Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Zeroing in on McLuhans's Politics

[These are pretty scattered remarks that are more exploratory; they are not a Statement on Marshall McLuhan.]

Marshal McLuhan and Walter Benjamin often sound eerily similar, to the point at which it is impossible to evade the feeling that McLuhan is verging on plagiarism. (For example, his note on the influence of newspaper layout on avant-garde poetry seems to ripped out of xxBenjamin`s essay, with Joyce and Eliot standing in for McLuhan where Mallarmé stands for Benjamin.) There is, of course, no evidence as to whether McLuhan, despite his evident erudition, had ever read Benjamin, whose critical stock has only been at its current standard in the last twenty or so years.

What are their points of convergence? Clearly, they believe the form of media conveys as much, if not more, significance than the content of the media. Furthermore, they see new media like film or the popular press having social effects in advance of social movements per se; change in the dominant media experienced by the general populace/the masses leads inexorably to social change, for better or worse. This is the sense of which both Benjamin and McLuhan speak of their investigation as an analysis of the dream life of the collective.

Points of difference might be understood at a very basic level of the difference between Benjamin`s Messianic Marxism, to use Derrida`s phrase, and McLuhan`s less definable political leanings. In fact, it is exceedingly difficult to place McLuhan politically. His political divisions, despite the protestations of the immediacy and global village, are typical of that of the Cold War: the U.S. and the Russians; the U.S. and Europe; the U.S., Canada and England; the First World and the Third World (particularly Africa's putatively pre-literate, “tribal” nature). There is little to condemn here; McLuhan is simply, if somewhat uncritically, accepting the terms of how the world was divided in the 1950s and 1960s.

To be sure, McLuhan is no Marxist. His references to Marx are, as with his references to Freud and psychoanalysis in general, cursory at best, and often dismissive. He notes: “...[w]edded as they are to nineteenth-century industrial technology as the basis of class liberation, nothing could be more subversive of the Marxian [sic] dialectic than the idea that linguistic media shape social development, as much as do the means of production” (Understanding Media), suggesting that Marx, in his study of nineteenth century industrial forms, erred in his lack of attention to technology as a source of social change without reference to the specific configurations that these technologies might have taken at a particular historical juncture. To put it very roughly: Marx saw economic configurations, as embodied in base and superstructure and in class formations, as the basis for describing a sociopolitical situation as well as predicting its future configurations. McLuhan, on the other hand, asserts that prior to economic configurations come the technological developments that make these configurations possible. Therefore, technology is the base, with the rest as superstructural development.

There is, as is a tediously well-known fact, a founding ambivalence to McLuhan's attitude towards technology. Its a bit of a shock to read his early work The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man (1951, thirteen years before Understanding Media), not the least of which for its surprisingly paternalistic dismissal of popular culture that is part and parcel with the vast tide of contemporary denunciations of comic books, advertisements, “the Great Books” etc.. The Mechanical Bride, unlike analogous jeremiads from on high on the people deluded enough to enjoy quizz shows, has the virtue of being hilariously funny – for the :Men of Distinction” section about whiskey ads, we have the question: “Why pick on the arts? Hasn't anyone in science or industry ever distinguished themselves by drinking whiskey?”, or , in an earlier section: “Are you the shy type? Then say it with tanks.” The sense that the mass media technologies have a liberatory potential, despite their current use for control through infantilized consumption, is not yet present in here. One further question to be addressed, then, perhaps in a later post, would be to investigate where the rupture in McLuhan's thinking occurs. Guttenberg Galaxy? The widespread availability of televisions that increased exponentially in the 1950s?

To return to the question of politics, McLuhan certain seems to align himself, at one point anyways, with the cultural conservativism that flourished in North America in the 1950s: suspicion towards pop culture, faith in the inherent, if not oracular, nature of high art. This brings McLuhan into frightening proximity with Cold War axiomatics: Richard Elman, in his book The Aesthetics of the CIA, notes that: “...the CIA not only engaged in a cultural cold war in the abstract and purely pragmatic way, but that they had very definite aims in view, and they had a very definite aesthetic: the stood for High Culture.”1 But, despite McLuhan's anti-Marxism, there is still a progressive element to McLuhan's Understanding Media in its espousal of what were by that time becoming important sources of the social movements of the 1960s: youth movements, Civil Rights and feminism. While McLuhan does not quite abjure the pose of High Cultural mandarin looking down on the antics of the children below, his views on mass culture have clearly softened up somewhat – viz. the references to Bob Dylan and the photo of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable that make up parts of The Medium is the Massage. But this will have to wait for a further post.

1Quoted in Faces Stonor Saunders's sobering The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters. The documentation of the deliberate manipulation of the “non-Communist Left” and almost every seemingly apolitical art movement in the second half of the twentieth century – dodecaphonic music, Abstract Expressionism and Encounter being examples – is extensive, with everyone from Bertrand Russel to Igor Stravisnsky seeming to have accepted CIA coin. As I say, its a sobering read.

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