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Back to the Future: the Poetical as the Mind in Action: 1/2
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2007-07-23 09:25:12
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In order to recover lost humanistic modes of thought in a rationalistic era, it may be useful to revisit Marshall McLuhan, some twenty five years after his death. He can be a timely reminder and a warning to post-modern futuristic Man that, paradoxically, Man proceeds historically back to the future and that it is dangerous to operate an automobile without a rear-view mirror or to navigate a ship without charts or compass.
“Nous regardons le présent dans un miroir rétroviseur. Et nous
allons en marche arrière vers le futur”
- Marshall McLuhan

I ended my piece on Eco's "hyper-reality" alluding to rear-view mirrors and whirlpools. I'd like to pick up on those two images. In the metaphor of the rear-view mirror within the above quote by the Canadian thinker Marshall McLuhan, what immediately catches the reader’s attention is the discontinuous juxtaposition of past and future straddled by that metaphor. It is meant to startle the reader with its witticism: back to the future! Both parts of the discontinuity are needed however, or the metaphor will simply lose its startling wit.

In his Poetics Aristotle set forth the metaphor as the true mark of genius. For him the most extensive form of metaphor was metaphor by analogy. Moreover, in Medieval times Thomas Aquinas’ philosophy places great emphasis on analogy as a way of making proportionate relations. A poetic, imaginative way of thinking, as pointed out later by Vico in his The New Science, leads one back to the future via language, rhetoric and history and to the realization that at its origins the form and the content, or the medium and the message are one and the same thing.

As his studies on Joyce (an author also greatly inspired by Vico) clearly suggest, for McLuhan the world is a network of analogies which one can read from the book of nature patterned by and revealing an overall intelligence. But for him metaphors are much more than mere analogies coming out of the past. They are very much related to the present. Take the above metaphor of the rear-view mirror which is utilized as a way of examining present cultural phenomena. In his book War and Peace in the Global Village McLuhan discusses at length how he uses the rear-view mirror of Pound and Joyce; how the rear-view mirror is a way to understand the present and envision the future without predetermining and trivializing it, allowing it to surprise us.

In his Gutenberg Galaxie (whose very title is a metaphor), McLuhan uses the metaphor of surfboarding to understand intellectual activities such as philosophizing about education and says that “Heidegger surfboards along on the electronic wave as triumphantly as Descartes rode the mechanical wave” (p. 248). Here we have a metaphor with a covert analogy but also an explicit analogy comparing Heidegger’s and Descartes’ activities vis-à-vis their respective historical ages. The aim is to point to the inadequacies of the Cartesian rationalistic paradigm for an electric post-modern age. Vico was painfully aware of that inadequacy way back in 1710.

Arthur Koestler too has shown in his The Act of Creation that what makes this technique of analogy work is that the seeds of creativity are implicit in the witty metaphor. By exploring the relationship the reader participates in a recognition of similarities and differences. G.K. Chesterton as well was known for the use of the witty metaphor and analogy. But, to continue with the rear-view mirror metaphor, by the time one has finished exploring its notion, one begins to recognizes the insecurity of our age about the Vichian concept of history and its relationship to the process of acceleration in the world around us. We cannot do without our technology but we are also aware that it leaves us breathless and devoid of reflection on how best to utilize it.

But to get to that recognition the explorer (McLullan liked to think of himself as somebody who probes and charts new territory with tentative maps) has first to understand the usefulness of that rear-view mirror for the rediscovery of traditional sources in humanism, literature, history and philosophical thought. He/she has to conceive the world as if it were an artefact, nature turned art and read not only as nature but as containing cultural objects made by Man within nature. He/she may even have to switch from an activist to a contemplative mode of being. This too is a Vichian operation: cultural objects conceived as a reflection of the self and as such leading to self-knowledge. In other words, Man is his own history. To tell that history or his own story (in Italian the word "storia" encompasses both) Man needs to narrate it to himself.


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The Imugi2007-08-03 01:38:29
I'm not sure I agree with McLullan's asessment of Heidegger; my reading of his later works suggests an open questioning of technology. Not to mention his concern with preserving the poetic; the statement "The Poet is the Sheperd of Being" doesn't strike me as surfing on an electronic wave in the way that Descartes surfboarded on a mechanistic wave.

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