The Virtual Marshall McLuhan – Introduction to the Paperpack


The Virtual Marshall McLuhan stresses the ‘poetic image’ that Marshall McLuhan crafted to support his persona as an intellectual committed to a unique perceptualist poetic vision of everyday life in the post-electric, new media world. This persona – the ‘virtual’ McLuhan – is very different from both what we might call the ‘real’ Marshall McLuhan – a devout, dedicated, Roman Catholic academic deeply enmeshed in the humanistic and theological orientation of the classical era and the high middle ages – and the ‘imaginary’ McLuhan created by various ‘McLuhanisms’ and ‘McLuhanites.’

McLuhan approached the communication, culture, and technology of the 1950s through a poetic vision, essentially a schizo-analytic perspective, that allowed him to generate the witty, comic, poetic images that permeated his work from The Mechanical Bride to his posthumous works, Laws of Media and The Global Village. One major aspect of his schizoid approach to the contemporary post-electric, new media world was his close affinity with both Wyndham Lewis and James Joyce. His approach and his complex use of Lewis and Joyce are part of an extremely complex problem that involves aspects of his personal encounter with Lewis in Canada and the U.S. in the 1940s; religious issues; questions about tradition, modernism – particularly postmodernism – and the rapidly changing technological world; Canadian nationalism; and his personal history.

The Virtual Marshall McLuhan discusses this and also demonstrates McLuhan’s commitment to the trivium and quadrivium of the liberal arts with a particular emphasis on grammar and rhetoric, as well as his commitment to the art of poetry and its relationship to techne and the arts in general, ancient and modern. One of the major aspects of his program throughout his career was to make the history of the liberal arts, the creative arts, and their relation to techne (and hence technology) an immediate part of the reality of the present moment – relevant to the new media and the arts they were engendering. This interest provided him with the technique he used to pursue Ezra Pound’s advice in a July 1952 letter: “start looking for credits rather than debts// not matter much where a man GOT what, but what he did with it (or without it) AFTER he got it.” McLuhan uses his understanding of the past and his immense knowledge of literature and the arts to demonstrate how those in the present, himself included, were involved with the past.

The “virtual” Marshall McLuhan first appeared in the late 1940s, just after McLuhan completed his doctoral thesis, “Thomas Nashe in the Learning of His Time,” at Cambridge University and was beginning work on his first media book, The Mechanical Bride. The development of his poetic vision was aided by his encounter with James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, which was facilitated by his relationship with the major expatriate Canadian critic of high modernism, Hugh Kenner. In the early 1950s, when McLuhan began a group reading of the Wake, he had just discovered the work of Harold Innis, encountered the Catholic theology (particularly Augustine and Thomas Aquinas), encouraged by personal contact with Etienne Gilson and, to a lesser extent, Jacques Maritain, as well as with their writings. Through the Wake and its involvement in high modernism (W.B.Yeats, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and Wyndham Lewis) and radical modernism (the avant-garde, Cubists, Dadaists, Futurists, and Vorticists) McLuhan established the crucial links between his history of the liberal arts and poetry and the arts as well as between his theological and humanistic interests and the transformations of communication media in the emerging contemporary world. These interests had, however, been preceded by his encounters with Lewis while teaching in St. Louis and later in Windsor (from 1943 to 1945). Lewis, who as part of the character of Shaun the Post is a major presence in Finnegans Wake, was one of Joyce’s major critics. McLuhan found in Lewis’s figure of the satirist as enemy who engages in “blasting and bombardiering” the middle-brows a useful base for his own approach.

It is clear that McLuhan’s fundamental project in approaching mass media and everyday life in the post-electric world of new media was shaped initially by Lewis and his interpretations of early avant-garde art, since McLuhan did not become deeply involved with Joyce’s major works until after he began The Mechanical Bride. In the 1940s McLuhan immersed himself in Lewis’s writings; by the time he encountered Finnegans Wake in his readings with Hugh Kenner in the mid 1940s he had already absorbed most of what Lewis had written before the 1940s. Lewis’s writings, particularly Time and Western Man, were probably the primary sources of his growing interest in popular culture and media that was first expressed in The Mechanical Bride and in articles such as his piece in Neurotica on “Time, Life and Fortune.”

Parallelling his personal interest in Lewis was McLuhan’s complex religious attitude. Lewis, in contradistinction from Joyce, who was an apostate and a heretic, ultimately never rejected, though he seriously questioned, a belief in Christianity. His situation closely parallels McLuhan’s Baptist converted  to Catholicism and totally committed to the Church who also embraced and endorsed the ideas of the avantgarde, high modernists, and others who were a-religious, anti-religious or agnostic. McLuhan apparently adopted Lewis’s “transformed moralism,” which vitiated his critiques of the contemporary world.

