Marshalling a Humanist McLuhan

Reviewed by Dan Adleman

Elena Lamberti’s Marshall McLuhan’s Mosaic is itself an ambitious mosaic of a number of different enterprises. In it, Lamberti sets out to illustrate how McLuhan’s “humanistic background” laid the groundwork for his groundbreaking media theory; she also interlaces her analysis with autobiographical accounts of her “own journey as a literary scholar through McLuhan’s wordy wood,” and to top it all off, she endeavours to apply McLuhan’s ideas to several cinematic and literary texts.

Lamberti does a competent job of underscoring McLuhan’s interest in Modernist writers and ancient rhetoric (though her exploration of the latter’s current influence on McLuhan’s understanding of advertising is disappointingly limited), but seems to overstate his paradigmatic literary “humanism”—a term that she employs equivocally by misconflating McLuhan’s background in the literary “humanities” with a human-centric (i.e. anthropocentric) philosophy. From the outset, Lamberti’s methodology is therefore highly problematic.

There is a case to be made for McLuhan’s philosophical humanism, but it would require more nuanced optics than Lamberti provides. InExits to the Posthuman Future, Arthur Kroker, following German media theorist Friedrich Kittler’s lead, adumbrates McLuhan’s Catholic “humanistic” valences with a great deal more sensitivity to both the myriad influences that McLuhan synthesizes and the extent to which his ideas remain irreducible to them. This by no means settles the matter. In an equally intricate account, Richard Cavell’s McLuhan in Space situates McLuhan as not a humanist but a post-humanist whose work gestures forward towards the likes of Baudrillard, Lefebvre, and Kittler far more powerfully than it harks back to its literary Modernist forebears (whose influence Cavell also traces).

Still, Lamberti’s excavation of McLuhan’s engagement with Modernist writers like Joyce, Elliott, and Pound persuasively makes the case for their profound influence on McLuhan’s ideas. But her arbitrarily circumscribed “rear-view mirror” approach to her subject matter overlooks the various ways that McLuhan’s myriad ideas about the emerging mediasphere both emerge out of a particular aesthetic-political-mediatic milieu and transcend any one set of literary or philosophical influences.

As both a backward-looking attempt to account for McLuhan’s putative “humanism” and a forward-looking attempt to argue for his work’s continued relevance to thinking through, with, and about media,McLuhan’s Mosaic would fare better if Lamberti loosened the causal chain she imputes to McLuhan’s own academic Bildung narrative and located his work within a broader epochal moment. To her credit, she occasionally makes promising gestures in this direction, for instance when she meticulously distinguishes McLuhan’s “mosaic” from the “hypertext” with which it is usually conflated.

Stylistically speaking, this book also suffers from a number of intractable impediments. Lamberti’s autobiographical insertions and apostrophic addresses to the reader detract from the text’s readability. And, as a modified translation of an earlier book, Marshall McLuhan: Tra Letteratura, Arte e Media, which she wrote in Italian in 2000, it reads unevenly and requires more stylistic calibration to the English vernacular.

This review “Marshalling a Humanist McLuhan” originally appeared in Science & Canadian Literature. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 221 (Summer 2014): 164-65.

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