Jeff Rice, University of Kentucky
(Published: December 30, 2011)
It would be nice to clear away some of the moral fogs that surround our technologies. It would be good for morality – The Gutenberg Galaxy, 192
You've Got My Fallacy Wrong
My copy of The Gutenberg Galaxy cost me 25 cents. I bought it as an undergraduate at The University of Florida, probably around 1987 or 1988, at a university library book sale. I cannot tell you why I bought this used book, other than I recognized McLuhan’s name – as do most people who are unfamiliar with his writings – from Woody Allen’s 1977 film Annie Hall. In a canonical scene in the film, McLuhan is pulled into a movie line by Alvy Singer in order to discount a boisterous Columbia University professor’s misunderstanding of McLuhan’s work. When confronted by Singer for his loud “pontification” of McLuhan’s concept of hot and cool media, the professor proclaims, “I happen to teach a class at Columbia called TV, Media, and Culture, so I think my insights into Mr. McLuhan have a great deal of validity.” In response, Singer pulls McLuhan into the film’s shot. “You know nothing of my work,” McLuhan says to the confused and startled professor. “You mean my whole fallacy is wrong.” Singer breaks the filmic fourth wall by introducing McLuhan and thus makes a joke about performance and involvement. “Boy,” Singer says to the camera in front of the embarrassed professor, “if life were only like this.” It’s a traditional Borscht Belt, Jewish punch line. The seriousness of media and theory is undermined by a comic jab in both the scene and McLuhan’s response. Before I knew who McLuhan was, and before I could understand this joke, for some reason, I identified with this moment.
What does or does not cause identity formation is not always clear, nor does influence necessarily occur in logical or rational ways. Expectations, such as what something should or should not mean (i.e., the meaning of the term “fallacy” or a theorist’s work) lead to various types of identifications, but also may not be responsible for accidental identifications occurring. For instance, I am not the only one who can identify with a mistaken book purchase or a theorist’s cameo appearance in a movie. In graduate school seminars I attended with him, Gregory Ulmer would tell the story of buying a copy of a book just after he finished his dissertation on Rousseau. Skimming the book’s description on the cover jacket, he assumed it would be about Rousseau as well and, thus, help him continue his studies. That book was Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology. That purchase set Ulmer off in a theoretical direction he did not anticipate. Accidental purchases can often generate larger moments of invention. The accident can be a moment of humor and pleasure (it can suggest something initially frivolous that eventually comes to have significant meaning) as well as of discovery. A writer does not need to identify with one moment (theoretical insight) over the other (joke).
Stories of invention are rich with the joy of the accidental discovery. The accident, we are led to believe, functions as a heuristic: it shows us what convention, logic, or purpose would not have shown because such areas of influence can be constrained by structures and formalisms (i.e., expectations). An accident, McLuhan might say, is a type of probe. For purposes of invention, the accident is often celebrated for what it reveals. Random strolls in libraries, playing exquisite corpse, buying a book by chance, getting the punch line wrong and realizing something else - each of these moments tends to be framed as a moment of discovery. What something means yields to the more important thrill of what might be found.
My own accident might be thought of as a node in a larger network of invention and the production of meaning. That initial purchase prompted a series of connections and disconnections over the next several years that generated a fluctuating sense of identity with Marshall McLuhan. Identity, McLuhan argued, results in a shift in the ratio among our senses. Those shifts, as we are exposed to various technological innovations in communication, generate the feeling of extension. Most famously, McLuhan told us that the wheel is an extension of the foot, the book is an extension of the eye, and clothing is an extension of the skin. An extension I might add to McLuhan’s list is identity. With new media, identity is an extension of some other identity (i.e., the combination of a movie cameo and a book title extend into the recipient’s identity).
The age of new media is the one I grew up in; as a child, I was often surrounded by film, television, music, early computing and other technological frameworks. My identity is an extension of other identities. In this contribution to McLuhan’s 100th birthday, I extend that identity further by declaring, I am McLuhan.
