Tag Archives: Marshall McLuhan

Focused on the Rear View Mirror


Too much attention to where we have been can mean that we are perhaps missing beguiling possibilities just around the corner.

It’s a natural impulse to look to the immediate past to make judgments about the future.  In a sense it is all we have.  And yet for all the changing norms affecting how we connect with each other, it’s still too easy to become wedded to selective memories and romanticized histories.

I seem to recall ever-widening eyes while older members of my family rhapsodized about their own childhoods on horseback, or camped out for the summer near the family’s not very successful silver mine. The stories seem to come from a Technicolor world filled with older family members that were larger than life.  One could imagine that they were not that different from those all-American stoics who patiently guided the Smith family through the giddy summer of 1904 in MGM’s Meet Me in Saint Louis.

By contrast, my adolescence seemed to unspool around a far less exciting existence seemingly shot in grainy black and white. To be sure, I have sense colorized it, especially the bits that took our family back to the wonderful mountains not too far from that old mine.  But I still marvel at the elders I’ve constructed who lived unpredictable lives in fabulous times.

There’s a point to all of this.  We tend to create memories that are equal parts history and fantasy.  After all, we are not digital devices. Accuracy of recall is a strength of hard drives, not  humans. We often select what are perceived simplicities of the past, especially forms of family intimacy that probably overstate the closeness we desire and the tensions we’d like to forget.

It’s worth remembering that too much attention to the receding landscape in the rear view mirror can mean that we are perhaps missing beguiling possibilities just around the corner.

It’s inevitable that new forms will rise and challenge the dominance of previously invincible media. 

Nowhere is this more true than in our preferred ways of connecting with others. We know how and when connecting works for us.  We understand our strengths, even as we puzzle over new digital platforms and their peculiar rules of engagement.  But as the great media theorist Marshall McLuhan cautioned, media types and forms of address evolve ceaselessly and irrevocably,  as relentless in changing the landscape as the flow of volcanic magma from Hawaii’s Mount Kilauea.

There’s no going back. Old forms of media don’t necessarily die out. They co-exist or become transformed.  Think of radio today, sixty-five years after television captured its place as the nation’s preferred medium.  Radio is still with us and doing reasonably well.  But it’s inevitable that new forms will rise and challenge previously dominant media.  In his day Plato decried the growing interest in written texts. Similarly, John Philip Sousa was none too happy to have his music imperfectly captured on noisy shellac recordings.  And yet the work of both  is alive because of the “new” media they reluctantly anticipated.

The challenge is to get the mix right for an individual life.  We need to be more conscious of the expansion of social media and cell technology have cost us and what they’ve allowed.  Choices must be made because our lives can easily be trashed and overwhelmed by media distractions.

One example: It’s easy to poke fun at online dating services. They are sold to us mostly by peddling notions of romantic love that haven’t been in vogue since the 50s.  And yet just when we think we couldn’t push ourselves any further from authentic personal relationships, a  friend beams with pride over the new person who has entered their life through a digital porthole. Cole Porter didn’t write love songs about online romance.  But that doesn’t mean that it can’t happen.

Comments: woodward@tcnj.edu

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Peitho taking Eros to Venus            Wikipedia.org
    Peitho taking Eros to Venus and Anteros                                           Wikipedia.org

Can having a few of us spread around in various American universities possibly be a good thing?

I usually leave puzzlement in my wake  if I tell acquaintances that my job involves teaching rhetoric and working as a rhetorical critic. It’s as if I announced that I’m officially the  Resident and Redundant Professor of Pomp and Pomposity who also holds the Bernie Madoff Chair of Lies and Lying.  Use the “R” word just once and people aren’t sure they really want to know any more. The faint bewilderment seems to hint at the hope that I might might someday take up a more useful line of work.  After all, isn’t rhetoric always preceded by the word “mere?”  Can explorations of its nature tell us anything we must know?  And can having a few of us spread around in various American universities possibly be a good thing?  Indeed, after showing up in England on an academic exchange I was promptly told to go register with the police.  You can’t be too careful.

It helps to set the record straight if I can add that most of what humans say to each other falls into the purview of rhetorical scholars. Even though the term rhetoric suggests inflated and eminently disposable prose (never our’s, of course; always other’s) it actually has an impressive lineage that runs at least from Aristotle to Marshall McLuhan to John Stewart.

Rhetoric box

In fact we are all rhetorical beings. Talk is our link to the worlds inside and outside our heads that matter. The only way to avoid coming to terms with the centrality of language is to render yourself mute. We are not only the most loquacious of animals, we draw a finely adjusted bead on the word choices others make.  As rhetorician Kenneth Burke observed, we are all critics.

It’s something of a bonus that studying how we go about the tricky business of influencing each other is enormously rewarding.  Only after learning the secret handshake and passing the necessary exams did I began to realize what a bracing enterprise rhetorical analysis could be.

We think in language.  We judge others in the words we choose.  And what we know about the world is largely filtered through the evocative language embedded in narratives we tell ourselves.

The characteristic work of human existence is communication.  The goals we seek in our daily lives do not always terminate in movement, but in rhetorical action.  Communicating through language is the meaningful thing we do.  Ask a business or civic leader what their job is, and it frequently comes down to effectively connecting  with others. Someone examining the rhetoric of science, or health care or religion is engaged in discovering how these distinct realms of discourse create identity, acceptance and support for their sources.

Because our rhetoric is less photographic than additive–language use is more a projection of the self than a “perfect copy” of reality–we use it to bend impressions to match our unique view of the world.  It’s little wonder that a person’s stories about a vacation are almost always more interesting than their pictures. The stories are more fully them.

This general idea of worlds verbally created suggests a whole host of questions that point to the primacy of rhetoric. Some examples:

  • There are about 15 minutes of actual play in a nearly three hour-long football broadcast.  In fact, the narrated game itself is the rhetorical spectacle. If that seems impossible, why did so few who watched an experimental presentation on NBC a few years ago avoid the game that was broadcast without commentary?
  • Why are we compelled to describe the motives of others, even when they have not disclosed them?
  • Pick a social context (i.e., wedding, funeral, a party you’re attending with work associates ). Do you find yourself rehearsing what to say and what to suppress?
  • Every field has its tropes: routine patterns for expressing ideas.  What are the most common ones that reappear in real estate marketing? Popular music?  State of the Union addresses? Romantic fiction?
  • What effect does it have on readers when journalists “mark” their subjects by inserting adjectives  in front of the names of certain newsmakers?
  • Why are we so frequently the intellectual captives of metaphors like the “war on drugs” or “social media?

All of these questions suggest why rhetorical analysis can be so useful.

Besides, how many fields of study can claim their own goddess? You can’t say that about accounting, electrical engineering or computer science. Peitho, the goddess of persuasion was the companion of Aphrodite. It comes as no surprise that the mythology of love has long been entwined with the mythology of rhetorical seduction.  Both represent forms of human action that define our species.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu