, the conservative academic community at the University of Toronto finally opened a McLuhan Studies Room in the Faculty of Information Studies. This opening coincided with a preview, by the media giant Southam, of its Understanding McLuhan CD-ROM.
Postmodern entrepreneur Arthur Kroker remains at the forefront of the performance of advanced theoretical speculation. Kroker almost singlehandedly brought McLuhan into postmodern focus - with a Baudrillardian finding device - through his influential journal The Canadian Journal of Political and Social Theory and in the pages of the provocative books issued by his publishing house New World Perspectives, especially his Technology and the Canadian Mind: Innis/McLuhan/Grant, in which he concluded that McLuhan's fate was to be an 'intellectual servomechanism' of the technoscape he so brillantly described (Kroker 1984: 86). The CJPST has been superceded by an electronic journal C Theory. In the mid 1980s Kroker began issuing supplementary materials such as cassettes (including spoken texts and music such as "Mutant Madonna," and more recently the recombinant experiment in sound called Spasm, a CD which features the sounds of virtual reality, that is, processed samples of sound) along with his books, as well as engaging in multi-media performances (Kroker recently completed a European tour in support of the Data Trash book with his partner, the designer Marilouise Kroker, and Montréal based composer Steve Gibson, who provided an ambient soundscape for the spoken performances). The video work of the Krokers includes the Body Program, a panicky romp through virtual America, made in collaboration with Stefaan Decostere for Belgium TV. According to Kroker's own promotional materials, he is widely believed to take off from where McLuhan ended in a kind of discipleship in full flight.
If the impulse of transinteractivity is the creative interface between the human body and the virtual environment, then Kroker's gesture moves in the opposite direction: the natural body has become obsolete at the hands of new technologies. The so-called panic body - and, more recently, the body in a spasm of contradictory feelings - is defined by the hyper-exteriorization of its organs and viruses and the hyper-interiorization of designer subjectivities (Kroker 1987: iii)Kroker takes McLuhan's thesis of the 'outering' of human senses by technology and turns it into an emptying into the technoscape and then a reverse 'invasion' of the media environment. Even better, the information highway is paved with human flesh and littered with fresh road kill run over by the corporate behemoths who are trying to run the road. As catchy as a Kroker buzzphrase can be, he never loses sight of the class struggles being waged over the conditions of access and the social choices implied by new technologies (see Kroker and Weinstein 1994). This point needs to be kept in mind since the McLuhan legacy was singularly devoid of progressive political ideas and remains largely the same today, with a few exceptions. The projects of De Kerckhove and Kroker represent two facets of the Canadian aesthetic imagination stirring in the shadow of McLuhan. These two academic outerings in no way tell the whole story of McLuhan today.
The Situationist Guy Debord (1990: 33) once wrote of McLuhan that he was "the spectacle's first apologist, who had seemed to be the most convinced imbecile of the century." Debord also noted that even a global village idiot like McLuhan eventually realized that mass media cannot deliver on promises of freedom and accessibility. Decades of critiques of McLuhan's techno-optimisim have demonstrated the negative consequences of freedom from fragmentary specialism in un-and under-employment and freedom to be involved in the planetary social process through new technologies requiring high levels of consumption, pay-per-play, and Mcwork in the burgeoning electro-service, server and telecottage industries operating in the ruins of the welfare state. It is important not to lose sight of this critical perspective in today's heady reflux of McLuhanism.
Less an idiot than intellectual jester in the humanist tradition of Erasmus's folly, Joyce's wit, and Rabelais's bawdiness, McLuhan played the clown in order to infiltrate specialist discourses and cross the wires of disciplines and satirise them in a mode he called 'anti-environmental'. While MLuhan may have lacked the sense of folly as a philosophical vocation, by playing the clown he was also playing at being an artist. He chose eclecticism over the effort to synthesize. He used probes, puns, blasts and counterblasts, and the mosaic method instead of interrative strategies. He was a media artist who created the new form that Donald Theall (1971) dubbed the concrete essay with its collide-oscopic principles of typographic play, surrealistic juxtaposition of images, and unfortunately, heavy doses of technological mystification.
Yet all of McLuhan's fooling around had a specific faith underlying it: salvation from the fall of literacy might be found in electric technology (McLuhan 1964: 21), with the proviso that a good deal of suffering (Babel) would be concomitant with the electronic spirit of Pentecost. McLuhan had a 'deep faith' in harmony and wholeness, which Huyssen (1989: 10) brings out by asking the reader of McLuhan's Understanding Media to perform a thought experiment:
... try an experiment in reading: for electricity substitute the Holy Spirit, for medium read God, and for the global village of the screen understand the planet untied under Rome. Rather than offering a media theory McLuhan offers a media theology in its most technocratic and reified form. God is the ultimate aim of implosion ... .
It is no wonder that currently, in the pages of the magazine of which McLuhan is the patron saint, one finds a special issue devoted to "Channeling McLuhan" (Wired, January 1996). The three articles by Gary Wolf let McLuhan play the fool but, he is after all "Saint Marshall, Holy Fool." McLuhan's Catholicism is figured in a new age rhetoric of channeling, a televisual notion of wired convergences made possible by new technologies; on-line, born again capitalists can 'interview' McLuhan by e-mail by channeling a simulation of the saint, a McLuhan-bot, if one cares to play along. The adjectives pile up in an absurd, but entirely familiar, way: McLuhan is a conservative Christian, and an anarchist, to boot; he is not a neo-Luddite, but a mystic. In one respect, Wolf has absorbed McLuhan's lessons in Explorations from the late 1950s on the liturgical revival to the extent that electronic culture has the power to radically change Christian ritual, demanding "collective liturgical participation" that is dialogic and creatively passive, in the place of the private reading of the text of the Mass (McLuhan 1957: #17). Getting on-line is just this kind of ritual.
What is significant about Wolf's emphasis on McLuhan as a 'holy fool' is that - and this brings us back to the French reception of McLuhan - this was taken very seriously by some of his French readers such as Babin (and Iannone 1991) in terms of new Christian approaches to communication. Indeed, it is by posing the question of McLuhan's French reception that an informed approach to the question of faith may be made that renders moot both Wolf's new ageism and Huyssen's thought experiment. Electronic media frames faith very differently, Babin realized, and he sought to develop, with concepts borrowed from McLuhan, new approaches to communicating faith: "the ear," as he put it, "is the way" of liturgical development, an imaginative, affective and aural framing of faith in what he called the church of modulation. It needs to be stated that McLuhan collaborated on a book with Babin in the late 1970s (McLuhan and Babin 1977) and the unpublished correspondence between them (MP. 18-61) provides a good deal of insight into McLuhan's relfections on the history of the Church and the effects of media revolutions -from the printing press to the microphone - on it. De Kerckhove (1990), in fact, devotes a chapter of his book La civilisation vidéo-chrétienne to the matter of McLuhan's faith in the church, and quotes amply from McLuhan's discussions with Babin. De Kerckhove makes it clear why the ear is the way, citing Matthew 13.9, Mark 4.9 and Luke 8.8, all to the effect that: "Listen, then, if you have ears!" Babin's distinction between the modulation and alphabet churches, the former a warm, resonant space eliciting participation in the multisensorial vibrations, and the latter a clinical space organized for explanation leading directly to understanding, is based on McLuhan's suspicions about the role played by the Gutenberg inheritance in the church. The deleterious effects of the way in which faith is framed are evident in the way in which the catechism is learned, the hierarchical church bureaucracy and, in general, the triumph of the letter, the scriptures and their interpretation, over the spirit, the communication of a living presence. The issue here is no simply the dislodging of the eye by the ear, of seeing by hearing. The danger is the that former will exclude the latter. The "ear is the way" means, for McLuhan (quoted in De Kerckhove 1990: 93), a subtle distinction between hearing (écouter) and listening (entendre); the former requiring visual attentiveness to strings of signs, and the latter adjusting to la bonne fréquence, tuning in to the right channel, as it were, or what Babin calls modulation, the new style of the electronic church.
according to order of mention in the
Wired: Everything new is
old again. See Wolf, Gary (1996) "The Wisdom of Saint Marshall, Holy
Fool" and "The Medium is the Massage" and "Channeling
McLuhan: The Wired Interview with Wired's Patron Saint," Wired
(January): 122-5, 182, 184, 186; 126-7; 128-31, 186-7.
The McLuhan Papers: (MP) at the National Library of Canada in Ottawa are an invaluable resource
for anyone with a serious research interest in McLuhan's life and work. File
38-80 contains letters from Kenichi Takemura to McLuhan regarding the McLuhan
phenomenon in Japan. See especially KT-MM, Jan. 9, 1968 for an overview of
McLuhan pro and con in Japanese media.
Paul Virilio's debts to McLuhan
may be even greater than those of Baudrillard. I make reference to his
journalistic report of (1992) "Une exposition très fin de siècle," Le
Monde (16 avril): 26, but this is just the tip of an iceberg. Virilio and
McLuhan's key interests include fields or environments of perception, speed and
war. Indeed, some of Virilio's central notions such as the aesthetics of
disappearance are carried on a McLuhanesque fusion of medical metaphor
(picnoleptic fit or petit mal) and measurement (beyond the speed of sound in a
relational speed space, the lost dimension). It is instructive to read
Virilio's (1989) War and Cinema, Patrick Camiller (trans.), London:
Verso, with McLuhan and Fiore's (1968) War and Peace in the Global Village
New York: Bantam. Both concern the creation of new environments by media
technologies from which, in turn, further technologies emerge. It is the
"trade in dematerialization" in the global environment of weaponry
that interests Virilio; that is, the capacities of technologies to either
render things visible (by means of radar and thermal imaging) or render things
invisible (stealthy objects). Virilio's thesis that the "history of battle
is primarily the history of radically changing fields of perception" leads
him to focus on media of all sorts, especially film. The war film need not
depict battles since a color stock in itself, for example, has the power to
create technological and psychological surprises. American technicolor, as
opposed to German Agfa color, agitated Joseph Goebbels, the 'patron' of German
cinema in WWII, to such a degree that he banned films made with the latter
because he thought their quality was shameful. Virilio believes that Francis
Ford Coppola's One From the Heart is more of war film than Apocalypse
Now because the director was consumed by his use of military equipment such
as the Xerox 'Star' naval computer system. Virilio moves deftly from the
cinema, to weaponry, to the pin-up, the bunker and other military
architectures, to chronophotographic rifles in a truly McLuhan-like marshalling
of anecdotal evidence. Reading Virilio is bit like taking a stroll through the
Musée National des Techniques in Paris, giving special attention to the radio,
television and photography sections, allowing the photographic rifle and sundry
apparatuses to shine in all of their brillant suggestiveness. Yet, what
separates Virilio and McLuhan is the latter's criticism of the dominance of the
eye. For Virilio the war machine is fundamentally an ocular machine. See
Fekete, John (1977) "Notes Toward a Critique of McLuhan's Polemic against
Vision," in The Critical Twilight, London: Routledge, p. 213-15.
Andreas Huyssen: To the best of my
knowledge, only a few articles have been published about the explicit
connections between McLuhan and Baudrillard. See Huyssen, Andreas (1989)
"In the Shadow of McLuhan: Jean Baudrillard's Theory of Simulation," Assemblage
10: 7-17. Incidentally, I unknowingly published an article with the same title,
but it had nothing to do with Baudrillard, "In the Shadow of
McLuhan," Art & Design 11/12 (1995): 60-63.
Naïm Kattan: It would be an
exaggeration to say that the Cercle juif de langue française in Montréal was a
hotbed of McLuhanism, but one of its memebers, Nam Kattan, was one of the
journalists most active in the dissemination of McLuhan's ideas. He wrote to
McLuhan on the Cercle's letterhead in Nov. 1965 (see MP. 8-80). See also
Kattan, Naïm (1965) "Marshall McLuhan, la comète intellectuelle du
Canada," Le Devoir (27 nov.) and idem (1967) "Marshall
McLuhan (review)," Critique 238 (mars): 322-34. Kattan's interview
with McLuhan appeared in (1966) "L'âu;ge de l'électricité," La
Quinzaine littéraire 9 (15 juillet): 8-9. His 1965 article was mentioned in
the parody of the guru of the electric age in p.s., "McLuhan à la chaise
électrique," Partis Pris (1966): 77. He was also a contributor to
the book Analisis de Marshall McLuhan, Buenos Aires: Tempo
Contemporaneo, n.d. [1969?], a collection of previously published essays in
French and Spanish (MP. 8-9). In addition, see Pontaut, Alain (1967) "Tous
les livres du monde dans une tte d'épingle," La Presse (8 juillet)
and idem (1967a) "Du fond de cette galaxie," La Presse
(8 juillet). See also Bonnot, Gerard (1967) "Le prophète de
télévision'," L'Express (25 sept. - 1 oct.): 83-6; Dommergues,
Pierre (1967) "La civilisation de la mosaque - le message de Marshall
McLuhan," Le Monde (18 oct.);Ferrier, Jean-Louis (1969) "Le
scandale McLuhan," L'Express 912 (30 deec. - 5 jan.): 45-6; Garric,
Daniel (1967) "Le prophète de l'information," Science et vie
599 (aot): 24-9, 142, 144, 147. This is the short list. More substantive
efforts were made by Balle, Francis (1972) Pour comprendre les média:
MacLuhan, Paris: Hatier and Bourdin, Alain (1970) McLuhan:
Communication, technologie et société, Paris: Editions Universitaires, and
Marabini, Jean (1973) Marcuse & McLuhan et la nouvelle révolution
mondiale, Paris: Maison mame. For McLuhan's politically disastrous
interview with his French translator Jean Paré, see McLuhan (1973)
"Marshall McLuhan," Jean Paré (interview), Forces
[Hydro-Québec] 22: 4-25. I will have more to say about this interview when I
consider in greater depth McLuhan and Québec. And finally, see McLuhan (1980)
"La galaxie 80," Jean Paré (adaptation), L'Actualité 5/1
(jan.): 23-7. The idea that the future held "promiscuity without
community" is an apt way to describe cybersociality. Mind you, it is a
supremely plastic formulation, and perhaps it should read community of the
Jacques Derrida: John Fekete was
one of the few English critics to ruminate about the McLuhan-Derrida ligature.
It was a standard, almost automatic, comparison for French readers. See Fekete's
suggestions regarding the general oral form and general writing, "Massage
in the Mass Age: Remembering the McLuhan Matrix," Canadian Journal of
Political and Social Theory 6/3 (1982): 62ff. McLuhan is a spectre haunting
Derrida's (1974) essay "The End of the Book and the Beginning of
Writing," Of Grammatology, G. Spivak (trans.), Baltimore: The John
Hopkins University Press.
Brian Rigby is connected with the
English journal French Cultural Studies. His monograph appeared in
(1994) 'Popular Culture' in France and England: The French Translation of
Richard Hoggart's The Uses of Literacy. Hull: The University of Hull Press,
and it is full of fascinating observations on French mis-translations of
Richard Hoggart's seminal book in British cultural studies, (1957) The Uses
of Literacy, London: Chatto and Windus; idem (1970) La Culture du
pauvre: étude sur le style de vie des classes populaires en Angleterre, Paris:
Minuit. The book was translated by Françoise and Jean-Claude Garcias and
Jean-Claude Passeron, with an introduction by the latter. Translating Hoggart
into French is not simply a matter, as Rigby notes with evident delight, of
"making an Eccles cake a madeleine." Rigby's concern with Hoggart
parallels my own interest in the French translations of McLuhan.
Baudrillard's engagement with McLuhan's ideas begins in print with Baudrillard, Jean (1967) "Marshall
MacLuhan,Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man"(review), l'homme
et la société 5: 227-30. His major theoretical text remains, L'échange
symbolique et la mort, Paris: Gallimard, 1976; idem (1993) Symbolic
Exchange and Death, Iain Hamilton Grant (trans.), London: Sage.
Everything new is old again: Every
week, it seems, there is something new to add to the list of McLuhan-related
events. Why not check the McLuhan Gallery Web Site at http://www.fis.utoronto.ca/mcluhan?
It is impossible to keep up. A McLuhan Watch is probably in order.
McLuhan has been revived
for the purposes of undergraduate teaching in (1995) The Essential McLuhan,
E. McLuhan and F. Zingrone (eds.), Toronto, Anansi. McLuhan surfs the electronic
maelstrom in McLuhan and Fiore, Quentin (1967) The Medium is the Massage: An
Inventory of Effects, New York: Bantam. McLuhan's ABC book appeared in
(1971b) Sharing the News: Friendly Teamness: Teeming Friendliness (Place
of publication unknown: McLuhan Associates and ABC). For an unbalanced general
critique see Finkelstein, Sidney (1968) Sense and Non-sense of McLuhan.
New York: International Publishers.
The relationship between Glenn Gould and McLuhan is
much more interesting than that implied by my reference to Gould, Glenn (1984)
"The Record of the Decade," in The Glenn Gould Reader, Tim
Page (ed.), Toronto: Lester & Orpen Dennys. There are a smattering of
references to McLuhan in The Glenn Gould Reader. Gould's 1966 essay,
"The Prospects of Recording" uses McLuhan's idea that "the
content of new situations .. is typically the preceding situation" to good
effect in relation to the ways in which electronic scores have conventional
textures superimposed upon them (p. 345). See also Gould's letter to McLuhan,
Jan. 24, 1965 in (1992) Glenn Gould: Selected Letters, John P. L.
Roberts and Ghyslaine Guertin (eds.), Toronto: Oxford, p. 70. The general tone
is that McLuhan's concern with media complements Gould's interest in processes
of production. Another tube-head from the sixties was Nam June Paik (1986)
"La vie, Satellites, One Meeting - One Life," in Video Culture,
John G. Hanhardt (ed.), Rochester: Visual Studies Workshop.
Arthur Kroker: The writings of
Derrick de Kerckhove and Arthur Kroker represent two divergent strains in
contemporary Canadian macluhanisme; see De Kerckhove and Sevette, Christian
(eds.) (1990) Les Transinteractifs, Actes du colloque, 4-5 nov. 1988,
Centre culturelle canadien, Paris, Paris: ARTE; and Kroker (1984) Technology
and the Canadian Mind: Innis/McLuhan/Grant,Montréal: New World
Perspectives; idem (1987) "Body Digest," CJPST 11/1-2: iii;
Kroker and Weinstein, M. A. (1994) Data Trash, Montréal: New World
Perspectives. Guy Debord's opinion is from (1990) Comments on the Society of
the Spectacle, M. Imrie (trans.), London: Verso. For a rare measured and
scholarly reading of McLuhan see Theall, Donald (1971) The Medium Is The
Rearview Mirror: Understanding McLuhan, Montréal and London: McGill-Queen's
University Press. The 'Theall file' (38-56) in the McLuhan Papers is an
exercise in censorship of the sort McLuhan routinely attempted to practice.
McLuhan's efforts to deny permission to quote material, which he directed his
publishers to enforce, was an unfortunate episode that is best forgotten, but
one that undoubtedly contributed to his marginalization in the academy. When I
spoke to Theall about this episode in 1995 - it had taken place 25 years
earlier - he put it down to an interpersonal breakdown of previously
contructive relations between himself and McLuhan.
Holy Fool: The question of faith
is an important one that the Wired articles barely touch. See Wolf, Gary
(1996) "The Wisdom of Saint Marshall, Holy Fool" and "The Medium
is the Massage" and "Channeling McLuhan: The Wired Interview with
Wired's Patron Saint," Wired (January): 122-5, 182, 184, 186;
126-7; 128-31, 186-7; McLuhan (1957) "The Liturgical Revival," Explorations
8 (October): #17 [np]; and McLuhan (1964) Understanding Media: The
Extensions of Man, New York: McGraw-Hill. The work of Babin, Pierre and
Iannone, M. (1986) L'ère de la communication: réflexion chrétienne,
Paris: Editions du centurion [Babin and Iannone, M. (1991) The New Era in
Religious Education, David Smith (trans.), Minneapolis: Fortress Press] is
critical, as are the letters between McLuhan and Babin in MP. 18-61:
Babin to McLuhan (15 July 1975); McLuhan to Babin (25 Sept. 1975); Babin to
McLuhan (28 Jan. 1976); Babin to McLuhan (6 Aug. 1976); McLuhan to Babin (13
March 1978) and n.a., "Review of Autre homme, autre chrétien à l'âu;ge
électronique," Centre for the Study of Communication and Culture
Newsletter [London] 1/2 (1979): 6-7. The best piece of writing on McLuhan's
faith is De Kerckhove's chapter "La foi en l'église de Marshall
McLuhan," in (1990) La Civilisation vidéo-chrétienne, Paris: Retz.
Lecture Two: The End of the Book and the Beginning of Television
copyright 1998, Gary Genosko.
