Exploring ignorance (4)

Andrew Chrystall’s question to Exploring ignorance (3) is important. He asks if that post (perhaps along with the previous Exploring ignorance posts) is “forgetting or willfully ignoring all McLuhan’s consulting gigs and his work with Ideas Consultants?”

In order to answer this question fully, it must be teased apart into a series of further questions (which will be answered individually inline):

a)  didn’t McLuhan, like any university professor, have enough to do with his teaching and research?  why did he also involve himself himself in areas (like consulting) where he didn’t have any experience at all? and, arguably, little competence?

McLuhan was attempting to communicate ideas which have been known forever.  As discussed in Take Today, he found them in (eg) the I Ching and the pre-socratics.  Beyond ‘fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’ and ‘though wisdom is common to all, yet the many live as if they had a wisdom of their own’ and (therefore) ‘the way up is the way down’, he had little of fundamental import to add. But, on the one hand, these ideas had gained little traction in human affairs over the millennia and, in the modern era, increasingly less.  This at a time when contrary ideas were exploding across the world with ever-greater speed and with terrible efficacy. So it was (on the other hand) that McLuhan had a duty to God and man to attempt what he could, quixotic as it might seem. The astonishing amount of writing he did (the bulk of it either unpublished or little noted in McLuhan bibliographies) is testimony to the seriousness with which he took this duty. Similarly with his rushing around to ‘consult’ when this produced little result and much mirth.

b) why would McLuhan’s ideas have application beyond the ivory tower in the “control tower” of business, government, education administration, etc?

As cited and discussed in Centre and Margin 2 and Centre and Margin 3, McLuhan’s January 4, 1961 letter to Claude Bissell notes that media study has application to any field of perception:

… there is nothing in any management structure (…) which differs from an educational structure, a biological structure or an art structure. Any field of perception is a structure of center-marginal interplay, (Letters, 279-280, italics added)

So “McLuhan’s consulting gigs and his work with Ideas Consultants” simply exemplified his claim that business was one of the areas where his ideas had application.

At the same time, however, McLuhan had the notion through friends like Bernie Muller-Thym and Peter Drucker that business executives were on the lookout for new ideas in organization in ways which politicians, church leaders, education administrators and, in particular, academics were not. So commercial application could stand in the service for McLuhan of communication: perhaps here, for the first time in millennia, and in the very dynamo of modernity, traction could be found for ideas which were both the most important for the human project to heed — and the least heeded.

c) wouldn’t successful application of McLuhan’s ideas in (eg) business organization show that they were a type of management theory (however odd)? 

Centre and Margin 2 discusses this question in the following way:

As noted elsewhere (RVM or through the looking glass?) “management structure” is not (or is not only) a commercial term for McLuhan. It applies, as he specifically notes in his letter to Bissell, to “any field of perception”. So ‘McLuhan for Managers’ can be misleading in the same way as ‘chemistry for metallurgists’ might be. Of course chemistry has enormous application in metallurgy. But since chemistry is much broader than metallurgy, its application there depends upon first mastering the wider field. So with McLuhan and business management. His work was directed to the wider field of media research from which applications to organizational management, for instance, might be derived. But reading his work as business theory, even though he often cited people like Drucker and Muller-Thym, and even though he considered developments in business highly important, and even though he wondered if his thinking might better be communicated to business executives than to academics, is a category mistake.

d) why criticize an attempt to show application of McLuhan’s work even if in an admittedly restricted area?

The essence of McLuhan’s thought lies in the attempt to think through the implications of inclusivity (which he could characterize as “auditory”, “electric”, “dialogue”, etc) as opposed to exclusivity (“visual”, “print”, “point of view”, etc). Now inclusivity is originally plural and is above all expressed in the “inter-communication” (a term always echoing Henry Wright in McLuhan’s work) of the ontological with the ontic.  Just as chemistry has known for 200 years that there is no ontic stuff (like a glass of water) without a corresponding ontological designation (H2O), so for McLuhan’s media study any discussion of the ontic alone without its ontological designation is an ominous distortion, even a kind of madness:

Reconciliation is not merging. (‘James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial’, 79).

Any field of perception is a structure of center-marginal interplay, and when the center usurps margin, the patient is in an hypnotic trance; or alternatively,  mad. ( January 4, 1961 letter to Claude Bissell, Letters 279)

When the individual is entirely at one with his world or organization, he is headed for a hang-up of merging and unconsciousness, which is sterility in life or in business. (Take Today, 282)

Note may be made that these citations come from three different decades of McLuhan’s career.  A good argument could be made that he never talked about anything else. Certainly (as the posts on McLuhan’s language attempt to show), in “reading McLuhan, everything depends on whether his texts are seen in the RVM or ‘through the looking glass’.” Chemistry is simply the reading of nature ‘through the looking glass’ (H2O may be seen through water) and it was McLuhan’s conviction that a similar intelligibility lies in the nature of media.

To be continued in Exploring ignorance (5)….


Leave a Reply