I might identify most with McLuhan via pedagogy. Because of his media ethos, it is too easy to pass over McLuhan’s pedagogy. A great deal of McLuhan’s work addresses educational practices and offers sharp critiques of the pedagogy of his time period (middle to late 1960s, for the most part). In the introduction to the second edition of Understanding Media, McLuhan writes, “TV has provided a new environment of low visual orientation and high involvement that makes accommodation to our older educational establishment quite difficult” (Understanding Media x). McLuhan also notes that “Our new concern with education follows upon the changeover to an interrelation in knowledge where before the separate subjects of the curriculum have stood apart from each other” (Understanding Media 47). In Medium is the Massage, McLuhan states, “There is a world of difference between the modern home environment of integrated electric information and the classroom” (18). War and Peace in the Global Village offers this lament:
It is simple information technology being used by one community to reshape another one. It is this type of aggression that we exert on our own youngsters in what we call “education.” We simply impose upon them the patterns that we find convenient to ourselves and consistent with the available technologies. Such customs and usages, of course, are always past-oriented and the new technologies are necessarily excluded from the educational establishment until the elders have relinquished power. This, of course, leaves the new technologies entirely in the sphere of entertainment and games. (149)
At The Gutenberg Galaxy’s conclusion, McLuhan questions education’s failure to relinquish power. “What will be the new configurations of mechanisms and of literacy as these older forms of perception and judgment are interpenetrated by the new electric age?” (330). If the archetype of meaning is cliché, as McLuhan notes, then I might repeat another known McLuhan cliché in my understanding of pedagogy and how I identify with specific theories and practices: the content of a medium is always another medium (Understanding Media 23). The content of writing is speech, McLuhan argues; the written word is the content of print. (Understanding Media 23-24). Following McLuhan’s interest in education, I ask, what is the content of my pedagogy?
The content of any writing course I teach is method. “The method of the twentieth century is to use not single but multiple models for experimental exploration” (Gutenberg Galaxy 90). Elsewhere, McLuhan repeats this point, “The method of our time is to use not a single but multiple models for exploration” (Medium is the Massage 69). In much of McLuhan’s work, montage and collage provide a method (the juxtaposition of unlike text and image for effect). My method, a variation on McLuhan’s emphasis on “multiple models,” is the network. The networked society, as many have written, alters the concept of fixed identity by allowing individuals access to and production of multiple identities in multiple spaces. Despite this point being fairly commonplace (De Landa, Castells), academic assumptions regarding identity and ethos in a given writing are often problematic because of the ways such writings juxtapose expectations (what an audience believes something is) against the presentation of identity (what is presented to the audience). A theory of multiple identities might be easy to accept, but professionally, there is a tendency to rely on individual expectations of identity (singular meanings). The content of any given action is largely one’s self; i.e., the various identifications which make up a given network (a professional position, a family life, an interest, a concern, a religion, an ethnicity, an interest in specific films, etc.). The method of action is not single (the same identity carried over from network to network as if nothing changes or is different) but rather, it is multiple. Writing. Rhetoric. Technology. A film cameo. A Theorist. A 25 cent used book. A joke. These are not single moments acting on their own, but rather are agents within one network who are affecting each other and shaping various identities in the process. They shape me as an Associate Professor at the University of Missouri when I began writing this essay; they shape me as an Associate Professor at the University of Kentucky where I will be when this essay is finally read. And they shape me as McLuhan.
