Saturday, September 3, 2011

Marshall McLuhan What Are You Doin'?

To my mind, Marshall McLuhan was doing what many of us in Neil Postman's early NYU Media Ecology program were doing: Trying to create a new language and a new structure for describing the true impact of technology on human society and human psychology. One term that comes to mind is "paradigm switch." Through puns, probes and metaphors McLuhan attempted to define how electronic media put us into a post-print paradigm. One problem: when you're in one paradigm, its hard to see it. Terms like "reductionist," "technological determinist" etc are the ways other people try to describe in their own paradigmatic terms what McLuhan was attempting. They were misinformed.

One reason I always bring up Claude Levi-Strauss (ad nauseam to some  peoples minds) is that he also straddled paradigms. In an cultural and  intellectual environment where it was easy to describe native peoples as "primitive" Levi-Strauss suggested that they were capable of a sophistication of  thought and a nuance of expression through their "mythology" equal to or perhaps  greater than our own. That doesn't mean "right," just complex. In his analysis of myths Levi-Strauss stumbled upon a great realization. It was the not content of the myths which contained their true meaning. It was the structure of the total mythic canon which contained the "message." McLuhan knew of Levi-Strauss and admitted his debt to him. (see James M. Curtis "Marshall McLuhan and French Structuralism" Boundary 2 1/1:134-46, 1970 and McLuhan's own note in Technology and Culture, Vol. 16, No. 1 (Jan., 1975), 74-78.)

"I don't know who discovered water, but it wasn't a fish" McLuhan was fond of saying. He could have added that whoever did discover water was probably labeled an H2O determinist or an "airhead" by the other water dwellers.

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