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Adam Laud­er and Jaque­line McLeod Rogers

McLuhan and the Arts after the Spec­u­la­tive Turn

McLuhan and the arts is a well-trod­den theme yet sur­pris­ing­ly still fer­tile ground for orig­i­nal schol­ar­ship and research-cre­ation. Mile­stones include exca­va­tions by Richard Cavell and Ele­na Lam­ber­ti of the aes­thet­ic sources of McLuhan’s media analy­ses in the lit­er­a­ture and visu­al arts of his time as well as his influ­ence on a range of con­tem­po­rary artis­tic projects, from hap­pen­ings to instal­la­tion art. Janine Marches­sault and Don­ald Theall have also pre­sent­ed com­pelling por­traits of the media thinker as him­self an artist or “poet-artist man­qué” (Theall, The Medi­um 6).[1] More recent­ly, case stud­ies of spe­cif­ic artists and move­ments inspired by McLuhan—notably Ken­neth R. Allan’s explo­ration of McLuhan’s notion of the “coun­teren­vi­ron­ment” as a mode of imma­nent cri­tique prac­ticed by con­cep­tu­al­ists rang­ing from Dan Gra­ham to the Van­cou­ver-based N.E. Thing Co. Ltd.—have lent addi­tion­al def­i­n­i­tion and tex­ture to exist­ing accounts of the longue durée of McLuhan’s influ­en­tial per­cepts. Yet no author­i­ta­tive sur­vey of McLuhan’s glob­al impact on con­tem­po­rary art has emerged to-date. This spe­cial issue of Imag­i­na­tions does not, and for rea­sons of space alone can­not, fill this gap. Nonethe­less, the arti­cles and artists’ respons­es gath­ered here, both col­lec­tive­ly and indi­vid­u­al­ly, con­sti­tute a sig­nif­i­cant advance in our still evolv­ing con­cep­tion of McLuhan as a thinker and prac­ti­tion­er of aesthetics.

A notable accel­er­a­tion in the uptake of McLuhan’s thought in recent years points to some­thing of a muta­tion in the tra­jec­to­ry of recov­ery, restora­tion, and revi­sion ini­ti­at­ed by the pub­li­ca­tion of his Let­ters in 1987. It has become com­mon­place to attribute McLuhan’s post-con­tem­po­rary revival to the forces of ret­ro­spec­tion and reassess­ment focused by cen­ten­ni­al cel­e­bra­tions of his birth in 2011. Yet there is more than chronol­o­gy dri­ving this renaissance.

Richard Cavell has recent­ly drawn par­al­lels between McLuhan’s thought and con­tem­po­rary affect the­o­ry and new mate­ri­alisms. It is also not coin­ci­den­tal that McLuhan’s thought exper­i­ments have been the object of renewed atten­tion amidst the intel­lec­tu­al sea-change spelled by the spec­u­la­tive turn. While it would be dubi­ous and unfruit­ful to ret­ro­spec­tive­ly claim McLuhan as a new real­ist avant la let­tre, com­pelling res­o­nances between his trans­gres­sion of dis­ci­pli­nary bound­aries and present-day intel­lec­tu­al cur­rents illu­mi­nate some of the lead­ing con­cerns pro­pelling the present spe­cial issue of Imag­i­na­tions. If the 1990s gave us a “vir­tu­al” McLuhan who was simul­ta­ne­ous­ly a philoso­pher of dif­fer­ence and a fore­run­ner of the spa­tial turn, today the media ana­lyst is ripe for reeval­u­a­tion as the gen­er­a­tive­ly unclas­si­fi­able thinker that he is.

In com­mon with the pro­po­nents of var­i­ous Spec­u­la­tive Realisms, McLuhan’s writ­ings are char­ac­ter­ized by a pro­found wari­ness of the “Sub­ject” pro­duced by Enlight­en­ment epis­te­molo­gies and con­served, if pro­found­ly recon­fig­ured, by the lin­guis­tic turn which coin­cid­ed with the wan­ing of his own rep­u­ta­tion after 1968.[2] “Man” may be the unapolo­getic sub­ject of McLuhan’s media explo­rations, yet it is no lib­er­al-human­ist individual—no Vit­ru­vian Man—that emerges from his col­lag­iste prose. Rather, McLuhan presents us with an odd­ly pros­thet­ic and gener­ic human­i­ty that antic­i­pates the con­tem­po­rary French thinker François Laruelle’s provoca­tive con­tention that “there are no longer sub­jects” (“Is Think­ing Demo­c­ra­t­ic?” 233). Like­wise antic­i­pa­to­ry of Spec­u­la­tive Real­ism, McLuhan drew upon a range of sci­en­tif­ic dis­cours­es to expand the scope of human­is­tic study beyond the con­fines of Greek meta­physics and Judeo-Chris­t­ian the­ol­o­gy. In par­tic­u­lar, McLuhan emerges as a pre­scient crit­ic of lin­guis­tics as the mas­ter sig­ni­fi­er of the human. For the Toron­to School thinker, as for con­tem­po­rary real­ists, “ontol­ogy is pol­i­tics” (Bryant, Srnicek, and Har­man 16)—an ori­en­ta­tion made plain by his prefa­to­ry pro­fes­sion of faith in “the ulti­mate har­mo­ny of all being” in Under­stand­ing Media (5).

Yet McLuhan’s non­­-Kantianism—derived from Hen­ri Berg­son, as traced by Stephen Crocker—thwarts any mean­ing­ful align­ment with con­tem­po­rary neo-Kan­tians such as Gra­ham Har­man or his noume­nal world of “objects.” It is, rather, the eccen­tric project of “non-phi­los­o­phy” elab­o­rat­ed by Laru­elle that comes clos­est to McLuhan’s non-stan­dard human­ism and best illu­mi­nates the exper­i­men­tal cur­rents pro­pelling this spe­cial issue.

Laru­elle (b. 1937) is Pro­fes­sor Emer­i­tus at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Paris X (Nan­terre). Of his more than 20 mono­graphs, some dat­ing back to the 1970s, Eng­lish trans­la­tions have only begun to appear since 2010, although they are now being pub­lished at a rapid rate by the most dis­tin­guished aca­d­e­m­ic press­es. Laru­elle began his career by extend­ing but also hybridiz­ing the seem­ing­ly incom­pat­i­ble post-struc­tural­ist the­o­ries of Jacques Der­ri­da and Gilles Deleuze. By the ear­ly 1980s, how­ev­er, he was begin­ning to push against these “Philoso­phies of Dif­fer­ence” to for­mu­late his own non-philo­soph­i­cal alter­na­tive (dis­cussed in detail below): a rethink­ing of the cen­tral assump­tions of con­ti­nen­tal phi­los­o­phy that nonethe­less makes new, if some­times unrec­og­niz­able and per­verse, uses of its now-famil­iar con­cepts and vocab­u­lary. Some com­men­ta­tors group Laru­elle with Anglo-Amer­i­can thinkers asso­ci­at­ed with Spec­u­la­tive Realism—an affil­i­a­tion that the non-philoso­pher would like­ly reject. Nonethe­less, Laruelle’s project shares with SR an ambi­tion to think beyond such hall­marks of French The­o­ry as the lin­guis­tic metaphor and the cen­tral­i­ty of the Sub­ject uti­liz­ing tech­niques and ter­mi­nol­o­gy derived from science.

Like Laru­elle, McLuhan is a gnom­ic thinker who defies stan­dard dis­ci­pli­nary tax­onomies and norms. Indeed, McLuhan’s cur­rent­ly accept­ed des­ig­na­tion as a media the­o­rist or media philoso­pher is ques­tion­able, not only on the basis of his own oft-not­ed resis­tance to sys­tem­iza­tion; the Toron­to School thinker pre­ferred, like Laru­elle, an aes­thet­ic and exper­i­men­tal method­ol­o­gy sub­sti­tut­ing non-ratio­nal “per­cepts” for the con­cepts of con­ven­tion­al epis­te­mol­o­gy. Even the default sub­sump­tion of McLuhan’s pro­tean spec­u­la­tions under the rubric of media stud­ies is debat­able, if only giv­en his not­ed lack of train­ing in com­mu­ni­ca­tions and res­olute­ly lit­er­ary method­ol­o­gy. Like Laru­elle, McLuhan’s project is more accu­rate­ly char­ac­ter­ized as an irrev­er­ent brico­lage of seem­ing­ly irrec­on­cil­able method­olo­gies that effects a muta­tion of the cen­tral forms of clas­si­cal West­ern epis­te­mol­o­gy and its con­tem­po­rary offspring.