All moments, experiences, identities, and spaces, therefore, are networked. McLuhan coined the neologism “collideorscope” in order to explain “the interplay in colloidal mixture of all components of human technology as they extend our senses and shift their rations in the social kaleidoscope of cultural clash” (Gutenberg Galaxy 95). To say I am McLuhan is also to say I am a network of many moments, individuals, experiences, texts, and other items that extend, mix, and clash as they interact. McLuhan continues to be such a network or interplay for me (and the network called McLuhan will change with each person who also states, “I am McLuhan” since different agents will produce different networks). An anecdote, such as buying a book in college, is not, then, inconsequential, but serves as one actor within this network. Another anecdote, such as watching a movie when I was a teenager might frame another network. Or both moments might be framed as belonging within the same network. A network, as Bruno Latour tells us, is a momentary moment in which agents affect one another. It is not built; rather, we trace a given network as we identify the agents and actors who interact and form identities. “Network is a concept, not a thing out there” (Latour 131). For me to write about McLuhan in a journal issue dedicated to his work, for instance, means that I attempt to trace not McLuhan, but my network of moments that make me McLuhan. An alternative gesture might have allowed me an opportunity to analyze or critique some important aspect of McLuhan’s work, and thus, leave me outside of the network I construct. Instead, I opt for what I consider to be a pedagogical move, one related to the concept of the collideorscope in that I mix all elements of interaction I encounter, including the personal. My mixture of moments extends my own senses and rations.
“Where the whole man is involved,” McLuhan writes, “there is no work” (Understanding Media 129). Work in the age of print, McLuhan tells us, is defined by specialization and division (as is, he argues, pedagogy). To be “workless,” might seem like a joke in a new media age such as ours where work is defined by total involvement (the network). A space I work in, such as my office, is a network as well as an agent in another network, the academic writing I perform and which shapes my ethos. My office frames a sense of the whole, of total involvement, of what McLuhan calls “participation.” “Our quarry now, in this new nomadic and ‘workless’ world, is knowledge and insight into the creative processes of life and society” (Understanding Media emphasis mine130). Such insight, unlike the narrow insight the Annie Hall movie line professor proclaims, comes from a variety of exposures and interactions in different spaces (even when that space seems to have a singular identity like a film cameo, book purchase, or citations of a theorist’s work). Thus, we are in the global village, the space where everyone knows about everyone and everything else. With such proximity of ideas to ideas, we experience tension, conflict, awareness, and understanding. The global village is a space of contradiction. Some of that tension and understanding surfaces when I proclaim, I am McLuhan. The reader pauses and thinks: What? That doesn’t make sense! Is that a joke?
My office, I might claim, provides one space for the McLuhan concept of “insight” to occur (the insights may be tense or they may be rewarding). In doing so, my office is a momentary network, as momentary as the cameo McLuhan makes in Annie Hall. At any moment, people or things may shift in and out of this network and thus alter its overall meaning or the meanings and ideas (insights) this space might produce for me on a daily basis. This space might bring me greater awareness, or it might challenge my beliefs in uncomfortable ways. In my office, we find:
A saved ticket stub from a New Belgium brewery tour, framed pictures of Bob Dylan and Elvis, two Mac computers, letters from the Provost, the walls and floors of the 19th century home my office is in, pictures of my daughter when she was born, a Spiderman Doll, a University of Florida Gator cutout, a degree from when I graduated from the University of Florida with a PhD in 2002 and a degree from when I graduated kindergarten in 1975, copies of McLuhan’s books, including that 25 cent ragged copy of The Gutenberg Galaxy, copies of many other books academic and popular, a video camera, a Kermit the Frog Pez dispenser.
Figure 3: Former office at The University of Missouri.
While I might critique this space for how it calls my identity into being through a variety of consumer products (college football, popular music, comics, craft beer), to do so would be to avoid the ways identity is shaped by networks, which, in turn, provide insight and knowledge into creative processes. Critique cannot prevent such shaping from occurring even as it seeks to promote one’s awareness to a space beyond the network. The network can make me aware by placing unlike items into difficult proximities with one another. Critique, on the other hand, promises an awareness outside of these proximities. Critique attempts to show how the representations found within the network are problematic, belong within specific power structures, generate hegemony, can be decoded, can be resisted, and so on. Critique is represented by the Columbia professor waiting in line to see a movie. Critique has the fallacy all wrong.
