McLuhan and Symbolist Communication

The Shock of Dislocation

by Andrea Lombardinilo (Author)
Monographs XVI, 382 Pages


With an interview with Derrick de Kerckhove.
Symbolism as a parataxis, as a «jazz of the intellect»: this is the starting point of this research, inspired by a socio-literary interpretation of Marshall McLuhan’s mediology and developed from a diachronic and exegetic perspective. According to the Canadian sociologist, the footsteps that led to this electric era can be traced through the study of certain writers and poets, whose symbolism provides a number of sociological hints foreshadowing our media modernity. This book aims to investigate the role of symbolism in McLuhan’s sociological research, by outlining how the study of memory and the analysis of literary tradition are fundamental to understanding the complex development of communication and cultural studies. The research presented here focuses on the function of symbols as interpretative keys for the study of media carried out by McLuhan. It is exactly in this artistic movement that the sociologist finds the opportunity to analyse the representative practices (irrational and linear) of modern men, shaped by the reticular patterns of the mind. From this perspective, McLuhan identifies the creative process that lies at the root of symbolist poetry, identified as «a disposition, a parataxis, of components that draws a particular intuition through precise links, but without a point of view, that is a linear connection or sequential order».

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction: Metamorphosis and transformation of awareness
  • Chapter 1: Symbolism as parataxis: McLuhan and the social function of writing
  • The web of symbols and the mental facts of an ever-changing society
  • The literary medium and ‘the emotive alphabetization’ of social actors
  • Symbolism as parataxis: A sociological paradigm
  • McLuhan, Pound, and the social function of writers
  • Chapter 2: Catholic humanism and modern letters: Symbolic interaction according to McLuhan
  • Poetry and creation: Reality as social engineering
  • From Dante to Eliot: A new humanism of modernity
  • The ‘particular idea’ and the metaphor as an intellectual process
  • Between romanticism and symbolism: Poe’s poetic principle
  • Chapter 3: ‘The oral traditions of aphoristic learning’: McLuhan and Senecan symbolism
  • Orality and aphoristic culture: The rhetorical complexity of modernity
  • Seneca the Elder: Oral communication and literature as performance
  • Senecan symbolism and the advent of the written society
  • Seneca, Bauman, and ‘disjointed sentences’: The ‘symbolist revival’
  • Chapter 4: The dawn of symbolist communication: McLuhan, Dante, and the ‘dolce stil novo’
  • Introduction: Dantesque symbolism and the advent of modernity
  • Literature and social perception: Memory is the message
  • McLuhan and Dante: A mediated knowledge (by Pound)
  • Dante and the symbolist communication: The cantica of the poets
  • Dante, McLuhan and ‘the very modes of experience’
  • Chapter 5: ‘The Machiavellian mind’: The symbolism of the establishment
  • Machiavelli, Lear, and ‘the new patterns of power and organization’
  • ‘Our fragmented individualism’: The invention of printed power
