me | probes | managers | virtual | space

The Book of Probes

The Book of Probes. NY: Ginko Press, 2003. Marshall McLuhan and David Carson. Eds. Eric McLuhan and William Kuhns. Corte Madera, CA: Ginko Press, 2003.

The Book of Probes (2003) by Marhsall McLuhan and David Carson, edited by Eric Mcluhan and William Kuhns, treats McLuhan's writing as found poetry, and in the hands of Carson, the most celebrated graphic designer of the last 20 years, pushes the visual/verbal style of McLuhan's The Medium is the Massage to its limits. This book exemplifies what McLuhan would call the "cool" style – it explores rather than explains, it requires participation and engagement, and it will only frustrate or annoy those who approach it as detached observers wanting evidence and facts to support the many claims.
         The Book of Probes consists of almost 400 pages of word-image probes, the words having been selected by the editors, the images having been designed or selected by Carson. The probes are grouped into themes – it would be wrong to call them chapters – "From Cosmic to Existential Man, "The Extensions of Man," "Media Ecology," "Advertising," "Sense," and "The Laws of Media." The editors have chosen to keep the sexist language of McLuhan's writing– a point I will return to below. These probes are followed by short essays. "Poetics on the Warpath" by Eric McLuhan and William Kuhns puts the McLuhan method in context, "The Book of Probes," by W. Terrence Gordon (a McLuhan biographer) functions like an "Afterword," reflecting on the interaction of words and images, and "McLuhan and Saussure," also by Gordon, is a short comparative essay that draws out an intellectual connection un-developed in the scholarly books under review here. The Book of Probes ends with another collection of McLuhan "percepts," this time presented black type on white paper rather than enframed by Carson's images.
         These kinds of books produced by scholars in collaboration with designers are frequently criticized for being academic sound bytes, pfluff, and/or incomprehensible. But if readers play a believing game with this book, and accept its method and goals, it can provide a rich springboard for thought and exploration. Eric McLuhan and William Kuhns explain:

Like myth or aphorism, each probe is an essay compressed into a few words. Decompression – in the form of sudden insight – calls for wit and agility and the patience to mull something over for hours, or days, or longer. A good probe is hard to exhaust. It does not surrender everything at first encounter any more than a line of poetry does. The best poets have the same hard-won gift for comprehension. Each of McLuhan's probes invites similar prolonged meditation and exploration. (413)

The McLuhan-Carson probes on "war" are worth considering as one small set of examples from this book, particularly relevant to our current geopolitical environment. The McLuhan text reads: "The unformulated message of an assembly of news items from every quarter of the globe is that the world today is one city. ALL WAR IS CIVIL WAR." "ALL WAR IS CIVIL WAR" is presented as white text on a predominantly black background, although there are blurry white lines – light lines – running vertically across the page. Unpacking this probe, unstuffing the compressed file, I see a variation on "the medium is the message" – the unformulated message of an assembly of news items. Regardless of what the news is saying, the effect is that all who follow the news are involved in all the global conflict; they are all brought into our homes, and become local. "All war is civil war" also cuts a different direction. If we think within a national framework, the many assembled news items present various perspectives on US military intervention and foreign policy. A unified point of view – a national consensus – while not easily achieved before television and global news coverage, is unlikely to be achieved when so many perspectives are so readily available in our contemporary media environment. You are either with us, or against us.
         Another war probe (and there are about half a dozen in the book) sets McLuhan's text – a modest font size, with much less stark figure-ground separation – overtop a particularly blurry image of a breakfast, originally published in Carson's Fotografiks. The text says "The coverage is the war. If there were no coverage [...] there'd be no war. Yes, the newsmen and the media men around the world are actually the fighters, not the soldiers any more" (342-43). Such a claim is easy to dismiss, even offensive in the context of the number of soldiers and civilians dying in conflicts around the globe. Jean Beaudrillard has been sharply criticized for similar statements, but McLuhan and Baudrillard seem to be trying to get us to understand the totality of the war enterprise, the extent to which it is tied up in technological development, educational enterprises, and of course media coverage. Such probes can be dismissed, but they strike me as challenging us in rhetoric and composition to not only think through the implications of what McLuhan has said, but also think through the possibilities and complexities for a rhetoric of one-liners. As we engage in public discourse, and encourage similar engagement for our students, should we be writing and teaching slogans, the rhetoric of bumper stickers, and the poetic/parodic insight alongside (or instead of!) the commentary essay or the proposal argument? These are the questions McLuhan raises for me, and perhpas others in rhetoric and composition.
         The two Carson-supplied images I have mentioned both rely on the "out-of-focus" style he is frequently associated with, and being "out-of-focus" is an apt complement for probes that need tuning, adjusting, contemplation, closure. The book as a whole frequently employs a sequence of related images, sometimes photographs out of focus or subjects examined from obscure angles, sometimes computer-generated images emphasizing line, shape, contrast, sometimes collage: photos, clip art, computer generated images. The typography varies widely in size, color, and font. Occasionally the images will re-enforce the text in fairly conventional ways, but much more frequently Carson employs the McLuhan percept that when "information is brushed against information, the results are startling and effective" (Medium is the Massage 76-78).
         The sexist language retained in this text and in all of McLuhan's work remains jarring. If readers cannot read past, through, or around it, the barrier is consistent with McLuhan's notion that language is an organ of perception. If key formulations like "media as extensions of man" exclude readers, if they cannot see themselves in that formulation, perhaps, if willing, they can in McLuhanesque terms, sharpen the phallocentric cliché, perhaps reverse the formulation, or as McLuhan himself would suggest – amputate the obsolete extension. Re-working sexist languae is not, of course, a simple game, and requires social, cultural, political and economic work to shift our stratified environments towards more inclusive environments. The sexist language reminds us that McLuhan was not speaking to 21st century scholars, and his work needs re-working and extending if it is going to be of substantial use to scholars in the near and distant future.