Blog Archives

McLuhan on Structuralism

Before looking at the English evidence for the same concern with regularity and uniformity among printers and print users alike, it is well to remind ourselves of the rise of structural linguistics in our day. Structuralism in art and criticism stemmed, like non-Euclidean geometrics, from Russia. Structuralism as a term does not much convey its idea of inclusive synesthesia, an interplay of many levels and factors in a two-dimensional mosaic. But it is a mode of awareness in art language and literature which the West took great pains to eliminate by means of Gutenberg technology. It has returned in out time, for good or ill, as this opening paragraph of a recent book84 indicates:

Language gives evidence of its reality through three categories of human experience. The first may be considered as the meaning of words; the second, as those meanings enshrined in grammatical forms; and the third and, in the view of this author, the most significant, as those meanings which lies beyond grammatical forms, with those meanings mysteriously and miraculously revealed to man. It is with this last category that this chapter will endeavor to deal, for its thesis is that thought itself must be accompanied by a critical understanding of the relations of linguistic expression to the deepest and most persistent intuitions of man. An effort will further will further be made to show that language becomes imperfect and inadequate when it depends exclusively upon mere words & forms and when there is an uncritical trust in the adequacy of these words and forms as constituting the ultimate content and extent of language. For man is that being on earth who does not have language. Man is language.

~McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy, pp. 230-1

84: R.N. Anshen, Language: An Enquiry into its Meaning & Function, vol. VIII, p. 3.

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(Anti)Intellectualizing Andy Warhol

I have lately, on a whim, been reading The Andy Warhol Diaries, and have been wanting to write a philosophical/psychoanalytic analysis of Andy Warhol, but it turns out that another fellow, Christopher Schmidt, has written it for me, and titled it “From A to B and Back Again: Warhol, Recycling, Writing.” From his references to numerous theoreticians (Austin, Barthes, Bataille, Kittler, Lacan, Wilde, Wittgenstein, even tacit traces of Bourdieu), the essay is gorgeous, and extremely well-thought out. It’s uncanny how Schmidt’s theoretical foci are so similar to my own (e.g. resisting intellectualist doxa; the way Warhol’s favored medium―the tape recorder―affected his thought; Warhol’s libidinal economy & fetishisms), similar enough that I’m obliged to shelve my hopes to analyze Warhol, at least for the time being.

My one major complaint about Schmidt’s essay is his conjecture that Warhol was illiterate; this is groundless speculation, and is flatly contradicted numerous times in The Andy Warhol Diaries, particularly when the editor points out that Warhol often (along with his autograph) wrote inscriptions dictated to him by fans; the editor’s inclusion of this fact likely was explicitly aimed at refuting accusations of Warhol’s illiteracy. From this mistaken conjecture it is clear that Schmidt has no extensive knowledge of McLuhan, who provides a much simpler explanation: Warhol was simply more attuned to the audial paradigm, and was uncomfortable with intense literariness. Besides the latter complaint, my only others are that there is an odd disjuncture between the initial part of the essay (a typical review) and the latter part (an intense theoretical analysis of Warhol), and that Schmidt’s ‘wild’ psychoanalysis gravitates toward ‘pop’ interpretations, seen acutely in his two-dimensional, cliché versions of the ‘anal’ personality and of narcissism.

To any theoretician even vaguely intrigued by Warhol, I highly recommend this essay. Schmidt does a magnificent job tying together seemingly disparate conceptual threads (particularly the bottom paragraph of pg. [13] with an earlier quotation by Warhol, which is not made explicit, but left for the reader to make on his/her own) and diverse theoretical perspectives. Schmidt has written a wonderfully ‘writerly’ text, the open-ended tangents of which provoke intellectual excitement and sparks of creativity in its readers.

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Some of Christopher Schmidt’s Writings:
From A to B and Back Again: Warhol, Recycling, Writing
The Waste-Management Poetics of Kenneth Goldsmith
The Raw & The Cooked [a review of several books of poetry]
“Baby, I am the garbage”: James Schuyler’s Taste for Waste

Biographical Information for Christopher Schmidt:
Short bio for a conference paper
Author’s bio for his poetry book The Next In Line
Interview

**Note: To explain in brief why I think Warhol is worth taking seriously as a thinker: he exposes & sidesteps the flaws of literary intellectualism, foresees the vast implications of consumer society, and deftly uses a quasi-narcissist ethos to counteract his working class habitus.