  • The Machiavellian mind and the Catholic humanist
  • The fox and the wolf: Innis, Canetti, and the atavistic symbolism of power
  • Chapter 6: Vico and the typographic university: The knowledge of symbols
  • Vico and symbolism as ‘recurrence’
  • Vico and the meta-discourse on university: A communicative approach
  • Vico and the disadvantages of typographic universities
  • Universities in The Gutenberg Galaxy: The communication of knowledge
  • Towards the liquid university: Sociological notes
  • University and academy: What possible convergence?
  • Chapter 7: Pope and Leopardi: The (symbolic) fall-out of the typographic world
  • Pope and the symbolic linearity of the press
  • The Dunciad and the ‘backwash of private self-expression’
  • ‘The influence and usefulness of machines’: From Pope to Leopardi
  • Benjamin, Leopardi, and the industrial myth of fashion
  • Leopardi and the dystopia of a machine world
  • Benjamin and the ‘universe of commodities’
  • Against a machine world: The struggle for life
  • Chapter 8: ‘The reasoning Spectre’: William Blake and the symbolic vision
  • McLuhan, Blake, and ‘reconfigured’ communication
  • Blake and the ‘the mosaic pattern of perception’
  • The ‘reasoning spectre’ and human perception
  • The ‘organic myth’: Blake and the ‘memorable fancy’ of the electric age
  • Chapter 9: For a grammar of symbols: McLuhan, the Pre-Raphaelites, and Dante’s mark
  • ‘The shock of dislocation’: The communicative space from Dante to the Pre-Raphaelites
  • Rossetti, Wilde, Joyce, and the visual experience as a labyrinth process
  • Dante, T. S. Eliot, and the ‘psychological passages’ of experience
  • Dante, Pound, and the ‘structure of knowledge and perception’
  • Chapter 10: Edgar Allan Poe: Symbolism as investigation
  • Public participation and individual detection: The poetical mosaic
  • The mind of media: Symbolism as reversal
  • The ingenious and the analyst: Poe and the art of investigating
  • The art of constructing effects: ‘The poetic sentiment’
  • Symbolism as ‘personal self-expression’: The verbal universe
  • Chapter 11: Baudelaire and symbolist poets: The mental facts of the electric age
  • Communication and symbolism: ‘specialized thought’
  • Charles Baudelaire and ‘the countries of the mind’
  • Rimbaud and the illumination of interior abysses
  • From impressionism to symbolism: Mallarmé’s typographic lesson
  • Chapter 12: The memory is the message: Cicero, T. S. Eliot, and the rhetorical spirals
  • From Cicero to T. S. Eliot: The ‘rhetorical spirals’ of modernity
  • T. S. Eliot and the ‘rhetorical structures’ of the poetical medium
  • ‘An extended practice of memory and recollection’
  • Modernity and rhetorical arts
  • Conclusion: Communication as a social probe
  • Interview with Derrick de Kerckhove: ‘Symbolism, like electricity, is acting at a distance’
  • Bibliography
  • Works by Marshall McLuhan
  • Books
  • Essays
  • Works on Marshall McLuhan
  • Books and dissertations
  • Critical essays
  • Other works cited or consulted
  • Specific bibliography concerning the single chapters
  • Chapters 1 and 2
  • Chapter 3
  • Chapter 4
  • Chapter 5
  • Chapter 6
  • Chapter 7
  • Chapter 8
  • Chapter 9
  • Chapter 10
  • Chapter 11
  • Chapter 12
  • Index
  • Series index

