Table of Con­tents | http://​dx​.doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​7​7​4​2​/​I​M​A​G​E​.​M​A​.​8​.​3.8 | PDF

Abstract: Mar­shall McLuhan’s the­o­ry of the coun­teren­vi­ron­ment is with­in a larg­er tra­di­tion of defa­mil­iar­iza­tion that emerges in Roman­ti­cism and can be fur­ther traced through the writ­ings of Hen­ri Berg­son, Eng­lish lit­er­ary mod­ernism, Russ­ian for­mal­ist ostra­ne­nie, Brecht­ian estrange­ment, and more recent insti­tu­tion­al cri­tique. Among relat­ed Roman­tic writ­ings, Per­cy Bysshe Shelley’s essay “A Defence of Poet­ry” (1821) clear­ly antic­i­pates lat­er the­o­ries that both repeat and devel­op fun­da­men­tal notions of defa­mil­iar­iza­tion. Bergson’s writ­ings on the com­ic revive Roman­tic ideas when he states that the object of the arts is “to brush aside the util­i­tar­i­an sym­bols, the con­ven­tion­al and social­ly accept­ed gen­er­al­i­ties, in short, every­thing that veils real­i­ty from us, in order to bring us face to face with real­i­ty itself.” Eng­lish mod­ernists such as T.E. Hulme, T.S. Eliot, and their con­tem­po­raries drew on Berg­son and were major sources for McLuhan’s coun­teren­vi­ron­ment. Russ­ian for­mal­ist and Eng­lish mod­ernist defa­mil­iar­iza­tion share roots in Roman­ti­cism and Berg­son, which account for their some­times par­al­lel per­spec­tives. McLuhan had some lim­it­ed expo­sure to Russ­ian for­mal­ism by way of Con­struc­tivist cin­e­ma as well as the art and writ­ings of Lás­zló Moholy-Nagy. Lat­er writ­ers some­times mis­tak­en­ly view Vik­tor Shklovsky’s ostra­ne­nie to be at the ori­gin of defa­mil­iar­iza­tion, although it was a point of depar­ture for Bertolt Brecht’s “alien­ation effect.” McLuhan began using the term coun­teren­vi­ron­ment not long before some artists (who were aware of McLuhan’s writ­ing on the sub­ject) start­ed to direct the audience’s aes­theti­cized atten­tion to the situation’s con­tex­tu­al frame­work rather than to dis­crete objects alone. Like the coun­teren­vi­ron­ment, lat­er insti­tu­tion­al cri­tique pro­posed a Gestalt rever­sal of atten­tion by turn­ing the envi­ron­men­tal ground to fig­ure, there­by prompt­ing aware­ness of what had been ear­li­er ignored. McLuhan’s the­o­ry of the coun­teren­vi­ron­ment, and the vari­a­tions of defa­mil­iar­iza­tion more gen­er­al­ly, are his­tor­i­cal­ly spe­cif­ic while also par­tak­ing in trans­for­ma­tive his­tor­i­cal process­es that involve a fusion of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, change, con­ti­nu­ity, and repetition.