The "cyclone," to use Pierre-Yves Pétillon's (1969) term, that hit Paris in the mid-1960s was not referred to on a familiar first name basis, like most North American storms. This wind tore through the capital, rustling the pages of academic and popular publications, and ruffling the feathers of Parisian intellectuals and cultural animateurs alike. macluhanisme, as the McLuhan cyclone came to be known, blew hot and cold or, rather, cool, to borrow McLuhan's concept, depending on how much information one thought it transmitted and, consequently, the degree of participation required to complete its message. But as a lot of hot wind requiring minimal involvement, macluhanisme was deflected by those for whom it was fundamentally a loud, albeit beautifully formed, blast. For those who luxuriated in its coolness and the intensive participation it elicited, its dazzle was all the more fascinating and full for the openings it left by flitting from insight to insight. macluhanisme could be unfortunately full but empty, yet gloriously empty but full.
Foul wind or invigorating blast; revolutionary or impostor; 'genial Grock' or sinister exaggerator: M(a)cLuhan(isme) was all of these, and more. The cyclone collapsed these disjunctions into a bundle of paradoxes. The study of macluhanisme concerns the effects of this phenomenon, its initial explosive impact in the 1960s, and its later lines of influence across French cultural production, particularly in sociological theory broadly conceived. McLuhan himself would not have been entirely pleased with my study of effects, despite the fact that he claimed to study nothing else. For McLuhan, effects were just as likely to precede causes as vice versa, or occur simultaneously. One first looks for effects and then finds the causes that will produce them; one starts with solutions and creates the problems that they solve (McLuhan 1969b). There is some truth in this so-called 'artistic strategy' as most marketers know when faced with the situation of having to create needs for a product that satisfies them before they exist, but it should be taken cum grano salis, with a grain of salt. The effects of macluhanisme are just as paradoxical as its view of effects.
The effects I wish to study in this lecture are those concerning the place McLuhan's ideas were thought to occupy in French intellectual life. To take a pinch of salt from McLuhan would be to acknowledge that as French thinkers found their bearings in the wake of this cyclone, the effects of macluhanisme provided for the invention of a neologism that signified the phenomenon that had hit and continued to batter them. In addition, the place(s) already occupied by this phenomenon had to be found, as it were, in order to explain its sudden and widespread impact on French culture in the first place. These were clean-up operations and justifications rather than examples of non-linear and non-sequential causality. The time was, however, ripe for the arrival of McLuhan's ideas in France for two reasons: i) the question of écriture had already been posed in French philosophical circles, and McLuhan came to be placed in relation to this concept; ii) his emphasis on medium or form over content gave direction to research in the sociology of the media and policy formation in the area of broadcasting. The intellectual and administrative ambitions of French sociologist Jean Cazeneuve were carried forward on the prevailing winds of macluhanisme .
Writing Beyond the Book
Not everyone appreciates a cyclone, to say the least. Elaborate defenses against the cyclone were mounted as it blew through the human sciences at the Centre d'études des communications de masse of the Ecole pratique des hautes études in Paris. For one of its members, Olivier Burgelin (1969: 1107), not even the abundance of humor found in McLuhan's work could "dispel the tiresome impression of tawdry showiness produced by the incessant handling of overpolished paradoxes." Disrespect for the principle of non-contradiction goes hand-in-hand with a delight in bad puns in McLuhan's imagination. McLuhan's way of being bad troubled Burgelin (1969: 1115) because his "prodigious taste for the new" was really "a greedy acceptance having nothing to do with intellectual progressivism." This "frantic modernist" seemed unaware that the most contemporary culture of the period was already "out of date, full of the past, of resistance to change, of all sorts of conservatisms," not to mention alienations and anguish (Burgelin 1969: 1116). McLuhan's celebration of modern life rested on a shaky foundation. He "jovially tramples on the flower beds" of ethnography, sociology, linguistics, and psychoanalysis, evoking these disciplines only through the names of thinkers from whom he quotes out of context. Burgelin charges that McLuhan doesn't enter into current debates and recent developments in the disciplines from which he borrows. Despite McLuhan's taste for the new, he is out of date and place in every discipline save one: the history of anglo-saxon literature in which he was trained. The absence of a semiological reflection on media in McLuhan's work is a case in point for Burgelin; instead of turning toward the sign, McLuhan interests himself in the environments that media constitute, thus weakening, in Burgelin's estimation, the analysis of communication by operating with only two categories of medium/message and content; even here, the latter is understood as another, previously dominant, technological environment (the content of writing is speech; the content of the telephone is the telegraph).
Read today, Burgelin's objections are strikingly anti-postmodern in the sense that they associate McLuhan with staple postmodern phenomena such as the confusion of genres and disciplines, the depthlessness of his writing, the poverty of his categories and impoverishment of his thematics by his own incessant punning.
Burgelin advises that McLuhan cannot be "read to the letter." For example, while causality is the single explanatory principle expressing the relationship between media and galactic shifts in history, the use of this concept is largely metaphorical and signifies congruence, significantly reducing the power of the analysis. "McLuhan's system has no scientific value," Burgelin states (1969: 1110-11), and for this reason the empirical validity of research in the sociology of mass media makes as little sense to McLuhan as McLuhan's 'results' make for such a breed of sociologist. Indeed, Burgelin makes the important passing observation that McLuhan's response to the necessity of empirical validation is that this requirement "dissimulates the true problems, a little like rationalisation in the Freudian sense" (1969: 1112). This places McLuhan in the position of the analyst for whom the figurative analysand, an empirically-minded sociologist of media, subjects the media to an explanatory principle, including a strong appeal to 'reality', which conceals the unconscious motives and defenses of the analysand's methodological claim. Rationalisation in this context is a form of resistance to McLuhan's efforts to understand the 'true' structure of the medium as message. This is the first intimation of the psychological profile of the paradoxes into which one was plunged by voicing criticisms of McLuhan. I take up this issue in more detail in Lecture 3 "Big Mac Attack."
The "idea that communication does not exhaust itself in the manifest content of the message" is for Burgelin (1969: 1114) McLuhan's most general and enduring insight. This did not, however, align McLuhan with a depth hermeneutics. If for many French thinkers McLuhan's focus on the medium put him into contact with structuralism - a matter I consider in some depth in Lecture 4 "Before the Letter" - it also enabled him to be placed in relation to the sorts of poststructuralism practiced by Barthes, Derrida and the group around the journal Tel Quel. This placement is from the outset extraordinarily awkward since, as Burgelin himself admits (1969: 1114), "McLuhan ignores and apparently contradicts them." Jean Texier (1968) had, in a similar spirit, suggested that McLuhan's "annihilation of écriture" should be the occasion to turn our attention to the "real research" of Barthes and Derrida. This placement which resists the very gesture, thereby working against itself, is made to work on the basis of the shared problematisation of the oppositional and metaphysical concepts of speech and writing. Burgelin's readers are left to recall that the double gesture of Derridean deconstruction overturns and displaces the hierarchical arrangement of such metaphysical oppositions in order to analyze hitherto subordinated aspects of the inferior concept of writing, releasing, in order to graft them, onto a new, general concept of writing (Derrida 1982: 329-30). The speech/writing opposition is central to McLuhan's understanding of the transition from the scribal galaxy to the new oral society. But this transition or passage from one concept to the other is not, Derrida specifies, the way of deconstruction. Still, Burgelin (1969: 1114) insists:
However, it is the same value that is sought, despite the contradiction of the formulations, here under the denomination of écriture" there under that of medium, and, more clearly, it is a similar conception of signification that is rejected here as speech, and there as content. In both cases, what is foregrounded is that communication cannot be reduced to the single signified of the message.
The rhetorical promise by default of a rapprochement between Derrida and McLuhan in terms of the speech/writing opposition wanes as we read Derrida's (1982: 329) first concluding remark in "Signature Event Context": "We are not witnessing an end of writing which, to follow McLuhan's ideological representation, would restore a transparency or immediacy of social relations ... ." Instead, Derrida continues, emphasizing his own accomplishment: "but indeed a more and more powerful historical unfolding of a general writing of which the system of speech, consciousness, meaning, presence, truth, etc., would only be an effect, to be analyzed as such." Derrida rejects McLuhan's vision of the psychological and social wholeness of pre- and post-literate cultures. His rejection is less interesting than for what it clears the way: the liberation and generalization of the hitherto subordinated predicates of writing. The movement toward the general is parallel to McLuhan's abandonment of specialism, separation, continuity, uniformity, homogeneity (all of the effects of the phonetic alphabet) towards the "web" (McLuhan 1964: 86) of orality, what Fekete (1982: 63), in his discussion of the passage from Derrida cited above, called "a general oral form." Fekete leaves the task of working out the relationship between these two generalities (writing and orality) to future scholars. He does so, however, ahistorically, that is, without recognizing the history of the relationship between McLuhan and Derrida already worked through during McLuhan's French reception. This does not lessen the significance of the question Fekete posed nor lessen the degree of difficulty of the task he bequeathed us. The question I wish to pose concerns the general oral form: is there anything that prevents it from being one of those 'effects' of which Derrida wrote above? To put it in slightly different terms: Is there anything that prevents the general oral form from being logocentric? My answer is no.
In the late 1960s in France Derrida's name was also regularly invoked in discussions of McLuhan's concept of writing for the sake of diminishing the seriousness of the latter's work. This is evident in François Châtelet's (1967: 37) claim that despite the "absurdity" and "deliberately fraudulent" nature of McLuhan's theories, they are "not without relation to the true questions." In this backhanded way, then, Châtelet (1967: 37) continues: "For it is correct that culture and its diffusion is currently undergoing a radical mutation and that the primacy of the book is being contested. This new situation requires a deep reflection on the fact of writing, reading, and the precarious imperialism of discourse." And for Châtelet it is Derrida who has reflected most deeply and seriously on these matters. McLuhan is a faiseur (a word meaning both a shark and a show-off, among other things) and the "pretentious foolishness" of macluhanisme threatens France. Châtelet does not specify the precise nature of the threat, but it is surely a question of resisting the schemes of a concept-shark. Perhaps Châtelet believed that he was protecting the youth of France against the seductions of a pseudo-theory. This move, incidentally, is precisely the one which convicted Socrates, and it is also the one used most commonly by conservative American critics with reference to Baudrillard.
Jean-Marie Benoist (1968: 4) pointed out that McLuhan thought "the electronic media restore a space of plenitude and presence"; that is, in McLuhan's writing the transition from writing to speech is logocentric and entails transparency, immediacy, nowness, and presence on a global scale. This is precisely what Derrida objects to as "ideological." McLuhan's oral society is, however, marked by an "acoustic orientation" that is also tactile or, auditive-tactile. What this means is that orality is irreducible to speech as such because tactility is for McLuhan a sign of the interplay of the senses, itself irreducible to haptic sensation. This does not make McLuhan's oral culture any less metaphysical, it is just that care must be taken in the application of its predicates. My negative answer has, then, one qualification. McLuhan's knowledge of the writings of Derrida was extremely limited. His reading of Derrida was mediated by the writings of Roger Poole, Professor of English at the University of Nottingham. In the late 1970s, Poole was a Visiting Commonwealth Fellow at York University in Toronto and during his stay sent McLuhan several mansucripts (MP.193-29, 193-30), including his review of Derrida's Of Grammatology. From these articles McLuhan familiarised himself with the term deconstruction, the activites of the Yale Derridians, and could not resist a pun on Derrida's name, "Deride," which he scribbled in the margins of Poole's review. Poole left McLuhan with the incorrect impression that deconstruction was only a negative project, a single, derisive gesture, as it were.
Although the passage from the scribal to the oral is part of a "euphoric ideology," in Edgar Morin's (1969:18) terms, that holds little interest for deconstruction, this aspect is precisely what interests him. Morin had many regrets about macluhanisme, including the reduction of a "gigantic historical period to a single and monotone factor ... a technological medium." Morin (1969: 16) writes: "If the paradigm of McLuhan is poor, his syntagm is rich, not only in terms of the flux of the proposed contiguities, but as much by a dialectical sense, sometimes light, sometimes subtle." McLuhan's galactic thought can be subtle and supple despite its "schematic dogmatism," since it alerts us to the interpenetration of galaxies and the neo-tribal or neo-archaic elements of neo-modernity. While Morin (1968: 16) valued the flexibility of McLuhan's "galactic way of thinking, ie., one which strives to establish large configurations where unexpected associations reveal a flexible search after complex structuration," the conceptual sensurround of macluhanisme just as easily produced a galactic giddiness.
Suffice to say that the place of macluhanisme was generally recognised as the philosophical milieu in which the deconstruction of the speech/writing opposition took place. It is the work of the grammatologist Derrida, however, that is said to be both real and true. To this depth McLuhan could only pretend and display the surface effects of serious thinking. The end of the book is not, for McLuhan, the beginning of writing, of Derridean écriture. The end of the book is the beginning of television. McLuhan thought that writing was a supplement to speech; in fact, it was sandwiched between two oralities, the first originary and the second neo-originary, whose unity it interrupted. For writing separates and specializes and undoes the "tribal web" by granting the individual emotional freedom (McLuhan 1964: 82-4); it is also civilising, intensifying, visual, and uniform. In short, writing is exterior to the speech whose place it takes and keeps, and this belief placed McLuhan firmly in the Western metaphysical tradition as Derrida represents it. Derrida (1974: 313 and 315) takes the "risk," then, in Of Grammatology , of thinking of writing as an originary supplement that takes place before and within speech. What makes this thought risky is that it seems absurd and totally unacceptable within the tradition that separates the source from the supplement, a separation McLuhan does nothing to challenge.
The Empire of Cazeneuve
In the midst of these debates, Cazeneuve was slowly building his own empire of communications. Cazeneuve's (1976) entry under the neologism macluhanisme in the alphabetic guide to mass communications produced under his direction begins with the claim that McLuhan stands apart from all those who have written on the mass media. Not only does the neologism bear his name, but McLuhan's audience is the largest in the field and his writings are the most widely contested. It is the prophetic character of McLuhan's thought that makes it subject to criticisms based upon its lack of scientific rigor. Even if the directions in which McLuhan pushed discussions may be turned against his initial sign-posts, no matter, Cazeneuve suggests, since controversy is what makes McLuhan's ideas resonate even louder.
Of the three pillars of macluhanisme (the triumph of medium over content; the opposition of hot and cool media; the technological determination of civilisational transformation) the first "accomplished a kind of Copernican revolution" (Cazeneuve 1976: 260) in media studies. The study of content or the effects of messages gave way to the consideration of the effects of media as forms of communicational interaction of which there are two broad types (hot and cool). No matter how "artificial" this typology may be in practice, it does not detract from the sociological and prophetic significance of the third pillar. What fascinates Cazeneuve (1976: 265) is the sociological issue of cultural mutation that macluhanisme captures in terms of the interpenetration of la galaxie Gutenberg and our own galaxie Marconi. As far as Copernican revolutions are concerned, there have been several notable ones, namely those of Darwin with regard to anthropocentric consciousness and consciousness as such with Freud (McLuhan 1967: 363). The universe in question or, rather, the galactic sensibility attuned to content, was an influential one (albeit relatively small in planetary terms!) in the expanding universe of mass communications. If Gutenberg put the reader at the center of the universe of knowledge delivered by print culture, then McLuhan indicated the field created by electric-electronic networks in which the individual point of view of the private reader would inhere, even if he taught this lesson through the products of alphabetic culture, namely, books.
For Cazeneuve (1976: 265), macluhanisme points toward a socially harmonious future in which the crises engendered by overlapping galaxies are surmounted by embracing new systems of media, while renouncing those born of the Gutenberg era. Much more than Morin, then, Cazeneuve was cooled - in its salutary sense - by macluhanisme : "One must not ask oneself if macluhanisme is serious; one must play its game and take note of what it reveals about the world of tomorrow" (Cazeneuve 1969b: 7). If baby boomers once straddled both galaxies and their tomorrow has already arrived, one wonders what happened to the idea of harmony as a so-called 'gen x' has grown into the same predicament. Inter-generational disharmony is congruent with the tensions of overlapping galaxies, even if they are defined generationally rather than technologically (still, demography and its mutant offspring such as psychography are tools of marketing).
Cazeneuve's alphabetic guide was not written according to critical issues or problems. macluhanisme was given free rein, for example, in Hervé Fischer's contribution on the esthetics of mass media (1976: 203-14). Macluhanien distinctions are employed in the dual service of the search for a definition of an aesthetics of electronic (primarily televisual) images, and in the exploration of the notion of an écriture télévisuelle, an electronic rhetoric of camerawork and editing that transcends the commonplace consumption of the semantic signs of realism found in reportage. De Kerckhove (1986: 49, 51) has developed this aesthetic approach by contrasting the effects of filmic editing to televisiual modulation; in the case of films shown on television, the harsher images and intense motion of the former are softened by the gentle waves of colour and light of the latter. In order to appreciate the extent of Cazeneuve's engagement with macluhanisme, it is necessary to turn to his earlier writings on cultural mutations and the mass media.
In "Communications de masse et mutations culturelles," Cazeneuve writes: "macluhanisme is a fashion, a craze that unmakes intellectual beds and reaches the general public" (1969: 17). Focusing on the third phase of the third pillar of macluhanisme (the return of an oral culture in the electronic civilisation), Cazeneuve accepts the analysis of the sensorial mutations (visual bias) of alphabetic man, but considers the claim for a new orality to be a debatable point. It seems that "the mass media are audio-visual means, and perhaps even more and more visual" (1969:22). Cazeneuve maintains that "although [McLuhan] sometimes clearly confirms that the mass media lead to the primacy of the oral and the auditory, at other moments he seems to indicate that we are leaning instead towards an equilibrium between vision and hearing" (1969: 22). The visual bias of electronic media and the not difficult task of finding ambiguous statements of position by McLuhan led Cazeneuve to suggest that current cultural mutations cannot be characterised by "the reflux of the visual and the return of the oral" (1969: 22). Later in the article Cazeneuve rephrases and hedges his position: "Thus, it is probably, contrary to what McLuhan understood, the reinforcement of the visual that is the most remarkable cultural effect of the mass media" (1969: 24).
Cazeneuve in addition argues that McLuhan did not pay sufficient attention to the ways in which the mass media transform culture into commodities that become more and more ephemeral. Broadcasts are, he thinks, less permanent than books. In the era before zapping and videorecorders, Cazeneuve reminds us, broadcasts received in the home could not be taped and replayed, stopped, and edited. Ultimately, Cazeneuve is prepared to let macluhanisme off the hook since its exaggerations in the area of sensorial mutations are balanced by the attention it focuses on new media and the conceptual equipment it provides for their interpretation.
In his review of the French translations of McLuhan's work available in 1969 (La galaxie gutenberg, Message et massage, Pour comprendre les media, Mutations 1990, and Pour or contre MacLuhan, edited by G.E. Stearn), Cazeneuve (in collaboration with Gérard Namer) reflects on the "promotion of [McLuhan] to the rank of a big star" (1969a: 140). It may be the case that in North America "the only type of reaction that this oeuvre has not provoked is precisely indifference," in France reactions have been mixed: "the public was not staggered, and sociologists, by and large, did not let go of their defiant, and at times contemptible, attitude" (1969a: 140). This so-called mixed response is perhaps due to, Cazeneuve conjectures, the fact that the elements of surprise, shock, diversion, word play, and the rambling remarks of McLuhan "are not the sort that greatly move the latin character." This sort of posturing on the side of latinity snubs North American boosterism and special effects from which the 'latin character' is stereotypically and mythically immune. Cazeneuve throws up a rickety windscreen against the forces of macluhanisme.
McLuhan does not, Cazeneuve laments, pick up in Pour comprendre les media where he left off in La galaxie gutenberg. He develops neither his views on the primitive pre-gutenberg era nor of print culture but, instead, "they operate only as a means of reference or of comparison" (1969a: 141). Cazeneuve goes so far as to refer to developments in Pour comprendre regarding the analysis of the specific effects of communications technologies as work on mass media - a term, he comments disparagingly, that belongs to "the barbaric language of specialists" (1969a: 141). By this criterion alone, both McLuhan and Cazeneuve are barbarians! With the arrival of Mutations 1990, McLuhan is in full prophetic mode and abandons himself to "sociological fiction." Cazeneuve mishandles McLuhan's typological distinction between cool and hot by first correctly including radio and cinema among hot media, and later incorrectly referring to them as cool (in contrast to television!) (1969a: 145). Unwittingly, then, Cazeneuve provides evidence for his claim that this typological distinction has not always been understood in the world of broadcasting, the very place where he distinguished himself in the 1960s and 1970s in a series of administrative roles including those of Administrateur de l'Office de Radio-Télévision française (O.R.T.F. 1964-70; 1972-74), Président du Comité des programmes de la télévision à l'ORTF (1971-74), and Président-directeur général et fondateur de la Société nationale de Télévision de la première chaîne (TF1) (1974-78).
What is Cazeneuve's legacy? His work is not widely read today. But his various explications and soft interrogations of McLuhan were perfectly adapted to the debates over form and content underway in France in the 1960s and 1970s, especially in relation to the critique of the media as vehicles of content. By appealing to McLuhan's so-called revolution of form against vaguely leftist notions of revolutionising the content of media, Cazeneuve was able to adopt a passively critical stance, even if his position aligned itself with technological determinism, and effectively released himself from the demands of the critiques of Marxism and macluhanisme . In short, Cazeneuve occupied the void that existed in the study of television in France in the 1960s and 1970s.