The for­mal ori­en­ta­tion of McLuhan’s analy­ses was long dis­missed as a method­olog­i­cal short­com­ing, a holdover from the naïve for­mal­ism prac­ticed by an ear­li­er gen­er­a­tion of human­ists. Jes­si­ca Press­man has per­sua­sive­ly argued for a recov­ery of McLuhan’s approach as an inno­v­a­tive modal­i­ty of New Crit­i­cal tech­niques of close read­ing. In light of Laruelle’s tren­chant cri­tique of the endur­ing form of West­ern phi­los­o­phy, however—what he describes as its cir­cu­lar, “deci­sion­al” struc­ture (the con­stant­ly reartic­u­lat­ed yet func­tion­al­ly invari­ant dyads of Subject/object, Idea/representation, One/multiple, Being/beings, etc.)—McLuhan’s for­mal method­ol­o­gy emerges with renewed rel­e­vance as a per­spi­ca­cious exca­va­tion of the a pri­oris of West­ern epis­te­mol­o­gy and aes­thet­ics. Indeed, there is a strik­ing­ly pro­to-Laru­el­lian ori­en­ta­tion to McLuhan’s recog­ni­tion of the dyadic figure/ground dynam­ics of typog­ra­phy as an arte­fact of West­ern ratio­nal­ism and its bina­ry appa­ra­tus of sub­jec­tiviza­tion. Antic­i­pat­ing the quan­tum chaos, or chôra, that Laru­elle oppos­es to the empiri­co-tran­scen­den­tal dou­blets of phi­los­o­phy, McLuhan, him­self par­tial­ly influ­enced by devel­op­ments in quan­tum mechan­ics,[3] hypoth­e­sized a non-per­spec­ti­val “acoustic space” in con­tradis­tinc­tion to the dual­is­tic posi­tions struc­tural­ly inscribed in print cul­ture and per­spec­ti­val optics alike (Coun­terblast n.p.). Par­al­lel­ing the orig­i­nary “black­ness” that Laru­elle attrib­ut­es to the Real (there­by reject­ing stan­dard meta­phys­i­cal metaphors of illu­mi­na­tion and enlight­en­ment), McLuhan described this acoustic space as “the dark of the mind” (Coun­terblast).[4]

More­over, McLuhan’s acoustic space as well as the “mosa­ic” form that he devel­oped to com­mu­ni­cate its het­eronomous essence (Guten­berg Galaxy 265) can both be likened to Laruelle’s insis­tence upon the fore­clo­sure of the Real to epis­te­mo­log­i­cal cap­ture: a “One” that uni­lat­er­al­ly equal­izes all attempts at its rep­re­sen­ta­tion as nec­es­sar­i­ly incom­plete. Laruelle’s uni­verse estab­lish­es an irre­versible vec­tor from the Real-One to its rep­re­sen­ta­tions, there­by stand­ing on their head the pre­ten­tions of philoso­phers to trans­form the Real. McLuhan’s medi­at­ic Real is like­wise mis­con­strued as rela­tion­al. After all, the medi­um is the mes­sage: the terms of this most cel­e­brat­ed yet per­sis­tent­ly obscure of McLuhan’s axioms being as irre­versible as the vari­ables in Laruelle’s non-philo­soph­i­cal matrix. The medi­um is a vec­tor that only trav­els in one direc­tion. In oth­er words, con­tent, always inad­e­quate as a descrip­tion of the medi­um and sec­ondary to its effects in McLuhan’s writ­ings, can be likened to Laruelle’s view of philosophy’s doomed attempts at cap­tur­ing the Real.

The con­flict­ing per­cepts super­posed by McLuhan’s tex­tu­al mosa­ic issue uni­lat­er­al­ly from a non-total­iz­able medi­at­ic Real. His analy­ses there­by unfold “along­side” the black­ness of acoustic space in a man­ner con­so­nant with Laruelle’s non-philo­soph­i­cal project (Intel­lec­tu­als and Pow­er 32). The medi­um is the mes­sage can also be under­stood as artic­u­lat­ing a form of rad­i­cal imma­nence; that is, the mes­sage does not tran­scend the medi­um, but is imma­nent to its form. This imma­nen­tal ori­en­ta­tion cor­rob­o­rates Don­ald Theall’s liken­ing of McLuhan’s thought to that of Deleuze, whose 1968 text The Log­ic of Sense influ­en­tial­ly pro­posed a neo-Sto­ic read­ing of the “blank word,” which (like McLuhan’s medi­um) “says its own sense” (79).[5] McLuhan’s max­im equal­ly resounds in Laruelle’s rad­i­cal decon­struc­tion of Deleuze’s phi­los­o­phy of imma­nence; the for­mer propos­ing, in the words of John Ó Maoilearca, a thought capa­ble of “doing what we say we do” (45, orig­i­nal empha­sis). What more con­cise descrip­tion of McLuhan’s medi­um than that it, too, says what it does?

McLuhan elab­o­rat­ed his pre­scient cri­tique of the dyadic tech­nics of West­ern thought in a per­for­ma­tive style that Richard Cavell has pro­duc­tive­ly likened to per­for­mance art.[6] Sim­i­lar­ly, Laru­elle has stat­ed that, “what inter­ests me is phi­los­o­phy as the mate­r­i­al for an art” (Mack­ay and Laru­elle 29): an aes­thet­ic project that he char­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly qual­i­fies as non-stan­dard aes­thet­ics. The mosa­ic of quo­ta­tions assem­bled by The Guten­berg Galaxy “clones”—as Laru­elle would say—its philo­soph­i­cal and aes­thet­ic ref­er­ence mate­r­i­al through a scrip­tur­al redu­pli­ca­tion that delib­er­ate­ly con­tra­venes the hermeneu­tic norms of philo­soph­i­cal com­men­tary and inter­pre­ta­tion. McLuhan there­by reduces his cho­sen objects of study (François Rabelais, Peter Ramus, The Tragedy of King Lear, etc.) to so many “sim­ple mate­ri­als” (Laru­elle Prin­ci­ples of Non-Phi­los­o­phy 9) or, what he would term with Wil­fred Wat­son, “clichés,” stripped of their pre­ten­tions to tran­scen­dent Truth. This cita­tion­al procedure—which sets the stage for Laruelle’s prac­tice of rad­i­cal paraphrase—powerfully fore­grounds the mate­ri­al­i­ty of print as an instru­ment of ratio­nal thought while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly expos­ing and ster­il­iz­ing the dyadic rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al machin­ery of Pla­ton­ic epis­te­molo­gies more generally.

The man­ner­ist the­atre staged by McLuhan’s “non-book” col­lab­o­ra­tions with design­ers Quentin Fiore and Harley Park­er (Michaels, “Fore­word” 8) abounds in quo­ta­tions and images gleaned from a beguil­ing gamut of pop-cul­tur­al and “seri­ous” sources (not to men­tion their inces­sant para­phrase of McLuhan’s own ear­li­er, sin­gle-authored texts). Prece­dent for such assem­blage is found in the ven­tril­o­quism of mass-media for­mats (com­ic-strip, edi­to­r­i­al, news­pa­per) and the high-Mod­ernist prosody per­formed by The Mechan­i­cal Bride, the media analyst’s first mono­graph. Yet McLuhan’s détourne­ment of ready­made mate­ri­als can be traced fur­ther back to the anti-Bergson­ian (yet, para­dox­i­cal­ly, endur­ing­ly Bergson­ian) rhetoric of Wyn­d­ham Lewis: the Cana­di­an-born mul­ti­me­dia Mod­ernist whose impact on McLuhan has been ana­lyzed in depth by Lam­ber­ti and is the sub­ject of the recent anthol­o­gy Coun­terblast­ing Cana­da.

