Playful DisPlay: Contemplating McLuhan’s View of the Modern Cadaver

Jane Slemon, Emily Carr University

(Published December 21, 2011)

finally free, slid as snake from

his own sweet agonized skin, to throw his entrails

white upon the floor with a cry of victory—

now there are no bonds except the flesh

—Gwendolyn MacEwen “Manzini: Escape Artist” 471

Stepping across the threshold of the Body Worlds gallery feels like spelunking—all the noises of the city drop to a palpable hush. Human forms set playfully (might we even say eagerly?) on plinths welcome us into some timeless space—a place without history or even the language to describe what we cannot account for, without buttons or mobile connections: here is the anatomical form, relieved of skin and story, unhinged from politics and because of its plastinated form now even released from the passage of time. The billboards of the city have let us know of this must-see event (see Figures 1 and 5). Friends carry an amazed look when they mention it, unable to quite explain what gives them pause about the exhibit. And this is how we (and busloads of school kids) are drawn toward a traveling road show, an art gallery and a science display, all in one exhibit. These familiar, these bodies “finally free” of “agonized skin,” teach us who we are “feelingly,” as blind Gloucester says, though the irony is they’ll never feel again, and our strategy for handling the experience of roaming amid the previously alive is to imagine we feel at home with them (MacEwen 471; Shakespeare IV.v.151).

Taking my science students to see Body Worlds: Exploration of the Mind, our purpose was to draw, since Leonardo da Vinci taught us by drawing to see, by seeing to know, and by these to question and correct assumed knowledge (a few of their drawings are offered in Figures 3, 4 & 6). But in the gallery, a complex set of manipulations is at work that invites a McLuhanesque examination of the new cadaver. Is it ourselves, pared down to nerve and bone, that is the present spectacle or is it the art and science of plastination we have come to see?

Figure 1

Figure 1. Billboard for Body Worlds: Exploration of the Mind
at Stadium Skytrain Station. 14 May 2011. Vancouver, Canada.

Photo: Slemon

Figure 2

Figure 2.Drawing of "The Thinker"

Maureen Flynn-Burhoe

Plastination, developed for use with human tissue in Germany by Gunther von Hagens, is the invisible technology that shifts the cadaver from the more rarified laboratory of the medical school into art form. Even though we somehow know not to actually touch the cadavers, what could be more “tribal and ear-oriented,” more unifying than this “space of touch” (McLuhan From Cliché 83)? Body Worlds is a tactile space, and we the moving objects that complete the exhibit. The figure of the The Thinker exposes brain, spinal cord and nerves, its pose Rodinesque (see Figure 2); a female figure is cut on a ventral plane from head to abdomen such that she appears, from an angle, to be entering herself from behind; and a male figure, sliced on the sagittal plane, suggests an accordion of connective tissues. We are understandably a little dizzy before these stiffly transformed because of a swift shift in figure and ground. “What ever [the viewer] does not see”—and thus what we are less critically aware of—“is the ground,” says McLuhan’s biographer, Philip Marchand (248). In a gallery space, the ground is usually the viewer; yet, these figures comment on our very being, as living beings and as eventually dead ones.

The chatter and the beeps of the transit systems we have employed to bring us to Body Worlds are muffled as we drift past the light-absorbing ceiling-high black curtains. Enfolded into the gallery space, we are twice protected from any symbols of race, history and politics: these curtains and these bodies “free of agonized skin” give us the first and seemingly final cliché—the body neutral (MacEwen 471). Silent, uncritical and reverent, we perceive a kind of blank canvas, a flabby metaphor any member of the public can fill in; we recall associations with our own dead, with spiritual notions of where the body and soul go after death, and with high school lessons on the human machine. Sections of the tossed mortal coil are the ticket items of the day. These cadavers seem to be having fun, and we viewers are stiffly serious, living examples of the heart and brain cross-sections we gaze upon. Quiet forms on plinths adopt both the most humble and most extravagant of stances possible: that of being at once unidentifiable and and iconic rock stars.

Figure 3

Figure 3. “The Nervous System, drawn at Body Worlds.”
Hailey Whitt.

2010. Slemon’s Science 201. Emily Carr University.

When that doubling occurs, Marshall McLuhan appears.

Oh that this too melted flesh would solidify.

Figure 4

Figure 4. “The Femur, drawn at Body Worlds.”
Carolina Perez.

2010. Slemon’s Science 201. Emily Carr University.

A cliché, the body is “tossed aside,” states our McLuhan to one of the white-lab-coated volunteers; this art form, he continues, “is a cliché probe that scraps older environments”—environments such as, say, having a life, and these cadavers “scrap” life (From Cliché 149). We learned from the television show Survivor and its central premise (If I were on a desert island with you and only a few other people...) that the dead metaphor, the archetype, and cliché are just what we yearn for. Our attention moves toward the shift of ground into figure; we love to recognize, to notice the echo of a previous icon, and to see old things anew. In From Cliché to Archetype, McLuhan’s notion that the object given new context is drawn out of cliché—out of an environment so familiar that we no longer sense its presence—is the tool Body Worlds uses to toy with us. Viewers of the plastination phenomenon are rendered at once spectacle and examiner. We are what we came to see, posed on the plinths as skateboard adventure seekers and figure skaters in unlikely balances pared down to bone.

Like a fragment of one’s own life newly re/membered, the show strikes us as already a part of us. No wonder we are drawn in with a curiosity usually reserved for the “rag and bone shop” this time quite literally “of the heart” (Yeats qtd. in McLuhan From Cliché 20).

Today’s cadaver observes us, smears us.

Marshall McLuhan warned us the narrative of technological and global progress would arc towards a discarnate state of being, would force our senses out of our bodies toward an “electric all-at-onceness” (McLuhan & Zingrove 5). The fully discarnate human, whose soul is everywhere at once, has let technology extend each of our human senses out to “probe and shape the physical environment” (McLuhan, From Cliché 150). “As [each] new technology is interiorized,” says McLuhan, our very “culture” is further “translate[d]” (McLuhan Gutenberg Galaxy 40). If we weren’t so shy before these figures, we’d get the joke more quickly. Having stepped into a world of sinew and cell, before this awesome trick of nature that we have no artists or designer’s claim to, we seem to have returned to a world wherein even McLuhan might be silent. I can hear my heart beat; I feel what I see. Certainly, I’m thinking, this is the place without buttons, where sense is returned to the body. But, no, McLuhan isn’t silent. Too loudly, he says something about dead metaphors, then steams on to see the rest, already understanding.

Plastination’s new application to animal tissue at Body Worlds is combined with a current lust for reality TV; simply breathing in this room, we participate in the activity of indeed the deadest of metaphors, the cadaver spun as cliché, sharpened to probe. Would McLuhan consider this a turning off or on of the buttons? We participate deeply: we consider, as we walk through, our notions of our own life’s ending, whether we’ll ask to be buried, burned, donated. The question has never been so wholly synesthetic, engaging of our whole human sensorium. Having circled the room, McLuhan taps us on the shoulder and reports that we are acting the way the manufacturers want; we are submitting to a spanking new maelstrom without realizing the moment of consent has already passed. Before we can shake him off or comprehend what he means, he reminds us we are distracted from the larger picture: in Body Worlds (“Isn’t the title rather an echo of the global village? Is there someone I can talk to about that?”), the advertiser takes up an artist’s “palate” dripping with our very emotions, his “private pigment,” and “smears us” (McLuhan qtd. in Tom Wolfe).

The technology of plastination extends not the sense of being dead
but a post sense. Human/Post. Regard the posthuman.

Posthumanism’s point, according to Cary Wolfe’s What is Posthumanism, is that humans can no longer imagine themselves as occupying the mid-point between molecules and galaxies; in other words, humans aren’t the cosmic centre and are not specially placed between planets revolving around their suns and electrons circling their nuclei like little planets themselves (according to Hantaro Nagaoka’s 1904 image of the atom). Relegated to the past century now is the notion that inside each sperm hides a potential human, a homunculus (although this word survives in medical language to describe the selves we sense in order to understand our position in space). Wolfe’s definition of posthumanism notes that as “fellow creatures” of a mortal nature, humans “enter into contractual agreements or reciprocal behaviors” which allow them “an ethical divide between Homo sapiens and everything (or everyone) else” (Cary Wolfe 62).

Wolfe points out that theorists like Jacques Derrida identify an “evolutionary and adaptive problem” of being human while also addressing the “overwhelming environmental complexit[ies]”of being human (xxvi). “Only in a refus[al] to locate meaning in the realm of the human or, for that matter, the biological,” it seems, can we shake out new solutions to support a more just and ethical relationship to the world and to non-humans (xxvi). Similarly, Donna Haraway’s notion of the cyborg—as liberating individuals from gender and biopolitics—challenges us to find fresh meaning in the non-living, perhaps even to the point of including the cadaver’s very structures, substances and sinews evolution has slowly given rise to. As we gaze at the marvelous human machine, we experience the dangers of human organicism, as if animals, other forms of life, and all substances and entities respond to and support a human organic centricity.

Figure 5

Figure 5. Billboard for Body Worlds: Exploration of the Mind
at Granville Skytrain Station, Vancouver, Canada, 2011.

Photo: Slemon

After its controversial first exhibit closed in Munich in 2003 (because, in a Catch 22 of legalities and protocols, the origin of cadavers could not be confirmed since von Hagens committed to a rigorous “body-donor programme” of his own making that obscured the tracing of individual identities), Body Worlds II incorporated into the show a framed consent form revealing how bodies are donated (von Hagens). At Body Worlds, we are part of an historical shift in the cadaver’s moment on the stage.

Three huge shifts in the cadaver’s audience have occurred in the past 500 years. When Leonardo da Vinci drew illustrations and generated writings from 30 or so cadavers in 1510, creating his astonishing Anatomica Manuscript A, almost no one saw the works for 122 years—and then only a part of it was published in France. “Cadavers they may be but since we perceive them as being in use, working from the inside out,” each illustration “reveals what it is we know by way of sensation” (Slemon). Leonardo’s connection to physician Marcantonio della Torre secured him that rare chance to work with cadavers at the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova. As well, Vesalius published his De humani corporis fabrica in Italian (1547) rather than in Latin, giving rise to a far larger audience than had previous enjoyed access to human anatomy. Finally, Body Worlds has increased the audience of the cadaver, and we are alive to pay (not tuition fees but a moderately hefty ticket price) and play along.

The new media are not bridges between man and nature: they are nature.

—McLuhan “Where the Hand of Man Never Set Foot,” Hot and Cool 116

What separates the organic system from media and technology? Bernard Steigler offers that “technics” and “metaphysics” are a false opposition, a binary that can be collapsed by acknowledging the “problem of the nature of the human,” which is to say the problem of “human origin” (Steigler 95). We can then discern what we have also thought to be vagrant, or “accidental,” that is, what lies within the range of natural possibilities for human evolution, by admitting that many people still locate the special nature of humans in their origin and enter “the question of being” within this assumption (95). If, as we stand before the previously dead, unaware of skin colours, tattoos, or wrinkles that would have ushered in our habitual and sweeping generalizations of identity, we are brought into Steigler’s question of being since “the principles of being are those of reasoning, and only reasoning allows any trace, whatever its age, to be deciphered” (96).

This is what the gallery room’s sanctuary and reverence are about—we reason the existence of a “trace”—an “enigma of origin” (96). We can’t help but marvel that we evolved to this. And Steigler supports the idea that technology and nature are neither separate nor bridged: he suggests that, if we trace a line from origin to some notion of a fall, then that fall must be conceived of: perhaps the image is of planets and a gravitational pull toward the elements of earth, water, air and fire; or perhaps it consists of a host of interconnected myths, heavens and powerful gods: this, says Steigler, is “a fall into technics” (96). Whatever the image is, it is not what is—rather, it is a covering over, a “contingency,” and thus, he states, “to fall is to forget” and to shift into metaphor (96).

Forgetting old notions of a comfortable distance between the human soul (which might be defined as being “intelligible and sensible”) and technics (which “does not have the principle of its movement in itself”), we might recognize that technics too traces back to an origin, a conception, a being (96). All technics also play out possibilities and roles, relationships and interconnections, their evolutions tracing back to original beginnings, not “separate and not bridged” (Steigler 96). From beyond the pale, McLuhan tells us these playful cadavers of the new millennia are “not bridges between man and nature: they are nature” (McLuhan 116).

Today’s cadaver is dashingly
medium and message.

Figure 6

Figure 6. “Brain, bone and skin, drawn at Body Worlds."
Theunis Snyman.

2010. Slemon’s Science 201. Emily Carr University.

From Dr. Frankenstein in his laboratory to the classrooms of medical students, our image of the cadaver enjoys a range of roles, from gruesome to respectful. In anatomy classes, perhaps four students to a cadaver, students are honored to engage in a practice they know was banned for more than a thousand years, since Galen’s experiments in anatomy. Students chat in low tones and discover the intricacies of organs and tendons, noting the clues about an individual’s lifestyle, the strains and scars written in the tissue. My parents’ intention to donate their bodies to The University of Toronto for medical and educational use is rooted both in their dedication to education and science and in their memory that my Great Uncle Charnock Matheson always lacked sufficient numbers of cadavers, at Queen’s University in Kingston, for his anatomy classes in the 1930s and 40s. Body Worlds doesn’t represent the same notion of educational use as the medical classroom. Still, times have changed from the days of Vesalius and his colleagues obtaining cadavers from unconsenting individuals; as Katherine Park points out in Secrets of Women: Gender, Generation, and the Origins of Human Dissection, bodies were often those of “criminal[s]” and women (such as is depicted on his title page) (214). Today, Gunther von Hagens has plenty of donations for display, but those donating sign away their control over how they’ll be shown, for how long, how much of their bodies will be used, or the age, education level and reverence of the viewer.

Anything goes; anyone comes.

At Body Worlds, because exposed organs, splayed muscle and bone—part of us all the time and for which most of us can little account—are balanced and posed for play, we too are part of the show as we circulate about the gallery. In “Inside the Five Sense Sensorium,” McLuhan offers an apt analogy for the effect of our movement when he says the “mosaic mesh of luminous points” of the television effect us in ways akin to a Seurat pointillist painting that, by its low definition, “elicits high empathy or participation” for viewers (McLuhan “Inside” 44). When moving points are part of the effect, viewers together form a cool medium—an “oral-aural world” not characterized by the detachment particular to the “visual-literate” world (45). Just as with a painting or television, there exists in a Body Worlds gallery plenty to look at, but focus is not the point. Part of the effect is that viewers experience and accommodate what they imagine is the heightened sensitivity of all other viewers in the room. Part of our baggage is a natural or cultural resistance to the idea of being dead. Funereal thoughts, scientific fascination and flighty associations all force our gaze past the figures, almost as soon as we have looked at them, to consider the abstract concepts of the body. We look, but only briefly, and let our thoughts slide toward a host of deep thoughts and abstractions.

McLuhan himself is a fine example of resistance to peering at human tissue: When told of his own brain tumor, in 1967, and of the operation he would have to endure to have it removed, McLuhan declined any and all “details of the operation,” saying that “anything that would enable him to visualize the workings of the surgeon’s knife” was to be kept from him (Marchand 201). While we take comfort in seeing human anatomy as quite marvelous, treating these cadavers as mere shadows of an ideal, McLuhan’s inclination to shrink from specifics of his own flesh is perhaps typical: just as the highly involving medium of TV “makes war quite untake-able,” any abstraction of our inner machinery is more “takable” that the thing itself (qtd. in Tom Wolfe).

I find it remarkable that the surgeon held McLuhan’s living brain in his hands—for he had to “lift [it] to get at the tumor”—a five hour operation. How swiftly such an image draws our attention inside the man’s body, past sulci and gyri of a the human folds of brain tissue, to McLuhan’s story writ somewhere therein, as if we could eventually learn to read the motivations of the man’s discomfiting probes: was McLuhan somewhere on the autism/Asperger’s continuum; was his affinity for star status hidden somewhere there; was the posthumously discovered “feline blood circulation” in McLuhan’s “external carotid artery” a kind of miracle (a “one-in-a-billion vascularization”) that saved his life (Coupland 199)? Knowing McLuhan’s desires to be “spared the details” and get through the operation allows me to assert that, if he were beside me in the brain display at the exhibit, he’d be commenting on the relationships among the elements inside the plexi-glass cases, their deli-case presentation, and the viewers’ very comments on them.

First woman: “That’s what they cut from me; that’s what they took.”
Second woman: “Tisk, tisk, tisk.”

Such relationships among the cadavers on plinths at Body Worlds, McLuhan would say, appeal to the “non-literate man who has no perspective experience”; one seeks not a relief from the technological world at all but an ultimate experience of the “oral-aural world” (Marchand 201). So as we reel slightly from having been thought of as “non-literate,” we’d be a moving target for McLuhan’s next remark: that we aren’t watching these non-alive/non-dead figures, but, “as it were, put[ting them] on,” just as a car or a pair of shoes is “worn”; such a space “transforms” us, he’d say, and we are as much comforted and put to sleep by this quieter “noise” that characterizes the “deep participation” of a spatial “immersion” into a new medium (Cavell 48). Recall that, here, each of us is a single point in a painting by Seurat; thus, we render the space of the gallery “automorphic space” rather than “pictoral space” so that, experiencing the gallery together, viewers comprise not an “enclosed” space but a space in which “which each person, each thing, makes it[s] own world”(McLuhan qtd. in Cavell 70).

Asked in 1960 what kind of period he would like to live in, McLuhan said he was “resolutely opposed to all innovation, all change, but [...] determined to understand what’s happening” because “the best way of opposing it is to understand it” (McLuhan qtd. in Tom Wolfe).

...know when to turn off the button

—McLuhan qtd. in Tom Wolfe

Starting with Yeat’s “sweepings of a street” then, I carry two images that inform me as to how McLuhan might react to the cadaver’s new lust for an audience that represents the vernacular. The first, told to me by Richard Cavell (my UBC McLuhan teacher and author of McLuhan in Space, a Cultural Geography), is a story of McLuhan mounting a Toronto bus heading to the University of Toronto and being struck by an ad inside the bus of a woman who holds a coke bottle to her lips, a man’s focus directly on those lips. To the astonished bus-riders, McLuhan nails it in one statement, “Coke-sucker.” He then proceeds down the length of the bus similarly summarizing the overall effect of the ads, bang on, every time.

The second is a film clip of McLuhan greeting his daughter, Mary who is dressed to be married, in which McLuhan does not remark upon her beauty or his own pride, as convention requires, but upon fatherhood as “an unusual idea,” an “abrupt aphoristic matter” that is quite “brief [...] as compared to motherhood which extends out for great periods”—until Mary swirls in her dress and drifts away from McLuhan’s critical abstractions and far off gaze; McLuhan seems unaffected by the momentarily still, familial human form of his daughter in front of him (qtd. in Tom Wolfe). Even watching this little clip of film years later is embarrassing.

Which is why I see Marshall McLuhan working the spaces among these enplinthed dead, shocking us with embarrassingly public statements where we’d expect funereal whispers. Deeply inappropriate, his comments are also a naughty thrill.

The plastinated cadaver celebrates
the anatomy of the unexamined.

McLuhan told us, “Turn off as many buttons as you can; frustrate them as often as you can” (qtd. in Tom Wolfe). But these cadavers are clever: the buttons are hard to find. We might hope to experience some profound understanding of scientific complexities of the body here, but the very room, he’d declare, is constructed not as visual space, not in touch with “logic,” but as “audile-tactile” and thus

side stepping our critical judgment

of it, as if the room teaches us not to question but simply to move (qtd. in Marchand 124).

And maybe he’d be right.

In the Tom Wolfe spirit of asking “What If He’s Right?” we should perceive this room of plastic posthumans as itself the threshold to “the space of the electric world”; perhaps what we recognize at Body Worlds is a synaesthetically similar experience to engaging in Facebook (see Figure 7) or internet surfing, since people there too “are hit with almost random bursts of information from all sides” (Marchand 124).

Figure 7

Figure 7. “Well, it’s about being dead.”

Facebook post. 1 June 2011.

Having thus extended ourselves, having learned and internalized the electric world of the computer, and having allowed our very brain synapses to be rewired, we carry the physical experience of an electric “all-at-onceness” into the Body Worlds gallery with us (McLuhan & Zingrone 5). It’s part of our personal baggage now, such that we (each differently) engage in the tactile event of connecting science and religion. Progress meets up with our notions of death, of life-long learning, health and the afterlife. Billboards and playful displays all make splayed human tissue a possible draw. Like bargain hunting for what’s new and neat at the mall or curiosity shop, we flock to the cadaver as a pop art icon and have our personal favorites, mine being The Body Thinker who displays the nerves extending from the spine while he sports an attitude of calm self-respect.

Today, in the much greater junkyard of entertainment

and advertising presented on radio and television, the child

has access to every corner of the cultures of the world, past

and present. Roaming this vast jungle as a “hunter” the child

feels like a primitive native of a totally new

kind of environment

—McLuhan, From Cliché 182

The masterful idea of presenting the human body as a travelling road show (conducting business to challenge Cirque du Soleil) begins “where all the ladders start/ In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart” (Yeats qtd. in McLuhan Cliché 20). It begins with a reaching into the heart to pull out an antique treasure; the cliché cadaver probe becomes art object and emblem of progressive science toward learning, entertainment and business innovation. McLuhan’s tetrad—the notion that new technologies always enhance something, render something obsolete, retrieve something previously obsolete, and reverse something—lets us arrive at a series of unsettled conclusions about the effect of the cadaver’s playful presence in society, conclusions that keep the question open.

As if we have suddenly gained x-ray vision, these mid-action cadavers are quite unaware we can see beneath their skin, but certainly our vision seems enhanced. As well, the condition of rigour mortis is certainly enhanced in these permanently stiffened bodies. But where is the value in that? Put another way, tissue decay is reversed: these bodies won’t so quickly transform into molecules and soil now—gone is the poetic cycling of the dead back into earth and life. Absent is the possibility of organ donation. The textbook is less exciting than the cadaver; although it risks boring the reader who is unused to sitting still, an anatomy text can reveal molecular processes of the nephron’s juxta-glomerular apparatus and the neuron’s sodium pump. These cadavers reveal only what’s visible to the human eye. Compared to Leonardo’s Anatomical Manuscript A, their muscles are not properly taut or relaxed, not convincingly illustrating the difficulty of being in the pose. What is really happening in the ways the structures of nerve endings differentiate for hot and cool stimuli or for pressure and pain is rendered obsolete; for these viewers, none of that matters. And yet, one aspect of the anatomy textbook is retrieved by Body Worlds in that cross-sections and open bellies are 3D versions of textual diagrams, just without their pastel colours; the textbook diagram has become tactile artifact because it is presented to us in an enveloping space of white noise of soft whispers. And because they are not primarily visual texts, we leave the criticism of visual culture at the threshold. The experience is as if we are finally grappling with Borges’ fabulously impossible metaphor of “a great circular book, whose spine is continuous and which follows the complete circle of the walls” (Borges).” We put on this “circular book,” complete with its entirely new emotional context, draping ourselves in equal parts ignorance and knowledge of these dead (Borges).

The biggest loss perhaps is the very rarity of the cadaver. When one leaves one’s body to science—to the unknown medical student—one’s gift carries a deep and self-less generosity; the gesture reflects a belief in education, an intimate exchange of ideas and a challenge to knowledge. In the word “education,” the root word ducere (to lead out) reveals the two-way exchange between student and cadaver that is already rich without an audience and is deserving of quieter reflection and perhaps a touch of laboratory humor. But just imagine one’s own cadaverous self as spectacle, or spectacle as part of the gift of giving, as it were, and the meaning of the gesture reverses from intimate and mutually respectful gift to public and exhibitory display.

One year in every ten

I manage it——

A sort of walking miracle, my skin

Bright as a Nazi lampshade

—Silvia Plath “Lady Lazarus

Most significant, I think, is what else is rendered obsolete: the body critical, the body in the context of history, politics, economics, and gender. The body is never neutral, is always contextual, except (at first glance) here; voice and agency are always somewhere. Would Silvia Plath’s images of a “Nazi lampshade” trigger, instead of the holocaust, a male form at Body Worlds with an entire envelope of skin drapped over one arm (see Figure 8)?

Figure 8

Figure 8.The entire organ of skin drapped over the arm.
“Jumping out of your skin in the new year” 14 Dec 2011.