As Michèle and Armand Mattelart explain (1990: 112-13; 121, n. 12), two factors contributed to the rise of macluhanisme in France. First, the field of television remained undertheorised almost until the 1980s and, secondly, the antinomy of form and content produced a "theoretical vacuum" into which macluhanisme swept and subsequently "exercised its power of seduction." Armand Mattelart and Yves Stourdzé (1985: 80) have cited the work of McLuhan as the prime example of "trans-historic discourses which cannot hide their occultation, not only of the real as it appears on television, but of the real, full stop." On this view, the credibility afforded to McLuhan was one of the unfortunate political effects of the "intellectual underdevelopment" of the study of television. Moreover, without "serious scientific analysis of the material mode of functioning" to offset its emergence, macluhanisme could be "called to the rescue to paper over the cracks of a society which generally refused to think of television as the matrix of its system of modern communication, as the central mechanism for the production of consensus" (Mattelart and Stourdzé 1985: 80). This explanation of McLuhan's influence in France relies on the description of the theoretical scene of writing on television as immature and empty, and figures McLuhan's work as seductive in the sense that it draws attention away from the real into the irreal or a rhetorically devalued realm, and does so by papering over and thereby occluding substantive insights into the social influence of television.
It is worth citing at length Jean-Marie Piemme's critique of the wooly "theoretical foundations of the dominant discourse on television" to which Mattelart and Stourdzé refer since Cazeneuve is one of the agents whose writings and administrative positions supposedly obstructed communications research in France:
In France, there exists a discourse on the subject of television, and more generally, on mass communications, whose very fame makes it impossible to ignore. It emanates from Jean Cazeneuve, long known for several books and even more articles on television and the mass media. His writings have a certain audience and his opinions on this subject are regularly solicited as much by journalists and newspapers as, more recently, by public authorities. His expert knowledge of the problems of television has led him not only to be the sociologist that he is, but also, at the request of the Giscardian regime, to take over the first television channel. This ultimate promotion is not the least of the reasons for examining his central thesis more closely.
The books of Jean Cazeneuve have
the particularity of taking on the appearance of being the sum total of all that
has been said on the subject. References to work of all shades abound and
analyses make imperturbable use of any empirical study with a few results to
flaunt. Drawing mainly on American and Anglo-Saxon authors, Cazeneuve,
according to the needs of his panorama, adds the results of often
irreconcilable theories, corrects results of one study by the results of
another, to which he generally adds the results of a third, and takes what he
needs from psychology, empirical mass-media sociology, social psychology and
the functionalist approach. He goes from Gurvitch to McLuhan by passing through
the evolutionist thinkers of the nineteenth century, makes more references to
Jung than to Freud and bases all his reflections on a certain idea of man and
the human condition.
In short, Cazeneuve's eclecticism is a McLuhanist veneer. But for Mattelart and Stourdzé, Cazeneuve's eclecticism lacks McLuhan's originality, and he fails to consolidate the multiple positions from which he speaks. Cazeneuve's construction of television by the arrangement of irreconcilable theories enabled his point of view to hide among the flecks of his imperfect mosaic method. His position was mobile, fluent and liberal enough to move over to the side of the object of his interest, especially in the era of Giscardian liberalism. Recall that McLuhan admired the liberal politics of Giscard d'Estaing in France, Jerry Brown in California, and Pierre Trudeau in Canada.
It was during Cazeneuve's tenure (but not directorship) in the ORTF that opposition to the introduction of advertising on television finally weakened sufficiently to allow it entry to the French screen. After the print media had staved off repeated attempts in the 1960s (1960, 1962, 1965) to institute De Gaulle's demand for television commercials on economic grounds, in 1968 the event occurred (Thibau 1970: 152-54), although limitations were placed on the duration of adverts, and an independent organ (Régie française de publicité [RFP]) was established to control private interests by ensuring that revenue from advertising did not exceed 25% of public resources. Created in 1969, the RFP was disbanded in 1992. Televisual publicity erupted during M. Biasini's directorship of the ORTF. The tumultuous year of1968 may have brought students and workers into the streets, but it also brought commercials to television and colour to the French screen. According to Jean-Louis Missika and Dominique Wolton (1983: 52ff), the events of May '68 revealed the repressive and paternalistic dimensions of the "statist model" of television and the control over culture and information it exercised given the government's decision not to speak to the events on television and to suppress what were considered to be subversive reports. It was not until the election of Georges Pompidou in 1969 that, on this view, the liberalisation of French television began to occur. Missika and Wolton (1983: 179, 294) resist both McLuhan's and Cazeneuve's techno-prophecies of television in the planetary age on the grounds that the medium will not blur the distinction between totalitarian and liberal controls on the basis of its ability to be receptive to public opinion and to events; it has not operated without restrictions and is unlikely to achieve transparency, as the French case has, Missika and Wolton contend, demonstrated.
To refer to the professionalisation of McLuhan's slogan "the medium is the message" means: if the user of a medium is its content, as McLuhan came to believe, then there is no barrier to the introduction of commercials to television (nor to the importation of programs), since no significant change occurs to the medium with their appearance. Wherever the blame is laid for the introduction of the good news of multinational capital to French television, it would not be the last time that macluhanisme would be used to influence and justify policy decisions. McLuhan's own interventions in this area are well-known in Canada. "We are the content of anything we use, if only because these things are extensions of ourselves," McLuhan (1987: 427) wrote in a letter to Jim Davey, Program Secretary in the Office of the Prime Minister in Trudeau's govenment. It followed for McLuhan that the C.R.T.C. (Canadian Radio and Telecommunications Commission) policy requiring a certain percentage of Canadian content in broadcasting is based on a misunderstanding of the media. The "user as content" supplement to the slogan the medium is the message means that Canadians are the content of the American media they use, and thus a policy aimed at limiting American (and, in general, transborder) access to the Canadian market and promoting Canadian cultural productions is ill-conceived and unnecessary - a residual effect of the Gutenberg galaxy and its misguided nationalism and protectionism. Throughout the 1970s McLuhan advanced this line of thinking on a variety of fronts, none of which proved to be particularly influential in the formation of broadcasting policy in Canada at the time, much to his chagrin (this is evident in his unpublished correspondence from 1971 with John Bassett, chairman and publisher of the defunct newspaper The Toronto Telegram; see MP. 18-80). Today, both French and Canadian struggles against American imports are simply being left behind by satellite technologies which effectively ignore national boundaries.
The cyclone of macluhanisme neither blew itself out in the awkward comparisons of Derrida and McLuhan that quickly took on contrastive tones, nor did the occasional xenophobic outbursts warning France of its dangers provide much shelter; neither was it exhausted in the opportunities for (self-)promotion that it afforded those such as Cazeneuve in the sociology and adminstration of the mass media in France. By way of a conclusion, however, let's consider one of the positive contributions that macluhanisme was thought to have made to poststructuralist critique.
In Anti-Oedipus, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (1977: 240) ask: "What exactly is meant when someone announces the collapse of the 'Gutenberg galaxy'?" There is no need to name McLuhan or the thought in his name since it goes without saying to whom Deleuze and Guattari refer. Perhaps it is for the better that he is not named since this is a way to take another position in a playing field already divided by fierce loyalties and oppositions. The answer to this question cannot be found in McLuhan's books in any straightforward manner. The issue at stake concerns the role of macluhanisme in the schizophrenic process and anarchic anoedipalism. McLuhan's announcement at first seems puzzling since capitalism, despite what Deleuze and Guattari think about its "profound illiteracy," still uses writing and communicates through it as printed money, for example. What happens to writing in the age of 'electric language'? Does the electric revolution come to language in a way that is irreducible to the orality that takes one back to the source?
Deleuze and Guattari continue: "This seems to us to be the significance of McLuhan's analysis: to have shown what a language of decoded flows is, as opposed to a signifier that strangles and overcodes the flows" (1977: 240). Without a despotic signifier that holds the signified in the straight-jacket of an asymmetrical dichotomy and codes it relationally in a closed system of oppositions, no single flow (libidinal energy or electric transmissions) can control the fluxes and constellations of desire. Signification is structured, coded, controlled. Hence, Deleuze and Guattari appeal to television signals (ironically, the code of multiplexage analogique de composantes [MAC], unlike SECAM [Séquentiel couleur à memoire] or PAL [Phase Alternative Line], raises the question of how we are to understand the French spelling of McLuhan's name as Mac Luhan, a matter to which I turn in Lecture 3) and the pure information of the electric light as examples of decoded flows. The decoded flow of the electric light, Deleuze and Guattari suggest, forms a substance "by entering into a relationship with another flow, such that the first defines a content and the second, an expression" (1977: 241). Deleuze and Guattari graft the categories of Hjelmslevian glossematics onto McLuhan's concept of the electric light, understood as a contentless and messageless medium of communication that can enter into a relationship that is neither predetermined nor determinable, forming a substance (a decoded flow is unformed matter that is given form, thereby becoming a substance). The meeting of flows create, in other words, meaning. But the relation between content and expression is relative and reversible, which explains why there is no dominant signifier and no predeterminable hierarchy. Remember that this is the part of the Anti-Oedipus in which a strange trio appears: McLuhan, Louis Hjelmslev and Jean-François Lyotard. Certain concepts from each thinker (electric light as pure information; content-expression-form-substance; the figural) are favorably evaluated on the basis of their contributions to the critique of the signifier. McLuhan specifies (1964: 9) that the content may 'blind' one to the medium, but it need not do so, since "content or uses of such media are as diverse as they are ineffectual in shaping the form of human association." Electric light is pure information, a plane of immanence in which no one knows what sorts of relationships will be established, set in motion by the capitalist production of power and the sale of electricity. Electric light is, after all, salable, and it is this feature that allows the capitalist code to determine its flow through the circuits it builds and owns, and rents. For Deleuze and Guattari capitalism at the same time decodes and limits by encoding the flows it releases.
What is electric language? "Electric language does not go by way of the voice or writing," Deleuze and Guattari write (1977: 241), echoing McLuhan's dream of a generalised decoding without verbalisation: beyond language is the decoding machine, the computer, and beyond its promise of a "Pentecostal condition of universal understanding and unity" achieved by means of instantaneous translation, there is the "general cosmic consciousness": a condition of "speechlessness [and signlessness] that could confer a perpetuity of collective harmony and peace" (McLuhan 1964: 84). The sempiternal glance of angels is an asemiotic state of perfect and instant communication. How important, then, can McLuhan's thinking be for the critique of the signifier and schizoanalysis if it actually relies upon a transcendental ground, whose despotic influence, Deleuze and Guattari hoped, they would escape, by establishing a field of immanence? And what about the metaphysical speech/writing opposition that McLuhan reinforces? It alone should suffice to dampen Deleuze and Guattari's spirited support for this aspect of McLuhan's thought since only the destruction of this old binarism wins their praise. Deleuze and Guattari exercise the interpretive freedom to pick and choose and transform the ideas they borrow without respecting the contexts from whence they came. They make McLuhan radical for their own ends regardless of what in his thought, as I have suggested, may militate against their creative borrowings. It takes a lot of imagination to make macluhanisme radical.
prophecy and charlatanry, meteorological phenomena were often used to describe
both McLuhan and the effects of his ideas. For cyclones see Pétillon, Pierre-Yves
(1969) "Avant and après McLuhan" [review], Critique 265
Genial Grock: This obscure
reference is to Adrien Wettach Grock (1880-1959), the Swiss circus performer
(acrobat and musician closely associated with the violin and piano he used as
props). Grock and his partner Brick were well-known in France. Grock performed
across Europe, England and North Africa, for over 50 years. The phrase was used
by Vernay, Alain (1969) "La galaxie gutenberg ou le prophète
McLuhan," Le Figaro (25 jan.).
McLuhan wrote: "This artistic
strategy is indispensable today: you start with the solution and then you
create the problem that will lead to that solution. Or, you start with the
effect and then you look for the situations that will produce that effect. The
19th century approach was the reverse of this. It is the approach of heavy
industry and consumer-oriented minds today - start with the problem, then look
for the solution. This is fine for a society enveloped by information moving at
a slow rate. At high speeds, on the other hand, every solution creates more
problems than it can resolve." ("Media and the Structured
Society," The McLuhan Dew-Line Newsletter 2/1 (July 1969[b]):3).
The reversal of cause and effect is part of a larger rhetoric of reversal or
flip that takes place when a thing has reached a point of exhaustion or
saturation. This reversal is tied to the implosive speed of new information
technologies. This implosive speed, in turn, makes the item-by-item processing
of information impossible or at least redundant, requiring a new kind of awareness
adequate to the field of perception; hence, for McLuhan, what he called
Burgelin, Olivier (1969) "Un essayiste pop: Marshall
McLuhan," Esprit 382 (juin): 1107-116. The
Centre d'études des communications de masse (CECMAS) was founded by Georges
Freidmann in 1960 at the Ecole pratique des Hautes Etudes, then under the
direction of Fernanad Braudel. Burgelin was an active memeber of the Centre.
The semio-structural method favored by its early and most distinguished members
such as Barthes, Metz, and Todorov in the 1960s, opened onto poststructural
speculation with the arrival of Kristeva, the emergence of Baudrillard, and the
confusion of methods in general that marked the 1970s. During 1972-73, CECMAS
became CETSAS, the Centre d'études transdisciplinaires. This is not to downplay
the sociological perspective Freidmann, Paul Lazarsfeld, and Edgar Morin, among
others, brought to the study of mass media. Burgelin's criticisms were in the
air at the time and voiced by others such as Texier, Jean C. (1968) "Une
nouvelle impûCOMBA (août).
Derridean deconstruction: I focus on a passing remark in Derrida (1982) "Signature Event Context," in Margins of Philosophy, Alan Bass (trans.), Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, and later briefly mention Derrida (1974) Of Grammatology, G. Spivak (trans.), Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press. McLuhan's explanations of orality are taken from Understanding Media (1964), although The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962: 3) begins with the bold statement that in the electronic age even non-verbal components of a given situation may be oral. This kind of generalization - whether of orality or écriture - requires closer attention. See also the astute observations of Fekete, John (1982) "Massage in the Mass Age: Remembering Marshall McLuhan," Canadian Journal of Political and Social Theory 6/3: 50-67. Both McLuhan and Derrida really seem to glory in the unfolding of the historically dominant, as Fekete remarks, categories (generalized orality and écriture) whose emergence they themselves anticipated and, of course, theorized. Fekete would be interested in the French debates: the examples I use are: Châtelet, François (1967) "Un nouveau faux prophète,"Le Nouvel observateur 159 (du 29 nov. au 5 déc.): 36-7; Benoist, Jean-Marie (1968) "La nébuleuse McLuhan" (review), La Quinzaine littéraire 43 (du 15 au 31 jan.): 3-4; the manuscript evidence is slim when it comes to discovering McLuhan's knowledge of Derrida, see (MP. 193-29) marked manuscript by Roger Poole, "Embodiment and Text: A phenomenological inquiry into their relationship' and (MP. 193-30) marked manuscript by R. Poole, typescript draft of a review of Derrida's Of Grammatology.
I use the readings of Edgar Morin, a CECMAS member, as a
welcome diversion contemporaneous with the écriture debate: (1968) New
Trends in the Study of Mass Communications, Birmingham: Centre for
Contemporary Cultural Studies, Occasional paper No. 7.; idem (1969)
"Pour comprendre McLuhan" (review), La Quinzaine littéraire 69
(du 16 au 31 mars): 16-18.
Jean Cazeneuve: I rely on Cazeneuve, Jean (1969) "Communications de masse et mutations culturelles," Cahiers internationaux de sociologie XLVI: 17-25; (1969a) [avec collaboration de G. Namer] "Sociologie de la connaissance: Les théories de MacLuhan" (review), L'Année sociologique 20: 139-47; (1969b) "MacLuhan est-il prophète?" Les Nouvelles littéraires (31 juillet): 1, 7; and (1976) "macluhanisme," in Les Communications de masse: Guide alphabétique, Paris: Denoëaut;l/Gonthier. My reference to McLuhan and pantheon building is from the translation of (1967) La Galaxie Gutenberg: La genèse de l'homme typographique, Jean Paré (trans.), Montre‡l: Hurtubise HMH; on the matter of video and tv aesthetics, see De Kerckhove, Derrick (1986) "Four Arguments for the Defence of Television," Culture and Communications [Budapest] 5: 43-65. I draw upon critical material bearing upon Cazeneuve and macluhanisme in general in Mattelart, Armand and Stourdzé, Yves (1985) Technology, Culture and Communications: A Report to the French Minister of Research and Industry, D. Buxton (trans.), Amsterdam: Elsevier Science Publishers and Mattelart, Michèle and Armand (1990) The Carnival of Images: Brazilian Television Fiction, David Buxton (trans.), New York: Bergin and Garvey. Mattelart and Stourdzé rely on Piemme, Jean-Marie (1978) La télévision comme on la parle, Brusselles-Paris: Editions Labor/Fernand Nathan. I have not been able to locate this book from which they quote at length. Armand Mattelart later collaborated with Piemme (1980) Télévision: enjeux sans frontières. Industries culturelles et politique de la communication, Grenoble: Presses Universitaires de Grenoble.
Gossip and factual material concerning the history of
communications policy in France is found Thibau, Jacques (1970) Une
télévision pour tous les français, Paris: Editions de Seuil; Missika,
Jean-Louis and Wolton, Dominique (1983) La folle du logis, Paris:
Gallimard. The Canadian material is from McLuhan's Letters (1987). While
I am on the topic of gossip, file MP. 18-80 is full of long dead scandal
of prurient interest to the Toronto-centric among us.
On the question 'is language electric?' I read Deleuze and Guattari (1977) Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. R. Hurley, M. Seem, H. R. Lane, New York: Viking, despite themselves, against certain remarks by McLuhan on electric communication from (1964) Understanding Media.
The triumvirate of McLuhan-Hjelmslev-Lyotard constitutes, for Deleuze and Guattari, a critique of point of view. For McLuhan, as he explained in The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962), the orality of the electronic age undermines closed systems of alphabetic and typographic culture (specifically, a fixed point of view) and creates an interplay between modes of perception. Lyotard would call this the libidinal-aesthetic force of the figural which disrupts closed discursive systems, and displaces any fixed 'point of view' or identity. The fluidity of the figural also makes it irreducible to the visual, which in McLuhan's terms is consonant with the critique of vision in terms of acoustic space. But the discursive, in Lyotard's deconstruction of the discourse/figure opposition, also inhabits the space of the figural, just as in McLuhan, the Gutenberg legacy lingers in today's acoustic space. The result is "trauma and tension."
In a milieu characterized by a variety of critical enagagements with and creative departures from structuralism and semiology, Deleuze and Guattari's Anti-Oedipus found a place in the widespread critique of the signifier and the prevailing anti-Saussureanism of the period but with one important exception. Unlike Baudrillard, for instance, who saw in the linguistic theories of Hjelmslev and Barthes further examples of the ideology of signification, Deleuze and Guattari (1977: 242) combined a critique of a linguistics of the signifier with praise for Hjelmslev: "We believe that, from all points of view and despite certain appearances, Hjelmslev's linguistics stands in profound opposition to the Saussurean and post-Saussurean undertaking." Neither Deleuze nor Guattari followed Barthes's translinguistic approach to semiology. To do so would have brought them into step with the practices of specialists who exercise control over diverse signifying phenomena by making them dependent upon language. What is most disturbing in the tag of 'linguistic imperialism' is that Hjelmslev has long been recognized as one of its agents, even though his sense of language is not, strictly speaking, reducible to actual languages. While linguistics ordinarily concerns particular languages, Hjelmslev's algebra aims to calculate the general system of language in relation to which particular languages would reveal their characteristics. But the calculation of theoretically possible formal relations at the level of the general system includes non-materialized elements, that is, elements not realized in any existing languages. The glossematist is not, then, a linguist proper.
Deleuze and Guattari do not complain that Hjelmslev's theory is too abstract. For its high level of abstraction is precisely one of its virtues, and they rejoice in the irreducibility of the planes of expression and content to signifier and signified. Hjelmslev was not a "signifier enthusiast." Deleuze and Guattari (1977: 243) think that Hjelmslev's theory "is the only linguistics adapted to the nature of both the capitalist and the schizophrenic flows: until now, the only modern (and not archaic) theory of language." This kind of linguistics theorizes language as an inclusive and intensive continuum, whose variations conform neither to linguistic constants nor variables, but are open to continuous and hitherto unrealised conjunctions.
