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A Review of B. W. Powe’s Marshall McLuhan & Northrup Frye: Apocalypse & Alchemy by Robert Logan

McLuhan Galaxy - Sat, 08/09/2014 - 9:29am

There have been other reviews of Bruce Powe’s latest book published on this blog, but this unpublished review is written by Robert Logan, arguably the dean of Marshall McLuhan scholars today.

A Review of B. W. Powe’s Marshall McLuhan & Northrup Frye: Apocalypse & Alchemy

by Robert K. Logan (logan@physics.utoronto.ca)

B.W. Powe’s book Marshall McLuhan and Northrup Frye: Apocalypse and Alchemy is a masterpiece of literary criticism of two of Canada’s (nay the world’s) greatest literary critics, Marshall McLuhan and Northrup Frye. The content of Powe’s book is a detailed and astute analysis and comparison of these two seminal poetic thinkers and the medium is Powe’s poetic prose that is a delight to read. Powe’s goal “is to initiate a discussion of the convergence, of the conflicts, of the methods and harmonies, and of the ‘ideal Marriage’ of communications and literature (‘Mercury and Philology’) which their lives and thought bravely embody (54, these numbers refer to pages in Powe’s text).” Elsewhere (21) he writes, “the premise of my book [is] that the intellectual energies of McLuhan and Frye continue to be ‘magnetic fields’; they attract and resist each other in the apocalyptic mode.” Powe’s book is not just an academic exercise but a process that he is heavily invested in both emotionally and intellectually for both McLuhan and Frye were his teachers and the inspiration for his life’s work as an academic writer, a novelist, an essayist, a critic and a poet.

The subtitle of Powe’s book: Apocalypse and Alchemy holds the key to understanding his project. Powe sees both McLuhan and Frye as apocalyptic thinkers. He quotes Frye from The Educated Imagination, “Literature is a human apocalypse, man’s revelation to man, and criticism is not a body of adjudication, but the awareness of that revelation, the last judgment of mankind (20-21).” Powe’s (16) evidence for McLuhan’s apocalyptic spirit comes from The Medium and the Light where McLuhan writes, “I am an apocalyptic… We are on the verge of apocalypse.”  Powe interprets this passage to mean, “Apocalypse is heightened awareness, the moment of epiphany, where an individual sees into, or acutely apprehends, his or her time and place (16).” Although Powe sees both McLuhan and Frye as apocalyptic thinkers their notion of apocalypse is quite different. “To McLuhan, apocalypse is found in the forms and effects of media,… to Frye, apocalypse can be found in literature and through the honed awareness that comes in critical comprehension (23).”

The alchemy for Powe and one of the missions of his book is his desire to reconcile and amalgamate the thinking of his two mentors. He writes, “Is there a possibility of a McLuhan-Frye alchemy, a mixing of their chemical traces and energies? What happens if we let the two together become the catalysts for a new agency of thought, a code of thought and inspiration (11)? ”

 Apocalypse and Alchemy

The structure of the book revolves around this theme of apocalypse and alchemy. After a short prologue that deals with the first encounter of McLuhan and Frye in 1946 at the University of Toronto, Chapter 1 reveals the authors intentions and provides an overview of his notion of apocalypse and alchemy. Chapter 2 describes the work of McLuhan and Frye from their own respective perspectives. Chapter 3 deals with the conflict between McLuhan and Frye’s differing apocalyptic views and approaches. Chapter 4 examines the parallels or harmonies in their thinking leading to Chapter 5 where Powe attempts an alchemic reconciliation of the approaches of McLuhan and Fry. A short Chapter 6 sums up the book and deals with the impact that McLuhan and Fry have had on the thinking and work of their mutual student and prodigy, the author of the book.

There are studies of McLuhan and there are studies of Frye but Powe’s book is unique in that he takes on both these scholars at the same time, compares them and examines their interactions with each other. Rarely do we find an analysis of two thinkers compared side by side and in those odd cases where it has been done not by a student and admirer of the two thinkers in question. One of the interesting features of Powe’s study is that he is the student of both, engaged in a struggle with them to embrace them and as their former student to also turn away from them. Powe invokes the story of Jacob wrestling with an angel to describe his own struggle. The difference here is that Jacob only wrestled one angel whereas Powe takes on two angels as he relates in his text, “Still I know when I rise to struggle with these angels of instruction and inspiration what comes is a reinvention of the two through a recombination (27).” This book is as much an autobiography of Powe’s intellectual heritage as it is an analysis of McLuhan and Frye, two thinkers that are at the core of Powe’s scholarship and his literary artistic expression. In this book we are treated to a view of the figure of McLuhan in the ground of Frye, a view of the figure of Frye in the ground of McLuhan, and a view of the figure of McLuhan and Frye in the ground of Powe, a rich tapestry indeed!

