Richard Cavell, “Kittler’s Apophrades: Marshaling McLuhan,” Berlin Journal of Critical Theory 6.1 (2022) 5-32

Abstract: Kittler’s complex relationship to McLuhan can be understood through Harold Bloom’s notion of apophadres: a way of acknowledging one’s predeces[1]sor that suggests the predecessor is derivative of his successor. Kittler invokes McLuhan at key points in his mediatic elaborations, only to undermine those references preposterously: that the “post” precedes the “pre.” From his writings on war to his Hellenistic last phase, Kittler positions McLuhan as the ambiguous Kilroy who was “here,” only to disappear when one looked again. The hinge of Kittler’s complex relationship to McLuhan was Kittler’s anti-anthropomorphism. This too was a Kittler construct; while McLuhan was concerned with the anthro[1]pocene at the end of his career, it was Kittler in his last phase who embraced the anthropomorphism of gods who acted like humans.”


(13-14): “War, thus, is not a contained event for McLuhan; it is an ongoing concomitant of technology: ”[c]ivilization” he writes “[is] the mother of war” (24). Hence, Napoleon and semaphores and right-hand traffic (102-111; cf. Kittler, “Free Ways” 55). Hence “[t]he First World War [as] … a railway war, [was] enormously exaggerated in scope and destruction by the extension of industrialism and the enlargement of cities” (132)—or, as Kittler echoes, electronics “not only make large cities (pace Marshall McLuhan) into global villages; it also makes them just as easily destructible as villages” (“Playback” 107). WW2, writes McLuhan, “was a radio war as much as it was an industrial war” (132), the radio having the effect “of switching the vision of a whole population from visually conceived objectives to the total field of polarized energies that automatically goes with radio and auditory space” (133).”


(16): “Kittler’s anti-anthropomorphism allowed him to pursue a trajectory that is clearly allied with McLuhan’s while appearing to reject it, leading Kittler to the most telling aspect of his interest in war, and particularly WW2: the impulse to make the human into a machine.”


(27): “Elisabeth Weber has commented that the two books of Musik und Mathematik “start and end with the sirens. Love coincides here with music in the truth event of the sirens whose name Kittler translates as muses and as incarnations of Aphrodite, thus as lovers.” Kittler must have known, however, that the concept of anthropomorphism was coined by Xenophanes precisely to critique Homer’s attribution of human qualities to the gods. Kittler’s Aphrodite is thus compelled to make love as a cultural technique— she is the first mechanical bride, the avatar of her husband’s robots.”

Sarah Sharma and Rianka Singh, eds., Re-Understanding Media: Feminist Extensions of Marshall McLuhan (Durham: Duke UP, 2022)

Sarah Sharma, “Preface”

“[T]he crux of [McLuhan’s] original theory of media and power seemed to be most alive within feminist scholarship on technology. And by critical feminist approaches I mean in particular the work on technology that does not treat difference and identity as if it is an addendum to technology but rather scholarship that understands how technology alters and can determine the social experience of gender, race, sexuality, and other forms of social difference. … [C]ritical feminist, race, queer, and Indigenous media scholars, artists, and activists … have been doing the critical work of locating how exactly the medium is the message. Their media study shines a light on the ways that inequitable power dynamics are tied to the properties and capacities of technologies that mediate power in social and institutional spaces. … [F]eminist scholars ask me, ‘But you don’t really like McLuhan, do you?’ I am not so much concerned with the man or his legacy as I am with the way in which his media theory has inspired me to think about power and structural differences.

“Introduction: A Feminist Medium is the Message”