To critique is to claim that one can, at some moment, be outside of the network. The Mechanical Bride, we might say, belongs within the context of early cultural studies and its reliance on critique; it reveals how advertising constructs identity so that the consumer might become more aware of the process of consuming (and, we assume, respond to the process in some manner). The Mechanical Bride is an introduction to cultural critique. “The ordinary person,” McLuhan writes, “senses the greatness of the odds against him even without thought or analysis, and he adapts his attitudes unconsciously. A huge passivity has settled on industrial society” (The Mechanical Bride 21). As cultural studies will advocate, the solution to consumer passivity is awareness. Awareness overcomes passivity by forcing involvement and participation in the various processes that we consume and that consume us. McLuhan continues:
For people carried about in mechanical vehicles, earning their living by waiting on machines, listening much of the waking day to canned music, watching packaged movie entertainment and capsulated news, for such people it would require an exceptional degree of awareness and especial heroism of effort to be anything but supine consumers of processed goods. (The Mechanical Bride 21)
Nothing within such a methodology, however, prevents McLuhan from becoming a type of commodity as well, a figure brought in front of the camera as exemplary of media studies by being situated within a commodity; i.e., a Woody Allen film. McLuhan, then, becomes packaged entertainment. Within the film’s narrative, his presence is meant to provoke the Columbia University professor into a state of awareness (“Now I get why I am reading McLuhan wrong”), yet there is no evidence that such a moment of cultural awakening occurs (for the professor, or even for us, the viewers). In the Woody Allen place of work (film production), McLuhan is an agent within the network of consumption as opposed to an awakening to consumption’s problems. Allen cites McLuhan via the cameo. Allen identifies with McLuhan. McLuhan is a citation and a commodity. McLuhan is consumed in film, whether I critique his appearance or not.
The joke, we might say, is on McLuhan. This joke reflects McLuhan’s argument that readers identify with various forms of mass entertainment, such as film, but also mainstream novels, in problematic ways because of how consumption shapes identity. In such an identification, our consumption and lack of critical awareness, McLuhan argues, can be clarified by the introduction of a joke. As McLuhan writes in The Mechanical Bride, the clichés of fiction (sex, treachery, bawdy behavior) demand that a joke awaken us from their ridiculousness so that we become more aware: “As Groucho Marx summed it up to the blond on his knee: ‘Read any good books lately?’” (Mechanical Bride 26).
Citation is a type of consumption turned into joke. To cite Groucho Marx in a media studies book about consumer habits is to cite a specific tradition of making meaning that offers contradiction as a marker of identity (in this case, Jewish humor). Work, on the other hand, particularly for academics, is the consumption of citations as networks of meaning (citations generate ethos). The joke is that without the identity of a cited space – typically marked by institutionalized requirements of quotation marks and parenthetical reference – meaning is lost. Meaning, of course, is not lost when such markings are absent. I understand Woody Allen’s non-institutional citation of McLuhan as a moment of Yiddish comedy. I understand McLuhan’s cameo as part of that comedic network when he both appears and utters a statement that does not make sense. “The citations which go to make up a text,” Roland Barthes writes, “are anonymous and yet already read” (Image, Music, Text 160). I have, it seems, heard this Yiddish/Jewish joke at some other moment in my network of experiences.
You Are What You Eat (And the Portions are So Large)
In Dead Elvis, Greil Marcus associated a figure some considered a joke, Elvis Presley, with consumption. In various work situations (publishing, White House press conferences, interviews with celebrities, advertising, radio shows, stand up comedy), Marcus demonstrates how Elvis is consumed as a citation. The myriad citations of Elvis that Marcus works from include actual consumption (the Elvis burger) and the consumption of meaning (citations consume each other, as Marcus paraphrases The Situationists). Marcus quotes Lester Bangs’ mock citation as consumption: “I intend to be greedy when offered the chance of a lifetime and scoop out a whole giant rotten glob of his carcass that let’s face it he’s never gonna need again and I eat from deep in the heart of him as I fully intend to do, why, THEN I WILL BE ELVIS” (qtd 172 Marcus). If one eats, or cites, Elvis, one becomes, in some way, part of the network of meaning that is Elvis. One cannot separate identity (personal identity or conceptual identity) from the body of work (Elvis) that informs identity. Citation is consumption.
