Does anyone besides me remember Marshall McLuhan?
Like a lot of other people, I was drawn to McLuhan and his writings, beginning as a college sophomore in the late 60s and continuing into graduate school in the early 70s. When I was an undergraduate, everyone and their dog was reading Understanding Media. So, at first just to follow campus fashion, I bought the paperback edition of the book and began reading. I was captivated from the first paragraph of the first page. In fact, one of my most vivid memories of that time is of being in my room in my parents’ house and being totally engrossed in Understanding Media while a violent Kansas thunderstorm raged outside. I vaguely remember the air-raid sirens howling holy Hell, warning of an approaching tornado . But I did not come fully awake until my Dad, with a few choice Arkansas expletives invoking Divine assistance, interspersed with scatological references that turned my fundamentalist-Baptist mother’s face white, literally grabbed me by my wrist, hauled me out of my chair, and crab-walked me to our basement. The tornado came close to us, but never hit us, and I eventually recovered from both the Kansas weather and my sophomoric (literally in my case) infatuation with McLuhan. Until recently.
These days, I have come to view McLuhan as a postmodernist prophet who, as St. Paul said of himself, was “born out of due season,” i.e., at least in McLuhan’s case, ahead of his time. This is especially true when we consider McLuhan in the context of his distinction between “hot” and “cool” media – McLuhan’s terms – as they are used in contemporary social media and in politics. Social media – Twitter, Facebook, etc. – are paradigmatic examples of McLuhan’s concept of a cool medium for a couple of different reasons. First of all, social media are cool because they permit, but never require, active participation from subscribers. Once I define my list of Facebook friends, I need never touch my Facebook feed again: it is updated automatically. The other side of the coin, the side of the coin perhaps most relevant to politics, is that I have complete control over the people I invite into my Facebook-feed universe. In practice, this means that my Facebook universe only includes people who agree with me in all essential respects – and if anyone disagrees with me on a make or break issue, like the fitness of Donald Trump for the Presidency, I can “vote them off the Island” by unfriending them by editing my Facebook preferences. (Between the election and now, this actually happened about a dozen times: 6 in real life, and 6 on Facebook. I apparently had more incipient fascists in my circle of friends than I suspected!) In practice, this means that, over a modest span of time, my Facebook feed ends up being an echo chamber – my own left-wing-progressive (in my case) Fox-News-on-a-laptop. Secondly, precisely because social media are cool in McLuhan’s terms, I am – another characteristic of cool media – spoon-fed content. Some Facebook posts are substantive discussions of politics – do Trump’s ethical challenges and contempt for the law spell a looming constitutional crisis? – while others consist of high-def pictures of friends’ lunches and the usual crop of great-danes-napping-with-kittens tableaux … a bricolage of images juxtaposed by Facebook that I do not control.
And the “b-word” – bricolage – brings us to politics. And not just politics, either, but rather the entire world in postmodernist terms. What I see on my Facebook feed, what McLuhan (perhaps unwittingly, though I don’t really think so) prophesied back in the early 70s, is the world as seen through the fractured lenses of the postmodern sensibility: the World itself as the ultimate Cool Medium for a couple of reasons. First, etymologically, the word bricolage is derived from the Old French term for catapult, i.e., capturing the sense of an object made from disparate and unrelated pieces that are simply catapulted or thrown together; secondly, because the pieces pre-existed and did not have to be created, bricolage also connotes the idea of being spoon-fed the separate pieces which were already lying ready-to-hand and that one then more or less passively combines and lets fall together as they will with no or minimal intervention. Think of a painting by the late Jackson Pollock, who laid the canvas on the ground, and then dribbled paints of different colors from cans, perhaps with a flick of the brush at most, but who otherwise allowed the paint to flow and drip on the surface as it would. A late Jackson Pollock painting – he had been a painter for some time before developing the iconic technique usually associated with his name – may be thought of as bricolage with pigments. A late Jackson Pollock painting is actually a depiction of the world writ small. More particularly, it is the world of discourse / language writ small, and even more particularly, it is the world of politics writ small, perhaps even smaller.
As for the world of language and discourse ... that is far too large and complex a topic to tackle in a brief blog post, requiring probably at least one PhD, perhaps more than one, in a virtually opaque field like postmodernist interpretation theory. (This is what I studied at Oxford in 1988, and I survived only by virtue of many pub crawls and bibulous punt trips up and down the River Isis.) Suffice to say that a good example of this approach to language is the late Jean-Francois Lyotard's The Post-Modern Condition, which Lyotard wrote in support of the Canadian government's comprehensive appraisal of its education system. (I urgently recommend that, if you are new to this field, you start with something much more accessible, like Stanley Grenz's A Primer on Postmodernism. Respect your limits: Grenz's last name is the German word for "limit".) Lyotard, who is often credited with coining the word "postmodern" and "postmodernism," conceives of language and culture as an interlocking complex of discrete and very loosely related "language games" more or less along the lines conceived by Ludwig Wittgenstein during Wittgenstein's tenure at Oxford. (Wittgenstein did much of his writing literally in a foxhole in France while the chaos of the First World War raged around him.) Each discrete "language game" -- Wittgenstein's term, which Lyotard borrowed -- proceeds according to its own criteria and protocols -- including the language game known as science -- and also possesses its own conception of what constitutes truth.
Which finally brings us to politics: in particular, to politics as bricolage. The alt-right has mastered bricolage ... and Donald Trump himself is the grand master of bricolage. George F. Will and I do not agree on much, but we do agree wholeheartedly with Will's remarks in his 3 August 2016 column:
What Winston Churchill said about an adversary — “He spoke without a note, and almost without a point” — can be said of Donald Trump, but this might be unfair to him. His speeches are, of course, syntactical train wrecks, but there might be method to his madness. He rarely finishes a sentence (“Believe me!” does not count), but perhaps he is not the scatterbrain he has so successfully contrived to appear. Maybe he actually is a sly rascal, cunningly in pursuit of immunity through profusion.
He seems to understand that if you produce a steady stream of sufficiently stupefying statements, there will be no time to dwell on any one of them, and the net effect on the public will be numbness and ennui. So, for example, while the nation has been considering his interesting decision to try to expand his appeal by attacking Gold Star parents, little attention has been paid to this: Vladimir Putin’s occupation of Crimea has escaped Trump’s notice.
Examine the public utterances of virtually anyone carrying Trump's ideological DNA -- Marine LePen, Geert Wilders, Nigel Farage, et al. -- and you, too, will conclude, as I think George Will is beginning to, that the European Enlightenment is basically over, in particular, its valorization of clarity, rationality, and cogency of discourse. Or at least, the West has paused for a (we may hope, historically brief) moment to catch its collective breath. For this runs deeper than mere rhetorical incompetence. It reflects a whole world view, a Weltanschauung at diametric variance with the Enlightenment ideal of coherency: the World itself is seen as bricolage, as comprising a cool medium that, for all our vaunted technological virtuosity, is essentially beyond our control. John Donne spoke more truly than he perhaps knew: "And new Philosophy calls all in doubt; / 'Tis all in pieces, all Coherence gone".
McLuhan would have understood.
James R. Cowles
Understanding Media ... Amazon.com ... Public domain
Bricolage ... Stephen Baxter ... Used under terms of "fair use and review" copyright provision
Pollock painting ... Bruce Rolff -- Shutterstock.com ... Public domain