In his personable biography, Douglas Coupland states that what makes McLuhan so “fresh and relevant” is his “focus on the individual in society, rather than on the mass of society as an entity unto itself” (142-3). McLuhan’s effect on social media choices has been huge in part because of his focus on the human sensorium and thus our individual response. Coupland suggests we regard McLuhan’s works as “an intricate and fantastically ornate artwork” that “creates its own language and then writes poetry with it” (142). So however he might confuse us in response to the cadaver’s balancing act in today’s culture, we can feel free to rearrange his points into new “poems” toward new meanings for the cadavers at Body Worlds: the poem’s speaker is implied in the technologies of plastination, and the arrangement of the words is guided by each viewer’s understanding of science, religion, notions of the dead in culture, and memories of his or her own dead. We participate in analysis, even as we question our participation and the business of paying to see cadavers.

cause dying is

perfectly natural; perfectly


it mildly lively (but


Is strictly


& artificial &

evil & legal

—e.e.cummings “dying is fine)but Death”

McLuhan sees “electric culture” as creating the “multiprobe [that] results in vast amounts of garbage” and returns the university scholar to a “primal state” (From Cliché 184). In his “Introduction” to From Cliché to Archetype—placed a little past the middle mark of the book because sections appear alphabetically—we are reminded that critical observation and fruitful analysis of Body Worlds must begin with a certain obvious and invisible “mound of refuse”: cliché and archetype (Yeats qtd. in McLuhan From Cliché 20). For McLuhan the printing press is the cliché’s source: Gutenberg is the “technology of imposing and impressing by means of fragmented and repeatable units,” none of which carry meaning of their own and so depend on a system of grammar and agreements about the meaning of a word (McLuhan From Cliché 119).

In his example of Ulysses, in which Joyce takes an old tale into the streets of Dublin to “explore contemporary consciousness,” archetype is “reversed” into cliché by moving the old tale into a new place, thus suggesting infinite repeatability (118). Sliding among the cadavers at Body Worlds I or II or IV, we appreciate the almost infinite possibilities for display, dollar signs in our eyes; imagine this going by the hosts of Dragon’s Nest. (Woody Allen’s next futuristic movie will include a background image of Body Worlds MCXI). As long as humans manage to wear their bodies out in unique ways—fashioning new and improved statements of strain combined with genetic bad luck—the repeatable unit of the letter becomes mere echo in planning the cadaver’s future.

...there is a paradox in cliché itself.

At the moment of truth it is tossed onto the scrap heap of the obvious an useless.

In retrospect, all new discoveries are obvious.

—McLuhan “Paradox” From Cliché 164

McLuhan claims, according to Philip Marchand, that the “one person who could see the invisible environment [...] was the artist;” to McLuhan, works of art function as an “advance warning system[s] of the effects of the new media on society” (168). Marchand goes on to say McLuhan argued new media held “almost animistic qualities” through which technologies “mated each other, produced offspring, and attacked and cannibalized each other” (169). Only the artist might just stop the maelstrom for a moment and let us see what we are subscribing to. Yet, Body Worlds presents the cadaver as pop art remix so as to grab the attention of the grade school teacher (with a science unit to cover) and to claim a precious spot in society—that of the artist: subversive, critically observant, and clutching a message in a bottle. The cadavers now are upright and happy, not dead on platters; they are “fragmented and repeatable units,” lending to McLuhan’s definition of technologies as effecting a “tribal” response, an always present moment, extending outward an “intimate psychological experience” (McLuhan From Cliché 119). McLuhan states,

For archaic or tribal man there was no past, no history. Always present. Today we experience a return to that outlook when technological breakthroughs have become so massive as to create one environment upon another, from telegraph to radio to TV to satellite. These forms give us instant access to all pasts. As for tribal man, there is for us no history. All is present, including the tribal man studied by Eliade. (McLuhan From Cliché 119)

Primitive or archaic life, according to Eliade in Cosmos and History, is characterized by an always present and “ceaseless repetition of gestures initiated by others” (McLuhan From Cliché 119). Certainly, Body Worlds invites one into a space where we can experience something largely untouched by human history and event—the human form. No wonder it’s so quiet.

We might agree the artist is “the one person who [can] see the invisible environment,” but we might not agree that the artist at Body Worlds is von Hagens. Perhaps the artist is ourselves, making something out of available materials of memory, knowledge, myth and even ignorance (Marchand 168). It’s a shifting question that calls for a glimpse at the use and abuse of another natural substance—the tree—equally open to manipulation toward new purpose driven meanings.

In a 2009 Enculturation collection, Derek Foster gives us ringside seats at an urban match of two masterful players, Kleenex and Greenpeace, where each pits against the other an opposing image that, like Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots, must unfold its given machinery and fight it out in the street. In “Kleer-cut(ting) Downtown: The Visual Rhetoric of Greenpeace’s Quest to Save the Boreal Forest,” Foster’s depiction of the fight of images is worth the visit: Greenpeace reconstructs a Kimberly-Clark paper product, complete with an adorable “dog-themed bus” (hear the inevitable awwh as it passes) in a great show of erecting a “giant Kleenex box in downtown city streets,” as if this giant object stands as not-tree and not-art, but which is all about the chopping down of the Boreal Forest (awwh becomes oh). Even hearing about this event, one comes to recognize the “Kleercut/Kleenex van” has dealt the superior punch.

For Foster, visual cues like these—and like cadavers at Body Worlds—are “a way of seeing” but “also a way of not seeing”; “a focus on object A involves a neglect of object B” (Burke qtd. in Foster). By Kleercut and by Kleenex, we are manipulated by the various appeals to our senses—the softness of a tissue, the sound of a forest disappearing into little boxes, a planet without oxygen—as we wrap ourselves in the meanings of natural and renewable resources rooted in life. At Body Worlds, we see not necessarily art and not necessarily science, and we must decide, from many possibilities, what these attractive dead mean to us. We are there to see but are even more distracted from our view of the cadavers. McLuhan, our leader in resistance to the specifics of dead human flesh, questions our very felt response. Reaction to art that occurs with one’s whole human sensorium is usually a good thing, allowing us to fully critique the work; but our vast and personal response eclipses what else is going on: all this is the manufacturer’s tool, and we are being toyed with. We forget to question the very provenance of the exhibit in both natural origins and technical ones. But, either because of a stroke in 1979 which left McLuhan unable to respond to others more than to declare, with varying degrees of excitement or frustration, “oh boy oh boy oh boy” or because he’d rather we engaged in our own critical analysis of the exhibition, McLuhan isn’t going to interpret this playfully advanced technology of the cadaver (Coupland 220). He’d rather leave us with the probe and make us think.

The “economy of the gift,” Margaret Atwood told me, is the exchange of what we are given in life and what we can make out of what we are given (Atwood). In consenting to have their bodies displayed, these cadavers maintain a “power to give” even after death (qtd. in Cary Wolfe 81). And “the ‘gift’ of death,” Derrida reminds us, is always given by the other (for “we never have an idea of what death is for us—indeed death is precisely that which can never be for us”) (qtd. in Cary Wolfe 84, 83). If these cadavers are not here for themselves, perhaps this is exhibit is not primarily for us either. Silent again, we search the room this time for evidence of McLuhan. These cadavers are like words and letters begging for arrangement into some new kind of poem: read it as enhancement, reversal, obsolescence or retrieval, or as concrete poetry or expressionist sound, or as sinister, cosmic, sacred—but read it. Decide what is it is to be engaged in living and non-living as spectacle and examiner, each viewer a moving point in an acoustic and tactile space. Decide whether McLuhan, surgeon of cultural circumstance, would say

we have wholly internalized Body Worlds

such that we are “free” to slip like “snake[s]” from our “own sweet agonized skin[s]” into the realm of the playful new cadaver (MacEwen 471). But the price is that we are then the “private pigment” of art show and advertising campaign; we are living illustrations of anatomy textbooks, echoes of former technologies (McLuhan qtd. in Tom Wolfe).

List of Figures

1 Billboard for Body Worlds: Exploration of the Mind at Stadium Skytrain Station. 14 May 2011. Vancouver, Canada. Photo: Slemon

2 Maureen Flynn-Burhoe. "Body Worlds 3: The Thinker | Art E. Rial." 2006. 14 Dec 2011. Used with permission.

3 Hailey Whitt. “The Nervous System, drawn at Body Worlds.” 2010. Slemon’s Science 201. Emily Carr University. Used with permission.

4 Carolina Perez. “The Femur, drawn at Body Worlds.” 2010. Slemon’s Science 201, Used with permission.

5 Billboard for Body Worlds: Exploration of the Mind at Granville Skytrain Station, Vancouver, Canada’s 14 May 2011. Photo: Slemon

6 Theunis Snyman. “Brain, bone and skin, drawn at Body Worlds.” 2010. Slemon’s Science 201. Emily Carr University. Used with permission.

7 “Well, it’s about being dead.” Facebook post. 1 June 2011. Screen photo: Slemon. Used with permission.

8 Swamibu. “Jumping out of your skin in the new year” 14 Dec 2011.

Works Cited

Atwood, Margaret. Personal communication, Vancouver International Writers & Readers Festival, October 1996.

Borges, Jorges Luis. The Library of Babel. 15 June 2011. Web.

Cavell, Richard. McLuhan In Space: A Cultural Geography. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002. Print.

Conrad, Daniel. Dir. Accident By Design: NFB: Dir. Daniel Conrad, NFB, 1998. Film.

Coupland, Douglas. Marshall McLuhan. Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2009. Print.

cummings, e.e. “dying is fine)but Death.” 20th Century Poetry and Poetics. Ed. 5. Ed. Gary Geddes. Don Mills: Oxford, 2006. 139. Print.

Foster, Derek. “Kleer-cut(ting) Downtown: The Visual Rhetoric of Greenpeace’s Quest to Save the Boreal Forest.” Enculturation. 6.2 (2009). 12 May 2011. Web.

Gossage, Howard Luck. “You Can See Why the Mighty Would Be Curious.” McLuhan: Hot and Cool.New York: New American Library, 1967. 20-30. Print.

MacEwen, Gwendolyn. “Manzini: Escape Artist.” 20th Century Poetry & Poetics. Ed. 5. Ed. Gary Geddes. Don Mills: Oxford UP, 2006. 471. Print.

McLuhan, Eric and Frank Zingrone. Essential McLuhan. Concord, Ont: BasicBooks, 1995. Print.

McLuhan, Marshall. Counter-blast. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1969. Print.

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

McLuhan, Marshall. “Inside the Five Senses.” Empire of the Senses. Ed. David Howes. New York: Berg Publishers, 2005. 43-54. Print.

McLuhan, Marshall. “Where the Hand of Man Never Set Foot.” McLuhan: Hot and Cool. New York: New American Library, 1967. 114-23. Print.

Marchand, Philip. Marshall McLuhan: the Medium and His Messenger. Toronto: Random House, 1989. Print.

Park, Katherine. Secrets of Women: Gender, Generation, and the Origins of Human Dissection. New York: Zone, 2006. Print.

Shakespeare, William. King Lear. Scarborough: Signet, 1963. Print.

Steigler, Bernard. Technics and time, I: the Fault of Epimetheus. Trans. Richard Beardsworth & George Collins. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1998. Print.

Slemon, Jane. “500 years: the cadaver—a self-portrait: Leonardo da Vinci’s Anatomical Manuscript A.” Vancouver Art Gallery, 20 April 2010. Lecture.

von Hagens, Gunther. No Skeletons in the Closet — Facts, Background and Conclusions. Institute for Plastination, November 17, 2003. Pdf.

Wolfe, Cary. What is Posthumanism? Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010. Print.

Wolfe, Thomas, Dir. Marshall McLuhan: The Man and his Message. Toronto: Broadcasting Corporation, 1984. Film.

Deleuze: (Neo)Expressivism in Composition

Joshua Hilst, Utah Valley State University

(Published May 16, 2012)

Apparently, Peter Elbow is cool again.1

An intense if ephemeral conversation on the WPA listserv in 2009 pertained to a Facebook quiz entitled “Which Comp Theorist Are You?” The quiz asked a series of questions about the user’s personality, interests, etc. The answers designated the quiz-taker as one important composition theorist or another (Robert J. Connors, Peter Elbow, and others) based on the answers. Reactions to the quiz from those on the listserv were highly unfavorable, as the descriptions of many of the given theorists ranged from merely disrespectful to insulting and even libelous (if you were a “Robert Connors,” the quiz suggested you were likely having an affair with a graduate student). Nevertheless, the ensuing discussion on the WPA listserv involved conversations about the relevance of Elbow and the school of expressionistic rhetoric as a whole. The conversation, while meant in jest, of course, also seems to suggest that expressionism has fallen out of favor—that it is a hopelessly naïve school of thought, thoroughly discredited in our field. And yet, the conversation also indicated that there remains something in those ideals of authenticity, honesty, and individual voice espoused by the major expressionists that keeps composition coming back—something that still draws us in as writing and rhetoric teachers. One responder on the listserv expressed of Elbow, “The humanity that is embedded in his writing is ultimately something to cherish no matter what one thinks, and if people call that naive, who cares” (Ewing). The comment seems to suggest that expressionism remains fundamentally affirmative, which is something to be cherished. Expressionism—a term that it is worth noting Elbow has historically rejected—has traditionally referred to a particular school of thought in rhetoric and composition dedicated to allowing students the freedom and room to express themselves through an authentic voice. While I will have more to say about the expressionism later, for now, I am focusing on it as a school of thought that encourages students to express a central self in discourse—a self that emerges through an authenticity of voice.

Here, I want to focus on a particular idea of rhetoric and rhetorical invention which is expressive (and may preserve, in some form or another, some of the commitments of the expressionists), but works from a wholly different conceptual starting place than an authentic voice or self.2 Gilles Deleuze, in two essential works for my argument—Expressionism in Philosophy: Spinoza and especially Bergsonism—formulates expression not as the discovery of a pre-existent and true self, but as something wholly different: “To be is to express oneself, to express something else, or to be expressed” (Expressionism in Philosophy 253). I want to focus here on the concept of such an expressivism--a Deleuzian expressivism3 that will work out of his concepts of expression and memory. While the concept of an expressive self, and a modernist self, in composition has been a theme of other scholars, I hope that the major contribution of my argument will be the specific focus on memory and how it is conceived by Deleuze. Commonly, we think of memory—the material of experience—as a valuable starting place from which to invent material. We commonly conceive of that memory as being stored in the mind. Memory, for Deleuze, is a powerfully expressive and inventive force that is not located in any one particular individual. Memory is a force that expresses itself through the individual—it is not an inert deposit of images lodged in the brain. I wish to focus on that memory and show its relation to invention (specifically as a source of invention) in rhetoric and composition. To focus on such expression, I will begin by examining the concept of memory and how Deleuze conceives of it. My purpose will be to move from this concept of memory toward concepts of invention that lend themselves to such an idea of memory. The purpose of the experiment, an expressive experiment, is to expand the concepts of inventive possibility.4 However, by working out of Deleuze, we locate expression and invention not in a transcendent self but in the virtual field of memory. The goal is not to reveal or discover a true self, but to see what emerges, what might be trying to express itself—a concept that will, I hope, become more clear through this argument.

After a brief overview of the role of memory in invention, I will sketch out Deleuze’s conception of expression, a complex and fundamental term in Deleuze’s thinking. I will then move on to his idea of the virtual and the actual, also looking at ontological and psychological memory, and bring these concepts to bear on writing. I will discuss specific compositions and methods from David Bartholomae and Robert Ray that highlight the possibilities of playing with memory. My aim is to highlight the importance of these concepts for rhetorical invention—a neo-expressivism that rethinks the idea of expression.

Memory and Expression

One immediate question that springs to mind is, “Why memory if the goal is invention?” Memory is, after all, the fourth of the rhetorical canons as they are typically arranged.5 The most basic reason is that memory, from antiquity, is seen as being linked with, and in some ways prior to, invention. Consider that the author of the Ad Herennium considers memory to be a “storehouse” (thesaurum) of ideas invented, as well as the “custodian” (custodem) of the other parts of rhetoric (Book III, XVI). We might think of memory as the wellspring of the other parts of rhetoric, but especially invention. Moreover, memory has precisely such an intimate linkage to invention in the works of the expressionists. Ken Macrorie suggests, “Go back to your rooms and try harder than ever before in your life to write truths—not the truth—whatever that is, but your truthful memory of an event in your life you can’t forget” (5). Memory here can be regarded as the starting place of invention. That is to say, one must work from one’s own personal memory in order to write in an authentic and personal voice, distinct from anyone else. Similarly, Elbow argues, in Writing with Power, that the writer might begin with first thoughts, asking us to write from memory: “Do it even before you have done any reading, research, planning, or new thinking about your topic . . . You will discover much more material than you expected. And not just feelings and memories either: there are probably solid facts and ideas you forgot you had” (61). In other words, one must delve into the realm of memory to mine the material that will become the stuff of invention. The material exists within the memory of the individual. It is the responsibility of the composing process to yield that material. Again, Elbow writes in Embracing Contraries, “Perceiving is not so much like a camera’s taking into itself an image of what is outside; it is more nearly like constructing or sculpting or drawing something from fragments of a view (or fragments of many views, since the eyes refuse to remain still)” (240). Elbow proposes that perception and memory form the basis from which an expressive invention works. Although the concept of memory as prior to invention might be another argument for another day, let us recognize that here, as elsewhere, I am wholly sympathetic to Elbow’s view about the invention of memory. If the previously mentioned listserv conversation is any indication, many people are sympathetic to this idea as well. The idea that we can express from out of memory might account for much of what seems so “human” about their writing. However, if we are to address that humanity, then we must also look at the naiveté, as Elbow and Macrorie’s views on the origins of that memory draw criticism.

James Berlin’s attempts at mapping the field of composition produced some of the major critiques of expressionism. In “Rhetoric and Ideology in the Writing Class,” he ties the lineage of expressionism to an elitist 19th century rhetoric. Expressionism, he claims, locates its emphasis in the individual subject, a Cartesian cogito, par excellence. Expressionistic writing both discovers and creates a true, core self that lies behind everything else, a “self discovered and expressed” (484). Elsewhere, Berlin6 ties the lineage of expressionistic rhetoric clear back to Plato, for its emphasis on a subjectively ascertained (or for Elbow, constructed) truth: knowable but not necessarily communicable. Victor J. Vitanza challenged rhetoric and composition to critique such an ideal in his “Three Countertheses: A Critical In(ter)vention into Composition Theories and Pedagogies.” In the second counterthesis, Vitanza most clearly challenges a traditional expressionism: “The second counterthesis centers on the Nietzschean-Freudian question Who speaks when something is spoken? (It’s a question of author[ship].) For Habermas and the rest of the humanist tradition, human beings speak” (152). For Elbow, Macrorie, and others, Vitanza says, human beings speak. In speaking, the assumption is that students (indeed, all writers) express themselves through an authentic voice. We, as instructors of rhetoric and writing, can help them to find such a voice. For those who regard the self as a constructed and not a received concept, the idea that only humans speak (for Vitanza) or that the self is behind other things and not socially constructed (for Berlin) can prove to be a limiting one. From another perspective, much more than human beings can speak, and much more can speak through human beings.

To see how something else can be expressed through the writer, and how that fits in with this idea of memory, I turn to Deleuze’s concept of memory, and how it unfolds and can be, of itself, a creative force.

Expression, Virtuality, and Actuality7

Expression is a fundamental concept for Deleuze. Still, to express oneself is only one aspect of expression--one can be expressed, and one can express something else altogether. Deleuze’s fullest treatment of expression is found in Expressionism in Philosophy: Spinoza. Traditionally, philosophy has divided existence into two or more substances (mind and body, matter and spirit, etc.). Typically, when this happens, one substance must designated as superior to another, meaning that it transcends the lesser substance. Deleuze draws on the concept of “univocity” from Spinoza, who suggests that all substance is of a single kind (there is only one kind of being), but that substance expresses itself in different attributes (for our purposes here, mental and physical—or “thought” and “extension” to use the technical terms). These attributes then express themselves in various modes (such as this or that thought, or this or that body). A particular body or thought is a modulation of an attribute, and that attribute is an expression of substance. Deleuze remarks, “[W]e conceive [an attribute] as attributing its essence to something that remains identical for all attributes, that is, to necessarily existing substance” (Expressionism in Philosophy 45). Todd May expounds Deleuze’s point when he says, “Attributes attribute, or express, an essence. Substance expresses itself through its attributes” (37). Deleuze reverses a traditionally received concept: that existence is composed of more than a single kind. If we stay with the claim that there are multiple kinds of being (mind, body, spirit, matter, etc.), then we fall into the dilemma of having to explain how those different substances interact. We could think here of Descartes’ famous proclamation that mind and body interact in the pineal gland. Instead, Deleuze would have us see all being as one kind—substance—and that substance expressing itself in attributes (thought and extension, although the attributes are actually infinite, says Spinoza). A particular thought that I have is a mode. Throughout this process, we must remember that substance remains immanent to particular modes. A certain thought is a mode of an attribute, in which substance is expressed.

Thus expression takes place through the folding and refolding of that substance. Deleuze’s favored terms are explication and implication. He writes, “Expression is on the one hand an explication, and unfolding of what expresses itself, the One manifesting itself in the Many (substance manifesting itself in its attributes, and these attributes manifesting themselves in their modes)” (Expressionism in Philosophy 16). So substance expresses itself in attributes, and attributes express in modes (e.g., specific bodies or thoughts). However, expression does not imply a sense of hierarchy or transcendence, which would have more in common with the Platonic forms. Rather, we must understand “multiple expression...involves Unity. The One remains involved in what expresses it, imprinted in what unfolds it, immanent in whatever manifests it: expression is in this respect an involvement” (Expressionism in Philosophy 16). Substance explicates—it unfolds, expressing itself in attributes—by evolving. However, substance remains immanent to those attributes and modes, rather than transcendent. It remains implicated, involved with the phenomena, rather than in another place. Substance is always one, but a one that expresses itself in infinite ways. For this reason, Byron Hawk, in A Counter-History of Composition, can rightly claim that “expression is not of a subjective mind but of a whole social, textual, and material field” (200). More than humans express themselves: the virtual expresses itself, and does so through particular bodies and thoughts. The movement or unfolding through which this expression takes place is between two additional key concepts, the virtual and the actual.

Deleuze explains that the virtual is, in a word, difference. Difference, for Deleuze, remains primary to everything. One would normally think of difference as the “whatever-it-is” that comes between two identities. In looking at the “difference” between a car and a computer, I might identify any number of things that are different between them. These would be the differences between identities, the identities being “car” and “computer.” However, Deleuze asks us to consider things in another way. He asks us to consider a difference not in the interstices between things that are, but instead a primary difference, prior to any conceptual framing. All things that come to be unfold from difference. For Deleuze, “Difference is behind everything, but behind difference there is nothing” (Difference and Repetition 57). We might say that the things which come to be might come to be in any number of ways, with no necessary reason for them to become in one way and not in another. If the difference were “different” enough, we can say that there are infinite ways that difference actualizes.8

Deleuze posits such a difference as a virtual field. The virtual is a field (or a realm) of pure difference. We might say it is composed of “elements,” but not elements in the sense that they are identical to themselves as elements. The virtual has no identity. In fact, when we speak of the virtual, Deleuze would argue that we aren’t representing it in any way. Instead, May uses the term “palpating” (Gilles Deleuze 20). Traditionally a medical term, palpating refers to the act of pressing down on the skin to detect a subsurface injury. Rather than rip open the skin to find something (doing more harm than good), a doctor palpates an injury, feeling the epidermis to determine the damage underneath. In the same way, we can palpate the virtual, seeing where it is at work, even if the virtual is not something that can itself be “seen.”

Since difference has no identity, we can’t identify it through words, but we can palpate it. We can, in a way, sense its presence or see its effects. The virtual (difference) is that from which things become. The things that we see, the phenomena of our experience are differentiated from the virtual: actualized. Still, we must remember that they are of a common substance (as I have shown). An analogy (given by May) from biology might help to clarify:

Think of genetic information. Our genes store information about us. They contribute that information in the process of our growth. But the information itself is not in the genes in any actual way. One cannot look at someone’s genes under a microscope and find it lying there on the slide, available to vision. As the genes unfold, the information becomes apparent in the actual world; the person becomes what the information formatted that person to become. But the information itself, even though it exists, does not exist in actuality. It exists virtually in the structure of the genes. (Gilles Deleuze 48)

Likewise, the virtual is different in kind from the actual, but it is very real.9 The process is one by which the virtual differentiates itself along certain lines. Moreover, these actualizations are not stable entities. The virtual continuously unfolds and then refolds itself. Hence, there are always processes of becoming: being is never stable.

For Deleuze, the past and memory are a virtual field, and particular memories are expressions (modes) of this field. The past is always with us, and so distinct from abstract ideals such as Plato’s forms. Not a transcendent ideal in which our memory participates, Deleuze terms the virtual field of the past “ontological memory.” At this level (the virtual one), each of our pasts contain the entire past. There is no “your past,” “my past,” “her past,” “it’s past”--there is only the past. When we recall a memory (which Deleuze, after Bergson, calls the “recollection-image”), it involves a leap into ontological (virtual) memory. From the virtual field of the past, of ontological memory, a recollection-image is differentiated into an actual psychological memory. When I have a psychological memory, unfolded from ontological memory, I have a recollection-image.