To cite, the academic practice of acknowledging credit but also of building ethos (I know the conversation; I demonstrate that knowledge via citation) is, we might conclude, a print driven practice of consumption. Ethos is citation. Copyright, giving credit, stems from the economics of print (title pages, sales), and acknowledging the conversation (referring back to a text) stems from the logic of print (print facilitating the ability to refer to the idea’s materiality). Prior to print, citation did not exist. McLuhan associated the standardization of spelling and grammar with the logic of print. As McLuhan famously argues, “Nobody ever made a grammatical error in a non-literate society” (Gutenberg Galaxy 285). New media might be associated with the rise of media consumption as opposed to just the consumption of the written word: TV, film, the Internet and its various applications (Facebook, Twitter, streaming video content, RSS aggregation). New Media, as writers as diverse as Lawrence Lessig and Kembrew McLeod argue, challenges print based assumptions regarding citation and consumption. Copyright, Greg Ulmer writes, is the right to copy. New media, Henry Jenkins argues, involves emerging networked practices such as transmedia storytelling, where narrative occurs in multiple media at different points in time, an thus creates a text with multiple identities and meanings. Consumers consume at more than one moment in more than one place. Consumption, as a form of ethos, is not tied to one specific moment of credibility but instead is networked over a number of ideas, texts, and spaces. One example Jenkins provides is the comedy-news show, The Daily Show, where jokes help us learn how “to share, deploy, trust, evaluate, contest and act upon collective knowledge” (Jenkins 226).
Whatever information I consume in my space of work – academic, administrative, entertainment, humor, or other – I cite. These citations copy and appropriate; they cross media and genre as they shape various identity formations. My citations, however, do not appear as stylistic standard (APA, MLA, Chicago) nor as typographic indicators (parenthetical notation, footnote, quotation marks). Instead, the citations I generate appear as agents within a network. These citations, indicated or implied, generate a sense of identity: an idea’s identity, a narrative’s identity, my identity, a moment of consumption’s identity, and so on. Identity, then, is nothing more than the collection of citations within a given network as that network crosses media (book, report, ticket stub, poster, diploma, Web, journal article, theorist’s work, etc.). The agents who enact that network are not always obvious. The citations are not always foregrounded. Their lack of appearance should not prevent us from enjoying a good joke now and then.
Figure 5: My copy of Understanding Media.
Reading through a McLuhan text such as Understanding Media, for instance, we might ask of McLuhan: Where are your citations? The media network he outlines (comics, roads, TV, money, hybrid energy) is not completely cited. In my 1964 copy of the book, there is a two page bibliography. There are sporadic moments in the body of the text where pages and sources are noted, but overall, the texts and ideas which inform McLuhan’s thinking, the media which feed his consumption, the networks his ideas belong within, the foundation of his ethos, are not always foregrounded. Are we to assume he has no ethos? Or are we to assume that McLuhan – as a medium – is an extension of citation? That extension is not necessarily foregrounded in ways readers expect, what we identify as an institutional concern or a focus on a fixed identity. Understanding Media lacks specific citations as a demonstration of a fixed ethos. I could argue, likewise, that I do, too. I cite. But I don’t foreground my practice of citation in a single way; I understand my citations as a larger network I write within.
Figure 6: Bibliography of Understanding Media.
During my Spring 2011 junior level writing course, a student asked if I had any interests in Medieval Literature, and did I have any suggestions for what she might take the following semester. "Just don’t take any courses where they make you read Beowulf," I joked, citing the Annie Hall scene in which Alvy advises Annie regarding her adult education classes. The student looked confused. Annie Hall is not in her network of meaning. My citation was not institutional (no referential point in print marked by quotation marks). The joke was not understood.
