Mis-taking McLuhan (Kroker 2)

As seen in Mis-taking McLuhan (Kroker 1), “creative freedom” — McLuhan’s “primary value” according to Kroker — is the movement “where ‘fixed perspective’ drops off” and “double perspective” takes over such that “everything passes over instantaneously into its opposite”. The present post will look at what is at stake (enjeu in the precise French expression) in this dynamic.

Kroker’s most important contributions have been made as a reader of McLuhan and of Canadian intellectual history in general. If this seems to rate his contributions in the 1980’s higher than his later work, the impression would not be wrong. But this evaluation should be taken to regard his early work very highly indeed, not to regard his later work as insignificant. In fact, Kroker’s nose for fundamental issues is acute and even his wrong turns are usually indicative of topics which will repay close consideration.

In the view taken here, Kroker’s importance is, however, not at all limited to Canadian intellectual history considered in isolation. Instead, his great contributions in this area (especially Technology and the Canadian Mind: Innis/McLuhan/Grant from 1984 and his wonderful essay Augustine as the Founder of Modern Experience: The Legacy of Charles Norris Cochrane from 1982) investigate Canadian thought in reference to a complex which has dominated the western tradition for 2500 years since Heraclitus and Plato (and arguably for another 2500 years before that since the dawn of recorded history in early dynastic Egypt). In this perspective, Canadian intellectual history has its meaning as a particularly revealing figure against this deep background and of this deep background. And the peculiar fit of Canada to this role has to do with its founding two nations and with its self-conscious status as a margin (or margins) that would both establish itself on its own and relate itself to an acknowledged centre (or centres) — elsewhere. Kroker’s turn in his later work to the three Germans, Heidegger, Nietzsche and Marx (in The Will to Technology and the Culture of Nihilism, 2004), may be understood as situating his matching three Canadian figures, namely, McLuhan, Grant and Innis (in Technology and the Canadian Mind 20 years earlier) on this prior ground.

Kroker’s analyses of Cochrane (1889-1945), Innis (1894-1952), McLuhan (1911-1980) and Grant (1918-1988) bring structural opposition marked by “privilege” together with ontology. This methodology may be seen at work in the following passage from his ‘Digital Humanism‘ essay on McLuhan:

McLuhan’s intellectual preference was to privilege the question of technology over all other aspects of social experience, including the economic foundations of society. (emphasis added)

Preference or privilege is the valuation of one term of an opposition (here, technology/economics), relative to the other, in a way that is held to be characteristic of the experience of a particular thinker, like McLuhan, and may thus be regarded as a certain style of ‘identification’ (= both ‘identity formation’ and ‘recognition’) that has ontological implications for the experience in question. In this short passage Kroker is thereby able to characterize McLuhan’s kind of experience as ‘technology/economics’ (where the underlining indicates all three of “preference”, ‘identification’ and ontological type) and to characterize his own differing type as ‘technology/economics‘ and to indicate his valorization of the latter relative to the former through his use of the term “foundations” for it. McLuhan’s experience, in poor contrast, is said to be “over” and the implication is that McLuhan has confused what is “over” (precisely through his “preference” or “privilege” of it) with what is properly ‘under’, namely foundations. McLuhan’s experience in Kroker’s view is, so to say, ‘downside up’ and Kroker would correct it by turning it ‘upside down’. At the other end of the western tradition, it will be recalled that Aristophanes similarly critiques Socrates as being, ludicrously, in the “clouds”.

Kroker would reverse McLuhan’s preference or privilege from ‘technology/economics’ to  ‘technology/economics‘. Now the possibility of this reversal lies in “creative freedom”. McLuhan was entirely free to exercise the preference or privilege attributed to him by Kroker. But exactly therefore, he remains just as free to exercise it differently. “Creative freedom” has, then, always already been at work in the formation of experience, Kroker’s as much as McLuhan’s, yours as much as mine,  But the additional claim made by Kroker is that his own “creative freedom” is, so to say, doubled or tripled, in ways McLuhan’s is not. However McLuhan may have been self-conscious of his manner of privilege in the formation of his experience, Kroker’s is purported to be exercised at least one level better in his critique of it.