Recollection precedes perception, according to Deleuze and Bergson. We move from a recollection—actualized from out of the virtual field of memory—to a perception. Memory is the virtual field from which recollections unfold. This distinction is key for making a separation between traditional expressionism and a Deleuzian expressivism: when anything is remembered, and expressed, it is always far more than just “I” who expresses. Something emerges through me. This body and these thoughts are modes of expression. We can best see that virtual at work when thinking departs from its normal trajectories and into newer and different ways of thinking to which we are unaccustomed.

With this view of expression in mind, we are uninterested in locating a stable subject from which expression emerges. We don’t have a stable being who expresses. Instead we look for what wants to be expressed. More to the point, we are eventually looking for language, since we are discussing composition, after all. Here, the idea of palpating becomes especially valuable. Language can help us to catch a glimpse of a fuller concept of memory. We can see the virtual at work in the language, but that palpation usually takes place when we disrupt the normal “image of thought”—the idea that thinking must work in a particular way. In writing, so the argument goes—we must demonstrate that good, commonsense way of thinking. Our language does not “represent” the virtual, but it can help us to palpate it. I will show, in just a bit, how backing away from an authorial and authoritative “I” can be used advantageously. Nevertheless, we can find not a unique voice, but multiple unique voices (and non-voices) that might emerge through us. This is a memory that precedes and is actively involved in invention. Not only does it precede invention, memory is itself inventive. It creates and it expresses itself. I (inasmuch as I can refer to myself as a whole in such a way) am something through which this creative force can express itself. While we will not represent that expression in language, there are times and places where we palpate that memory. To get there, I will look at other forms and methods of invention. However, I will first go back to traditional expressionism in an effort to differentiate neo-expressivism from the more customary form.

Expression and Experimentation

I will now turn to some discussion of the expressionist school of thought.10 My purpose in the discussion is to see how the commitments of expressionism translate (or do not translate) to the Deleuzian expressivism I am advocating.

The expressionist school of rhetoric grew out of a number of needs, but according to Christopher Burnham’s overview, a predominant need was a response to current-traditional rhetoric (21-2). Macrorie pronounces it most succinctly: “Most English teachers have been trained to correct students’ writing, not to read it; so they put down those bloody correction marks in the margins” (11). If drilling in grammar and learning the “rules” of good English are constitutive of good writing, then it stands to reason that simple corrective procedures and marks ought to get the job done. However, many compositions found such methods produced only a stilted discourse that Macrorie famously called “Engfish.”11 A better way, which came to be known as expressionism, was a focus on writing in a more natural voice, to use experiences, to try to get at “deeper truths” that simple instruction in orthography could not get at.

Rather than encouraging students to write stilted if grammatically correct prose, the project of expressionism sought to aid students in writing well through more personal discourse. For Macrorie, to help students write well is to develop the ability tell the truth, to write with a degree of honesty. It stands in contradistinction to current-traditional rhetoric, which more often than not goads students into producing what they think the teacher wants to hear--an inauthentic prose. Rather, in authentic, personal prose, an authentic self might be discovered. As James L. Kinneavy writes, “This carrying out of a project is the essence of the act of expression. Expression is therefore the structuring of a field of reality in order to realize a project, and this realization gives self-hood to the For-Itself” (401). As one discovers the self through writing, one establishes a central term for much of expressionist rhetoric: voice.

Peter Elbow’s career project has been, in many senses, to help students to write with a distinctive and personal voice. The argument is that when writing is distinct, it is better, and when it is personal, it is connected to something that is outside the strict confines of the classroom. For Elbow, voice is the distinctive aspect of the writing. Writing with voice means command and control over the language: “What made these writers skilled was their superior control: their ability to produce just the effect they wanted upon readers” (Writing with Power 285). Additionally, Elbow seeks to connect writing with a number of pursuits in life, not simply those confined to a classroom.12 Among his earliest works was Writing without Teachers, in which he enjoins composition to produce the teacherless writing class: a group of people who come together to share and respond to one another’s writing. The value of such a class is the connection the writer makes with other like-minded individuals: “Writing is a string you send out to connect yourself with other consciousnesses” (Writing without Teachers 77). Through the teacherless writing class, writers can understand what sorts of connections their writing has with other people. In this sense, Elbow connects writing with Mary Carruthers’ work in The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture, where she suggests that the composition process is not complete until the composition has been read by others. The fullness of composition exists in the connection that the writing makes with other people (contrary to the reductive view that expressionism is solipsistic). Sharon Crowley argues by way of Carruthers: “In medieval memorial culture, to ‘read’ meant to store in memory, to rework, and to comment on the productions of other memories” (40). The composing process that Carruthers and Crowley illuminate is one of connection between memories. If something like an expressive self is to emerge, it is only within the context of other writers that such a self comes about at all. Such is the composing process of the teacherless writing class—a self, but one that comes about through the sharing and co-relation of texts.

However, it is worth noting that the simplistic sense of voice as subject is incorrect. Elbow does not necessarily make a simple equation between voice and subjectivity. In his introduction to Landmark Essays on Voice and Writing, he delineates several models of voice, preferring “that none of these senses of voice imply or require any particular theory of identity or self. We can have whatever ideological position we want and still agree with others in using the term voice” (“Introduction” xlii). Moreover, he establishes that there are a myriad of voices that “feel” (Elbow’s term) like something “I” would say. Nevertheless, situations arise when “we experience our writing or speaking or thinking somehow not like us--somehow artificial or pretended or distanced or stilted” (“Introduction” xliii). He then goes on to discuss two positions on voice that most writers negotiate: the “sentimental” position and the “sophisticated voice.” In the former we find a “true voice” that “will conquer all difficulties” (“Introduction” xliv). This is the voice of authority, the voice that reveals the self underneath. In the latter, we find what he calls “sophisticated voice,” or the voice that says there is no true “person” underneath all the smoke and mirrors: “Your sense of ‘you’ is just an illusion of late Romantic, bourgeois, capitalism. Forget it. You have no self. There is no such thing. You are nothing but roles.” Elbow indicates that writers negotiate between these positions, rarely (if ever) choosing only one in practice. So then, one of the common interpretations (see Berlin here) of expressionism as positing a solipsistic subject untouched by the social realm is perhaps especially simplistic. Elbow counters by saying voice and subjectivity are not necessarily the same. There are many voices that speak—approaching the dialogism of Bakhtin—and the writer negotiates these. Yet we should still consider that for Elbow, he maintains a commitment to a more authentic voice. He is ultimately in favor of a voice that feels like something I would say.

Like Elbow, I am interested in voice. However, I would like to see the possibility for a number of voices, even possibly those that don’t feel natural and ones that feel distinctly artificial. Indeed, we might seek voices that revel in concept of artifice. An artificial tone does not necessarily have to mean Engfish—it can mean something much more inventive. It can mean something that creates an entirely new perspective: on the self, on the world, on language. Remember that for Deleuze, to be means that I express, I am expressed, or that something expresses itself through me. Expression, then, experiments with selves, with forces, and with voice. For Deleuze, expression is not to express a prior self, nor a transcendent consciousness, but rather a self is expressed as it unfolds. Moreover, it is involved in what it expresses, immanent to it. It is not that the self is invented in expression; if anything, the “self” as an autonomous unit is lost in recognizing expression. Forces intersect at the point we call the self, memory being one of those forces. In realizing expression, we recognize that other forces always express themselves through what I call “myself.” Thus, we are always in flux; writing can help us to see (to palpate) such a flux. In “Literature and Life”—and here I would closely relate Deleuze’s word “literature” with writing and composition—Deleuze attests, “Literature rather moves in the direction of the ill-formed or the incomplete. . . . Writing is a question of becoming, always incomplete, always in the midst of being formed, and goes beyond the matter of any livable or lived experience” (1). Deleuze advocates moving beyond our experience, and beyond any sense of natural voice, and towards becoming something else. Looking to the artifice of voice, Deleuze asks us to experiment with voices and find ways to see that flux. So where traditional expressionism focuses on our experience, a Deleuzian neo-expressivism would try to move past it: past a distinct self (even if it is the authentic self that emerges through community with others), past our lived experiences, towards a more fluid voice-non-voice.

Deleuze continues, “Writing is inseparable from becoming: in writing, one becomes-woman, becomes-animal or vegetable, becomes-molecule to the point of becoming-imperceptible” (“Literature and Life” 1). Here might be his most fundamental challenge to expressionism: becoming-imperceptible. We might take him to mean something other than voice, an anti-voice. For Elbow, voice is a fundamental means of writing with power, of expressing oneself or one’s identity. But a lack of voice can be an asset. Again, Deleuze avers:

To become is not to attain a form (identification, imitation, Mimesis) but to find a zone of proximity, indiscernibility, or indifferentiation where one can no longer be distinguished from a woman, an animal, or a molecule--neither imprecise nor general, but unforeseen and nonpreexistent, singularized out of a population rather than determined in a form. (“Literature and Life” 1)

The point Deleuze makes here (and rhetoric and composition should take his lead) is not to find what I think I want, but rather to experiment and to ask, with Vitanza, “What is it that writing wants? I suspect that ‘writing’ does not want what either the uni-versity thinks it needs nor what ‘we’ think we want” (“Abandoned to Writing” par.8). The question here remains appropriate, because as we have seen, memory expresses itself; memory creates. So then, if memory is creative, it must then want something for itself. In asking what writing wants, Vitanza recognizes that he is expressed, and that it is not only he that expresses.

The point is to experiment, to see what might happen. In so doing, we respond to the question of life: how might living happen? Writing provides a tool for precisely the experimentation I seek, because it can bring together various metonymic fragments of life and memory that re-work into new forms and possibly even allow for new lines of flight to develop. Through thinking we invent new possibilities of life, as Deleuze once remarked in Nietzsche and Philosophy (101). Writing provides a tremendous means for inventing those possibilities by allowing us to palpate difference. The framework of Deleuzian neo-expressivism calls for writing that allows for much more than proclaiming a truth, establishing a voice, and telling personal experience. However, it does trek with expressionism in some ways. Like expressionism, Deleuzian expressivism seeks a writing that is far more than classroom practice, and that does open up room for experimentation. It also looks for, not voice, but non-voice. Remember that if the virtual can actualize in multiple ways, then we can always experiment to see what comes about. I seek a writing that challenges voice in favor of memory and expression. Examples of such writing can be found, and I will turn to them now.

In “The Tidy House: Basic Writing in the American Curriculum,” David Bartholomae describes one of the most significant student essays he ever received as a young teacher. Asking the students to respond to a question about Sartre, existence, and essence, one student named Quentin Pierce, submitted the following:

Man will not survive, he is a[n] asshole.


The stories in the books [are] mean[ing]less stories and I will not

elaborate on them[.] This paper is mean[ing]less, just like the book, But I know the paper will

not make it.


. . .

I don’t care.

I don’t care.

about man and good and evil I don’t care about this shit fuck this shit, trash and should be put in the trash can with this shit

Thank you very much

I lose again. (qtd. in Bartholomae 313-14)

I’m hardly the first to write about the Pierce paper, as both Thomas Rickert and Geoffrey Sirc have focused on it since David Bartholomae first published it.13 Nevertheless, it has become a source of fascination to a number of scholars. Like Rickert, I don’t mean to tout the essay as a masterpiece of first year writing, neither do I want to make the student into any sort of liberating antihero. But there seems to be something about the response that this essay represents that keeps rhetoric and composition coming back. Perhaps, like expressionism itself, it is affirmative. Bartholomae is obviously intrigued as well, hence his choosing to write about it not immediately, but some years after its initial receipt. He says, “I was not prepared for such a paper. In a sense, I did not know how to read it” (“The Tidy House” 314). Bartholomae intimates the remarkable power of this paper in indicating that he chose to keep it for 18 years before realizing better how he might read it. I don’t meant to imply that I could read it better—far from it, in fact. However, I too am intrigued by its potential. It enacts a writing that questions pedagogy, and in so doing challenges conceptions of authenticity and voice. For Deleuze, experimentation serves as the means of discovering other possibilities. I see the potential in the writing as an experiment, an experiment in voice—Bartholomae notably admits he did not take it as “an expression of who Quentin Pierce ‘really was’” (314)—by which the student embraces a lack of voice, and a lack of empowerment as a means of resisting the game of knowledge. He instead experiments, introducing what Vitanza has called “postmodern theatricks” (“Three Countertheses” 158), cutting up his answer into fragments, and answering back with what Bartholomae calls a “fuck you.”

The choice against voice as a means of allowing certain other forces to flow embodies what Deleuze calls “becoming-imperceptible” (“Literature and Life” 1). Ian Buchanan illuminates this concept well, reasoning that becoming-imperceptible has little if anything to do with invisibility, but is much more like “an externalisation of an impulse which, when released into the world, takes on an exuberant life and existence of its own” (52). If anything, becoming-imperceptible refers to the self moving out of the way so that these forces can flow freely. Where the focus of expression is to write with a degree of power in order to express oneself, here the student has chosen to work within such a context, but has found an experiment with the form—an “impulse to . . . get outside of and beyond one’s self” (Buchanan 52)—in a way not easy for expressionism to assimilate. It persists as a difficult text precisely because it seems to so actively lack a student subject. If the goal is to establish an authentic voice on the way to a kind of mastery of discourse (Vitanza calls it, after Nietzsche, the will-to-knowledge), then the student has certainly not met those goals. The voice—which I again would argue is a becoming-imperceptible—is neither Engfish, nor is it a bold writing with authority. The student acknowledges at the end, “I lose again.” Here he makes his lack of power a site for resistance. He challenges it not as a doer, but by refusing to accept the position of student engaged in the game of knowledge, and instead gives a response outside the possibilities for pedagogy. It speaks a truth, but most likely one closer to Vitanza’s three countertheses: a refusal, a resistance, an in(ter)vention into the game of knowledge. The student simply refuses to play. But his refusal stumbles upon a mode of expression that is far more interesting.

I would argue that the response lies outside the purview of self-expression as advocated by Macrorie and Elbow. It expresses something, but it refuses to play the game of knowledge. However, in the sense of expressivism, advocated by Deleuze, it might provide an interesting beginning to an experiment that questions pedagogy itself. The student will not take on the mantle of voice, will not be “empowered,” will not write with authority. He even beats the instructor to the punch with his final line: “I lose again.” Before he can be failed, he’ll declare it himself.

Film Expresses Itself14

It may be an odd thing to consider that film can express itself in writing, and I’m not talking about screenplays. Specifically, students might express a film, rather than a self. Film might express itself in my own writing. Robert Ray’s use of cinematic technique in the study of film and, more specifically, writing about film represents an attempt to change the trajectory and the nature of film studies. Ray works out of surrealist technique, utilizing some Surrealist methods and means to write and think with film. Like others who work in aleatory methods (methods that rely on chance), Ray seeks methods that have a way of re-enchanting older methods. Ray writes,

The desire for a transformed everyday life, the faith in chance, the reliance on automatism and collaboration, the delight in provocation, the taste for a mechanized eroticism, the belief in procedures rooted in “the arbitrary” and accomplished in distraction--these features of the movement have proved abidingly seductive. (44-5)

Ray sets about making such techniques and features of avant-garde art not only seductive, not only enchanting, but also useful for the work of film studies. The use of aleatory methods help to make such a move possible.

From Andres Breton, he takes what the Surrealists called the “exquisite corpse” game. The exquisite corpse was, for Breton and others, a means of using an old parlor game as an inventive tool.15 In Ray’s version of this game, we work in a group of three people. We begin with a question, such as “What is a ______?” and an answer, “A ______, ______, and ______.” The object after which the question asks is an object chosen from the film--it can be just about anything. We then work in a group to fill in answers to the blanks, using words chosen at random. The point is to take oneself out of an intentional position with regards to choosing the words directly. They should be pulled into the sentence in blind fashion. This process should be repeated about 25 times or so. The best questions and answers—and the “best” could be interpreted loosely—are then chosen as conceptual starting places for writing a paragraph or even brief essay about the film (Ray 49-58).

In his particular example, Ray uses The Maltese Falcon, a film in which the main character’s name is Sam Spade. We then select “spade” as an object from the film. So the question to answer becomes, “What is a spade?” The answers, in Ray’s example, are three random words: virus, icy, perfect. So the answer to the question is, “A virus, icy, and perfect.” This would be a particularly useful example, because we could envision how such an essay might work: Spade is a viral character, who infects the other characters from the film with aggression and paranoia. He is a cold character who sends Mary Astor off to her fate at the end without the slightest hint of sentimentality. His viral and icy nature are perfect, showing not the least bit of weakness or flaw in that cold exterior. Ray’s method is an aleatory one, seeking an open ended means of writing. It invents writing as a game, as a series of open puzzles. They are not designed to be solved in any traditional sense, but parsed. The particular questions and answers that can be used are whatever ones appeal most to the writers. Performing the method 25 times may yield several interesting results, or very few. The point is to see what comes about, and in what ways it can be used to make interesting commentaries about the films. Although hermeneutics are used (we do end up interpreting the film), we do not begin with methods or key words that will predetermine the results. We throw the dice in an effort to see what happens. Ray comments:

As a research method, the Exquisite Corpse game is typically Surrealist, working by fragmentation (the isolated detail), automatism (players producing elements only on the basis of their grammatical value), and recombination (the juxtaposition with unexpected adjectives). As a procedure, the game mimics photography, perhaps intentionally: as I have mentioned, Breton once described automatic writing, a similar game, as a “true photography of thought.” (52-3)

The way in which Ray’s method works with and through film becomes its value. It is not so much a stream-of-consciousness technique as a technique that tries to avoid locating itself in a specific consciousness by opening up invention to a world outside of the conscious self. In utilizing his method, we can back away from the concept of expression as the expression of a self, and we instead seek a way for something else to be expressed in writing: other memories, other films, and other expressions.


What writing can offer us, then, (and specifically these writings) is a means for experimentation and for invention. What rhetoric and composition needs are Deleuzian concepts: expression (in the renewed sense) and experimentation. I am interested in student writings that explore how they might exploit flaws in pedagogy: the misdirected ways in which we try to “help” students discover voice and gain power in their writing. Rather I am interested in discovering and reveling in the interstices and gutters.16

An ontological memory, being a field of pure difference, and actualizing differently, presents a more experimental model than traditional expressivism, if, and only if, we can create new forms of testimony and expression. When we actualize new forms of memory from the virtual, we find infinite new possibilities for undoing that ground and to find, still, always more memory to work and re-work. In so doing, we find far more than the expression of a prior self, and more than finding an “authentic voice.” We find new ways of living, and new ways of seeing the world that open up to us when we palpate difference. Ontological memory unfolds—expresses—itself, differently within each of us. (It isn’t necessarily even an individual that we must speak of. Deleuze posits no transcendent subject perceiving all things. Deleuze is interested in groups, in movements, in societies and in proliferating forms of life). We can open up and see that memory when we experiment with different forms—to break up the common image of thinking.

Rickert argues that pedagogy presents a “forced choice” to students, those choices function dictating in advance what is possible and eliminating, among other things, surprise. The examples I have looked at seek to transgress this model. Working in favor of the virtual, the unexpected, surprise, generates an endlessly renewable model, since the virtual can actualize in infinite ways. I see the beginnings of such a potential in the essay by Bartholomae’s student and Ray’s method. Both of these represent attempts not at expressing the self, but expressing something else. In the first case, the student works at a becoming-imperceptible, playing with the falsehood in “choosing” an academic voice, and playing with the artifice of creating another voice. In the second case, we play with different memories, and different expressions.

As mentioned before, much of this argument hinges on the second of Vitanza’s three countertheses: “Who speaks when something is spoken?” (152). If it is a stable ego, a human subject, that speaks, then the logical corollary of this idea is to find the most natural voice appropriate so that I can speak as honestly as possible. If, however, it is not an I, or rather if that I is expressed just as much and as often as it expresses, then writing becomes about much more. Writing becomes a quest to find what it is that is trying to be expressed, and trying to become-imperceptible to whatever is expressing itself. It becomes a bold experiment, to try and construct other voices and non-voices. Writing becomes about finding new ways to look at and think about the world. This is what Deleuze offers expressionism, and what he offers to composition. In the end, I find many things to want to preserve about expressionism (voice and connectedness among them). I find a strong connection with memory, especially as it is traditionally conceived not in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, but rather how it has been conceived throughout the past. Sharon Crowley affirms, “If memory and invention are as closely associated as I think they are, it follows that a rhetoric that occults the role of memory will give less attention to invention than one that does not” (39). Memory is a custodian of invention, but because memory is itself creative (rather than constituted by individual bits of data “stored” in the brain), it can create in different ways. It is not constrained by this or that individual, but can reach out across individuals and explore different means of connection.


1 My great thanks to Christa Albrecht-Crane and Cynthia Haynes, as well as Mykle Law for their assistance in editing this article and their valuable insights.

2 Much has been written on the idea of the modernist subject in composition, so I do not wish to suggest that this line of critique is absolutely new. For some examples of other lines of critique, see Davis, “Finitude’s Clamor; Or, Notes Toward a Communitarian Literacy” and Rickert’s Acts of Enjoyment: Rhetoric Žižek and the Return of the Subject, in addition to many of the other works cited here, such as Vitanza’s “Three Countertheses” and Hawk’s A Counterhistory of Composition.

3 Although the terms often vacillate between expressionism and expressivism, I will (wherever possible) use the term expressionism to refer to the traditional rhetorical school associated with Elbow, Donald Murray, Ken Macrorie, and others. This is the term employed by Berlin in “Rhetoric and Ideology in the Writing Class,” although he does use “expressivism” in Rhetoric and Reality and elsewhere. I will use expressivism to the Deleuzian theory I am outlining here.

4 On the subject of pedagogy as experiment, see also John Muckelbauer’s The Future of Invention, especially chapter 7, where he enjoins us “with a single, unambiguous piece of practical teaching advice: experiment (because you already are)!” (122).

5 For an expansive overview of memory in rhetoric and composition, see Rhetorical Memory and Delivery: Classical Concepts for Contemporary Composition and Communication, John Frederick Reynolds (ed.).

6 See Rhetoric and Reality (11)

7 My own interpretation of Deleuze is indebted to Todd May and his book on Gilles Deleuze. Although I have used his book in addition to Deleuze’s works and cited May throughout, any unforeseen lapses in reading and interpretation are purely my own.

8 For more on this concept of the virtual and its applicability to rhetoric, see Alex Reid’s superb book, The Two Virtuals:New Media and Composition (West Lafayette: Parlor Press, 2007).

9 On one level, it may sound as though the virtual is another rehashing of Plato’s forms, but recognizing the distinction here is crucial. Deleuze tells us that the virtual is Platonic in inspiration (Bergsonism 44), but it differs with Plato’s description of the forms. For Plato, the things are more real depending upon the degree to which they participate in the forms, more true to the extent that they participate in the forms. A chair is more real to the degree that it participates in the form of chairness. Chairness serves as a form transcendent to the chair, above it or outside of it. But the virtual is not transcendent to the actual or to the phenomena of experience. For Deleuze, the virtual is just as real as the actual and always present (remember, being is univocal). That is, the virtual is immanent, not a transcendent form. As such, the virtual is very much immanent to the actual. Throughout Expressionism in Philosophy: Spinoza, Deleuze lays out his thought of immanence, an “expressive immanence [which] cannot be sustained unless it is accompanied by a thoroughgoing conception of univocity . . . of univocal Being” (34). The virtual field is not above somewhere, but here with us—a One both implicated and explicated in phenomena.

10 Time does not permit an exhaustive (or even especially thorough) discussion of expressionism. Obviously, expressionism is a broad term referring to a number of composition theorists. Nevertheless, the point is to focus on certain general commitments of expressionism and especially, what is expressed when something is expressing.

11 The term is most often associated with his book Telling Writing, where he calls “Engfish” a false, hollow, and arid prose that students learn to write in the academy.

12 It is perhaps in this sense that he is most different from scholars such as David Bartholomae, who claim that our job as writing instructors is to help students learn the rhetorics of the academy. See the Bartholomae-Elbow exchange in “Writing with Teachers: A Conversation with Peter Elbow” CCC 46.1 (Feb. 1995): 62-71.

13 Bartholomae originally printed the essay in “The Tidy House: Basic Writing in the American Curriculum,” while Sirc discusses the essay in “Never Mind the Tagmemics, Where’s the Sex Pistols?” and Rickert in the final chapter of Acts of Enjoyment.

14 While it may seem somewhat unusual to discuss film expressing itself with respect to memory, Deleuze is quite enthusiastic about the relation between memory and the cinematic. See Cinema 1: The Movement-Image and Cinema 2: The Time-Image (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press, 1986 and 1989) for the full treatment. For an accessible overview, see Gregory Flaxman’s excellent introduction to his edited collection, The Brain Is the Screen (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press, 2000: 1-60) or chapters 4 and 5 from Ronald Bogue’s outstanding Deleuze on Cinema (New York: Routledge, 2003: 107-164).

