Mis-taking McLuhan (Kroker 1)

Arthur Kroker’s insightful essay, Digital Humanism: The Processed World of Marshall McLuhan (from his 1984 book Technology and the Canadian Mind: Innis/McLuhan/Grant), concludes with a final section in which he treats “McLuhan’s Blindspots“. Here the heart of Kroker’s critique lies in the charge that McLuhan lacked a “primary” sense of justice. This lack, according to Kroker, bound McLuhan to “technological society” in a way which rendered him indifferent to its “barbarism”:

McLuhan’s primary value was, of course, creative freedom, not “justice”; and his political preference was for a universal community founded on the rights of “reason”, not for the “ethic of charity”. This is to say, however, that McLuhan’s “historical sense” already embraced, from its very beginnings, the deepest assumptions of technological society. (…) Thus, it was not with bad faith but with the curious amorality of a thinker whose ethic, being as it was abstract freedom and reason, and who could thus screen out the barbarism of the technological dynamo, that McLuhan could associate with the leadership of technological society. (This, and all citations below from Kroker, are taken from ‘Digital Humanism‘)

But this is a peculiar charge in many ways. For example, it ignores McLuhan’s early (age 23) commitment to distributionism and to the central role played by its vision of economic and social justice in his life-defining conversion to Catholicism (topics to be treated in later posts). For present purposes here, however, the central point is that it ignores McLuhan’s characteristic turn in any situation towards an analysis of the structural balance or lack of balance — ie, of the justice or lack of justice — displayed by it. This was the very fulcrum of his thought: his ever-repeated dictum that “the gap is where the action is” was intended to highlight that boundary which is never absent from human experience and which holds the balance, in a range of possible ways, between difference and unity in it. Thus it is, as Kroker nicely has it:

To read McLuhan is to enter into a “vortex” of the critical, cultural imagination, where “fixed perspective” drops off by the way, and where everything passes over instantaneously into its opposite.

Hence Kroker’s description of McLuhan’s “specific strategy” as a “constant resort to paradox, double perspective, to a carnival of the literary imagination”.  Hence his citation of McLuhan referring to “the coalescing of inner and outer, subject and object” (from Through the Vanishing Point). This is a “coalescing”, however, that does not result in merger as the purported escape from oppositions in experience (like “subject and object”). Instead, such oppositions remain decisively different from each other — gapped — but what was “subject” is now “object” and what was “object” is now “subject”:

where “fixed perspective” drops off by the way, and where everything passes over instantaneously into its opposite

Such “passing over”, “coalescing”, “resort to paradox” and “double perspective” is indeed the work of “creative freedom” and it does indeed operate as a “primary value” in McLuhan’s thought. [See Mis-taking McLuhan (Kroker 2) for elaboration of “creative freedom” as the movement “where ‘fixed perspective’ drops off” and “double perspective” takes over such that “everything passes over instantaneously into its opposite”.]

But “creative freedom” does not at all work in contradiction to “justice” or against an “ethic of charity” as Kroker charges.  Far rather, “creative freedom” is able to be “creative” and “free” exactly because it operates in an ontological environment where an original “justice” — “the resonating bond in all things” (Take Today 3) — both allows and supports it.  Only so can it be that “everything passes over instantaneously into its opposite”, The “creative freedom” that is “privileged” in McLuhan’s work is, then, only (only!) an attempt to follow this original dynamic of “justice” itself. [See Mis-taking McLuhan (Kroker 3) for elaboration of the ineluctable relationship between “creative freedom” and “justice”.]

In fact, Kroker provides many illustrations of this complex dynamic in McLuhan’s work. For example, he cites McLuhan’s thesis that: 

the outering or extension of our bodies and senses in a new invention compels the whole of our bodies and senses to shift into new positions in order to maintain equilibrium. (UM 252, emphases added)

Or again, shortly before his discussion of “McLuhan’s blindspots”, he observes:

McLuhan often noted that “the function of the body” was the maintenance of an equilibrium among the media of our sensory organs. And consequently, the electronic age is all the more dangerous, and, in fact, suicidal when “in a desperate (…) autoamputation, as if the central nervous system could no longer depend on the physical organs to be protective buffers against the slings and arrows of outrageous mechanism”, the central nervous system itself is outered in the form of electric circuitry. McLuhan inquires, again and again, what is to be the human fate now that with the “extension of consciousness” we have put “one’s nerves outside, and one’s physical organs inside the nervous system, or brain”. For McLuhan, the modern century is typified by an information order which plays our nerves in public: a situation, in his estimation, of “dread”. (Emphasis added. For more on dread in McLuhan see Exploring ignorance (9) – The Concept of Dread and Exploring ignorance (12) – “mechanization of total human gesture”)