While it is clear that Lewis was a major early influence on McLuhan’s perceptual approach to media and everyday culture, many of the key strategies McLuhan developed in the Bride and used throughout his writing career, such as his aphoristic style, owed a great deal to other sources as well. Pound shared Lewis’s Vorticist direction in the early twentieth century and his use of aphorism influenced McLuhan directly and also through the subsequent influence that Pound had on Eliot. This interest in aphorism, though perhaps most immediately influenced by Blast and Vorticism, is also influenced by the headline style of the ‘Aeolus’ section of Joyce’s Ulysses and the frequent use of aphorisms throughout Finnegans Wake and is one of a number of reasons that Alexander Pope’s writing, particularly The Dunicad and his mock-rethoric Peri Bathous or The Art of Sinking in Poetry, provides a major part of the conclusion to The Gutenberg Galaxy.

Through his interest in Joyce, Lewis, and the French symbolists, McLuhan developed an interest in such figures as Duchamp, Picasso, Marinetti, Leger, Schoenberg, Antheil, and many others. All of these interests enabled him to confront the way in which, after the mid-nineteenth century and particularly in the early twentieth century, art began to become once again an important guide to understanding technology and the techno-scientific. The Virtual Marshall McLuhan traces the influence of the contemporary world, the early historical world, and the new technologies on arts and technology, such as Sigfreid Giedon and Lewis Mumford. This was particularly true of Giedion and his wife, Carola Giedion-Welcker, who were close friends of Joyce and knowledgeable participants in the new arts and media, as exemplified in their various writings. It is this complex background that allowed McLuhan to construct his unique poetic persona and awareness, first demonstrated in The Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media.

A major, implicit thread of The Virtual Marshall McLuhan is the interaction between Joyce, Lewis, and the various modernisms and the way these relations affect McLuhan’s positions on tactility, the interplay of the senses (with an emphasis on “play”), and the problems of orality, literacy, and print. McLuhan was one of the few to discover that the playful satire on Lewis and on Joyce’s own early role as an artist that can be found in the Wake as crucial to understanding contemporary problems and to revealing that the orality-literacy (or  oral and written) opposition is transcended by the grounding of human communication in tactility and gesture.

McLuhan found both the importance of tactility and its relation to gesture and the Aristotlean-scholastic conception of the sensus communis (a common sense through which all the senses interact within the human nervous system) throughout Joyce’s work. His discovery occurred in the period between 1950 and 1954 when he was writing his key articles on Joyce. Tactility, he wrote “the integral sense, the one which brings all others into relation, “was “greatly enhanced by “the new electric environment”. In the Wake joyce had developed a complex interplay between the oral, aural, visual, tactile, and intersensory activities of the human body. McLuhan grasped the tactile nature of TV from its treatment in the Wake, which led him to elaborate its closer affiliation with the gestural – for “tele-media” implied a projection over distances as well as, in the case of TV, a scanning of the image and its projection as light through, rather than light on, the screen.

Joyce’s complex ambivalence, playing with and revealing aspects of modern media and post-electric culture, led to McLuhan’s commitment to perceptual revelation as opposed to conceptual. Lewis, in spite of his artistic aspects, confronted Joyce as a conceptualist, while Joyce, in spite of his complex intellectuality, remained a “perceptualist”. In his schizoid manner, McLuhan embraced Lewis’s intellectual critique and moralism, while in his poetic mode he adopted (perhaps with some reservations) Joyce’s playful “perceptualism.” McLuhan had strong Lewisian biases and yet was attracted by the playful, intellectual complexity of Joyce. While approving of Lewis’s moralism and cynicism, he was still seduced by Joyce’s playful, poetically based intellectualism. McLuhan’s analysis of technology was more advanced than Lewis’s, although committed to Lewis’s relative comfort with the period in which he lived, whereas Joyce’s position was, ultimately, more advanced than McLuhan’s, as shown by his success with the avantgarde in the arts such as Cage, Cunningham and Rauschenberg and his overall success: Joyce is probably the top “novelist” of the twentieth century, based on his three major works: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses, and Finnegans Wake.

While Joyce may have gone further than McLuhan in his vision of the paramodern, McLuhan has a unique vision of his own that manifests itself through poetic images crafted by interplay within everyday life – the conflicts generated by the world of new media and the evolving techno-cultural world of human communication. McLuhan became a juggler of the video, the verbal, the audio, the tactile, and the interplay of all the senses within the central nervous system of the everyday person. While his poetic practice may have been implicit in Joyce, McLuhan played it out for the broader audience of those whose whole life was governed by the media. He had learned from Lewis that the tribal world was re-emerging in the twentieth century and he intuited that those enmeshed in an electric age lived in an era that was “out of its mind.” In this project he was not directly influenced by anyone.