Glossematics may be brought into the schizoanalytic fold because it offers a rarely permitted (grammatically, that is) freedom to connect and combine phonemes into possible morphemes; to pursue, in other words, unusual if not unnatural connective syntheses, generalizable in structural terms as unrestricted and unpoliced passages, meetings and alliances at all levels and places. This is precisely what they praised in McLuhan's sense of electric flow. Glossematics starts to 'schizz' at the moment when Hjelmslev, reflecting on the fact that a sign is a sign of something, maintains that this entity can no longer be conceived of as only a sign of content-substance (a content-substance or the conception of a thing is ordered to and arranged under a content-form by the sign). A sign is equally a sign of an expression-substance (the sounds subsumed by an expression-form of phonemes). Expression and content and form and substance are the double dichotomies of Hjelmslevian signification. Hjelmslev attempts to destroy the hierarchy and directionality of signification which was hitherto based upon the definition of the sign as that of an expression-substance for a content-substance by carrying to its radical end the mutual solidarity and equality of linguistic expression and content.
What I am suggesting in these too brief comments is that it is possible to read the 'triumvirate' in a more detailed fashion.
Lecture Three: Mac
copyright 1998, Gary Genosko.
There was a moment, or many of them, in the French reception of the writings of McLuhan, in which his views were revealed to be a trompe l'oeil splashed across the mediascape. As the gaze of his admirer's shifted after an initial wide-eyed fixation, they noticed that McLuhan's views did not move with their own. These views appeared as something other than they seemed, or rather they now seemed to be something else, to paraphrase Jacques Lacan(1977: 112).This other thing was the objet petit a.
I have just imagined the moment(s) in which McLuhan became MacLuhan for his French readers with the help of an extra little a. If this imagining is too hard to swallow, it is all for the better since the objet petit a is, Lacan notes, hard to swallow. As the loving stares of M(a)cLuhan's French readers broke away from their precious object, I would like to think they did so in terms similar to those Lacan used in describing the relation between analysand and analyst: the love transference hung on something more than the analyst had, and the analysand's gift of love turned out to be a load of shit (Lacan 1977: 268). There is very little difference between the objet petit a and the objet petit tas, as Lacan once punned. The Lacanian concept of the objet petit a will help us to understand the meaning MacLuhan had for his French readers, especially those who insisted on spelling his name in this manner, a phenomenon that took place in France but not Québec. The word 'reader' is already problematic since one of the things Lacan and McLuhan had in common was television. If my very premise in this lecture appears suspect - that there is something to the matter of the 'French spelling' of M(a)cLuhan - I can only offer a justification, after the fact, based on anecdote. A certain sociological theorist, a postmodernist, no less, recently seized upon the rendering of the phenomenon of macluhanisme in the title of one of my recently published articles as if it were an invention of my own; to this spelling he added sic. Did he mean strange or incorrect? I did not invent it, strange as this may seem. Whether this was a comment on my French I will probably never know. The spelling was intentional, and this lecture attempts to theorize it. For me, what makes this banal act of mistaken 'correction' interesting is this: why was my reader compelled to add a little more to the addition?
Both Lacan and McLuhan appeared on 'primal time television', to use a phrase coined by Lawrence Rickels, broadcasts in France in the early 1970s. While Lacan's appearance may have alarmed certain bookish Lacanians who feared that by massaging the masses psychoanalysis said nothing at all, Lacan himself spoke in the name of 'non-idiots' (analysts) and, presumably, 'idiots' (non-analysts) as well. If it didn't make a difference to Lacan that he spoke in the name of the 'public' before the blackboard in his seminar or the couch potatoes - no pun intended! - glued to their television screens, it was because he addressed neither of their gazes, which he claimed were really only one. But this is just the sort of difference upon which McLuhan's theory of media rested. To be fair to Lacan, he recognized that the mass media had psychical effects linked to technological developments, a lesson he learned and adapted brillantly by appeals to a variety of media, not from McLuhan, but from 'Freud's analogical hook-up of technology and the unconscious' (Rickels 1990: 43). For Lacan, McLuhan's mediatic extensions of man could not account for what was more than themselves.
McLuhan's great-grandfather William McLughan arrived in Essa Township in the Province of Ontario, Canada from Country Down, Ireland in 1849 and began his life in Canada with a new, shortened name: McLuhan. This change of family name was not an uncommon practice in the 19th and even 20th centuries, for Canadian immigration officers have, with every new wave of immigrants, indulged in the disfiguration of names, not to mention families. Having lost a letter from his family name, McLuhan would ultimately gain another, albeit a different one, from many of his French readers for whom a certain 'MacLuhan' appeared, at least at first in certain circles, as a prophet of sorts. This respelling was not an overt attempt at some kind of Franco-Scots-Irish amalgamation, according to which the little imported a would signify an international family affair. Taken on its face value, the little a filled a perceived gap between M and c for the delicate French ear for which a little thing, already worming its way into pronunciation, would smooth over a ragged, foreign construction uncommon in French. For this reason, then, 'MacLuhan' is in a way a Gallicized version of 'McLuhan', even if the very gesture makes it foreign. But it is not without its confusions since, on the one hand, 'Mac' means 'son' while, on the other hand, in France a person called 'Mac' may attract notice in polite academic and analytic circles since this is the abbreviated form of maquereau (pimp). Although the two Macs are unrelated, they cannot be kept apart. Of course, not all of McLuhan's French readers participated in this renaming game or, for that matter, name calling game. McLuhan and MacLuhan would appear alongside one another in contributions to learned journals and newspapers; French translations of books written by McLuhan became, under review, books by MacLuhan.
There were readers and commentators, however, whose desire had an object and appeared to them in this object: the little a of Mac. The a really depends upon desire. In this a certain readers could identify themselves, even though this little sliver of a broken mirror might very well disappear in the next version of McLuhan's name. For a reader whose desire is tied to this object and whose subjecthood is constituted by it, this instability is doubly significant since it indicates the fragility of this constitution and the division of the desiring subject who accomplishes it. In other words, McLuhan needs to be constantly rewritten as MacLuhan so as to embody the object of phantasy of the desiring subject. Yet no amount of constitutive respelling can change the significance of the little a as an image in which the subject's lack appears to him/her.
I am supposing that the little a is akin to an objet petit a [utre]. There are limits to this Lacanian supposition as a strategy of making sense of a cultural phenomenon since, as the deconstructionist reader of psychoanalysis Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen reminds us, the objet a is a part of oneself which one separates from oneself, a quite literal - that is, real - matter of giving up or sacrificing a bodily substance or organ, the loss of which is irrecuperable. The little a of Mac is not a real body part. Bertolt Brecht's gangster Macheath - 'Mac the Knife' from The Threepenny Opera - has neither turned his blade on himself nor on the other, although in principle he handles a knife as well as or better than Macbeth.Still, the little a of Mac is an alphabetic morsel dropped into the gap between M and c which it moreover manifests as it drops into place, as one would expect of an objet petit a since it is a 'symbol of the lack ... in so far as it is lacking' (Lacan 1977: 103). I am not chasing after spittle, sperm, faeces, the maternal breast, Van Gogh's ear, etc., these real objects which a body separates from itself or 'sacrifices', as it were. The diversity of such objects requires a typology distinguishing, for example, those that are cut and those from which one is weaned; Lacan's 'unthinkable list' (1977a: 315) indicates just how hard it is to put one's finger on the objet petit a; another list, no less thinkable, includes breasts, faeces, the gaze, and the voice (Lacan 1977: 242). All the same, the little a is figurally a 'little pile', an abject loop with a tail, a curled dropping evacuated from a pen. Our little a is a simulacrum of a semblance that is a pile as such.
What's in a name? The a of Mac circulates in and out of a family name. It is a fiction that embodies desire. This objet petit a slips in and out of signification through the passageway between M and c despite the well-known claim that it 'falls outside of signification' by 'evading the signifier' (Grigg 1991: 112; and 'resists significantization' in Borch-Jacobsen 1990). It plays the game of presence/absence as well as any other signifier and, in addition, it comes and goes as the reader/writer pleases. It is, here, then, less a matter of resistance than one of unpredictability and at times fickleness (it's a bit like television, I suppose: there isn't much on when it's on, and for many, there's not much going on when it's off). The little a holds the prophet and his disciples together and it is a letter that has had and continues to have a hold on the French imagination. In Alfred Jarry's 'neoscientific novel' Gestes et opinions du Docteur Faustroll, the doctor's assistant Bosse-de-Nage utters two French words at opportune moments throughout the text: 'Ha Ha'. Baudrillard understands this laughter in terms of the formula 'A = A', the operational and tautological perfection of a system grown as obese as a gidouille, and therefore ready to be pushed over the edge by means of the revolutionary pataphysical principle of 'more A than A'. A string of identical little mathemes (aaaaa...) is a laughable object. It is only a matter of time and, indeed, alphabetic inevitability, that objets b and c come into existence as residuality proliferates like television channels.
McLuhan began his correspondence with the British painter, writer and polemicist (less kindly, for many, a Fascist) Wyndam Lewis in the early 1940s from his post at St. Louis University. During this period Lewis was teaching at Assumption College in Windsor, Ontario. McLuhan vigorously promoted Lewis as a portrait artist and had some success in opening the 'big pocket-books', as he called them, of St. Louis. McLuhan also arranged lectures for Lewis. The nickname 'Mac' was adopted by McLuhan himself as a short form in a letter to Lewis in 1944 (McLuhan 1987: 142-43). For years thereafter McLuhan signed his letters to Lewis with 'Mac'. According to the editors of McLuhan's published Letters, Lewis remarked upon this nickname to the effect that 'Mack is not too matey, but it is too generic. I have known so many "Macks" - it blurs the image. Shall think up a less dignified abbreviation of my Feldherr ' (McLuhan 1987: 142, n. 1). This 'Mac attack' did not in the end deter McLuhan, although Lewis appears to have used it sparingly. Meanwhile, McLuhan adopted it as his moniker with several other correspondents. Lewis himself blurred the image with the addition of the final k, suggesting another big American object, a truck. The nickname or Surnommant of Lewis's Feldherr opens onto the matter of the remainder central to the objet a. By overnaming his Feldherr Mac, a diminished name actually and ironically accomplished the production of a surplus. There is something special, then, about the k. McLuhan ultimately admitted in a letter of January 1944 that '"McLuhan" suits me and is preferable to "mac" ...' (1987: 146). Indeed, for a field marshall patrolling the promotional front, 'Mac' was simply and sardonically too dignified and indistinct for Lewis's taste. Despite this, Lewis never came up with a new name. And while he had doubts about his little name, McLuhan continued to use it in his correspondence with one of his former graduate students in St. Louis, Walter J. Ong, as well as with his colleague Felix Giovanelli. Ezra Pound put his own twist on McLuhan with 'Mc L', a subtle architectural arrangement which had little of the chuminess of Lewis's remarks, but sufficient ideographic peculiarity to amuse them both (McLuhan 1987: 232, notes 3 and 4). This is, then, the story of Mac before it was taken up by McLuhan's French readers in the 1960s, having long since disappeared from view in McLuhan's correspondence with Lewis. In the manner of Lewis's (1981 and 1981a) Vorticist journals BLAST 1 (orig. June 1914) and BLAST 2 (orig. July 1915)whose influence on McLuhan would be decisive in the areas of book design and rhetorical posturing, one might say:
Blast Mack for its British chuminess;
Lacan established himself as the undisputed master of the media, or as one analyst, who has always been hostile to Lacan but who said he was "overwhelmed by a virtuoso performance", described him: "The psychoanalyst for the Age of McLuhan". Like a neurotic's symptom, Lacan's Télévision was a program that people loved to hate.
McLuhan was not particularly pleased with his performance(s) on French television. He wrote to his friends Tom and Dorothy Easterbrook that they 'were complicated by my inadequate French'. Still, Paris provided Mac with the pleasing diversion of Eugene Ionesco's play Macbett, performed for the first time at Le Théâtre Rive-Gauche in 1972 (MP. 23-19). For its part, television provided McLuhan with a low definition rendevous with the French public, a doubly cool (owing to the medium and the messenger) point of contact deepened by his awkward oral skills which would have necessitated, for those who cared to listen, a high level of involvement in the completion and perhaps correction of his remarks. McLuhan had mastered the medium before he had mastered French. A perfectly fluent McLuhan may have been too hot for French audiences and, by the same token, a transparent and straightforwardly descriptive Lacan could not have 'mastered' television. Lacan was never cooler than on television - except, perhaps, when he was thought to be addressing a dog while standing on a soapbox during a talk at Vincennes (Lacan 1990: 117).
It is evident from his letters to his family written from Cambridge in the 1930s that the French language and culture had entered McLuhan's consciousness in an enthusiastic but incomplete manner. These letters radiate youthful exuberance and his belief that the mastery of French opens one to 'the mind of the greatest European people' (1987: 28). While McLuhan did become a competent reader of French, he later lamented that he read only this language in addition to his own. Unlike his friend Lewis (1981: 13), McLuhan would not 'Blast Parisian Parochialism' and 'Sentimental Gallic Gush'.
Ma - Ma - Ma - Ma
The journalist Guy Dumur reported on his meeting with McLuhan at the ORTF and the prophet's television appearance(s) for readers of La Nouvel observateur shortly after 'Dossiers de l'écran' was aired. McLuhan was a media personality and therefore newsworthy in the eyes of the media, turned as they are towards themselves. Dumur claimed ignorance when it came to evaluating McLuhan's intellectual contributions. Despite what McLuhan's admirers such as Schaeffer, Morin, Jean Duvignaud, and Alain Bourdin have claimed in the name of an 'open' sociology, Dumur (1972: 36-7) simply could not understand McLuhan because 'he is too anglo-saxon' (this was a rather odd thing to say of a Celt). Indeed, it was already commonplace in journalistic reports on McLuhan to claim that his work was contrary to the French spirit of Cartesian thought. Figured as an 'anti-Descartes', McLuhan challenged the methods of separation, dissection and causal explanation by stringing together apparently unrelated ideas; this latter practice made his texts surrealistic, and surrealism had long since passed out of fashion. But for many French journalists, several pieces of the puzzle of McLuhan always seemed to be missing. More to the point, Daniel Garric and others specified that while English is direct, and permits the formation of neologisms and explosive links between disparate ideas, French is at the pole opposite of la pensée McLuhanienne because it is intimately neo-classical in construction (Garric 1967 and 1967a; Marcotte 1974). This rather sweeping claim helped to fuel the charge that he was difficult to understand in translation.
These vague contrasts set the stage for more bizarre pronouncements, themselves worthy of the label surreal. For example, Dominique Desanti (1974: 40-1) referred mistakenly to McLuhan as 'un pur WASP!' White - yes - but anglo-saxon and protestant - no; well, at least not after his conversion to Catholicism. Moreover, a mantra was being chanted in Parisian circles courtesy, among others, of the journalist associated with Le Figaro littéraire, André Brincourt (1972): 'Ma - Ma - Ma - Ma: Marx, Mao, Marshall McLuhan'. The last syllable of the chant indicated what it was in the prophet and so-called revolutionary that was more than himself, an objet petit a that did not in this instance find its way into his name, but nonetheless transfixed those like Brincourt sunk in their chanting; it may as well have been Macheath, Macbett, Macbeth, MacDonalds, MacLuhan (whom, it is rumored, enjoyed more than a few Big Macs in his time). One needn't go further than Yves Knockaert's Third Interlude for piano to find a soundtrack suitable for Big Mac's periodic Mac Attacks; after all, he composed this piece for the ballet aptly titled MacLuhan at MacDonalds. What is also more than itself or the residue of the residue of the name? It is the further remainder that reminds us of a cry for mother: mama, mama. The pain of this cry is real enough because it wants satisfaction from an object from which one will soon enough be weaned. This objet petit a belongs to the (m)other or ma-ma.
Writing in the introduction to Jean Marabini's (1973) book Marcuse & McLuhan et la nouvelle révolution mondiale, Armand Lanoux refers to 'les deux grands M: M. et M', whose respective revolutionary ideas are said to be like thermometers since it is absurd to blame them for the heat they register. Lanoux's activities in the French media included his presidency of the Comité de la télévision française in the late 1950s, as well as the directorship of the review à la page from 1964-1970. Today, the very notion that Marx, Mao, Marcuse and MacLuhan could be brought together in a consciousness-raising chant about youth and revolution indicates the brilliant superficiality of mediatic representations of the political field and the abuses of 'Eastern' practices prevalent in the 1960s. Several years before Marabini's book and, writing in Montreál, Renault Gariépy (1967) had observed in the heady atmosphere of Expo '67 that 'on our little French screen ... the presence of MM (these initials no longer translate the reality of Marilyn Monroe or Mickey Mantle) has begun to make itself felt'. A Canadian 'MM' had temporarily eclipsed -no mean feat - several American standards. Let's not forget that years after 'MM' disappeared from the French scene, another MM (Mickey Mouse), a further American standard, would make his presence felt among the francophones.
The little a is the remainder, the surplus of the prophet's message. This message was a sublime object of fascination inspiring an impressive range of responses. McLuhan's flaws (his awkward French, his alleged journalistic excesses, flippancy, political irresponsibility in the eyes of the Left) helped to solidify his position as prophet rather than diminish his status. As Slavoj Zizek explains in the case of the body of the king, his ordinary features undergo a transubstantiation as he becomes an object of fascination. To debase the king is not to diminish his status since the accentuation of his flaws reinforces his position by arousing compassion and fascination. This holds equally true in the case of the prophet MacLuhan, especially in his heyday. The more his work was subjected to critical debate, the more fascinating he became. A sublime object is a difficult target to hit, for the objet petit a is a second order semblance framed by a television screen. Having smashed the set, the medium may reassert itself through the adjoining wall of a neighbour's apartment, in a bar, in a picture window of a shop, etc. Standing over the wreck of a television set or, to use Zizek's example, over the body of Ceausescu, one asks oneself: is it/he really dead? The objet petit a cannot be destroyed - unlike one of the sign vehicles by means of which it is delivered - and this is brought home by the image of Ceausescu's body broadcast televisually around the world, persisting not only in the memory of Romanians but in the international image banks. The lost objet a needs a medium to clothe it; even a name will suffice. Of course, MacLuhan was not subject to the regicidal intentions of his televisual audience. This did not make him any easier to hit. For the paradox of striking MacLuhan was this: it put one in the strange position of being seen as a counter-revolutionary, for one was thought to be on the side of mechanical reason and rationality, Western values, on the wrong side of the 'generation gap', anti-youth, a proponent of explication over exploration. In short, because MacLuhan aligned himself with youth culture and counter-cultural revolution against the academy, to attack him as a counter-revolutionary was to paradoxically become one oneself (see Dommergues 1969). Ultimately, however, MacLuhan's own corporatist assumptions, homophobia, and 'right to life' politics were read as the signs of a deeply conservative Catholic thinker. No paradox could, in the end, erase or obscure these beliefs.
The little a embodies the impossible jouissance of certain members of the French media community such as Schaeffer. The realization that their prophet was also an impostor caught them in a painful paradox. Mac could not provide 'it'; that is, he could not satisfy the desire of media workers for legitimation in relation to the French intellectuals. As he continued not to provide 'it', Mac still embodied the objet a of the legitimation phantasy as it showed those such as Schaeffer what they were: little twisted semblances of shit. Even the message of the medium, critically battered, taught a painful lesson about exclusion from intellectual discourse, while at the same time it filled page after page of reviews: yes, it's all over with Mac, isn't it? It was his success that destroyed him, wasn't it? We technicians must have been wrong. It needs to be said again, doesn't it? This was the rather lengthy lesson taught by the little a of Mac. But Mac was not an analyst - although, as we saw earlier with respect to the concept of rationalisation, he sometimes was figured as one - who could teach his followers how to give up the objet petit a and readjust themselves to French intellectual life in the wake of another failed revolution; to give his name back its quasi-original spelling, leaving a gap between M and c which would really show the technicians where they belonged and what they were made of.
There is nothing particularly original in this situation. In the 1960s, les moyens de masse in France were often the concern of para-academic media workers or cultural animateurs. A further example is found in Brian Rigby's analysis of the Vivre son temps collection of books published from 1962-1967, and edited by Jacques Charpentreau. 'All the writers in the collection agreed', Rigby writes (1991: 44), 'that the new phenomenon facing France in the early to mid-1960s was that of mass society'. Few of these writers had university posts. They were animateurs committed to bringing high culture to the masses. They sought to humanize new technologies and play a mediating role in the 'permanent education' of the masses. While Rigby treats these writers as intellectuals, he notes:
In the eyes of some French academics and intellectuals, this group of writers may well not seem very distinguished. One can even image sociologists such as Bourdieu and his disciples refusing to acknowledge that they were part of an authentic intelligentsia. (Rigby 1991: 44)
One of the most important features of McLuhan's reception in France was the issue of who read and promoted him and the sites from which they worked. While those in the mass media, artists of all stripes, especially graphic artists, and pedagogues eager to introduce new audio-visual tools into the classroom, found inspiration in his theories, this led to claims that it was his success that destroyed him, that his prestige did not originate from a site where prestige could be afforded to a thinker.
With the advent of the concept of macluhanisme there emerged the figure of a prophet who might have provided satisfaction for the 'men of images', the professionals of the communications industries (advertisers, media technicians, printers, designers, and teachers). But the prophet failed to do so for, as we have seen, several reasons; and with this disappointment came a barrage of criticism against him. The very inseparability of the desire of the 'men of images' and the object-cause of their desire, led to very public suffering and loss of potential prestige and glory.