15 For more on the history and other uses of this game (and similar games) see The Exquisite Corpse: Chance and Collaboration in Surrealism's Parlor Game, eds. Kanta Kochhar-Lindgren, Davis Schneiderman, Tom Denlinger (Lincoln: U of Nebraska Press, 2009).

16 For the uninitiated, the “gutter” is a term from comics and graphic novels, and refers to the space between two panels: an interstitial space. In this space, a reader must imagine for herself what is happening in between panels. For more on the gutter, see Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics (New York: Harper Perennial, 1993). See also, my “Gutter Talk: (An)Other Idiom of Rhetoric” (JAC 31.1-2, 2011: 153-176).

Works Cited

Bartholomae, David. “The Tidy House: Basic Writing in the American Curriculum.” Writing on the Margins: Essays on Composition and Teaching. Boston: Bedford/ St. Martin’s, 2005. 312-326. Print.

Berlin, James. “Rhetoric and Ideology in the Writing Class.” College English 50.5(1988): 477-494. Print.

--. Rhetoric and Reality: Writing Instruction in American Colleges, 1900 – 1985. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1987. Print.

Buchanan, Ian. Deleuzism: A Metacommentary. Durham: Duke UP, 2000. Print.

Burnham, Christopher. “Expressive Pedagogy: Practice/Theory, Theory/Practice.” A Guide to Composition Pedagogies. Eds. Gary Tate, Amy Rupiper, Kurt Schick. New York: Oxford UP, 2001. Print.

Carruthers, Mary. The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990. Print.

[Cicero]. Rhetorica Ad Herennium. Loeb Classical Library. Trans. Harry Caplan. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1999. Print.

Crowley, Sharon. “Modern Rhetoric and Memory.” Rhetorical Memory and Delivery: Classical Concepts for Contemporary Composition and Communication. Ed. John Frederick Reynolds. Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1993. 31-44. Print.

Deleuze, Gilles. Bergsonism. Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam. New York : Zone Books, 1988. Print.

--. Difference and Repetition. Trans. Paul Patton. New York: Columbia UP, 1994. Print.

--. Expressionism in Philosophy: Spinoza. Trans. Martin Joughin. New York: Zone Books, 1992. Print.

--. “Literature and Life.” Essays Critical and Clinical. Trans. Daniel W. Smith and Michael A. Greco. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press, 1997. Print.

--. Nietzsche and Philosophy. Trans. Michael Hardt. New York: Columbia UP, 2006. Print.

Elbow, Peter. Embracing Contraries: Explorations in Teaching and Learning. New York: Oxford UP, 1986. Print.

--. “Introduction: About Voice in Writing.” Landmark Essays on Voice and Writing. Ed. Peter Elbow. Davis: Hermagoras Press, 1994. xi-xlvii. Print.

--. Writing with Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process, 2nd Ed. New York: Oxford UP, 1998. Print.

--. Writing without Teachers. New York: Oxford UP, 1973. Print.

Ewing, Patrick. “Re: Which Comp Theorist Are You?” Message to WPA Listserv. 9 April 2009. E-mail.

Hawk, Byron. A Counter-History of Composition: Toward Methodologies of Complexity. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh Press, 2007. Print.

Kinneavy, James L. A Theory of Discourse: The Aims of Discourse. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1971. Print.

Macrorie, Ken. Telling Writing. Rochelle Park: Hayden, 1970. Print.

May, Todd. Gilles Deleuze: An Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2005. Print.

Muckelbauer, John. The Future of Invention: Rhetoric, Postmodernism, and the Problem of Change. Albany: SUNY Press, 2009. Print.

Ray, Robert B. The Avant Garde Finds Andy Hardy. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2995. Print.

Reid, Alex. The Two Virtuals: New Media and Composition. Parlor Press, 2007. Print.

Rickert, Thomas J. Acts of Enjoyment: Rhetoric Žižek and the Return of the Subject. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh Press, 2007. Print.

Reynolds, John Frederick, ed. Rhetorical Memory and Delivery: Classical Concepts for Contemporary Composition and Communication. Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1993. Print.

Schroeder, Eric and John Boe. “Arrangements for Truthtelling: An Interview with Ken Macrorie.” Writing on the Edge 15.1 (Fall 2004): 5-17. Web. 22 Jul. 2009.

Vitanza, Victor J. “Abandoned to Writing: Notes Toward Several Provocations.” Enculturation 5.1 (2003). Web. 20 Feb. 2010.

--. “Three Countertheses: A Critical In(ter)vention into Composition Theories and Pedagogies.” Contending with Words: Composition and Rhetoric in a Postmodern Age. Eds. Patricia Harkin and John Schilb. New York: MLA Press, 1991. 139-172. Print.

Creative Destruction: War and Peace in the Global Village, Remixed

Steven Hammer, North Dakota State University

(Published: December 18, 2011)

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A special issue on the “rag and bone shop” of Marshall McLuhan’s career seemed to immediately invite an alternative and mixed media approach; several of McLuhan's texts veered away from traditional and linear arrangement, almost inviting one to hear the text. The Medium is the Massage fit that bill so well that McLuhan, Fiore, and John Simon collaborated on an audio recording of the groundbreaking work, and decades later Paul D. Miller, aka DJ Spooky that Subliminal Kid, produced his own, shorter version.

In the wake of Simon and Spooky, I have undertaken a remix of McLuhan's perhaps less-known work, War and Peace in the Global Village (WPGV). I wanted to both present a remix that re-presented WPGV as a standalone McLuhan work and also suggest more recent manifestations of his central argument: that environments resulting from technological innovation create pain, resistance, and war. There are, of course, many contemporary manifestations of this observation; I selected issues including military technology, genetically-modified organisms, natural resource technology, free/permission culture, and social networking to very briefly and intermittently emerge as timely illustrations of the conflict that emerges from innovation. Additionally, McLuhan's analysis of some cultures as primitive and backward can certainly be read as implicitly racist and imperialist. Though he categorized his native Canada as one such country, this remix did seek to briefly problematize this rather simplified dichotomization by summoning images of “progressive” humans interacting with the “primitives.”

Yet above all, I wanted to enact violence on the media I selected for this remix, chopping McLuhan's text into even shorter "slogans," warping Napoleonic war marches and funeral marches and juxtaposing them with lo-fi drum machines and synthesizers, and then arranging all media in such a way as to create discomfort. This violence is not only illustrative of WPGV and McLuhan’s formulation of conflict and innovation, but it is also a necessary component of remix culture (or, as Mark Amerika articulates, “creative destruction,”) and a fundamental characteristic of sound. Sound, after all, is an invasive disruption of material, a vibratory invasion, an imposition of sonic waveforms on the senses of sometimes unconsenting perceivers. Throbbing Gristle and Sonic Youth made explicit what had been occurring all along in sonic discourse: innovation as a violent disrupter of old models of composition. In this vein of inquiry, we could easily perform a McLuhan-inspired reading of sonic history as a revolving door of innovation and reaction, technology and violence. That, however, is another line of questioning. For now, I simply wish to announce that I set out in this project to shape the audio track of this remix in such a way as to represent and interpret WPGV sonically, emphasizing warring paradigms rooted in and resulting from technological innovation.

Of course, much has been said about the nature of remix. Yet I am inclined to call on Mark Amerika’s work, remixthebook, as a way to frame the remix as a theory building pursuit of speculative play, and thus usefully (albeit dangerously) blurring the line between artist and theorist. McLuhan also blurred this line, and to a large extent elevated the position and work of the artist above others due to the artist’s ability to create anti-environments. And so in an Amerikanian state of perpetual postproduction, selecting, arranging, and manipulating data, the remix artist/scholar perpetually and intuitively theorizes, effectively becoming an instrument while participating with other instruments and media. Brian Eno recently echoed this sentiment in an Edge talk, suggesting that contemporary composers more closely resemble gardeners (collaborators) than architects (controllers). While this approach threatens dominant paradigms of authorship and scholarly identity (intentionality, authors-as-architects, etc.), it becomes an inevitable consideration as knowledge production continues to proliferate in digital spaces and media.

And proliferate it has. In a very recent special issue of Enculturation, titled Master Hands, A Video Mashup Round Table, remixers and respondents interrogated conventions of mashup and remix and various other issues surrounding such practices. In some regards, this remix obeyed these familiar genre conventions. I drew heavily from pre-1960 video and audio footage (Prelinger archives, most notably), a gesture that, according to Geoffrey Sirc, has become a trope of the genre. I also used rapid flashes of contemporary images and logos to evoke contemporary illustrations and juxtaposed those images with the vintage footage. I also made some departures from genre, however. Instead of calling on familiar sounds, music with which listeners felt an immediate and associative connection, either to exploit that association or undercut it somehow, I approached the sonic composition in one of two ways. I either used generic marches and sampled beats minimally, or I mutilated familiar songs excessively, often obscuring the source altogether. There is one exception, however. Some readers may recognize the final musical piece as Sousa’s The Liberty Bell March, as this piece was used in Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Finally, I composed much of the music myself, using synthesizers and drum machines. This practice is not unheard of, yet the traditional remix typically relies heavily—if not exclusively—on the recall and repositioning of old and nostalgic media for new purposes.

I sampled extensively from creative commons media, and minimally from copyrighted material in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107: Limitations on Exclusive Rights: Fair Use. While in this forum I may not need to define or justify fair use, it is an issue of paramount importance to remix practitioners, especially given the exigence created by the Protect IP Act and Stop Online Piracy Act, immediate examples of war in a global village driven by technological innovation. This remix utilized media in order to: comment on/critique media, illustrate arguments, initiate discussion, and create a new text via juxtaposition. The Center for Social Media’s “Code of Best Practices for Fair Use in Online Video” suggest that these rationales lie within common interpretations of fair use.

Works Cited

Amerika, Mark. Remixthebook. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011. Print.

“Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Online Video.” American University School of Communication Center for Social Media. June 2008. Web. 1 Dec. 2011.

McLuhan, Marshall and Quentin Fiore. War and Peace in the Global Village. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968. Print.

The Medium is the Massage; with Marshall McLuhan.
Long-Playing Record 1968.
Produced by John Simon.
Conceived and co-ordinated by Jerome Agel.
Written by Marshall McLuhan, Quentin Fiore, and Jerome Agel.
Columbia CS 9501, CL2701.

Available at

Teaching McLuhan: Understanding Understanding Media

David Bobbitt, Wesleyan College

(Published: December 30, 2011)

“After three thousand years of explosion, by means of fragmentary and mechanical technologies, the Western world is imploding” (McLuhan 3).1 With these words on the first page of Understanding Media published in 1964, Marshall McLuhan burst onto the intellectual scene with his most influential book. At the time the Commonweal Review called the book “infuriating, brilliant, and incoherent” (Gordon, "Critical Reception" 545). More recently, Nicholas Carr wrote that Understanding Media is “oracular, gnomic, and mind-bending” (1). Terrance Gordon argues that “Understanding Media occupies a central place in McLuhan’s work” but also says that the book “defies summary” (“Editor’s Introduction” xiii).

With its mosaic style Understanding Media is not an easy book to understand or to teach to students. I have been teaching Marshal McLuhan’s Understanding Media to undergraduates for 18 years.2 When teaching major theorists such as McLuhan, I prefer to expose students to the original texts rather than distillations provided by another author whenever possible. This, of course, presents some difficulties in McLuhan’s case because of his nonlinear style and the complexity of his ideas.

In this essay I will explain how I interpret McLuhan’s Understanding Media to my students. This essay is more interpretative than pedagogical. If we understand what McLuhan is saying in this book and how he is saying it, we can make these ideas understandable to undergraduates. I impose some linearity and coherence on McLuhan by identifying the following four themes that run throughout Part I of the book: media as extensions of ourselves, hot and cold media, the reversal of the overheated medium, and antidotes to the narcotic effects of media. Then my students and I explore the application of these themes in Part II of Understanding Media as McLuhan discusses how his theories apply to specific media.

Media as Extensions of Ourselves

The core of McLuhan’s theory, and the key idea to start with in explaining him, is his definition of media as extensions of ourselves. McLuhan writes: “It is the persistent theme of this book that all technologies are extensions of our physical and nervous systems to increase power and speed” (90) and, “Any extension, whether of skin, hand, or foot, affects the whole psychic and social complex. Some of the principle extensions, together with some of their psychic and social consequences, are studied in this book” (4). From the premise that media, or technologies (McLuhan’s approach makes “media” and “technology” more or less synonymous terms), are extensions of some physical, social, psychological, or intellectual function of humans, flows all of McLuhan’s subsequent ideas. Thus, the wheel extends our feet, the phone extends our voice, television extends our eyes and ears, the computer extends our brain, and electronic media, in general, extend our central nervous system.

In McLuhan’s theory language too is a medium or technology (although one that does not require any physical object outside of ourselves) because it is an extension, or outering, of our inner thoughts, ideas, and feelings—that is, an extension of inner consciousness. McLuhan sees the enormous implications of the development of language for humans when he writes: “It is the extension of man in speech that enables the intellect to detach itself from the vastly wider reality. Without language . . . human intelligence would have remained totally involved in the objects of its attention” (79). Thus, spoken language is the key development in the evolution of human consciousness and culture and the medium from which subsequent technological extensions have evolved.

But recent extensions via electronic technology elevate the process of technological extension to a new level of significance: “Whereas all previous technology (save speech, itself) had, in effect, extended some part of our bodies, electricity may be said to have outered the central nervous system itself, including the brain” (247). Thus, pre-electric extensions are explosions of physical scale outward, while electronic technology is an inward implosion toward shared consciousness, a change that has significant implications. McLuhan states: “Our new electric technology that extends our senses and nerves in a global embrace has large implications for the future of language” (80). This electronic extension of consciousness is one about which McLuhan himself seems conflicted, as when he writes:

Rapidly, we approach the final phase of the extension of man—the technological simulation of consciousness, when the creative process of knowing will be collectively and corporately extended to the whole of human society, much as we have already extended our senses and nerves by the various media. Whether the extension of consciousness, so long sought by advertisers for specific products, will be 'a good thing' is a question that admits of a wide solution. (3-4)

Thus, it is incorrect to categorize McLuhan as either a technophile or a technophobe, as his critics often try to do. McLuhan is more interested in exploring the implications of our technological extensions than in classifying them as inherently “good” or “bad.”

At times McLuhan speaks of a movement toward a global consciousness in positive terms, as when he writes: “might not our current translation of our entire lives into the spiritual form of information seem to make of the entire globe, and of the human family, a single consciousness?” (61). But at other times, he expresses reservations about this development: “With the arrival of electric technology, man extended, or set outside himself, a live model of the central nervous system itself. To the degree that this is so, it is a development that suggests a desperate and suicidal autoamputation . . .” (43). Thus, one of McLuhan’s key concerns in Understanding Media is to examine and make us aware of the implications of the evolution toward the extension of collective human consciousness facilitated by electronic media.

Hot and Cold Media

Probably no part of McLuhan’s theory is more confusing and confounding to his critics than his discussion of hot versus cool media in chapter 2 of Understanding Media. But, we can understand this part of McLuhan’s theory if we impose some linear order on it. I teach this by providing the students my own binary chart that lays out the characteristics of each this way, with McLuhan defining “high definition” as the state of being well filled with data:

Hot Medium

  • extends single sense in high definition
  • low in audience participation
  • engenders specialization/fragmentation
  • detribalizes
  • excludes
  • uniform, mechanical
  • extends space
  • horizontally repetitive
Cool Medium

  • low definition (less data)
  • high in audience participation
  • engenders holistic patterns
  • tribalizes
  • includes
  • organic
  • collapses space
  • creates vertical associations

McLuhan provides examples of hot versus cool media as follows:

Hot Medium

  • photograph
  • radio
  • phonetic alphabet
  • print
  • lecture
  • film
  • books
Cool Medium

  • cartoon
  • telephone
  • ideographic/pictographic writing
  • speech (orality)
  • seminar, discussion
  • television
  • comics

However, we misunderstand these concepts if we try to impose too much linear order and structure on McLuhan’s definitions and examples. We have to see hot and cool media not in terms of static definitions but as dynamic concepts that are designed to get at the experience and effects of how we use media. As Paul Grosswiler points out, McLuhan’s method was dialectical, process-oriented, and open-ended, not mechanistic. Keeping that in mind, I argue there are three ideas that are essential to understanding McLuhan’s concept of hot versus cool media.

First, McLuhan was not concerned with providing consistent, linear meanings of the terms “hot” versus “cool” media. For him, it was the effect the medium had that he was trying to get at. McLuhan indicates this in chapter 2 of Understanding Media where he writes:

The new electric structuring and configuring of life more and more encounters the old lineal and fragmentary procedures and tools of analysis from the mechanical age. More and more we turn from the content of messages to study total effect. . . . Concern with effect rather than meaning is a basic change of our electric time, for effect involves the total situation, and not a singe level of information movement. (26) [all emphases in original]

Thus, McLuhan saw his ideas as intuitive probes designed to get at the experience or effect of using a particular medium, or media in general, rather than as attempts to provide scholarly definitions or understandings of media. Later in Understanding Media he makes a similar point when he writes:

Everybody experiences far more than he understands. Yet it is experience, rather than understanding, that influences behavior, especially in collective matters of media and technology, where the individual is almost inevitably unaware of their effects upon him. (318)

So we misconstrue McLuhan’s “hot” versus “cool” distinction when we try to force these terms into static definitions. Rather we should understand them as terms for getting at effects of media.

Second, since hot versus cool media are not definitions, but attempts to capture the experience or effect of a medium, whether a medium is hot or cool can depend on the society into which it is introduced and the stage of technological or social development of that society. For example, McLuhan writes:

Nevertheless, it makes all the difference whether a hot medium is used in a hot or cool culture. The hot radio medium used in cool or nonliterate cultures has a violent effect, quite unlike its effect, say in England or America, where radio is felt as entertainment. A cool or low literacy culture cannot accept hot media like movies or radio as entertainment. (30-31)

Elsewhere in the chapter on hot and cold media, McLuhan again provides a warning not to take the meanings of the terms “hot” and “cool” media too literally, but to consider the context and situation. He argues that the less developed countries of the world may be in a better position than the industrialized West to cope with the arrival of electric technology:

However, backward countries that have experienced little permeation with our own mechanical and specialist culture are much better able to confront and to understand electric technology. Not only have backward and nonindustrial cultures no specialist habits to overcome in their encounter with electromagnetism, but they have still much of their traditional oral culture that has the total, unified “field” character of our new electromagnetism. (26-27)

Therefore, a medium’s “hotness” or “coolness” is not just a function of the nature of the medium itself but also the nature of the society into which the medium is introduced.

Third, whether a medium is hot or cool can also depend on how it is used in a particular society, and that can change over time. Media interact with one another, so the introduction of a new medium can change the way older media are used. As McLuhan points out, “no medium has its meaning or existence alone, but only in constant interplay with other media” (26); and “media as extensions of our senses institute new ratios, not only among our private senses, but among themselves, when they interact among themselves. Radio changed the form of the news story as much as it altered the film image. . .” (53). In addition, television changed the way we use radio, which McLuhan notes when he writes: “One of the many effects of television on radio has been to shift radio from an entertainment medium into a kind of nervous information system” (298). So a medium’s impact on a society is not linear and static, but multi-dimensional and dynamic as that medium interacts with other media and as the society changes how it uses the medium.

Furthermore, McLuhan argues that media can “heat up” over time (which I will discuss in more detail in the next section), but, for now, consider television. Writing in the 1960s McLuhan described television as a cool medium, but one could argue that television has “heated up” since then as it has become more high definition and more ubiquitous. We do not use television today in the same way we used it in the 1950s and 1960s, when families frequently sat around the television watching one show at a time. Now we have multiple televisions and other types of screens (such as personal computers, laptops, cell phones, tablet computers) of multiple sizes in multiple locations (including on our person) that are available continuously to provide a stream of images, text, and other information that we often attend to in a fragmentary and desultory manner. Therefore the experience and effect of using electronic screen technology has heated up over time.

Thus we can see that for McLuhan the hot versus cool media distinction describes effects, not definitions. In addition, those effects can vary depending on the society’s stage of technological development, and those effects can change over time as that society changes and as that society changes how it uses that medium.

The Reversal of the Overheated Medium

One of McLuhan’s more intriguing ideas, and one that shows how dynamic and dialectical his theories are, is his concept of the reversal of the overheated medium, or break boundaries, discussed in chapter 3 of Understanding Media where he writes: “The present chapter is concerned with showing that in any medium or structure there is what Kenneth Boulding calls a ‘break boundary at which the system suddenly changes into another or passes some point of no return in its dynamic process’” (38). The principle that at some point during their development, processes and methods go too far and reverse into their opposite, McLuhan finds to be “an ancient doctrine” (34). He cites the example from classical Greek drama of the concept of hubris, when a character’s overweening pride leads to his own fall, as well as the ancient Chinese Taoist text the Tao Te Ching, which refers to the same concept of excess leading to its opposite (38-39). McLuhan notes the way roads and highways designed to provide freedom of movement have reversed into traffic congestion and urban sprawl and the irony that mobile, nomadic tribal societies were socially static while contemporary, sedentary, specialist societies are socially dynamic and progressive (38).

McLuhan considers one of the most common causes of break boundaries in any system to be cross-fertilization or hybridization, which is when two (or more) mediums or processes come together (39), an event which releases “great new force and energy” (48). He explores this force more fully in chapter 5 of Understanding Media on “Hybrid Energy.” These explosive hybridizations occur when a society is moving from one dominant medium to another, as in the transition from orality to literacy that unleashed modernism in the Western world and in the transition from literacy to electronic media that is today transforming our world (49-50). In McLuhan’s view, oral societies create people of complex emotions and feeling, while the power of literacy is in teaching people how to suppress their emotions in the interests of efficiency and practicality. Electronic media create the “global village” (93), transforming us into people who are complex, depth-structured and emotionally aware of our interdependence with all of human society (50-51). Yet these transitions, or hybridizations, can be “a moment of truth and revelation” by providing a release of freedom and energy by snapping us out of the usual sensory numbness and narcosis our media forms induce in us (55).

Antidotes to the Narcotic Effects of Media

The chance to snap out of our numbness, provided by processes of break boundaries or hybridization, is one of several possible antidotes to the narcotic effects of media. McLuhan wrote Understanding Media, in part, as a warning about the effects of media that we are ignoring. One of McLuhan’s antidotes is awareness; by being aware of the effects our media have on us we can be in a better position to counteract them. But that is only the first step. Awareness itself is not enough. McLuhan writes in chapter 31 on television:

It is the theme of this book that not even the most lucid understanding of the peculiar force of a medium can head off the ordinary "closure" of the senses that causes us to conform to the pattern of experience presented. . . . To resist TV, therefore one must acquire the antidote of related media like print. (329)

So one antidote to the numbing effect of a particular medium is to use another medium that has a counter-effect: “When the technology of a time is powerfully thrusting in one direction, wisdom may well call for a countervailing thrust” (70-71). So turn off the TV (or the computer or the cell phone) after some time and read a book or take a walk in the woods. After enough reading, have a conversation with another human being. McLuhan thus is arguing that a “cure” for the effects of a dominant medium or pattern of the time can be a countervailing force in the opposite direction of the dominating force.

Another antidote to technological narcosis is for people to assume the attitude of the artist. McLuhan writes:

The effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinion or concepts, but alter sense ratios or patterns of perception steadily and without any resistance. The serious artist is the only person able to encounter technology with impunity, just because he is an expert aware of the changes in sense perception. (18)

He further claims that the “artist picks up the message of cultural and technological challenge decades before its transforming impact occurs” and so “the artist is indispensible in the shaping and analysis and understanding of the life of forms, and structures, created by electric technology” (65). But by “artist” McLuhan does not mean just the person who formally engages in some artistic endeavor as a profession but the person of “integral awareness,” a point he makes clear when he says: “The artist is the man, in any field, scientific or humanistic, who grasps the implications of his actions and of new knowledge in his own time. He is the man of integral awareness” (65). Thus, the artistic perspective serves as an antidote to media narcosis because it allows us to see the big picture and the interrelationship among things, as well as to anticipate technological changes, and their social and cultural implications, before they happen.

McLuhan’s frequent use of terms such as “integral awareness" (12), “organic interrelation” (93), “organic whole” (353), and “organic unity” (461) points to another antidote: use of myth to help us explain and understand our reality. For example, speaking approvingly of William Blake’s response to the effects of mechanical technology, McLuhan writes: “Blake’s counterstrategy for his age was to meet mechanism with organic myth. . . . For myth is the instant vision of a complex process that ordinarily extends over a long period. Myth is contraction or implosion of any process . . .” (25) [emphasis in original]. Later in the book, McLuhan argues that the “mythic or iconic mode of awareness” substitutes a “multi-faceted” perspective for a single, fixed point of view (153). Thus, myth, like the artistic temperament, serves as an antidote to media narcosis because it allows us to see many things at once by collapsing complex processes into understandable, simplified forms.