But there is still another ground and that is the ground of Canada as Powe, himself a Canadian, describes the influence of being Canadian on Frye and McLuhan who chose to work and remain in Canada despite the possibilities of lucrative offers from south of the border (35). Powe suggests that they are neither part of the European nor the American tradition but they are “subtly, insistently part of the new that is Canadian and yet (paradoxically) universal (12).” So in a certain sense this book is about Canada as well as about McLuhan, Frye and Powe.

I learned a lot from Powe about Frye whose work was not as familiar to me as that of McLuhan’s. But what really knocked me out were the new insights into McLuhan that Powe provided despite the fact that I had collaborated with McLuhan from 1974 to his passing in 1980 and have written about him ever since. I believe it is Powe’s poetic sensibilities that allowed him to draw fresh insights for me into McLuhan’s work.

Powe introduces us to how McLuhan and Frye worked for many years at St. Michael’s and Victoria respectively where the street running through St.Mike’s was renamed the McLuhan Way and a classroom building renamed Northrup Frye Hall. Powe writes, “The naming of a street and building can guide us and move us. It helps us to remember twin geniuses and their invaluable creation of a legacy of insight and vision (10).” How appropriate, I thought, how these naming honours reflect the character of the honourees. McLuhan is a way, a thoroughfare, a place of movement and Frye is a building, static and solid and built conforming to a code, the Toronto building code.

Powe first describes the work of McLuhan and Frye in terms of each one’s own objectives before contrasting their respective perspectives and interests which for McLuhan was a focus on form, media and the impact of technology and media and for Frye was a focus on content and the impact on our imagination (39). There was also a difference in their style as McLuhan despite being a prolific author worked primarily in acoustic space within the framework of the oral tradition and without a theory whereas Fry worked totally in visual space within the literary tradition guided by his theory of the Great Code (51, 149, 167). McLuhan “craved collaborators” (85) and Fry worked alone in the library or his study with his books (50).

Despite these contrasts in style, temperament and methodology, Powe still sees many parallels in McLuhan and Frye. These became the ingredients for his alchemic reconciliation of his two teachers and mentors. Both were voracious readers, both were interested in patterns, laws and codes (41, 202), both were fascinated with the number four as well as Pentecostal and apocalyptic thinking (29-34). Both had strong religious convictions, although different they were deeply felt (46). Education was a major concern for both (48). Each was rebellious in his own way (181) and each was fascinated with Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (183), as was Powe, who treated us to his own analysis of the Wake (204-08) in addition to those of McLuhan and Frye.

Despite these parallels and the ‘harmonies’ in the two seers, Powe deals with what he calls “the critical conflict between McLuhan and Frye” devoting an entire chapter to this topic (110-168). Their critiques of each other and conflict between them, Powe suggests, rose to the level of mutual polemics. McLuhan’s problem with Frye was that he felt Frye was operating with a left-brain, visual bias of categorization by classifying figures without taking into account the ground in which they operated. He also critiqued Frye for not taking into account the effects of the print medium (122), and went as far as to suggest that Frye’s “classification” was “without insight (117),” which seems a bit harsh. Frye, for his part, suggested that McLuhan was “a cult figure” who “allowed his name and ideas to be associated with business people and media celebrities, politicians and advertisers (127).” Powe also cites a 1971 essay in which Frye accuses McLuhan of being a determinist and even a Marxist. This seems a bit unfair to McLuhan given his ecological approach and his criticism of Marxists as providing a 19th century perspective on 20th century problems.

After his careful analysis of McLuhan and Frye’s differences, parallels, critical conflicts and even their mutual polemics, Powe turns to alchemy in his attempt to identify a “visionary prophetic tradition in the joining of ‘the medium is the message’ with the Great Code story (237).” He suggests that, “we meld McLuhan’s percepts with Frye’s concepts (229).” McLuhan and Frye are described in yin and yang terms by Powe when he writes, “in McLuhan’s poetic aphorisms there is criticism and in Frye’s criticism poetry (269).” Of the two McLuhan is the yang with his assertive, in your face, sociality and Frye is the yin with his withdrawn, solitary, bookish scholarship. McLuhan enters the lists with business folks, entertainers, politicians, artists and the common folk of his society whereas Frye is withdrawn quietly contemplating his books in the quiet sanctuary of his ivory tower. McLuhan’s classes are adlibbed while Frye’s lectures are carefully prepared ahead of time. McLuhan is incessantly talking and Frye, incessantly writing either for his public or in his private notebooks.