| ix →

Introduction: Metamorphosis and transformation of awareness


The introduction focuses on the communicative meaning of McLuhan’s symbolist communication, especially his capacity to look at one situation through another one. He defines this intellectual process ‘the shock of dislocation’, so as to stress the challenging task that the Catholic humanist is expected to face. Starting from the conception of symbolism as a ‘parataxis’ and a ‘jazz of the intellect’, it is possible to develop a socio-literary interpretation of McLuhan’s mediology carried out in a diachronic and exegetic perspective. According to McLuhan, the path that leads to the electric era can be illuminated through the study of certain writers and poets, whose symbolism offers a number of sociological indications that enable us to understand our media modernity. The key role that symbolism plays in McLuhan’s sociological research is emphasized by outlining how influential the study of memory and the examination of literary tradition have been.

In a significant essay published in 1971 entitled ‘Roles, masks and performances’, Marshall McLuhan highlights the cognitive function peculiar to symbolist poets. Thanks to the discovery of the poetic process, he may conceive symbolism as a cognitive endeavor, aimed at probing the indefinite and fluctuating landscapes of the mind. In this regard, literature is an outstanding social medium, devoid of space, time and culture boundaries.

Symbolism consists in pulling out connections; but connections are inevitably visual relations. One of the paradoxical effects of visual connectedness is the sub-division of human functions into jobs whereas when the visual connections are pulled out there is an immediate restoration of role-playing. The symbolists anticipated the effects of the new electric technology for their discontinuity created involvement and restored role-playing both for the artist and the citizen. (McLuhan 1971: 9)

The advent of electricity and newspapers engenders the mosaic structure of the mind, which symbolists wish to explore by pulling out the unseizable connections and visual relations of conscience. One of the most ← ix | x → particular characteristics of McLuhan’s critical essays concerns the attention paid to the connection between writing, communication and knowledge, as he clearly shows in his most highly regarded works, The Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media. His rhapsodic argumentative style is marked by the intermingling of well-read literary quotes and philosophical references. Thus, McLuhan succeeds in involving his readers in the meanders of the communication process, so peculiar to human existence, suspended between uncertainty and exploration. Likewise, his argumentative patterns tend to mirror the expressive complexity of electric modernity, posed as the real turning point of our modernity (Meyrowitz 2003).

The advent of the electric age is about to foster the perceptive changes enhanced by the transition from manuscript to the printed page. The spirit of capitalism, together with the diffusion of mass media and education, determines the epoch-making appearance of the simultaneous mind, increasingly compelled to face the whirling transformation of social symbols and collective meanings. Daily experience is nothing but the representation of the social environment, molded by many semiotic shafts taking form in interactional practices. This process takes place despite the acceleration of progress and innovation. For this reason, it must be considered the evolution that has led men from ancient communicative synergies, both verbal and written, to the dematerialization of the printing of knowledge in the connected society.

The study of the rhetoric framework of modernity cannot set aside the permanent effort to achieve effectiveness and simultaneity. This is why McLuhan focuses on the communicative features of the literary medium, according to the incoming shifts brought about by every historical phase. Therefore, McLuhan emphasizes the connection between old Roman Rhetoricians (Cicero and Quintilian) and medieval scholastics (Thomas) and logicians (Peter of Spain). Furthermore, he attempts to find out what kind of link there may be between Renaissance writers (Pietro Aretino, Castiglione, Erasmus) and baroque dramatists (Shakespeare, Racine) without neglecting the anti-academic criticism uttered by Alexander Pope in The Dunciad and the criticism of the typographic society highlighted by Vico and Blake. Romantics can only pave the way for the connection between the internal and external landscapes of human beings. Their aim is ← x | xi → to exploit the irrational dimension of cerebral activity. This is an historical moment marked by the diffusion of psychoanalysis:

McLuhan is firmly convinced of the strong relationship between knowledge, art and communication, thanks to the meta-temporal effort to represent the inextricable complexity of social and existential facts. Indeed, the medium is the message to the extent that new technological devices imply an instantaneous re-semantization of social experience, starting from the sensorial capabilities of actors. The perceptive shifts of our senses can be explained only through the study of the gradation of meanings that every single medium may offer to its users.

This is what happened in ancient Rome, in a time marked by wax tablets and verbal declamations. This is what happened when the first universities appeared, committed to maintaining the educational and cultural method of ecclesiastical amanuenses. The invention of perspective and the advent of printing mark the beginning of the modern age, especially regarding the reproducibility of texts, contents, and messages.

The tactility of the manuscript age is replaced by the smooth linearity and the homogeneity of the printed age. At the same time, the transcendental atmospheres of medieval abbeys are gradually replaced by the solemn, immanent spaces of the Renaissance courts, built according to the intellectual consciousness of the humanist age. With the advent of perspective, the way to approach time and space definitely changes, because of the need to adjust sense ratios to the new visual patterns of typographic science. From then on, the reproducibility of the work of art becomes a hallmark of the modern era, projected towards the outstanding revolution strengthened by the electric society.

In the foreground are the symbolic reticulates that mark evolution towards the digital era, which takes root in ancient attempts to improve the effectiveness of human communication. According to McLuhan, the task of scholars (and in particular Catholic humanists) is to look back at the origins of symbolic expression, so as to gather the diverse fragments of human comprehension.

