Sunday, November 19, 2006

Rorty Frames McLuhan, Mediated by Hartshorne

Philosopher Richard Rorty discovers another example of the Medium is the Message. In “Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity”, in the chapter, Private Irony and Liberal Hope, he distinguishes between two kinds of intellectuals: the metaphysician and the ironist. The metaphysician believes that abstract nouns, such as truth, justice, and reality, correspond to actual metaphysical/ontological entities—that truth, justice and evil per se actually exist and that the intellectual project conveys us ever nearer a full understanding of these realities. The ironist does not believe that the intellectual enterprise involves a successive approximation of understanding toward truth, justice, etc., but just that vocabularies succeed one another and that the intellectual enterprise is about coining new metaphors so as to convert the loyalties of others to one’s preferred vocabulary—without humiliating them; that would be cruel. Cruelty is Rorty’s standard of evil:

"The ironist tells [people] that the language they speak is up for grabs by her and her kind. There is something potentially very cruel about that claim. For the easiest way to cause people long-lasting pain is to humiliate them by making the things that seemed most important to them look futile, obsolete, and powerless. Consider what happens when a child's precious possessions—the little things around which he weaves fantasies that make him a little different from all other childrenare redescribed as 'trash,' and thrown away"

A metaphysician confronted by an ironist is maybe not so much humiliated as thrown off balance, spun into a vertigo. Read or listen to McLuhan being interviewed. The interviewers work hard to retain sociopolitical propriety, to fit McLuhan's insights into the familiar categories. But the suspicion creeps in that they are being put on, and McLuhan's interlocutors tended to become either headstrong or gun shy. I'm not sure they were humiliated so much as appalled.

McLuhan was a great pioneer of what in academia these days is called, simply, theory. He seemed to care little for the departmental distinctions between literary criticism, sociology, history, philosophy, the humanities, and the sciences. He just rode roughshot along and across the borders of the traditional disciplines. He was overtly dismissive of them, so much so that in “The Mechanical Bride” he mocked Mortimer Adler’s “Great Ideas” endeavor, comparing the cards in the card catalog to tombstones. Today McLuhan’s interdisciplinary approach is a normal mode of academic writing, though there’s little evidence that today’s academic writers possess the wit and facility for metaphor that distinguish McLuhan.

Rorty argues that there is no reality to which our words correspond, at least not one recognizable as any kind of traditional metaphysical reality. The vocabulary (medium/cause) is its own (provisional) endpoint (message/effect). It is its own content, simultaneously medium and message. This realization frees us to formulate the words we want to use rather than those we might feel obliged to use for the sake of propriety. This is a liberating aspect of ironism, and one that McLuhan took full advantage of.

But McLuhan’s pious Catholicism confounds Rorty’s ironist/metaphysician dichotomy. McLuhan disdained the criticism that amounted to saying he flip-flopped; to him a fixed point of view was an artifact of the literate mind, and he was proselytizing for a mentality not so limited. He operated like the consummate Rortian ironist, inventing his own vocabulary and parlaying it into public discourse, not allowing himself to be pinned down on any ground of good and bad. The critique of McLuhan is precisely the critique of the metaphysician confronting the ironist: that s/he is flaky, inconsistent, unwilling to take a stand, all of which amounts to the gripe that the ironist lacks a metaphysical doctrine and the conclusion that therefore s/he isn’t worth taking seriously. McLuhan endured these slings and arrows, but he did not quiver. Behind his ironism was the hardcore metaphysics of Catholicism.

Rorty perhaps is too eager to dismiss metaphysics. Philosopher Charles Hartshorne recognized, like Rorty, that our ultimate dependency for understanding rests on our own definitions of terms. In “The Divine Relativity”, he illustrates by challenging the meanings of Absolute and Relative (Contingent) in the context of theological discourse:

“Either ‘absolute’ is our own human concept, or we have no right to use the word; if it is our concept, it is our responsibility to fix its meaning. Knowing the meaning of absolute, and of relative, we cannot fail to know the relations of these conceptual meanings to each other; for nothing determines these relations but just the meanings themselves.”

But Hartshorne can’t leave it at that. He is a metaphysician. He continues, “It is in another direction that we must look for impenetrable theological mystery. And there is no lack of it.”

I have to side with Hartshorne and the metaphysicians. Rorty seems to imply that the propagandists and radio polemicists are the new intellectuals, because (he seems to be saying) might makes right, if “might” is understood to be metaphor-manufacturing skills. Hartshorne understands the ironist objection to metaphysics. But he is not satisfied to relinquish the pursuit of metaphysics to an endless succession of vocabularies. More exists than sets of vocabularies that re-describe past vocabularies, which amounts to Rorty’s ontology. For instance, my perception of this room and my sensations of being hungry, say, exist, so the metaphysical question remains, what is the nature of that which exists? Even if I only believe that I perceive the room, then that belief exists. If anything at all actually exists then metaphysics remains the endeavor to understand something actual. I suppose that, in the context of Rorty’s thinking, to deny metaphysics is to deny the existence of nonlinguistic experiences.

Hartshorne’s career seems to have been about working out the precise logic of the necessity of God’s existence—while debunking the misguided (illogical and ill-defined) theologies of popular religion (would Rorty consider that cruel?). I suspect that a good part of Rorty’s and the Brights' objection to metaphysics lies in their rejection of the flabby theologies of the popular religions. Hartshorne developed a logically very tight philosophical theology that even an ardent skeptic can benefit from studying. To dismiss theology on the basis of the televangelists’ folk-metaphysics is like dismissing science on the basis of a crank’s theory about canals on Mars.

So, back to McLuhan. We can understand McLuhan’s Medium is the Message by using the concept of “framing”. It’s an important idea, one that George Lakoff might get credit for naming, but the idea was put into play long before. Republican PR strategists effectively used the concept when they coined “Patriot Act,” “Death Tax,” and the other glosses and persuasions of cant and the tropes that for too long lent Teflon to the W. Bush administration. McLuhan in effect said that the medium is a frame in this same sense. In other words, we can think of the metaphors “Patriot Act” and “Death Tax” as media. Their content few people could articulate in any detail, but the message is clear even without the articulated content, because the medium carries the actual import. It is the message.

The unconscious (irrational, figurative, symbolic, emotional, qualitative, connotative) effects of media (e.g., language) supersede (by pulling the rug out from under) in import in the psyche their conscious (rational, literal, semantic, logical, quantitative, denotative) effects. The message (import) is the medium (unconscious).

Or, as Victor Hugo put it, "Good taste is the first refuge of the witless."