A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Picking Through the Rag and Bone Shop of a Career

Kevin Brooks, North Dakota State University
David Beard, University of Minnesota, Duluth

Enculturation: http://enculturation.net/mcluhan-at-100
(Published: December 31, 2011)

Marshall McLuhan would have turned 100 on July 21, 2011. We launch this collection of essays on December 31, 2011, thirty-one years to the day of his death. His work, ideas, and methods are alive and well in the field of Media Ecology, and some excellent scholarship in the past 10 years (Richard Cavell’s McLuhan in Space, Donald Theall’s Virtual McLuhan, Lance Strate and Edward Wachtel’s The Legacy of McLuhan) has re-assessed his relevance for the 21st century. In this centennial year, McLuhan has been celebrated by media theorists in Brussells (“McLuhan’s Philosophy of Media”), in Berlin (“Re-Touching McLuhan”), and in virtual space (“McLuhan Speaks”), the nearly year-long celebration on Maui (“MoM: McLuhan on Maui”), and around the world (in Winnipeg (2010), Toronto, Edmonton, Rome, New York, Katowice, Budapest, Liverpool and more).

But McLuhan remains a marginal, sometimes mysterious figure, most notably in his home discipline of English studies. McLuhan was as much a literary critic as a media critic, as much a rhetorical theorist as a media theorist. His place in the history of rhetoric has not been firmly established, despite his career-long commitment to understanding this vital branch of the classical trivium. The year-long celebration of his 100th birthday presents a kairotic moment for re-assessing his contributions and continued relevance in all these disciplines, or any field concerned with rhetoric, writing, and culture.

Our call for papers specifically asked authors to “pick through the rag and bone shop” of McLuhan’s career. This playful phrase, initially from W. B. Yeats’ “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” has been extracted from the stanza that begins and ends,

Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind, but of what began?
A mount of refuse or the sweepings of a street. . . .
Now that my ladder’s gone.
I must lie down where all the ladders start,
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.

McLuhan goes on, in From Cliché to Archetype, to suggest that Yeats’ is describing a “waste land of abandoned images” “tossed aside and the process begins anew” (20).

The depth and breadth of McLuhan’s work (40 years, 20 books, numerous articles) offers gems, garbage, and often traces of something useful for understanding games, language, literature, (new) media, rhetoric, technology, teaching, or writing in the electric, digital age. We encouraged scholars to consider McLuhan’s often overlooked texts, most notably From Cliché to Archetype, Culture is our Business, Through the Vanishing Point, and The Laws of Media, although no aspect of his oeuvre was off limits. Our contributors, embodying the global and interdisciplinary reach of McLuhan, delivered by drawing on some of these works, plus his archival materials, Letters of Marshall McLuhan, Counter Blast, The City as Classroom, Take Today and numerous articles and chapters not frequently cited. His central works like The Gutenberg Galaxy, Understanding Media, and The Medium is the Massage get re-read alongside the less familiar texts. By picking through the rag and bone shop, in its entirety, our authors produced new readings of McLuhan and new contributions to the body of work done in McLuhan’s tradition and spirit.

We have arranged the essays into two sections: methods and politics, although many articles could fit in either section.

The McLuhan Method: Detached Involvement

In “McLuhan’s Use of Epyllion,” Andrew Chrystall draws extensively on the unpublished works of McLuhan housed at the Library and National Archives of Canada in Ottawa. Chrystall uses McLuhan’s early-career research on the ancient form, the little epic, to provide insight into McLuhan’s method in two of his most famous works, The Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media. “In and through his use of the epyllion McLuhan both involves the reader and simultaneously creates detachment—a space-time for the reader that is, in a sense, outside history. To be involved and detached simultaneously is, of course, a paradox. But it is also the crux and precisely what McLuhan is offering in and through these two works.” Chrystall unpacks the methods by which McLuhan approaches his own texts – the larger rhetorical structures that govern work that, to the less attentive reader, might feel more stream of consciousness than carefully structured.

The authors were not in conversation with one another throughout the selection and preparation process, but others echo in whole or in part the McLuhan paradox crystallized by his use of the epyllion. Ron Brooks suggests that a reading of “Bride of Pinbot” can be approached either through the early McLuhan’s Mechanical Bride (detachment) or the mid to late McLuhan’s sense of involvement, but an artifact so perfectly located on the dew line between analog and digital world is best understood through both methods of analysis.