The core of McLuhan’s theory is laid out in Part I of Understanding Media, while Part II is more applicative as he discusses his theories in terms of specific media. Before moving on to Part II of the book, I show my students the video McLuhan’s Wake, produced in 2002 with the cooperation of Eric McLuhan, Marshall McLuhan’s son and collaborator. Not only does this video help explain his ideas, but it also gives the students a chance to see and hear McLuhan in his own words, as well as providing biographical information to put his ideas in the context of the type of person and scholar he was and the kinds of question he was attempting to answer.

As I have noted throughout this essay, I find McLuhan to be dialogic and dialectical in his approach to explicating his ideas. My pedagogy is similarly dialogical and dialectical. For Part II of the book, one student is assigned to prepare questions and lead the discussion of each chapter. Dialectical learning requires common ground, and a close reading of McLuhan with a requirement for students to lead chapter discussions facilitates that dialectical process and creates a common ground. This not only gives the students a chance to gain experience in leading a discussion, but as they often tell me, it requires them to really know the chapters they are assigned intensively and in depth.

Each chapter in Part II of Understanding Media can stand alone as a mini-exposition of McLuhan’s theory, but Part II as a whole also illustrates the wide applicability of McLuhan’s definition of media. There are chapters not only on what we traditionally think of as media—such as the written word, the photograph, the telegraph, film, radio, and television—but also on roads, number, clothing, housing, money, clocks, the automobile, games, and weapons; all technological extensions of ourselves that McLuhan’s theory provides new insights into. This wide applicability is instructive to students who appreciate the liberty to follow McLuhan in multiple directions.

For the final exam my students write a paper explaining McLuhan’s theories. They tell me that although this is difficult, they grasp his ideas better when forced to sit down and write a paper on him, speaking to his theories from their own perspective, engaging the dialectic on their own terms. Despite the complexity and difficulty of his ideas, my students usually relate to McLuhan because they find his theories to be a reflection of the reality they are living in today. Even though they struggle with McLuhan, my students frequently tell me later that Understanding Media was one of the most influential books they read in their undergraduate studies.

1 Hereafter, unless otherwise indicated, all page numbers in parentheses will refer to Understanding Media and reference page numbers from the MIT Press edition published in 1994. .

2 I would like to thank the many students I have had over the years whose questions, insights, and observations on McLuhan’s Understanding Media have helped me improve my own understanding of McLuhan’s ideas. I would especially like to thank the following students who provided me with feedback on their reactions to McLuhan in my spring 2011 class in Communication and Social Theory at Wesleyan College: Alaina Avera, Stephanie Jamison, Martha Johnson, Julia Shen, and Jemima Suwa.

Works Cited

Carr, Nicholas. The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. New York: W. W. Norton, 2010. Print.

Gordon, W. Terrance. “Critical Reception to Understanding Media.” Understanding Media: The Extension of Man, Critical Edition. Ed. W. Terrance Gordon. Corte Madera, CA: Gingko Press, 2003. 545-558. Print.

---. “Editor’s Introduction.” Understanding Media: The Extension of Man, Critical Edition. Ed. W. Terrance Gordon. Corte Madera, CA: Gingko Press, 2003. xi-xxi. Print.

Grosswiler, Paul. “The Dialectical Methods of Marshall McLuhan, Marxism, and Critical Theory.” Marshall McLuhan: Theoretical Elaborations. Ed. Gary Genosko. New York: Routledge, 2005. 283-310. Print.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1994. Print.

McLuhan’s Wake. Dir. Kevin McMahon. Montreal, Quebec: Primitive Entertainment/National Film Board of Canada, 2002. Film.

I Am McLuhan

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.

Figure 1 Figure 1: McLuhan (on the right) with Woody Allen and Russell Horton in Annie Hall.

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).

Figure 2 Figure 2: My 25 cent copy of The Gutenberg Galaxy.

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.

Work Spaces

“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
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.

Figure 4 Figure 4: Former office at The University of Missouri.

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
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
Figure 6: Bibliography of Understanding Media.

Another Anecdote

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
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.

Works Cited

Annie Hall. Dir. Woody Allen. MGM, 1977. Film.

Barthes, Roland. Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes. Trans. Richard Howard. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1977. Print.

-- -- --. Image, Music, Text. New York, NY: Hill and Wang, 1977.

———. The Pleasure of the Text. Trans. Richard Miller. New York, NY: Hill and Wang, 1975. Print.

Castells, Manuel. Communication Power. Oxford, UK: Oxford UP, 2011.

De Landa, Manuel. A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity. New York, NY: Continuum, 2006.

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Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or the Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1990.

Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York, NY: New York University Pres, 2006. Print.

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Lessig, Lawrence. Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy. New York, NY: Penguin, 2008.

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-- -- --. The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man. New York, NY: The Vanguard Press, 1951. Print.

-- -- --. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York, NY: Signet, 1964. Print.

McLuhan, Marshall and Quentin Fiore. The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects. 1967. Corte Madera, CA. Gingko Press, 2001. Print.

-- -- --. War and Peace in the Global Village. 1968. San Francisco, CA: Hardwired, 1997. Print.

McLuhan, Marshall and Wilfred Watson. From Cliché to Archetype. New York, NY: Pocket Books, 1971. Print.

Marcus, Greil. Dead Elvis. Cambridge, Massachusetts. Harvard University Press, 1991. Print.

Rosten, Leo. The New Joys of Yiddish. Revised by Lawrence Bush. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press, 2001. Print.

Ulmer, Gregory. “The Object of Post-Criticism.” The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture. Ed. Hal Foster. New York, NY: The New Press, 2002.

Wax, Michael. Just Say Nu: Yiddish for Every Occasion (When English Just Won’t Do). New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 2007. Print.

All the World’s a Link: The Global Theater of Mobile World Browsers

John Tinnell, University of Florida

(Published December 14, 2011)

Since Sputnik and the satellites, the planet is enclosed in a manmade [sic] environment that ends "Nature" and turns the globe into a repertory theater to be programmed.

—Marshall McLuhan, From Cliché to Archetype

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Marshall McLuhan’s conception of the global village has become one of the most cliché descriptors for commentators celebrating the World Wide Web. In his later writings, however, McLuhan himself began to drop the term in favor of what looks like only a slight revision: the global theater. This move from global village to global theater dispenses with the former term’s insistence on secondary orality and tribal collectivity. Although the notion of global theater is underdeveloped by comparison (by McLuhan and his commentators alike), some basic characteristics can be traced. In a brief 1974 essay, McLuhan, riffing off the few passages in From Cliché to Archetype that introduce the term, reiterates his belief that global theater became a defining condition of human existence on October 17, 1957—the moment Sputnik was launched into orbit. He refers to this moment as “perhaps the largest conceivable revolution in information,” and goes on to unpack its significance in terms of performance and surveillance (“Global Theater” 49). Encapsulated by satellites, vast stretches of the Earth’s surface quickly became a potential stage for live broadcasting, videoconferencing, and other electronics-enabled forms of (mass) performance.

Always one to emphasize the existential implications of any technological innovation, McLuhan claims that “the result of living inside of a proscenium arch of satellites is that the young now accept the public spaces of the earth as role-playing areas” (From Cliché 10). That is, widespread televisual applications of satellite technology cultivated a tele-performative space, which, in mapping over whatever established spatial conventions previously structured one’s experience of a place, added an awareness that whatever took place in the presence of various electronic recording devices could be broadcast to and seen by large audiences all across the world, in real time and for all time. This awareness becomes a force of enculturation; one does not need to possess a video camera to be ontologically affected by the cultural (f)act of televisual recording and worldwide broadcasting. Moreover, with the ability to broadcast the sights and sounds of such tele-performative spaces comes a general susceptibility to surveillance. The same satellite that enables you to communicate also affords others the potential to track your activity.

As a discipline, composition studies—born during the Sputnik movement but launched in 1963—has made little effort to explicitly engage with the rhetorical significance of satellites to which McLuhan alluded in his writing on global theater. With the recent spread of smartphones and the very recent emergence of a mobile app genre called “world browsers,” however, the condition of global theater bears tremendous relevance for those studying the bourgeoning writing ecologies of wireless, mobile platforms. With the arrival of such apps, the global positioning system (GPS) is becoming the basis for a new way of navigating writing and moving through information. While every writing technology grants a range of rhetorical affordances to writers, the cultural status of a given technology significantly impacts how people are likely to engage with it. Likewise, our possible relationships with any given technology emerge from the various ways we work and play with that technology; rhetorics and poetics are not technologically determined, even though technologies and other vibrant matter certainly massage, constrain, and variously enable invention processes.

Before smartphones and tablets reached a mass market, many of us only engaged GPS and other location-based systems as a means to help us navigate from place to place. In the context of this popular usage, the GPS was hardly considered a writing technology, as common transportation applications generate text only at the level of addresses and directions. A Google search for “GPS” suggests our societal inability to see the forest from the trees; the top results are links to purchase so-called GPS devices—those familiar navigational aids we keep in our vehicles give us access to the GPS but they are not actually themselves the GPS. Strictly speaking, the GPS is a system of 24 satellites launched by the U.S. Department of Defense, which became fully operative and available to civilians in the mid 1990s. The “GPS” that we have in our cars is only one application that makes use of the GPS proper. With the rise of mobile world browsers, we are witnessing the start of a McLuhanian reversal of the GPS headed toward new applications concerned principally with the location-based, object-oriented production and circulation of writing, media, and information. Another striking aspect of world browsers is the way in which they establish a new constellation among a diverse array of media (e.g., cell phones, search engines, Web 2.0 platforms, locative media, and augmented reality) that were, for the most part, previously being developed along separate planes. For this reason, the “media ecology” vein of McLuhan’s work—out of which his theoretical insights on global theater arise—provides apt methodological guidance for the rhetorical study of world browsers.

Smartphones as Search Engines: World Browsers, Internet Vision, Spatial Contestation

Since its invention, the telephone has been almost entirely associated with speech and the sense of hearing. According to McLuhan, phones make for an “extension of the ear and voice that is a kind of extra sensory perception” (Understanding Media 8). As cell phones began to eclipse landline phones, writing scholars generally continued to examine cell phones for their importance as a new medium of oral rhetoric. Jenny Edbauer Rice forwards the thesis that the widespread use of cell phones in public settings creates a new kind of collective experience defined by acts of overhearing. As we all know, cell phones enable people to carry on intimate conversations in public places, wherein anyone nearby can hear—whether s/he wants to or not—the speech directed at but not limited to the person(s) at the other end of the line. And so the person speaking into the cell phone (unwittingly) makes palpable the intimacy of an otherwise private conversation, while people near the speaker become privy to “private” remarks as the fragments of a closed dialogue spill out into an otherwise public space. Edbauer Rice calls this condition “public intimacy.” Resembling McLuhan, she asserts that the ramped use of cell phones in public leads to “a technologization of another kind of hearing” and a “sociality that is neither public nor private” (96).

With the cellular market now leaning in the direction of smartphones, however, the visual and the kinetic assume a greater role in mobile communication. Smartphones introduce into (the phonocentric discourse on) mobile platforms a plethora of rhetorical operations, far beyond text messaging, that are not dependent on (and in some cases completely devoid of) speech. With these rhetorical operations in mind, Paul Levinson observes that “new new media on smartphones have an advantage over cellphones in not disturbing anyone in the vicinity” (190). Of course, speech is not altogether discarded, especially in the case of smartphones that come equipped with speech-to-text software. But instead of remaining a medium of secondary orality, the popular usage of new mobile phone-computers often sidesteps the dominance of ear and voice in favor of eye and touch. In terms of McLuhan’s tetrad, the orality of cell phones becomes obsolesced by the visual dimension of smartphones, or at the very least, oral interfacing becomes a secondary option that is employed less frequently and less impulsively than visual-tactile interfacing.

In addition to considering the cultural and rhetorical implications of aural encounters with mobile phones, we must approach the coming encounters with smartphones (and tablets) on a visual basis. To extrapolate from both McLuhan’s and Edbauer Rice’s writing, mobile world browsers establishes the technological conditions for a new kind of seeing, which may result not in the overt growth of public intimacy so much as the subtle spread of visual epistemology. Like infrared goggles enable night vision, mobile world browsers make possible a way of seeing that we might call Internet vision—seeing the world through the lens of an immense range of Web writing/media that has been geotagged to the places we inhabit. I use the term visual epistemology here to stress the implications of this Internet vision on human cognition and subjectivity; in particular, the rhetorical practices enabled by world browsers are clear manifestations of distributed cognition in action. A pervasive continuum links imaging and ideation.

Explained at the most basic level, world browsers will be to smartphones what Web browsers have been to desktops and laptops. While smartphones still repackage Web browsers (i.e., the software of the old medium), free world browsing apps (e.g., Wikitude, Layar, Cyclopedia, junaio, Argon, TagWhat, etc.) utilize the camera view of smartphones to create a unique visual-tactile interface (Figure 1), which blends a person’s gaze of the physical environment with texts, graphics, and other media files that have been “geotagged” to very specific coordinates on the Earth’s surface.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Early iteration of Wikitude World Browser interface

In more theoretical terms, world browsers make possible an immense extension of arche-writing, which, according to Sharon Crowley (commenting on Jacques Derrida), conceives writing broadly as “human in-scription on the world’s surface” (4). In branching out from the global village of the Web into the global theater of world browsers, the virtual space of inscription becomes precisely linked with the world’s surface. Of course, writing upon the world’s surface is nothing new, but prior modes of inscription such as carving or graffiti are both invasive and limited—you cannot (legally) write via graffiti on the gallery walls of the Museum of Modern Art, but you can easily do so via world browsers.

Furthermore, much of the novelty and theoretical-pedagogical importance of world browsers lies in the fact that they graft the manipulability and hyper-circulatory conditions of digital writing networks onto one’s ability to inscribe the world’s surface, as distinct from the strictly computational surface of desktops and laptops, which are “plugged in” to Web and other programs but do not interface directly with the world’s surface. Whereas McLuhan’s writing on global theater tends to embrace the world’s surface as a transmittable stage, the world’s surface also, if not primarily, acts as a hypertextual link in the new global theater of mobile world browsers. If we also factor in Eric McLuhan’s later analogy—that teleconferencing is to global theater what radio is to the global village—it becomes clear that the notion of staging is what attracts both McLuhans to the word theater. In the global theater described by both Eric and Marshall, the world serves as a stage for tele-performance, and because virtually any space on Earth can serve as a backdrop for live footage, people live with the awareness that they may become “actors” in this footage at any given moment—intentionally or not. Without dispensing with the staging aspect so central to both McLuhans’ insights, world browsers condition the possibility for almost anything in the world to function as a virtual-actual link, a dynamic site of intersection between digital information and physical place—both of which are constantly changing and able to make those changes perceptible to us in real-time. Through a radicalization of the link, the global theater of world browsers multiplies the stages on which media content and online networks can perform.

Given the sociospatial effects of talking on cell phones in public, we should already begin to ask how mobile world browsers (among other visually-oriented smartphone/tablet apps) complicate the conditions for our experience in public locations. Nedra Reynolds, whose insights on cell phones are the building blocks of Edbauer Rice’s argument, turns to cultural geography to understand the spaces and places of everyday life as sites of/for cultural production. Reynold’s treatment of Leeds’s Hyde Park neighborhood as a contested place foreshadows the contestations potential to the global theater of world browsers. Drawing from her “students’ accounts of their experiences in and reactions to areas like Hyde Park,” Reynolds infers that spatial contestation is the result of conflicting attitudes with which people regard especially hybrid, diverse, or multi-purpose places (100). Christian Weisser’s study of public writing argues that contestation, as opposed to consensus, is vital to a thriving, democratic public sphere. In fact, Weisser champions theories of the public sphere that acknowledge ongoing dissent within and among alternative discourse communities—theories that run counter to the utilitarian, if not naïve aim “to simulate the fictive coherence and transparency of a public sphere that is not one” (Hansen cited in Weisser 77). Futhermore, these public sphere theorists (especially Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge) insist on “the creation of new discursive forms in order to legitimize emerging counterpublics,” in contrast to mass media institutions, most of which seem bent on simulating a unified public: the public, public opinion, the American people, etc. (Weisser 79). Given the rapid increase in access to location-based, augmented reality technologies conditioned by the spread of smartphones, as well as the relative ease with which anyone possessing basic computer skills can now contribute content to world browsing platforms, mobile world browsers hold the potential to become a go-to medium for subaltern counterpublics looking to contest popular, corporate, state, or otherwise dominant discourses. Within the virtual-actual domain of world browsing networks, any space can become the place of any number of geotagged compositions (i.e., layers), which may very well map onto a location various conflicting attitudes about that location.

Groups such as the Occupy movement1 have just begun using world browsers as a political medium; nevertheless, for the purpose of indicating the changing stakes of sociospatial contestation wrought by world browsing, a more commonplace example will suffice. For instance, world browser apps such as Wikitude and Layar—as well as the recently released Yelp Mobile app—can be arranged to show (links to) customer reviews of local businesses and restaurants from in their camera-view interface whenever someone points his or her smartphone at such establishments.

Figure 2

Figure 2: Yelp Mobile interface

Anyone who uses these apps for this purpose will therefore see customer reviews in approximately the same instant that they see the architecture of the building, the company’s logo, the employees, etc. User-generated comments and reviews that have long been a mainstay of Web 2.0 activities suddenly appear at the brick and mortar scene of consumer decisions. Obviously, businesses know the importance of this scene as many routinely spend thousands, even millions of dollars to craft customers’ first impressions and overall brand experiences. Now, for better or worse, indignant consumers can frame corporate imagery in whatever way they see fit. User contributed layers on a world browsing platform are not (yet) punishable like graffiti, and they are not relegated to the comparatively stationary, often socially isolated screens of laptops and desktops. Reviews and commentaries that are literally situated at the scene of consumer decision stand a far greater chance of effecting someone’s way of seeing and understanding particular businesses, such that many corporations may enjoy much less of a monopoly over how their brand is presented. Suffice it to say that this facet of world browsing—which is, with a bit of imagination, extensible to many more genres than just restaurant reviews—hints at promising paths for intervening in rhetorical ecologies deemed urgent by activist writing pedagogies concerned with the critique of globalization, advertizing, and consumer capitalism.

While such contestation between consumer and corporation marks a simple, yet strong, indication of the sociospatial importance of world browsers, the rhetorical activity occurring on this new medium extends beyond the geo-delivery of already existing Web content. Some of the most innovative, born-mobile projects to date have been created by visual artists2 who “display” (i.e., geotag) their work in and around major art museums, doing so without consent from these institutions. In the fall of 2010, a group of artists associated with the Conflux Festival on psychogeography staged an “augmented reality art invasion” at the MoMA NYC. The exhibition, which bypassed the museum’s curators, included a wide range of digital works appearing (for smartphone users) in the same gallery spaces as the physical, curated exhibits. In some cases, the digital works graft onto pieces from the MoMA’s collections (in the tradition of appropriation art), while others take a more conceptual or performance-based approach, such as Mark Skwarek’s piece (Figure 4) that situates author Bruce Sterling’s avatar in the MoMA lobby and includes a thought bubble that broadcasts a live feed from Sterling’s Twitter account.

Figure 3

Figure 4

Figures 3-4: “We AR in MoMA” augmented reality exhibition

In addition to transforming the conditions under which the museum’s exhibitions are normally displayed, the invasion-exhibit—which the MoMA staff actually came to embrace—raises serious questions concerning the future of cultural institutions. How does the space of museums change now that virtually any digital works can be virtually exhibited within its walls? What becomes of our relations to exhibited artworks when user-generated commentary is seen alongside the expository text panels that traditionally accompany professionally curated collections?

Contemporaneous with the semi-obsolescence of oral interface mechanisms mentioned above, the shift from cell phones to smartphones includes a McLuhanian intensification of the visual, thereby enhancing the potential for spatial contestation in the visual public spheres of electrate societies. World browsers constitute a digital writing space that overlays whatever you want wherever you want; hence, pedagogically speaking, the Web writing projects we assign in our classrooms can now link to and perform upon the physical premises of specific places and institutions, thereby implicating places as stages and bystanders as actors within the frame of the mobile camera-view. Just as rhetoricians, most notably Collin Brooke, rightly insist that the proliferation of the Web requires us to rethink the print-based assumptions informing the bulk of scholarship on the rhetorical canons, the emergence of mobile, locative media extends rhetorical practice even beyond the still novel concerns of Web writing. For instance, arrangement needs to be thought in accordance to an audience’s spatial experience of a building (no longer just the space of the page or screen): How will your content be arranged across that location? What chunk of text will be geo-tagged to the entrance of the building? Which image will be geo-tagged to the exit? That is, how could the cinematography potential to a given place enhance someone’s experience of particular media content? Moreover, geo-tagging via world browsing platforms could also be regarded as a rhetorically effective method of search engine optimization, even though this mode of delivery sidesteps all of the Web’s major search engines.

And yet, in the midst of these rhetorical possibilities, do we as teachers have any ethical obligations to prohibit our students from positioning certain layers at certain places? In a writing space not constrained by typical technical and legal limitations, are any places pedagogically off limits? Before settling into pedagogical matters, which I return to in the conclusion of this article, the next section continues the more theoretical gestures initiated above, embarking on a critical examination of augmented reality, which is after all perhaps the most fascinating technology within the media ecology of mobile world browsers.

Augmented Reality: “Reality” has always already been 'Augmented'

World browser apps tend to be named and marketed more around the term “augmented reality” than any of the other media-concepts detailed above. Technologies that computer scientists and technology gurus call augmented reality are distinct from what they label virtual reality. James Vallino, a professor of software engineering, elaborates on the technical aspects of this distinction in his scholarly website Introduction to Augmented Reality:

The user [of virtual reality] is completely immersed in an artificial world and becomes divorced from the real environment. . . . The visual, and in some systems aural and proprioceptive, senses are under control of the system. In contrast, an augmented reality system is augmenting the real world scene necessitating that the user maintains a sense of presence in that world. The virtual images are merged with the real view to create the augmented display. . . . Augmented reality lies near the real world end of the line with the predominate perception being the real world augmented by computer generated data. 

While this description of augmented reality is of course accurate in a technical sense, I take issue with the philosophical stance denoted by the term “augmented reality.” Rather than take computer scientists at their word, theorists of writing and culture should regard the naming of this genre as they would any other naïve claim purporting the existence of a universal, stable reality.

Postmodernism aside, recent studies in perceptual psychology by Anne Marie Seward Barry suggest that, over centuries, people have evolved to agree roughly on a broad notion of objective reality, even though it remains uncertain whether we even perceive the visual field in the same way others do (28). Moreover, against the paradigm of augmentation, media theorist Ron Burnett claims that images have always been the interface through which human perception operates: “To see images is also to be seeing with images. The visual field is as psychological as it is ‘real’ and external to the viewer” (33). In other words, seeing is a function of images, and our visual experience of any supposed reality never accrues outside of images. Images do not threaten or distort (nor mirror) reality; image-making does not represent reality but produces “the real as image” (Burnett 31). We never experience a reality that is somehow prior to or purged of images. In this sense, our experiences of “reality” have always already been “augmented” by imaging. One could say that imaging, like writing (if we even distinguish between them), is an originary supplement to perception.3 Thus conceived, the term “augmented reality” becomes a senseless, empty signifier. That world browsers and smartphones bring this capacity into the mass-market, leading to the creation of massive global networks, is precisely what denaturalizes the philosophical stance implied by labeling such technology as augmented reality.

Before being incorporated into mobile apps, augmented reality technologies were primarily used and developed in the restricted economies of high-tech research labs at university and corporate campuses. As such, the hardware was limited to a few prototypes for experimentation and demonstration; the wearer of a clunky head-mounted display, for instance, was generally a conspicuous wearer among non-wearers. Under these “test” conditions, perhaps the device would seem like just an addition to the wearer’s experience of reality that does not really alter the world beyond the research lab. One’s activity may carry a foundational weight because the possible “envelopment of the present” was indeed limited to one’s own activity (and perhaps that of a few others), or even simply to a small set of activities predetermined by those who build and programmed the device. Much changes, however, when a critical mass of people become “wearers” in a loose sense that they possess world browsing smartphones or tablets. Henceforth, the wearer becomes a wearer among a wireless network of millions of wearers, and the functionality of devices bifurcates rapidly and repeatedly as all the exigencies of entire society flood over the hypothetical test scenarios initially imagined in the research lab.

It is from the context of these research and development (R&D) test scenarios that critics and designers of wearable augmented reality devices have valorized “human-centricity” as a top priority that, they believe, should guide future development of the medium. Critic Isabel Pedersen defines human-centricity as “a value system that privileges humans over machines and other hegemonic orders in order to avoid dehumanizing effects” (167). For Steve Mann, the leading inventor of augmented reality wearables, technologies like the desktop computer are machine-centric and anti-human because the desktop requires humans to interact with it on the basis of its own limits—the desktop must remain stationary and so we must remain stationary if we want to use it (Pedersen 168). In mobilizing the computing experience and opening its interface out to the world, these critics and designers share a goal “to liberate people” from the so-called “dehumanizing results so common in current technology” (Pedersen 166).