François Mariet (1978-79: 108-9) correctly diagnosed this situation in recognising that macluhanisme 'is inseparable from the public whose expectations it fulfills and for whom McLuhan becomes ... a prophet'. Occupying a position subordinate to the theoretical disciplines of the academy from which concepts are borrowed, and less well known than philosophers, writers and filmmakers, the media workers, represented by Mariet as a 'fan club', entered the public sphere of intellectual debate only to have their own subordinate position displayed to them in the media in which they worked. Moreover, in his study of the recognition factor of macluhanisme among teachers in France, Mariet catalogued the diverse effects of hearsay and found that McLuhan's French readers in the pedgogical milieu needed no specific competence in order to tune into his messages. This made him enormously popular. Mariet (1977: 51) attributes the success of macluhanisme among teachers to the 'conjunction of this diffuse expectation of a philosophy of the media and to an unusual oeuvre in which no scientific method of demonstration limits the access of the hurried or untrained reader, and against which no critical text forewarns'. Mariet situates himself on the side of the critical, unhurried pedagogue, the trained reader who specializes in identifying the follies of interpretation of a servile class.
On the other hand of this rhetoric of speed, the hurried McReader has no time to reflect, Mariet suggests. But among such typographically-minded groups as the Association des Campagnons de Lure, for example, points of resistance against just this sort of professional pronouncement had been established in the course of a seminar (attended by McLuhan in August, 1969) devoted to 'M.McL.'. In his introduction to the seminar, Gilles Gheerbrand presents a reading of three categories of French articles on McLuhan (reviews; those which purport to reveal the fraud of macluhanisme; and serious and honest reflections), the second of which briefly describes some of the errors made by the intellectuals in their attempts to discredit McLuhan, while hinting at the similarity of some their ideas to those of McLuhan. Even distinguished university professor François Châtelet, Gheerbrand remarks, read McLuhan hurriedly, pointing out his error of thinking that the telephone was a hot medium. The speed of one's reading was the shit which was flung back and forth over of course of the public debates on the merits of McLuhan. How did McLuhan himself read? He was not a slow and careful hermeneut by any stretch of the imagination. His reading habits were, as Philip Marchand explains, selective:
To determine whether a book was worth reading, he usually looked at page 69 of the work, plus the adjacent page and the table of contents. If the author gave no promise of insight or worthwhile information on page 69, McLuhan reasoned, the book was probably not worth reading. If he decided the book did merit his attention, he started by reading only the left hand pages.20
Into the gap between desire and fulfillment went the little a of Mac, and the prophet was taken as the cause of his subjects' desires. Le mac or the pimp didn't and couldn't deliver or, rather, he delivered his followers into servitude. This does not mean that they went without a struggle. Zizek would have us believe that such servitude is voluntary since the other name, the sublime Mac, hypnotized his readers because they conferred upon it the power to do so. They were glued to their sets, if you will; and, after smashing them, they were glued to the idea of the set that Mac preached. To be called un petit mac carries a further meaning. Un mac is a person who invites a guest to dinner and, when the time comes to settle the bill, notices that he is short of money, and asks his guest to loan him some. Mac's followers suffered the indignity of having to pay the price of accepting an invitation to bring their work to the intellectual table, a table set for them in the name of their host, but for which they had to dearly pay, and pay some more.
Both 'le pape du pop', as Garric dubbed McLuhan in a catholic gesture (in this name alone one senses why the dictates of the prophet were followed to the letter by certain believers), and Lacan renounced personal brillance in the name of orders greater than themselves; for Lacan, it was sainthood. The saintly psychoanalyst, too, embodies the objet petit a and it is one of the 'oddities of the acts of saints', Lacan noted (1990: 15-16), to make those whose ears were glued to their television sets aware of this and to unstick them. It was only after the program was over, after the screen had absorbed its blue glow, and Lacan was silent - as mum as a saint - that one could really hear what one is in the sound of sight. The important displacement hinted at by Lacan is that of sight by sound, eye by ear, even before the television set. Recall, however, that we are in the 'Age of McLuhan'. This displacement was, McLuhan claimed, at the center of the Gutenberg civilisation's deafening of the tribal ear for the sake of the biases of literacy and visual culture. This made one ill-equipped to experience the auditory-tactile world of the new electronic technologies. For McLuhan, tuning in meant keeping one's ears glued to the set. Unlike the saintly analyst, and despite his renunciation of personal brillance, McLuhan didn't stop producing euphoria. He simply could not be mum in the oral-aural electronic village even if, in French, he occasionally stumbled. Watching television made lousy theory.
In this lecture I refer to the following texts of Lacan
See Rickels, Lawrence (1990) 'Psychoanalysis and TV', Substance
This biographical material is
culled from The Letters of Marshall McLuhan (1987: 1).
See Borch-Jacobsen, Mikkel (1991) Lacan: The
Absolute Master, Douglas Brick (trans.), Stanford: Stanford University
The reference to 'Mac the Knife' is Brecht, Bertolt (1979)
'The Threepenny Opera', in Collected Plays Vol. 2, Part 2, John Willett
and Ralph Manheim (eds.), London: Eyre Methuen.
Grigg, Russell (1991), 'Signifier,
Object, and the Transference', in Lacan and the Subject of Language,
Ellie Ragland-Sullivan and Mark Dracher (eds.), London: Routledge.
In Jarry, Alfred (1972) Oeuvres complètes I,
Paris: Gallimard. Baudrillard refers to Jarry throughout his writings, but the
reference I have in mind is to L'échange symbolic et la mort (1976). See my
investigation of 'Pataphysical gestures' in Baudrillard's work in my chapter on
'Varieties of symbolic exchange' in Baudrillard and Signs (1994).
Lewis, Wyndam (1981) '[Reprint of]
BLAST 1' (June 1914), Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press; (1981a)
'[Reprint of] BLAST 2' (July 1915), Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press.
Sherry Turkle, Psychoanalytic
Politics: Jacques Lacan and Freud's French Revolution,
Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1981, pp. 201-2.
See Heath, Stephen (1989) 'Friday Night Books', in A
New History of French Literature, Denis Hollier (trans.) Cambridge, Mass. :
Harvard University Press.
Schaeffer, Pierre (1978-79)
'Dialogue chaud et froid avec McLuhan', Millésime (juin): 103-7.
Schaeffer's article appeared in a special issue of Millésime, published
at the Ecole supérieure de commerce de Paris, on McLuhan.
Ionesco, Eugene (1973) 'MacBett',
in Plays, Vol. IX, London: Calder and Bryars; MP. 23-19. Unpublished
letter to Tom and Dorothy Easterbrook (1 Aug. 1972) on the occassion of
McLuhn's visit to Paris and his attendance at Macbett.
In this lecture I draw on a wide range of press reports:
Dumur, Guy (1972) 'La galaxie MacLuhan', Le Nouvel observateur 401 (23
juillet): 36-7; Garric, Daniel (1967) 'Le prophète de l'information', Science
et vie 599 (août): 24-9, 142, 144, 147; idem (1967a) ' La galaxie de
Gutenberg de McLuhan', Le Figaro (12 déc.); Marcotte, Gilles (1974)
'Marshall McLuhan et l'énergie du banal' (review), Le Devoir (15 juin);
Brincourt, André (1972) 'Si l'avenir donnait tort à McLuhan?' Le Figaro (15
juillet); Desanti, Dominique (1974) 'Marshall McLuhan, prophète de la
communication - Il met en garde - "Attention: le dialogue ou la
mort"', Argus de la presse (22 juillet): 40-1; Gariépy, Renault
(1967) 'Etre ou ne pas être ... McLuhanien! Mais comment l'être', La presse (8
juillet); Dommergues, Pierre (1967) 'La civilisation de la mosa•que - le
message de Marshall McLuhan', Le Monde (18 oct.); idem (1969) 'Marshall
McLuhan en question', Le Monde (9 aout).
Knockaert Yves (1988) Third
Interlude uit het ballet 'MacLuhan at MacDonalds', Bruxelles: CeBeDem.
Lanoux, Armand (1973)
'Introduction' to Marabini, Jean, Marcuse & McLuhan et la nouvelle
révolution mondiale, Paris: Maison Mame; idem (1967) 'Les étranges
idées de McLuhan', L'Aurore (15 nov.); idem (1968) 'Un penseur op' art:
MacLuhan', Les Nouvelles littéraires 2140 (28 sept.): 1.
Zizek, Slavoj (1991) For they
know not what they do: Enjoyment as a political factor, London: Verso, pp. 254-55.
Rigby, Brian (1991) 'The Vivre son
temps Collection: Intellectuals, Modernity and Mass Culture', in France and
the Mass Media, B. Rigby and N. Hewitt (eds.), London: Macmillan.
Mariet, François (1977) 'Le macluhanisme
dans l'education', Le Français aujourd'hui 38 (juin): 47-52; idem (1978-79)
'McLuhan, prophèt ou imposteur?' Millésime (juin): 107-9.
Gheerbrand, Gilles et alia (1969) Pour
comprendre M.McL. Association des compagnons de Lure: Rencontres, p. 10.
Marchand, P. (1989) Marshall
McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger, Toronto: Random House, p. 129.
Lecture Four: Before the Letter
copyright 1998, Gary Genosko.
It is commonplace to find mention of the relationship between the writings of McLuhan and Barthes in both French and English (primarily North American and British) reflections on popular culture. One could catalogue an impressive inventory of reminders of the parallel concerns of The Mechanical Bride (1951) and Mythologies (1957). It needs to be kept in mind, however, that it was the question of McLuhan's relation to the practices of structuralism that often animated such comparative observations, and that Barthes was not always the first figure suggested to French readers of McLuhan. In terms of reading practices, this meant that it was the work of Claude Levi-Strauss that came to mind in the first instance. In 1966, the year McLuhan's writings first received widespread critical exposure in France, the journal founded by Georges Bataille, Critique, published a review of the English editions of The Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media by Paul Riesman (1966), while La Quinzaine littéraire carried an interview with McLuhan by their Canadian correspondent Naïm Kattan (1966). In addition, by 1966, Barthes had, in fact, begun to turn away from the structural analysis of narrative.
Riesman (1966: 174) thought that traditional social scientists would have difficulty with McLuhan's mosaic method since it was unlike the methodologies with which they were accustomed to working. Moreover, it would be pointless to judge McLuhan's work on the basis of such methodologies since his debt was to literature rather than sociology. For Riesman, McLuhan was more of a novelist sketching the personalities of technologies than a sociologist. Even so, Riesman believed that McLuhan left too much to the reader's imagination in his infatuation with collecting and juxtaposing quotations and ideas. Despite this literary debt, McLuhan is not exempt from the so-called error of thinking that 'the simple spatio-temporal juxtaposition of things - pseudo-einsteinian approach - constitutes a sufficiently powerful analysis of their relations' (Riesman 1966: 174-75). If social science errs on Newtonian rather than quantum grounds in the pursuit of rigor and exactitude, McLuhan stretches the limits and coherence of 'social Einsteinism' as a critical approach relevant to understanding social change. What is interesting about this criticism is that McLuhan's method is thought to suffer from the very thing that would win it praise a few years later in some Anglo-American circles. Riesman's critical discussion of the mosaic method itself roams freely across the disciplines. He refers to it in psychoanalytic terms as 'a chain of free associations' and treats it as a biological entity whose parts, like the amputated limbs of certain organisms, may engender new organisms since the part contains details of the whole.
Riesman situates McLuhan in relation to two key French figures. Like Jacques Ellul, McLuhan takes critical notice of the mechanization and dehumanization of persons and the disappearance of individualism since the Renaissance. While Ellul bases his social criticism and vision of the future on the extension of his general concept of technique, McLuhan considers media of communication to be vehicles of radical change, and this change will be marked by the re-emergence of a healthy and wholesome tribalism. The second figure to whom Riesman refers is Claude Levi-Strauss. The analyses found in Understanding Media are in agreement with the 'spirit of the times', Riesman thinks, despite the unverifiability of the hypotheses advanced in this book. The insight into 'the inherent message of the structure of the media of our age" suggests to Riesman (1966: 179) that the point of attack of McLuhan and Levi-Strauss is 'formally the same', even though their goals and methods are different. McLuhan and Levi-Strauss do not meet by chance for 'these two researchers have recognised independently of one another that the structure of communication also contains a message and it is often the message which is the most important. But for Levi-Strauss the importance of this message [ie., rules of kinship and marriage assure the exchange of women between groups, just as linguistic rules assure the communication of messages] is that it reveals at the level of the unconscious the structure of the human mind while, for McLuhan, this message has a certain effect on the mind of man without him being aware of it' (Riesman 1966: 179). It is in light of this difference that Riesman criticises McLuhan on the ground that he has an inadequate concept of the nature of man and cannot explain whether or not his 'man' receives the messages inherent to the structure of the media. McLuhan recognizes this problem without solving it, turning instead to the observation, for instance, that it is not easy to explain the fact that the transformative power the media can be ignored.
In Riesman's staging of an early encounter between McLuhan and structuralism, McLuhan proves to be an unworthy partner for Levi-Strauss. Read retrospectively, this was a sign of things to come since McLuhan's French and English readers would struggle to find a mode of analysis into which he would fit with a minimum of theoretical violence. The terms of McLuhan's relationship to structuralism would be drafted again and again without, I want to show, much success. It is in this context that Barthes would emerge as a fellow traveller whose path through literature to the social paralleled that of McLuhan and whose relationship to structuralism was troubled enough to allow for flexibility in the comparison. Style supplants method as the common measure of both men.
Writing in the daily newspaper The Toronto Star in the summer of 1978, the Canadian journalist Robert Fulford asked his readers to consider the complexities of a recent book by Barthes (Roland Barthes By Roland Barthes) under the provocative title of 'Meet France's Marshall McLuhan'. Aside from the title, Fulford said little concrete about the relationship between McLuhan and Barthes, dwelling instead upon the 'impenetrability of [Barthes's] thought' and the perils of an intellectual celebrity who has been canonized for writing against the canon, as it were. Fulford's single reference to McLuhan read: 'Like Marshall McLuhan, [Barthes] sees the way that you express yourself as potentially more important than what you actually say. Barthes sees a great historic drama in the attempts of various underclasses to imitate the style of those who have power'. The Barthesean theme of the weak 'stealing Language' from the sites of Power, which he expressed in Mythologies (1957) as the ubiquity of bourgeois ideology in French society of the 1950s and the necessity of all other social classes to 'borrow' from the bourgeoisie, became for Fulford a way of situating Barthes's own intellectual development and rise to international intellectual fame. This modest newspaper article provides an early example of the rhetoric of the search for the 'French McLuhan'.
It is not only that McLuhan and Barthes shared an interest in popular culture and the analysis of forms of expression. Rather, Fulford implies that the relation between McLuhan and Barthes is based upon the impenetrability of their respective writings. In short, the writings of French intellectuals are just as impenetrable as the work of McLuhan, and equally insightful, if not audacious. 'From gurus we always get enigmas', Fulford wrote some years earlier in the Star (Sept. 1971), referring to McLuhan among others.
'Meet France's Marshall McLuhan' did not go unnoticed by McLuhan. A few weeks after its publication he wrote a letter 'To the Editor of The Toronto Star' in response to Fulford. Deepening the connection between himself and Barthes, McLuhan (1987: 539-40) wrote that Barthes 'once asked me to collaborate with him on a book'. Although McLuhan did not elaborate on his contact with Barthes, he was flattered to be placed by Fulford in the company of Barthes. I will elaborate on McLuhan's meetings with Barthes and the 'myth' of their ill-fated collaborative project later in this chapter. In the meantime, and despite the remarks of the editors of McLuhan's Letters for whom the fact that Fulford did not explicitly refer to McLuhan's work as 'impenetrable' provides a posthumous line of defence, McLuhan himself drew the obvious conclusion: 'Fulford sees Barthes as impenetrable as myself'. McLuhan specifies that the special character of his 'impenetrability' results from his study of effects rather than his theorizing; to use other words, he claimed to study patterns without theories. Equally significant, however, was McLuhan's naming of Barthes's work: 'As for Barthes, he is a "phenomenologist" - that is, one who tries to see the patterns in things while also playing along with the dominant theory of his world'.
I will use this misidentification of Barthes as the occasion for a reflection on McLuhan's relationship with structuralism. In exploring this relation, two perspectives need to be distinguished. First, some of McLuhan's French readers aligned his work with multi-disciplinary structuralist research as it developed through the late 1950s and into the 1960s. McLuhan was either a precursor of structuralism or a fellow traveller. Finding McLuhan a place in a recognizable stream of research was a normalizing and legitimizing gesture since it provided a readymade context of understanding for his work, even if this contextualization relied upon a negative critereon such as 'impenetrability' to make the connection. The appeal to structuralism as a means of connecting Barthes and McLuhan is even more strained if it is recalled that by the time of the publication of Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes (1975), Barthes had abandoned the technical demands of structuralist method and disavowed the orthodoxies of Literature for an autobiographical writing in which he treated himself 'as an effect of language'.
Second, McLuhan's own 'understanding' of structuralism and phenomenology resulted from his translation of general orientations in these areas into the interpretive double of figure/ground. On the face of it, Barthes was certainly not a phenomenologist; yet, any reader of the essay which grounds theoretically Barthes's little cultural sketches or 'mythologies', 'Le Mythe, aujourd'hui' in Mythologies, would admit that his description of the bi-planar structure (full of meaning, yet formally empty) of the mythical signifier of the second order semiological system of mythology is richly phenomenological (the final term of the signifier-signified-sign triumvirate becomes the first term or signifier of the mythical system). Barthes describes how myth gets ahold of first order linguistic signification for its own purposes. Form plays a game of hide and seek with meaning, holding meaning at a distance and in turn hiding in it; form also preys parasitically upon meaning by emptying it of history, reality and contingency. Indeed, in an earlier book, Michelet par lui-même (1954), Barthes had undertaken a phenomenologically inspired description of selected 'existential thematics' pertaining to the sensations and substances at work in Michelet's imaginative histories. These observations do not commit one to McLuhan's position since neither of the 'two Barthes' to which critics commonly refer were strictly speaking phenomenologists. To use slightly more positive terms, McLuhan's naming of Barthes was not as ridiculous as it first appeared.
Calling all Structuralists!
In the late 1960s in Québec, the translator, writer, and editor Jean Paré (1968: 9-10) had attempted to identify McLuhan as 'an estranged parent' of the structuralists, rather than a presursor or product of structuralism. While Paré developed the figure of McLuhan as an 'amateur structuralist', his efforts at establishing his next of kin quickly unravelled with the qualification that McLuhan is not really structuralist, since he is neither part of this diverse movement nor a disciple of one of its figures or methodological variations. As the figure of McLuhan and structuralism began to lose touch completely, Paré sought a safe common - albeit vague - ground: McLuhan became a contemporary of the practitioners of structuralism. Paré's final figure expressing the relationship between McLuhan and structuralism is of 'a circle inside of a polygon' suggesting that the relationship of the former with the latter is tangential, rather than being totally oppositional. This was not the only attempt to unite McLuhan and structuralism.
Praising structuralism for both its housekeeping skills and ability to mirror mass-mediated confusion, Edward Said (1971: 56-7) set this method in and against the North American sprawl of McLuhanism. Said mentioned nothing, however, about the spread of macluhanisme among the francophones. Kroker (1984: 78) referred to McLuhan as 'structuralist (before his time)', picking up the pieces of a long series of disjointed efforts to rearrange a marriage that was, from the outset, made somewhere other than in heaven.
During the early 1970s,James M. Curtis addressed the issue of McLuhan's relationship with French structuralism in two articles, the first of which focussed on Levi-Strauss, and the second on Barthes. Curtis's (1970) hyberbolic importation of McLuhan into his review of The Languages of Criticism in the Sciences of Man provides the occasion for the claim - echoing Riesman - that McLuhan and Levi-Strauss 'share almost everything'. What Levi-Strauss and McLuhan share in particular is 'an oracular style, a disregard for academic conventions, and a wide public impact, a combination which naturally arouses their more traditional colleagues to a near-apoplectic frenzy' (Curtis, 1970: 62). Their relationship is based first and foremost on style, one marked by ambiguity and portentousness. Beyond this issue, Levi-Strauss and McLuhan are said to share an attitude; their respective writings have had a wide and major impact; they have both been the target of their colleagues' outbursts. Only the matter of style opens the door ever so slightly to a consideration of the relationship between their writings. But since the appeal to style in this instance remains undefined and vague, we should expect little from such textual considerations.