Résumé | La théorie du con­tre-envi­ron­nement de Mar­shall McLuhan s'inscrit dans une per­spec­tive plus large de défa­mil­iari­sa­tion qui a vu le jour dans le roman­tisme et peut être retrou­vée dans les écrits d'Henri Berg­son, la lit­téra­ture mod­erniste anglaise, le for­mal­isme russe, la dis­tan­ci­a­tion brechti­enne, et la cri­tique insti­tu­tion­nelle plus récente. Par­mi les écrits roman­tiques appar­en­tés, l'essai de Per­cy Bysshe Shel­ley, « A Defense of Poet­ry » (1821) anticipe claire­ment des théories ultérieures qui à la fois répè­tent et dévelop­pent des notions fon­da­men­tales de défa­mil­iari­sa­tion. Les écrits de Berg­son sur la bande dess­inée font revivre les idées roman­tiques quand il déclare que l'objet des arts est de « met­tre de côté les sym­bol­es util­i­taires, les général­ités con­ven­tion­nelles et sociale­ment accep­tées, bref tout ce qui voile la réal­ité, pour nous met­tre devant la réal­ité elle-même ». Des mod­ernistes anglais tels que T.E Hulme, T.S. Eliot, et leurs con­tem­po­rains, se sont inspirés de Berg­son et ont été des sources impor­tantes pour le con­tre-envi­ron­nement de McLuhan. La défa­mil­iari­sa­tion du for­mal­isme russe et du mod­ernisme anglais tirent leur orig­ine du roman­tisme et de Berg­son, ce qui explique leurs per­spec­tives par­fois par­al­lèles. McLuhan a eu une expo­si­tion lim­itée au for­mal­isme russe à tra­vers le ciné­ma con­struc­tiviste ain­si que l'art et les écrits de Lás­zló Moholy-Nagy. Les auteurs ultérieurs con­sid­èrent par­fois erroné­ment l'ostra­ne­nie de Vik­tor Shklovsky comme étant à l'origine de la « défa­mil­iari­sa­tion », bien que ce soit un point de départ pour « l’effet de dis­tan­ci­a­tion » de Bertolt Brecht. McLuhan a com­mencé à utilis­er le terme con­tre-envi­ron­nement peu de temps avant que cer­tains artistes, qui étaient au courant des écrits de McLuhan sur le sujet, com­men­cent à diriger l'attention esthétisée du pub­lic sur le cadre con­textuel de la sit­u­a­tion plutôt que seule­ment sur des objets dis­tincts. À l'instar du con­tre-envi­ron­nement, la cri­tique insti­tu­tion­nelle ultérieure a pro­posé un change­ment de direc­tion de l’attention gestaltiste en trans­for­mant l’environnement en fig­ure, sus­ci­tant ain­si la prise de con­science de ce qui avait été aupar­a­vant ignoré. La théorie de McLuhan du con­tre-envi­ron­nement, et plus générale­ment les vari­a­tions de la défa­mil­iari­sa­tion, sont his­torique­ment spé­ci­fiques tout en par­tic­i­pant à des proces­sus his­toriques de trans­for­ma­tion qui impliquent une fusion de la com­mu­ni­ca­tion, du change­ment, de la con­ti­nu­ité, et de la répétition.:

Ken­neth R. Allan | Uni­ver­si­ty of Lethbridge

Marshall McLuhan’s Counterenvironment within the Stream of Defamiliarization

Mar­shall McLuhan’s the­o­ry of the coun­teren­vi­ron­ment is cen­tral to his under­stand­ing of aes­thet­ics. As with every inno­v­a­tive idea, how­ev­er, its back­ground may be acknowl­edged, avoid­ed, or rein­ter­pret­ed accord­ing to evolv­ing require­ments. As a knowl­edge­able lit­er­ary schol­ar with an inter­est in moder­ni­ty, McLuhan drew on a wide vari­ety of sources that at times employed ideas linked to defa­mil­iar­iza­tion. His coun­teren­vi­ron­ment is with­in the his­tor­i­cal stream of defa­mil­iar­iza­tion that appears to emerge in Roman­ti­cism and may be fur­ther traced through, for exam­ple, the writ­ings of Hen­ri Berg­son, Eng­lish lit­er­ary mod­ernism, Russ­ian for­mal­ist ostra­ne­nie, Brecht­ian estrange­ment, and insti­tu­tion­al cri­tique.[1] I will pro­vide a brief out­line of some of these the­o­ret­i­cal and prac­ti­cal rela­tion­ships as they per­tain to McLuhan’s work.

