Thursday, August 24, 2006

McLuhan in a different context

I keep writing about McLuhan and Ulmer, but last night, reading From Cliche to Archetype, McLuhan really clarified his difference from Northrop Frye, his nemesis. In defining "symbol," McLuhan quotes Frye's formalist / scientistic definition of symbol as something like (paraphrase here) 'any unit of meaning that can be isolated for examination of significance.' McLuhan's own definition of symbol draws on the etymology of the word, which means "thrown together," and McLuhan sees symbols not as static units to be analyzed, but the process of making symbols, the throwing together of images in order to create new meaning, or in the context of the book the throwing together of cliches (retrieving them) to make them fresh, to establish archetypes (which also happen to be "in play" and not static). In short, McLuhan sets up Frye as the formalist, and presents himself as the rhetorician.

This book also seems to be very much in concert with Derrida's thinking about the role of traces and marks that accumulate and that become part of the instability (or dynamism) of how we communicate. McLuhan even has a paragraph that sounds very much like the deconstruction of metaphysics, the notion that the cliches of the center and transcendence has been / is being replaced, in this era of discontinuity, by humans as, he wonders, "the missing link" or "hairless ape". I didn't understand what he was getting at when I read this passage last night, and why he was offering up the new cliche as a question, but I think I now see that he was documenting the same phenomenon as Derrida--the deconstruction of metaphysics, the replacement of humans as the center of the universe, as connected to or capable of transcendence--but he is questioning (because of his faith, perhaps) the emerging, evolutionary cliches--missing link, hairless ape. He seems to know and understand why those cliches are so prominently in play in the 20th century, but he is not likely excited by or inspired by those cliches.

So, what does it mean to re-read ALL of McLuhan? His texts provide an anti-environment from which to re-read all of the dominant scholarship of the last 50 years. In Cliches to Archetype, he quotes a long passage about the I-Ching being comprehensible in the west since we came to understand the computer. I think we are in a better place to understand McLuhan now (for Bakhtinian reasons, for technological reasons, etc), and when we understand him, we shed new light on more familiar faces.

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