Anne does not like McLuhan. Fair enough. But can he be made sexy again? I think so.
What we need to do is to retrace the implicit romanticism in McLuhan’s writings which invoke the spirit of that perennial maverick of modern thought: Friedrich Nietzsche. McLuhan was a Nietzschean, not only in terms of his highly provocative and aphoristic way of irritant writing, but more seriously, in a radical biophilosophical approach to understanding ‘the human’ as an open, technological inscription of desire, also known as ‘the will to power’. However, whereas Nietzsche was distinctly anti-humanist and prefers to reduce the human being itself to a constellation of physiological forces, McLuhan approached the physical nature of the human being from a more classical perspective. The McLuhan-basher Miller (1971) postulated that McLuhan’s ethos was actually Thomist and stressed that that he remained deeply immersed in a Catholic ethos. This, I would argue, enabled him to abandon neurosis and be more receptive of the grace of hope.
McLuhan was clearly inspired by Innis’ (a Protestant) mode of analysis. The sweeping essayistic style with which Innis painted a historical overview of western civilization with extremely broad strokes was often interspersed with detailed comments about how particular media-technologies played a crucial role by facilitating changes and shifts. It was this combination of detail and generalization which McLuhan took on in his own work. However, although he followed the basic premises of Innis’ analysis of media-technological evolution, McLuhan was much less keen on providing a political-economic account as the foundation from which to explain the logic of historical change. That is to say, Innis’ model, which placed bias as an intermediate device (a translator as well as engine) between natural environment and particular social formations based on flows of wealth, knowledge and power, heavily relied on the assumption that the driving force of history is a socio-logic. It is related to the way in which human, social constellations are always geared towards increasing control over the accumulation and distribution of wealth, knowledge and power. Innis acknowledge himself that this ‘bias’ towards a concern for monopolization stems from his interest in political economy.
In contrast, McLuhan twisted Innis’ understanding of bias and wrenched it away from political economy by arguing that it is more closely connected to the very nature of human being, both in terms of its physiological as well as its psychological sense. As with Heidegger, we can identify the (this time invisible) hand of Nietzsche here. Although not in a scholarly way, McLuhan shares with Nietzsche a suspicion towards particular elements of modernity: its instrumentalization of life, its linear paradigms (mainly due to print-induced forms of literacy), its almost pathological glorification of reason and its relentless industrialization of social life with its associated effects of commodification and alienation.
Like Nietzsche, the crux of McLuhan’s thinking rests on the insistence that thought itself is intricately connected to the physical embodiment of the ‘thinking being’ (the clever beast that once upon a time invented knowing). He understands the human being as a living thinking creature whose motivations and desires are endlessly diverse and never reducible to either the accumulation of wealth, knowledge or force. In other words, whereas he kept the analytical method of dialectical materialism, he connected to it a more vitalistic ethos rather than a Marxist one. For a McLuhanist reading of Innis, bias of communication would not be a primarily political phenomenon, but one that encompasses the whole of the human condition. As a result, the driving force of historical processes is neither an abstract, disembodied ‘force’ of nature, nor a socially reproduced desire for the monopolization of wealth, knowledge and power, but a non-reducible ‘will’ that is bound up with the meaning of being human. Any further attempt to qualify this will as the will to power (Nietzsche) or the will to know (Foucault) violates the inherent non-reducibility of this will. In line with McLuhan’s implicit philosophy, ‘the will’ has to be a multiplicity; it can be cynical as well as charitable, egoistic as well as altruistic, geared to the gratification of needs as well as the fulfilment of ideals. In this sense it is perhaps closest to Deleuze & Guattari’s notion of desire.