From this point of view, the story of civilizations may be interpreted as the attempt to probe the unfathomable need of poets and writers to express their craving to narrate daily life, regardless of time and cultural boundaries. The best way to analyze the complexity of narrative strategies is to focus on the rhetoric structures of literary media, both in prose and in poetry. In fact, metaphors and symbols are meaningful, paradigmatic semiotic hallmarks. In this regard, McLuhan conceives symbolism as a meta-temporal process, which culminates in the poetical revolution carried out by Edgar Allan Poe and the symbolist poets.

Thanks to simultaneity and multi-centrism empowered by electricity and mass urbanization, literature tries to explore the gloomy abysses of the mind, burdened by the neurosis and anxieties of metropolitan life. The only way to reveal the inner substance of human essence is to descend into the maelstrom of the human brain, full of desire, ambition and ambiguity. This is why McLuhan can mix different, distant kinds of symbolisms, in line with his rhapsodic argumentative style and through his extraordinary literary knowledge.

He can therefore afford to involve Seneca and Ovid, Augustine and Isidore of Seville, Dante and Chaucer, Machiavelli and Ben Jonson, John Milton and William Shakespeare, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Ruskin, Charles Baudelaire and Rimbaud, T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, James Joyce and Wyndham Lewis. Thanks to the ‘discovery of the technique of discovery’ outlined by Poe, it is possible to conceive the poetic principle as the art of finding fundamental connections between mental and social facts. Thus, the destruction of logic syntactic bonds implies the obsolescence of ← xii | xiii → traditional rhetoric patterns, swept away by the synchronization of mental processes with the speed of technology and progress.

The invention of the detective novel accelerates the transition to the society of ‘visual relations’ probed by Poe, long before the lyrical experience of symbolist poets: ‘The poetic process is a reversal, a retracting of the stages of human cognition. It has been and will always be so; but with Edgar Allan Poe and the symbolists this central fact was taken up to the level of conscious awareness. It then became the basis of modern science and technology’ (McLuhan 1954a: 157–8).

McLuhan assumes that there must be a close connection between the symbolic structures of electric media and the symbolist patterns of literature, which appears as a sheer cognitive medium. In accord with Innis’s lesson, his research is inspired by the necessity to focus on the bias of literary communication, inevitably representing and influencing the construction of the experiential structures of Western civilizations. Thus, it is worth taking into account that the symbol is an extraordinary cognitive medium, as Dante’s Comedy demonstrates.

It is no chance that Baudelaire capitalized Dante’s symbolism as much as possible, as did Shakespeare, Pound and T. S. Eliot. The metaphor of the mask faithfully expresses McLuhan’s interpretation of the electric society, to the extent that it is possible to interpret social roles as the mirror of the imaginary contextualization peculiar to Shakespearean art.

The metamorphic nature of human existence can be explained by means of mythological narrations, as well as through collecting the symbolic reticulates that mark every single historical phase. The visual echoes of ancient symbolism overlap the visual relations of contemporary life ← xiii | xiv → shaped by the rapid change in interactional paradigms. The construction of the post-modern identity depends on the ability to highlight the communicative strategies of the past, whose study acquires a fundamental cognitive function.

McLuhan’s secret lies in his ability to look at one situation through another one. He defines this intellectual process ‘the shock of dislocation’, so as to stress the challenging task that the Catholic humanist is expected to face. Starting from the conception of symbolism as a ‘parataxis’ and a ‘jazz of the intellect’, it is possible to develop a socio-literary interpretation of McLuhan’s mediology, carried out in a diachronic and exegetic perspective (Lombardinilo 2016b).

According to McLuhan, the path that leads to the electric era can be illuminated through the study of certain writers and poets, whose symbolism offers a number of sociological indications that enable us to understand our media modernity. This work, therefore, aims at investigating the role that symbolism plays in McLuhan’s sociological research by outlining how fundamental the study of memory and the examination of literary tradition is to understand the developments of communication and cultural studies in their complexity.