“McLuhan’s media theory has much to offer feminist media studies. This is the central claim of this volume. … McLuhan’s failure to acknowledge the dynamics that bind together bodies, rhythms of life, power relations, and technology should relegate him to the tired domain of great white mail legacies. Instead, I have found that his insights inspire a new critical project for feminist media studies. … McLuhan had a quite telling and instructive treatment of gender in The Mechanical Bride. … [H]is focus was not just on the objectification of women’s bodies in advertisements but on the ways women’s bodies were instrumentalized and rationalized to mirror the relationship between finance and engineering. We are also inspired by Anne Balsamo’s Technologies of the Gendered Body, which takes a cue from McLuhan’s focus on the creative possibilities that come from understanding how new ‘media work us over,’ but more specifically how media works upon bodies differently. Balsamo reads in McLuhan ‘a submerged discourse of gender that continues to organize and make intelligible the discourses of the body in late capitalism.’ … While recognizing the earnest efforts of … scholars to find a place for women in [McLuhan’s] work, Re-Understanding Media does not need McLuhan to be a feminist. … Finding the women in McLuhan’s work or listing the women who have written about McLuhan does not indicate feminist engagement. … [I]t universalizes the category of woman while forgetting that being a woman is not the same as being a feminist. …  Anthony Enns argues that the lack of political engagement within McLuhan’s work has long been regarded as one of the main reasons his work is rejected and even ridiculed as unserious scholarship. … When McLuhan’s theory is fully engaged it offers it offers a political understanding of media beyond content and of technology beyond a tool. … This book also extends McLuhan’s pivotal broadening of the scope of which technologies are understood to be media. … McLuhan’s media theory insists on both the ontological and epistemological power of media. Through McLuhan we can understand how the medium sets the parameters possibilities for not only communicative action but political and social change. … McLuhan’s understanding of technology as a form of power raises new questions about representation, ideology, policy, and even political economy, whether he addressed them directly or not. … McLuhan’s theories of media challenge the dominant cultural understanding of technologies as tools whose effects depend upon their use. In fact, that technologies are even imagined as tools (neutral in and of themselves) that depend on policy changes, shared forms of control, or perceived as in need of more diverse representation in their development is part of today’s dominant techno-logic. What gets built and designed is determined by the requirements of patriarchy, capitalism, and white supremacy. … What this moment demands is the exact type of media study that McLuhan suggests. If we are interested in new objects like sex robots, we might treat them like McLuhan’s light bulbs and think, along with feminist labor theorists, about the new technology constituting a shift in patterns of labor and types of work, giving rise to new pathologies.”

Armond R. Towns, “Transporting Blackness: Black Materialist Media Theory”

“McLuhan’s definition of transportation technologies, as media that transport, translate, and transform people and things, is central to the ways that Black people continually re/un/make ourselves via transport. … Indeed, if we use McLuhan’s concept of transportation as media, then we can see that to be transported and transformed did not always require the same concepts of movement as white people or even the use of their technologies to become free. Combining McLuhan and Black feminist studies, we might ask, how have Black people used media to imagine new futures that their white counterparts could not?”

{Marshall McLuhan, “New Media as Political Forms,” Explorations 3 (1954) 117-121.

 “The American Government was the first to be founded on the concept of public opinion. Such a concept still seems bizarre in Canada. It was the new medium not of the book but the press which shaped the U.S.A. And this creates a political crisis with the passing of the press into the entertainment limbo, and with the rise of TV as a political shaper. But it has been the typical mistake of literate cultures to regard entertainment as non-political. Russia made no such slip. What is to be expected in the mainly non-literate India and China, countries which are in a position to by-pass literacy and proceed at once with radio and TV? These countries represent high cultures which are almost entirely oral and pictographic. Their rapport with TV far exceeds our own. If the new medium of the press gave a radical imprint to American politics, how much more might the new medium of TV be ordained to shape power patterns in the Orient? Should this occur, our own political structures, tied to print, would be quite unable to catch up.” (119-120)}


{Steve Loft and Kerry Swanson, eds. Coded Territories: Tracing Indigenous Pathways in New Media Art (Calgary: U Calgary P, 2014)

Steve Loft, “Mediacosmology”


“I have referred to the work of Marshall McLuhan several times in this article, partly to show the difference between Western conceptual / rational thought, and partly because McLuhan was a brilliant thinker and has had, as we all know, an undeniable influence on contemporary thinking about media and culture. He is indeed one of the truly visionary thinkers of the twentieth century. But there is another reason I have continued to return to him. He seems to have had a truly innate sense of what we might call ‘the Indigenous imagination.’ So, as much as I object to McLuhan’s ‘Tribal man,’ I am still amazed by his insight into an area into which other Western theorists fear to tread. And sometimes he just nails it. When he writes, ‘The function of art in a tribal society is not to orient the population to novelty but to merge it with the cosmos. Value does not inhere in art as object but in its power to educate the perceptions.’ ‘[I]n a homogenous mechanized society, the individualist role of the training of perception hardly exists. The primitive role of art serving as consolidator and as a liaison with the hidden cosmic powers again comes to the fore.’ I think, wow … now you’re seeing like we see. The distinctions he makes here are far from inconsequential. McLuhan distinguishes an epistemological concern that I would argue can be attributed to a North American Indigenous cosmology—an Indigenous cosmology that incorporates and integrates Indigenous philosophies, epistemologies, histories, traditions, ritual, ceremony, spiritual practices, and stories in ways of thought, of being, and of artistic and intellectual practice.” (181-2)}


