Sunday, 17 January 2016

Module two – 19th Century Legacy

According to Elizabeth Eisenstein, Marshall McLuhan “was an omnivorous reader and crammed his text with citations taken from a vast variety of other books. Despite his affinity with nineteenth-century romanticists, he lacked the historical imagination of a Carlyle or a Michelet and made no effort to resurrect the multidimensional rich texture of life as it was lived in the past” (Eisenstein, 1995, p. 555).  I feel that this criticism is unjustified and contains at least one unwarranted assumption, which is that McLuhan lacked socio-historical imagination. Ironically, it is precisely McLuhan’s affinity with and perceptive knowledge of nineteenth-century romanticists, such as Alphonse de Lamartine (1790 – 1869), and their successors, such as Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), that challenges at least part of Eisenstein’s criticism.

I would like to start with a methodological observation. In her article, “The End of the Book?: Some Perspectives on Media Change, Eisenstein builds an argument on a quote from Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, who “complained that the age of chivalry was dead: ‘The age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists and calculators has succeeded and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever’ ” (Eisenstein, 1995, p. 546). She argues that “soon thereafter the age of chivalry received a literary resurrection in the novels of Walter Scott” and Victor Hugo (p. 546). She then makes a critical exploration of other related socio-cultural topics such as the influence of market forces on publishing, kitsch, literary fame, etc. Nineteenth-century writers like Théophile Gauthier, she argues, reacted strongly to some of these changes, including the impact of newspaper advertising. The argumentative strategy employed by Eisenstein in her article builds on a criticism made by an author (Burke) and demonstrates the thematic relevance of literary topics explored by subsequent writers (Scott, Hugo, Gauthier). This is exactly the type of argument that can be found in McLuhan. For example, his 1954 article “Joyce, Mallarmé and the Press starts with a thought-provoking 1831 quote from Alphonse de Lamartine, who is explaining to his editor why he declines to write for Revue Européenne*. Due to space constraints, I won’t delve into an in-depth analysis of this quote, but what is important to point out is that McLuhan builds on the central theme of the periodical press’s advent to analyze the effect that medium had on the production of books and the aesthetic concerns of James Joyce and Stéphane Mallarmé, as well as a number of other themes such as the relationship to and sense of time in modern literature, the impact of industrialization and the industrialized city and landscape on various art forms or that of Newtonian optics on poetry, etc. Simply put, Eisenstein and McLuhan present their ideas and make use of citations in a similar fashion.

In the chapter in The World of the Book titled “The Modernist Experiment, Joyce and His Circle”, Cowley and Williamson sum up how “the extraordinary social changes brought about by industrialisation and urbanisation in the late nineteenth century set the scene for a dramatic revolution in the arts” (Cowley and Williamson, 2007, p. 71). Eisenstein puts forward a plausible hypothesis in her article “The End of the Book?”, which is that “twentieth-century painters experimenting with collage techniques may well have been influenced by the layout of [daily newspaper] front pages” (p. 553). Eisenstein’s premise could actually be applied even earlier to mid- to late- nineteenth-century French poets, like Baudelaire.

In her recently published “Baudelaire’s Media Aesthetic”, Marit Grøtta argues that montage is a “central feature of Baudelaire’s media aesthetics” (Grøtta, 2015, p. 147). According to Grøtta, Baudelaire’s “writing reconfigures space through decomposition of organic material and recomposition of the same material into something new. In this respect, he puts to use the key principle of the media of his day. […] Baudelaire’s writing experiments with kaleidoscopic vision and explores the forms and functions of the newspapers” (p. 147). Why do I bring this up? Because it is an observation that McLuhan also makes in “Joyce, Mallarmé and the Press” – “[…] it could be suggested that modern poetry with its elaborate mental landscapes owes much to the new pictorial technology which fascinated Poe and Baudelaire and on which Rimbaud and Mallarmé built much of their aesthetics” (McLuhan, 1954, p. 39).  More broadly, the influential essays by Walter Benjamin on life as it was experienced in Paris by the literary leaders of the nineteenth century go into great detail about the impact of the advent of newspapers on everyday life, politics, the literary establishment, etc. Furthermore, in his seminal essay, “The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936), he discusses the influence of the technical/technological on artistic reception and practice. Literary critic Sven Birkerts concludes his book The Gutenberg Elegies with an insightful discussion on the relevance of Benjamin’s ideas for today’s technologically-dominated society (Birkerts, 1994, p. 224-229), a reading that complements ideas found in the articles by both Eisenstein and McLuhan. 

My knowledge of Marshall McLuhan’s writing is too limited to discuss Eisenstein’s criticism with respect to his ability to “resurrect the multidimensional rich texture of life as it was lived in the past” (Eisenstein, 1995, p. 555). However, while re-reading his short, erudite analysis of the Sherlock Holmes character in his 1951 Mechanical Bride, I could not help but think that McLuhan’s understanding of nineteenth-century literature appears to be still relevant today, in terms of contributing to a better understanding of the massive cultural impact of technological revolutions.

*Two digitized copies of 1831 editions of Revue européenne can be found here.

A picture of the pages 74 and 75 of Cowly's and Williamson's gorgeous book 
"The World of the Book"


Benjamin, W. (2006). The writer of modern life: essays on Charles Baudelaire; M. W. Jennings (Ed.), H. Eiland [et al.] (Tr.). Cambridge: Harvard University Press

Birkerts, S. (1994). The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age, Boston: Faber and Faber

Cowly, D. & Williamson, C. (2007). The modernist experiment: Joyce and his circle. In The World of the Book (pp. 71-78). Melbourne: The Miengunyah Press

Grøtta, M. (2015). Baudelaire’s Media Aesthetics: The Gaze of the Flâneur and 19th Century Media. London: Bloomsbury Publishing Inc.

McLuhan, M. (1954). Joyce, Mallarmé and the Press, The Sewanee Review, 62 (1), 38-55

McLuhan, M. (1995). From Da Vinci to Holmes/ The Mechanical Bride (1951). In E. McLuhan & F. Zingrone (Eds.), Essential McLuhan (pp. 30-34). Toronto: Anansi Press Ltd.

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