Andrew Chrystall opens his essay ‘A Little Epic: McLuhan’s Use of Epyllion’ with the statement: “Commentary on Marshall McLuhan’s oeuvre has shifted from debating whether he was right or wrong to a deeper consideration of his rhetorical praxis.” Different takes are implicated here. On the one hand, Chrystall is noting (and is surely correct in noting, along with Lamberti) that any discussion of “right or wrong” in McLuhan must be based on an accurate reading of what he had to say. And the understanding of what he had to say entails understanding how he said it: “the medium is the message”. Thus far one must agree that a consideration of McLuhan’s “rhetorical praxis” is indeed a necessary and “deeper consideration”. But, on the other hand, Chrystall’s statement seems also to have been intended as a restatement in regard to McLuhan of Nietzsche’s title, On the Genealogy of Morals: in this case, “right or wrong” is to be treated as a surface manifestation of “deeper” psychological and/or sociological — at any rate historical — factors. “Rhetorical praxis” would name this supposedly deeper, and singularly efficacious, historical level.
Chrystall’s essay embraces both of these readings. The focus of this post will be on the second and it will be argued that this misses an essential dimension of McLuhan’s thought — the fundamental plurality of time. In a word, there is no single ‘historical’ level to his work. Aside from his constant critique of “lineality” and his insistent recourse to figure and ground in his later work, note should be made that rhetoric in his earlier work is only one of the disciplines of the trivium whose “ancient quarrel” is always also contemporary. As McLuhan makes explicit in the title of his 1946 essay ‘An Ancient Quarrel in Modern America‘, it appears today as much as it did in Greece or Rome. The surface reality may be utterly different between these widely separated civilizations, but beneath them, at a “deeper” level, there beats the same heart with the same three ventricles with their same complex interactions.
The beating heart of the trivium acts like continental drift beneath the surface of historical events. (There are important parallels between McLuhan’s work in communications and the contemporary work of John Tuzo Wilson, also at UT, on plate techtonics. These will be treated in later posts.) Like continental drift, the surface effects of the dynamic life of the trivium vary between slight movements that are hardly noticeable to earthquakes that are catastrophic. The key point here is that the trivium is dynamic and has its own fundamental time (“time not our time” in Eliot). Further, the relation of its time to our historical time has yet another chronology. Time, too, has a triple beat. Not only past-present-future, but layers of times like an onion.
McLuhan is often explicit concerning this complex plurality of time as times:
time considered as sequential (left hemisphere) is figure and time considered as simultaneous (right hemisphere) is ground. (GV 10)
Later posts will detail this fundamental theme in McLuhan’s works. Suffice it to note here with McLuhan that this other “simultaneous” time is “ground” to the “figure” of our historical time (the “lineal”) in the same way as techtonic plates underlie (and so can overwhelm) our surface geography. This is exactly why the “ancient quarrel” of the trivium, like continental drift in geophysics, can have global effect.
That Chrystall yet sometimes holds McLuhan to the standard of a single linear history is apparent at the very outset of his essay and at its very end. At the outset, after noting that “commentary on Marshall McLuhan’s oeuvre has shifted from debating whether he was right or wrong to a deeper consideration of his rhetorical praxis”, he immediately cites Geoff Pevere and Greig Dymond as if in clarification:
And if McLuhan wasn’t right? Well frankly, who cares? For the fact is, no North American intellectual of his era held the world’s ear quite as intensely and obsessively as this (…) professor of English literature from Toronto, and none mainlined the peculiar zeitgeist of the era with such (…) precision. (Mondo Canuck, 132-133)
Here McLuhan’s virtue is to be measured by that of an ad. The person who did more than anyone to direct our attention to the ways in which we allow ourselves to be manipulated by ads is here treated as being a successful ad himself — an ad so tuned to “the peculiar zeitgeist of the era” that it is able to grab our attention “intensely and obsessively”. This assimilation of McLuhan to advertising is possible only because the very question of whether McLuhan was “right” is rejected as uninteresting: “who cares?” What alone is interesting is “the world’s ear”, “the peculiar zeitgeist of the era”, history at its most effervescent, history as nothing but such effervescence.
While Chrystall’s essay quickly veers away from this dedicated superficiality to treat (as Lamberti has it) “the structural (how he [McLuhan] said what he said)”, and does so with admirable insight (as future posts will elaborate), at the end of his essay, in its concluding note, he inexplicably returns to it. Reflecting on the structural analysis he has just set out with some perspicuity, he comments:
Admittedly this is a somewhat idealized reading, probably only possible within a decade of the initial publication of these works. Today, the weight of McLuhan’s observations are out of date and this militates against the possibility of reading McLuhan in this way.
Here again, single-layered linear history returns as a, or the, standard “ruler”. It rules even what is “possible” via what is, or is not, “out of date”.
Strangely, this same return of the “linear” also occurs with Lamberti. Future posts will need to consider why this is so. At a guess, the reason may have to do with the fact that the relation of the “linear” to the “simultaneous” cannot be one of either/or exclusivity. It must be one of both-and inclusivity. But how to think such a relation of times while “holding to both” (as Plato has it in the Sophist) is something the present age has lost and now can grope toward only blindly.