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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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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.

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