For the moment, the question of the accuracy of Kroker’s critique may be left aside in favor of a consideration of the genealogy of his method. His treatment of structural oppositions is explicitly ordered along a vertical axis: in this passage, “technology” is envisioned as “over” and economics as “foundations” or ‘under’. But “technology” and “economics” are not the same for McLuhan (‘technology/economics’) and for Kroker (‘technology/economics‘) either individually or relative to the other. “Technology” privileged as foundational ground is not the same as “technology” considered as a figurative epi-phenomenon. The same is true for “economics” or for anything else. So it is that the vertical axis of “technology” over “economics” is better imagined as ‘technology/economics’ over ‘technology/economics‘. And since the “preference” or “privilege” made with one side or the other of the ‘technology/economics’ opposition may be made with greater or lessor fervor, with greater or lessor antagonism between the terms, it is possible to imagine a whole range of ‘technology/economics’ formations between ‘technology is everything and economics nothing’ at the top of the vertical axis to ‘economics is everything and technology is nothing’ at its bottom.  Between these extreme formations, “preference” or “privilege” of gradually increasingly irenic flavor towards the midpoint of the axis may be imagined. (McLuhan often characterizes this sort of variation in “preference” as difference in the level of “stress”.)

Such a vertical axis represents not only the range over which “technology” and “economics” may be experienced relative to the other, it also represents the range of “creative freedom”. Indeed, every formation on the axis represents one and the same exercise of “creative freedom” (regardless of whether an additional self-conscious or critical level of “creative freedom” has been exercised relative to the “primary” exercise of “preference” or “privilege).

The deep background of this analysis appears in a fragment from Heraclitus: hodos ano kato mia kai houte. This fragment from around 500 BC was used by Eliot 2450 years later as one of the twoepigraphs, both from Heraclitus, for his Four Quartets. It is often cited — as it is by McLuhan in Take Today (283) — as “the way up is the way down”. The Greek is more like: “The way up and the way down are one and the same”. While Heraclitus certainly identifies the way up and the way down, he also differentiated them as seen in the river fragment below. In any case, one of the many possible readings of the fragment is that it describes the action of “creative freedom” over the range of its exercise along the vertical axis as described above. This exercise is always the same and yet always different as it is concretely realized in the different positions along the range of the axis. As Heraclitus has it in another fragment (which we have as cited by Plato): “You could not step twice into the same river”.

The issues at stake in Kroker’s reading of Canadian intellectual history — namely, structural relations marked by privilege indicating individual identity formation and ontology — were already subject to brilliant analysis by Plato. The notion attributed by him to Socrates that no one knowingly does evil may be understood to specify the relation between identity and ontology. Since ontology implicates not only what is most real but also what is most good, if identity is a factor of ontology, no one — absent a change in identity — can do anything other than the good as delimited by that ontology.

Plato was fully self-conscious that this only deferred the question of ethics to the question of ontology. In the Sophist he poses the question of ontology in terms of the even then ancient mythological theme of the battle between the gods and the giants, the gigantomachia:

What we shall see is something like a battle of gods and giants going on between them over their quarrel about reality [gigantomachia peri tes ousias]1 (…) One party is trying to drag everything down to earth out of heaven and the unseen, literally grasping rocks and trees in their hands, for they lay hold upon every stock and stone and strenuously affirm that real existence belongs only to that which can be handled and offers resistance to the touch. They define reality as the same thing as body, and as soon as one of the opposite party asserts that anything without a body is real, they are utterly contemptuous and will not listen to another word. (…) Their adversaries are very wary in defending their position somewhere in the heights of the unseen, maintaining with all their force that true reality consists in certain intelligible and bodiless forms. In the clash of argument they shatter and pulverize those bodies which their opponents wield, and what those others allege to be true reality they call, not real being, but a sort of moving process of becoming. On this issue an interminable battle is always going on between the two camps. (…) It seems that only one course is open to the philosopher who values knowledge and truth above all else. He must refuse to accept from the champions of the forms the doctrine that all reality is changeless and exclusively immaterial, and he must turn a deaf ear to the other party who represent reality as everywhere changing and as only material. Like a child begging for ‘both’, he must declare that reality or the sum of things is both at once. (Sophist 246a-249c)

