GV and TT p22 — Commentary 3: “McLuhan is a charlatan”

At the end of the 1960s, McLuhan’s trajectory through the heights of acclaim began a precipitous decline which lasted until his death a decade later — and then continued for further decades beyond that. Even today, 35 years after his death, McLuhan’s reputation remains decidedly clouded by charges that his scholarship was shoddy at best and that he was a complete “charlatan” at worst with no scholarship at all.

One of those who dismissed McLuhan out of hand was Carroll Quigley (1910-1977), an influential professor of history at Georgetown University in Washington. Quigley was a conservative Catholic who may have found McLuhan particularly distasteful as a traitor in the ranks. Here are some excerpts from a review — ‘McLuhan as a Global Verbalizer‘ — which Quigley published in the Washington Star for September 15, 1968:

It is quite evident that McLuhan cannot think, and there is considerable evidence, as I shall show, that he cannot read (…) McLuhan is not interested in communication either as transmitter or receiver (…) McLuhan neither knows nor cares to know how electronic systems really operate. Instead he pounds away at these misconceptions (…) McLuhan ‘s ignorance is monumental, almost total. (…) How could a man like this win the fame and fortune our society provides to him?

A  month later Quigley followed up this review with a letter to the Washington Post (October 20, 1968) — ‘One page of McLuhan’ (given below his Washington Star review on the same page of a website maintained in Quigley’s memory). Here he stated for the record that “McLuhan is a charlatan” and made his case for this charge by fact-checking “one page of McLuhan”. Quigley showed in his letter (and in less detailed fashion also in his review) that page 25 of War and Peace in the Global Village is full of assertions which are either false on their face or are at least highly questionable (though presented by McLuhan in his usual never-in-doubt fashion). He then asked:

What are we to make of scholarship like this? Is this deliberate fraud, or is McLuhan unable to read? I think that the latter may well be the case. At least it is more charitable. But let us not call work like this “scholarship”.

It must be admitted that much of Quigley’s case is not far off the mark. With the possible exception of his selected criticism in The Interior Landscape, not a single one of McLuhan’s 151 or so books qualifies as “scholarship” in its usual sense. The Gutenberg Galaxy is generally thought to have been the best of them and won a Governor General’s award –- but around a quarter of it consists of citations which are sometimes very long and often hard to identify as citations. Just like The Mechanical Bride, Through the Vanishing Point and Culture Is Our Business, The Gutenberg Galaxy is more a series of commentaries on the work of others than it is a work of sustained scholarship. Verbi-Voco-Visual, Medium is the Massage, War and Peace in the Global Village and Counterblast are all books which attack the form of the book and perhaps especially the form of the scholarly book. Four of his remaining books are strikingly uneven collaborative efforts, two of them posthumous assemblages from notes, dictations and recordings left behind at his death.

In fact, all of McLuhan’s books after The Gutenberg Galaxy show clear signs of hasty construction. Sustained argument is almost unknown. Contradictions or at least hazy conceptions abound: “electric technology” may be presented as a saving or as a damning development; the visual era may be presented as lasting 2500 years (since the invention of the alphabet) or 400 years (since Gutenberg) or 200 years (since the industrial revolution); the Gutenberg galaxy may be presented as ending with the telegraph or with television or as continuing in and through them; the “tribal age” may be presented as a lost day of innocence or as a continuing night of violence; media may be presented as characterizing whole epochs, or various cultures, or some societies, or different individuals, or single works of art or aspects of single works of art — as well, of course, as both instruments of communication and all their various products like photographs, recorded music and film. Further yet, all of McLuhan’s books after The Gutenberg Galaxy are tiresomely repetitive. The supposed “Balinese saying” that “We have no art, we do everything as well as possible”, to take only one example, appears in Understanding Media and then in practically every one of his books thereafter as well as in many of his essays and lectures.

The undeniable impression is that McLuhan wanted to get stuff out the door and didn’t much care how it stacked up in terms of scholarship. He notoriously refused to proof his work or even to correct mistakes when they were pointed out to him. He frequently maintained that ordinary conversation is the only standard for genuine communication and noted that it does just fine without much attention to grammar or facts or logic. So why bother with these in books?

McLuhan’s poor health after his 1960 stroke, and particularly after his 1967 brain operation, may be thought to have played an important role here. He may no longer have been capable of the sort of sustained attention he had previously brought to his work. Further, both his parents died in the 1960’s, his mother following a stroke, and he himself had at least these two very close calls with the grim reaper. He may well have thought that speed of production was more important than quality control. Another complication in these years was his turn to a kind of academic showmanship. This both busied his schedule and further distanced him from traditional scholarly roles and goals. (Not that he had ever been comfortable as a scholar!  For at least two decades following the start of his academic career in 1937 McLuhan repeatedly expressed his determination to find another vocation.)

The result of all these factors has been that McLuhan research remains restricted to the remote borders of academic respectability. While he did indeed seem to see things — arguably very important things — which scholars of his time missed (so that his work remains alive in ways theirs does not), it is a painfully open question how to relate his insights to the strange form in which we have them. 

