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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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Chapter 11: Baudelaire and symbolist poets: The mental facts of the electric age


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Baudelaire and symbolist poets: The mental facts of the electric age


This chapter examines McLuhan’s assessment of Charles Baudelaire as the prophet of a failed civilization, fostered by the compulsory myth of progress and the illusion of immortality. The observation of human inner landscapes reveals the negative effects of anomy and apathy. McLuhan remarks: ‘In the same way the symbolist poet makes of the poem not a vehicle for views, ideas, feelings, but a situation that involves the reader directly in the poetic process. That is why he will always say that the poem is not about anything; it is something. It doesn’t say anything; it does something’ (McLuhan 1954a: 157). Baudelaire succeeds in turning the poetical medium into a sheer psychic process, since poetry ‘is not about anything, it is something’ (McLuhan 1954a: 157). Thus, ‘the countries of the mind’ investigated by Baudelaire cannot but feature the coexistence of the negative poles of life, expressed by the alternation between survival and destruction.

Communication and symbolism: ‘specialized thought’

Every time McLuhan refers to symbolism, he focuses on the close relationship between literature, society and progress. This exegetic tendency is extremely evident in his mediological works (The Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media) as well as in his critical essays, which herald some of his major sociological analyses carried out between the fifties and the sixties. The references to the intellectual experiences of symbolist artists spring...

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