Monday, September 5, 2011

Poetry and Play vs. Clarity and Precision

Have you ever heard anyone mention that Marshall McLuhan's writing is difficult to understand? Have you yourself ever said something along those lines?  Comments to that effect come up time and time again, to the extent that it has become a commonplace, one that McLuhan himself was quite familiar with.

Jerome Agel, the individual who produced McLuhan's bestseller, The Medium is the Massage, with illustrator Quentin Fiore (along with the sequel, War and Peace in the Global Village, Buckminster Fuller's I Seem To Be A Verb, Carl Sagan's Cosmic Connection, and authored and edited numerous books of his own, including The Making of Kubrick's 2001, and The Radical Therapist) once told me a joke that was going around back in the sixties:

     Did you know that McLuhan's Understanding Media has been translated into 22 languages?

     Really?  Has it been translated into English yet?  

Why was McLuhan so hard to understand?  It is not entirely clear to what extent it may have been a deliberate strategy, and if so to what end, or to what extent it was due to other factors, and to what extent they were or were not within his ability to control.  I have heard and read different explanations coming from a variety of sources, including McLuhan biographies and McLuhan interviews, and the bottom line is that it doesn't matter much anymore, the text is what it is, and you either have to deal with it, or not.  

There are writers who are deliberately obscure, writers whose opaque writing style serves to disguise a lack of content, or at least a lack of anything significant and original to say, and some of McLuhan's critics have wrongly placed him in this category.  McLuhan is not one of these.  If anything, he overflows with content and significance.  There is too much to say, and it is all packed in too tightly, condensed, compressed, exploding outward. Reading McLuhan has been described as trying to take a drink from a fire hose.  Neil Postman used to point out in doctoral seminar that others have written dissertations and books based on just one of McLuhan's sentences.

I also recall Postman emphasizing that some books are worth reading, even if they are difficult to understand.  Writing that here and now, it seems painfully obvious, but students need to be reminded of it, and more and more need to be taught it in the first place.  The struggle is worth the effort, for great books like Understanding Media, and indeed there is some benefit to the struggle itself (the medium being the message in this instance as well). 

So, I got into this discussion over on Peter Montgomery's McLuhan listserv about McLuhan's use of language, and how he used a number of terms in ways that seem idiosyncratic, or perhaps drew on older or archaic meanings, etymological subtleties, or simply created his own specialized vocabulary.  A good example is how McLuhan used "corporate" to mean something like communal, rather than to refer to corporations. 

Another potential point of confusion is that when he talked about the characteristic of being connected, McLuhan specifically was referring to lineal connections, linearity as associated with writing, the alphabet, mechanical technology, industrialism, and what they now call Fordism, and not the interconnectivity associated with electronic communications,  computer networks, and the nonlinearity of an ecological and systems view, not to mention McLuhan's own notion of the global village.  Those of us who teach McLuhan, who assign McLuhan's books and articles as readings to our students, have a very practical need to deal with these concerns of intelligibility and interpretation.

So, in the course of discussing McLuhan's word choice, I noted that while it may have been "informed and acute" (as one person put it), it was in the service of poetry and play, rather than clarity and precision.  This led to a bit of criticism of my remarks, and a query that I seemed to prefer clarity and precision.  So, here's my response:
I have no preference between poetry and play, and clarity and precision, in the abstract.  I agree that they are not polar oppositions, but they can be opposing tendencies, and I'm not sure it makes sense to separate them from the writer's purposes and goals, and the reader's motivations.  Poetry and play is clearly what is to be valued in art, and I think they are preferable in religion, although I know that some prefer a liturgy and sacred text in plain language.  

McLuhan's style is one that captures the imagination, and inspires thought and exploration, at least for some readers.  But it clearly alienates other readers, creating this either/or situation of, either you "get it" or you don't, and for this reason I can't help but wonder if his reception might not have been better in many ways if he had employed more clarity and precision.  

Obviously, clarity and precision is the standard for scientific writing, and to a large extent in news reporting, and generally if the goal is to inform and to educate.  In essay writing, while eloquence is desirable, I'd say that clarity and precision are at least as important, if not more so (and eloquence can be achieved without going to the extreme of poetry and play).  

I don't consider McLuhan to be the best example of media ecological essay writing, but rather Walter Ong and Neil Postman. Postman, as I recall, pointed to George Orwell as a model for essay writing.  McLuhan, as I understand it, pointed to Joyce as a model.  Both Orwell and Joyce share a common concern with language, but their differences make an enormous amount of difference.

As for my personal preference, it would be towards balance, and as for where that balance lies, that would depend upon what would be appropriate for the situational context.

By the way, I can't help but note that clarity and precision go hand in hand with hot media (a hot medium being well-defined, high in resolution and fidelity, and therefore requiring less participation in meaning-making than a cool medium), and poetry and play with cool media (a cool medium being
ambiguous rather than well-defined, low in resolution and fidelity, and therefore requiring more participation to make sense out of than hot medium).  

And McLuhan?  He was a decidedly cool medium. Very cool indeed!

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