Plato’s tale wonderfully enriches the ‘technology/economics’ axis described above to include such further oppositions as sky/earth, light/dark, up/down, head/hand, still/moving, one/many, being/becoming, clouds/rocks, Parmenides/Heraclitus, etc, as well as the gods and the giants. But it also specifies a mode of “preference” or “privilege” which may already have been intended by Heraclitus in saying that “the way up and the way down are one and the same”, and even by Parmenides in describing the two horses of the chariot on the path of truth, but which here in the Sophist is stated plainly: “Like a child begging for ‘both’, [the philosopher] must declare that reality or the sum of things is both at once”.  That is, “preference” or “privilege” need not be confined to one side of a structural pair, as argued (and fought to the death for) by the gods and the giants, aka idealists and realists, but may be made with both. This possibility, too, lies on the vertical axis, indeed exactly at its mid-point, and “creative freedom” may, perhaps even must, be exercised in regard also to it (in affirmation or rejection).

2500 years before classical Greece, around 3000 BC, a variation of Plato’s take on the gigantomachia is described in the battle between Horus and Seth as recorded in the Egyptian ‘coffin texts’:

The earth is hacked up after the two companions [i.e., Horus and Seth] have battled
after their feet have dug up the divine pond in Heliopolis.
Thoth comes, equipped with his rank,
after Atum has distinguished him with (the requirements of) power
and the two Great Ones (ie, the Enneads) [= councils of the gods] are satisfied with him.
The battle is over; strife is finished,
the flame that emerged is put out.
Censed (=calmed?) is the reddening (= wrath) before the tribunal of the god
so that it is seated to speak justice before Geb.
(Jan Assmann, Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt, 283)2  

Detailed exposition may be left to a later post. Suffice it to note here that Horus as the hawk or falcon and as descended from the sky, Nut, is a god of the sky, while Seth is associated with the red earth of the desert and portrayed as a jackal with a forked tail suggesting association with the snake, Their battle is a gigantomachia as regards both the divine combatants and the ontological issues at stake. Peace is brought about between them by Thoth, the philosopher god, whose work has been enabled and then certified by the gods in council who represent in their assembly another image, like the treaty between Horus and Seth itself, of complex peace or “justice”.

Egypt as “the two lands”, upper and lower, strung out along the Nile, styled itself as “justice” in this sense. There is a parallel with the confederation of upper and lower Canada strung out along the St Lawrence.

For the 5000 or 6000 years of recorded history, which is all we have, the complex which forms the background against which Kroker reads Canadian intellectual history has been at work. “Creative freedom” is a central feature of this complex. But so also is “justice” and the next post will consider the “resonating bond” between these two.

McLuhan may be read as asserting the common truth of this ancient ontology of “justice”. he maintained that Western civilization beginning with the Greeks, but accelerating with the renaissance and Gutenberg, disturbed this balance in a way which culminated in the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But only if this massive disturbance of balance is somehow itself balanced can the ancient ontology be justified. Just such a theodicy is the central aim of McLuhan’s work.3

  1.  Heidegger cites this phrase in Greek on the first page of Sein und Zeit and then again on its last page in German translation.  At the middle of the book, in the 42nd of its 83 sections, he gives a mythological treatment of the theme in the fable of Cura. What Heidegger understands by Sein (Being) is exactly the always outstanding question of “justice”.
  2.  Assmann: Tod und Jenseits im alten Ägypten, 374:
    Aufgehackt ist die Erde, nachdem die beiden Gefährten gekämpft haben,
    nachdem ihre Füße den Gottes-Teich in Heliopolis aufgegraben haben.
    Thot kommt, ausgerüstet mit seiner Würde,
    nachdem Atum ihn ausgezeichnet hat mit (dem Bedarf der) Kraft
    und die beiden Großen (Neunheiten) zufrieden sind über ihn.
    Beendet ist der Kampf, zuende der Streit,
    gelöscht die Flamme, die herausgekommen war.
    Beweihräuchert (=besänftigt?) ist die Rötung (=Zorn) vor dem Tribunal des Gottes,
    so daß es Platz nimmt, um Recht zu sprechen vor Geb.
  3. See ‘the main question‘.

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