Legman and McLuhan With Zizek Along the Way

It feels like I started something with last week's reference to Gershon Legman. Comments from friends and readers imply as much, anyway, and I'll try to write more about him, and about Neurotica, as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, check out Jahsonic's engagement with Legman's Rationale of the Dirty Joke.

Incidentally, I read something online to the effect that Neurotica was a big influence on Marshall McLuhan. That is exactly backwards. McLuhan was a contributor, and if you read his writings from the late 1940s, it's obvious that he'd come up with his own take on "folklore of industrial man," to use the subtitle of his early book The Mechanical Bride (1951).

By coincidence, I see that Jonathan Goodwin has noticed an interesting parallel that certainly squares with my own impression:

Žižek reminds me much of McLuhan. Facts don't matter for either. In the space of a few pages, Zizek has claimed that Martin Luther King made a radical anti-capitalist turn in the last few weeks before his death and that the Japanese Army relied on a Zen mantra similar to "the sword that kills is the sword that saves" to justify their actions in Korea and Manchuria. These are not even the kinds of claims that can be checked. As with McLuhan, Žižek just wants to make as many connective gestures as possible. That's what make both, generally speaking, fun to read but dangerous to the untutored.

This is exactly right. McLuhan liked to refer to some of his writing as "probes" -- a very space race-era locution (let's not even get into the Legmanian implications) meaning, in effect, "I am totally making this up as I go along."

About a dozen years or so back, you heard a lot about a supposed McLuhan "revival" -- he had had been a genius and a prophet, some of his books were reissued, etc. I never believed in this revival for a minute. I had read an enormous amount of McLuhan as a teenager and knew just how much of his work is -- to use the technical, philosophical term -- bullshit.

Not all of it, by any means, but an awful lot of it; and as Goodwin implies, you really have to be judicious about using him to jump start your thinking. During the "revival," so called, there was very little sign that anybody was actually reading McLuhan, let alone thinking about him -- because otherwise there would have been frequent, loud expressions of disgust at the sheer quantity of junk. (By contrast, the fact that Žižek does have readers is evidenced by the fact that even dedicated Žižekians are put out by the logorrhea, tics, and cut-and-paste of some books.)

What happened, I suspect, is that people felt like there ought to be a McLuhan revival. That he ought to have been a deep and insightful thinker about media. And so he was, for about ten minutes each Thursday perhaps, which sure didn't mean he kept quiet the rest of the time.

Anyway, I mention all this because the thought of rereading him is on my agenda of late: His statement that the content of one medium is always an earlier medium, for example, comes to mind a lot, nowadays. The problem is that the wheat and the chaff are pretty much impossible to sift out, and both are mixed up with big chunks of substances even less appetizing.

February 22, 2007 8:38 AM | | Comments (6)

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My favorite questionable assertion from Zizek is his claim at the beginning of The Parallax View that Benjamin didn't commit suicide -- Stalin had him offed.

What are some of the main errors in McLuhan's thought? I'm curious. Perhaps they are worth a blog entry.

I should write more about this at some point. One example that comes to mind is his claim that television is not a visual medium but "audio-tactile" (and also more intensely involving of the brain than the printed page).

Given that we had entered the age of the "audio-tactile," McLuhan predicted that consumers would expect to be able to handle all commodities before buying them. Hence, there would soon be no more packaging, or at least a lot less of it. You'd go to the store and pluck things out of bins mostly. I am not making this up. This was one of McLuhan's "probes" at work.

Forty years later (and one day after spending the usual ten minutes trying to get my razor blades out of the seamless plastic monstrosity they come ensconced within) I feel reasonably confident in saying he was wrong about this. Nor, come to think of it, do I close my eyes and touch the TV all that much.

I taught an intro to media studies course at Georgia Tech last summer in which I assigned Understanding Media. A couple of students questioned why I assigned such an obviously flawed book (as I couldn't stop myself from pointing various errors, questionable assertions, etc., all the while trying to emphasize that they were consequences of his method). Following that up with Baudrillard was probably not the best idea.

I did not expect to see another Gershon Legman reference for a long time. I was wrong. No, really. Scroll down.

Anon

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This page contains a single entry by Quick Study published on February 22, 2007 8:38 AM.

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