Newmedia on Wed, 24 Nov 1999 06:47:18 +0100 (CET)

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Re: <nettime> Whatcha Doin', Marshall McLuhan?


Thanks for your sendup of McLuhan.  It was overdue, on many counts (Polish 
and otherwise).

There are many issues to be raised (and praised) about your treatment -- 
which we will mostly leave for another place and another time -- but I 
thought you might be interested in a few tidbits from the battlefield.

McLuhan was a satirist, first and last.  A Menippean satirist.  That is to 
say, a satirist who makes fun of his own audience.  This is a rare quality -- 
in a satirist and in an audience -- so it is no wonder that most 
commentators, lacking the talent or nerve, perhaps, can't duplicate his act.  
This is probably the primary reason why there is so little McLuhan in all the 
modern "McLuhans."  We aren't very good at laughing at ourselves.

He was also deeply informed about the role "secret societies" and "occult 
religions" continue to play in art-circles, power-circles and 
economic-circles and this knowledge is constantly playing in the shadows of 
his jokes.  This is the reason why there are 33 chapters in "Understanding 
Media", for instance.  He was informed, in part, by Wyndham Lewis, "The 
Enemy", so trying to understand McLuhan without understanding Lewis is 
seriously barking up the wrong shrub.

As McLuhan put it,

"Three customers enter a steakhouse restaurant that is a front for espionage. 
 They order steaks, well done, medium rare, and rare.  When the waiter brings 
the steaks, he stoops to one customer and whispers: 'The Medium is the 
Message'." ("Culture is Our Business", page 264)

But, "conspiracy theory" is even worse than self-humoring, in most crowds, 
nowadays, thus whatever McLuhan was actually talking about is surely not for 
public consumption.  He's simply too funny about far too serious matters to 
be allowed to speak in polite (i.e. post-modern) company.

So . . . if Mark Dery actually said that McLuhan "has become a poster-boy for 
the cyber-libertarians of Silicon alley", then someone should offer to give 
him a geography lesson.  

I coined the term "Silicon Alley" and it refers to New York's New Media scene 
(which I've also had something to do with).  There are very few 
"cyber-libertarians" in New York.  There are even fewer in the New Media 
scene who have any grasp of McLuhan, poster-boy or not.  

The "Techno-Realist" movement, which I also helped to start, was much more 
typically New Yorker.  Left-leaning, anti-libertarian, policy-oriented, 
careerist and decidely hostile to McLuhan, to joking about oneself and to 
probing beneath the skin.  Whatever you do . . . don't ask too many questions!

Judging from Mark Dery's review of Andrew Shapiro's "Control Revolution" 
(Andrew co-founded TR and is now on track to become the left-version of 
George Gilder), Mark and TR (and the Alley) are all comfortably in the 
anti-McLuhan camp.  (Or, anti-Stahlman, take your pick. <g>)

Perhaps, Mr. Dery was thinking about the Postman-crowd?  Neal Postman 
supposedly began his Media Ecology department at NYU based on a suggestion 
from McLuhan.  Maybe.  It is true that Postman was the editor of ETC. (the 
journal of the cult-like Korzybski-ite General Semantics Society) when they 
published the first exerpts of "Laws of Media."  However, Postman couldn't 
understand the material and he doesn't teach McLuhan to this day.  And, 
geographically speaking, the Postman crowd has very little to do with Silicon 

Indeed, as "Anti-Aristotlean" Korzybski-ites, Postman and this crew are 
fundamentally at odds with McLuhan's Aristotlean "Thomism."  

You seem to have missed a key point here, which as a philosophically trained 
fellow, you might wish to follow up on.  Formal causality.  That's all there 
is to it.  Formal causality.

McLuhan held that forms cause effects.  From Aristotle.  Through Aquinas.  
Thus, "The Medium is the Message."  Thus, as well, the goofy label of 
"technological determinist."

But, Korzybski claimed precisely the opposite.  By detaching meaning from 
words, the good Polish count hoped to detach form from causality.  In the 
process, he hoped to engineer a new humanity.  By uprooting us from our main 
medium, language.  Don't forget that General Semantics was initially to be 
called "Human Engineering."  There is nothing in common between McLuhan and 
Postman, in truth.

However, this hasn't stopped Postman's main protege, Lance Strate, now 
chairman of the Fordham Communications Department, from becoming the modern 
McLuhan magistrate.  Lance's mailing list, media ecology, is supposed to be 
the principle place for scholarly discussions of all things McLuhan.  And, 
Fordham hosts the conferences.  Mark Dery spoke at the big one.  Next year 
Camille Paglia will give the annual McLuhan Address.  God help us.

The basic issue here is that McLuhan wasn't a "gnostic" although he played in 
a "gnostic" band.  That is to say, McLuhan defeated the bad infinite of 
endless dialectical synthesis of monisms from dualisms.  (Yes, it can be 
done!)  But, the world around him (his audience) was and is intensely locked 
in the "gnostic" death-spiral.  (Thus, when I asked Erik Davis, in private 
mail, "What isn't gnostic?", the answer is . . . nuttin' honey!)  

So, as a non-"gnostic" Mennipean satirist in a thoroughly "gnostic" world, 
McLuhan had no choice but to "put on" his audience.  (It didn't work so well 
for me, I guess I brought up the "gnostic" issue once too often.  It wasn't 
funny anymore.  They kicked me off the media ecology list.  Boo hoo, hoo. <g>)

Unless one is willing to probe deeply into the whole matter of "gnosticism", 
there is little ground to be gained studying McLuhan.  Yes, I noticed that 
you didn't mention this matter.

Since he was "putting on" his audience, you need to go to some of the more 
obscure McLuhan tracts to catch his "true" drift.  I'd suggest the recently 
published "The Medium and the Light" for those who are really interested.  
Particularly his 1954 essay, "Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters."  And, 
his letters.  Very important.  Read his letters.  Particularly the letters to 
Ezra Pound.

Or, if you've got the lungs for it, try to find a copy of his 1943 Cambridge 
PhD thesis, "The Place of Thomas Nashe in the Learning of his Times."  Very 
hard to find.  Never published.  Sorta under lock-and-key.  It's all in 
there.  If you dare to inhale.

By the way, "grammar" is another word for "magic."  Look it up in the OED.  
(Pssst . . . so is "glamour.")

One potentially fruitful line of attack might be to trace the influences of 
McLuhan on the French-crowd.  Not just Baudrillard.  It's all over the place.

And, since McLuhan coined the term "software communism", and repeatedly 
insisted that we have already achieved communism-in-our-times, we should be 
treated to some interesting geneology when Richard Barbrook completes the 
movie-treatment of "Cyber-Communism."

We can leave the "analogy of proper proportionality" and "programming the 
unconscious with recently achieved forms of consciousness" for later 
conversations, if you'd like.

Yup, the bombs are still fallin' and dead men are still talkin',

Mark Stahlman

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