Ruth Brandon, Spellbound by Marcel: Duchamp, Love, and Art (N.Y.: Pegasus, 2022)

 ‘“Art is anything you can get away with,’ wrote Marshall McLuhan, the voice of 1960s media theory. And few had got away with more than Marcel. … Mr. Mutt’s Fountain, so schocking in 1917, perfectly expressed the mood of the 1960s.” (219)




See the source image


David Howes, The Sensory Studies Manifesto: Tracking the Sensorial Revolution in the Arts and Human Sciences  (Toronto: Toronto UP, 2022)

3] “The idea of the sensorium was both physiological and cosmological in its original definition. It referred primarily to the ‘percipient centre,’ or ‘seat of sensation in the brain,’ and still carries this sense today. But it also extended to include what could be called the circumference of perception. In illustration of the latter point, the Oxford English Dictionary quotes one usage from 1714: ‘The noblest and most exalted Way of considering this infinite Space [referring to ‘the Universe’] is that of Sir Isaac Newton, who calls it the Sensorium of the God-head’; and another from 1861: ‘Rome became the common sensorium of Europe, and through Rome all the several portions of Latin Europe sympathized and felt with each other.’This expanded sense (cosmological and social) of the term ‘sensorium’ had been all but lost until the media theorist Walter J. Ong retrieved it in a little section of The Presence of the Word (1967) entitled ‘The Shifting Sensorium,’ which was in turn reprinted as the lead chapter in The Varieties of Sensory Experience (Howes 1991). Building on Marshall McLuhan’s notion of cultures as manifesting contrasting ‘sense-ratios’ in accordance with the prevailing media of communication (e.g., speech that privileges the ear versus writing or print that privilege the eye), Ong proposed that ‘given sufficient knowledge of the sensorium exploited within a specific culture, one could probably define the culture as a whole in all its aspects,’ including its cosmology or ‘world view’ (Ong 1991, 28). The implication is that perception is not just ‘down to our DNA’ (Hollingham 2004), nor does it just go on ‘in some secret grotto in the head’ (Geertz 1986, 113). It is also up to our culture, for as Oliver Sacks once said, ‘culture tunes our neurons’ (cited in Howes 2005b, 22). Hence, as Ong (1991, 26) proposed in ‘The Shifting Sensorium’: ‘the sensorium is a fascinating focus for cultural studies.’


16] “In my estimation, with some caveats (to be discussed later), McLuhan theorized the senses more capaciously than any other scholar. The probes [used by Howes in the current study] also evince McLuhan’s style of thinking, which he described as ‘mosaical.’ Indeed, McLuhan railed against the strictures of linear perspective vision in painting just as he railed against the linealization of thought brought on by the technology of repeatable type – both inventions of the Renaissance. His alternative model of the ‘collideroscope’ of the sensorium can only be evoked mosaically. Expanding on that model, through and by bringing multiple disciplinary lenses to bear on the study of the senses and sensation, holds great promise for advancing the extra-psychological take on ‘sensory processing’ advocated in this Manifesto.”


127-8] “I credit my early exposure to McLuhan’s thought with having shielded me from being seduced into believing in the ‘prereflective unity of the senses’ by reading Merleau-Ponty (most graduate students in anthropology read his Phenomenology of Perception [1962] in those days). Unlike the philosopher, the (sensorially minded) ethnographer is as attentive to the discrimination and conflict of the senses as in how they coalesce. As Eric McLuhan (n.d.) wrote in a biography of his father, McLuhan was fascinated by the implications of a device used in the dentistry of his day known as the ‘audiac,’ which involved the use of headphones to ‘bombard the patient with enough noise to block pain from the dentist’s drill’ and, by way of illustration of his notion of the ever-shifting ‘ratio’ of the senses, McLuhan noted how ‘in Hollywood the addition of sound to silent pictures impoverished and gradually eliminated the role of mime, with its emphasis on the sense of touch.’”


204] “Marshall McLuhan is famous for the suggestion that ‘the medium is the message’ (McLuhan and Fiore 1967). What is the message of the performative sensory environment? It is that ‘intermediality is the message,’ and with intermediality comes intersensoriality, and with intersensoriality … there comes the possibility of enhanced intercultural empathy and communication.”


Ezra Klein, “The Medium Really Is the Message,” The New York Times (Sunday August 14, 2022) [full page]


“McLuhan’s view is that mediums matter more than content; it’s the common rules that govern all creation and consumption across a medium that change people and society. Oral culture teaches us to think one way, written culture another. Television turned everything into entertainment, and social media taught us to think with the crowd. All this happens beneath the level of content.”

Alec Nevala-Lee, Inventor of the Future: The Visionary Life of Buckminster Fuller (N.Y.: Dey Street / William Morrow, 2022)

321-2:  “Fuller was sometimes inclined to put his new friend [McLuhan] in his place. ‘McLuhan has never made any bones about his indebtedness to me as the original source of most of his ideas,’ Fuller said privately. ‘The “global village” indeed was my concept. I don’t think he has an original idea. Not one. McLuhan says so himself.’ He dismissed the philosopher’s most famous aphorism, “the medium is the message,” as ‘the message only of yesterday’s middle-class elite,’ and he insisted that McLuhan had always conceded, ‘Bucky is my master. I am only his disciple.’”


Gavin Lambert, The Goodby People (1971; reprint N.Y.: McNally Editions, 2022)


25:  “She laughed. Her sense of humor was the more delicious for being buried. But she stopped laughing rather suddenly, and in the silence that followed you could tell she was almost desperately serious. ‘Of course,’ she said, trying to keep it light, ‘it’s hopeless expecting anything much in conversation with a writer. It all goes into the printed page. But I’m getting pretty impatient with the printed page, among other things. McLuhan’s probably right. It’s no good expecting the answer in the Word.’”

Armond R. Towns, On Black Media Philosophy (Berkeley: U California P, 2022)

[2]  “[T]he medium is the message …  allows for media studies scholars to read continuity into media—another area of difficulty for Black media studies and its overwhelming focus on media representations. For McLuhan, each new medium takes as its content older media, ensuring that there is never really something called new media at all. For example, for him, the content of a book is the phonetic alphabet, not the Lord of the Flies; the content of a film is photography, not Nosferatu. To focus solely on a book’s or a movie’s plot as the lone topic of analysis is to miss the centrality of multiple media that can make up the content of a book or movie. In essence, to reduce content to media representations leads to the Black media studies that currently exists—one that often centers analyses of media around the limited question of how racist (or antiracist) a particular representation of Black people is in a book, on television, in a movie, or online. For McLuhan (and for me), representations are not unimportant; they just remain a limited way to think about the fullness of media studies.

Still, it would be a mistake to assume McLuhan’s analysis is bulletproof [sic; emphasis added]. Although McLuhan’s theories allowed for new approaches in media studies, there are legitimate reasons for Black media studies to overlook his work. He had quite a bit to say about race, even as he is rarely remembered for this in much of the contemporary work that takes up his theories. And much of McLuhan’s thoughts on race were far from sophisticated, as scholars such as Ginger Nolan and I have written about. However, the outright dismissal of McLuhan in Black media studies may have the effect of producing a body of knowledge in which the episode is overrepresented, while media form is highly neglected. Thus I continue to ask, can a materialist media philosophy, one that is inspired by McLuhan yet that he could never imagine, expand Black media studies further into new questions of materiality and media?”

  • Nick Ripatratzone, Digital Communion: Marshall McLuhan’s Spiritual Vision for a Virtual Age (Minneapolis: Fortress P, 2022)

Digital Communion considers the religious history of mass communication, from the Gutenberg Bible to James Joyce’s literary forerunners of hypertextual language to McLuhan’s vision of the electronic world as a place of potential spiritual exchange, in order to reveal how we can cultivate a more spiritual vision of the internet–a vision we need now more than ever.

  • Laura Trujillo Liñán, Formal Cause in Marshall McLuhan’s Thinking: An Aristotelian Perspective (Forest Hills N.Y.: Institute for General Semantics, 2022)

[B]y conducting a comparative analysis of Aristotle, Korzybski, and McLuhan, and by applying an Aristotelian perspective to the notion of formal cause in Marshall McLuhan’s thinking, the book’s author, Professor Laura Trujillo Liñán, has made a significant contribution to the fields of philosophy, general semantics, and media ecology.




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