Sic transit Marshall McLuhan

Frank Kermode

The fame of Marshall McLuhan in the late Sixties, a period more favourable to guruism than the present, was beyond the dreams of even the most ambitious don. His slogans were quoted everywhere, he travelled the world – now, on his view, electronically reduced to a global village – addressing his fans, advising admen, businessmen, politicians and theologians, telling us all what reality would look like if we broke our habit of contemplating it only through the rear-view mirror, firing off his ‘probes’, his heavy puns and his strangely old-fashioned jokes. (He was very keen on these jokes, and freely offered them to anybody who might need them for after-dinner speeches – Prime Minister Trudeau, for instance.) He was a pioneer in the movement, now seemingly irresistible, which has carried English literature professors out of literature into larger and, one must suppose, more exciting studies – philosophy, law, psychoanalysis, history, ‘culture’, ‘theory’ and prophecy.

These emigrants don’t, however, pay homage to the trailblazer. As a prophet of epochs, a connoisseur of epistemes, McLuhan was early superseded by Foucault. The supersession of gurus is by no means invariably the result of a discovery that they were wrong about everything, and it remains possible that there was a good deal more to McLuhan than it has this long while been fashionable to say. He was certainly wrong about quite a number of things, as various people pointed out at the time. But just as it is not clear that these critics were responsible for his occultation, so is it not certain that in some form his celebrity couldn’t, given some appropriate resuscitation therapy, be re-established.

McLuhan was born in Alberta in 1911. This hefty selection from what, in the second half of his life, must have been an enormous correspondence, begins in 1931. The early letters, mostly to his mother, are neither prodigious nor duller than most letters on comparable occasions. Writing home from the University of Manitoba, he professes admiration for Shakespeare and declares Goethe to be a barbarian. More important to him than either of them was Chesterton, to whom he adhered faithfully, with demonstrable consequences, throughout his life.

When he was 23, he went to Trinity Hall, Cambridge to take another first degree. ‘Everybody writes books here,’ he told his mother, ‘not many of them worth reading either.’ From this general and doubtless just censure he exempted Quiller-Couch; and GK’s Weekly, together with Father D’Arcy’s ‘succinct and admirable little volume, Catholicism’, made up for the deficiencies of his instructors. Non-Cambridge dons fared no better: Dover Wilson came to lecture, and managed to do so despite ‘a pigeon chest which only criminal indifference to his body could have left so undeveloped’ (McLuhan was a rowing man).

However, as time went by the ‘exceptional advantages’ of Cambridge grew more evident: ‘The easy accessibility of Willey, Tillyard, Lucas and Leavis, makes for an intellectual variety that not even my wildest hopes had prefigured.’ He was able to discover T.S. Eliot, who, though a genius and a poet, had arrived at the same position as McLuhan ‘concerning the nature of religion and Christianity, the interpretation of history, and the value of industrialism’. I.A. Richards, on the other hand, was a humanist engaged in a quest for objective standards of criticism, which, rejecting religion, he could never find: hence his ‘ghastly atheistic nonsense’. However, a few years later, applying for a job, McLuhan claimed to be ‘the only man in the USA who had a thorough grounding in the techniques of Richards, Empson and Leavis at Cambridge’. Nobody tells all in job applications.

Though admittedly deficient in other languages, he regarded English literature as foreign; nor did he think his talent was really literary. He obviously read widely, though with his own emphasis – for instance, he came upon books by Maritain in the English Faculty Library, and was thus enabled to see why Aristotle was ‘the soundest basis for Christian doctrine’. At this time, about 1935, he was moving sedately towards the Church, and also rehearsing his Canadian version of agrarianism. And although he regarded his mind as nothing out of the ordinary, he began to sense a vocation, and to feel ‘a strong sense of superiority that is utterly incommensurate with my abilities’.

In 1936 he went as a teaching assistant to Wisconsin, which then had a remarkably powerful English department. While he was there, he studied, among other things, Pound, Joyce and Yeats, but more important to him than any of these was Wyndham Lewis. At this time he was received into the Roman Catholic Church, and soon afterwards moved to the Jesuit University of St Louis. With an interval during which he went back to Cambridge as a graduate student he stayed at St Louis until 1944, when he returned to Canada. One of his pupils was Fr Walter J. Ong, who was to apply great learning to an explicitly Catholic development of McLuhanite ideas.

From this period there are some curious letters to his fiancée: a lengthy exposition of Catholic theology, with some vitriolic material on Reform, and some over-confident assertions (‘Today England is returning to the Faith’). He is equally confident that there will be no war in Europe. ‘The real villains of the piece,’ he writes, ‘are not Hitler etc but the Comintern, the free masons and the international operators who have their headquarters in Prague. Hitler is being backed by Chamberlain and Roosevelt.’ The trick of expressing minority opinions with unwavering assurance was to stand him in good stead later on.

At Cambridge his thesis on the poet Nashe got him the doctorate necessary to his academic advancement. Subsequently he repeatedly undertook to publish this work, without ever doing so. And though he wrote many literary-critical articles, including a rather celebrated piece on Tennyson and Hallam, none of his full-length books was, like the Nashe, a literary study. ‘I feel I must first make my mark as a “scholar” in Eng Lit,’ he explained, ‘before seriously embarking on any other careers.’ Nashe had introduced him to all manner of interesting issues, such as the history of rhetoric, in those days a topic of very marginal interest to literary critics generally; his thoughts were already straying outside the purely literary canon. He began to make his students read Pudovkin and Eisenstein on film technique, for he admired, and was later to adapt for his own writing, Eisenstein’s ideogrammatic mode of exposition. So the confluence of an interest in Scholastic Catholicism with an interest in modern technologies, so essential to his developed thinking, was already established. Sigfried Giedion’s Space, Time and Architecture was the sort of book that excited him most.

He now formed, with the exiled and poverty-stricken Wyndham Lewis, a friendship which not even Lewis’s eccentric temper could shake (‘I am not “insulted” at your lack of trust in me. You have no reason to trust me or anybody else’). McLuhan spent a great deal of time, though without much success, trying to get the toffs of St Louis to commission portraits from Lewis.

By the end of 1947 McLuhan seems to have worked out the historical basis of his ideas, encapsulating it in a formula which, with variations and accretions, he would comtinually repeat in the rest of his writing. He was convinced not only that modern sensibility was formed by the Symbolists, but that Symbolism had its roots in Patristic and Medieval theology: ‘the Fathers fathered French symbolical linguistic technique.’ He says, without giving references, that there had been a Patristic revival in France around 1800; I don’t know whether this is true; he may have been thinking of Migne, though he was a bit later.

He now projected many more books than he ever had time to write – for example, a book on Eliot and, simultaneously, two on popular culture. These last were boiled down by 1951 into one book, The Mechanical Bride. Since popular culture reflected the new epoch in technology and education (‘popular icons as ideograms of complex implication’) while Eliot, whose views on the dissociation of sensibility appealed so strongly to McLuhan, was a Catholic heir of the Symbolists, there was no real incompatibly in these interests. Soon McLuhan was corresponding with Pound, who also perceived that simultaneity of presentation was necessary to the understanding of modern experience.

As his programme developed, he began to wonder how he could fulfil it singlehanded, wishing he had power to hire his own colleagues. He badly needed to write a book about ‘the men of 1914’, the Modernists so critical to his version of history. He explained to Pound that the vortex he created with Gaudier-Brzeska and Lewis had been debased, had become ‘a kiddie’s slide’, at least partly in consequence of the malignant influence of Freud and socialism. He was particularly severe on Orwell, whom he called a ‘duffer’ and ‘a complete ass’. His letters now begin to go on about usury, and the dissociation of sensibility between Dante and the Impressionists.

With the appearance of The Mechanical Bride McLuhan, at forty, was set on a course he never changed. It treats of advertising, comic strips and so on, with the intention of showing us how we are shaped by these and other modern media – for instance, radio and the press; avoiding linear exposition, the book uses an ideogrammatic technique developed from Eisenstein and Pound, and perhaps also from the ‘simultaneity’ of newspaper lay-out. There had been some delay in finding a publisher, the reason being that ‘publishers’ offices now are crammed with homosexuals who have a horror of any writing with balls to it.’ Homosexuals here join modern gnostics, Freemasons, puritans, people who favoured abortion, and others as the enemy. (It is surely to his credit that the list doesn’t contain Jews.) These élites, he told Pound, have the arts and sciences in their pockets. A few years later he remarked that ‘the real animus’ against The Gutenberg Galaxy ‘will be felt in gnostic and masonic quarters’, as if criticism of his arguments could only come from such secretive and powerful heretics.

The later letters, some very long, offer many rather repetitive summaries of McLuhan’s thought. Just as printing imposed on us a visual and linear mode of thought, and gave sight the prime place in the hierarchy of the senses, so the electronic age provides information from all directions at once. Thus the ratio of the senses is altered in favour of hearing with its superior kinaesthetic qualities, and we have to adjust to a new relation with space and time. The oral world was ‘put under great strain’ by the invention of writing; then print destroyed it altogether, and along with it the analogical Thomistic view of consciousness. Now that electricity has put our senses outside us, made them ‘discarnate’, we must seek the equivalent of Aquinas’s sensus communis for them in their externalised state. The consequences must be that the individual will melt into the community, and the world become a global village. As in Symbolist poetry, process will in all things be more important than product. (One of McLuhan’s oddest achievements was to make Poe’s essay on ‘The Philosophy of Composition’ a blueprint for the electronic age; he also used the story ‘A Descent into the Maelstrom’ as a parable showing that the way to behave in the modern vortex was to stay cool, and by noticing – as he was doing – the smallest indications of what was going on, learn to survive like Poe’s hero.)

Tirelessly seeking new implications, new sympathisers, he dictated torrential letters, explaining the relevance of his thought to business, education, the American South (‘new electric technology favours the old southern cohesion of awareness’), the Russians (still oral), and practically anything else that came up. The old technology, he asserted, is always the content of the new, as movies become the content of television. And television, unlike radio, is a cool medium, because of its low definition and back-projected image. Not surprisingly, the people at the sharp end of the media were absolutely enchanted, and indifferent to any ideological subtext that might have seemed inconsistent with their own enterprises.

What emerges more clearly from the letters than from the books is, first, that subtext, the theological-historical basis of the whole project: ‘I am a Thomist for whom the sensory order resonates the divine Logos.’ Lost at the Renaissance, this scholastic insight was redeveloped by the Symbolists and their modern descendants, who accurately foresaw the (providential) crisis, now upon us, when the next galaxy moves in to supplant the old.

Secondly, the letters seem to show that McLuhan felt an increasing need to convince not just enthusiasts but everybody, and a natural failure in this respect gave him an increasing sense of isolation. He repeatedly insists that he is misunderstood because he is very deliberately not thinking in the old linear rationalistic way, but either simply making observations of a world of whose complexity he has, perhaps uniquely, been vouchsafed some sense, or sending out what he calls probes, speculative shots which may or may not be on target. ‘All of my work has been experimental in the sense of studying effects rather than causes, and perceptions rather than concepts. That this is not the normal way of proceeding in the Western world, I know from the public response of distrust and disbelief concerning my motives. My motives, so far as I have been able to discover them, are simply the intellectual enjoyment of play and discovery.’ Everybody who demurs at the method or the findings is a slave to the rear-view mirror. Even the Church, which failed to take account of the implications of Gutenberg at the Council of Trent, has now, at Vatican II, ignored the electric galaxy and declined to understand media. When General Electric came up with some electroencephalograms proving that the medium really was, in real life, the message (‘the basic electrical response is clearly to the media and not to content differences within ... TV commercials’), he was happy. But when his views were contested, he was, in spite of his protestations of indifference to rear-view mirror opinion, quite profoundly upset.

His irritation with criticism grew stronger in his last years, and is perhaps related to his increasing willingness to be outrageous, as when he defends capital punishment, preferably done in public, as ‘an intensely creative outlet for the entire society’. Detecting a hardening of the tone of his opponents, he hardened his own, explaining (in 1975) that the young people of the Sixties, who turned to him as a way of zapping the establishment, were now ‘squaring up again’, running for cover and leaving him alone to withstand the rage of the academics.

On the evidence of this collection, the critic who upset him most was Jonathan Miller, whose little book on McLuhan, published in 1971, accompanied, if it did not partly cause, the rapid decline in McLuhan’s reputation. The two men were acquainted: indeed they had got on very well together, partly because McLuhan, large and genial, considerate and full of conversation, was very easy to like, and no doubt partly because of some temperamental and mental affinity between the two – for Miller was equally conversable and also enjoyed running ideas up the flagpole. However, as time went on the differences between them grew visibly deeper. They emerged menacingly as Miller worked on his book.

‘I’m perfectly prepared to scrap any statement I ever made about any subject,’ said McLuhan, ‘once I find it isn’t getting me into the problem ... I have no proprietary interest in my ideas and no pride of authorship as such.’ But it turned out to be otherwise when Miller called this an attempt to profess a scientific disinterest to which McLuhan had, in his view, no genuine claim, and which in any case he misconceived. The offence was compounded when Miller accused him of having an undeclared interest – his Catholicism, with its strong scholastic base, together with his reactionary agrarianism. Miller added other criticisms: McLuhan made much of Ramus, but didn’t understand him; he dealt in gross historical, philosophical and physiological simplifications and committed downright errors (for instance, there is no evidence to suggest that hearing is ‘hotter’ than the other senses or has a more privileged status with regard to synaesthesia, and none that reading something is less ‘simultaneous’ than hearing it).

Reading Miller’s book 17 years on, one might think it rather laboured; and of course people nowadays have sharply different ways of speaking about the relation between the oral and the scripted (which wouldn’t, as it happens, have helped McLuhan’s case). Miller was determined to give McLuhan the serious criticism his thought merited, and in his last pages he testified to the impact it had on him personally. McLuhan had changed the way he thought about print, the telephone, the photograph, radio and television, even though he did so by arguments Miller found quite unacceptable. And with a final glance back to the earliest of the sage’s masters, Chesterton, Miller declared that McLuhan ‘has accomplished the greatest paradox of all, creating the possibility of truth by shocking us all with a gigantic system of lies’.

