Saturday, August 20, 2011

In Praise of the Non-Conceptual, Plastic and Immediate

In “Encyclopaedic Unities,” McLuhan meditates on two traditions of art history/criticism. One of these “traditions” extends from Hegel and includes Riegl, Worringer, and Spengler. The other extends from the humanist tradition of Burckhardt and includes Woelflin, Giedion and Moholy-Nagy. For the former, McLuhan notes, society and the arts are merely the clothes of the time, or a means of illustrating a set of ideas. This approach, orientation or disposition McLuhan argues, is dialectical and is divorced from sensibility. For the latter (the “tradition” extending from Burckhardt), McLuhan says, ideas merely serve as preliminary means to bring perception and judgement to an even riper fulfilment by contact with the society of the arts. Arguably, McLuhan’s makes his own sympathies and orientation clear, at least in terms of his teaching, in a letter to Hugh Kenner in 1949:
“Frank Budgen amazingly good even on F.W. he obviously loved Joyce’s art. The only one so far who takes real pleasure in the work on its own terms. But Joyce is so completely non-conceptual, so entirely plastic and immediate in his presentations. That he is constantly demanding a moral and metaphysical revolution in the Levins and Co. Hence their anguish. I’ve got my whole grad gang in just that state. Finally had to announce an oral exam for final. I’m asking [for] proficiency in the poetry. Exegesis of any part of any poem. Can tackle it as often as they like but will fail automatically if they miss one passage. You can’t credit their reluctance to look at those poems. Passionately eager to argue about. But they hate art.”

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