Saturday, August 26, 2006

From Cliche to Archetype: McLuhan's composition text?

I have actually been telling those who will listen that From Cliche to ARchetype is McLuhan's neglected masterpiece, but perhaps more relevant to us compositionists is the possibility that the book is a kind of composition text, in the philosophical tradition. McLuhan even makes a hint in that direction: "The banishing of the cliche from serious attention was the natural gesture of literary specialists. . . . The writers of composition texts have made much of the cliche as they understand it. They are right in saying that the cliche ought to get great crical attention" (55).

I suspect McLuhan is implying that the composition texts spend a lot of time advising writers to avoid cliches, while McLuhan is in fact suggesting that writers / scholars / artists (because the cliche is not simply verbal) spend a lot of time working with cliches. Cliches, McLuhan argues, are probes, a term he uses often and loosely, but what I think he is getting at is the fact that cliches used unreflectively can reveal all sorts of personal and cultural biases (embedded ways of thinking), while cliches that are carefully and self-consciously retrieved can be powerful means of communication that bring with them rich and evocative histories, having been retrieved from Yeates' "rag and bone shop of the heart."

Okay, so the whole cliche as probe thing needs some refining, but it definitely seems like it has potential for compositionists. McLuhan and his co-author, Wilfred Watson, have laced the text with many other composition tools to be used. For example, they essentially offer up a version of Peter Elbow's "believing and doubting game" and put that into the general set of perceptual tools they call probes. The book as a whole is concerned with the problems / challenges of creativity, which I wrote about a few days agao. This process of retrieval, as I also suggested the other day, is an approach to language and literature that assumes agency and action, rather than study and analysis. The book offers up McLuhan's standard argument that the role of art is to provide an anti-environment through which we can reveal the invisible environments we live in, the water we fish swim in. The chapter on genre is genre ecology and media ecology all roled into one and offers a nice critique of Frye's literary approach to genre. The chapter begins with the subtitle: "Talent rides in a hackneyed vehicle" which seems to me like a beautiful and under-used aphorism in genre studies.

I suppose there is a whole article just on McLuhan as anti-environment for genre studies: why are we just now (36 years later) coming to roughly the same conclusions McLuhan and Watson arrived at in 1970? Not because they were geniuses ahead of their time, I suspect, but because we are living through a long age of interface, a long age of literacy and electracy overlapping, and the transition will be slow, the "progress" meager, the theory hope and claims of radical transformation extravegent.


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