Powe found intellectual and spiritual succour and nourishment from both of his mentors and teachers, who he knew intimately in their lifetime, studied assiduously in his academic career and defended in his book against their harshest critics such as A. C. Hamilton, U. Eco and J. Baudrillard (260). In summing up the impact McLuhan and Frye on him Powe writes, “their primary gift was their attempt to provide ways to let us soar (276),” but still he learned to “abandon them to move on, living deeply” yet to come back to them on occasion so that “other new and vital lessons [could] begin (285).” If you read Powe’s book, an important addition to McLuhan and Frye scholarship, you too will experience new and vital lessons.

The book is published by the University of Toronto Press: (see http://tinyurl.com/ndaj82v ) and is available from Amazon, Chapters and other bookstores.

About Robert K. Logan: Bob Logan has a variety of experiences as an academic involved in research in complexity theory, information theory, biology, environmental science, linguistics, industrial design and media studies. He published with and collaborated with Marshall McLuhan. He was also active in the business world operating a computer training company 1982-2000 and a Web development company from 1994 to 2000 through which he did extensive consulting in knowledge management. He was active in politics from 1974 to date. Among his many activities he served as an advisor to PM Pierre Eliot Trudeau, policy chair of the Ontario wing of the federal Liberal Party and an advisor to various federal cabinet ministers. He is also an author or editor of 11 books and many articles in refereed journals.

Robert K. Logan


Categories: Blog

Marshall McLuhan and the Idea of Retribalization

McLuhan Galaxy - Thu, 08/07/2014 - 9:55am

Posted by Ericka Goerling  in the Media Psychology blog (Republished by permission)

Marshall McLuhan, the visionary educator of communications, media, technology and humanity provided a powerful framework in which to analyze media. He wrote on media’s influence in constructing a “global village” and of the powerful process of “retribalization.” This post briefly defines McLuhan’s retribalization, while posing additional questions of the concept’s application.

Throughout history, indigenous peoples have adapted and adjusted to the disruption of their native ways by outside settlers and innovation in a process referred to as “detribalization.” McLuhan asserted that modern man suffered this fate, as well, in particular with the advent of the printing press. No longer relying on the communities for conveying news and cultural lore, the printed word allowed for solitary consumption of information (McLuhan & Fiore, 1967; McLuhan, 2012).

As electronic media filled the airwaves and dominated our living rooms, the relationships between man, information and each other have become intertwined. McLuhan stated, “The new electronic interdependence recreates the world in the image of a global village” (McLuhan & Fiore, 1967). It was through this global village that McLuhan identified the retribalization process, the reconnection of man in, “a new state of multitudinous tribal existences” (McLuhan, 1969, 2004).

Remarkably, McLuhan’s contention is nearly prophetic. Indeed, current technological advances, the World Wide Web specifically, have enhanced global communications in profound ways for individuals and communities. We now have the ability to be in touch with people from all over the world, instantly and constantly, if we choose.  This interpersonal process of global, ‘real time’ communication speaks to an instinctive and pervasive need for connection.

So what was happening for indigenous people during the dawning of the media age? According to McLuhan, detribalization was occurring (Norden, 1969, 2004). McLuhan asserted, in one interview, the following:

“…thnativeamhistorye Indian seem to always get a bad deal; they suffered first because they were tribal men in a mechanical world, and now as they try to detribalize and structure themselves within the values of the mechanical culture, they find the gulf between them and a suddenly retribalizing society widening rather than narrowing” (Norden, 1969, 2004).

It is an interesting paradox that as the majority culture seeks to retribalize through connective media, that tribal communities, once marked by their powerful connections, are relegated to oppressive detribalization. Or are they?

retribeimagesAmerican Indians were forced into detribalization, which is a critical point in understanding modern dynamics facing indigenous people. A pressing question raised, in part, by McLuhan’s writing, is whether retribalization of people through media will help or hinder the retribalization of displaced American Indians. What role does media – and the global village- have in American Indian communities?

Many American Indians continue to be displaced from their native lands, receive substandard housing, education and employment and face other, challenging social costs of being an oppressed group. Where does media fit? Certainly, there’s the representation of American Indians in film and television. Regrettably, however, the Hollywood depictions of American Indians are often inaccurate, insulting and do nothing more than reinforce negative stereotypes (Diamond, 2009).