This hardly seems to have “embraced (…) the deepest assumptions of technological society”. Instead, Kroker nicely formulates McLuhan’s concern that the “suicidal” event of the total displacement of nature by art in the electric age (“our nerves in public”) has broken down the required “maintenance of an equilibrium” in such an extreme way that it must lead either to unprecedented disaster or to a novel healing (or perhaps both). Later posts will examine how it is that Kroker could rightly see McLuhan’s insight into such “dread” but also hold to the seemingly contradictory idea that:

everything in McLuhan’s thought strained towards the liberation of the ‘Pentecostal condition’ of technology (…) the vision of ‘processed information’ as somehow consonant with the perfectibility of the human faculties.1

For now, the not unrelated matter concerns the inherent interplay between “creative freedom” and “justice” in McLuhan’s thought. Kroker’s contention is that the former is allowed — or forced — to trump the latter and that this points not only to limitations in McLuhan’s sense of “justice” and “ethics”, but also to a series of further problems.  The most important of these concerns “ontology, the locus of his world vision”:

McLuhan’s political value may have been the creation of a universal community of humanity founded on reason, his axiology may have privileged the process of communication, and his moral dynamic may have been the “defence of civilization” from the dance of the irrational; but his ontology, the locus of his world vision, was the recovery of the “poetic process”.  (Emphasis added)

Here “poetic process” is the same as “creative freedom” and Kroker’s problem is not so much that this particular “ontology” is wrong-headed, as he certainly believes, but that it dissembles the fact that no ontology remains viable for “technological experience”:

In the face of the incipient nihilism of the technological experience, McLuhan dangled that most precious of gifts: a sense of historical purpose (the age of communications as “cosmic consciousness”); and an intellectual justification (the technological imperative as both necessary and good).

This again raises the problem of the dynamic between the danger and the potential saving in the electronic age (which will be elaborated elsewhere). Suffice it to note here only in passing that nothing could be further from McLuhan’s “double perspective” in which “everything passes over instantaneously into its opposite” than that whole series of fundamental mergers and consolidations attributed to him by Kroker: his “primary value” as “creative freedom” only and not also “justice”; his supposed notion of “the age of communications as cosmic consciousness” only (and not also as unprecedented unconsciousness and blindness); his purported view of “the technological imperative as both necessary and good” only (and not also as willful and utterly demonic).

What seems to be fundamentally at stake here is the notion (the central “metaphysical” notion according to Heidegger) that ontology and consolidation hang together: ‘matching not making’ (to reverse the point made repeatedly by McLuhan following both Heidegger and Gilson). Future posts will therefore need to consider how it is that for McLuhan, by giving up the desire for matching and merger, ontology is possible, even necessary; while Kroker, in fundamental contrast, by maintaining the “metaphysical” standard, ‘matching not making’, judges it to be impossible and fraudulent.

When these positions have been elaborated, it will then need to be asked how judgement might be made between them. Even if ontology is a viable project for finite human beings once the ideal of matching and merger is left aside, is a critique of ontologies, plural — including Kroker’s “nihilism of the technological experience” — viable?

McLuhan notes that


It will be seen in later posts that this dictum has multiple readings. Not least among them, it may be taken to posit a gaping darkness at the heart of the viable that renders consolidation impossible while mandating and supporting “double perspective” aka “justice”.

* Later posts will elaborate how it is that Kroker mistakes McLuhan’s take on the dynamic between the danger and the saving in the electric age. Kroker rightly sees that there is an important ambiguity here, but what he takes to be McLuhan’s saving — an electric utopia — is just what McLuhan takes to be the danger. While the danger, for McLuhan, lies exactly in making this mis-take.



  1.  Later posts will elaborate how it is that Kroker mis-takes McLuhan’s take on the dynamic between the danger and the saving in the electric age. Kroker rightly sees that there is an important ambiguity here, but what he takes to be McLuhan’s saving — an electric utopia — is just what McLuhan takes to be the danger. While the danger, for McLuhan, lies exactly in making this mis-take.

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