While the 'family resemblances' first postulated by Paré dissolved into abstract geometrical lines, Curtis frames his sense of resemblance with the wide borders of a general sociology of knowledge production in which references are made to the reception of interdisciplinary work in a disciplined academy and the phenomenon of university professors who become popular sages. It follows for Curtis that two innovative thinkers who 'share everything' - but may, in fact, have nothing in common - may be said to both practice a certain brand of 'structuralism' full of creative play. This structuralism is more poetic than analytical and it entails the implosion of the subject/object distinction, the end of the primacy of empiric evidence, and the collapse of distinct disciplines. These are the main features of the post-Newtonian world of the human sciences. For Curtis, both Levi-Strauss and McLuhan are in these terms practitioners of 'social Einsteinism'. These features allow Curtis (1970: 65) to apply to McLuhan's Understanding Media, a book he admires for its puns and non-sequential analysis, what Eugenio Donato wrote of Levi-Strauss's Le cru et le cuit: "... it is impossible in a work such as [this] to separate myth and literature, science and interpretation, analysis and criticism ..." Ultimately, Curtis (1970: 67) will posit the convergence of 'the linguistic concept of structure, anthropological findings, modern literary criticism, and the interests of McLuhan and others in contemporary society ... in the study of myth'. Taken together with the matter of style, Curtis's emphasis on myth facilitates the inclusion of Barthes in his stable of French structuralists whose work lends itself to somewhat banal comparisons with that of McLuhan.
In his second essay, Curtis is content to rehearse the features of the conceptual universe of 'social Einsteinism', but in relation to McLuhan and Barthes. The work of McLuhan and Barthes is, he claims, postmodernist, and the consideration of their work 'elicits a better understanding of the postmodernist situation as whole' (Curtis, 1972: 143). Here, postmodernist seems to be synonymous with 'social Einsteinism'. It is not at all evident that one can be both structuralist and postmodernist. Further, Curtis compares passages in Raymond Picard's New Criticism or New Fraud? and Sidney Finkelstein's Sense and Nonsense of McLuhan as instances of two virulent attacks on Barthes and McLuhan which were provoked by their similar styles of presentation. These venomous responses enable Curtis to hold together McLuhan and Barthes by means of external criteria; here, quite explicitly, in terms of provocations.
Curtis's interest in style is at times strikingly McLuhanesque since he is concerned with the effects of non-sequential writing rather than with analyzing its features. He is content not to squarely face the matter of style but, rather, to sustain McLuhan's resemblance to Barthes on the most general level since they are both interested in contemporary society, and this interest does not work itself out in Marxian terms (Curtis, 1972: 140). This unanalyzed anti-Marxism clears the ground between Barthes and McLuhan so that Curtis may listen to the 'echoes' between sentences from Barthes's Mythologies and McLuhan's Understanding Media. Although these sounds are not discordant, the formal relations between Barthes's cultural sketches and McLuhan's series of exhibits in The Mechanical Bride are in agreement. Style is, it seems, nothing more than this kind of agreement. Any reader of these two texts can master style by noting the obvious.
Mass produced objects such as cars and toys, including certain materials (plastic), as well as performances, exhibitions, films, food and drink, and sporting events, all yield their mythological significations to Barthes. His mythological investigations often commence with representations of events and objects in popular French print media. Women's magazines such as Elle, newspapers like Le Figaro, and glossy newsmagazines along the lines of Paris Match are for Barthes treasure-troves of myths. The Barthesean mythologist may study anything since myth touches and corrupts everything; even those objects which resist myth are 'ideal prey'. Likewise, McLuhan's commentaries on the folkloric landscapes of everyday objects are inspired by advertisements, the organization of newspapers, comic books, popular magazines (Reader's Digest, Time, Life, Fortune), detective novels, and various manifestations of the ligature of sex and technology (drum majorette, chorus line, glamor girl, etc.).
But readers of Barthes would be familiar with his early contributions to Marxist scholarship in the pages of the journals Esprit, Combat and later Arguments, on topics as diverse as the theatre of Bertolt Brecht and le nouveau roman. No reader of Mythologies would have overlooked one of the key figures of Barthes's political semiology of myth: inversion. Armed with Marx's image, then, Barthes read the myths of France as it became a consumer society in terms of the processes of bourgeois ideology which gave a universal standing to their particular historical status. The political task of the mythologist was to 'upend the mythical message' by revealing how bourgeois ideology 'ex-nominates' itself while contaminating every event and object. Ultimately for Barthes, semiology, too, became a myth whose distortions in the name of a science of signs and a science of literature required unmasking. I do not mean to suggest that Barthes's semiology retained the political concerns of Mythologies. Although Barthes did not develop a political economy or even sociology of the sign in the manner of Baudrillard, he employed the concept of a 'deciding group' that influenced individual use by controlling the language, for instance, of the fashion system. In Barthes's 'Eléments de sémiologie', use is guided by the fabricated languages or 'logo-techniques' of the 'deciding groups', regardless of whether these groups are narrow and highly trained or diffuse and anonymous. The restriction of speech results from socio-semiotic determinations at the level of the system. This is one of the features of Barthes's semiology that is often overlooked.
The question of style is not so much a matter of the impact of McLuhan's and Barthes's rhetorics as an issue of McLuhan's translation of concepts into his own terms in the absence of an adequate table of conversions. Barthes was always much more explicit in his reuse of concepts, even if he often insisted on redefining concepts in confusing ways. His unfortunate penchant for the constitutive redefinition of linguistic terms produces an awkward vocabulary in which 'arbitrary' means signs formed by the unilateral decision of a deciding group functioning like the superego, one might imagine, behind the parade on the catwalk, and 'motivated' refers to the analogical relation between signifier and signified. Thus a Barthesean semiological system may be both arbitary and motivated, a contradiction in linguistics terms, many of which he retains and employs in standard ways. But McLuhan, as Michel Vermillac (1993: 55-6) observes in his unpublished thèse de doctorat, did not provide a code which would help his readers decide about the status and relation of the heterogeneous fragments in which he wrote. McLuhan provided no key to the hierarchy among the fragments, and gave little direction about whether a given passage was intentionally insightful, accidental, comic, or purely stylistic. The 'mosaic method' was characterized, according to Vermillac, by a 'generalized indifferentiation' which made McLuhan 'neo-baroque' and 'postmodernist before the letter'. The absence of this code allowed McLuhan to be many things for many people and, more importantly, also enabled him to appear to be mining a number of intellectual veins.
In a letter to Edmund Carpenter, McLuhan situated the work of Levi-Strauss in the Cartesian tradition, which he described as working on figure minus ground (1987: 477). Against this tradition, McLuhan approached phenomena through their grounds, which he sought to feel. In spite of this important difference, McLuhan still referred to his approach as 'structuralist', and in the same breath as 'existentialist'. His explanation, in a letter to Marshall Fiswick written a year later, was twofold: 'The reason that I am admired in Paris ... is that my approach is rightly regarded as "structuralist"'. Moreover, 'nobody except myself in the media field has ventured to use the structuralist or "existentialist" approach' (1987: 506). McLuhan suggested in this letter that The Mechanical Bride was in some sense 'existentialist'. By this term McLuhan suggests that his first book recorded the perceptions of his experience of objects and tried to avoid what he thought of as a moralising tone, which was a 'poor guide' in decoding social myths.
The problem with so-called 'phenomenologists' such as Levi-Strauss, McLuhan believed, was the 'left hemisphere tradition' of groundless, pure ideas (MP. McLuhan-C. Brooks, May 16, 1977, 20-2) in which they worked; moreover, they ignored the study of effects, environments or grounds. McLuhan could take the name 'stucturalist' since his focus subsumed this approach without succumbing to its overemphasis on abstract forms. A clarification is in order. It may be, as Curtis suggests, that the 'medium is the message' entails the study of langue rather than parole. McLuhan approached figure through ground in order to understand their interplay or Gestalt. The medium may be the figure of the message's ground, or vice versa. This makes McLuhan's 'structuralism' Barthesean to the degree that Barthes's particular brand of semiology taught a related lesson with regard to the langue/parole distinction. In 'Eléments de sémiologie' (1964), Barthes's semiological extension of the linguistic distinction between langue/parole led him to reflect upon the 'reciprocal comprehensiveness' of the terms in the dialectic of social object and individual act. Barthes was interested in the semiological prospects of such a distinction, and they were for him brightest in the case of the garment system, as he would show in detail with regard to the written systems of fashion in Système de la mode(1967). McLuhan's interest in figure/ground interplay allowed him to take many labels since his work was neither trapped in the study of pure form nor merely a registry of disconnected effects. His 'inventories of effects' in The Medium is the Massage and War and Peace in the Global Village did not appear until the late 1960s.
McLuhan was not well read in structuralism. His reading of Jean-Marie Benoist's The Structural Revolution in the late 1970s, however, conjured for him the image of the x-ray characteristics of the electric age, one of whose effects he believed was the structural method itself, with its abstract, disembodied patterns (MP. McLuhan-Claude de Beauregard, Dec. 19, 1978, 22-17). McLuhan's terms of translation had by then changed, even though he continued to refer to structuralism as phenomenology, while thinking of phenomenological philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre in terms of their supposed responses to the violent, discarnate x-ray favored by structuralism. 'Phenomenology' - that is, structuralism - in McLuhan's words was, echoing the language he developed in The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962: 107ff), 'light-through' and therefore a televisual pattern through which light travels (a kind of x-ray), as opposed to 'light on,' with which he associated visual intensity, a blinding bias for fixity (of point of view), literal interpretation, and the treatment of space as a container. McLuhan's approach to the history of French philosophy was novel, indeed, for he read the Cartesian tradition in terms of the effects of electricity.
My goal here is not to explain away McLuhan's misuses and of terms. His handling of methodological labels was so obviously misleading that to merely repeat this would be uninteresting. There is little point in 'correcting' such glaring misnomers as McLuhan's (1987: 528) reference to the practices of Yale Derrideans as 'phenomenology as it is currently in vogue at Yale and elsewhere'. McLuhan's penchant for the translation of concepts into his own loosely defined nomenclature, making available only vague tables of conversion, might be called Barthesean in scope and intensity. While it is well known that Barthes did not honor the concepts he frequently borrowed from several disciplines, he normally provided a table of conversions.
In the study of popular culture in the 1950s, Mythologies had an important precursor in McLuhan's The Mechanical Bride. For while, as Vermillac puts it, 'this Fiancée recalls to our French ears certain pages of Mythologies' (1993: 30), McLuhan's political position in this book was on the face of it distant from that of Barthes. Despite this distance, there were points of contact and numerous devices used to establish it. Vermillac suggests that 'McLuhan mentions as one of his fondest memories the fact of having shaken hands with Roland Barthes, a thinker for whom he had great respect' (1993: 30). Whatever the origin of this 'memory', suffice to say that McLuhan's sense of mythology was not explicitly Barthesean, even though it did not completely eschew politics. The meetings of McLuhan and Barthes still endure as myths; whether they took place on paper or in a café seems a moot point, but one worth pursuing nonetheless.
In the 'Preface' to Mechanical Bride, McLuhan reveals that he will 'co-operate' with the whirlpool action of the 'new commercial education' of the mass media. He does not use the figure of inversion. Rather, McLuhan 'reverses' the direction of advertising, turning it against itself, forcing it to enlighten as opposed to devouring its 'prey'. McLuhan situates the target audience, at first figured as 'prey', at the center of the mediatic maelstrom. This vantage point enables one to better witness and analyze the action at hand. And from this critical observation 'it is hoped', McLuhan adds, 'many individual strategies may suggest themselves' (1951: v). The lesson McLuhan learned from Poe is well known: if one struggles against the current of a whirlpool, one will drown; if, on the contrary, one observes and rides the current, waiting for an opportune moment to save oneself by breaking out of it, then one is likely to survive. 'Co-operation' is a key but not the only important factor since hope hangs between capitulation and the formation of a personal strategy which is not necessarily oppositional. Between a paralyzed and an energized mind there is for McLuhan the privileged attitude of amused and rational detachment, of watching oneself sink in order to swim. This attitude was McLuhan's remedy for the ills of passivity produced by mechanization and homogenization. 'The reader has to be a second Ulysses in order to stand the siren onslaught', as he put it, shifting from Poe to Homeric myth in the process (1951: 97), but without abandoning the nautical metaphors he favored.
McLuhan was not prevented from identifying an attitude at work in advertising which did not want to be named. Just as Barthes argued that the bourgeoisie 'ex-nominates' itself, obliterating its name so as to become the unnamed source of meaning, McLuhan explained in similar terms in 'The Ballet Luce' in the Bride that the style and technique of Time magazine 'constitute a most influential set of attitudes which are effective precisely because they are not obviously attached to any explicit doctrines or opinions' (1951: 10). McLuhan sensed the process of 'ex-nomination' in the way a magazine provides its readership with certain attitudes, emotions and signs of their difference from other audiences, building coherence through, in the case of Time, a kind of formulaic diary writing. Depoliticized speech has political effects, McLuhan observed, even though he did not investigate them beyond noting the mindlessness and infantilism of Time's readers and expressing the fear that one day a 'goose-stepping reader' might make a grab for power. In spite of his efforts to avoid 'moralizing', McLuhan could not help but condemn 'irresponsible' uses of communication techniques in the name of an explicitly Fascist power grab. McLuhan certainly recognized numerous symbolic reinforcements of the unequal relations of power in the everyday lives of Americans. For instance, his essay on 'Charlie McCarthy' identifies the voice used by the ventriloquist Victor Bergen in relation to his dummy Charlie McCarthy as a parrot-like version of corporate and state paternalism riddled with bureaucratese. The distinctive feature of Bergen's voice is a 'neutral patience' which for McLuhan 'embodies the relationship between the average man and the impersonal agencies of social control in a technological world' (1951: 16). Unfortunately, these agencies remained uninvestigated in McLuhan's work. But at his best he could hear them in the cultural ephemera of the 1950s. It is in this specific sense that there are echoes worth listening to between the Bride and Mythologies. Still, there always seemed to be something holding McLuhan back. Even his insightful studies of the mechanization and fragmentation of women's bodies in advertising discourses were mired in his distaste for powerful expressions of female sexuality, and treatment of homosexuality and the division between pleasure and procreation as the deleterious effects of the commodification of sex.
It is useful to recall in this context Jonathan Miller's(1971: 76) remarks on McLuhan's 'abdication of political intelligence' entailed by his focus on abstract form over content and his celebration of mediatic techniques as examples of avant-gardist practices akin to those used by poets and painters. Miller's reading is astute on the matter of McLuhan's 'general ignorance of social reality'. Conversely, McLuhan's (1987: 442-44) response to Miller is a masterpiece of professorial paternalism. While the sheer number and variety of political gaffes McLuhan made is in itself astonishing - not to mention the negligible effects the recognition of these have made on contemporary McLuhanites - Miller (1971: 31) acknowledges the important place The Mechanical Bride has in cultural criticism.
In Technology and the Canadian Mind, Kroker identifies what he calls the first of two 'blindspots' in McLuhan's communication theory:
First, McLuhan had no systematic, or even eclectic, theory of the relationship between economy and technology; and certainly no critical appreciation of the appropriation, and thus privatisation, of technology by the lead institutions, multinational corporations and the state, in advanced industrial societies. It was not, of course, that McLuhan was unaware of the relationship of corporate power and technology. One searing sub- text of Understanding Media and The Mechanical Bride had to do with the almost malignant significance of the corporate control of electronic technologies. ... But if McLuhan understood the full dangers of corporate control of technological media, nowhere did he extend this insight into a reflection on the relationship of capitalism and technology. (Kroker, 1984: 79)
In short, McLuhan had no political economy of technology and his Catholic humanism did not contradict 'the will to empire'. But the 'blindspot' of economy was not exactly a dead spot of political mythology. Kroker rarely mentions the Bride and when he does, it is in virtue of its sub-text, albeit a searing one, a textual manoeuvre designed to play down the outburts which run through McLuhan's text. These very moments of excess are signs of the text working against itself. Despite Kroker's sympthetic reading of McLuhan - a rarity, after all, on the left, given the torrents unleashed against him - I want to draw a different conclusion. Every eruption of political mythology in the Bride was for McLuhan a step backwards into moralizing. Yet, in spite of himself, there are untheorized perceptions of a ubiquitous mythic consciousness whose influence derives precisely from the ideological fact that it is represented as the common values of the people. In 'Freedom to Listen' and 'Freedom-American Style', McLuhan made an issue of corporate ownership in America because he witnessed through his study of the mass media the simulated freedoms permitted to individuals by means of the practices of consumption. I am not suggesting that McLuhan had a political mythology of technological consciousness and an insight into the consequences of the ownership of the means of production. McLuhan's political remarks became reflective only to the degree that he struggled to achieve the status of a detached and rational observer who did not 'attack' his subject matter. His attempt to avoid moralizing and erase his point of view did not reveal its own mythic dimensions through a reflection on his identification with a rational, detached, paternal, and neutral voice, supported by literary allusions. Picking up on his nautical metaphors, McLuhan taught that students of the mass-media must swim in their waters, practicing so often as to feel at home in them, if you will. The swimmer who does not experience rough water, however, has not experienced the power of the medium through which he moves. The swimmer must be in a position to experience the process by means of which the medium makes itself strange to him. In this process the medium reveals its dangers. Applied to the mass-media, the image of the whirlpool implies that there is simply more water around it. This water may be less turbulent, of course, but it is still water, which is only to say that there was not, for McLuhan circa 1951, a shoreline in view marking the extent of mass-mediated life. If one cannot simply get out of the water, then one must adapt in order to endure.
Despite the dissimulations and vagaries of the demonstrations of the relationship between McLuhan and Barthes, there remains the matter of the unfulfilled promise of their collaborative effort. 'There is no rewind button on the BETAMAX of life', wrote the video artist Nam June Paik (1986: 221) in the course of lamenting that no one had videotaped the periodic meetings of earthly stars such as Cage and McLuhan or even, to add insult to injury for my purposes only, McLuhan and Barthes.
The meetings of McLuhan and Barthes in Paris in 1973 belong to a universe of untaped but not unrealized points of personal contact. These are the stuff of myth or rather, they are the mythologies of sociologists concerned with sociologists of mythologies, to borrow a reversal used by Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron (1963: 1006), whose use of these phrases in the early 1960s revealed the circular and fantasmagoric logic of French massmédiologues for whom 'the masses are masses only as the massified receivers [destinataires] of a massively diffused mass culture'. I will be careful not to confound the meetings of figures of mythic proportions with myths of their meetings.
Barthes could not be counted among McLuhan's young French readers whose excitement about his ideas seemed to unsettle an older generation of established intellectuals. Moreover, Barthes did not mention McLuhan in his published writings. Conversely, McLuhan mentioned Barthes only in his letters. He appears to have known of Mythologies from secondary sources, but he had been made aware by his correspondents of the parallels various critics had found between his and Barthes's early writings on pop culture. Notwithstanding what may be called the 'detergent factor' which bound them together - both McLuhan and Barthes recognized the mystical properties afforded to this product, a fact commented upon by both French and English readers alike - their meetings could not generate as much interest in a collaborative project as soap-powder advertisements held for them. McLuhan and Barthes met at a cocktail party at the apartment of Claude Cartier-Bresson (the former's publisher at Maison mame) in Paris in the early summer of 1973. McLuhan had flown to Paris on his way to read a paper at the Biennale internationale de l'information in Le Touquet, France (June 20, 1973) - (MP. 137-33, ms., McLuhan, 'From Reporting to Programming: The Next One Hundred Years', translated into French by De Kerckhove). Among those present were Cartier-Bresson's well-known brother, the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, sociologist of art Jean Duvignaud, playwright Eugène Ionesco, journalist Guy Dumur, media artist Fred Forest, and McLuhan's friend and colleague in Toronto, Derrick de Kerckhove, as well as an entourage from Mame. As the conversation drifted onto the topic of myth, De Kerckhove, who was acting as a go-between and translator for McLuhan, suggested that the micro-myths of Mythologies may give a specific shape to McLuhan's recent thoughts about reworking and updating The Mechanical Bride, a book about which he had reservations because he believed it to have been too jujune, too literary, too moralistic, etc. It was McLuhan's enthusiastic French publisher Cartier-Bresson who proffered the idea that McLuhan and Barthes could work at this project together. It is hardly surprising that McLuhan's publisher would suggest such a collaborative effort given the enormous interest it would have generated. A few months after his visit to Paris, Cartier-Bresson wrote to McLuhan inquiring about and expressing his great interest in any projects he may have been working on with Barthes (MP. 20-81). While McLuhan had initially received the proposal of a collaboration as an amusing idea which he suggested might be looked into in more detail, Barthes was willing to entertain it, but with only mild interest. Indeed, the collaborative project was not raised the following day at a meeting over lunch with McLuhan, Cartier-Bresson, Barthes and De Kerckhove. Sensing that the project was doomed, De Kerckhove did not pursue the matter further with McLuhan.1
The details of McLuhan's meetings with Barthes neither suggest that Barthes was 'the French McLuhan', nor do McLuhan's remarks on structuralism support the claim that he was a structuralist; it is surely ridiculous to suggest that McLuhan was the 'Canadian Barthes'. The seductive power of a suggestion at a cocktail party was also at work in the literature of the period, animating the discussion of all those concerned, and driving them to the unstable arrangement of McLuhan and Barthes as potential co-authors. I have been a kind of party pooper in all of this, I admit, having risen to the occasion to isolate an unnoticed correspondence between the two earthly stars on the grounds of their mutual recognition of 'bourgeois' consciousness, in their respective countries, as the 'common sense' of the period.