Lewis—whom McLuhan first read dur­ing his doc­tor­al stud­ies at Cam­bridge in the mid-1930s, and sub­se­quent­ly befriend­ed dur­ing World War II while lec­tur­ing at St. Louis Uni­ver­si­ty and Assump­tion Col­lege (today’s Uni­ver­si­ty of Windsor)—was a promi­nent crit­ic of the non-log­i­cal meta­physics of Berg­son. Yet, as SueEllen Camp­bell and oth­ers have demon­strat­ed, Lewis’s anti-Bergson­ian polemic remained per­plex­ing­ly Bergson­ian in its mere upend­ing of the dri­ving dualisms of Bergson­ian meta­physics: “mat­ter and mem­o­ry, per­cep­tion and rec­ol­lec­tion, objec­tive and sub­jec­tive” (Deleuze, Bergson­ism 53). How­ev­er, where Camp­bell and oth­er com­men­ta­tors on Lewis’s fraught rela­tion­ship to Bergson­ian mod­ernisms have tend­ed to view the British artist-author’s endur­ing if covert Bergson­ism as an unwit­ting incon­sis­ten­cy, it is equal­ly legit­i­mate to rec­og­nize in Lewis’s “per­verse” (Edwards, “Wyn­d­ham Lewis’s Vor­ti­cism” 39) Bergson­ism a delib­er­ate log­ic of para­con­sis­ten­cy. A sim­i­lar­ly hereti­cal reuse of Bergson­ian dualisms in tan­dem with bor­row­ings from con­tem­po­rary sci­en­tif­ic dis­course was made ear­li­er by Mar­cel Duchamp (see Hen­der­son; Luiset­ti and Sharp; Ó Maoilearca), whose para-painter­ly mas­ter­piece The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bach­e­lors, Even (1915-1923) also informed McLuhan’s Mechan­i­cal Bride (see Cavell, Reme­di­at­ing McLuhan 50). Much as Duchamp seized upon the den­i­grat­ed mechan­i­cal and ratio­nal­ist pole of Bergson’s dual­ist appa­ra­tus to enact an unau­tho­rized, and point­ed­ly anti-vital, reuse of the French vital­ist thinker’s con­cep­tu­al appa­ra­tus, Lewis, too, can be under­stood as appro­pri­at­ing Bergson’s pop­u­lar writ­ings as “a what­ev­er mate­r­i­al” for unsanc­tioned reme­di­a­tion (Ó Maoilearca 164). Clear­ing a path for the non-philo­soph­i­cal “clones” of Laru­elle as well as the clichés of McLuhan and Wat­son, Lewis’s het­eroglos­sia of Bergson­ian for­mu­las belongs to a Bergson­ian tra­di­tion and yet remains defi­ant­ly non-Bergson­ian in its divestiture—and, indeed, overt satire—of the trans­for­ma­tion­al poten­tial of philo­soph­i­cal con­cepts. In McLuhan’s rework­ing of Lewisian strate­gies of pas­tiche, para­con­sis­ten­cy emerges as a pri­ma­ry char­ac­ter­is­tic of what he alter­nate­ly termed “post-lin­eal” or “post-alpha­bet­ic” cul­ture: neol­o­gisms that are strik­ing­ly con­sis­tent with the non-Euclid­ean mod­el pur­sued by the egal­i­tar­i­an thought of Laru­elle in their rad­i­cal expan­sion and muta­tion (but not aban­don­ment) of the schema­ta of clas­si­cal epis­te­mol­o­gy.[7] In advance of Laru­elle, McLuhan was drawn to non-Euclid­ean mod­els of space that lib­er­at­ed human­i­ty from what he dubbed the “straight-jack­et” of the par­al­lel pos­tu­late and the con­straints of log­i­cal con­sis­ten­cy, whose “proof” it pur­port­ed to embody (Coun­terblast n.p.). In the post-lin­eal world inau­gu­rat­ed by elec­tron­ic media, “[a]ll knowl­edges are equal” (Ó Maoilearca 28), just as no rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the Real can dom­i­nate in Laruelle’s democ­ra­cy of thought.

Much as Laru­elle has strate­gi­cal­ly appro­pri­at­ed the­o­ret­i­cal mate­r­i­al from the neo-Bergson­ian Deleuze, whose imper­a­tive (as para­phrased with col­lab­o­ra­tor Félix Guat­tari) to “cre­ate con­cepts” (5) he has divest­ed of its meta­phys­i­cal impulse, Lewis mim­ic­ked Bergson’s meta­physics of cre­ative evo­lu­tion in his 1930 mas­ter­piece, The Apes of God. The lat­ter text stages a car­ni­va­lesque pageantry of mod­ernist clones mock­ing the French philosopher’s artis­tic acolytes, who are rep­re­sent­ed as lit­tle more than stereo­typed “walk­ing ideas” (Edwards, Wyn­d­ham Lewis 320). Occu­py­ing the per­spec­ti­val cen­tre of Lewis’s lit­er­ary vor­tex is the absen­tee philoso­pher Pier­point (or “peer-point”) (Miller 117), whose insights are par­rot­ed by the denizens of Lewis’s coun­ter­feit “soci­ety of cre­ators” (Deleuze, Bergson­ism 111). Act­ing as the pro­to­typ­i­cal medi­um, the Vir­gil-like Horace Zagreus “broad­casts” (Apes 271, 418, 433, 434) Pierpoint’s views via mock-radio­phon­ic per­for­mances of the reclu­sive guru’s “encycli­cal” (125) as he guides pro­tag­o­nist Dan Boleyn through a Dan­tean Blooms­bury. Lewis’s satir­i­cal rever­sal of the dynam­ics of Bergson­ian com­e­dy (as the­o­rized by the French thinker in his pop­u­lar essay Laugh­ter)—which Lewis dubbed “non-moral satire” (Men With­out Art 107-108) in oppo­si­tion to the social­ly cor­rec­tive func­tion that Berg­son attrib­uted to the mechan­i­cal essence of the comic—can be likened to John Ó Maoilearca’s descrip­tion of non-philosophy’s “mock­ery of the philosopher’s truth” (176): a mock­ery enact­ed through a qua­si-behav­iourist, “pos­tu­al” mim­ing of philo­soph­i­cal posi­tions (see also Hoken­son). Sim­i­lar­ly, Theall sit­u­at­ed the Menip­pean satire of aca­d­e­m­ic norms prac­ticed by McLuhan’s irrevent non-books with­in a tra­di­tion of “learned satire” with which he also con­nect­ed Lewis (The Vir­tu­al Mar­shall McLuhan 41).

A key point of ten­sion between the non-Bergson­ian mim­ic­ry prac­ticed by both Laru­elle and Lewis emerges from the latter’s emphat­ic anti-human­ism, which can­not be rec­on­ciled with the per­sis­tence of the Human in non-phi­los­o­phy. Laru­elle insists that the “non-” pre­fix which he appends to his minori­tar­i­an prac­tice of thought is in no way syn­ony­mous with the nega­tion implied by anti-phi­los­o­phy. Non-phi­los­o­phy does not aim to over­turn or nul­li­fy phi­los­o­phy, but—on the mod­el of non-Euclid­ean geom­e­try, which accepts the axioms of clas­si­cal geom­e­try yet adds seem­ing­ly incom­pat­i­ble pos­tu­lates thereto—sets out to expand the scope of human­is­tic study by mul­ti­ply­ing and mutat­ing its dis­ci­pli­nary resources, even at the risk of incon­sis­ten­cy. The per­sis­tence of the Human in Laruelle’s thought is framed in emphat­i­cal­ly futur­al terms, as the open ques­tion of humanity’s “sal­va­tion” (Smith, Laru­elle 6), a for­mu­la­tion that recalls the future tense in which McLuhan cast his prophet­ic pro­nounce­ments on social and sen­so­r­i­al trans­for­ma­tions that he asso­ci­at­ed with the pro­lif­er­a­tion of elec­tron­ic media. A shared modal­i­ty of sci­ence fic­tion is an addi­tion­al man­i­fes­ta­tion of the two thinkers’ com­mon lit­er­ary ori­en­ta­tion: a re-descrip­tion of philo­soph­i­cal and extra-philo­soph­i­cal mate­ri­als that Laru­elle the­o­rizes (in ref­er­ence to his own project) as “phi­lo-fic­tion.” Refus­ing to aban­don the con­tents of con­ven­tion­al philo­soph­i­cal dis­course, Laru­elle instead “superposes”—an oper­a­tion trans­plant­ed from quan­tum physics—concepts and vocab­u­lary from diver­gent domains to fab­u­late nov­el thoughts that are real but fic­tive: not author­i­ta­tive descrip­tions of the Real but rather fic­tions com­posed of state­ments that, how­ev­er con­flict­ual or incom­plete, are nonethe­less real in themselves.

