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Why Bother with Marshall McLuhan?

(Original article by Alan Jacobs at The New Atlantis...)

"There are several ways to read McLuhan badly. One is to take the slogans and run with them: “The medium is the message” — Go! A second is to take any one of his isometric exercises, in which one communications technology is set against another, and see it as a free-standing illustration of his overall view of something — of anything. A third is to swallow his vast bland assertions without a great deal of mastication and, if necessary (and it’s often necessary), regurgitation. A fourth, and the most understandable of them all, is to mistake his specifically Christian eschatological hope for a purely secular and material utopianism.

In these circumstances, with so many ways to go wrong, I am tempted to suggest that McLuhan now be ignored — to argue that his greatest long-term value has been his ability to provoke people who are, if not simply smarter than he was, then more patient, methodical, and scholarly. McLuhan’s attempts to account for the general landscape of media are fragmentary and inconsistent; those of his friend Neil Postman, who in following McLuhan’s example virtually created the field of “media ecology,” are far superior in evidential detail and conceptual clarity. McLuhan’s interest in literary modernism, and especially in Joyce and Pound, yielded a few memorable apothegms; but his student and friend Hugh Kenner, inspired and directed by him, produced major, field-transforming work on both writers. McLuhan’s thoughts about oral and literate cultures, dependent largely on his reading of a few scholars of ancient oral poetry, lack historical grounding and intellectual rigor; but another of his students, Walter Ong, would make a great scholarly career specifying the lineaments of that historical transformation. The work of each of those scholars is far superior to anything that McLuhan ever wrote. So why not just read them instead of him..?"

My exposure to Marshall McLuhan, as I recently mentioned to my friend J.E. from across a picnic spread, has been limited to a Canadian Heritage commercial. The above article paints a slightly more interesting portrait (ironically, through the written word, rather than the moving image).

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