Miller’s book has the virtue of making his objections clear, but McLuhan’s response was not so much to debate them as to express his sense of injured merit. He wrote rather crossly to me, as general editor of the series in which Miller’s book appeared, reducing me in his salutation from first name to surname, and saying that Miller was ‘debating at a juvenile level’ by refusing to do so on the lines McLuhan had opened up. ‘The last thing in the world anybody wants is proof of anything I am saying. The evidence is plentiful for those who are interested. The poetry of the Symbolists, from Baudelaire until now, is a massive and explicit testimony to sensory change.’

A review of Miller’s book by Alan Ryan brought on a correspondence in the Listener, and Miller wrote an article for that journal, thus continuing, said the aggrieved subject, ‘his anti-McLuhan crusade’ and going on like some 19th-century rationalist attacking Catholicism. He even suspected his opponent of strong left-wing tendencies.

Some of his anger was probably due to his having thought of Miller as a friendly sympathiser (Miller had tried but failed to show a documentary about him on the television programme Monitor). Yet he might have seen which way the wind was blowing from Miller’s contribution to a radio discussion in 1966 (‘very poorly assimilated ideas ... how inaccurate he is about it all’). Perhaps he did not notice it amid the contemporary torrent of discussion, though a letter to Miller in April 1970 professes to welcome the latter’s dissent. (His letter to me says he has no idea of my attitude to his work, though he had certainly read my lengthy reviews of The Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media, and discussed them with me on Miller’s television programme.)

On looking back at the fracas, it seems fair to say that Miller’s emphasis on the not very explicit Catholic basis of his thought was just, and that it was therefore misleading of McLuhan to claim, as he continually did, that he was totally disinterested. And since he objected to ‘linear’ and rational discussion, it is difficult to see how he could ever have engaged in a considered defence of his position, even had he admitted to having one. He objected, understandably perhaps, to Miller’s conclusion – the ‘system of lies’, misquoted as ‘a pack of lies’ – and ignored the rest of the statement which said he had ‘created the possibility of truth’.

The detail may now seem unimportant, but Miller’s conclusion may not be, for it is in a way a palinode, a sudden admission that there might after all be something to be said for McLuhan’s way of doing and saying things: that his concealments and self-deceptions and errors were almost necessary to getting the truth, or its possibility, across. And one can’t help thinking he would have enjoyed the computer-generated stock-market collapse last October. Communications satellites were not yet commonplace, yet his system – he may not have wanted a system, but like Blake, had to have one, or be enslaved to another man’s – accommodates them perfectly. His general assumption that new technologies change human ways of perceiving and feeling may have been expressed in an allegorical system as arbitrary and bizarre in its way as Spenser’s House of Alma, or Blake’s prophetic books, but experience seems to be showing that he was sometimes on the right track.

In innumerable ways the linear men could show how wrong he was about the manuscript-print transition, and the print-electric transition, how he built his nests of ideas from any and every scrap of information that caught his eye. Yet the idea of living at a great moment of transition is one we have long been unable to do without, and McLuhan provided it with what was, for the moment, a rather thrilling mythology. We are not as we were in the Sixties, and tend to use leaner and more arcane authorities: Foucault predominantly, but also Derrida. But the idea is still in place, still a cause of excitement and anxiety. McLuhan would have found himself quite as easy as Lyotard with the implications of the personal computer, or with modern political advertising, fundamentalism and civil war. He would have known exactly what was really going on in Sri Lanka, Nicaragua, Afghanistan and Palestine. He might even have retained a habit of mind that sometimes baffled his admirers: his optimism, his conviction that he had read the signs, that he knew how the maelstrom worked, and given some co-operation, could probably get us out of it.

Finally, a word about the editing of the letters. A lot of trouble has been taken, much information dug out, so it is a pity that the finish is not all it might be. There are lots of avoidable errors, simple typos and worse (The Mechanical Bridge, ‘unitiated’, ‘mediam’, ‘seiminar’, Sunt lacrimae verum, ‘the King of Heaven doth suffereth violence’). The editors throw sics about beyond necessity, but miss many urgent occasions for them. A footnote may refer only to itself (p.425, n.1 says: ‘See p.425, n.1’). Bartlett’s Remembering is misleadingly dated 1961. Hetta Empson is called Heather, without benefit of sic. And so on. Nobody’s perfect, but the less perfect you are the more careful you need to be with sics. Still, the notes are generally helpful, and this collection offers us a good chance to take another longish look at McLuhan, in letters which make no bones about saying what, according to Miller, he deliberately concealed in his books.