McLuhan’s language 2 (Lamberti)

In her recent book, Marshall McLuhan’s Mosaic (UTP 2012), Elena Lamberti correctly warns that “those who cannot see through the form of a medium inevitably misread and make a mess of its mediation” (56, italics added). Lamberti’s book itself, however, illustrates the problems which result when this advice is ignored.

In the following passage, she recommends taking “an imagist approach” to McLuhan’s language, one which would “read in depth and grasp the complex implications”.  But she fails to take such “an imagist approach” in making her own case:

,..McLuhan did not use words to represent the world in a mimetic way, but worked upon language in order to render the ongoing cultural and societal processes through it. He adopted an imagist approach to language, not a referential one. Terms such as civilization and book must therefore be read through, as semantic boxes containing a broader set of concepts.  (…) In McLuhan’s thought — as translated in his writings — book and literacy/literate are therefore images that immediately render the environment he was probing — an environment which the new electric media started to remodel from the middle of the nineteenth century, slowly inducing a sort of cultural schizophrenia, which McLuhan rendered through the expression ‘from the eye to the ear’.  This image immediately translates the passage from the mechanic to the electric cultural mode, that is, from linear (implying an atomistic visual approach to space) to acoustic (implying an oral space-time-oriented approach to duration).  ‘From eye to ear’ is a one-liner which invites us to read in depth and grasp the complex implications of the passage from an old to a new space-time sensibility projecting us into an acoustic space we have to experience through our five senses. (Marshall McLuhan’s Mosaic, 59-60)

Here Lamberti herself takes an “atomistic visual approach” at the very moment when she would urge its rejection in favor of an “imagist”, “complex” and “electric” one. Thus she inexplicably writes that McLuhan’s words as images “immediately (!) render the (!) environment he was probing” and that his work “immediately (!) translates the (!) passage from the (!) mechanic to the (!) electric cultural mode”.  But can anything be “immediate” when the “medium is the message” and when, therefore, everything needs to be “read through” as “containing a broader set of concepts”? Can there be such a thing as “the environment” in this case? Especially can there be “the mechanic” or “the electric” one? And what about “the passage” that she describes as leading between the two? Where did all these “atomistic” singularities come from in a “depth” situation with its “complex implications” of figure and ground?

One sign of the crisis that makes its appearance here is Lamberti’s reference to “a sort of cultural schizophrenia”. The implication of this phrase is that the “one-liner” she cites — “from the eye to the ear” — along with its inverse — from the ear to the eye — does not name two isolated historical “environments” which replace each other in sequence (supposedly depending on the rise of different communications technologies). Instead, in order for “a sort of cultural schizophrenia” to be possible at all, it must be the case that both ear and eye can be active at the same time. Indeed, when everything is “simultaneous”, when everything is subject to “the speed of light” and is “all at once”, when Lamberti’s “complex implications” are always the case, then not only can both ear and eye be present at the same time, they both must be present at all times. As McLuhan specifies:

the concentric with its endless intersection of planes is necessary for insight. In fact, it is the technique of insight, and as such is necessary for media study, since no medium has its meaning or existence alone, but only in constant interplay with other media. (UM 26)

Simply put, for McLuhan there is no such thing as that diachronic sequence of discrete ear and eye perceptual modes so loved by McLuhan scholarship:

Everybody who exists within any man-made service environment experiences all the effects that he would undergo in any environment as such. (TT 90)

Compare: any chemical question of course involves all of chemistry. So with media analysis.

Another sign of the same cross-road crisis which Lamberti might encounter here (but seems not to notice) is her repeated recourse to linear narrative:

an [eye] environment which the new electric media started to remodel from the middle of the nineteenth century, slowly inducing (…) the passage from the mechanic to the electric cultural mode, that is, from linear (…) to acoustic (…) the passage from an old to a new space-time sensibility.

This “passage” or “remodel” from “from linear (…) to acoustic“, from “old to (…) new (…) sensibility“, is strangely one which Lamberti’s own text has failed to implicate. For it itself remains decidedly and insistently “linear”. The “passage” she names is simply one of chronological time: “from the middle of the nineteenth century, slowly inducing”.

Now it is not the case that Lamberti has not gone ‘far enough’. For that, too, is linear. Instead, a kind of backwards somersault is required here which would go “through the looking glass” and “through the vanishing point” via “dropout”. Lamberti would have to ask: if “sensibility” has become questionable (because known to be both plural and “all at once”), what should my “sensibility” be in making my “approach” to these matters of “sensibility” and “approach”?

Here, as McLuhan never tires of insisting, only limitation and ignorance provide the needed signposts. For if we cannot let go of previous standpoints and certainties, if we cannot acknowledge their limitation, if we cannot see through our wisdom to its ignorance, we remain bound to the RVM. And this encloses us within a bubble with no possible perception of reality. Hence it is that:

All solutions are in the very words by which people confuse and hide their problems. (TT 103)

Only by interrogating what we do not know, first requiring perception of it, can we find our way.

As will have to be repeatedly unpacked in further posts, we need to find a way to retreat in preliminary fashion to that which is preliminary:

dialogue as a process of creating the new came before, and goes beyond, the change of “equivalents” that merely reflect or repeat the old. (TT 22, italics added)


Leave a Reply