P.S.  Happy birthday, Andy. You would have been 83 today.

Rick Mercer & Canadian Identity


[I wrote this for a writing contest a few years ago, with the theme ‘the greatest Canadian’.]

In medieval times, the opinion of the court jester was sought by royalty for his view on their decision and was listened to in an open and respectful manner. This may seem odd to some, but consider: very often the royal advisors were parasitic profiteers, disregarding the greater good in favour of their own ends. The jester was given permission to parody any royal proposals made, revealing their absurdities and disadvantages―in effect, expounding a disinterested point of view.[1] The jester was an invaluable asset to the royal courts, and we Canadians have a fitting equivalent.

Rick Mercer may be looked down upon by some as being superfluous to society, yet his impact on the scope of Canadian culture must not be underestimated. As he himself has said, more Canadians receive their information regarding Canadian politics from his show than from CBC News[2]. Now of course, some may view this statistic as shameful, as evidence of the deteriorating intellectual fabric of our generation. When considering the hectic lives of Canada’s citizens, however, can one really point a finger? After a day of work, caring for children, and the vast array of obligatory duties which each Canadian must inevitably endure, must society also expect them to submit to the operose dronings of bleak, one-dimensional propaganda?[3] Rick Mercer provides a genuinely entertaining self and societal deprecation as well as informative news outlet; an effective multitasking for a stressed population which might otherwise be tempted to tune in to one of the surfeit of inane alternatives. Mr. Mercer provides accommodation for the vast demographic which might otherwise remain uninformed of Canada’s perspective of world events as well as its own political ineptitudes.

Truly, Rick Mercer is one of the great Canadian social critics, and is an invaluable blessing to Canadian culture.

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[1]: Oech, R. (1983). A Whack on the Side of the Head. New York: Warner Books.
[2]: I’m not sure of the specific episode on which Mercer says this, but I saw it myself.
[3]: This is extreme, of course, to the point of being bombastic, but at the time of writing I had just watched an documentary on Fox News which seemed to justify such sentiments.

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Since writing this, my thoughts related to Mercer have become more articulate, though I doubt I could compress them into 300 words. Read the rest of this entry

Why The French Treat Their Intellectuals Like Americans Treat Their Rock Stars

It will strike the average person as fairly odd that France and America have such different forms of cultural icon, and that seemingly opposite values can prevail among youth of different cultures at the same point in history. Though I am not a historian of French or American culture, McLuhan’s media theory offers a satisfactory answer based solely on formal concerns, since the content of a medium (as McLuhan expertly shows) is auxiliary to the true reason for its popularity, i.e. its purely formal attributes.

Around roughly the same time period (around the 1950s, give or take a decade), the youth culture of both France and America took a drastic turn from what preceded it. McLuhan explains that American culture since its formation was traditionally literate (i.e. raised on newspapers, literature, etc., and concomitant linearity & compartmentalization of thought), as opposed to the culture of France, which was traditionally oral. From this basic description is the key to understanding this divergence. For whatever reason, the younger generation decided to rebel against the predominant media in their cultures. In doing so, these two cultures exchanged media forms, so to speak. While rock stars exemplified the nonlinear, erratic thinking of electric culture to the Americans, intellectuals (Sartre, say, or Camus) exemplify literate thinking by their sustained themes (angst, absurdity), their emphasis on lebensprojekt* (or better yet, whatever the inverse of this would be, but retaining its lifelong, linear manner), and their general abstruseness (i.e. one must read their work closely, whereas in oral transmission of information clarity & ease are essential).

Desmond Morris, in his book The Naked Ape (pg. 105), explains that the sociobiological reason for young women to scream and go into hysterics at music concerts (“They not only scream, they also grip their own and one another’s bodies, they writhe, they moan, they cover their faces and they pull at their hair”) is that they (unconsciously) desire to show their peers how they have matured to the point of being able to process complex emotions. As evidence of this thesis, he notes that if a teenage girl were to confront a rock star while on her own, it would never occur to her to scream at him. It is not at all difficult to switch the medium around in this case, and to see that reading (mainly literature, and perhaps some philosophy) could justly serve this end, provided that enough conspicuous consumption (or discourse about what each youth has been reading lately) occurs that one’s choice of reading material can be adequately broadcast to one’s peers.