And yet, in spite of this mission statement, the unprecedented popularization of mobile augmented reality made manifest by world browsers serves as a strong indication that this technology will do more to transform subjectivity toward the posthuman than it will, as many designers hope, once and for all restore humans to their rightful status above machines. Just as the new ecology of the programmable planet erodes the idea of nature, so too will the joint proliferation of intelligent wearable/mobile devices and so-called augmented reality networks disrupt any neat division between humans and machines. As we continue to program more and more sensitivity and intelligence into digital media, Burnett contends that digital images are becoming capable of performing as “intelligent arbitrators” of human-computer relations and the relations humans share with one another. For Burnett, “It is not so much the case that images per se are thinking as it is the case that intelligence is no longer solely the domain of sentient beings” (221). When a print map starts to wrinkle or fade over time, these signs of visual transformation are not said to constitute thinking. In other words, the wrinkle is not taken as an expression of the map’s intelligence. With world browsers, however, such visual transformations are signs of thinking, if not a crucial coordinate in a new distribution of thought.

The writing situations emerging with world browsers lend themselves to Jean Baudrillard’s notion of “fatal strategy,” which reconfigures the metaphysical hierarchy of (writing) subject over (written) object such that “the subject thereby succumbs to the surpassing of its own objectives” (228). The writing of world browsers sides with the object—be it the façade of a building, a street corner, a painting, or a monument. The object becomes a platform for writing and in some ways performs like a writing agent, in the absence of the human writing subject. In this new global theater, in addition to McLuhan’s claim about spectators becoming actors, physical objects assume a more animate role as texts, images, and other media files interface dynamically upon the object’s surface—discourse issues from the object, spontaneously, as if from the mouth of a speaker. Experientially, the geotagged object replies to singular interrogations and acknowledges/displays feedback in real time among real places. In contrast to Web 2.0 (and yet by virtue of Web 2.0 platforms), world browsers locate and activate writing/media through the appearance of the object as opposed to (or at least in addition to) the will of the subject. The Layar platform, in particular, is currently in the process of testing and releasing new features that allow for objects to be scanned and uploaded as “reference images,” thereby rendering the physical object into what we might alternatively call an intelligent arbiter of information, an enunciative assemblage, or even a source of writing.4 These new features, which should be widely available and highly functional within the next year, indicate that the future of mobile world browsing and the media production it supports will increasingly become object-oriented in addition to (or in some cases instead of) being location-based.

While the marketing discourse surrounding world browsers constantly summarize their function as simply augmenting the real with virtual overlays, cultural theory that acknowledges the arrival of posthumanism and the futility of insisting upon a foundational reality reminds us that imaging and writing technologies have always played a formative role in the production of subjectivity. Furthermore, if, as Burnett and Barry insist, perception is a function of images and cognition is a function of perception, then the widespread adoption of these new applications of digital imaging undoubtedly initiate (though not determine) ontological and epistemological transformations. Media effects affect experience. Rather than protecting or maintaining the human in the midst of technological sprawl, our collective engagement with these apps constitutes an expanding panorama of concrete instances that add persuasive value to Burnett’s general assertion that "humans are now communicating in ways that redefine the meaning of subjectivity" (221).

Therefore, if we must continue using the term “augmented reality,” if only for the sake of being recognized as a part of that conversation, we should do so with the understanding that ubiquitous networks of interactive, graphical overlays transform—not (only) augment—the very ontological categories/relations by which we come to advance claims about realities. Such a project would then see these technologies as dynamic sites for reconsidering categories like nature and culture and the relationship between the (so-called) human and (so-called) nature, as well as questions concerning human-computer interaction. Indeed, for McLuhan, the programmable Earth of global theater is a world of ecology without nature (to borrow the phrase from Timothy Morton’s book of that title). Since anything can be programmed and reprogrammed in an instant, the environment—especially when seen through world browsers—is no longer simply a natural environment: things are not the way they are for purely inherent circumstances. Extrapolating from McLuhan, “the planet moved up into the status of a work of art,” not on account of the beauty of Nature or its inherent drama, but on account of so-called Nature’s newfound capacity to act as a radical canvas, beholding not images and texts but their signals (“Global Theater” 49). The signal of the virtual mark is spatially inscribed with a mark that is all but invisible. This “augmented reality” element of world browsing bears transformative implications for the future of memory and history, especially when considered in the context of psychoanalysis and grammatology.

Figure 5

Figure 5: Berlin Wall layer

Conceived as a writing space, McLuhan’s notion of global theater resonates precisely with Sigmund Freud’s observations about a somewhat new technology in his era called the “Mystic Writing Pad.” Freud, who preceded McLuhan in treating recording technologies as extensions of human capacities, saw the Mystic Pad as a solution to a material problem that had long plagued writing technologies (which he thought of as memory-aids). Whereas practically all prior surfaces for writing either retain permanent traces at the expense of being receptive to future traces (e.g., stone) or receive unlimited traces at the expense of preserving any traces permanently (e.g., chalkboard), the Mystic Pad “provide[s] an ever-ready receptive surface and permanent traces of the notes that have been made upon it,” which conveniently approximates Freud’s model of “the structure of the perceptive apparatus of the mind” (209-10). Derrida’s commentary on Freud’s essay also presents fruitful grounds for thinking about the concept of global theater in terms of a writing space. For Derrida, “the depth of the Mystic Pad is simultaneously a depth without bottom, an infinite allusion, and a perfectly superficial exteriority;” more generally, the materiality of the Mystic Pad makes for an “unlimited envelopment of the present” and “the absolute absence of any foundation” (224). Of course, as Derrida notes, the Mystic Pad only did what Freud claimed it did in a very imperfect manner—the “permanent traces” it retained hardly ever retained their legibility. Because the global theater of mobile world browsers actually does create a writing space that is simultaneously receptive, permanent, and legible, its value can be more than just that of an analogy for theorizing something else (the psychical interplay of perception and memory in Freud’s case).

Both Freud and Derrida’s insights concerning the Mystic Pad can actually be engaged on a practical level to understand the situations of writing unfolding by virtue of world browsers. For example, historical events and prior circumstances can retain their legibility, remaining visible and spatially situated long after every material trace of their occurrence has vanished.5 Now any place—not just government sanctioned ones—can become digitally saturated with media content to the extent that it may function as a proportionate replica, historical reenactment, or monument.

Figure 6

Figure 6: Tiananmen Square layer

The world’s surface is made to remember what happened upon it, to bear permanent, legible albeit virtual traces. And yet, functioning in Freud’s ideal image of the Mystic Pad, these permanent traces can be sorted through and effectively erased from the scene (without erasing them from the servers) and new permanent traces can be added at the scene, ad infinitum (or however much data the servers can hold). World browsers and the virtual-actual compositions (i.e., layers) that they host collectively stage an unlimited envelopment of the present, but an envelopment in which no layer can lay claim to or act as a universal, stable foundation. If someone navigates from your layer to another layer, your layer vanishes from their visual field; if someone never downloads the app that host your layer, your layer will probably never breech their consciousness. That does not mean, however, that a person without a smartphone could not be implicated as an actor in a layer and the history it mobilizes.

One can be held under the surveillance of history, such that one’s activity is seen and judged in immediate relation to the situated visualizations of particular histories. Though none of the above screen shots really dramatize this circumstance, we can easily imagine its possibility, and perhaps this imagining would yield extremely interesting projects—be they the work of professional new media artists or the classroom assignments of writing pedagogies to come. Writing founds memory, and technologies of cultural archiving condition the possibility for the collective memory we call history. World browsing is already initiating changes in the presentation of cultural archives6 that will have changed the way we build, exhibit, and experience histories.

Figure 7

Figure 7: Museum of London’s app called “Streetmuseum”

Conclusion: Writing Pedagogies, World Browsers, Global Theater

Though pedagogy has not been my primary concern here, I do hope that my theoretical exploration of this emerging medium incites some productive questions about how one might engage it in the context of composition and/or media studies courses. In observing current trends in popular computing, we need to acknowledge smartphones, tablets, and mobile apps as serious writing technologies—important platforms for emerging visual and digital rhetorics—that can be complimentary to but also different from the Web-based platforms that much of our pedagogies have only recently begun to accommodate. Without specifically mentioning world browsers, Weisser testifies to the importance of mobile apps for the future of technical writing: “Many of our students will go on to careers in which they will use or perhaps create apps for portable devices, and we are obligated to prepare them for those careers” (“Mobile Apps”). In the infographic below, I suggest seven possible world browsing projects relevant to a sample list of rhetoric and writing courses, ranging from those with pre-professional agendas to others resolutely anchored in the traditional learning goals of liberal education.

Figure 8

Figure 8: basic ideas for relevant world browsing projects

Undoubtedly, as the technologies of world browsing become more ubiquitous, “born-mobile” pedagogies will be invented and developed. I see the remediation of existing Web writing pedagogies as a crucial first step in that direction. As McLuhan so often pointed out, it is almost historically inevitable that the stuff of the prior medium comes to serve as the content of an emerging medium, at least in its early adaption. While I lack the space here to elaborate on how various established writing pedagogies could be enhanced, reversed, obsolesced, or retrieved through incorporating mobile world browsing, I will conclude by offering a short explication of how world browsing stands to enhance the assignment at the core of Gregory Ulmer’s Electronic Monuments—the MEmorial.

In short, the basic pedagogical objective of Ulmer’s MEmorial project is to commemorate (or perform an aesthetic testimony on behalf of) a disaster by monumentalizing that disaster through electronic means, eventually presenting this electronic monument as a website or as a peripheral at the physical site of an existing monument. More generally, Ulmer designed the project in hopes of cultivating the Internet as a civic sphere, wherein students (and other “egents”) can offer consultations on and possibly intervene in the production of group subjectivity and the formation of public policy discourse (xvii). In terms of these interventionist aims, world browsers are the platform that MEmorials have been waiting for, and I hope the reasons for this seem obvious by now. World browsers condition a translucent writing space that mixes layers of digital imaging/writing with lived perception of physical location; MEmorials, via world browsing, can freely (in every sense of the word) inhabit rather than simulate the places or monuments they target, and this turns the hypothetical/ideal aim of the project—a peripheral that actually intervenes—into a very feasible option for many students to pursue. The emergence of world browsing therefore enables, at least in principle, the MEmorial to become not only one of the most exciting and innovative pedagogical projects, but also widespread and of significant social impact.

Within the past year, an international artist collective call Manifest.AR, which includes John Craig Freeman (who has collaborated extensively with Ulmer), have already started to realize the potential of building electronic monuments with world browsing platforms.

Figure 9

Figure 10

Figures 9-10: electronic monuments by John Craig Freeman

I include Freeman’s layers here not to offer any hermeneutic interpretation of them, but merely to indicate how they realize Ulmer’s MEmorial project and how they further some of the political/pedagogical ambitions on the horizon of Ulmer’s vision for electracy. Each of Freeman’s layers offer an exciting glimpse of what could become a thriving visual-electrate civic sphere, wherein digital rhetors contribute to public discourse on civil issues in a style that embodies the image metaphysics underlying the transition from literacy into electracy. Indeed, from the vantage point of computers and writing pedagogy, such may be the ultimate value of Freeman’s work. Obviously we cannot expect our students’ contributions to display the same level of technical and aesthetic sophistication as an internationally acclaimed artist, but student layers could nonetheless contribute in significant ways. In fact, by virtue of situating their work in public locations and by being among the early-adopters of world browsing, students who pursue projects on these platforms may very well achieve a level of public impact far beyond that of more typical Web or print assignments. In geotagging layers at the actual, geographic location of a given place, one’s writing/imaging about that place can become a critical element that shapes people’s immediate, lived experience of that place. And, just as importantly, the addition of any layer does not physically alter that concrete materiality of the place (unlike chalk or graphite); thus, the (f)act of layering can be situated in a place without physically changing or even defacing the place’s material makeup. The electrate civic sphere will—and perhaps can only—take place in the unique technological-ontological conditions of global theater.

Ultimately, the intellectual and pedagogical payoff of McLuhan’s notion of global theater resounds both in its continued relevancy as a framework to conceptualize electronic writing spaces and in the rich vocabulary it supplies. The omnipresence of performance and surveillance that McLuhan associated with the birth of satellites and the mediums they spawned is becoming further intensified and enhanced in the scenes of mobile world browsing. This new global theater, however, does initiate its own slurry of media effects that are different from the underlying conditions of the global theater of teleconferencing, for example. As this essay has shown, we are dealing with a unique space and scene of writing in the case of world browsing. Here, the spectators who have become actors now share the stage with vibrant, animate, location-based media. Text, image, and sound are made to move or hide in response to dynamic variables in the lived environment; places and objects are made to remember. All the world’s a link: human perception becomes linked to the Internet, media files become linked to exact coordinates on the world’s surface, and classroom assignments can become linked to actual, physical places beyond the campus and beyond the strictly computational spaces of the Web.


1 These early (and ongoing) efforts to engage mobile world browsers on behalf of the Occupy movement are documented on the Web.

2 That artists are pioneering much of the early innovative work with world browsing platforms should come as no surprise, especially if we note McLuhan’s observation that “it’s always been the artist who perceives the alterations in man caused by a new medium, who recognizes that the future is the present, and uses his work to prepare the ground for it” (“Playboy Interview”).

3 After qualifying memory as a form of unconscious, psychical writing, Derrida suggests, “Writing supplements perception before perception even appears to itself [is conscious of itself]” (Derrida 224).

4 See the following webpage for a demonstration and tutorial on how to engage these new, object-oriented features of the Layar AR platform.

5 As such, world browsers are extremely capable of supporting collective transference at the level of the group subject; abstracted from the psychoanalytic relationship between analyst and analysand, transference “refers to any experience from the past reactivated in the present” (Ulmer 61).

6 Cultural institutions such as the Museum of London and City of Philadelphia Department of Records have created large-scale world browsing projects that effectively put their photo archives on display across this city, by geotagging each historical photo in its initial spatial context amongst the contemporary urban environment.

Works Cited

Anderson, Chris and Michael Wolff. “The Web is Dead. Long Live the Internet.” Wired Magazine, 17 August 2010. 9 December 2011. Web.

Barry, Ann Marie Seward. Visual Intelligence: Perception, Image, and Manipulation in Visual Communication. Albany: State U of New York P, 1997. Print.

Baudrillard, Jean. Fatal Strategies. Trans. Philippe Beitchman and W. G. J. Niesluchowski. Los Angelas: Semiotext(e), 2008. Print.

Burnett, Ron. How Images Think. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004. Print.

Crowely, Sharon. A Teacher’s Introduction to Deconstruction. Urbana: NCTE, 1990. Print.

Derrida, Jacques. “Freud and the Scene of Writing.” Writing and Difference. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1978. Print.

Edbauer Rice, Jenny. “Overhearing: The Intimate Life of Cell Phones.” Small Tech: The Culture of Digital Tools. Eds. Byron Hawk, David M. Rieder, and Ollie O. Oviedo. Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, 2008. Print.

Freud, Sigmund. “A Note upon the ‘Mystic Writing Pad.’” General Psychological Theory. New York: Touchstone, 1997. Print.

Levinson, Paul. New New Media. New York: Allyn & Bacon, 2009. Print.

McLuhan, Marshall. “At the Moment of Sputnik the Planet became a Global Theater in which there are no Spectators but only Actors.” Journal of Communication, 24.1 (1974): 48-58. Print.

____. “From: The Playboy Interview: Marshall McLuhan." The Marshall McLuhan Center on Global Communications. Playboy, December 2008. 20 August 2011. Web.

____. Understanding Me: Lectures and Interviews. Eds. S. McLuhan and D. Staines. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2003. Print.

____. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1964. Print.

McLuhan, Marshall with Wilfred Watson. From Cliché to Archetype. New York: Viking, 1970. Print.

Pedersen, Isabel. “Dehumanization, Rhetoric, and the Design of Wearable Augmented Reality Interfaces.” Small Tech: The Culture of Digital Tools. Eds. Byron Hawk, David M. Rieder, and Ollie O. Oviedo. Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, 2008. Print.

Reynolds, Nedra. Geographies of Writing: Inhabiting Places and Encountering Difference. Carbondale, Southern Illinois UP, 2004. Print.

Ulmer, Gregory. Electronic Monuments. Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, 2005. Print.

Vallino, James. "Introduction to Augmented Reality." Augmented Reality. 22 August 2002. 10 April 2011. Web.

Weisser, Christian. “Mobile Apps and the Tech Writing Curriculum.” The Digital Ink. 10 Sept. 2011. Web.

____. Moving Beyond Academic Discourse: Composition Studies and the Public Sphere. Carbondale, Southern Illinois UP, 2002. Print.

Video Credits

"Argon: Augmented Reality Browser."
AELatGT. 7 Oct. 2010. Web. 20 Feb. 2011.

"CNN: Tech: 'Augmented' reality on cell phone." CNN. 29 Sep. 2010. Web. 25 Feb. 2011. 

"cyclopedia new iphone geotag on-screen –app."
stuttgarclubtzapata. 4 Oct. 2009. Web. 18 Feb. 2011.

"Gagosian Gallery Anselm Kiefer Infestation."
willpap. 1 Mar. 2011. Web. 7 May 2011.

“Images.” Manifest.AR. 25 Jan. 2011. Web. 20 Mar. 2011.

"Mobile Augmented Reality - Cereal box."
metaioAR. 20 Oct. 2009. Web. 2 May 2011.

"MoMA NYC augmented reality exhibition."
sndrv. 26 Oct. 2010. Web. 24 Jan. 2011.

"Streetmuseum." MrJackKerruish. 1 Dec. 2010. Web. 12 Jan. 2011. 

"Tagwhat Video: Expanded Version.” BonfireSocialMedia. 20 Jul. 2010. Web. 29 Mar. 2011.

"White Guide augmented reality restaurant locator."
Teknograd. 27 Mar. 2010. Web. 2 May 2011.

Wikitude. 28 Aug. 2009. Web. 10 Feb. 2011.

"Virtual landscapes: Boston Cyberarts Festival exhibit at the ICA." thebostonglobe. 8 Apr. 2011. Web 27 Apr. 2011.

The Mechanical Bride of Pinbot: Redressing the Early McLuhan

Ron Brooks, Oklahoma State University

(Published December 15, 2011)

Coin-Drop: Thank You

Figure 1

Figure 1: Rotating Head for "Bride of Pinbot"

(CC Flikr user Bruce Turner)

In the title piece to his 1951 book, The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man, Marshall McLuhan argues that “anybody who takes the time to study the pictorial reportage in the popular press and magazines will easily find a dominant pattern composed of sex and technology. Hovering around this pair will usually be found images of hectic speed, mayhem, violence, and sudden death” (98). At the outset of this essay, as I pull back the plunger to kick this ball into play, I aim to expand McLuhan’s reading of this theme beyond a reading of news and advertising. As a case study, what happens when one reads a text that allows a subject to literally hover around the juxtaposition of sex and technology, not with images alone but with actual hectic speed, mayhem, violence, and sudden death in its various manifestations? With this question in mind, I aim to show that Phython Anghelo and John Youssi's 1991 pinball game The Machine: The Bride of Pinbot proves to be a material manifestation of McLuhan's thinking—both in form and in content. With this expanded reading, I aim to show how a reading of the game helps to illuminate a different way of reading McLuhan's early work.

For the purposes of this essay, I will focus on a moment in McLuhan scholarship when noted communication theorist Donald Theall identified a break in McLuhan’s career between The Mechanical Bride and the books which came after it. The mythology of this break had been fostered by McLuhan himself, who once announced that all the major points of his first book “had been made irrelevant by television” (Winter and Goldman 98). Critics approaching McLuhan from a media ecology angle would eventually caution us not to take McLuhan so directly at his word about his conversion. Nevertheless, by thinking about the early McLuhan we see in The Mechanical Bride as a defender of humanism and the later McLuhan as a media ecologist, we can use for a productive purpose the way that McLuhan situated himself in relationship to those opposing terms at different times in his career. After all, McLuhan’s primary method of composition was to build an argument through the use of oppositions, “a technique by which he continually compares and contrasts opposites—a quasi-philosophical polarization of reality” (Theall 5). By using the critical tools of both the early McLuhan, who stood outside corporate and educational institutions as a critic, and the later McLuhan, who had become a consultant for both, we might be able to read The Machine: Bride of Pinbot in a way that more thoroughly represents “the rag and bone shop” of McLuhan’s entire career.

Shuttle Launch 1: Here Comes the Bride

Coming forty years after McLuhan’s The Mechanical Bride, Anghelo’s and Youssi’s The Machine: Bride of Pinbot represents for pinball a pinnacle of digital and analog juxtaposition. It features many traditional analog effects—pop bumpers, rails, shuttles, magnets—but intensifies those with both heightened analog and digital effects. It uses a segmented score display, the pop bumpers are unusually loud, and the game has an early '90s techno-pop soundtrack. Unique to this game is the bride’s rotating mechanical head, a plastic “heart shuttle” that triggers recorded beats, as well as the recorded voice of singer/actress Stephanie Rogers and the digitized voice of pinbot (IPDB). Through sound, light, game play, and eroticism, the game seeks to heighten player experience, and many members of the pinball subculture (as represented at websites like Silverball and Future Pinball) agree that it is one of the best pinball games ever made.

The premise of the game is simple. Astronauts in outer space are given the task of building a bride for Pinbot, an AI-infused robot many players got to know when Pinbot was released the previous year. Like the player of Pinbot, the player of Bride of Pinbot must awaken the artificial intelligence of the robot by sending “shuttles” across the robot’s body. In this case, though, the player literally plays the woman’s body with the goal of awakening her. As the segmented display of the game puts it: Make me sing. Make me live. Make me feel like a woman.

The original sales flyer for the game describes its plot, and its potentially fetishistic undertones, rather succinctly:

She comes to life before players’ eyes! The first shot up the shuttle ramp to her mouth spins her head and activates her vocal circuits. Two balls to her eyes give her another turn for the better and enables her to see, starting 2-ball multi-ball. During multi-ball play, two balls to her neck turns her head for an amazing transformation that gives her life. (IPDB)

And, frankly, “amazing transformation” might actually understate the case. At the precipice of the bride’s transformation to womanhood, the player hears her exclaim, “I feel strange.” One then hears her pulse increase. When the player fully awakens the bride, he or she encounters “dead space” in the game. For the first time in the experience, there are no balls in play. The player has nothing to do but watch. Up to this point, the playing field has been abnormally loud and bright, but here the game goes completely quiet and dark. This darkness is then filled with sudden illumination coupled with a crescendo of erotic tones from the bride. As the player is thrown back into game-play, the balls which had previously filled the bride’s orifices are released on to the field of play, i.e. her body. At this point, the player confronts—for varying lengths of time—the impossibility of keeping her transformed. One of the balls in play inevitably drains and she exclaims, plaintively, “I’m changing back.” Her head then turns, and she becomes an incomplete mechanical bride again.

Extra Ball

From a rhetorical perspective, it is not difficult to see why this game was popular, though it is interesting that the original sales flyer attempted to sell the game on its technical as well as its erotic elements. The sales flyer for the game goes on to promise

even more profit power for the best return on investment in the business. There’s the multiple values of the small wheel where players can earn from 50,000 points, to ‘extra ball’ or ‘light the jackpot’ worth up to 8 million points. In addition, THE MACHINE features a challenging ‘shuttle skill shot’ as well as an ‘end of ball bonus’ for rewards that will have players saying “I do” again and again. (IPDB)

At the simplest level, the game is designed to improve coin-drop. A remarkably difficult and unforgiving game, the eroticism may play a role in enticing the player to move beyond its difficulties, to find both the “high point values” and the “intense experience” the game eventually puts out.

Shuttle Launch Two: Here Comes McLuhan’s Bride

For McLuhan, what undoubtedly would have been fascinating is the literalization of the metaphor that he created in his 1951 book The Mechanical Bride. “In the era of thinking machines,” he wrote, “it would be surprising, indeed, if the love-machine were not thought of as well” (99). Could he have imagined a love-machine being created to serve as a bride for another thinking machine? Could he have given us a reason why astronauts needed to build said machine in outer space? These matters might be beyond our speculation. Nevertheless, the theme of McLuhan’s book and the theme of Bride of Pinbot run parallel. “To the mind of the modern girl, legs, like busts, are power points which she has been taught to tailor, but as parts of the success kit rather than erotically or sensuously” (98). One only has to look at the image of the bride to know that the creators of the game wanted to make a being that was all legs and busts, but what’s fascinating from a rhetorical perspective is how the makers of the game sound like McLuhan at his most sardonic: “She’s a woman of the ‘90s. Clever, imaginative, playful—really put together. Turn the machine on and you’ll marvel at all her fabulous features!” (IPDB). They had, in effect, created a Barbie in outer space, but they also attempted to imbue her with the qualities of a liberated woman. As McLuhan, not the makers of the game, puts it:

She swings her legs from the hip with masculine drive and confidence. She knows that “a long-legged gal can go places.” As such, her legs are not intimately associated with her taste or with her unique self but are merely display objects like the grill work on a car. They are date-baited power levels for the management of the male audience. (98)

McLuhan understood that our advertisements brought to the forefront “one of the most peculiar features of our world—the interfusing of sex and technology” (94)—a feature “born of a hungry curiosity to explore and enlarge the domain of sex by mechanical technique, and, on the other, to possess machines in a sexually gratifying way” (94). Forty years later, The Machine: Bride of Pinbot would take the buried warrant that McLuhan makes clear through analysis and use it as a starting point for a game. Make her sing. Make her live. Make her feel like a woman. In the game, the player attempts to stimulate the orifices, gaps, and rails on the bride’s body—thus enlarging the domain of sex by mechanical technique, thus possessing the machine in a gratifying way. This allows a player to directly encounter the mechanization of the female form—one of the best pinball machines ever made.

