In a recent post at New Explorations, Intimations of “Secondary Literacy” in McLuhan and Ong, Adam Pugen unabashedly corrects McLuhan. He has every right to do so, of course, and may even be correct in doing so. But it is critically important to understand the issues at stake between the two. For not only are these issues at the very heart of McLuhan’s project, especially after 1958, but their specification may serve to illuminate the arguably unique contribution McLuhan made towards solutions of the great problems of his and our time. Since that contribution has been lost, even while the need for it has vastly increased, Pugen’s post may work to indicate the required way towards Understanding Media — in reverse. Conversely, if it is Pugen who is correct between the two, understanding McLuhan’s mis-takes may serve to illuminate Pugen’s corrective insights.
The central issue between McLuhan and Pugen is the question of time. Is it singular or plural? If plural, at least ‘sometimes’, which time is figure and which is ground?
McLuhan is clear that time is inherently plural and that synchronic time grounds diachronic time:1
time considered as sequential (left hemisphere) is figure and time considered as simultaneous (right hemisphere) is ground. (Global Village, 10)
Pugen is equally clear that ‘time considered as sequential is ground and time considered as simultaneous is figure’:
the inclusive “all-at-onceness” of electric media [aka] the simultaneous structure of electric communication [aka] the non-linear collectivistic resonance of electricity [aka] the simultaneous electromagnetism of telegraph, radio, and television signals — has been superseded.2
For Pugen, synchronic time is a ‘sometime’ thing while the supersession of diachrony goes on forever.
Pugen specifies our situation as one of “secondary literacy”. This is put forward as a kind of Hegelian Aufheben3 of the literary ground of the Gutenberg galaxy whereby its virtues would be retained even while its defects would be cured. What Pugen terms “the rise [!] of the digital” — “reaching a kind of fulfillment [!] in digital media” — would on the one hand “retrieve the literate characteristics of ‘visual space’ from within the oral characteristics of ‘acoustic space’.” On the other hand, “the very extension of consciousness in electronic media -– an extension that is especially evident with respect to properly digital media -– retrieves the multisensuous or ‘tactile’ awareness of manuscript culture in a self-reflexive form”. In the first instance, the literary is figure to acoustic ground, in the second the acoustic is figure to literate ground. Such dynamic inter-communication is the heart of the matter for Pugen — as it is, in very different ways, for McLuhan:4
At bottom this happy result is grounded for Pugen in the very lineality on the basis of which he openly breaks with McLuhan. First there was “primary literacy” and then, later, through chronological evolution and development there is “secondary literacy”. It may be that a third, fourth and fifth literacy are foreseeable and should, in turn, be even better.
In fact, as illustrated in this retreat to such a nineteenth century perspective on time (without the least notice of ‘missing links’ and potentially catastrophic ‘developments’),7 our precarious state today is a horrendous amplification of the Gutenberg galaxy which we have never left despite all the revolutionary art and science and technological innovations — and world wars — that have marked the last century and this.8 As McLuhan often said in regard to books and cars, for example, and that has truly terrible application today in regard to the engines of war, obsolescence does not mean disappearance, but super-abundance and superfluity.
The great question is: did McLuhan indicate a way out of the Gutenberg galaxy that is currently killing us? Or is Pugen correct that McLuhan’s attempt to do so was a failure (even while supplying helpful “intimations”) such that we must seek an exit elsewhere?
One way to approach this critical difference would be to specify how Pugen’s reading of McLuhan itself exemplifies the Gutenberg galaxy and is therefore subject to the logical and ontological problems (not to speak of the psychological, sociological, political and environmental problems) of the print mindset. The matter of time is only one of the markers of this. Future posts will detail others.
Meanwhile, it may be wondered if Pugen’s reading would not “immerse ourselves again in the destructive element of the Time flux” (aka) “the swoon upon death, the connatural merging in the indiscriminate flux of life, the reflexive feeling and expressing of [merely] one’s [own] time” — where “one’s time” may be read not only as “one’s time” in chronological lineality, but also as “one’s [own conception of] time” and as “one’s [own conception of] time” as an endless series of “ones [as] time”.
- The question of time in McLuhan is treated extensively at New Sciences. ↩
- Hence, as Pugen remarks, “the artist and theorist of today (…) does not live in the same media environment as Jung, Freud, or the Bauhaus group of artists.” But the nature of a “media environment” (and therefore how we would recognize one) is just as questionable here as the assumption of the fundamental lineality of time. ↩
- Aufheben is notoriously untranslatable since it can mean, at least as used by Hegel, cancel, retain and enhance all at once. It may be illustrated in Pugen’s remark that “the detached visuality of manuscript literacy does not suppress – but, rather, complements – the immersive orality of pre-literate sensibility.” McLuhan’s tetrads are a kind of Aufheben of Hegel’s Aufheben. ↩
- McLuhan would agree with the centrality of “inter-communication” (which was already stressed by one of his earliest mentors, Henry Wright, at the University of Manitoba). But he would urge a very different specification of the matter in regard to: (1) how and when this comes about (in dynamic synchrony vs Pugen’s diachrony); and (2) what this fundamental difference implicates (in a host of ways, but especially as regards the groundings of human experience). ↩
- Pugen has “the written word” here. But the nature of the word is exactly what is most questionable and such questionability ought not to be forestalled at any stage of investigation by, for example, stipulating it as “written”. The “inerrancy” of some particular text and the presuppositions of the Gutenberg galaxy may all too easily be claimed or assumed at this point, obstructing science where it is most needed. ↩
- Pugen continues: “vital for the interpretive awareness sustaining McLuhan’s body of insights.” In fact, as Pugen would agree, it is ‘vital for the interpretive awareness sustaining anybody’s insights.’ ↩
- Admittedly, Pugen’s other work may well take notice of these gaps and catastrophes. ↩
- Some of the great difficulties in the specification of media environments may be seen here. As McLuhan was well aware and often cautioned about, new media can be, and in fact are, directed to old media goals. This serves to prolong and amplify the dominance of the old media, not to replace them. ↩