This research focuses on the function of symbols as interpretative keys in McLuhan’s study of media, since it is precisely in this artistic movement that the sociologist has the opportunity to analyze the representative practices (irrational and linear) of modern men, shaped by the reticular patterns of the mind. McLuhan describes this dialectic approach by reconstructing the history of narrative and literary processes, from the Latin age to electric modernity, since literature is one of the media he considers fundamental to analyze the communicative abilities of men, before and after Gutenberg’s ground-breaking invention.

This analysis is particularly true for symbolism, which exploits literature as a medium for reading the ‘mental conditions’ of craftsmen and their craving for public confession. The study of modern symbols linked to past mythologies gives McLuhan the interpretative tools of the ‘communicating’ society, in which the medium is both memory and message.

Furthermore, McLuhan’s interlocking argumentative technique, which characterizes The Gutenberg Galaxy, is based on a quoting modus operandi ← xiv | xv → that he developed since his critical essays in the fifties on the study of the connections among literature, media and society: ‘While at Cambridge, the study of contemporary English literature allowed McLuhan to understand and work out the probing potentialities of innovative poetic strategies’ (Lamberti 2012: 140). The important reflections on symbolism contained in the last chapter of The Gutenberg Galaxy are disclosed in these critical essays, where his literary meditation deals with the connection between thought and prophecy.

In this way, McLuhan identifies the creative process that lies at the root of symbolist poetry, identified as ‘a disposition, a parataxis, of components that draws a particular intuition through precise links, but without a point of view, that is a linear connection or sequential order’. This particular ‘shock of dislocation’ springs from the attempt of poets to look backwards, so as to retrace the steps of human cognition and collect the identity fragments dispersed across the centuries.

In the foreground are relevant cultural and educational consequences regarding the functional shifts related to the appearance of every new medium, destined to become the ‘amputated extensions’ of our body. From this follows the great importance of poetry, conceived as a symbolist medium, in the construction of modern identity:

The great innovation of symbolist poetry resides in the will to retrace the causes of mental facts starting from the effects, regardless of the logic and syntactic bonds that mark the evolution of communication towards the conceptual anarchy of avant-gardes. The shock of dislocation peculiar to symbolist poets should be inherited today by the scholars of mass communications. The purpose is to probe the ‘paradoxical effects of visual connectedness’ so inherent in our digitalized communities, nourished by the unceasing ‘metamorphosis and transformation of awareness’.

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Symbolism as parataxis: McLuhan and the social function of writing


The creative process at the root of symbolism is foregrounded in this chapter. As the perceptive powers of individuals change, their visual and interpretative faculties increase: as a result, they open a ‘total and diversified’ experiential horizon. McLuhan defines it as ‘a collocation, a parataxis of components representing insight by carefully established ratios, but without a point of view or lineal connection or sequential order’ (McLuhan 1962: 302). The evolution of journalistic techniques demonstrates the search for an informative polycentrism to convey a global vision of the events that mark social systems. Thanks to symbolism, the sensorial complexity of modern individuals becomes popular for its unexpected polysemy, magnified by myths and meanings connected to the construction of individual and collective identities. The result is the definition of new and unexpected semantic scenarios.


XVI, 382
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2017 (December)
Marshall McLuhan Sociology of Literature Symbolism and Communication Cultural and Media Processes
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2017. XVI, 382 pp.

Biographical notes

Andrea Lombardinilo (Author)

Andrea Lombardinilo is a tenured lecturer and Assistant Professor in the Sociology of Cultural and Communicative Processes at the Gabriele d’Annunzio University, Chieti-Pescara (Italy). He carries out research on literary communication and sociology of literature, with particular reference to the narrative and symbolic representations of modern identity. His interests also include sociology of higher education, with a focus on innovation reform and institutional communication within the university system.


Title: McLuhan and Symbolist Communication
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