Thus we see that youth possess a sociobiological need to display to their peers their developing emotional maturity, which must be satisfied one way or another. Looking at American and French culture from a purely formal perspective, then, we see that their situation is the same. Each culture merely had a different historical situation (in America, mass literacy, in France, oral culture) to rebel against.

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*[German] Work to which one has devoted one’s whole life.

TL;DR

  • It may seem strange that the youth of these two cultures could have such different interests, but actually they’re not as different as they first seem.
  • As Marshall McLuhan shows, exposure to different types of media motivates different types of thought. People raised on books will think in a linear, compartmentalized, and mechanistic manner. People raised on television and music will think in a more nonlinear, transdisciplinary, and ‘organic’ manner.
  • Traditionally, America was characterized by its ‘print culture’, whereas France was characterized by its ‘oral culture’.
  • Around the mid-20th century, the youth of both cultures rebelled against the traditional mindsets of their respective cultures. 
  • Music in America and literature/philosophy in France fulfill the same need, i.e. for teenagers to display to peers their ability to process complex emotions.

The Enneagram, A Constellation of the Real

The Enneagram is another fascinating heuristic system of proletarian science which has unjustly not received mainstream acceptance. The Enneagram, as its name implies, states that every person fits into one of nine categories, which are simply denoted by numbers. Everyone also has a secondary type, which is the number either before or after that of one’s primary type (e.g. a 5-4, a 6-7). Of course, such a simple schema hardly does justice to the complexity of the human psyche, so there’s an extra twist. Types, when their mental health deteriorates, display the characteristics of another type: the order is 1-4-2-8-5-7-1 and 9-6-3-9, so an 8 will deteriorate to a 5, etc. Also, when each type reaches a height of mental health, they will exhibit characteristics of the other adjacent type in the aforementioned list, ascending in the reverse order, so a 5 would become an 8, etc. Don Richard Riso in his book Personality Types describes each type in terms of stages of mental health, and the results are remarkable.

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Media Ecology in the East & West

Efei Wang has recently published an excellent post summarizing the differences between the Asian and North American schooling systems. The difficulty level of Chinese schooling has risen dramatically: Chinese elementary school students are taught algebra, science, and literature; calculus is an opening high school math course in China, whereas in North America calculus is not taught until grade twelve; in short, North American education is quite obviously inferior to that of Asia. The disparities between the two continents are eerily dramatic, and undoubtedly fuel the paranoia of those who suspect that the era of American world supremacy is drawing to a close. The following is a brief summary of how North American students’ seeming inferiority may disguise significant assets of North American habitus which will likely contribute to the persistence of American hegemony.

Marshall McLuhan was an extremely influential media ecologist in the mid-20th century. He noticed that since the popularization of the television, a distinct break could be noticed in people’s patterns of thought (patterns which were shaped by the predominating “sense ratios”). He also (controversially) denied the importance of content, in favor of the nature of the medium itself. He came to separate ‘print culture’ (marked by its intensification of the visual sense, which led to modes of thinking focusing upon uniformity, linearity, and breaking things into their component parts) from ‘audial-tactile’ culture (marked by nonlinearity, mulitiplicity, and emphasis upon difference).

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Mikhail Bakhtin: An Extremely Short Introduction

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A professor at my school, Michael Gardiner, not too long ago brought to my attention the work of Mikhail Bakhtin, a Russian social theorist who lived in the initial two-thirds of the 20th century. I recently read his first book on Bakhtin, The Dialogics of Critique: Mikhail Bakhtin & The Theory of Ideology (1992). The book itself was interesting, if somewhat dense at times (though I’m sure that Bakhtin’s own texts are exponentially more dense), and admirably contextualized Bakhtin and his work’s importance within 20th century theory. On the whole, Bakhtin doesn’t appeal to my interests, but his work has gained new relevance and popularity in the face of the ‘linguistic turn’ in philosophy, notably the discourse ethics of Jürgen Habermas. Félix Guattari was influenced by his work, and Bakhtin has gained a voice in contemporary hermeneutics, sociolinguistics, and ideology critique. Rather than focusing on these subjects, however, I feel that it would be useful to outline as clearly as possible the more abstract of the new concepts which Bakhtin introduces, and to suggest ways that they can be utilized for contemporary analyses.

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