Another point of humorous reference to teachers: While its focus is the relationship between two people who fall in love and eventually drift apart, Annie Hall is also a film with several pedagogical scenes. Singer, as a child, won’t do his homework because “the universe is expanding” and there seems, therefore, no point to doing the work. In a scene in which Singer revisits his 1942 elementary class as an adult – while the classmates remain children – he remembers the class as a space of sexual awakening where he would kiss girls during lessons. “For God’s sakes, Alvy,” one kissed student tells the adult Singer, “even Freud speaks of a latency period.”
Figure 7: Woody Allen as Alvy Singer in Annie Hall.
When Alvy and Annie break up, they divide their books, and the scene reveals how Alvy tried to educate Annie through books about death. The scene reflects an earlier one where, in a bookstore, Alvy wants to buy Annie books about death “because I think you should read them.” Annie, on the other hand, wants to buy a book about cats. The issue here is what makes up learning. Death in Venice or a cat picture book? In another scene, Annie confronts Alvy by saying that he will never take her seriously “because you don’t think I’m smart enough.” “Why do you always bring that up,” he replies before offering the punch line. “Because I encourage you to take adult education courses?”
Juxtaposed, these scenes tell a joke about education. They also reveal a neurosis that is at the heart of citation, consumption, and the production of meaning. A writer is expected to reference everything. Alvy, as a reference point of the New York Jewish intellectual, is neurotic. If I am to include Annie Hall in my network and thus identify with Alvy Singer as well as Marshall McLuhan, I would expect neurosis to be a part of the pedagogical and writing gesture I am describing here (what Fredric Jameson calls the schizophrenic marker of the postmodern, the space where nothing refers to anything, and we are left with pastiche - juxtaposed moments without historical reflection). This expectation might be based on the fixed identity or cliché of the Jew as neurotic. Neurosis, writes McLuhan, is the result of overheated media. “The hotting-up on one sense tends to result in hallucination” (Understanding Media 45). The citational gesture – networking ideas via foregrounded consumption – is the basis of hallucinated writing, the space where a fixed marker supposedly indicates some type of knowledge. Do too many citations – explicit or implicit - generate a neurotic text, one whose inability to adequately refer back to an expectation (as Jameson critiques pastiche’s lack of referentiality) makes it “crazy”? “Neurosis is a makeshift,” Roland Barthes writes, “but this makeshift is the only one that allows for writing” (Pleasure of the Text 5). Barthes adds, “Thus every writer’s motto reads: mad I cannot be, sane I do not deign to be, neurotic I am” (Pleasure of the Text 6). The makeshift. The temporary. The momentary. The lack of referentiality. All writing is some type of network that is neurotic.
The point is not that Woody Allen is more neurotic than I am or that I am more neurotic than McLuhan. My point is that these writings network and shape an overall neurosis, a neurosis of expression Barthes refers to as pleasure or jouissance. Neurosis is a type of ethos. That ethos – as opposed to something we might recognize as critique or analysis - is called pleasure.
The pedagogy of pleasure is one of neurosis. Without a dependence on referentiality for meaning in every situation, we have pleasure. Barthes’ quest is to describe what cannot be represented. I am trying to describe an identity that I simply cannot represent even when I note that I am McLuhan. This pleasure does not mean “happy” or “feeling good inside.” Instead, it is the sense of non-referentiality Barthes draws attention to; it is meaning outside of expectation. In a tribute to McLuhan, a reader might expect a more nuanced analysis of McLuhan’s work - particularly when the author claims a theoretical lineage - not an exploration of networked identity. Yet, that expected analysis will not represent my tribute in the way this writing I perform explores a sense of Barthesian pleasure. In the age of networks, we must teach pleasure as writing. We must teach a type of neurosis not bound to expectation.
