Training Perecption, Awakening to Experience

The challenge of McLuhan’s work, both in the sense that it is challenging to read and that it lays down a challenge to be taken up, involves the difficulty of thinking about that which shapes our thinking — it is akin to attempting to jump over your own shadow.

Not surprisingly, a good deal of his method, perplexing and infuriating as it could be, seems designed to coax readers over their shadows, to become aware of how their thinking has been formed by the media environment.  Biographer W. Terrence Gordon, citing McLuhan’s own description of his teachers at Cambridge, gets at this when he writes, “There could be no more succinct statement of his own aims, as he left Cambridge to begin a teaching career, than ‘the training of perception.'”

Later on, Gordon cites a letter to Mrs. Pound in which McLuhan writes, “The appeal must be to the young … they have been systematically deprived of all the linguistic tools by which they could nourish their own perceptions at first hand at the usual traditional sources.”

Walter Ong, a former student of McLuhan’s and outstanding scholar in his own right, classified teachers as follows:

A good teacher is one who can encourage others to think actively.  A superior teacher can make the thinking pleasant for the learners. A superb teacher can make the thinking an overpowering activity, delightful even when it is disturbing and exhausting.

“By this criteria,” Ong went on, “Marshall McLuhan was a superb teacher who could stir people’s minds.”  Ong also noted that, “… even with the most brilliant teacher, if the learners are to do any learning, they are the ones who have to do it.”

Putting all of this together yields, in my estimation, the nature of McLuhan’s enduring significance.  In one respect he may be likened to the hedgehog in Isaiah Berlin’s illustration who knows one big thing — changes in media environments change the way we think and the way we experience life.  But he was also a little like the fox who knows many things in that he approached the one big idea from countless angles and drawing promiscuously from the whole of experience.

As some have noted in taking the measure of McLuhan, he drove that one idea home so well that he rendered his work superfluous.  But this is not quite right.  While others have perhaps done a better job of articulating and systematizing the big idea, they have perhaps also domesticated it.  Knowledge has been imparted, but perceptions have not been trained.  Ironically, this may be attributed to a lack of sensitivity to the medium, i.e. McLuhan’s method.

McLuhan understood, as Ong put it, that if learners are too learn anything they are the ones who will have to do it.  All of the probes, the paradoxes, the gnomic statements, the quirkiness, the esotericisms, the inconsistencies, the absurdities, the juxtapositions, the koanish assertions, the puns — all of it aimed at drawing out the work of learning from the learner in such a way that their perceptions would be trained.  Simply clarifying the big idea, extracting and re-presenting the kernel of the thought only captured the data, it did not train perceptions, it did not heighten sensibilities, it did not lead to practical wisdom.  In the end it may very well darken and numb perception.

This insistence on the training of perception, fully embodied perception involving the whole human sensorium, may have been McLuhan’s chief contribution.  Perceiving the world, which is to say being alive to the world, is not a given and much less so in certain media environments.  McLuhan as a teacher seems bent on awakening us to experience; agitating, provoking, inciting us to perceive.  That is no small thing when some degree of variously imposed numbness becomes the cultural default.

3 thoughts on “Training Perecption, Awakening to Experience

  1. Well done! You know there is an oddness to working on or rather with McLuhan. I’ve tried to get work published in populist and academic publications and the puzzlement and dismissive attitude toward the work is itself a teaching experience. He really mystifies people and angers them as they feel he is so esoteric.

    It seems as if people approach him in exactly the manner which he seems to subvert and that ends up being the irony of ironies. People want the “concept” and he’s hoisting percepts this way and that, coming at it, as you say from this side, that side, upside, downside, anyway except directly at it.

    I have to say from my own perspective I admire his courageousness because I know he certainly must have been tempted to stop at moments and become “hot,” to dominate his audience and deliver clear concepts that could be measured and grasped and marveled over. His intelligence was significant, despite the insinuation that his inability to clearly conceptualize indicates a lack of intelligence.