A con­tem­po­rary artist whose work sug­gests com­pelling analo­gies with Laruelle’s prac­tice of phi­lo-fic­tion is Robert Smith­son (1938-1973), whose pho­to-essays trans­gress dis­ci­pli­nary bound­aries and pro­to­cols to spin unre­li­able nar­ra­tives can­ni­bal­iz­ing the work of oth­er cre­ators. The ear­ly Smith­son text “Entropy and the New Mon­u­ments” is axiomat­ic in its trans­for­ma­tion of a con­ven­tion­al sur­vey of recent art (in this case, Min­i­mal­ist sculp­ture) into a free-rang­ing med­i­ta­tion on the ineluctable fatum of an entrop­ic cos­mos, weav­ing ref­er­ences to every­thing from tourist guides to Claude Lévi-Strauss into a delib­er­ate­ly anti-aca­d­e­m­ic het­eroglos­sia. Smithson’s com­pul­sive fab­u­la­tion echoes McLuhan’s recon­fig­u­ra­tion of the “crit­ic as cre­ator” (Cavell, Reme­di­at­ing McLuhan 79) through his inno­va­tion of the mul­ti­modal “essai con­crète” (Theall, The Medi­um 240).

Inci­dents of Mir­ror-Trav­el in the Yucatan,” Smithson’s sig­na­ture 1969 mock-trav­el­ogue, report­ed on a recent tour of the Mex­i­can penin­su­la in a satir­i­cal­ly hyper­tro­phied imper­son­ation of the first-per­son nar­ra­tive con­ven­tions of embed­ded jour­nal­ism that may have been inspired by the artist’s famil­iar­i­ty with the iron­ic trav­el writ­ings of Wyn­d­ham Lewis, whom he referred to as his “favorite author” in 1965 (qtd. In Crow 37).[8] “Inci­dents of Mir­ror-Trav­el” is emi­nent­ly phi­lo-fic­tive in its super­po­si­tion of its host text—the 19th-cen­tu­ry Amer­i­can trav­el writer John Lloyd Stephens’s 1842 Inci­dents of Trav­el in Cen­tral Amer­i­ca, Chi­a­pas and Yucatán—with more dubi­ous “his­to­ries” of the myth­i­cal con­ti­nents of Atlantis and Mu by James Church­ward and Ignatius Don­nel­ly. This pseu­do-sci­en­tif­ic trav­es­ty of Atlantean utopias effects a ludic “revers[al of] Pla­ton­ism” (Deleuze, Log­ic of Sense 291).

Smith­son recounts his tem­po­rary instal­la­tion of “hypo­thet­i­cal con­ti­nents” along his Yucatán itin­er­ary based on the imag­i­na­tive car­togra­phies of Church­ward and Don­nel­ly: piles of seashells or stone con­jur­ing the con­jec­tured coast­lines of the “lost” land­mass­es of Lemuria and Mu. In thus mate­ri­al­iz­ing a spe­cious fac­tic­i­ty, Smith­son man­i­fests a log­ic of para­con­sis­ten­cy antic­i­pa­to­ry of Laru­elle. “Con­trary to affir­ma­tions of nature,” writes Smith­son, “art is inclined to sem­blances and masks, it flour­ish­es on dis­crep­an­cy” (“Inci­dents of Mir­ror-Trav­el” 132).

Inci­dents of Mir­ror-Trav­el” simul­ta­ne­ous­ly mobi­lizes the cam­era in uncon­ven­tion­al ways that clear a path for Laruelle’s dis­course on “non-pho­tog­ra­phy” as an instan­ti­a­tion of “vision-in-One,” the French thinker’s term for a uni­lat­er­al mod­i­fi­ca­tion of human per­cep­tion. Pho­tographs accom­pa­ny­ing Smithson’s tex­tu­al account of his Yucatán expe­di­tion point­ed­ly depart from the for­mal­ist con­ven­tions of a medi­um then strug­gling to acquire crit­i­cal legit­i­ma­cy. Smithson’s defi­ant­ly casu­al pho­tographs redi­rect the reader’s touris­tic gaze away from the expect­ed archae­o­log­i­cal mon­u­ments por­tend­ed by the title’s nod to Stephens. They record instead an anti-spec­tac­u­lar inven­to­ry of sites/sights: ephemer­al arrays of square mir­rors, or “mir­ror dis­place­ments,” installed by the artist on beach­es and the jun­gle floor. Per­verse­ly, these crude grids refuse a spec­u­lar optics, reflect­ing instead mono­chro­mat­ic expans­es of sky or daz­zling solar flares. The rig­or­ous abstrac­tion con­sti­tut­ed by the “bro­ken geom­e­try” (127) of these mir­rored arrays can be likened to the “matrix” that Laru­elle posits as the a pri­ori of a (non-)photographic vision pre­ced­ing the emer­gence of the tech­ni­cal appa­ra­tus of the camera—which, in his account, is only inci­den­tal to a longer tra­jec­to­ry of philosophy’s “onto-pho­to-log­i­cal” unfold­ing (Pho­to-Fic­tion 3).[9] The alter­nat­ing flares and mot­tled obscu­ri­ty man­i­fest­ed by Smithson’s arrays can also be likened to the “blind­ing of the light of logos by the real­ly blind thought of pho­tog­ra­phy” pos­tu­lat­ed by Laru­elle as a refusal of the rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al meta­physics of Pla­ton­ism (The Con­cept 58). As Smith­son writes, “mir­ror sur­faces can­not be under­stood by rea­son” (“Inci­dents of Mir­ror-Trav­el” 124).

The non-pho­to­graph­ic image the­o­rized by Laru­elle as an alter­na­tive to the spec­u­lar optics of con­ven­tion­al pho­to­graph­ic dis­course is con­found­ing­ly “obscure and black” (The Con­cept 58). Like the non-pho­to­graph­ic “clones” of an unrep­re­sentable Real for­mu­lat­ed by Laru­elle, Smithson’s mir­ror dis­place­ments are, more­over, “emp­ty in gen­er­al of phe­nom­e­no­log­i­cal struc­tures of per­cep­tion: hori­zon, field of con­scious­ness, fringe and mar­gin, preg­nant form (Gestalt), flux, etc.” (The Con­cept 102). The artist super­pos­es mot­tled or mono­chro­mat­ic mir­rors with gener­ic stretch­es of beach or jun­gle to pro­duce not a pho­to­graph­ic rep­re­sen­ta­tion but rather a non-mimet­ic “clone” of the Real. The phe­nom­e­no­log­i­cal­ly void visu­al­i­ty com­posed by Laruelle’s pho­to­graph­ic clones is a “vision-in-One”: not a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the (non-visu­al­iz­able) Real-One, but the man­i­fes­ta­tion of a “spe­cif­ic rela­tion to the real” (The Con­cept 143, 6).

Unlike philosophy's attempts at remak­ing the Real in its own image, Laruelle’s non-phi­los­o­phy aims at “[a] rad­i­cal mod­i­fi­ca­tion not of the World but of our vision(-in-One) of the World” (Prin­ci­ples of Non-Phi­los­o­phy 190). This ambi­tion, par­tic­u­lar­ly as expressed through the matrix of non-pho­tog­ra­phy, can be likened to the medi­at­ic and sen­so­r­i­al project of McLuhan, whose “mosa­ic” resem­bles Laruelle’s vision-in-One. Both offer uni­lat­er­al man­i­fes­ta­tions of the Real's pre­ces­sion: not an illu­mi­nat­ing and spec­u­lar light on, but an opaque and vec­to­r­i­al light through. But what then to make of McLuhan’s fre­quent des­ig­na­tion by com­mu­ni­ca­tions schol­ars as a trans­for­ma­tion the­o­rist? Does not his cel­e­brat­ed re-descrip­tion of the “match­ing” mod­el inscribed in clas­si­cal Infor­ma­tion The­o­ry as cre­ative “mak­ing” dis­close a naked­ly philo­soph­i­cal pre­ten­sion (“Envi­ron­ment” 118)? Our answer must be no. In com­mon with Laru­elle, it is our vision of the world that McLuhan aims to mod­i­fy and whose pri­or mod­i­fi­ca­tions he painstak­ing­ly his­tori­cizes through case stud­ies of spe­cif­ic media such as the print­ing press. The Real remains emphat­i­cal­ly imper­vi­ous to the medi­at­ic (re-)“making” of McLuhan’s Man. McLuhan’s “medi­um” is not an alien­at­ed rela­tion but some­thing clos­er to what Laru­elle terms a “uni­lat­er­al dual­i­ty”: a non-dialec­ti­cal dis­tance or (non-Kant­ian) tran­scen­den­tal.[10] This notion of imma­nent dis­tance is per­haps most pow­er­ful­ly con­veyed by McLuhan’s influ­en­tial the­o­riza­tion of the “Anti-Envi­ron­ment” (or coun­teren­vi­ron­ment) brought into vis­i­bil­i­ty by the artist, which expos­es habit­u­al­ly unseen aspects of the every­day with­out there­by negat­ing them. Due to its quan­tum essence, the vec­to­r­i­al Real is, how­ev­er, nev­er deter­min­is­tic, notwith­stand­ing its uni­di­rec­tion­al character.