What about the World Wide Web? What form of retribalization is occurring or can occur through the Internet? Unfortunately, this information is currently limited, yet open for consideration. Since there are many reservations that have little to no Internet connectivity, it is difficult to assess the full influence of the Internet. Recent changes made by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) prove hopeful for tribal communities, with regard to Internet connectivity. On Friday, November 18, 2011, the FCC released its “Connect America Fund” Order to foster Broadband deployment in underserved areas (Dunstan, 2011).

Other technological advances certainly emerge in Native communities. Chris Mercier (2011), an elder with the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde recently wrote about his experience at the National Congress of American Indians,

“What was the most pervasive symbol I saw at NCAI? Feathers? Dreamcatchers? Turtles? Try none of the aforementioned. The symbol that haunts my mind the most has little to do with Native American culture, the Apple apple. Everywhere I looked there were iPhones and iPads. Owners were using them frequently as well, which is how I know because the logo is very distinct.”TribalFlags

What would McLuhan make of this? How do the media advances and current technology affect our native communities, as well as the global village?

“The tribe, you see, is not conformist just because it’s inclusive; after all, there is far morglobalvillagee diversity and less conformity within a family group than there is within an urban conglomerate housing thousands of families. Uniformity and tranquility are not hallmarks of the global village; far more likely are conflict and discord as well as love and harmony — the customary life mode of any tribal people” (Norden, 1969, 2004).

As a media psychologist, “conflict and discord as well as love and harmony” are necessary provisions for continued observation, integration and understanding of technology. Through this process, one can seek McLuhan’s vision as well as synthesize the constantly evolving state of media effects on individuals, tribes and the global village.

References

At the feet of the master. (2011). Retrieved fromhttp://www.cbc.ca/ideas/episodes/2011/07/21/at-the-feet-of-the-master.

Dunstan, J. (2011). FCC releases connect America fund order: A potential huge step forward for tribal deployment of broadband [Web log post]. Retrieved fromhttp://www.tribaltelecom2012.com/blog/

McLuhan, M., & Fiore, Q. (1967). The medium is the massage: An inventory of effects. Berkeley, CA: Gingko Press.

Marshall McLuhan speaks. (2012). Retrieved fromhttp://marshallmcluhanspeaks.com/introduction.

Mercier, C. (2011). NCAI in the Rose City [Web log post]. Retrieved fromhttp://www.grandronde.org/tribal-council/members/chris-mercier/ncai-in-the-rose-city/

Morrison, J.C. (2006). Marshall McLuhan: No prophet without honor. In Saleem Ali & Robert F. Barsky (Eds.), Quests Beyond the Ivory Tower: Public Intellectuals, Academia and the Media, 3(2), 20 p. Retrieved fromhttp://ejournals.library.vanderbilt.edu/ojs/index.php/ameriquests/issue/view/4/showToc

Norden, E. (1969, 2004). The Playboy Interview: Marshall McLuhan. Playboy Magazine. Retrieved from The Marshall McLuhan Center on Global Communications. http://www.mcluhanmedia.com/m_mcl_inter_pb_01.html

Wolfe, T. (1968). The pump house gang. New York: Bantam Books.

See the full original article at http://tinyurl.com/m6lkvas 


Categories: Blog

The Electronic Image versus the Written Word

McLuhan Galaxy - Tue, 08/05/2014 - 8:33am

The graphic below illustrates a standard opinion about pictorial versus textual information as it’s represented on the Internet, an idea that has influenced information representation in other mediums as well: books, newspapers, signs, posters, advertising messages.

visual ly picture sails through sea words 600x307 Images versus Text   The Data on Visuals Winning

(Source: http://tinyurl.com/n6hwkua )

This question was recently taken up in separate commentaries by film critic Dana Stevens and author Rivka Galchen in a New York Times Sunday Book Review article (June 17, 2014) titled:-

Has the Electronic Image Supplanted the Written Word?

Unfortunately Dana Stevens entirely avoided the question, attempting instead to one up Marshall McLuhan (unsuccessfully) by illustrating the inadequacies of his thinking in his most important book Understanding Media (1964), the 50th anniversary of the publication of which is being celebrated this year. Here is her conclusion:-

 “If “Understanding Media” has any lessons for users of, and thinkers about, the Internet, they may have less to do with  the book’s content (as “the medium is the message” slogan makes clear, content is hardly the point) than with  McLuhan’s method — his idiosyncratic form, his fits and starts of visionary brilliance, his bursts of utopian rhetoric  suddenly weighed down by intimations of cultural doom. Contemporary digital scholars have devoted considerable ink  to deconstructing or rehabilitating McLuhan’s thought for the 21st century. But to feel the effect his gospel of  discontinuity, fragmentation and renewal had on the intellectual landscape of his time, we would need our own kooky,  charismatic prophet in the wilderness, a McLuhan 2.0″.