McLuhan's Bride and Barthes's Mythologies belong to a period rich in cultural criticism. In addition to these two ground-breaking books, one may add Richard Hoggart's The Uses of Literacy (1957). Together these constitute a strong trio of cultural studies in the 1950s. This does not mean that cultural studies has its origins in these books of the 1950s. Nonetheless, much can be learned from the evocative literary flavor of their analyses. Anyway, it would be hard to convince those wedded to the Gramscian tradition that cultural studies began with this trio. Stuart Hall (1980:16) was perhaps correct when he wrote of Birmingham school cultural studies that 'the search for origins is tempting but illusory'.
What is striking about these books of McLuhan, Barthes and Hoggart is the sense of regret each had about the emergence of a mythic consciousness whose distinguishing feature was that it did not want to be identified, and that it erased itself in order to more fully and powerfully perfuse and influence social and cultural life: French bourgeois ideology ex-nominates itself; American magazines offer satisfyingly comprehensive attitudes and opinions to their readers; and the emerging mass form is a 'faceless' and 'classless' and 'characterless' culture (Hoggart 1957: 342). Each of these thinkers isolate, with varying degrees of acuity, how the emergence of a self-effacing consciousness steals away the means of self-differentiation and self-definition by making itself the general measure of social being. To be sure, since the writings of McLuhan, Barthes and Hoggart span an impressive political spectrum - Hoggart's 'centre socialism' (1992: 90) and Barthes's Marxian-flavoured semiology stand apart from McLuhan's struggle for an apolitical objectivity, despite his occasional lapses into cultural critique and his regrets about the sense of regret that slipped through the analyses of the Bride - the feeling for what is lost and the consequences of loss differs with each thinker. Hoggart is strongest on this point. For him, what is lost in the bargain is the cultural character of a class that defined itself in terms of tradition, ritual, myth, community, speech, and economic status. Although Hoggart believes that working class people are remarkably resilient, he places resistance to massification in-between passivity and positive response. The British working class endures, Hoggart (1957: 32-3) thinks, because working class people are not so badly affected by massification as is often thought. This is so 'because with a large part of themselves they are just "not there", [they] are living elsewhere... .' But as the faceless culture expands and becomes more invasive, such other psychical sites become fewer and fewer. This was one of the implicit lessons of McLuhan's nautical metaphors: a safe harbour simply couldn't be found. If McLuhan hoped that the study of the mediatic maelstrom would suggest personal strategies for enduring the storm, the more such strategies followed from one's initial capitulation to the very thing with which they sought to deal, the closer endurance moved to the side of passivity borne of identification and dependency. Barthes's lessons were even more abstract. The depoliticised speech of myth enables the social class that does not want to be named to naturalise and eternalise itself. Barthes warned that this was an active political process. He further stipulated, however, that the writing of mythologies, understood as ideological criticism, is not revolutionary since the mythologist is condemned to metalanguage (the seven principle rhetorical forms of myth) while revolution must in the end abolish myth.
Although the work of Barthes is undeniably central to the way we think of cultural studies in the 1950s - this is especially the case with regard to the issue of finding McLuhan's fellow travellers - Barthes was often the odd man out of the trio I have constituted. In other words, French readers of McLuhan such as Pierre-Yves Pétillon (1969) thought of Hoggart rather than of Barthes in the context of assessing McLuhan's contributions to and place in the field of analyses concerning the impact of the mass media on contemporary consciousness.
As surprising as this may now seem, it was no more so than what Hoggart himself experienced upon discovering how he was introduced to a French readership. The following passage from the third volume of Hoggart's memoirs, An Imagined Life: Life and Times is worth quoting at length as a point of entry to the French constitution of the Hoggart-McLuhan relationship:
One English critic, friendly but slightly regretful, described my way of going on as 'deceptively descriptive to the point of casualness'. I expect he wished to find an explicit pattern of hypotheses, a set of linked generalisations which the individual descriptions supported (as one commonly finds in French writings). But it was a French sociologist, J.-C. Passeron, who, in the introduction to the French edition of The Uses of Literacy, suggested - to my surprise - that his countrymen look again at their predilection for theoretical structures and learn something from this English commitment to 'phenomenological' detail. He did not think my procedure 'casual' but, rather, 'extraordinarily precise'. He even found an 'underlying organisation that amounts to an ethnographic inventory'. Hoggart (1992: 95-6)
Hoggart's The Uses of Literacy appeared in French in 1970 under the title of La culture du pauvre: étude sur le style de vie des classes populaires en Angleterre. The title evokes Passeron's impression of detail, precision, and ethnographic inventory. The culture of the poor was for Hoggart, one may recall, richer than the emerging classless culture that was transforming English working-class life; comparatively, this new culture was emotionally impoverished. As the economic pressures faced by working-class people were lightened by diverse achievements such as hard-won battles over wages, working conditions and benefits across the bargaining table by the unions for their members, workers faced a new kind of cultural and community 'impoverishment' of meaning against which Hoggart hoped they would endure. What doubly surprised Hoggart was that the English critic was looking for French-style theorizing while the French critic found even less casualness and more inherent structure than Hoggart was prepared to admit - precisely against English cultural expectations!
McLuhan's only advance on the Leavisite strategy of the critique of everyday life through the critical anlysis of the literature of the canon, was parody (Pétillon 1969: 510). It was a risk that McLuhan took, Pétillon thinks, and lost since as he descended into the maelstrom he suffered from an attack of vertigo that disabled his critical faculties. According to Pétillon, in England during the 1950s the study of popular culture displayed a relevance and vibrancy beyond McLuhan's reach in the work of Raymond Williams and others. But for Pétillon, the 'grand nom' in this field was Hoggart. The research results of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies are just as important, but in quite different ways, as those produced at John Culkin's Centre for Communications at Fordham where McLuhan had accepted the Albert Schweitzer chair in 1967-8, bringing along his entourage of Harley Parker and Edmund Carpenter. In a moment of rhetorical excess, Pétillon states that as far as analyses of the impact of the mass media on contemporary consciousness are concerned, 'we would give all of McLuhan (except The Mechanical Bride) for one chapter of a book by Hoggart' (1969: 510). McLuhan's 'intuitions, flashes and fusions' are, on this view, only marginal notes to British cultural studies, and that 'it remains to hope ... that when the dust has settled after its passage, the McLuhan cyclone will have at least been the occasion in France to better discover what there was before and what probably will be after McLuhan' (Pétillon 1969: 511).
Pétillon's approach enables him to place McLuhan in the context of critical moments in the development of cultural studies, but only in order to marginalize his accomplishments by a strategy of exclusion and the rhetorical diminishment of everything he wrote (except the Bride) that is not connected to the Birmingham school. As we have seen, McLuhan's readers knocked on the door of structuralism and sought entry for him on the basis of, I tried to show, the vaguest of reasons. McLuhan was shut out in both instances. Still, it is McLuhan's Bride that serves as a two-sided signpost, pointing toward both Paris and Birmingham from, of all places, St. Louis.
'De l'homme typographique à l'homme électronique', Critique 225 (fév.):
172-82. The following year, the English editions of Gutenberg Galaxy and
Understanding Media were again reviewed in the pages of Critique by
Kattan (1967) 'Marshall McLuhan', Critique 238 (mars): 322-34. Kattan's
(1966) earlier interview was conducted at the PEN Congress in New York; 'L'âge
de l'électricité', La Quinzaine littéraire 9 (15 juillet): 8-9.
Robert Fulford(1971) 'From gurus
we always get enigmas', The Toronto Star (25 sept.) and (1978) 'Meet
France's Marshall McLuhan', The Toronto Star (17 june).
Jean Paré (1968) 'Qui est Marshall
McLuhan?' and 'McLuhan: son oeuvre et les enseignants', L'Enseignement [Journal
de la corporation des enseignants du Québec] 5 (15 nov.): 9-10 and 11-12. For
scattered remarks on McLuhan and structuralism see Said, Edward (1971)
'Abecedarium culturae: structuralism, absence, writing', Triquarterly 20:
33-71 and Kroker, Arthur (1984) Technology and the Canadian Mind:
Innis/McLuhan/Grant, Montréal: New World Perspectives. In Lecture 5 I will
have a good deal more to say about Kroker, the self-promoted and annointed heir
to McLuhan in postmodern garb.
James M. Curtis(1970) 'The Function of Structuralism at the Present Time', The Dialogist II/2: 58-62 and (1972) 'Marshall McLuhan and French Structuralism', Boundary 2 1/1: 134-46. The Picard-Finkelstein comparison refers to Finkelstein, Sidney (1968) Sense and Non-sense of McLuhan. New York: International Publishers and Raymond Picard's (1965) Nouvelle critique ou nouvelle imposture (Paris: J.J. Pauvert), his widely supported acritical rant about Barthes's Sur Racine (Paris: Seuil, 1963) .
On the question of McLuhan and structuralism see also the unpublished manuscript by Vermillac, Michel (1993) MacLuhan et la modernité. Vols. I et II, Thèse de Doctorat Nouveau Régime de Philosophie, Epistémologie, Histoire des Idées. Présenté sous la Direction de Dominique Janicaud, U.F.R. Lettres et Science Humaines, Université de Nice-Sophia Antipolis.
McLuhan had read with great interest Jean-Marie Benoist's
(1978) book The Structural Revolution (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson),
which he described in his own conceptual vocabulary in a letter dated 19 Dec.
1978 to Claude de Beauregard (MP. 22-17). See also McLuhan's letter to Cleanth
Brooks of 16 May, 1977 (MP. 20-2) on structuralism and figure/ground relations.
See Miller, Jonathan (1971) McLuhan. Glasgow:
Fontana/Collins. Miller is particularly insightful on the matter of McLuhan's
advocacy of Old South values, that is, of Dixie Noblesse and the questions of
race and racism that haunt McLuhan's 'social speculations'.
On the meeting of intellectual stars see Paik, Nam June (1986)
'La vie, Satellites, One Meeting - One Life', in Video Culture, John G.
Hanhardt (ed.), Rochester: Visual Studies Workshop. Paik is not dreaming. One
does wonder about the conversations between John Cage and McLuhan, for example,
the dialogical character of which simply doesn't survive in the correspondence.
In response to my questions about the meetings of McLuhan and
Barthes, Derrick De Kerckhove, Director of the McLuhan Program in
Culture and Technology at the University of Toronto, generously provided his
memories of the events in a conversation in July 1993 in Toronto. Although De
Kerckhove's account contradicts McLuhan's brief mention of the episode in his
published response to Fulford (that is, McLuhan wrote that 'Barthes once asked
me ...' ), the idea of a collaborative effort may have at the time been relayed
by several willing translators and one very eager publisher whose genuine
excitement at the prospect of such a project may have obscured its precise
origin. See also the letter of Claude Cartier-Bresson to McLuhan of 13 July,
1973 (MP. 20-81) and the ms. of De Kerckhove's translation of 'From
Reporting to Programming: The Next One Hundred Years', presented at the Biennal
Internationale de l'Information, Le Toquet, France, 20 June, 1973 (MP. 137-33).
This lecture is built around my thinking about the
relationship between McLuhan, Barthes and Richard Hoggart or, my key
international triumvirate from cultural studies in the 1950s. The key texts are
Barthes Mythologies, McLuhan's Mechanical Bride, and Hoggart's
(1957) The Uses of Literacy, London: Chatto and Windus and, in French
translation, (1970) La Culture du pauvre: étude sur le style de vie des
classes populaires en Angleterre, Paris: Minuit. In addition, Hoggart's
memoirs are fascinating, (1992) An Imagined Life: Life and Times, Vol.
III (1959-91), London: Chatto and Windus. See also Hall, Stuart (1980)
'Cultural Studies and the Centre: some problematics and problems', in Culture,
Media, Language: Working Papers in Cultural Studies, 1972-79, Stuart Hall,
Dorothy Hobson, Andrew Lowe, Paul Willis (eds.), London: Unwin Hyman. See also
the one-sided view of Pétillon, Pierre-Yves (1969) 'Avant et aprés McLuhan'
(review), Critique 265 (juin): 504-11.
Lecture Five: Massage and Semiurgy
copyright 1997, Gary
Sémiurgie (semiurgy) is a French neologism which came into use in the early 1970s in discourses concerned with mass mediated environments. Part sign (semi[o]-) and part work (-urgy), the concept often appears today alongside other identifying features of postmodernity, especially its purported depthlessness and nihilistic tendencies. Although numerous scholars trace its lineage to Baudrillard who, for his part, seems to have modelled it on McLuhan's concept of massage, this line of descent has been uncritically accepted and insufficiently analyzed.
I will rethink this lineage by considering the important differences between Baudrillard and McLuhan as they concern semiurgy. Indeed, Baudrillard was not the only thinker for whom semiurgy had descriptive valency. The Swiss aesthetician and communications theorist René Berger - in whose work some believe the term semiurgy first appeared - developed the concept along a line which diverged sharply from Baudrillard's work and converged instead with that of McLuhan.
For some postmodernists, semiurgy alone is not enough; it must be radicalised by an act of adjectival oneupmanship whose effect on the concept is pejorative. According to Kroker and Cook in The Postmodern Scene (1986: 24), sexuality has died two deaths. They attribute the first - a murder - to Michel Foucault, on whose hands no blood remained after he announced that our experience of natural sex with secretions was mediated by a discursive sexuality. The second - an unnatural or rather, sociological death - saw discursive sexuality pass away due to an irreversible and incurable postmodern condition. Henceforth, sexuality will be experienced 'as an endless semiurgy of signs: panic sex'. Panic is the psychological mood of postmodernity understood semiurgically.
Sex, then, is dead; secretions are simulated, seduction is liquidated, bodies are designed products. Sexuality is experienced through technological and mediatic representations as sign play. It is not only sexuality that is dead. If Foucault murdered natural sex, and Calvin Klein killed discursive sexuality, it is left to Baudrillard to identify the corpse of experience as such. Kroker and Cook attribute the concept of 'radical semiurgy' to Baudrillard. They derive several rather extreme consequences from this concept: there is no way out of the pure sign system of postmodernity; everything is exchangeable within the system; all experience is structured relationally, just as a sign's value is determined by its place in the system from which all value issues; there will be no extra-systemic emancipation, such as a resurrection of natural reference or a vertical ascension to Being. In these terms, experience is dead precisely because one is trapped in an endless series of exchanges, in a structural relationism. This is why they claim that the prevailing cultural mood is one of panic.
A few words on panic are in order. I have pointed out elsewhere (Genosko 1994: 113) that Kroker lacks a sense of the history of the aesthetic applications of the concept. No matter, though, since panic in a contemporary frame is merely another way of describing postmodernity in terms of a psychological disorder. In Jameson's (1983: 118ff) semiotic shorthand, the perpetual present of the postmodern moment is described by the breakdown of the interdependent relationship between signifiers leading to the loss of identity over time and, paradoxically, the intensification of experience in the present as long as it is understood that the one whose experience is under consideration lacks an identity. 'In other words,' Jameson writes, 'schizophrenic experience is an experience of isolated, disconnected, discontinuous material signifiers which fail to link up in a coherent sequence'. Psychologically, panic is a genuine disorder understood as an acute form of anxiety. In its crisis phase panic disorder takes the form of an attack in which the familiar suddenly seems like a threat: the symptomatology includes sweating, shortness of breath, heart palpitations, unsteadiness, tingling, faintness, feelings of unreality. In short, jagged emotions and physical discomfort that are concentrated in an attack, which then subsides. A panic syndrome is indicated by two or more attacks per month, often leading to anticipatory anxiety and related phobic behavior.
Sociologically, panic has been seen as a symptom of normal problem solving, a phenomenon of collective life not at all particular to postmodernity. Panic is an analyzable breach in the everyday, an aberration subjected to a restricted understanding with a very mechanical character: panic is a response to being overwhelmed; in short, it is an adaptive response to a stimulus, usually a tragedy of some sort. In postmodern terms, panic designates the extreme character of everyday life. Panic is not limited to an aberration in an adaptive economy; rather, it is a general condition, the form of life; life is overwhelming, an emergency. Panic is, for Kroker and others, assimilated to life. It's not an irrational breach but synonymous with contemporary life lived as a catastrophe in the ruins of the end of the century. Hence, this generalization allows Kroker to apply panic to just about anything. Panic lacks specificity and shape: it is one long attack in the perpetual present, a continuous emergency. In the Panic Encyclopedia (Kroker, Kroker and Cook 1989) the alphabet serves as a delivery mechanism for the 'key psychological mood of postmodern culture'. It is a device that covers a lot of bases, in other words, and provides a readymade organisation around letters; Kroker calls the entries a collection of 'post-facts' or non-empirical descriptions, little factionalized sketches of events and things that come and go in a flash. This encycloedia is without doubt a challenge to conservative programs for cultural literacy.
Kroker and Cook advise their readers to turn to Baudrillard's first book Le systéme des objets (1968) for an account of 'radical semiurgy' in relation to the practice of consumption. Although Baudrillard does not use the term in this book, this is surely beside the point for Kroker and Cook. For the semiurgic manipulation of signs irreparably severed from their referents is akin to consumption understood as an 'activity involving the systematic manipulation of signs', as Baudrillard defined it. Signs are consumed in virtue of their abstract and systematic differences with other signs as opposed to their materiality. For example, 'functionality', Baudrillard argues, is an abstract system of manipulable signs interpolated between the materiality of objects and the materiality of needs. This is 'meta-functional' to the extent that an object has 'become an element of play, combination and calculus in a universal system of signs' (1968: 77). But for Kroker and Cook, it is not only consumption that is semiurgical since experience is subjected to the combinatorial possibilities of the code of the sign system. Charles Levin similarly explains this death of experience in the semiurgical manipulation of signs in terms of the loss of personal significance resulting from an advanced kind of fetishism in which 'objects have become increasingly closed off from human interaction in their systematic self-referential play'. This fetishism of the system as opposed to individual objects impoverishes and ultimately prevents meaningful social communication since 'the semiurgy of social objects reduces the availability of things for mediating social relations ... and assigns them to mediating systems of signs instead' (Levin 1984: 42). The relations between objects are no longer lived; such structural relations have become exterior to lived situations. The abolition of real, concrete, personal and conflictual differences between persons with the homogenisation of products and persons allows for the emergence of the cult of differentiation. Differences are industrially produced for the mass consumer market. The consumption of differences involves a strategy of personalisation requiring affiliation with an abstract model of combinatory possibilities constituting, for instance, a fashionable 'look' or adherence to a model of masculinity in which one can exclaim 'he can't be a man 'cause he doesn't smoke the same cigarettes as me'.
The trajectory of Baudrillard's thought over the last thiry years has been away from an analysis of objects in terms of systems and structures towards objects as destiny, as pure signs or crystals; the latter are fundamentally enigmatic and inaccessible to the subject's knowledge to whom they are indifferent. The reversal - one of Baudrillard's key rhetorical figures - of the subject orientation to the object orientation has a rich tradition to draw upon from theatre and literature (Genosko 1994: 135ff). But analyses of objects have a tendency to reveal a peculiar movement toward the object pole, and Baudrillard (1987: 12-13) has acknowledged the influence of Barthes's description, suggesting the growing insignificance of the scene and the emergence of the interactive screen, of automobile design, specifically the Citroën. The tendency at issue here is the passge from the car as the prize possession to be projected upon and phantasized about - the 'little deuce coupe' - to the car as a sanctuary, a partner coordinating the exploration of various vectors in an 'uninterrupted interface', what Baudrillard calls, abandoning the imagery of speed, triumph and phallic representation, an ecology of driving.
Douglas Kellner also picks up the concept of 'radical semiurgy' in his critique of Baudrillard. He defines it in general Baudrillardian terms: 'Radical semiurgy, the production and proliferation of signs, has created a society of simulations governed by hyperreality: images, spectacles, simulations proliferate and terrorize, fascinate, and mesmerize ... ' (1987: 127-28). In particular, however, the 'Satan of radical semiurgy' - which is Kellner's name for Baudrillard's so-called 'demiurge of postmodernity' - is television. For Kellner, Baudrillard aligns semiurgy with a series of deaths (of the social, use value, Marxism, political economy, class, feminism, etc.). What does television kill? This "semiurge", a master artificer whose relationship with the demiurgic invention of evil is made explicit by Kellner, collapses critical distinctions, exhausts meaning, volatilizes reference, and blocks communication by simulating it as a response already integrated into the system - among other things. In these terms semiurgy is not only reductive but evil. It will follow for Kellner that television is also evil, and since McLuhan developed a defence of television, in courting an evil medium, he was contaminated. Television is the brush that Kellner uses to try to paint his opponents into a critical corner.
