Gary Genosko has pointed up the relevance of Reuel Denney for McLuhan research and for communication studies in general. Denney was a co-author with David Riesman and Nathan Glazer of The Lonely Crowd (1950) and was a colleague of Riesman at the University of Chicago in the 1950’s.1 In 1957 he published The Astonished Muse which followed The Mechanical Bride in offering a close reading of American popular culture, especially its spectacles (football games) and hobbies (hot rods). Riesman supplied an introduction to the 1982 reprinting.
With Riesman, a McLuhan correspondent and frequent contributor to Explorations, and Denney, Chicago was one of the institutions, along with Toronto (Innis, McLuhan, Carpenter and Tyrwhitt), Harvard (Richards, Parry, Havelock; also Tyrwhitt after she left Toronto for Harvard in 1955) and Yale (Cleanth Brooks; also Havelock after he left Harvard for Yale in 1963) where investigation of oral and written media was thought to have the potential of throwing important new light on the working of mind.
In 1955 Denney authored ‘The Cultural Context of Print in the Communications Revolution‘ (Library Quarterly, 25:4, Oct 1955, 376-383). Like Innis and McLuhan before him, Denney led off his article with the tale told by Socrates in Plato’s Phaedrus concerning the invention of writing by the Egyptian god, Theuth:
At the Egyptian city of Naucratis, there was a famous old god, whose name was Theuth; the bird which is called the Ibis is sacred to him, and he was the inventor of many arts, such as arithmetic and calculation and geometry and astronomy and draughts and dice, but his great discovery was the use of letters. Now in those days the god Thamus was the king of the whole country of Egypt; and he dwelt in that great city of Upper Egypt which the Hellenes call Egyptian Thebes, and the god himself is called by them Ammon. To him came Theuth and showed his inventions, desiring that the other Egyptians might be allowed to have the benefit of them; he enumerated them, and Thamus enquired about their several uses, and praised some of them and censured others, as he approved or disapproved of them. It would take a long time to repeat all that Thamus said to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts. But when they came to letters, This, said Theuth, will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit. Thamus replied: O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality. (‘The Cultural Context of Print in the Communications Revolution‘, 376-377, citing Phaedrus, 274-5 in the Jowett translation)
- Riesman left for Harvard in 1958; Denney for Hawaii in 1962. ↩