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McLuhan and Symbolist Communication

The Shock of Dislocation


Andrea Lombardinilo

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».

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Interview with Derrick de Kerckhove: ‘Symbolism, like electricity, is acting at a distance’


In 1954, McLuhan wrote: ‘He who would discuss humanism and literature today must know something about the history of media of human communication’. How could this apply nowadays to digitally interconnected society?

DE KERCKHOVE: It applies perfectly well and in fact I have been doing just that since I got online in the early 1990s. Humanism and literature are products of the alphabet and print. They isolate people in silent reading and develop their personality, learning and sense of identity (private, of course). The networks reverse all that, bringing people together (web 2.0), making their identity public, building people’s profiles and publishing them continuously, distributing learning outside their head on screens and in databanks that accumulate enough data to produce for them a kind of ‘digital unconscious’ that will eventually condition their lives far more than anything Freud invented.

According to McLuhan’s essays and late works such as The Gutenberg Galaxy, literature can be identified as a permanent metaphorical take on real life as well as an absolute medium of knowledge. To what extent would you apply this theory to the multitude of literary genres and historical periods?

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