His position was further complicated by the intersection between his religious beliefs and the influence of the history of humanities and humanistic activities. Here the later medieval period (the thirteenth century) was crucial and the writings of Gilson a significant influence on the way he related the scholastic philosophy of Albertus Magnus and, particularly, Thomas Aquinas to the humanistic tradition. This was complemented by his understanding of the way cathedrals represented a marriage of art and technology with the medieval vision. It is here that he discovered the contrast of light through as opposed to light on, which he then applied to the difference between film and TV, allowing him to show the latter’s greater affiliation with tactility.

His knowledge of the later medieval period allowed him to explore the technology of writing through the manuscripts of scribes. His embrace of Aquinas (which had significant echoes in Joyce, although not in Lewis) was based on his view of Aquinas as fundamentally a humanist using dialectic within a grammatic-rhetorical tradition. Joyce’s complex wit was associated with Aquina’s wit as exemplified in his Latin hymnody and in his discussions of theological disputes in his Summae (Summa Theologica and Summa Contra Gentiles). Both had a major impact on the prose poetics McLuhan developed for a post-new media culture. This play with wit and aphorism continued through the Renaissance figures such as Erasmus and Thomas More (who were both Catholics) as well as Rabelais and on into the seventeenth century with Blaise Pascal in his Pensees and then into the early eighteenth century with Alexander Pope.

The importance of these past associations and their relation to McLuhan’s dedicated commitment to Catholicism as an “apocalyptic” is underlined in two of his three posthumous publications: Laws of Media, where the tetrads are consciously associated with “media poetics,” which led him to Vico, the last great, pre-electric grammarian to influence James Joyce (and incidentally the most quoted source in Laws of Media), and The Medium and the Light: Reflections on Religion, a collection of essays and interviews on the Catholic religion and its relevance to the contemporary media world. It is this awareness of the past that makes him a schizoid visionary, for he can embrace Lewis’s stance as the enemy and as a contemporary moralist while also evincing a preference for Joyce’s powerful radical modernism. The playing out of this tension in the context of his classical and medieval training is the key to understanding his approach to the new media and grasping his penetrating insight that an awareness of the conversion of historic learning to its status in the present moment in time is crucial to being able to understand the ascendancy of arts in the world of modern communications technology.

McLuhan also discovered that the satirists he favoured throughout literary history all participated in modifications and transformations of a genre originally defined by the Roman poet Varro as Menippean satire, which later came to be described as Varronian satires. The great practitioners of this tradition were satiric poets and writers such as Ovid, Erasmus, Dryden, and Pope. The form, as McLuhan observed, was further transformed by Joyce, who described himself as a Menippean satirist – using the original term to acknowledge the founder of the form, Mennipus, the Greek cynic philosopher and poet, although in Joyce, and earlier in Pope and Ovid, this form had moved far from its original cynic foundations. In its modified form it is the shaping principle of McLuhan’s prose poetry, particularly in his work following Understanding Media (e.g., The Medium is the Massage, Counterblast (1969), and War and Peace in the Global Village). In these works he brought together his knowledge and understanding of traditions to illuminate the contemporary dilemma of culture and technology. In contrast, Lewis, who looks to the past and mistrusts the modern, is a true cynical post-Menippean satirist.

The Virtual Marshall McLuhan demonstrates that the arts and literature were the crucially relevant grounds from which McLuhan developed his mode of investigation of contemporary media, culture, and technology. His method of investigation provides a poetic technique through which he can create his “percepts” of contemporary culture and avoid the snares of the conceptual and the moralistic.  His first experiment with this technique was in The Mechanical Bride, but at the time he still took a moral stance and supplemented his poetic probes with conceptual analysis. It was during the years of Explorations and his early culture and communication seminars with Ted Carpenter that he liberated himself from the overtly moralistic and conceptualistic, which made possible his landmark writings, The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) and Understanding Media (1964). The Virtual Marshall McLuhan elaborates on this in appendices by his lifelong friend Ted Carpenter and his first Ph.D. student, myself, who were both involved in the launching of the seminars and in the formation of McLuhan’s mature vision of “understanding media,” which was developed in that critical decade.

The McLuhan who launched the poetic probing of communication and technology – the “virtual” McLuhan – was committed to exploring the way that contemporary arts, particularly poetry, created a rebirth of the marriage of art and technology that permeated classical poetry and poetic theory and formed the foundation of the techne, which permeated the history of the trivium, from Plato to Pope and Stern, and the high modernists and radical modernists of the first half of the twentieth century. Consequently, some of our deepest understandings of what occurred as a result of the impact of electro-mechanization on contemporary culture emanate from wisdom that has existed for centuries. McLuhan and Joyce reincorporated this wisdom as a vital, living aspect of the present, enabling it to confront the future. A recognition that he had made this confrontation possible is the highest tribute McLuhan himself would have wanted, for he never felt comfortable as a figure affecting the corporate-political force nor did he feel committed to the acceptance of any contemporary political body – even the Church – which is why, although he was a “true believer,” his belief was undertaken as an “apocalyptic” with a satirist’s view of all power structures.

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