Jeff Rice’s “I am McLuhan” goes all in, as the title suggests: new media calls for total involvement, new media’s breaking down of barriers leads to neuroses, which in turn requires a pedagogy of “nu media:” “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.” Rice comes out with a pedagogy of the network, a pedagogy of excess and total involvement, but always with an escape clause: a detached “so what?” or “you’ve got to be kidding me.” His narrative begins with a 25-cent copy of The Gutenberg Galaxy and winds its way through Annie Hall, From Cliché to Archetype, Roland Bathes and Understanding Media.

Rex Veeder explores the McLuhan of detachment, an eastern-influenced retelling of one of McLuhan’s favorite images, Edgar Allan Poe’s sailor caught in a maelstrom, watching objects swirl around him as he and they were pulled down by the whirlpool. Veeder acknowledges the allatonceness, the hectic-ness of the media age we live in, but suggests that we not fully embrace, so much as strategically occupy, new media: “To practice Hectic Zen is to enter the spaces among things rather than the things themselves, much in the same way that one could practice trying to see the spaces among objects rather than the objects themselves. “ He effectively retrieves McLuhan’s Counter Blast and asks us to consider its resonances with Kenneth Burke’s Counterstatement, Gloria Anzaldua’s Borderlands and Richard Enos’ work on Greek Rhetoric before Aristotle, to name a few echoes.

Norm Friesen addresses McLuhan’s pedagogy directly, rather than using McLuhan to advance his own pedagogical ideas. At the heart of McLuhan’s pedagogical goal of balancing sense ratios is a variation on the paradoxical method of being simultaneously detached and involved. Friesen explains that “[The City as Classroom] justifies its emphasis on this visual effect by telling its readers that the ‘interplay’ between figure and ground, when simultaneously perceived, ‘requires interval or a gap, like the space between the wheel and the axle.’ And it asserts provocatively that ‘the interplay between figure and ground is “where the action is”’ (9). Friesen’s conclusion is not far from suggesting that McLuhan’s pedagogy was informed by the logic of the little epic: “It reveals McLuhan’s life-long performative, pedagogical enterprise as entailing of the most improbable combination of elements: the cultivation of ‘altered’ states of consciousness, justified in terms of a sensory psychology originating in the scholastic and baroque eras, and to be implemented on a scale ranging from the individual student in the classroom to vast, global systems of cybernetic social and sensory control.”

The paradox of involvement and detachment, the little epic (commenting on the main plot), McLuhan early and late, figure-ground, hectic zen, total involvement but so what? These five authors have all, Veeder might say, struck a similar chord but in different keys. And while this introduction to the special issue of Enculturation, “McLuhan @ 100” risks collapsing their differences into a commonality, we encourage readers to pull these essays apart and find one more rag or bone to use.

Waking The Politics In McLuhan

The five method pieces affirm and expand McLuhan’s identity as an artist, a scholarly innovator, an explorer of form as well as ideas. But this identify formation has sometimes been used against him. Andrew Ross, in No Respect, famously accuses McLuhan of being a formalist who practiced “unsocial realism” (116). Ross goes on, however, to acknowledge that McLuhan had in fact inspired the avante-garde video art of Nam June Pak (120) and the Yippie media events staged by Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman (122): “Staging media events has since become an indispensable cultural politics for all groups struggling for change and self-determination” (Ross 123). McLuhan’s conceptual and terminological relevance to the Occupy Movement and Arab Spring is still being worked out, but our collection of political essays reconsider, remix, augment, and rendez-vous with McLuhan as a social and political thinker concerned with, as Chrystall says, trying to wake humanity from its cycles of war, whether “hot or cold.”

Michael MacDonald, in the first of two installments from an ambitious project on McLuhan as a “thinker of media war,” collects and presents McLuhan’s analysis of the emerging InfoWar and his rhetorical arsenal for resisting it. MacDonald, in a crisp review of literature, notes that McLuhan has often been dismissed as a utopian dreamer of a harmonious global village. However, “Martial McLuhan” makes it clear that McLuhan was one of the first media philosophers to understand the implications of Sputnik and “Global Theater” as an early stage of InfoWar. Drawing on McLuhan’s Dew Line Reports and other materials now housed in the National Archives of Canada, a wide range of McLuhan publications, and publications by the US Airforce and Army, MacDonald paints a compelling picture of McLuhan the rhetorician offering a first line of defense against the coming, and ongoing, InfoWar. MacDonald’s project will be continued in a “Part 2” of this essay, to be published in a future issue of Enculturation.

