Menippean satire 3

Further pro menippean satire (PMS) texts given at the Winnipeg school site are:

[McLuhan:] “I don’t have A Theory of Communication” and “I don’t use theories in my work”

These are taken from Eric McLuhan’s lecture, ‘Marshall McLuhan’s Theory of Communication: The Yegg‘ where they are cited as “Marshall McLuhan’s classic refrains”.

A whole series of questions comes together at this juncture, the most important of which (to be treated in later posts) concerns perception and conception in McLuhan’s work.

Here three points may be made.

First, Eric McLuhan is well aware that ‘theory’ is not only something which his father didn’t have and didn’t use. Here is Eric in this same lecture:

When Stephen Hawking discusses his own theory of communication, it becomes immediately obvious that one function of a theory in the hands of a scientist is to prod reality into revealing itself. “[W]e cannot distinguish what is real about the universe without a theory,” he writes. A good, elegant theory will describe a wide array of observations and predict the results of new ones. “Beyond that, it makes no sense,” he points out “to ask if [a theory] corresponds to reality, because we do not know what reality is independent of a theory” (Hawking, [Black Holes and Baby Universes], 1993: 44). A theory is a way of seeing and as such a formal cause of reality. (28)

In this sense of ‘theory’, Marshall McLuhan not only did “use theories”, he could not not use them.

Second, as H-G Gadamer often pointed out, the Greek root of ‘theory’ (which we also have in ‘theatre’) is only one of many different words the Greeks had for different kinds of ‘seeing’. Others we retain in English include ‘idea’ (cognate with Latin and English ‘video’), and ‘panorama’, ‘optometry’, and ‘ophthalmology’ (all cognate with English ‘aware’ and ‘wary’). The kind of seeing reflected in theory and theatre can be called ‘participatory seeing’ and was applied by the Greeks above all to the exercise of sight in divine ritual. Here the object seen in-forms the subject such that a kind of receptive passivity is necessary to ‘see what is going on’. Gadamer’s point is interesting in itself and also supplies an etymological footing to Hawking’s point above.

Third, it is insulting both to McLuhan and to menippean satire itself to think that something like ‘avoiding theory’ could supply a non-distorting mirror in which — on the basis of which — media analysis could then be pursued.  (Not that huge amounts of energy are not wasted in just this way!)  The RVM is nothing but perspective that is anchored in some way. But McLuhan’s thought necessarily goes “through the looking glass” since its study is of anchors, plural.






4 thoughts on “Menippean satire 3

  1. Q R

    “I prefer to study the pattern … rather than the theory ”

    “As mime, the artist cannot be the prudent and decorous Ulysses, but appears as a sham. As sham and mime he undertakes not the ethical quest but the quest of the great fool. He must become all things in order to reveal all. And to be all he must empty himself… the artist cannot properly speak with his own voice.” – Marshall McLuhan, James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial (1953)

    1. McEwen Post author

      The erasure or lineout here is excellent. There is no such singular thing as “the pattern” or “the theory”. But the erasure includes the “I” since, in the event that there is no singular “the pattern” or “the theory”, there is no singular “the I” either. Faced with this situation, or embedded in this situation, the I as artist “must become all things in order to reveal all. And to be all he must empty himself” (= erase herself). “The artist cannot properly speak with his own voice”, there being no such such singular thing as “own voice”.

  2. Quantum R

    “The artist is engaged constantly in building anti-environments … The artist is engaged typically in creating situations and images that will #vivify or #revivify the ordinary scene. The ordinary scene tends to dull and numb the sensibilities. If you think of art as primarily concerned with perception and awareness, you can easily see why, when ordinary routinized forms tend to numb awareness, the role of art is to keep faculties alert.”

    cf. One of Innis’s favourite maxims : “the more the technology of communication improves, the more difficult human communication becomes.”
    N.B.: McLuhan’s Review of Innis’s Changing Concepts of Time, Northern Review 6.3 (Aug.- Sept. 1953): 44-6.

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