Smithson’s famil­iar­i­ty with McLuhan’s the­ses on media and per­cep­tion is attest­ed to by direct ref­er­ences in such texts as “A Muse­um of Lan­guage in the Vicin­i­ty of Art,” where he cites McLuhan’s notion, advanced by Under­stand­ing Media, that cin­e­ma gen­er­ates a “Reel World” (91)—a pos­tu­late which we might ret­ro­spec­tive­ly liken to Laruelle’s dis­course on pho­to-fic­tion. Inspired by the form as much as the con­tent of McLuhan’s writ­ing, Smithson’s pho­to-essays do not so much rep­re­sent a per­va­sive­ly medi­at­ed world as elab­o­rate intri­cate fic­tions con­ju­gat­ing pho­to­graph­ic and philo­soph­i­cal materials.

Anoth­er con­tem­po­rary cre­ator amenable to inter­pre­ta­tion through a super­po­si­tion of McLuhan’s aes­thet­ic spec­u­la­tions with the non-aes­thet­ic thought of Laru­elle is the for­mer Van­cou­ver-based con­cep­tu­al enter­prise, N.E. Thing Co. Ltd. (NETCO, 1966-1978). From its 1966 found­ing by Cana­di­an artist Iain Bax­ter (b. 1936), the fic­tion­al cor­po­ra­tion was thor­ough­ly McLuhan­ite in inspi­ra­tion. Bax­ter had been ear­ly exposed to the media ana­lyst through his par­tic­i­pa­tion in plan­ning the 1965 McLuhan-themed Fes­ti­val of the Con­tem­po­rary Arts at the Uni­ver­si­ty of British Colum­bia (UBC), where he was then employed as an assis­tant pro­fes­sor. Notes for a “self-inter­view” deliv­ered at UBC in the spring of 1965 deploy such McLuhan­ite ter­mi­nol­o­gy as “lin­eal,” “mosa­ic,” and “inter­play of media,” the artist propos­ing that “maclu­en [sic] says [w]e must learn to arrange the sen­so­ry life in order to…fashion the envi­ron­ment itself as a work of art” (n.p.). In the same year as these ini­tial engage­ments with McLuhan, Bax­ter joined forces with fel­low Wash­ing­ton State Uni­ver­si­ty alum­nus John Friel to form the artists’ col­lec­tive IT, which also involved occa­sion­al con­tri­bu­tions by future NETCO co-pres­i­dent, and Baxter’s then wife, Ingrid Bax­ter (b. 1938; known until 1971 as Elaine Bax­ter). Antic­i­pat­ing the cor­po­rate author­ship of the N.E. Thing Co.—whose inhab­i­ta­tion of busi­ness frame­works would par­al­lel McLuhan’s cor­po­rate “de-autho­riza­tion” of Roman­tic con­struc­tions of the sin­gu­lar cre­ator (Cavell, Reme­di­at­ing McLuhan 31)—IT’s prod­ucts were the work of “more than one mind” (Bax­ter to Deb­o­rah, April 22, 1966). The anony­mous par­tic­i­pants of IT and NETCO simul­ta­ne­ous­ly por­tend the “gener­ic” human­i­ty that Laru­elle places in ten­sion with the shared “Sub­ject” of human­ism and post-structuralism.

Fig­ure 1. IT, Pneu­mat­ic Judd, 1965. Cour­tesy Iain Baxter& and Raven Row.

The dis­ori­ent­ing famil­iar­i­ty of IT’s stock-in-trade was a cal­cu­lat­ed effect of the collective’s uncon­ven­tion­al method­ol­o­gy of cloning art­works by the rec­og­nized names in con­tem­po­rary art: from Don­ald Judd (Fig. 1) to Ken­neth Noland and Claes Old­en­burg. IT’s re-per­for­mance of well-known can­vas­es and sculp­tures point­ed­ly stripped their ref­er­ents of all aes­thet­ic pre­ten­sion through an irrev­er­ent sub­sti­tu­tion of non-art mate­ri­als beto­ken­ing the gener­ic tex­tures of every­day life under late cap­i­tal­ism for the tran­scen­dent realms of for­mal auton­o­my or self-ref­er­en­tial­i­ty attrib­uted to their pro­to­types by crit­ics and art his­to­ri­ans. This cloning pro­ce­dure would real­ize its apogee only after IT was sub­sumed with­in NETCO’s cun­ning “COP” (or Copy) Depart­ment when, in 1971, the co-pres­i­dents appeared as “dum­mies,” or clones of them­selves, as part of a solo exhi­bi­tion at the Sonnabend Gallery in New York (Fig. 2). More than a post­mod­ern recog­ni­tion of per­va­sive medi­a­tion, IT’s clones dra­ma­tize the fore­clo­sure of the Real: trans­form­ing aes­thet­ic objects into inert mate­r­i­al for dis­arm­ing­ly gener­ic fictions.

Fig­ure 2. N.E. Thing Co. Ltd., Dum­my Self-Por­trait Sculp­ture, 1971. Cour­tesy Iain Baxter& and Raven Row.

In par­al­lel with his involve­ment in IT, Iain Bax­ter exper­i­ment­ed with tech­niques of non-ver­bal ped­a­gogy that rad­i­cal­ized McLuhan’s cri­tique of print-based class­room pro­ce­dure. Incor­po­rat­ing found objects gleaned from his urban explo­rations, Baxter’s lec­tures at UBC and lat­er at Simon Fras­er Uni­ver­si­ty (SFU) mimed a chore­og­ra­phy of gener­ic actions (such as “swim­ming on dry land,” Fig. 3) to a rig­or­ous­ly abstract sound­track of John Cage and Edgar Varèse (see Baigell and Smith 370). These inter­ven­tions mount­ed a dra­mat­ic chal­lenge to scrip­tur­al epis­te­mol­o­gy inspired by McLuhan’s audile-tac­tile spec­u­la­tions and incor­po­rat­ing Edward T. Hall’s insights on non-ver­bal com­mu­ni­ca­tion (which, sig­nif­i­cant­ly, also served as a point of depar­ture for McLuhan’s exten­sion the­sis). In Laru­el­lian terms, non-ver­bal teach­ing con­sti­tut­ed a “pos­tur­al” thought in which, to quote John Ó Maoilearca, “ideas are turned into behav­ior” (144). The embod­ied “stance” (Laru­elle, The Con­cept 12) that Baxter’s McLuhan-inspired non-ver­bal ped­a­gogy sub­sti­tut­ed for the log­i­cal con­tent of con­ven­tion­al teach­ing served as a gate­way to the sen­so­r­i­al infor­ma­tion prod­ucts sub­se­quent­ly man­u­fac­tured by the N.E. Thing Co.—the com­pa­ny itself being an indi­rect prod­uct of Baxter’s involve­ment in craft­ing a McLuhan-inspired “panaes­thet­ic gram­mar” of the arts at SFU (Schafer, “Clean­ing” 10).

Fig­ure 3. Iain Bax­ter, Non-Ver­bal Teach­ing (“Swim­ming on Dry Land”), ca. 1964-1966. Cour­tesy Iain Baxter& and Raven Row.