Steven R. Hammer takes on McLuhan as a thinker of media war through a remix of War and Peace in the Global Village called “Creative Destruction.” The remix documents some contemporary “spastic situations” creating, pain, resistance, and war. He notes near the end of his textual contribution that his selection of material (some copyright protected, most not) partakes in the current battles surrounding copyright and piracy laws. We have put this production into the mix with the more traditional essays, rather than marking it as alternative or creative scholarship. The submission went through the same review process as the other pieces, and its inclusion, without asterisk, is our contribution to the ongoing, sometimes painful, scholarly skirmishes that have coincided with the emergence of new communicative technologies and new forms of scholarship.

John Tinnell digs up McLuhan’s underdeveloped concept of “Global Theater” to help readers understand the possibilities for new public writing spaces enabled by the global positioning satellite system now circling the earth, accessed through mobile browsers and augmented reality applications. Tinnell walks us through theoretical connections to Freud and Derrida (Mystic Writing Pad) as well as pedagogical possibilities both sketched and spelled out. His concluding example of John Craig Freeman’s augmented reality “electronic monuments” resonates with McLuhan’s concerns that the Sputnik moment ended nature, produced a Global Theater, which in turn ushered in an era of InfoWar and total war, repeating the human nightmare cycle from which we cannot shake ourselves awake.

We won’t try to stretch the implications of war and peace in the global village to Jane Slemon’s “Playful DisPlay: Contemplating McLuhan’s View of the Modern Cadaver,” but she does take us into an ambiguous acoustic space (art show? science museum?) to consider “dead metaphors—the human cadaver, cliché sharpened to probe.” And that probe takes on nothing less than “our very being, now and beyond our present lives.” Such a naked display of human sinews, however, propped up by plastination and the trappings of a spectacle, does not provide a straightforward answer to the question: what does it mean to be human? Instead, visitors and readers are left wondering if even the most elemental and “tribal” display of the human body is a work of art/science, and if “’only in a refusal to locate meaning in the realm of the human or, for that matter, the biological,’ can we shake new solutions to support a more just relationship to the world and to non-humans.” Slemon’s treatment of Body Worlds via McLuhan, is as likely to bring us to posthuman, as humanist conclusions.

Re-view(s) and begin anew

The two reviews included in this special issue are composed of four voices, something that we find essential to understanding the polylog that is the work about and around and within McLuhan. In “Understanding Understanding Media,” Bobbitt walks us through one of the classics of McLuhan studies. If you are a regular Enculturation reader unfamiliar with McLuhan, you might start there.
A trio of reviewers engage Coupland’s biography of McLuhan. This conversation about Coupland’s work in many ways models the kind of conversations this special issue is designed to catalyze.

One way to continue these conversations is to submit your own work, picking up these pieces from McLuhan, to future issues of Enculturation. We encourage you to explore other resources that have built upon the McLuhan perspective and tradition. The centennial is an ideal occasion to visit the Kairos wiki about McLuhan’s trivium , where you can consider and contribute to an oldnew media curriculum. Or more generally, we hope you’ll celebrate the complete and masterful images of McLuhan by reading from this collection, then beginning anew the work of inventing the methods of research and representation needed to understand and engage with the global theater we all now play on.

Works Cited

Cavell, Richard. McLuhan in Space: A Cultural Geography. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2002. Print.

McLuhan, Marshall with Wilfred Watson. From Cliché to Archetype. New York: Viking Press, 1971.

Ross, Andrew. No Respect: Intellectuals and Popular Culture. New York, NY: Routledge, 1989. Print.

Strate, Lance and Edward Wachtel eds. The Legacy of McLuhan. Cresskill NJ: Hampton, 2005. Print.

Theall, Donald. The Virtual Marshall McLuhan. Montreal-Kingston: McGill-Queens, 2001. Print.

Special thanks to Jim Brown, Casey Boyle, Christian Smith, Grace Hagood, Heidi Lawrence, and Molly Scanlon at Enculturation for helping us pull this issue together in just over a year. Many thanks to our speedy and patient authors who produced a strikingly cohesive yet eclectic collection.