Cut-Rate Salvation

McLuhan: Hot and Cool—A Critical Symposium

edited by G.E. Stearn
Dial, 312 pp., $6.95

Any effort to get a clear view of Marshall McLuhan’s doctrines is seriously discouraged by his explicit and repeatedly expressed scorn for old-fashioned, print-oriented, “linear,” rationality. By rejecting as obsolete the humdrum business of setting out definite theses, assembling evidence in support of them, and undermining actual and possible objections, he opts out of the usual argumentative game of truth-seeking, rather in the style of a chessplayer who kicks over the table. In this situation ordinary criticism is enfeebled by an uncomfortable suspicion that it is missing the point.

Although he writes books plentifully sprinkled with the familiar vocabulary of linear rationality (“thus,” “therefore,” “it follows,” “it is clear that”), there is, I think, no doubt of McLuhan’s seriousness about this negative and seemingly self-destructive commitment. For although his books are recognizably books, for the most part full of moderately grammatical prose, they do deviate in various ways from standard forms of exposition. The two main works look ordinary enough at first. But the chapters of The Gutenberg Galaxy are mostly short, have no numbers, and have very long titles. What really enforces one’s bewilderment are the not infrequent cases where the title-aphorism has only a very remote connection with the chapter beneath it. The thirty-three chapters of Understanding Media do have titles of a familiar, Vance-Packardy sort (e.g., “Clocks: The Scent of Time” and “Television: The Timid Giant”); seven of them are about media of communication in general, the rest about twenty-six particular media (or near-media, e.g., clothes). But the content, of the later chapters at any rate, is largely jottings, transferred, it would seem, from the notebook with a minimum of working-over. However dense and organized the prose may look, what it says is connected more by associative leaps than logical linkages. With The Medium Is the Massage a rather thin diet of prose is eked out with a great deal of typographic space-wastage and photographic interruptions, in an attempt to produce something nearer the specifications of his theory.

In varying degrees, then, his writings avoid conventional, linear logic and he instructs his readers to approach them in a non-linear way. The Gutenberg Galaxy, he says, is a “mosaic image” not “a series of views of fixed relationships in pictorial space.” You can, in effect, start anywhere and read in any direction you like. The same spirit is revealed in McLuhan’s regular tactic for dealing with objectors. He sees such linear automata as bogged down in a desperate “unawareness,” so dominated by the print medium to which they are bound by habit and professional interest that they are simply not equipped to see what he is getting at.

Quite a good way of arriving at a general idea of what he is up to is provided by McLuhan: Hot and Cool, a collection of thirty items mostly about, but a few by, McLuhan, finished off by a thirty-six-page dialogue between McLuhan and the editor. The items about him vary from fairly devotional …

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