Saturday, September 24, 2011

Rebel Without A Pause : A Defense of McLuhan Against His Admirers

Rebel Without A Pause :

" Every society honors its live conformists
and its dead troublemakers."

But the pressures of the challenge wrought by the new electronic media have been not only intense but extremely challenging to the self-definition of the Academy, and so anyone like McLuhan appearing to preach the new gospel of the electronic faith would seem to them not only an apostate but the incarnation of Satan himself. As a result, both individual and concerted efforts were brought to bear in trying to suppress McLuhan’s new doctrine and to stanch its spread. At the University of Toronto in particular, the reaction to McLuhan’s celebrity was most intense. It got to the point that McLuhan warned his graduate students to erase any trace of his work in their theses and dissertations for fear of reprisals by their review committees. According to Eric McLuhan, “there were at least two concerted efforts (quiet ones, of course) to collect enough signatures to have his tenure revoked.” Such efforts would seem to put the lie to the shopworn contention of the Academy that the rationale for the institution of tenure is the protection of freedom of thought; in reality, there is no more hidebound apparat devoted to thought control than the self-perpetuating survival of the medieval guild known as the academic tenure committee.
Much of the criticism seemed validated in the minds of McLuhan’s critics by several characteristics of his approach that went decidedly against the academic grain. The fact that McLuhan developed, or intensified, these characteristics specifically as part of his point that traditional modes of learning were dead served only further to madden his detractors. One of these characteristics was the peculiarly gnomic nature of his pronouncements, formed specifically in imitation of the aphoristic style of Francis Bacon in probing the contours of any question, as distinguished from adopting a fixed point of view and proceeding linearly from there. A second was his often blithe attitude toward strict factual accuracy; as he once stated to Richard Kostelanetz, “If a few details here and there are wacky,…[i]t doesn’t matter a hoot.” Another was his refusal to explain himself any further than his original pronouncement; he was often taken to say to a objector, “OK, if you didn’t like that one, here’s another one.”

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