NETCO was estab­lished as a trans­dis­ci­pli­nary “umbrel­la” (Bax­ter, “Inter­view”) for the man­u­fac­ture of a diver­si­fied prod­uct line envi­sioned as vari­eties of what com­pa­ny per­son­nel termed “Sen­si­tiv­i­ty Infor­ma­tion”: Sound Sen­si­tiv­i­ty Infor­ma­tion, or SSI (“music, poet­ry [read], singing, ora­to­ry, etc.”), Mov­ing Sen­si­tiv­i­ty Infor­ma­tion, or MSI (“movies, dance, moun­tain climb­ing, track, etc.”), Expe­ri­en­tial Sen­si­tiv­i­ty Infor­ma­tion, or ESI (“the­atre, etc.”), and Visu­al Sen­si­tiv­i­ty Infor­ma­tion, or VSI (“a term devel­oped and used by the N.E. Thing Co. to denote more appro­pri­ate­ly the mean­ing of the tra­di­tion­al words ‘art’ and ‘fine art’ or ‘visu­al art’”) (“Glos­sary” n.p., Fig. 4). The company’s dis­ci­pline-defy­ing inven­to­ry and sen­so­r­i­al tax­on­o­my res­onat­ed with the efforts of Bax­ter and fel­low SFU faculty—notably com­pos­er and “sound­scape” the­o­rist R. Mur­ray Schafer—to forge an inter­dis­ci­pli­nary cur­ricu­lum at the non-cred­it Cen­tre for Com­mu­ni­ca­tion and the Arts fueled by McLuhan’s non-Kant­ian hybridiza­tion of media and dis­parate dis­ci­pli­nary knowl­edges. Posi­tion­ing them­selves as ped­a­gogues-at-large, the company’s co-pres­i­dents iden­ti­fied as pub­lic “edu­ca­tors of the sens­es” (Flem­ing 37). Sen­si­tiv­i­ty Infor­ma­tion prod­ucts gen­er­at­ed by com­pa­ny researchers through their inter­ac­tions with the envi­ron­ment were reg­is­tered uti­liz­ing NETCO’s pro­pri­etary glos­sary of code-like Sen­si­tiv­i­ty Infor­ma­tion acronyms (list­ed above), some­times assum­ing the form of absurd for­mu­lae mock­ing the struc­tural­ist dri­ve to math­e­ma­tize knowl­edge. These were inscribed on gener­ic “infor­ma­tion forms,” designed by “Direc­tor of Infor­ma­tion” Bri­an Dyson to serve as an infi­nite­ly exten­si­ble cor­po­rate archive. The greater part of these infor­ma­tion forms doc­u­ment­ed the gener­ic infra­struc­ture of sub­ur­bia. Sit­ting some­where between a con­ven­tion­al pho­to album and a McLuhanesque blue­print for social media image-shar­ing sites, the 1978 com­pendi­um of infor­ma­tion forms, N.E. Thing Co. Ltd., Vol. 1, antic­i­pates Moham­mad Salemy’s recent liken­ing of Insta­gram to the gener­ic prop­er­ties of Laruelle’s non-photography.

Fig­ure 4. N.E. Thing Co. Ltd., “Glos­sary,” 1966. Cour­tesy Iain Baxter& and Raven Row.

The Company’s mock-psy­chophys­i­cal tran­scrip­tions of its cor­po­rate oper­a­tions can be likened to the “econ­o­my of pure force” record­ed by the oeu­vre of August von Briesen in Laruelle’s per­spi­ca­cious read­ing (“La plus haute” 144). Through a process akin to Sur­re­al­ist modal­i­ties of auto­mat­ic writ­ing, or the tech­niques of psy­chophys­i­cal reg­is­tra­tion, or invol­un­tary “writ­ing down” (304), stud­ied by Ger­man media the­o­rist Friedrich Kit­tler, Briesen’s abstract draw­ings man­i­fest “blind” tran­scrip­tions of musi­cal per­for­mances, their seem­ing­ly ran­dom marks func­tion­ing some­what akin to a “seis­mo­graph” (Gal­loway, Laru­elle 163). NETCO’s reg­is­tra­tions of Sen­si­tiv­i­ty Infor­ma­tion com­prise anal­o­gous­ly non-mimet­ic inscrip­tions of “affect and its inten­si­ty” (Laru­elle, “La plus haute 144), hav­ing sim­i­lar­ly devel­oped in dia­logue with musi­cal per­for­mance (in NETCO’s case, R. Mur­ray Schafer’s com­pu­ta­tion­al reimag­in­ing of con­ven­tion­al musi­cal nota­tion as a record of “exact fre­quen­cies” as well as Iain Baxter’s rede­ploy­ment of Cage and Varèse with­in the con­text of his own ges­tur­al exper­i­ments in non-ver­bal teach­ing) (Schafer, The New Sound­scape 3). Von Briesen’s blind inscrip­tions of musi­cal per­for­mance man­i­fest an audi­ble-tac­tile Real com­pa­ra­ble, more­over, to the acoustic space con­sti­tut­ed by NETCO’s McLuhan-inspired cor­po­rate archive of Sen­si­tiv­i­ty Information.

The inten­tion of this admit­ted­ly some­what per­verse Laru­el­lian read­ing of McLuhan and his artis­tic respon­dents is not to impose a false image of McLuhan as non-philoso­pher but, rather, to claim him as “mate­r­i­al” for nov­el thought exper­i­ments that de-autho­rize canon­i­cal por­traits of the media ana­lyst, there­by open­ing up his per­cepts to new pos­si­bil­i­ties for non-stan­dard usage. With­out apply­ing a Laru­el­lian lens per se, the arti­cles assem­bled by this spe­cial issue are exem­plary demon­stra­tions of just such a per­for­ma­tive approach to McLuhan. Togeth­er, they con­sti­tute an appro­pri­ate­ly frac­tal­ized image of the media ana­lyst and his con­test­ed legacy.

While they exam­ine new ter­ri­to­ry and are wide-rang­ing in focus and method­ol­o­gy, the arti­cles in this vol­ume are assem­bled accord­ing to like­ness­es of theme and approach. The first two exam­ine McLuhan’s inter­ac­tions with artists he knew, his con­tem­po­raries Sorel Etrog and P. Mansaram. The next two iden­ti­fy points of con­ti­nu­ity between McLuhan’s per­spec­tives and con­tem­po­rary work as well as points requir­ing adjust­ment and amend­ment, par­tic­u­lar­ly in rela­tion to Indige­nous knowl­edge. Fol­low­ing these are two stud­ies by artists who adapt McLuhan’s ideas in their own work. The remain­ing four arti­cles are the­o­ry-ori­ent­ed, each sound­ing McLuhan’s insights for res­o­nances with cur­rent crit­i­cal engagements.

Both artists fea­tured as McLuhan asso­ciates in the first two arti­cles were new­com­ers to Cana­da, whose art reflects their encounter with the cul­ture of Toron­to as fresh and strange. Ele­na Lam­ber­ti ani­mates a less­er-known col­lab­o­ra­tion that expands our sense of fig­ure-ground inter­play, between McLuhan and Sorel Etrog, the Roman­ian-born Cana­di­an artist who passed away in 2014. In 1975, Etrog’s exper­i­men­tal film Spi­ral was shown at McLuhan’s Cen­tre for Cul­ture and Tech­nol­o­gy, trig­ger­ing the col­lab­o­ra­tive pub­li­ca­tion based on that movie, Spi­ral. Images from the Film, pub­lished in 1987. Lam­ber­ti teas­es out Dadaist ele­ments in Etrog’s mon­tage, indi­cat­ing how their assault on famil­iar­i­ty and con­for­mi­ty appealed to McLuhan and inspired his pro­pos­al to select stills and match them with a free-form text of quo­ta­tions from var­i­ous writ­ers as well as orig­i­nal commentary.

Lam­ber­ti points out that McLuhan him­self can be under­stood as an artist who made a con­scious shift from mod­ernist avant-garde to neo-avant-gardes and the art forms of the 1970s. Apart from round­ing out the record of McLuhan’s oeu­vre by bring­ing this less­er-known project to light, Lam­ber­ti also pays homage to Etrog and his con­tri­bu­tion to the Cana­di­an artis­tic renaissance.

The sto­ry of McLuhan and Mansaram pro­vides a friend­ly and pro­duc­tive bio­graph­i­cal ani­ma­tion of a Joycean phrase favoured by McLuhan: “the West shall shake the East awake” (Under­stand­ing Media 236). Alexan­der Kuskis describes the dia­logue between McLuhan and Mansaram begun when Mansaram arrived from India to estab­lish him­self in Toron­to. McLuhan was inter­est­ed in east­ern­isms, and dis­cov­ered in Mansaram and his art a pri­ma­ry and inform­ing source. Com­ing ear­ly in this vol­ume, this arti­cle serves as a felic­i­tous point of depar­ture by intro­duc­ing a num­ber of ref­er­ences foun­da­tion­al to McLuhan’s art the­o­ry. For exam­ple, Kuskis reveals sev­er­al places where McLuhan devel­oped his equa­tion of art with nation­al secu­ri­ty by link­ing art to Dis­tant Ear­ly Warn­ing (DEW Line) sig­nals, under­scor­ing how, for him, the artist ful­fills a social or civic call­ing, being both “defen­sive and prophetic.”

Kuskis’s close read­ing of a McLuhan-inspired col­lage, Rear View Mir­ror 74, reveals how mon­tage and mosa­ic are com­ple­men­tary in being frag­men­tary, co-authored, and mul­ti-per­spec­ti­val. Kuskis also exhumes the col­lab­o­ra­tive process of mak­ing: McLuhan hand-wrote sev­er­al text pas­sages onto the col­lage can­vas, pen­cil­ing in excerpts from sources he found com­pelling in lit­er­a­ture and life. There is also a pho­to­graph of McLuhan mid-col­lage, tak­en by Mansaram and pay­ing direct homage to McLuhan as inspi­ra­tion. While McLuhan is fre­quent­ly cast as artist in this vol­ume, this arti­cle pro­vides a con­crete instance of his aes­thet­ic activity.