Contemporary McLuhan researchers like Lamberti or Marchessault rightly emphasize the importance of attention to how McLuhan said or wrote what he had to to say or write. But attention of this sort is invariably directed to purportedly positive aspects of his “rhetorical practice”. Hence the attraction of the idea that McLuhan authored “menippean satire”. Sure, McLuhan seems to have had his faults, so the argument runs, but these faults were in the service of an ancient style, or anti-style, in terms of which they may be seen as contributing virtues. Contradictions, gaps, repetitions, bombast, uneven construction — all money in the bank for such capitalists of scholarship!

The contrary suggestion here is that literally everything depended for McLuhan on the perception that faults as faults exist within a saved world — and that they are even the special sign of it. As he wrote in a letter to Joe Keough (July 6,1970):

I have no interest at all in the academic world and its attempts at tidying up experience. (Letters 448)

For McLuhan, “tidying up experience” included not only the rituals of scholarship, but also and far more importantly all those correlations and retracings through which humans have remade the world. This was a process which began with language as “the discontinuous juxtaposition of unrelated items” (as he wrote to Innis) and thus with that “thought and perception” which this power of “discontinuous juxtaposition” first enabled in human being (thereby initiating us as human beings). The power thus given to human beings then developed exponentially in our hands and eventually culminated in the “electric age” with its “proscenium arch” of satellites and its abolition of nature in favor of art:

The media extensions of man are the hominization of the planet; it is the second phase of the original creation. (GV 93)

Now “tidying up experience” in this way is one of the wings which carry humans in their being. The alphabet as “mother of invention”, the “Gutenberg galaxy” and the “satellite surround” are all reflexes of this uncanny power and represent our gradual extension of it around the earth and finally into the heavens themselves. All re-present a retrieval or retracing of the power of that original “resonating bond” which may be called “dialogue” or language or Logos. Human being is in this way one-half characterized by the fact that this power has unaccountably been given over to it to imitate (via retrieval, retracing, replay and recognition) in such a way as to direct and even control it.

But this power is subject to a triple forgetfulness in regard to the other wing of2 human being: particularity and utter finitude. It forgets in the first place that human language, and hence thought and perception, are possible only as inflections of finitude3. And it forgets, in the second place, that inflections of finitude can constitute and convey meaning, and so enable “thought and perception”, and thereby initiate human being, only on the basis of a prior “resonating bond” to which this chain of possibility owes literally everything. And lastly, in the third place, it forgets that it has forgotten these things.

For McLuhan, emergence from the prison-house of the “hominization of the planet” depended on the re-call of this triple forgetfulness. Only by recalling their ineluctable finitude could humans understand the enabling condition of language, thought and perception and thereby of themselves as humans. And only by recalling the sway of such finitude in this way could humans then recall that unaccountable prior “resonating bond in all things” (Take Today 3) through which language — and hence thought and perception and hence human being — are first of all constituted.

A “saved world” cannot be saved in part. It must be saved as a whole or not at all. This presents the Gutenberg galaxy with an unsolvable problem. Try as it might, it cannot see the two wings of human being, meaning and finitude, as mutually implicating. In its foundational “one at a time” lineal fashion, it is driven to see finitude and meaning as ultimately contradictory. The origin of things and the end of things, if thought is ever given to these extremes, are conceived as some variety of monolithic merger (“chaos”, “nothing” and “darkness” are now in fashion where “order” and “being” and “light” have also had their day).  More usually, only the unconscious reflexes of such fundamental determinations are in place in a present where the incompatibility of meaning and finitude presents all sorts of staggering problems and especially prevents (what is imagined of) “belief”.

McLuhan could see that what is fundamentally at stake here is a question of the approach to experience. His work from start to finish was therefore an attempt to expose the plurality of approaches to experience — media — to which humans are subject. But the key to an understanding of this question lay in the matter of finite particularity. Only if finite particularity were valued utterly without cosmetics and deodorants could it be seen as belonging together with meaning. And this on several grounds. In the first place, if media as approaches to experience are plural, the “selection” of one or another of them is itself inherently particular and finite. Secondly, if finite particularity were experienced in some deodorized fashion, this would not only reflect a prior selection of some approach to it, it would also change it into something else. It would not be finite particularity at all. Thirdly, the foundational role of language in the constitution of human being, indeed of all being, could be understood only where the necessity of finite particularity to it were acknowledged.

So McLuhan’s task was a difficult twofold. On the one hand, he wanted to expose the fact that human nature is just as intelligible as physical nature has proved to be.  On the other, he needed to emphasize the finite particularity of both the objective and subjective sides of such investigation.

In this context, the faults of McLuhan’s scholarship may be seen in a new light — or in a new direction of light, “light from” rather than “light on”. These are real faults.  But he seems to have gone out of his way, not only not to exclude them, but to highlight them. And now it can be seen why.  The valuation of finite particularity, indeed of outright faults, already determines whether or not escape velocity from the Gutenberg galaxy has or has not been achieved.

  1. Because of the unusual nature of his books and the various collaborations represented by them, even their number is hard to specify. Janine Marchessault gives it, not as 15, but as 8! (Cosmic Media, xv)
  2. Gen obj!
  3. Gen obj and subj!

One thought on “GV and TT p22 — Commentary 3: “McLuhan is a charlatan”

Leave a Reply