Multi-ball: My God. She’s Alive

Besides being an interesting representation of a prescient idea, the historical context of Bride of Pinbot's creation moves us beyond a thematic reading of the game. By 1991, conversations about cyborgs were predominant. As Haraway had pointed out in her 1985 Socialist Review article (coincidentally republished in 1991), cyborgs had become reality in science, factories, war, medicine, popular culture, and—significantly—in our sexual acts (149). It is no surprise, then, that in the early '90s designers would incorporate cyborg imagery into their games.1 One could also say that the ease of appropriation of cyborg imagery into masculine fantasy gave critics like Haraway good reason to reclaim that imagery for other purposes. But for the McLuhan writing in 1951, the phenomenon of the mechanical bride, i.e. that which establishes “the pattern of sex as an instrument of power,” creates a cultural difficulty that, despite some of its anachronisms, still has resonance today.

When sex becomes a personal actuality, the established feminine pattern of sex as an instrument of power, in an industrial and consumer contest, is a liability. The switch-over from competitive display to personal affection is not easy for the girl. Her mannequin past is in the way. On the male, this display of power to which he is expected to respond with cars and dates has various effects. The display of current feminine sex power seems to many males to demand an impossible virility of assertion. (99)

In our case, when confronting the mechanization of the female form, the player of the game (whether male or female) eventually has to confront the impossibility of keeping all the balls in play. Inevitably, all of one’s balls will drain and, under this particular structure of power, the bride always changes back. The game always ends, and the player always has to choose whether to insert another quarter or to walk away. In this regard, the idea that “sex has been exaggerated by getting hooked to the mechanisms of the market and the impersonal techniques of industrial production” (99) is a literal one.

But this issue becomes more complicated when one looks at the bride and her players through differing lenses, the kind of lenses that McLuhan might have used later in his career. From the traditionally humanist angle, the bride is imprisoned on a pedestal, forever to be played upon by desiring subjects. From another, though, she is the desiring subject, obtaining pleasure herself by being played. Similarly, one could argue that the player is being played by the makers of the game, held into position by his or her desires, desires which can never be fulfilled and can only be maintained by giving more money to the game. From another, though, as the player learns to master the game, i.e. unlock the game’s secret jackpots, shuttles, roulette wheels, and—the ultimate payoff—the transformation of the bride, the player betters his or her skill and takes pleasure from that as well. In this light, we see possibilities of finding both early and late McLuhan, i.e. traditional humanist and media ecologist threads, in our ways of reading the game.

Shuttle Launch Three, where McLuhan steps through a wormhole to play the game…

So what would McLuhan have made of these possible ways of reading the game? If we allow for a moment the possibility that there could be two McLuhans, we could say that an early McLuhan would ask us to learn to separate ourselves (using new critical forms of detachment and introspection) from the kind of alienating power inherent in a game like The Machine: Bride of Pinbot. One can find evidence that the McLuhan who wrote The Mechanical Bride in 1951, had he been able to experience the game, would have read the game through this kind of lens. After all, McLuhan’s 1951 project was critical of mediums whose primary purposes were to “keep everybody in the helpless state engendered by prolonged mental rutting” (v) and this game, which uses eroticism to persuade its users to play, would most likely meet McLuhan’s criteria for this kind of medium. It is also true that the early McLuhan felt that through “rational detachment as a spectator” (v) there was a possibility of escape from the maelstrom.

The later McLuhan would have viewed this possibility through a different lens, one where a humanistic rational detachment would become impossible. For the later McLuhan, the spectator becomes both the player and that which is plunged into the field of play, thrown from one set of contradictions to another within a world where human connections are made impossible because of the orchestration of news, of advertising, of educational programs, the very machinery that drives human subjects to action. As Jeff Rice explains, “Cool media operate by a choral logic: Users of a given term’s various meanings must actively engage with those meanings in rhetorical ways, discovering unfamiliar and unexpected juxtapositions of these meanings as they compose. Readers, too, respond to chora in a participatory manner unlike typical definitions of meaning or analytical understanding” (35). In this regard, through the lens of the later McLuhan, we can see The Machine: Bride of Pinbot attempting to embody cool media’s choral logic for a reader. Where the traditional humanist would ground logical oppositions in conflict, the later McLuhan would ground them in play. In some way, though, this later McLuhan already exists in The Mechanical Bride. In the preface to the book, McLuhan contextualizes the possibility of escape, i.e. the possibility of becoming fully human, as “an amusement” (v), and the kind of play we see in The Mechanical Bride can be read as the kind of play we see in The Bride of Pinbot.

The later McLuhan would want to know how the image of the mechanical bride works when we relate it specifically to the medium of pinball and the specific culture that brought The Machine: Bride of Pinbot to life. Created at a time when pinball arcades had collapsed into a niche market, Bride of Pinbot may very well have pushed digital and analog juxtaposition to its logical extreme. After all, there are limits on what pinball can do. As Stephanie Rogers, the voice of Bride of Pinbot, wrote in an email to a fan,

recording Bride of Pinbot was very low-fi (as were all pinball recordings at the time)… it was me and my boyfriend in my parents' living room with a portable DAT machine... The character had to be sexy and we did work on that a little bit. Rich Karstens (my boyfriend at the time) gave me some direction and I added some of my own ideas. I remember I had to speak loudly, for recording purposes, which was a little bit of a challenge (sexy *and* loud?). (Silverball)

Just as pinball machines were on the cusp of being overtaken by video games, one could say that this mechanical bride was on the cusp of being overtaken by entirely digital brides, already represented by Samus Aran and later by Lara Croft, Jill Valentine, and numerous other “long legged gals” of the video game world. This was not just game designers employing digital prosthetics to heighten the effects of a game. This was game designers confronting the impossibility of even approximating digital experience in analog space, driving them to increase the volume, velocity, and intensity of the game beyond any that had come before it.

Looking at the game in this light, McLuhan might have been reminded of a literary bride, Frankenstein’s monster, as the excess in the game reminds us of what happens to any medium that attempts to push beyond its limits. For in the entirely analog sense, what is pinball? Is it not that which brings to life the often unseen heart of industrial production, the ball bearing—that small object that by its nature must be perfect? When this object is thrown into a field of play, the player is given a sense of control over its direction. The player watches it vigilantly, as it moves from ramp to spinner to bumper to lane to target, in order to know when it needs to be flipped back into the field, away from the terror of the drain. There are extrinsic rewards, of course, represented in various ways by the score on the backbox, but the intrinsic reward comes by keeping the silver ball in play, by guiding its course of action, by keeping it there, even if, as Gertrude Stein once said, there is no there there. At its heart, the speed and suspense one finds by directing a silver ball with flippers across pins, ramps, and bumpers are possible in a purely mechanized version of the game. In a sense, then, one could say that the love machine that McLuhan imagined would eventually supplant the mechanism that brought its form into being.2 In another sense, though, one could say that the female form that the player manipulates, i.e. the love machine that McLuhan imagined, brought about one of the most technically difficult pinball games ever made.

Looking back at The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man, we could make two similar, contradictory claims. Written at a time when humanists were on the cusp of realizing that their project had been overtaken by the corporate, educational, and military-industrial machinery surrounding it, one could argue that the book was simply a document of that moment of realization. In that regard, the book does represent a moment of departure for McLuhan, for never again in his career would he be as optimistic about the potential for human analysis to bring about some kind of escape. Another reading of McLuhan’s book, though, suggests that the book’s thematic prescience pushed both the thematic and technical limits of the book as a medium. There is little doubt that McLuhan understood, even in this early project, that mechanized culture was about to irrevocably change the age of the book. In that regard, the impulse to juxtapose with criticism the visual texts that were starting to bombard us was in effect an attempt not only to enter but also to simulate the maelstrom, to engage it competitively with a text that followed a visual-verbal logic of its own.3

In The Mechanical Bride, McLuhan noted that, in our mechanized culture, we have reached a point of connection with our ancestors who worshiped totems. For our ancestors, “an unconscious identification took place, and this was finally rendered conscious in the half-human, half-animal, figures of the totem-ancestors” (33). “Through acts of literal imitation,” he would go on to explain, “an effective annihilation of the human ego was accomplished and society achieved a cohesive organization” (33). In our industrial age, McLuhan claimed, we see the same annihilation, “only, whereas men in those ages of terror got into animal straight jackets, we are unconsciously doing the same vis a vis the machine” (33). In this light, The Machine: Bride of Pinbot represents a material manifestation of this industrialized totem. In order to understand a new way of reading the early McLuhan, then, one only has to travel back to a time when folks still gathered in arcades. There, you might find us enjoying—and being enjoyed by—one of the most idiosyncratic games ever made.


One could argue that some game designers could be looked at today in the same way that McLuhan looked at reporters in the early 1950s. Comparing the imagery that the news reporter created to the shell of an animal, McLuhan argued, “the reporter doesn’t even know there’s a beautiful shell above him. He grows the shell, unwittingly, subhumanly, biologically” (4). In this regard, Ian Bogost’s project to make us think more specifically about the way that video games persuade could be tied directly to McLuhan’s method in The Mechanical Bride.

One is reminded here of what Derrida said about supplements: they always supplant what they were meant to supplement.

For more context about the project of learning to read visual-verbal texts, see Kevin Brooks’ “More ‘Seriously Visable’ Reading: McCloud, McLuhan, and the Visual Language of The Medium is the Massage.”

Works Cited

Bogost, Ian. Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010.

Brooks, Kevin. “More ‘Seriously Visable’ Reading: McCloud, McLuhan, and the Visual Language of The Medium is the Massage.” College Composition and Communication 61.1 (2009): W217-W237.

Derrida, Jacques. “Plato’s Pharmacy.” Dissemination. Barbara Johnson (trans). Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1983.

Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” Simeons, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. NY: Routledge, 1991. 149-181.

Internet Pinball Database (IPBD). “The Machine: Bride of Pinbot.” Accessed 6/14/11.

McLuhan, Marshall. The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man. New York: Vanguard Press, 1951.

Rice, Jeff. The Rhetoric of Cool: Composition Studies and New Media. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2007.

Silverball Magic 2.0. “Absolutely Flawless.” Accessed 9/01/11.

Theall, Donald F. The Medium is the Rear View Mirror: Understanding Marshall McLuhan. Quebec: McGill Queens UP, 1971.

Winter, James P and Irving Goldman. “Comparing the Early and Late McLuhan to Innis’s Political Discourse.” Canadian Journal of Communication 14.4 (1989): 92-100.

I Trip the Light Anaclastic: A Remix of Virginia Burke’s 1959 'Why Not Try Collage?'

Matthew Levy, Pacific Lutheran University

(Published January 13, 2012)

This video was created for a 2010 presentation at the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC). Each member of our panel remixed a College Composition and Communication piece from years past. The title of my choice, Virginia Burke’s 1959 article, announces its purpose with a shrug: “Why Not Try Collage?” A shrug is an ambiguous gesture. It could be a lively “Why not try collage?” that says, “This is working for me. You should get in on this.” It could be a shrug of exasperation, as in, “After all we’ve tried, Johnny still can’t write, so we might as well try this.” A shrug can also announce a humble victory. My initial idea for this video was to explore each of these shrugs visually. When I searched for shrug images, a frequent hit was Michael Jordan sinking his umpteenth three point shot in a row and shrugging at the camera as if to say, “I can’t believe it either.” Maybe Burke was just in the zone. In any case, I’ve decided to read her shrugging title instead as a kind of challenge, as if Burke tells people she is using visual art projects in her first year writing classroom and people respond by looking sideways at her innovation, just because it doesn’t match their current-traditional expectations. And she responds: “Why shouldn’t I? What do you know?”

I imagine Burke’s discussion of using visual art for writing pedagogy as a challenge that was not then successfully provocative because it was untimely. Collage is almost literally iconoclastic, in its breaking of images. Collage also bends images, though, remixing them in bricolage, giving them new meaning and life. And so, "anaclastic" is a better term for her essay than "iconoclastic." Anaclastics bend and break light. It happens in water and in lenses. And it happens in anthropology. Claude Levi-Strauss adopted the term to describe his approach to understanding myth in The Raw and the Cooked. A direct representation of myth is not possible because it is impossible to say conclusively what is and is not myth. Because the primary sources have often been destroyed by colonialism, drawing geographical boundaries around one’s focus is difficult, and established categories of myth can be counterproductive for understanding their significance. Levi-Strauss’s alternative, his anaclastic method, is to take one available myth and compare it to others that are plausibly related to extrapolate backward in time and recreate a hypothetical myth that could have been the origin of all of these variations.

In my effort to understand Levi-Strauss’s anaclastic metaphor, I made a drawing, and that drawing answered for me a question I have long had about Jacques Derrida’s “Structure, Sign, and Play.” Namely, why does Derrida choose the term “center” to name the origin or end that is both inside and outside of structure, that guarantees that structure’s stability, that enables it to ground and withstand play? It had not been apparent to me before creating my drawing that Derrida is not only using Levi-Strauss’s work as a crisis event in the history of the human sciences. He is also using Levi-Strauss’s anaclastic metaphor as a model for visualizing the entire structure or episteme of the Western human sciences since antiquity.

Collage provides a radically different model for making knowledge that does more than allow for play within a structure. It encourages us to see continuities and discontinuities and acknowledge the eclecticism in rhetoric and composition that fuels creativity. Burke’s piece, coming as it does early in the disciplinization of this academic field, supports an admirably broad conception of composition, both with regard to how we make knowledge as scholars and with regard to how we may challenge and encourage students in their own works of composition.

Sounds and images for the musical remix and video were downloaded from the internet, paid for, or found freely available. When possible, I have written to obtain permission, such as from, which produced the video on collage that I accelerated, and Natalie Merchant (Nonesuch Records), who recorded the song I remixed, Carnival.

Works Cited

Burke, Virginia M. "Why Not Try Collage?" College Composition and Communication 10.4 (1959): 231-234. Print.

Derrida, Jacques. Writing and Difference. University Of Chicago Press, 1980. Print.

Levi-Strauss, Claude. The Raw and the Cooked: Mythologiques, Volume 1. University Of Chicago Press, 1983. Print.

12: McLuhan at 100 - Picking Through the Rag and Bone Shop of a Career

Table of Contents


McLuhan @ 100
Kevin Brooks, North Dakota State University
David Beard, University of Minnesota, Duluth

The McLuhan Method: Detached Involvement

A Little Epic: McLuhan’s Use of Epyllion
Andrew Chrystall, Massey University

The Mechanical Bride of Pinbot: Redressing the Early McLuhan
Ron Brooks, Oklahoma State University

I Am McLuhan
Jeff Rice, University of Kentucky

Hectic Zen
Rex Veeder, St. Cloud State University

Education as a Training of the Senses: McLuhan's Pedagogical Enterprise
Norm Friesen, Thompson Rivers University

Waking The Politics in McLuhan

Martial McLuhan
Michael MacDonald, University of Waterloo

Creative Destruction: War and Peace in the Global Village, Remixed
Steven Hammer, North Dakota State University

All the World's a Link: The Global Theater of Mobile World Browsers
John Tinnell, University of Florida

Playful-DisPlay: Contemplating McLuhan’s View of the Modern Cadaver
Jane Slemon, Emily Carr University

McLuhan Re-viewed

Review of Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work!
Patricia Fancher, Clemson University
Carl Whithaus, University of California, Davis
Andrew Mara, North Dakota State University

Teaching McLuhan: Understanding Understanding Media
David Bobbitt, Wesleyan College

A Little Epic: McLuhan’s Use of Epyllion

Andrew Chrystall, Massey University

(Published: December 5, 2011)

Commentary on Marshall McLuhan’s oeuvre has shifted from debating whether he was right or wrong to a deeper consideration of his rhetorical praxis. In Mondo Canuck: A Canadian Pop Cultural Odyssey, for example, Pevere and Dymond declare:

And if McLuhan wasn't right? Well frankly, who cares? For the fact is, no North American intellectual of his era held the world's ear quite as intensely and obsessively as this incessantly talkative, grammatically impeccable, six-foot-two professor of English literature from Toronto, and none mainlined the peculiar zeitgeist of the era with such voracious, surgical precision. (132–133)

Elena Lamberti, whose work is, in some senses, also indicative of the shift, makes a persuasive case that to retrieve and make good use of McLuhan we need to understand how he wrote. We need, Lamberti argues, to “move, in fact, from the literal (what McLuhan said) to the structural (how he said what he said) and try to carry out a different exegesis that, in time, may recompose the cosmogony and reassemble the fragments” (63).

This essay makes a contribution to this theme. Here I explore how McLuhan, in a bid to create a new way of writing history and a new art that would enable his readers to relate to the present, set about “invading the old arts”—the rag and bone shop—and ravaging them for materials for “stylistic innovation” (McLuhan “Strike the Set” 7). I reveal the contours and lineaments of McLuhan’s study of a form known as the epyllion, anglicized as “little epic,” and how McLuhan retrieved the epyllion to inform and serve as the structural ordering principle of The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man and Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Hopefully, I also go some ways towards showing that two of McLuhan’s major written works are not merely a heap of splendid fragments. Rather, they are deeply informed by a unity of underlying pattern.

Focusing on the epyllion is also consistent with the kind of exploration of McLuhan’s oeuvre recommended by McLuhan’s former student and, perhaps, his most comprehensive critic, Donald F. Theall. Like Lamberti, Theall has called McLuhan’s critics to address the defects of earlier attempts to engage with his works by paying attention to how he derived his insights and by what means he propagated them (Beyond the Word xvi). McLuhan’s critics and commentators, Theall asserts, need to confront the literary and artistic aspects of his work (The Virtual Marshall McLuhan 185). According to Theall, McLuhan needs to be read with a full understanding of Joyce, literary and rhetorical history, and the history of education. Theall also suggests that McLuhan’s critics and commentators acquaint themselves with the epyllion/little epic, and he intimates that the form resides at the very heart of what he calls McLuhan’s techno-poetics and Menippean or Varronian satiric-science. McLuhan’s employment of the form, Theall implies, helps give his outputs a seductive quality, and allows him to be complex, ambivalent, and transgressive (The Virtual Marshall McLuhan 28-29).

Theall, however, offers little in the way of elaboration and development on the place and significance of the epyllion/little epic for McLuhan’s work. While noting that he was complicit in McLuhan’s discovery of the significance of the epyllion, having collaborated with him on a work intended to extend the seminal work of Marjorie Crump, Theall states that the materials they developed remain housed in the Marshall McLuhan collection held at the Library and National Archives Canada. Here some of those materials will receive discussion for the first time. The value of this exploration, over and above an historical inspection of McLuhan’s foundational work in English and comparative literature, is that it serves as necessary propaedeutic for the kind of exegesis outlined and recommended by Lamberti and Theall. Hopefully, this paper also goes some ways towards provoking thought on ways of writing about the emerging “post-literate world of the hyper-sensory, the new technological artifactual cosmopolis where synaesthesia and coanesthesia produce a more inclusive, tactile space” (Theall, The Virtual Marshall McLuhan 79).

1. Breakdown

Before engaging McLuhan’s study of the epyllion it is necessary to consider some background material. In 1951 McLuhan published his first major book, The Mechanical Bride. He perceived the work had failed: “Mechanical Bride is something that happened before the Flood. Assumed an audience .... It is a wedding announcement found 1000 years from now in a block of concrete” (“to Hugh Kenner, 30 January 1951” n.pag.).1 Faced with the breakdown in his ordinary procedures in the wake of the Bride McLuhan embarked on a new exploration with a view to finding a solution to his own technical problems. He sought a way to make an audience and draw attention to the new technological dispensation and/or tactile environment of television. He also sought to explore: (1) compositional techniques, (2) different approaches to the question of transcendence (or escape from the “problem” of consciousness), and (3) how various artistic techniques, e.g. compositional techniques, achieve effects consistent with various paths of transcendence and/or escape.

McLuhan’s exploration, during this phase in his career, came to focus on a “mythic” and “motivational genre of the greatest importance in the history of European literatures” known as the epyllion/little epic (McLuhan & Watson 165).2 McLuhan notes that the essence of this form, in its most basic aspect, is a pair of plots or situations, each serving as a digression or subplot for the other.

The principal structural feature of the little epic form concerns the relation of plot and sub-plot. The sub-plot was referred to as the digressio. It was considered that the sub-plot acted upon the prime plot or statement as a transmuting and spiritualizing force. The two plots were not connected, but paratactic. (Letter to William Ryan n.pag.)

In his correspondence with Kenner, McLuhan presents the case that: epyllion~double plot~heroic couplet~hokku [haiku]~ideogram (Letter to Hugh Kenner, n.d. n.pag.); where “~” designates “significant comparability” (See Levin 10). He also goes so far as to say that the mode of the epyllion, and its construction by way of interfacing two situations, constitutes a minimum system for and/or condescended essence of all artistic organization.

The greater weight of McLuhan’s study of the epyllion is taken up with the history and contexts in which the form was used. McLuhan’s history of the form is fragmentary and far from complete. Many of his reflections and meditations on the form are not fully developed. Perhaps, the incompleteness of his study reflects the fact that the debate as to whether the epyllion is an accredited form of antiquity still continues; a debate McLuhan attributed to the form’s thousand faces (“The Little Epic: The Greeks” 13).

McLuhan, however, argues that the form can be traced from its inception in antiquity. The origin of the epyllion, he asserts, is liturgical, ceremonial, and McLuhan holds that it is the basic form of the Greek pastoral. McLuhan also notes that the epyllion can be seen as a response to a new, heterogeneous public that arrived with the development of cities, commerce, and the separation of art and ritual; a situation, he asserts, the epyllion met with comedy, ambivalence, and hidden meanings for the esoterically inclined (“The Little Epic: The Greeks” 17).

McLuhan argues that the epyllion was often referred to as an aetiological poem given its concern with ultimate ends and ultimate causes (“Tennyson and the Romantic Epic”). The “meaning” of the epyllion, he asserts, was as speculative as modern physics is today.3 The epyllion, McLuhan held, is a representation of cosmic law and drama that we now call myth. As such, it can also be understood as an attempt at science and philosophy before the awareness of the individual, given that natural phenomenon were regularly conceived of in terms of human experience and human experience was conceived in terms of cosmic events (“Little Epic: The Greeks” 4-5).4

McLuhan also held that the epyllion was tied up in religious controversy involving the competing claims of Olympic and Dionysic faiths and questions pertaining to transcendence, divinization and the attainment of godhead by man. The major epic, based on heroes—children of the gods—who had assumed fixed status, McLuhan claims, tended to be allied with the Olympic. The epyllion, or little epic, with its concern for the world of change and becoming, was largely allied with the Dionysiac. In contrast with the major epic, with its concern with heroes and pushing them through the houses of the zodiac, the epyllion tends to avoid the cycle of the major epic in favour of concerning itself with a single ordeal or mental state (“The Little Epic: The Greeks” 15). The epyllion was also aligned with the Dionysic because the essence of the form, if not its raison d’être, is the manipulation of time in a bid to evoke the “eternal moment.” The action emerging from the interface of the plot, as the carrier or container, and the subplot, the older form in the role of context, spiritualized the whole in such a way that the reader experiences timelessness. The double-ness of the form is a principal means of snatching actions from time into eternity with its accompanying recurrent imagery (“Tennyson and the Romantic Epic”).

McLuhan’s survey of the epyllion reveals that the form enjoyed popularity from the Greek and Roman worlds through to medieval times. Ovid, he asserts, used the form to provide a history of technology (“to Eric McLuhan” 418), Dante uses the epyllion always and everywhere in his Commedia (Letter to S. P. Rosenbaum) and it is the basic Renaissance form for the short poem. The epyllion, McLuhan argues, also holds an important place in Christian tradition. On one hand, McLuhan notes: “the Christian bias was against the ritual efficacy of the juggling of narrative order” (“Tennyson and the Romantic Epic” 24). On the other, however, the Gospel of St. John, McLuhan asserts, opens with a perfect little epic pattern of interplay between the World and the Word, leading him to state: “what may in fact be true,” is that “this type of parallelism so dear to the arts and the ancient world, was also used as a principal mode of meditation upon the mystery of creation and redemption” (Letter to William Ryan n.pag.). Further, as McLuhan notes in “Little Epic—Notes 97/32,” the epyllion afforded Christian writers a means of using pagan mythology in a way that did not compromise Christian belief and practice.

