Mis-taking McLuhan (Overview)

Although interest in McLuhan’s work has certainly revived in the last decade or two, investigation of it remains fundamentally limited by debilitating mis-takes. These will be examined here in a series of ‘Mis-taking McLuhan’ posts which will look at the ways particular scholars have distorted, often violently, what he was up to.

Certain obvious failures appear over and over again.  For example, little McLuhan ‘scholarship’ has bothered to read, let alone consider, all or even most of his astonishing output.  Even highly influential readings of McLuhan — like that of James Carey — are based on superficial acquaintance with only a few of his texts.  This sort of shoddy scholarship is especially surprising where it frequently leads to the charge that McLuhan’s scholarship was shoddy.

More fundamentally, all existing McLuhan scholarship examines his work in what he termed the rear-view mirror (RVM).  That is, presuppositions are brought to the reading of his work which render his object of examining presuppositions null and void.  This reflects a certain despair which McLuhan lacked.  As seen in his frequent recourse to Poe’s maelstrom, McLuhan was not only not frightened at the thought of his own presuppositions contesting in a sea of rival ones, he was convinced that this was the only way in which serious thought about the nature and destiny of human being could fittingly be pursued.

For McLuhan, the gap or boundary between presuppositions is a “resonating bond” (Take Today 3).  Where presupposition is not questioned, not allowed equal plausibility with rival ones, that is eo ipso to institute the RVM and to betray a fearful despair that such a gap is nothing but an “empty (…) vacuum” (Take Today 3).

McLuhan’s concern for “simultaneity”, “dialogue”, “past times”, “inclusivity” (etc etc etc) simply cannot be understood where presuppositions of any sort are privileged.

More fundamentally still, no existing McLuhan scholarship re-cognizes the passion he brought to the investigation of human being — beginning with his own.  He was willing to swim in the sea of presuppositions, even when these formed a maelstrom, for the simple reason that this is the only way for the open investigation of human being to be initiated.

For McLuhan, the question of human being is the question of privilege. This is a matter which cannot be investigated from any privileged position. But allowing a questioning distance to one’s own presuppositions demands a passion which McLuhan ‘scholarship’ has thus far utterly failed to muster.

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