Despite their differences on many other points, Kroker and Cook, and Kellner agree that semiurgy is a key term in the 'Baudrillard scene'. Moreover, they trace this concept from Baudrillard's theorizing to the work of McLuhan. The closing of the 'eye of the flesh' first theorized by St. Augustine and much later painted by Magritte as a disembodied eye, Kroker and Cook claim, symbolizes the exteriorization of the human senses in postmodern experience. The disembodied eye turns experience inside out by trapping the body in a closed loop in which it becomes a servomechanism controlled by a digital logic and activated by media technologies. The inner relational structure of this narcissan loop is semiurgical. Kroker and Cook note that:
Baudrillard's theorization of the 'radical semiurgy' at work in the imposition of an 'image-system' as the structure of social exchange is very similar to McLuhan's conception of the 'massaging' of the ratio of the senses in a cybernetic society. (Kroker and Cook 1986: 298, n.17)
Technological extensions of human faculties (psychic or physical) demand 'new sense ratios', among other extensions, as McLuhan argued in Understanding Media and The Medium Is The Massage. Media work over the body completely, massaging it as it were, by intensifying certain faculties, diminishing others, and establishing new proportions between them. The term 'servomechanism' was used by McLuhan to describe how one relates to technologies, that is, how one narcissistically serves extensions of oneself.
McLuhan used the Narcissus myth to indicate that the beautiful youth Narcissus did not fall in love with himself, as the myth is commonly read. Rather, Narcissus fell in love with a technological extension of himself. While McLuhan recognized Narcissus's narcotic autoeroticism in relation to the nymph Echo's spurned love, he believed the youth's loss of his ability to communicate sexually may be nonetheless repaired. The thin film of water which kept Narcissus apart from his double no longer interferes with the New Narcissus's sexual relations with extensions of himself. As Donald Theall has observed, the New Narcissus 'fecundates his images, the technology that he has generated and that is changing him' (1971: 124). Despite this recognition of machinic sexual relations, Theall notes that the massage is never fully mutual because McLuhan was more interested in how one is massaged by the media, each of which has specialities which produce internal and external changes in oneself.
Kellner, too, has linked Baudrillardian semiurgy to McLuhan's focus on the form of the media, and he uses the concept of 'media semiurgy' to describe the multiple collapses toward entropy of the means by which critical distinctions are made and maintained. The media demiurge fashions new social relations and experiences out of signs freed from their concepts and referents. Kellner decries any capitulation to the power of televisual semiurgy.
Understood semiurgically, massage is unilateral and the New Narcissus will at best have to simulate a countermassage. Kroker and Cook (1986: 198, n. 17) credit John Fekete (1982) with a 'superb account of the semiurgical process in McLuhan's thought'. But Fekete's generous explication is Baudrillardian; this is certainly a far cry from his earlier comprehensive Marxist critique of McLuhan as a counterrevolutionary - 'the major bourgeois ideologue of the one-dimensional society' (1973: 121). Baudrillard's claims concerning the media's fabrication of non-communication and the prevention of response are used by Fekete (1982: 57-8) to demonstrate the analytic value of McLuhan's polysemic sense of massage. Semiurgy and massage both designate powerful forces reshaping social experience. As mass processes, they are similar; but, the effects of this processing of the masses are quite different.
Baudrillardian semiurgy is a disruptive force which traps, breaks, collapses, reduces and simulates experience and communication; it is alienating. Technological massage also can be numbing, exhausting, and bewildering, and require protective ablations. McLuhan believed that this numbing fades over time as sensitivity and awareness are regained. New shifts in sense ratios require certain perceptual displacements which are stressful, and a new sensory equilibrium results from these shifts. Understood physiologically, massage stimulates circulation; and it is supposedly emancipatory with respect to social communication, as McLuhan insisted in his description of the involvement demanded by electronic environments. Semiurgy is, however, finally involved with itself and the relations of a closed system.
In the Canadian context, the relationship between McLuhan and Baudrillard has been underlined in the work of Kroker. Kroker's own intellectual development has become the occasion for the fusion of business, performance and postmodern theory, very much in the manner of McLuhan in his prime.
In the Canadian Journal of Political and Social Theory (CJPST) of the early 1980s, Kroker's articles (1980, 1981, 1982) were inspired by critical theory and flavoured with dashes of Foucault and even the left-liberalism of PET (Trudeau). With a significant article exposing Augustine to the winds of contemporary French sociological theory (1982a), we are introduced to a wild Augustine and an ecumenical textual practice. Lyotard (1984) would also make a similar 'foundational' claim for Augustine, but in relation to modernity rather than postmodernity. By the time this essay resurfaced in Kroker and David Cook's (1986) vision of 'excremental culture', there was no doubt that Augustine was the first link in the 'great chain of nihilation' leading up to Baudrillard. If the classicist Charles Norris Cochrane made Augustine dangerous again, and Baudrillard made Marx dangerous once more (Kroker 1985), then it would be difficult to deny that it was Baudrillard who made Kroker dangerous. Where's Marx? He doesn't come into his own until Baudrillard teases out the Nietzsche in him. Kroker does not so much read Capital as re-position it in his genealogical chain of Western nihilism. 'Dangerous' seems to signify both the renewal of the ability to intervene critically and the adoption of a manner, an attitude which jeopardizes this ability by dissolving into posturing, no matter how ironic it may understand itself to be. Where's McLuhan? Despite his affiliations with Baudrillard and, even more importantly, his place in the Catholic humanist tradition, McLuhan did not cut a nihilistic figure. The figure of McLuhan in Kroker's writings anticipates his more recent adoption as a patron saint of new media technologies.
Kroker rode out a wave of his own generation, like a wave machine in a postmodern mall, onto the beachhead of Baudrillard's challenges by means of calculated mimetic extensions of the 'multiple refusals' of the social, the subject, and emancipatory politics. The final refusal understood as an extension was to refuse Baudrillard himself:
[his] ... insight in Simulations that the "real is that which it is possible to give an equivalent re-production" is now rendered obsolescent by the actual transformations of the simulacrum with its hyperreality effects into its opposite: a virtual technology mediated with designer bodies processed through computerized imaging-systems. When technology in its ultramodernist phase connects again with the primitivism of mythic fear turned radical, it's no longer the Baudrillardian world of the simulacrum and hyperrealism, but a whole new scene of virtual technology and the end of the fantasy of the real. (Kroker and Cook 1986:15)
While in this mature nihilism we are 'bored but hyper' or, as Steven Maras (1989: 174) puts it, this Warholian witticism 'can also mean that we're hyper but bored': shakin' with panic. Kroker and Cook ask us to 'forget Baudrillard' and move into a 'postmodern primitivism'. The vehicle of this movement is none other than the 'potlatch gone postmodern', a souped-up version of Baudrillard's lost referent of symbolic exchange. It's a high-tech potlatch of global proportions: McLuhan inspired electric tribalism based upon interiorisation rather exteriorisation. Kroker's McLuhanism is most evident in his technological determinism. Virtuality contributes to a vision of an asemiological wave, a post-symbolic splash, to tamper with Kroker's (1984) description of McLuhan's attempt to humanize a technological field which washes over human beings. Baudrillard lights the way for Kroker's journey from McLuhan - a massage to an open-handed slap, from a wave to a tsunami - to a 'tribal' virtuality. In Kroker's Technology and the Canadian Mind: Innis/McLuhan/Grant, George Grant is ground to McLuhan's figure. Using the trajectory of this study as way of situating Kroker, one begins with the 'technological dependency' of Grant, advances to the 'technological humanism' of McLuhan, graduates to the 'technological realism' of Harold Innis, wallows in the 'technological hyperrealism' of Baudrillard, and soars into the 'technological virtuality' of Kroker. Here, Baudrillard is figure to McLuhan's ground and Baudrillard is ground to Kroker's figure.
None of the aforementioned critics have focused on Baudrillard's specific use of 'semiurgy'. The concept comes into play in his essay 'Design et environnement ou l'Escalade de l'économie politique' in Pour une critique de l'économie politique du signe (1972). Indeed, the English translation of this essay heightens the sense of the semiurgical processing of human experience by rendering the consequent terms of the disjunction as 'How Political Economy Escalates Into Cyberblitz' (Baudrillard 1981: 185). Metallurgic or industrial society has mutated, Baudrillard writes, into a semiurgic society, a techno-culture or post-industrial society. During this mutation products have become objects and objects have become forms. For Baudrillard, objects are neither things nor categories. An object is a form which is neither determined specifically by the forms of the commodity nor the Saussurean sign; indeed, an object's status is not determined in relation to a subject; neither is it established by its use as an implement by means of which things in the world are worked upon. Work in metals has given way to the work of signs.
An object, then, 'is a status of meaning and a form' which is determined by its interdependent and oppositional relations with other objects. In short, an object's value is determined by the system. In Baudrillard's analysis, the system in question is the design theory of the Bauhaus school which admits of coded combinatorial possibilities following from the dictate that 'there is for every form and every object a determinate signified - its function' (Baudrillard 1972: 244-45). Baudrillard traces, in fact, the birth of the system of objects to the Bauhaus: 'It is the Bauhaus that institutes this universal semantization of the environment in which everything becomes an object of a functional calculus and signification. Total functionality. Total semiurgy' (1972: 230). In the designed environment, everything is an object; each of its elements can be mastered and manipulated (assembled and reassembled). This operational semiology or semiurgy entails the control of participation in the environment; that is, one 'participates' in the designed world by its own means and in its own terms - 'in the data processing mode', as Baudrillard puts it, 'by the circulation of signs and messages' (1972: 251). In other words, 'participation' is simulacral because it is dictated by the combinatorial possibilities of the code. Remember that simulation was a Bauhaus speciality: objects appeared to be machine-made by the most intense handicraft-based operations.
Baudrillard has had a long-standing interest in designed environments. This is evident in the conception of ambiance he developed in Le système des objets. The calculus of objects requires that one treats residential dwelling spaces as problems to be solved. Solutions are provided by interior designers with reference to abstract models that create, contradictorily, a personal arrangement or solution suitable to one's own taste. Atmosphere is a calculus of colors, materials, forms; that is, a calculated equilibrium of tones and rhythms far beyond the poetic, metaphoric and even visceral-subjective qualities of objects.
Baudrillard treats design as a meta-political economy of the sign seeking to stage 'communication' between humans and the environment by means of a proliferation of signs and messages. This project is couched in terms of restoring or healing estranged relations, but ultimately only serves to better align, in Baudrillard's estimation, and hold such participants in their places (in their abstract separateness) in the system so that what he believes to be 'genuine' communication is structurally precluded.
Baudrillard's conclusion that the meta-political economy of design has produced a 'society that has become its own environment' is precisely the point at which McLuhan arrived and advertised on one of his 'posters' in the The McLuhan Dew-Line Newsletter:
The 70's will see:
McLuhan delivered this piece of forecasting in 'the exalted mode', Baudrillard laments. Ecology is, in McLuhan's terms, a service environment 'beyond nature'; the planetary village is wired. This is the kind of nature Baudrillard considers to be reconstituted, like a fruit drink, as environment, by means of crystals with simulated flavours. Although in general terms Baudrillard and McLuhan may be said to share a similar understanding of environment as semiurgy and massage, Baudrillard refuses McLuhan's optimism because communication and participation in this designed universe cannot measure up to his own exalted vision of genuine communication: a reciprocal, simultaneous (immediate and unmediatized), transparent, inter-personal, incessant and agonistic exchange between persons which smashes the digital logic of the code and breaks the structure of the communication grid by injecting ambivalence (and not ambiguity) into messages.
Baudrillard was busy in the early 1970s lecturing on design to groups as diverse as the Chamber of Commerce in Reims, the Institut de l'environnement in Paris, and to students at Vincennes and the Äcole des Hautes Ätudes Commerciales. At the same time René Berger, a less well known reader of McLuhan, was engaged in a parallel study of the semiurgical enterprise of post-industrial society at the Université de Lausanne.
In Simuler/dissimuler, Jacques Monnier-Raball (1979) claims that the French neologism sémiurgique (in its adjectival form) was coined by Berger in his book La mutation des signes, published the same year (1972) as Baudrillard's Pour une critique. Monnier-Raball himself evokes the devalued semioscape of advertising as a kind of 'semiurgic frenzy [that] grips the city, like the devaluation of visual "money" prompts the hasty issue of new notes, as so many overdrawn cheques' (1979: 12). Pan-sémie is another of the neologist Berger's coined terms. Although it does not directly imply the overdrawn accounts of the urban semiosphere, it is not the sort of neologism which can be met, Berger observes, with an occasional smile since it designates the everyday reality of living in an environment saturated with trademarks and, in general, with commercial signs of all kinds. Berger (1977: 87) would later coin the term enseignerie by combining the word for a shop's sign (enseigne) with the gallicized term for the work of an engineer (ingénerie), retaining the latter's etymological link with engin (both instrument and ruse), in the service of designating the signs, signals and visual stimuli of the urban environment. Pan-sémie is a semio-cultural phenomenon corresponding to massification in industry and communications. Berger (1972: 406) thinks that the relationship between products and needs has been broken and reconfigured by the focus of needs, wishes and desires on the valorized representations of products.
Pan-sémie operates at the speed of advanced communications technologies and thus surpasses the relatively slow and limited circuits through which cultural traditions were disseminated. Like McLuhan, Berger held that mass mediated electric environments were poorly understood by many of those for whom such environments were commented upon critically. But speed is itself, Berger specifies, a transmitter; it 'strikes the set', to use one of McLuhan's theatrical metaphors (McLuhan 1969a), of reflective humanist pedagogues (and traditional educational institutions) who lag behind a culture which is no longer their own. Berger (1972: 298-303) praises explicitly McLuhan's critique of arguments based upon good and bad uses of the media and the somnambulism of traditional humanists for whom content is the object of knowledge.
Berger asks us to consider that signs are produced and these products themselves have in their turn products specific to the demiurges of public relations and advertising firms. Such signs are fabricated and targeted in the name of producing identification and consumption, and they are also 'products' subject to study by semiologists. Berger asks:
For how long a time will intellectuals accept professing to be semiologists when many manufacturers, admen and owners of mass media are already 'semiurgiens' [semiurgists or semiurgians] who make signs and impose them on us? (Berger 1972: 21)
No science can escape this question, Berger thinks. Reflection is indissociable from action. No change can take place until this relation is understood and pseudo-objectivity, false neutrality, and traditional conceptions of critical distance are called into question. Berger's key contribution to answering the question 'what is semiurgy?' lies in his analysis of the relationship between semiology and semiurgy or, more generally, between 'logies et/ou urgies'? (1972: 409)
On the one hand, '-logy' designates sciences (geology, semiology, et alia) in which certain phenomena (objects) are identified and incorporated into a body of knowledge. The accent is on, Berger writes, mise en forme reglée (imposition of a model); that is, on information, discourse and the comportment of the knowing subject in relation to its objects. On the other hand, '-urgy' signifies the mise en oeuvre (implementation) contained in metallurgy, demiurgy, semiurgy, et alia. Rather than a cognitive attitude, '-urgy' demands a creative intervention. Berger suggests that although '-urgies' have proliferated with the rise of the mass media to the detriment of '-logies', complementarity rather than combat should be sought between them in the face of the problematization of disciplined knowledge posed by the communications revolution with its demands for interdisciplinarity and 'involvement'.
Ultimately, for Berger 'semiology ... must be coupled with a "semiurgy" which ... participates in the production of signs, their transmission, in short, in the reality produced by signs' (1972: 412). The semiologist must become, then, a creative worker and educator; both a sign reader and maker. By contrast, this is precisely what semiology cannot become in Baudrillard's terms, since the imposition of a model in a so-called 'universal semiotic' always implies the model's anteriority and finality with regard to whatever content it may structure; semiology is operational in the sense that it is a closed system which is brutally functional. Baudrillard's virulent anti-semiological and anti-structural arguments in the end demand the destruction of the semiurgy. Berger's conception of semiology as '-urgy' (work) is closer to McLuhan's understanding of the indispensability of a 'producer-orientation', an 'artistic strategy' of making and taking, especially in mass mediated environments.
Constructive and creative variations on the theme of 'semiology' were part of the practice of the Collectif d'art sociologique in Paris in the 1970s. Although Berger cannot strictly speaking be counted among its members, his socio-semiotic interests brought him into contact with the group's founders (Fred Forest, Hervé Fischer, and Jean-Paul Thenot) in their efforts to engage French sociologists on the broad terrain of the relation between art and society. Founded in October 1974 with a Manifesto published in Le Monde, the Collectif d'art sociologique was to 'function as a reception facility [une structure d'accueil] ... for all those whose research and artistic practice have as their fundamental theme the sociological fact and the relation between art and society' (Fischer, Forest, Thenot 1975: 4). The publishing activites of the Collectif brought together McLuhan and some of his early French readers such as Morin, Berger and Jules Gritti. Gritti, for example, developed a sense of semiurgy similar to that of Berger by using Forest's conceptual art involving communications technologies such as telephones and their social effects as the occasion to pursue two lines of inquiry regarding the practice of semiology. On the one hand, a semiologist may be a semiologue who 'reconstitutes laboriously, "scientifically" ... the codes which rule over communication'; on the other hand, a semioclaste 'criticizes and denounces the ideologies which insinuate themselves into codes, adhere to them and invest themselves with a sort of constrictive necessity'. Gritti continues: 'Thus the approach which wants to be scientific searches and brings to light necessity. Does one establish or end the necessity of codes?' (Gritti in Fischer, Forest, Thenot 1975: 48) Gritti considers the work of art as a kind of 'dew line' on the frontier of previous codes, surpassing old codes by establishing new uncodified rules of interpretation. The work of art arrives in advance of cultural codes - it is literally a distance early warning system. This notion of invention on the cutting edge requires a semiurgical intervention into the existing codes which shape communication and hence, the artist qua semiurgian is a semioclaste who scrambles and rewrites the rules of aesthetic and social communication.
Recall that the neologism sémioclastie (part sign and part 'breaking') entered into circulation through Roland Barthes's use of the term in his reflection on the methodological conjunction and respective maturation of ideological criticism and semiological analysis as he practiced them in his Mythologies. Thirteen years after its original publication in 1957 (most of the little cultural sketches were written as regular columns from 1954-56 in Les lettres nouvelles), what remained for Barthes was that no criticism of the bourgeois norm could take place without an 'appropriate method of detailed analysis', and no semiological analysis could be undertaken which did not come to terms with its semioclastic elements. That is, semiology never became for Barthes a simple semioclasty, a practice which broke signs. Barthes awoke from the so-called dream of 'scientism', of a science of literature in particular, shortly after what is recognised as his final effort to scientifically ground literary analysis with the structural analysis of narrative (thus, after 1966). His ambivalence toward methodological rigor was already evident in a book of the same year Critique et vérité, in which he positioned alongside the developing science of the 'immense "sentences"' of literary works the non-scientific production of meaning called criticism and the practice borne of desire for and identification with the work, named reading. Beyond the linguistics of the sentence postulated in Critique et vérité lay for Barthes a second linguistics of discourse whose object was the language of narrative. Narrative was the object of the structuralist science of narratology, and literature was the privileged vehicle of narrative. By 1970 with the publication of S/Z, a landmark study of Honoré de Balzac's short story Sarrasine, Barthes's scientistic period had ended. Structural analysis was displaced by a gradual, textual analysis. The so-called 'second Barthes' wrote reflective and aphoristic works marked by the personal and sensual apprehension of the life of textual signs. By the time Barthes accepted the Chair of Literary Semiology at the Collège de France in 1977, semiology had become for him non-scientific and active, an artistic practice in which one savors and plays with signs as so many fictions. Although Gritti found inspiration in Barthes's reflections, the latter in the end preferred semiotrophy to semioclasty 'Turned toward the sign, semiology is captivated by and receives the sign, treats it and, if need be, imitates it as an imaginary spectacle' (Barthes 1979: 14). Barthesean semiurgy is an artistic practice which 'nourishes' signs; it is essentially playful, and follows the lead of signification rather than digging into its depths.
In Berger's work semiurgy is taken literally since it calls for involvement on the part of semiologists with the popular culture they often decode. Moreover, the mutation of signs is evidence, Berger concludes, of our own mutation, and of the necessity for dynamic, multidimensional approaches sensitive to the characteristics of each medium in today's world. For Berger in the end holds out the ideal that 'signs will shift in the direction of those who take the initiative, of those who combine power and imagination' (1972: 425). This does not mean that McLuhan would have concurred with this modified semiology since he had little use for this 'science'. McLuhan's writings animated rather than sanctioned the critical reflections which these two of his French readers directed at the interpretive edifices of semiology and structuralism. Berger's approach to semiology was enhanced positively by McLuhan's writings; Baudrillard's efforts were devoted to the destruction and transgression of semiology, while grudgingly acknowledging McLuhan's significance and rhetorically derogating his work, at least circa 1972, with such mocking references to McLuhan's 'usual Canadian-Texan brutalness' and 'McLuhan (for memory's sake)'. The relationship between Baudrillard and McLuhan is more complex than this, and it is bound up with the rhetoric of nominations for the position of the 'French McLuhan' running through the English literature on Baudrillard.
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