Speak­ing as a the­o­rist ground­ed in French and Québé­cois tra­di­tion, Adi­na Balint draws on sev­er­al of McLuhan’s key con­cepts to reveal how they remain vital to the inter­ests and prac­tices of three con­tem­po­rary Cana­di­an artists. She also demon­strates how they can serve as crit­i­cal tools and vocab­u­lary illu­mi­nat­ing our under­stand­ing of three recent exhi­bi­tions of their art: Vision trou­ble, Our Land: Con­tem­po­rary Art from the Arc­tic, and Super­im­po­si­tion: Sculp­ture and Image. These shows share a cen­tral dri­ve to explore the inter­ac­tion of per­cep­tion, expe­ri­ence, and media, and she iden­ti­fies four char­ac­ter­is­tics that for McLuhan dis­tin­guished our encounter with art: an appeal to the sens­es, view­er engage­ment, the cre­ation of rela­tion­ships, and recog­ni­tion of the unseen or com­plex­i­ty that exceeds what can be per­ceived in every­day expe­ri­ence. Although Balint does not urge this con­nec­tion, read­ers might want to con­sid­er how these artists are per­form­ing the key role of the artist as McLuhan saw it—to explain the envi­ron­ment, both human and human-made, from a stance at once atem­po­ral and sit­u­at­ed in space.

Jes­si­ca Jacob­son-Kone­fall, May Chew, and Daina War­ren ana­lyze Cree artist Cheryl L’Hirondelle’s mul­ti­dis­ci­pli­nary art work nika­mon ohci askiy (songs because of the land), a piece that began as a tech­no­log­i­cal­ly-record­ed per­for­mance of L’Hirondelle’s walks through Van­cou­ver city spaces in 2006 and endures as an inter­ac­tive web­site. They present this work as an exam­ple of how Indige­nous artists use dig­i­tal media to explore their rela­tion to the land—a rela­tion­ship diver­gent from that of non-Indige­nous col­o­niz­ers with cul­ti­vat­ed reliance on media as tool exten­sions. In place of roads cut­ting through land and set­tle­ments assert­ing prop­er­ty rights and own­er­ship, L’Hirondelle’s art draws on a tra­di­tion of move­ment path­ways of Indige­nous ances­tors across the land of North Amer­i­ca. The authors argue that in Indige­nous art, con­tent is more impor­tant than form or medi­um, and that media are tools adopt­ed by First Nations artists for pur­pos­es of cir­cu­la­tion and engagement.

For both con­tem­po­rary artists rep­re­sent­ed here, McLuhan pro­vides the­o­ret­i­cal prece­dent and kin­ship. In his artist’s state­ment, Tom McG­lynn com­pli­cates subject/object rela­tions he iden­ti­fies in the medi­um of pho­tog­ra­phy and in his pho­to­graph­ic work as relat­ed to McLuhan’s under­stand­ing of the pho­to­graph as both real and medi­at­ed. McG­lynn links his deci­sion to pho­to­graph incom­plete worlds—“partial instantiations”—to McLuhan’s con­cept of the human encounter with exter­nal real­i­ty as being one of self-imposed lim­i­ta­tion and incom­ple­tion. He accepts what he takes to be McLuhan’s chal­lenge to avoid nar­row­ing our gaze and our sen­so­ry lives by cat­e­go­riz­ing and nam­ing, instead being recep­tive to per­cep­tu­al shifts and envi­ron­men­tal change. McG­lynn points out that the pho­to­graph, for McLuhan, changed our rela­tion to the object world, allow­ing the indi­vid­ual hold­ing the cam­era to cap­ture a view of real­i­ty at once detailed and holistic—yet at the same time, one lim­it­ed by the photographer’s selec­tive focus. He says that the objects he presents in his pho­tographs should be under­stood as hav­ing lives of their own, and also as sub­jects of his composing.

In “L(a)ying with Mar­shall McLuhan: Media The­o­ry as Hoax Art,” Hen­ry Adam Svec’s artist response exam­ines media the­o­ry and hoax from his dual per­spec­tive as trained media the­o­rist and hoax per­for­mance artist who has engaged in sev­er­al projects that chase the ques­tion “wouldn’t it be fun if ?” He invokes Innis as an icon­ic “schol­ar­ly per­sona” whom he plays off against, and finds fel­low­ship with McLuhan, who was both per­former and trickster—what Lam­ber­ti refers to in this vol­ume as a “sham” artist, a con­cept which, like Svec, she employs to refer to his prac­tice of de-cen­ter­ing and de-famil­iar­iz­ing assumed pat­terns and prac­tices with the grace of humour and even a mea­sure of self-dep­re­ca­tion. Svec cites Glen Wilmot’s descrip­tion of McLuhan as con­sum­mate mask-wear­er, increas­ing­ly adept at the “put on.” In Svec’s assess­ment, McLuhan main­tained agency and con­trolled his per­for­ma­tive per­sona, com­bat­ting forces of media exploita­tion by craft­ing his image in delib­er­ate­ly staged per­for­mances. Where­as a com­mon trope of hoax art is the ulti­mate “reveal,” where the per­for­mance cul­mi­nates in a clar­i­fy­ing state­ment by the artist, Svec notes that McLuhan was entire­ly com­mit­ted to the per­for­ma­tive rhetor­i­cal process of lob­bing probes to excite audi­ence engage­ment or par­tic­i­pa­tion; he was will­ing to be per­ceived as gnom­ic guru, and avoid­ed pub­lish­ing a ret­ro­spec­tive guide to assist the audi­ence nav­i­gate his work via a script redact­ed to impose a par­tic­u­lar form of con­sis­ten­cy. It is this com­mit­ment to the play and refusal to break the spell by impos­ing tem­po­ral con­straints that Svec admires as prece­dent-set­ting in his own hoax work.

The final four essays offer the­o­ret­i­cal exam­i­na­tions of McLuhan’s work that res­onate with ele­ments of the spec­u­la­tive turn—its mate­ri­al­ism and real­ism, its rethink­ing of his­tori­cism, and its de-empha­sis of the Sub­ject through an engage­ment with the non-human (ani­mal).

Offer­ing a longue durée of the “coun­teren­vi­ron­ment,” Ken­neth Allan places McLuhan’s con­cept in rela­tion to the oth­er and pri­or expres­sions of “defami­lar­iza­tion” in art the­o­ry and prac­tice, help­ing us to see shifts and con­ti­nu­ities amongst users of this con­cept. While he does not dis­miss the ways in which McLuhan put his sig­na­ture on the idea, par­tic­u­lar­ly in his response to the media envi­ron­ment of his cul­tur­al moment, Allan is inter­est­ed in the broad­er con­tours of defamiliarization—its at least 200-year history—and reminds us not to “imag­ine that the idea emerges out of nowhere in the many instances of its appear­ance.” He provoca­tive­ly links defa­mil­iar­iza­tion to the phe­nom­e­non of insti­tu­tion­al cri­tique, which probed the silent pow­er of cul­tur­al sys­tems, flip­ping the silent ground of insti­tu­tion­al space into force fields shap­ing human atten­tion and agency. By locat­ing McLuhan’s use and devel­op­ment of the term with­in a his­tor­i­cal con­text, Allan para­dox­i­cal­ly reveals the extent to which McLuhan’s for­mu­la­tion was time­ly and original—a per­spec­tive that res­onates with con­tem­po­rary reassess­ments of historicism.

Moham­mad Sale­my recu­per­ates a sig­nif­i­cant media event, the first glob­al satel­lite feed of a news show, BBC’s Our World (1967), which unit­ed an “esti­mat­ed 500 mil­lion view­ers in 24 coun­tries” spa­tial­ly and tem­po­ral­ly. Sale­my the­o­rizes this form of “tele­vi­su­al inter­sub­jec­tiv­i­ty” as a new way of expe­ri­enc­ing real­i­ty and time, with “acces­si­ble live­li­ness made a medi­at­ed expe­ri­ence almost as tan­gi­ble, real and author­i­ta­tive as any phys­i­cal encounter with the world.” He dif­fer­en­ti­ates this per­spec­tive from a Ben­jamin­ian under­stand­ing of tem­po­ral­i­ty ground­ed in phe­nom­e­no­log­i­cal expe­ri­ence, which fil­ters present through past. He argues that for McLuhan vir­tu­al­i­ty adds anoth­er dimension—a “tech­nol­o­gized inter­sub­jec­tive tem­po­ral­i­ty,” which “includes tech­nolo­gies’ impacts on our under­stand­ing of that enti­ty and of time itself.” Sale­my estab­lish­es the impor­tance of Our World as a media event, repro­duc­ing the tran­script of the inter­view with McLuhan fea­tured as part of the Cana­di­an seg­ment in which McLuhan explores themes includ­ing space/time accel­er­a­tion, par­tic­i­pa­to­ry engage­ment, and media his­to­ry. Accord­ing to Sale­my, McLuhan emerges from this media event as an ahis­toric mediator.