McLuhan’s exploration of the Christian use of the form focuses on Chaucer. He argues that Chaucer adapted the structure of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which are built using the epyllion, and transformed the eternalizing ritual— the ability to manipulate time—into a form directed toward Christian ends. The key to Chaucer’s Christian-humanist synthesis and subsequent transmutation, McLuhan shows, was accomplished by fusing the epyllion with the whole Christian awareness of personality—providing his natural phenomena, the pagan impersonal myth and science of both Greece and Rome, with human voice or personalities. Chaucer’s success, extending from the fusion of an essentially pagan technique with Christian anthropology and understanding of personality, McLuhan argues, enabled Chaucer to both encompass and surpass the eternalising techniques of the pagan use of the form (“Tennyson and the Romantic Epic”). The example McLuhan offers for the contemplation of Chaucer’s achievement is the bar scene where normal time is broken into and Chaucer’s pilgrims are described as he, the narrator, will come to know them. The effect, McLuhan finds, of the curious montage of past, present, and future, is that we readers are precipitated into a nebulous time and carried off toward a far-off holy place.

McLuhan also explored how various poets and writers—particularly how Pope, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Browning, the Elizabethans, and the Symbolists—were able to leverage the form to bring about various effects in their readers. As he considers each writer and/or period of the form’s use, McLuhan brings to light one or more resources of the form. Shakespeare, McLuhan notes, uses the interface of plot and sub-plot to obtain the emotion of multitude or sense of crowd and universality (McLuhan & Nevitt, “The Argument” 15).

The book of nature contains innumerable borderlines and inter-faces. The resonant interval may be considered an invisible borderline between visual and acoustic space. We all know that a frontier, or borderline, is a space between two worlds, making a kind of double plot or parallelism, which evokes a sense of the crowd, or universality. Whenever two cultures, or two events, or two ideas are set in proximity to one another, an interplay takes place, a sort of magical change. The more unlike the interface, the greater the tension of the interchange. (McLuhan & Powers 4, emphasis added.)

In the case of the Elizabethans, McLuhan notes that they had realized that the form provided an answer to the question as to how to write on many levels simultaneously and present the “ineluctable” (“The Aesthetic Moment in Landscape Poetry” 159). Juxtaposition of plot and subplot, McLuhan states in “Double Plots in the Poetry of Pope,” is never a blend but means of revealing both plus the third thing—the ineluctable. McLuhan also discusses this effect, via use of the double plot or juxtaposition of two momentary environments or digressions, in terms of hendiadys—one by means of two (“Joyce’s Use of Epyllion”).5

Via his meditations on the Joyce, Pound, and Eliot’s pervasive and technical use of Ovid, McLuhan reveals how the form can also be used to involve the reader and require their participation. McLuhan elaborates on Pound’s use of the form by way of meditating on Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro." McLuhan regarded Pound, in his Cantos, as being consciously bardic, oral, and belonging to the ancient tradition of the epyllion and the work of Ovid (“Pound: The Playboy of the Westend World”).

‘The apparition of these faces in a crowd/petals on a wet, black bough.’ The first line presents the situation; the second presents the effect on the sensibilities. The discovery that you could present effects directly and that one could bypass the cause of the effect, led to many developments in the arts in the past century. In a sense, it is embodied in my phrase “the medium is the message” in the way I present the effect of the medium on the sensibilities in a way that bypasses causes, at least those causes most people locate in the content. (Letter to P. Bruckner n.pag.)

Each of Pound’s Cantos, McLuhan claims in his introduction to “Great Tom” (an unpublished manuscript on poetry of T. S. Eliot), employs plot and subplot, in various combinations, and their interface constitutes a metamorphosis. Pound makes no explicit connections. Rather, in a bid to present emotional and intellectual complexes in a single instant, he sets items, ideas, texts, and phrases side by side without comment or conjunction in analogical ratios, in accord with the Aristotelian principle of metaphor (“Great Tom” 1-4).

Of all the writers who employed the form, McLuhan afforded James Joyce the most attention. He regarded Joyce to be the master of the form, albeit due to a myriad of debts to his predecessors:

Edgar Allan Poe's rediscovery of the transforming power of the interval was a retrieval of the Ovidian technique of metamorphosis by the use of double plots or actions. W. B. Yeats had discussed it as the technique for creating “the emotion of multitude.” This “magical” parallelism was the mode beloved by Dante and Shakespeare. It is the pattern used by James Joyce in Ulysses to bridge the ancient and modern worlds by a continuous parallel or interface between myth and realism, order and anarchy. In the detective story Poe discovered the missing clue as the bridge for all scientific research: the Cyclopean and encyclopaedic scanning of the total field by the omission of the private point of view. (McLuhan & Nevitt,Take Today 10)

Joyce, McLuhan apprehended, had not only completed what Chaucer started, he went further. Joyce utilized all the resources of the form including its ability to facilitate writing on several levels simultaneously, present the ineluctable, involve the reader, energize and enliven, and evoke an emotion of multitude. He also realized that the use of two levels enabled temporal transcendence, and that when additional levels are employed, spatial transcendence automatically follows—endowing the form with a more pronounced metaphysical character (“Joyce’s Use of Epyllion”). Something of the quality and effect McLuhan is gesturing at here is echoed by Ezra Pound:

It is the presentation of such a “complex” instantaneously which gives that sense of sudden liberation; that sense of freedom from time limits and space limits; that sense of growth, which we experience in the presence of the greatest works of art. (Make it New 336)

In Joyce’s hands, the form of the epyllion was a means forging a creative synthesis of the intuitive and more comprehensive faculties of the east and the visual and rationalistic as of the west. It was also leveraged by Joyce to update Ovid and Dante and present a new kind of poetic history. Joyce, McLuhan states, was “making his own Altamira cave drawings of the entire history of the human mind, in terms of its basic gestures and postures during all phases of human culture and technology” (McLuhan, Fiore & Agel 120). As McLuhan notes in “The Victorian Mode,” the simple, linear perspectives of the past that began with Petrarch ended with Gibbon. From that point on, McLuhan asserts, “history” became lost in a multiplicity of simultaneous views that awaited cubist manipulation, as was accomplished by James Joyce (3).

The continuous parallel between ancient and modern provides a “cubist” rather than linear perspective. It is a world of a “timeless present” such as we meet in the order of objections in a Thomistic article, but also typical of the nonperspective discontinuities of medieval art in general. History is abolished not by being disowned but by becoming present. “History is now,” as Eliot sees it in Four Quartets. This “cubist” sense of the past as a dimension of the present is natural in four-level scriptural exegesis and ancient grammatica. It is necessary to enjoyment of Ulysses or the Wake with its theme that “pastimes and past times,” that the popular press, popular games, and ordinary speech are charged with the full historic weight of the collective human past. (“James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial” 45)

McLuhan was not alone in his admiration of Joyce’s achievement. Eliot too had seen in Joyce a model that must be followed:

In using the myth, in manipulating a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity, Mr. Joyce is pursuing a method which others must pursue after him. They will not be imitators, say more than the scientist who uses the discoveries of an Einstein in pursuing his own, independent, further investigations. It is simply a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history. (T. S. Eliot, cited in Letter to T. C. Clark n.pag.)

McLuhan frequently offered Eliot’s assessment to several of his correspondents as guide to his own rhetorical praxis. Arguably, the reason why is that, following Joyce, he had found an answer to the weight of his own technical problems he was trying to solve. The epyllion, McLuhan appears to have seen, would permit him to:

(1) Create an encyclopaedic and/or universal (post-) cubist history of “media” and survey of a variety of individual and social postures or states as they relate to various periods in media history.

(2) Manipulate and motivate his readers while, simultaneously, providing instruction and awareness of media effects—the motivation by and manipulation(s) of technological environments.

(3) Write in a way that was consonant with what he was talking about and resonant with the audiences he sought to address—a heterogeneous, public undergoing significant transformation.

(4) Create a mythic and multi-level disquisition on causation and agency (the aetiological dimension).

(5) Gesture in the direction of the ineluctable dimension of life at electric speed.

(6) Awaken his reader(s) from the repetitive nightmare of history.

2. Breakthrough

There is more that can be said regarding McLuhan’s study of the epyllion, and certainly much more rag and bone in the McLuhan Collection at the Library and National Archives Canada that warrants being brought to light. At this juncture, however, in the second part of this paper, I would like to move to explore the idea that McLuhan employed the epyllion as the dominant structural ordering principle of McLuhan’s most famous works: The Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media.

In the The Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media McLuhan presents a comprehensive study of the psychic (individual) and social (corporate) dynamics of all media (just as he apprehended Joyce had done in the Wake). Central to his operation is to show how "media" are words, languages, myths, games, staples, and above all, metaphors.6 "Media," McLuhan shows, as with literary metaphors, are constituted by two figures and two grounds in dynamic and analogical relationship (Understanding Media 57). The Gutenberg Galaxy is encyclopaedic. It traverses the domains of politics, business, theology (both liturgical and ecclesiological), economics, law, mathematics, physics, business, medicine, and philosophy. Fundamentally, however, it explores the entire operation of literacy, including "the print phase of alphabetic culture" (45-46), and the preceding phases, particularly the rise of the phonetic alphabet as "indispensable prelude" (152). By contrast, Understanding Media concerns itself with all forms of transport of goods and information. Together the pair provides a comprehensive, universal and encyclopaedic exploration of the impact of media on humans, from the beginning of recorded time to the early 1960s. In both works, McLuhan approaches "media" in the broadest possible way making the designation "media" include all human artifacts.

Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media are not, however, media history in a conventional mode. In other words they are not history via what he calls the naïve or direct mode —simply considering the past from the standpoint of the present. This kind of approach McLuhan deemed unhelpful and perpetuated “habitual ways of avoiding the discontinuities of present experience with their demand for sensitive inspection and appraisal” (“Literature as Material for British History” 5). Rather they are more akin to the kind of poetic history prescribed by Heidegger and the (post-) cubist history of technology realized by Joyce. Consequently, as with the weight of McLuhan’s writings of the period (barring his Report on Project in Understanding New Media), they are not orientated towards “persuasion” in the sense of producing action. Rather, while works of prose, Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media are an action and/or drama, and they are intended primarily for contemplation and exploration. In the “Hot and Cool Interview” McLuhan makes this explicit: “literally, Understanding Media is a kit of tools for analysis and perception. It is to begin an operation of discovery. It is not the completed work of discovery. It is intended for practical use” (“The Hot and Cool Interview” 59). He is equally explicit in his correspondence with Edward T. Hall, 14 May 1962: “why I wrote the Gutenberg Galaxy was in order that they [the reader] might discover from whence they have derived their assumptions about the other media” (n.pag.).7 In both these admissions McLuhan clearly reveals the fundamentally aetiological dimension to his work. He also reveals that he perceives himself as operating in a manner akin to Eliot, Pound and Joyce—as an artist–scientist–educator—engaged in the poetic task of improving “perception through language” (“The Meaning of Television to Children” 33).

To execute his poetic history McLuhan forgoes linear, connected, Addison-Steele equitone prose in favor of the “mosaic” pattern of the epyllion. Understanding Media is built on an interface—a frontier situation, of imposition and explosion (3–4). Gutenberg Galaxy too is built on a frontier between both the typographic and the electronic revolutions. It literally, wears its organizational pattern on its sleeve. The original cover art for the book exhibits two interlocking G’s in the image of a Vortex by way of a small “G,” in reverse, inside the curvature of a larger “G.” 8

McLuhan also employs this fundamental structural organizing principle to manage the relationship between the two works. Understanding Media looks “back” at Gutenberg Galaxy as providing “the necessary background for studying the rapid rise of new visual values after the advent of printing from movable types” (201). Gutenberg Galaxy looks “forward” to Understanding Media (Gutenberg Galaxy 278–79). A sense of how Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media work together can be had in light of McLuhan’s correspondence with Edward T. Hall, 5 April 1962:

The Copenhagen school talks my language …. Heisenberg’s distinction between rotational and non-rotational systems as creating quite distinct spatial configurations corresponds exactly to my divisions between centre-margins and centres without margin systems …. Thus, the centre-margin system is explosive (fission), and the centre-without-margin system is implosive (fusion). The centrifugal system corresponds to that outering of sense and faculty, with all the consequent products familiar in fission, whereas implosion results in quite different products. It seems to be that an oral society is imploded, and a literate one exploded. (n.pag.)

Alternately, as Eric McLuhan has argued, Gutenberg Galaxy represents one chapter of Understanding Media properly expanded. By extension, Eric McLuhan implies that the same could be done for each of the chapters of Understanding Media (“Message to the Author”).

The structural ordering principle is mirrored again within each work. McLuhan uses several additional dichotomies in a bid to chart the “subordinate rhythms” (Letter to Lynn White n.pag.). Gutenberg Galaxy is divided in two and it is written from a frontier perspective, between the “typographic and the electronic revolutions” (141). The first section, “The Gutenberg Galaxy,” written using what McLuhan calls the mosaic style, sets out “to discover how far the visual bias of this phonetic culture was pushed, first by the manuscript, and then by typography” (108), and to “explain the configuration or galaxy of events and actions associated with Gutenberg technology” (139). The second section, “The Galaxy Reconfigured or the Plight of Mass Man in an Individualist Society,” written in a relatively linear way, looks at the new electric media and the “clash” between electric and mechanical, or print, technologies (i).

Gutenberg Galaxy also contends with several additional dichotomies including (but not limited to): eye and ear, light on and light through, hot and cool, Newton and Berkely, matching and making, simple and complex, invention and suspended judgement. Similarly Understanding Media employs the dichotomies: ear and eye, America and Europe; West and East, Euclidean and non-Euclidean, tactile and visual, sequential and simultaneous, fragmentation and involvement, square and triangle, mechanism and cybernation, mass production and custom-built, linearity and feedback. These dichotomies, all of them obsolete at the time of McLuhan’s use, are banged together with a viewing to revealing the contours and lineaments of an environment or new, post-literate technological landscape(s) that, McLuhan asserts, is just beyond the pale of the observable and grasp of our existing languages (Chrystall, “After the Global Village” 5-6).

To develop and explain McLuhan’s use of obsolete dichotomies requires an extended discussion of his various claims that he was writing Menippean satire. That said, however, a sense of McLuhan’s procedure can be had by considering his note that “print increasingly hypnotized the Western world is nowadays the theme of all historians of art and science alike, because we no longer live under the spell of the isolated visual sense” (Gutenberg Galaxy 183, emphasis added). Here, McLuhan presents the recent discoveries of orality and literacy scholars as items in his inventory of effects and/or symptoms of the new electric surround. Interfacing orality and literacy serves as a mechanism to gesture in the direction of the imagistic and tactile or verbi-voco-visual, post-Sputnik “single sound-light show” (McLuhan, “Roles, Masks and Performances” 22).

McLuhan’s use of the epyllion, however, extends well beyond merely using the device of interfaced situation. Like Chaucer, and following Joyce, McLuhan fuses the epyllion with a study of the psychic and social dynamics of all media. In other words, McLuhan takes Chaucer’s fusion (of the epyllion with the whole Christian awareness of personality) further by providing the new nature (media) with “human” voice or personalities, and human personalities with the voices of new media (or new nature). It is a complex matter and can perhaps best be observed in terms of concrete particulars, e.g. McLuhan’s treatment of Spengler as a singing telegram for “Radio.” Here McLuhan reveals the dual, simultaneous action of “media” to impose their assumptions, and, “anesthetize” its user’s awareness of those “assumptions” (Understanding Media 112). 9

McLuhan’s reasons for using the epyllion are myriad. Perhaps, the most important being that the first base for his artistic activity, on which everything else depended, was grabbing attention. The epyllion appears to have been ideal for the task because of parallel(s) between the situation of McLuhan’s day and the periods in which the form had thrived—we had recreated, electronically, a mythic and pre-literate state:

It must often have puzzled the scholars and physicists of our time that just in the degree to which we penetrate the lowest layers of non-literate awareness we encounter the most advanced and sophisticated ideas of twentieth-century art and science. To explain that paradox will be an aspect of the present book. (Gutenberg Galaxy 26)

In other words, McLuhan apprehended that television had retrieved the epyllion. The epyllion, McLuhan states, shares the same “audile-tactile” character as R. Buckminster Fuller’s “Byzantine domes” (“Pound: The Playboy of the Westend World” 4), the sensibility of the Eastern Church (“to John Mole” 489), and more importantly, television:

Television does not present a visual image, but an X-ray icon which penetrates our entire organism. Joyce called it "the charge of the light barricade"—part of the Crimean war against mankind. Stained-glass images are not visual either, since they are defined by light through, as in Rouault paintings. The structure of these images is audile-tactile, as in abstract art, both of Symbolist and Cubist kind. (“to Barbara Ward” 466)

McLuhan appears to have held that his use of the epyllion, having been retrieved by television, not only imbues both works with vitality and energy, it also mirrors the action of “active metaphors,” creating a harmonious union between what he is talking about and how he is talking about it.

McLuhan also appears to have employed the form on account of its effects. In Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media, McLuhan leverages nearly every effect that he perceived Joyce had achieved in and through the use of the form. Perhaps, the first of these is the ability of the form to not only elicit but motivate active reader participation, transforming the consumer into a producer or fellow explorer. Rather, following Joyce, and in and through use of the epyllion, McLuhan’s treatment of history is what he calls “oblique” and dramatic, and it is what I have called here poetic. At every juncture we find an action not dissimilar to how McLuhan describes the action of Finnegans Wake in “James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial”:

'One world burrowing on another' is a typical pun which invokes the two-way process of borrowing and burrowing plus the image of burial mounds and the tree-pillar cults which themselves were modes of communication between the living and the dead. Every word in the Wake is dramatically active in this kind of way, following not a road of meaning but carrying us on an every-way roundabout with intrusions from above and below. (46)

McLuhan does at the level of the sentence or paragraph or chapter what Joyce does in the Wake at the level of individual words. Every “point” of interface is explored in terms of a four-fold action or process in a variety of analogical ratios to one another. The effects that he seeks to achieve are noted in a letter to Sheila Watson: “From contemplation of the arrested image, the viewer is expected to involve himself in the elaborate re-tracing or dreaming back. This is the mythic method of Ovid and of the Symbolists alike” (Letter to Sheila Watson n.pag.). The interfaced situation is crucial as it permits the “ground” for the figures (dichotomies)—information moving at the speed of light—to be omitted or suppressed, and requires the reader to contemplate and weigh the relationships between figures with a view tracing back from effects to causes to find what is missing. This processes is repeated and required of the reader again and again in both works.

To come at this matter from another angle, McLuhan demonstrates and creates a space for his readers to recreate within themselves the processes whereby the new supplants the old by amplifying or accelerating existing processes and rendering the “slower” form obsolete (Understanding Media 8; 90). Further, at every interface he also shows how the new, in addition to rendering the old obsolete, reaches back and retrieves something from the ancient past, an action that McLuhan mimes having retrieved the epyllion under electric conditions:

We have no more difficulty in understanding the native or non-literate experience, simply because we have recreated it electronically within our own culture. (Yet post-literacy is a quite different mode of interdependence from pre-literacy). (Gutenberg Galaxy 46)

Finally, McLuhan also reveals the ineluctable—the inevitable flip—whereby anything pushed to extreme or excess reverses its characteristics (Understanding Media 30).

3. Beyond

More light can be shed on McLuhan’s procedure via his comments on Gilson in “Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters.” I will quote them at length because it is as though McLuhan is describing his own work:

Gilson does not set out to produce a theory or view that will unify the philosophical disputes of the past. He reconstructs the disputes. He enables us to participate in them as though we were there. We see that they were real. The questions had to be put that way at that time. And being put that way there were no answers, only wrong answers possible. By repeating the process of participation several times we are liberated from both past and present. We don't arrive at a simple unifying concept but are put on the road to achieving a wisdom. And the road to this wisdom is by way of sympathetic reconstruction, involving the abeyance of personal prejudice and preconception. (155)

Gilson has used the method of reconstruction in the history of philosophy as a new creative technique which permits a new kind of communication between the present and the past. The reader of Gilson is typically given not a view or theory of the past but an experience of it. But the past as experience is present. It is available once more as nutriment. Previous theories of the past really amounted to a way of disowning it or of explaining it away. (158)10

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. By having the reader involve themselves with media forms and reconstruct the flux of history within themselves, again and again, the reader is “liberated” from history and comes to see the extent to which their own biases are historically conditioned.11

Perhaps, another way of presenting the matter is to say that in Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media McLuhan has tried to win for his readers the kind of victory he apprehended had been won by Joyce:

As [Joyce’s] title indicates, he saw that the wake of human progress can disappear again into the night of sacral or auditory man. The Finn cycle of tribal institutions can return in the electric age, but if again, then let’s make it a wake or awake or both. Joyce could see no advantage in our remaining locked up in each cultural cycle as in a trance or dream. He discovered the means of living simultaneously in all cultural modes while quite conscious. (McLuhan, Fiore & Agel 120).

McLuhan plainly states the significance of Joyce’s victory in “Wyndham Lewis: His Theory of Art and Communication”:

There is no need to re-immerse ourselves again in the destructive element of the Time flux or to return to that “Primitive Past saturated with blood and incest so generally favoured.” We have, as Finnegans Wake also proclaims, the means to awaken permanently from the repetitive nightmare of history. (84)

We can, instead, by choice and by labor, move beyond mere cross-cultural awareness and towards what we might, provisionally, call inter-mythic (or media) stage dialogue, without recourse to the time-tested mode of interface we have traditionally called wars, hot or cold.


1 McLuhan also documents that he perceived that, during writing of The Mechanical Bride, he had been something of an unwitting dupe; complicit, on account of using certain compositional techniques, in sectarian quarrels between “east” and “west.” This matter can, however, only receive mention here. I have treated the matter at some length in The New American Vortex: Explorations of McLuhan.

2 The narrative presented here is one dimensional. It needs to be remembered that McLuhan was, before anything else, a Professor of English literature. His research of the epyllion cannot solely be attributed to his goals for his Media Studies or criticism.

3 McLuhan does not elaborate on how or why this is the case. To develop the matter would require extended engagement with McLuhan’s extensive commentary on quantum physics throughout his oeuvre. While this would be fruitful, and has not yet been undertaken by any critic or commentator on McLuhan’s work, it is well beyond the scope of this essay.

4 The scholar wishing to pursue these observations would do well to start with Majorie Crump before moving through McLuhan’s contributions to Renascence.

5 McLuhan develops these observation in the “hendiadys” section in From Cliché to Archetype (108-110).

6 The theme of media as myths deserves more attention than I have afforded it. For a brief introduction to the theme see McLuhan, “Myth and Mass Media.”

7 As an aside, a more frivolous study of McLuhan’s career would not be out of place in suggesting that McLuhan’s meditations on the dual action of various liquors; to both impose their own assumptions, and simultaneously “anesthetize” its users awareness of those “assumptions” went a long way to informing McLuhan’s own understanding of the effects of media. The same study might also seek to re-examine the copious amounts of Gin (that “Spirit” in a bottle) consumed at the Monday night seminars as pedagogic aid.

8 As McLuhan notes in his introduction to Images from the Film Spiral: “The structural theme of Spiral presents the oscillation of two simultaneously and complementary cones or spirals, constituting the synchronic worlds of birth and death. Spiral is not a diachronic or lineal structure but synchronic and contrapuntal interplay in a resonating structure whose centre is everywhere and circumference nowhere” (Etrog & McLuhan 125). McLuhan adds: “[Sorel] Etrog comes from a rich audile-tactile background and tradition in iconic art. His imagery is always of stark confrontation and his work is always multi-levelled and multi-sensuous in ways that are not easily described in conventional literary terminology.”

9 This is a complex matter that warrants its own study. Perhaps, easy entry into the matter can be had by comparing McLuhan to Dante Alighieri. Both McLuhan, in Understanding Media, and Dante, in the Divine Comedy, provide portraits of figures hung up in a series of poses and postures. In Understanding Media, McLuhan substitutes periods in media history for the seven deadly sins Dante uses.

10 In the same essay McLuhan adds that: “The role of the Catholic humanist is to cultivate a more than ordinary reverence for the past, for tradition, while exploring every present development for what it reveals about man which the past had not revealed” (158–59). A deeper discussion of McLuhan’s orientation towards history would necessarily involve a discussion of McLuhan’s reading of the work of Eric Voegelin, particularly The New Science in Politics.

11 Admittedly this is a somewhat idealized reading, probably only possible within a decade of the initial publication of these works. Today, the weight of McLuhan’s observations are out of date and this militates against the possibility of reading McLuhan in this way.

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