Volume 3, Number 1
Book Review: McLuhan as Dialectical Cultural Historian
Janine Marchessault. Marshall McLuhan: Cosmic Media. London: SAGE, 20051.
by Igor Krstic
(Doctoral Candidate, Berlin and Stuttgart, Germany).
Janine Marchessault’s scholarly review of Marshall McLuhan’s intellectual biography is a thoroughly researched and far ranging chronological overview of influences and origins of his thinking. The book provides students and scholars of media and communications, as well as of cultural and literary studies, insights into McLuhan’s core concepts and his understanding of the history and relevance of media in modern society. Her biographical approach differs from Philip Marchand’s account of McLuhan’s life2 as she focuses on the various cultural, scientific and religious intertexts that are woven into McLuhan’s oeuvre. Marchessault’s book can rightfully be described as a well researched introduction to McLuhan’s ideas.
"It is difficult to justify a linear book about an author committed to non-linear, aphoristic modes of thinking",3 writes Marchessault but her justification comes with an original perspective on McLuhan’s writings. She argues that, in spite of his own criticism of linear thinking inside the “Gutenberg Galaxy”, McLuhan was first and foremost a “dialectical and an historical thinker”.4 Presented as a paradox between content and form, Marchessault insists that McLuhan’s praise and practise of the rhetorical and oral tradition in opposition to the tradition of logic, dialectics and literacy, might in fact be a contradictory, but nevertheless essential guide into McLuhan’s thoughts. This contradiction is best shown, as she argues, in his early academic and cultural influences: “…we need to uncover the tension in his intellectual formation between the historical sense inherited from the New Critics and Catholicism. That is, between the materiality of language and perception, and the transcendentalism of Catholicism”.5
The transcendental “great narrative” that McLuhan tried to unfold again and again in his numerous aphorisms, is of course the one about the “invisible”, but powerful historical trajectories, which are shaped by media: from orality to literacy to the global village of electronic communication. Marchessault claims, that in fact McLuhan can be best understood as a follower of Thomism, the catholic interpretation of Aristotelian metaphysics, based on Thomas Aquinas’s scholastic writings. She argues, that “the path to redemption for McLuhan (lies) in the “common sense. …McLuhan draws his ideas from the medieval theory of sensory perception. …A balance of all the senses at once, a common sense, according to Thomistic theory, is necessary for proper perception”.6 Neil Postman similarly argues in his foreword to Philip Marchand’s biography7 that McLuhan’s narrative about the history of perception and human interaction is a religious one of loss (of sensory wholeness) and redemption (in the world of simultaneous electronic communication).
McLuhan’s utopian vision of redemption in the electronic environment of “secondary orality” is based on a fundamental criticism of modernity’s reign and dominance of the eye above all other senses. Marchessault’s close reading of McLuhan’s key texts and their various intertextual references also engages into that basic aspect of his work and presents Harold Innis rightfully as one of his main references. This is Innis’s insight which McLuhan builds on: changes in a society’s organizational structures have a profound effect on both our social and cultural experiences of space and time (knowledge systems, forms of culture etc.) and also, in the first instance, on our physical relations to the world.8
Marchessault concludes that McLuhan’s rhetorical, non-linear style provides one possibility of engaging an interdisciplinary humanistic endeavour within a world that has become simultaneous, multiple and relational. According to her, this can also be understood as a pedagogical enterprise. But nevertheless, the most important aspect of her study is the discovery of McLuhan as a “dialectical cultural historian”, as she casts light on some forgotten or perhaps rather ignored facets of his oeuvre. Marchessault’s “close reading” contributes to a better understanding of McLuhan’s overall intentions on the one side and on the other, to a broader scope of possible future encounters with his legacy.
1 Janine Marchessault is a Canada Research Chair in Art, Digital Media and Globalization in the Faculty of Fine Arts at York. A past president of the Film Studies Association of Canada, Marchessault has published mainly on film and digital media technologies and has been the editor of several anthologies, including Mirror Machine: Video and Identity (Toronto: YYZ Press, 1995); Gendering the Nation: Canadian Women Filmmakers (University of Toronto Press, 1999); and Wild Science: Reading Feminism, Science and the Media (New York: Routledge, 2000).
2 Philip Marchand. Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger. Toronto: Random House, 1998.
3 Janine Marchessault. Marshall McLuhan: Cosmic Media. London: SAGE, 2005:xvi.
7 Philip Marchand. Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger. Toronto: Random House, 1998:9.
8 Janine Marchessault. Marshall McLuhan: Cosmic Media. London: SAGE, 2005:151.
©International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (2006)