Intro­duc­ing the lens of crit­i­cal ani­mal stud­ies, Jody Berland urges us to revise our under­stand­ing of McLuhan as a devot­ed human­ist, argu­ing that McLuhan’s the­o­ry of exten­sions irrev­o­ca­bly moved away from anthro­pocen­tri­cism toward a posthu­man­ist per­spec­tive herald­ing a nature/culture inter­sec­tion. She notes that McLuhan was not only inter­est­ed in media assem­blage and machinic nature, but also in the broad­er envi­ron­ment and how it shapes “our par­tic­i­pa­tion in a com­mon sit­u­a­tion.” This is where ani­mal lives play a role: Berland argues that McLuhan’s the­o­ry indi­rect­ly opens the door to new forms of human/machine inter­change and assem­blage which instan­ti­ate the notion that all forms and species are eco­log­i­cal­ly inter­de­pen­dent and co-evolving.

Sev­er­al recent the­o­rists have employed affect the­o­ry to dif­fer­en­ti­ate human­i­ty from the machine world—Berland sug­gests that this the­o­ry may help move us beyond sim­ply con­ced­ing that we have entered an ever-accel­er­at­ing loop of exchange between humans and tech­nol­o­gy. It should be remem­bered that McLuhan empha­sized feel­ing as a key ingre­di­ent of the Human, argu­ing that media ampu­ta­tions can induce nar­co­sis. By con­trast, ani­mals assist us in feel­ing and even remind us of our loss­es: “the plea­sure and anx­i­ety of wit­ness­ing the merg­ing of bod­ies, tech­nolo­gies, and non­hu­man species.” While McLuhan nev­er made this argu­ment, Berland is like­ly accu­rate in think­ing it is not one he would have opposed; name­ly, that we are impli­cat­ed in ani­mal and plant life, which, like the human world, is also caught up in process­es of machinic change. By exam­in­ing our­selves from a non-human per­spec­tive, we can respect ani­mals’ strug­gles and expe­ri­ences and poten­tial­ly recon­ceive our own posi­tion with­in a shared ecology.

Con­tribut­ing to the media-archae­o­log­i­cal project of unearthing less­er-known fig­ures and mate­ri­al­i­ties, Gary Genosko exam­ines Harley Parker’s pro­duc­tive col­lab­o­ra­tions with fig­ures oth­er than McLuhan. Genosko presents the rel­a­tive­ly unknown and still con­test­ed his­to­ry of Flexitype—whose cre­ation he attrib­ut­es to Allan Flem­ing (who engi­neered the tech­nol­o­gy) and to Harley Park­er (who pio­neered exper­i­men­tal and cre­ative applications)—to reveal the con­flu­ence of design inno­va­tion in late-1950s Toron­to. Genosko also exam­ines links between father and son, trac­ing how Harley and son Blake Park­er both exper­i­ment­ed with the inten­si­ties of sen­so­ry expe­ri­ence and con­tributed to instal­la­tion and per­for­mance art.

This final essay explores how print-mak­ing process­es con­tributed to the pro­duc­tion of “non-books”—monographs con­ceived and con­struct­ed to dis­rupt the sys­tem­atized and lin­ear Guten­berg for­mat. As Genosko observes, “such books may be ana­lyzed as qua­si-acoustic spaces, unbound from sound, remak­ing read­ing and repo­si­tion­ing the read­er, inject­ing ambiva­lence and retain­ing tac­til­i­ty and invit­ing mul­ti-sen­so­ry par­tic­i­pa­tion.” The mosa­ic-like non-book for­mat pio­neered by McLuhan and col­lab­o­ra­tors sets a com­pelling prece­dent for the frac­tal­ized form and con­tent of the present volume.

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Image Notes

Fig­ure 1. IT, Pneu­mat­ic Judd, 1965. Cour­tesy Iain Baxter& and Raven Row.

Fig­ure 2. N.E. Thing Co. Ltd., Dum­my Self-Por­trait Sculp­ture, 1971. Cour­tesy Iain Baxter& and Raven Row.

Fig­ure 3. Iain Bax­ter, Non-Ver­bal Teach­ing (“Swim­ming on Dry Land”), ca. 1964-1966. Cour­tesy Iain Baxter& and Raven Row.

Fig­ure 4. N.E. Thing Co. Ltd., “Glos­sary,” 1966. Cour­tesy Iain Baxter& and Raven Row.


[1] “McLuhan obvi­ous­ly is, as he him­self declared, not a philoso­pher, a the­o­rist, or a tra­di­tion­al scientist…but rather an artist play­ing with per­cepts and affects” (Theall, The Vir­tu­al Mar­shall McLuhan 13). “We can read [McLuhan] as an artist who cre­ates tools that fore­ground the ethics of reflex­ive method­olo­gies” (Marches­sault, Mar­shall McLuhan xix).

[2] “McLuhan found him­self at odds with the reg­nant the­o­ries of his time, espe­cial­ly the lin­guis­tic metaphor that informed struc­tural­ism, post-struc­tural­ism and decon­struc­tion” (Cavell, Reme­di­at­ing McLuhan 10).

[3] “McLuhan par­tic­u­lar­ly invoked the new physics as sup­port for his cri­tique of visu­al space, draw­ing on Heisenberg’s use of the term ‘res­o­nance’ in his account of quan­tum mechan­ics to argue in The Guten­berg Galaxy that the ran­dom state in physics was cog­nate with the audi­to­ry domain” (Cavell, Reme­di­at­ing McLuhan 93).

[4] “In the begin­ning there is Black” (Laru­elle, “Of Black Uni­verse” 2; see also Gal­loway, “The Black Uni­verse”; Laru­elle, “A Light Odyssey”).

[5] McLuhan’s imma­nen­tal ori­en­ta­tion can also be traced to Sco­tist ele­ments in the writ­ings of James Joyce, also not­ed by Theall (see The Vir­tu­al Mar­shall McLuhan 74). An ear­ly influ­ence on McLuhan was the neo-Sco­tist Catholic poet Ger­ard Man­ley Hop­kins (see McLuhan, “The Ana­log­i­cal Mirrors”).

[6] “McLuhan, by mid-career…increasingly sought to address him­self to artists and, more rad­i­cal­ly, to be under­stood as an artist him­self” (Cavell, Reme­di­at­ing McLuhan 79).

[7] “[M]odelling the name ‘non-phi­los­o­phy’ on an anal­o­gy with ‘non-Euclid­ean geom­e­try,’ Laru­elle pro­pos­es a broad­ened, plu­ral­is­tic sci­ence of thought and phi­los­o­phy as well as a major rework­ing of philo­soph­i­cal con­cepts” (Ó Maoilearca, All Thoughts Are Equal 8).

[8] Smithson’s per­son­al library, pre­served today with his papers at the Archives of Amer­i­can Art, con­tains a Signet paper­back anthol­o­gy of Lewis’s writ­ings that includes excerpts from his 1932 Moroc­can trav­el­ogue, Fil­i­busters in Bar­bary (see Lewis, A Sol­dier of Humor, Jour­ney into Bar­bary).

[9] “Well before the inven­tion of the cor­re­spond­ing tech­nol­o­gy, a ver­i­ta­ble automa­tism of pho­to­graph­ic rep­e­ti­tion tra­vers­es west­ern thought” (Laru­elle, Pho­to-Fic­tion 2).

[10] “We call ‘uni­lat­er­al dual­i­ty’ or ‘dual’ the iden­ti­ty with­out-syn­the­sis of a dual­i­ty where iden­ti­ty is assumed by the first term or more pre­cise­ly its clone, not by the sec­ond, and dual­i­ty by the sec­ond alone and not by the first” (Laru­elle, Prin­ci­ples of Non-Phi­los­o­phy 130, orig­i­nal emphasis).

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