Dana Stevens is the film critic at Slate and a co-host of the Slate Culture Gabfest podcast. She has also written for The Atlantic and Bookforum, among other publications.

*****

Fortunately, author Rivka Galchen does grapple with the question and her answer makes for interesting reading:-

“The written word has been dying for so long!!! Exclamation points have finally revealed themselves as the sleeper cells of Image?! Image, which is so much better at getting us to buy something? You’ve read this argument before….

That said, I am pretty sad that the written word is dying. Because it is dying. Even if it never entirely expires, other mediums of expression are consuming the limited oxygen. And I prefer (just personally) the written word to all the other mediums out there, so no amount of compensatory greatness in some other medium mitigates (again, just for me) the melancholy of the written word’s decline. Babies may be adorable, but they don’t make the obituary page any less moving.

Still, the stag at eve, to happily borrow Sir Walter Scott’s phrase, has a singular magnificence, and the forest we are entering is fabulous and dark. As a form fades, we often get a late strange renaissance”.

Rivka Galchen is a recipient of a William J. Saroyan International Prize for Fiction, a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award and a Berlin Prize, among other distinctions. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in numerous publications, including Harper’s and The New Yorker, which selected her for their list of “20 Under 40” American fiction writers in 2010. Her debut novel, the critically acclaimed “Atmospheric Disturbances,” was published in 2008. Her second book, a story collection titled “American Innovations,” was published in May.

  Read the full article at http://tinyurl.com/owbyeox .

Two quotes by Neil Postman underline the conflict between media images and texts:-

“A new technology usually makes war against an old technology. It competes with it for time, attention, money, prestige and a “‘world view’”.

” Technological change is not additive; it is ecological.  A new technology does not merely add something; it changes everything”. – Postman, N. (1995). The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School.  New York: Knopf, pp. 192 – 193.


Categories: Blog

New Media Have Always Been Criticized, Especially by the Old Media That Feel Threatened by Them

McLuhan Galaxy - Sat, 08/02/2014 - 5:04pm

Dear readers,

I have been offline for about a week in the process of moving, which is still not entirely complete (try moving a library of 10,000 or so books; e-texts have their advantages). But life is getting back to normal and I will try to re-establish regular postings to this blog. This recent article in The Atlantic, which cites Marshall McLuhan, makes an important point – that new technologies have always been criticized, especially by the old media that feel threatened by them. Such critiques are usually premature and inhibit understanding, which is why McLuhan avoided making them, at least after The Mechanical Bride (1951), telling the 1969 Playboy interviewer that “I neither approve nor disapprove. I merely try to understand”………Alex

In 1858, People Said the Telegraph Was ‘Too Fast for the Truth’ Sound familiar?   –    JUL 28, 2014

Illustration of the laying of the transatlantic telegraph cable ( Library of Congress )

Perusing The New York Times archives a few days ago, I stumbled upon a delightful news nugget from 1858 about the “benefits and evils” of the transatlantic telegraph—delightful, because it reads like it could have been written today by a print nostalgist about the benefits and evils of the Internet.

Just try replacing “telegraphic intelligence” with “Twitter” or “online news,” and you’ll see what I mean:

“Superficial, sudden, unsifted, too fast for the truth, must be all telegraphic intelligence. Does it not render the popular mind too fast for the truth? Ten days bring us the mails from Europe. What need is there for the scraps of news in ten minutes? How trivial and paltry is the telegraphic column?”

*****

“Has the Internet been overhyped?” the Times asked in 1994. Twenty years later, though we’re still debating its benefits and its evils, the answer is clearly no. 

Looking back, it seems that anxiety about technological advances is often wrapped up in how a new technology disrupts our expectations about time—it’s too fast!—and control. Marvels in modern technology have repeatedly connected us in ways that once seemed impossible. And it is that connectivity—the sense of something bigger than the individual, the networks that upend perspectives of time and scale—that makes so many people uneasy. Here’s how media scholar Marshall McLuhan put it in a 1979 lecture

What is desperately needed is a kind of understanding of the media which would permit us to program the whole environment. If you understand the nature of these forms, you can neutralize some of their adverse effects and foster some of their beneficent effects.

Or maybe it’s just that people like what they know. And that humans, for as inventive and adaptable as we are, don’t always like change. McLuhan explained that it was, back in 1979, as it is now: “Nostalgia is the name of the game in every part of our world today.” Read the full article at http://tinyurl.com/kcm9xcv .


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