    Then coming at the work myself–I’ve tried to come at HIM the way he comes at us–but it baffles, angers, and I suppose intrigues but apparently not enough. You can deliver a probe into McLuhan but it falls against a brick wall. If you try to explain the relationship of concept and percept, ground and figure, and the “distrust” of language, the ideas of polysemy and univocality, all through the Thomist lens through which he didn’t just “read” the world but through which he LIVED it, it starts to fall flat. It was something he was well aware of as he was frustrated by those who tried to create a 1:1 map with Thomism and his work. It works, to a degree, because Thomism was the ether he breathed and it can’t help but be there. You get to a moment though and I see that it starts to seem fishy. It seems messianic and mystagogue-ish, to say, oh well. You don’t GET it. But if your read your Aquinas and you read your McLuhan it seems so blatantly obvious what he is doing, why he is doing it, when you try to break it down you reduce it.

    Which is, um, the point.

    He is a sort of faith driven Nietzsche figure, he is this Catholic figure on the ground of Protestant Enlightenment academe, performing his critique of it, BECOMING a critique of it, subverting it, circumventing it, and suffering the marginalization that entails, but still, if you are paying attention: it delivers.

    It seems also so difficult to explain how he models himself on GKC when they seem so completely different in tone and approach, even in character. But he does–he realizes the “practical mysticism” of GKC was itself a probe, that his paradoxes weren’t simply clever little witticisms, but as I’ve written elsewhere, fractals of thought.

    I just completed a series on GKC’s conversion for a local Catholic newspaper–and in The Everlasting Man Chesterton talks about monotheism as the blue sky that disappears as we stare at the cloud. Consciously or unconsciously this is imitated in the concept of figure and ground in McLuhan.

    The above in case anyone wants to follow the interextual pathway here. ;)

    1. Many thanks for posting these observations here, and for the link. I would encourage anyone reading to click over and read the post.

      I thought I’d just add this little anecdote which in some respects connects with your observations on McLuhan and Thomism. It’s from Gordon’s biography:

      “On one occasion, a clutch of graduate students stood not far from Gilson and Fathers Flahiff, Shook, and O’Donnell, their talk gradually becoming loud enough to reach the professors. McLuhan’s name figured prominently, and the complaints were clear. The keen-eared Gilson, whose teaching style and expectations of his students were much like McLuhan’s, excused himself, and moved over to join the other group. ‘Gentlemen,’ he said, ‘I have been listening to your discussion. I have the impression that you do not really appreciate Marshall McLuhan for what he is. But I want to tell you what I think he is. And I’d like you to think about it. I think he is a genuine genius. The time will come when you will be proud to say: “I knew Marshall McLuhan when he was at Toronto, and I was a student there.'”

      Also, I’ve begun to read Owen Barfield’s “Saving the Appearances” and find that there are some interesting connections in the realm of perception.

  2. That’s a great anecdote about Gilson–in another anecdote I read, Gilson was constantly berating McLuhan for not knowing his Thomas well enough, which if Jacobs observation that he “dropped theology” was true, which it really wasn’t as you can see from his writing, it wasn’t because of Roman Catholic clericalism it was because of a form of professional clericalism that disallows crossing over from one specialty to another.

    I have to revisit that particular anecdote again–because I think the differences between them on this was not McLuhan’s misunderstanding of Thomism but Gilson’s misunderstanding of McLuhan. Just as it is difficult to see how our own broader culture informs our thinking without our awareness, it is difficult for an academic specialist to separate their own work from the cultural ambience of their field. When someone outside the field comes into their realm with their specific personal and intellectual needs, it can sort of flip things around and appear to the specialist as error, simply because it seems so alien divorced of its specialist context.

    But these thinkers are essential to any field because they have a way of revealing accumulated error or revitalizing staleness. As alien as McLuhan might seem to a proper “Thomist” the Thomism is infused throughout. In fact, I’ve found the more out there his observations the more Thomist the seem to be at root.

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