“Today’s child,” McLuhan writes, “is growing up absurd because he lives in two worlds, and neither of them inclines him to grow up” (Medium is the Massage 18). This absurdist moment – the makeshift logic of one moment (print) juxtaposed against another (new media) – keeps us forever guessing about method, rationale, purpose, goals. The moment restricts us to non-pleasure based pedagogies. “The young today reject goals. They want roles – R – O – L – E – S. That is, total involvement” (Medium is the Massage 100). One such role might be a cameo in a film. Or an office space’s ethos. Or the teacher who tells jokes students don’t understand. Or the byline on an academic essay. Or the structure of an academic essay. Or the structure of an academic essay that doesn’t live up to academic expectations. Or the joke a Jewish writer tells about a Catholic theorist’s 100th birthday, and that no one gets because they are too busy searching for citations. I, too, want a role.
Neurotic Writing – Nu Media
Whatever academic writing expects, it expects more than fragmented entries about a media theorist, one’s office, and a film. It expects a specific writerly role or ethos demonstrated by, among other things, genre conformity. Such writing expects citations to demonstrate inclusiveness, it expects citations to reflect the patterns argument relies upon in order to function as a writing genre, it expects citations to generate a logical flow from which the reader experiences causality and reason. This expectation, often grounded in building an argument or critique, does not consider the network as a form of expression (as opposed to being only an object of study). This expectation ignores, of course, the style and method of two theorists I cite here – McLuhan and Barthes – whose writings are fragmented and, at times, aphoristic. Their texts network a variety of ideas and texts, pose concepts without explanation, and, (in Barthes’ case), incorporate the personal. The generic notion of academic writing could turn to multiple models of exploration, to paraphrase McLuhan, but typically does not recognize such method as a principle of composing. No style guide will cite McLuhan as model. No style guide promotes the collideorscope as a writing method. McLuhan is excluded from the vocabulary of writing and method. He is excluded from writing pedagogy.
Annie Hall begins with a node toward inclusion and exclusion. Allen cites Jewish humor as a way to narrate a story. “The other important joke to me,” Alvy Singer states in the film’s opening monologue, “is usually attributed to Groucho Marx, but I think it originally appears in Freud’s Wit and its Relation to the Unconscious. And it goes like this, I’m paraphrasing, ‘I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me as a member.’” Singer’s reflection is the typical Jewish or Yiddish gesture that borders neurosis because of the contradiction it foregrounds. As Michael Wax notes, “Yiddish conversations progress as much by means of rhetorical questions and outright contradictions” (9). The joke Singer tells before this one exemplifies contradictions as well. “There’s an old joke,” Singer says as the film begins. “Two elderly women are at a Catskills mountain resort, and one of them says, ‘Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.’ The other one says, ‘Yeah, I know. And such small portions.’” The contradiction recognizes the exclusive nature of meaning; we expect a referent to the concept so that the concept makes sense. Yiddish, based on the logic of the joke, rejects that expectation. “The food is bad, but I feel excluded because my expectation is a larger portion. This expectation doesn’t make sense.” The joke does not refer to anything. Yet, it works at the level of pleasure. To tell such a joke is to describe what cannot be represented.
My writing may never want to belong to a club that would have someone like it as a member because I am not always guided by the desire that everything I trace as a network makes sense (i.e., that it is based on citational referentiality). Neither, it seems, did McLuhan’s writing desire such inclusion. As noted in a footnote to W. Terrence Gordon’s biography Marshall McLuhan, Escape into Understanding, "A McLuhan article on metaphor was turned down by The Quarterly Journal of Speech in March 1944 “‘because of the scope of our publication rather than the inherent quality of your study.’” We would never want you, QJS appears politely to say, to belong to any club that would have us as members. Inclusion. Exclusion. Jewish jokes told in a film’s opening scene and a scholar’s rejection from one of the field’s most prestigious journals because of his style and method. McLuhan did not fit any one genre (scholarly, popular, speculative). Films about failed romance typically don’t begin with Borsch Belt comedy. Genre, while it creates a shared identity by forming characteristics which a given work belongs to, excludes because it relies heavily on expectation (a text must meet the genre’s requirements to be identified as part of that genre or it will be rejected) instead of what a network might generate as various agents come together.
The inclusiveness of new media McLuhan proposed is involvement. Generalizing from McLuhan’s interest in television, we can say that new media
will not work as a background. It engages you. Perhaps this is why so many people feel that their identity has been threatened. This charge of the light brigade has heightened our general awareness of the shape and meaning of lives and events to a level of extreme sensitivity. (Medium is the Massage 125)
Total involvement (networking film, theory, media, writing) over heightens sensitivity (I become too aware of connections and relationships; my identity is threatened). This overheating/heightening suggests neurosis (being too sensitive). Yet, as a form of neurosis, we might consider new media’s notion of involvement as a type of Jewish joke (following Annie Hall) that functions pedagogically (it teaches us something about contemporary expression). I call this pedagogy “nu media”, nu indicating the ambiguous (and possibly neurotic) Yiddishism that can mean anything from “yes,” to “continue talking,” “go on,” “so what?” “you’ve got to be kidding me,” and so on. Nu can be phrased as a question (nu?) or a declaration (nu!). If there ever was an inclusive phrase invented by an excluded people and that has no center of referentiality, it might be nu. Nu is the basis of Jewish humor. “A man walks into bar,” the joke may begin. The listener responds, “nu?” Nu includes a total involvement of speaker and audience (to ask nu? is to request a response, to want more discussion, to push the conversation).
In a momentary discussion of genre, McLuhan recognizes Yiddish as one such involved media form, citing at length Leo Rosten’s The Joys of Yiddish: “Were I asked to characterize Yiddish – its style, its life story, its ambience – in one word, I would not hesitate: irrepressible” (qtd in From Cliché to Archetype 106). Rosten’s definition of nu also claims that it “is a qualification, an emphasizer, an interrogation, a caster of doubt, an arrow of ire. It can convey pride, deliver scorn, demand response” (271). Nu signifies multiple exploration. Nu signifies a networked practice. Nu signifies networked ethos.
Nu media might indicate that sense of the irrepressible, of not being controlled, of multiple explorations of meaning, of neurotic writing, of cameos, of not wanting to belong, of an ambiguous, networked media genre where various fragmented moments come into relationship with one another even if for a moment. As Latour states, in the network, actors “make others do things” (107). Nu media can indicate a form of writing similar (though not necessarily the same as) to what I’ve tried to compose here where various actors are making others do things, but in a way that involves multiple exploration, contradictions, irrepressible-ness, and neurosis. My pedagogy is the response to a situation, problem, tribute, or exigence as: nu?
I am McLuhan. McLuhan is one such role I live. It is a role within roles, a part of a multiple sensory experience of expression explained as neurosis or the Yiddish phrase nu? I am McLuhan, I say, and the response is, nu? So? Really? Big deal. Interesting. Go on. Tell me more. Enough already. And that you think is impressive?
“Between hot and cool media,” McLuhan writes, “is the practical joke” (Understanding Media 44). Alvy singer has his joke. McLuhan has his. Let me see. What joke might I tell as conclusion (conclusion fulfilling a genre expectation that should not involve a colloquial expression such as the one I just uttered, “let me see”)? This joke might provide exigence for an exploration of the pedagogy I call nu media. A man and a woman are waiting in line for a Holocaust movie to begin. The man pulls a media theorist into the line with him to prove a point. He exclaims that the theorist does not explain media well enough, that he expects more from the theorist regarding clarity or what a theory should look like. “You mean my fallacy is wrong?” the theorist asks.
The man, who now resembles Groucho Marx in Duck Soup, replies. “A
four year old child could understand this.”
The theorist responds, “nu?”
“So, run out and get me a four year old child,” the man says. “I can't make head or
tail out of it.”
I thank John Sloop for showing me the Gordon footnote, two anonymous reviewers
for feedback, and the editors of this issue for insightful comments and advice.
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