Defa­mil­iar­iza­tion plays a role in the Roman­tic lit­er­ary the­o­ry of Novalis as well as the the­o­ret­i­cal writ­ings of the Eng­lish poets Samuel Tay­lor Coleridge and Per­cy Bysshe Shel­ley, among oth­ers. Many con­tem­po­rary writ­ers and the­o­rists sit­u­ate Vik­tor Shklovsky (prob­lem­at­i­cal­ly his­tor­i­cal­ly, but under­stand­ably in ide­o­log­i­cal terms) as the point of ori­gin for defa­mil­iar­iza­tion. Though he down­plays the influ­ence of Berg­son on Russ­ian for­mal­ist lit­er­ary the­o­ry, Dou­glas Robin­son sug­gests that Roman­ti­cism antic­i­pates Shklovsky’s the­o­ry of ostra­ne­nie, or estrange­ment. In a late arti­cle from 1966, Shklovsky quotes Novalis, who writes: “The art of pleas­ing estrange­ment, of mak­ing an object strange and yet famil­iar and attrac­tive: that is Roman­tic poet­ics” (qtd. in Robin­son 79-80). Robin­son fur­ther notes: “Novalis is not the only inven­tor of Roman­tic estrange­ment, of course; the con­cept is one of the cen­tral ideas of Ger­man and Eng­lish Roman­ti­cism and Ger­man Ide­al­ism.… The basic idea is that con­ven­tion­al­iza­tion is psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly alien­at­ing, anes­thetiz­ing, and that the read­er there­fore stands in need of some sort of aes­thet­ic shock to break him or her out of the anes­the­sis” (80-81). Wal­ter Ben­jamin also points to this aspect of defa­mil­iar­iza­tion (applied to art­works) in Novalis:

When Novalis says, “What is at the same time thought and obser­va­tion is a crit­i­cal germ,” he expresses—tautologically, to be sure, for obser­va­tion is a thought process—the close affin­i­ty between crit­i­cism and obser­va­tion. Thus, crit­i­cism is, as it were, an exper­i­ment on the art­work, one through which the latter’s own reflec­tion is awak­ened, through which it is brought to con­scious­ness and to knowl­edge of itself. (Ben­jamin, “The Con­cept of Crit­i­cism” 151)

Sim­i­lar­ly, Robin­son men­tions Coleridge’s 1817 Biographia Lit­er­aria, in which he writes:

Mr. Wordsworth, on the oth­er hand, was to pro­pose to him­self, as his object, to give the charm of nov­el­ty to things of every­day, and to excite a feel­ing anal­o­gous to the super­nat­ur­al by awak­en­ing the mind’s atten­tion from the lethar­gy of cus­tom and direct­ing it to the love­li­ness and the won­ders of the world before us; an inex­haustible trea­sure, but for which, in con­se­quence of the film of famil­iar­i­ty and self­ish solic­i­tude, we have eyes which see not, ears that hear not, and hearts which nei­ther feel nor under­stand. (Coleridge 314)

At this ear­ly date Coleridge pro­vides some of the fun­da­men­tal char­ac­ter­is­tics of defa­mil­iar­iza­tion as it comes to be known. When Roman­ti­cism deals with pan­the­is­tic notions of nature, there is a sub­li­ma­tion of reli­gious sen­ti­ment. The emer­gence of defa­mil­iar­iza­tion in Roman­ti­cism may there­fore involve a sec­u­lar­iza­tion of ear­li­er reli­gious rev­e­la­tion that Coleridge seems to point to when not­ing that Wordsworth aimed to “excite a feel­ing anal­o­gous to the super­nat­ur­al by awak­en­ing the mind’s atten­tion from the lethar­gy of custom.”

Shelley’s essay “A Defence of Poet­ry,” writ­ten in 1821 and pub­lished in 1840, antic­i­pates well the lat­er writ­ings of Berg­son on laugh­ter; Shklovsky (who appears to have bor­rowed defa­mil­iar­iza­tion from Berg­son) on ostra­ne­nie; Bertolt Brecht (who adapt­ed Shklovsky’s ostra­ne­nie) on the alien­ation effect; McLuhan on the coun­teren­vi­ron­ment; and var­i­ous writ­ers on insti­tu­tion­al cri­tique (who tend to assert its point of ori­gin to 1968 or refer back to Brecht). Shel­ley, like McLuhan lat­er, claims that poets (McLuhan refers to “artists”) are not only those who work with­in the dis­ci­pli­nary con­fines of the arts, but are rather those peo­ple in any social role who rec­og­nize actu­al­i­ty and direct our atten­tion toward it:

But Poets, or those who imag­ine and express this inde­struc­tible order, are not only the authors of lan­guage and of music, of the dance and archi­tec­ture and stat­u­ary and paint­ing: they are the insti­tu­tors of laws, and the founders of civ­il soci­ety and the inven­tors of the arts of life and the teach­ers, who draw into a cer­tain propin­quity with the beau­ti­ful and the true that par­tial appre­hen­sion of the agen­cies of the invis­i­ble world which is called reli­gion. (Shel­ley 482)

McLuhan, for his part, employs a Gestalt point of ref­er­ence, iden­ti­fy­ing those peo­ple as artists who are able to reverse the fig­ure-ground rela­tion of what he terms the envi­ron­ment by cre­at­ing a coun­teren­vi­ron­ment. Doing so directs our atten­tion to the environment’s oth­er­wise unper­ceiv­able process­es and con­straints, mak­ing us aware of them. This new aware­ness allows us both to rec­og­nize actu­al­i­ty and act upon it in a respon­si­ble and informed man­ner. As with Shel­ley, the indi­vid­u­als to whom McLuhan refers need not be pro­fes­sion­al artists, or even have any inter­est in the fine arts: “The artist is the man in any field, sci­en­tif­ic or human­is­tic, who grasps the impli­ca­tions of his actions and of new knowl­edge in his own time. He is the man of inte­gral aware­ness” (McLuhan, Under­stand­ing Media 65). These “artists” (broad­ly under­stood) cre­ate coun­teren­vi­ron­ments that defa­mil­iar­ize the orig­i­nal under-per­ceived envi­ron­ment or con­text and allow for its gen­uine appear­ance to be recognized.

Shel­ley, fol­low­ing Coleridge, sets forth some of the ideas that come to per­me­ate the lit­er­a­ture on defa­mil­iar­iza­tion when he con­sid­ers the nature of poetry:

It repro­duces the com­mon uni­verse of which we are por­tions and per­cip­i­ents, and it purges from our inward sight the film of famil­iar­i­ty which obscures from us the won­der of our being. It com­pels us to feel that which we per­ceive, and to imag­ine that which we know. It cre­ates anew the uni­verse after it has been anni­hi­lat­ed in our minds by the recur­rence of impres­sions blunt­ed by reit­er­a­tion. (505-06)

Note the phrase “film of famil­iar­i­ty” bor­rowed direct­ly from Coleridge. Shelley’s essay informs lat­er writ­ers on defa­mil­iar­iza­tion, and per­haps Bergson’s thoughts on the crit­i­cal and illu­mi­nat­ing effects of laugh­ter and art, when Shel­ley writes of poet­ry: “It awak­ens and enlarges the mind itself by ren­der­ing it the recep­ta­cle of a thou­sand unap­pre­hend­ed com­bi­na­tions of thought. Poet­ry lifts the veil from the hid­den beau­ty of the world, and makes famil­iar objects as if they were not famil­iar” (487). The sub­se­quent lit­er­a­ture on defa­mil­iar­iza­tion presents many ref­er­ences to remov­ing the veil on appear­ances, which allows for the cre­ation of new phe­nom­e­nal per­cep­tions of the every­day. The per­cip­i­ent is thought to have sud­den access to a greater under­stand­ing of both sen­su­al and social actuality.

Berg­son had con­sid­er­able influ­ence on artists and writ­ers seek­ing to align their works with new devel­op­ments in phi­los­o­phy and sci­ence in late 19th- and ear­ly 20th-cen­tu­ry Europe.[2] McLuhan appears to have drawn the­o­ret­i­cal ideas from Berg­son both direct­ly and indi­rect­ly via the Eng­lish mod­ernists. Stephen Crock­er sug­gests that McLuhan also drew on a stream of Catholic Bergson­ism (Crock­er 17), which may sug­gest fur­ther affini­ties between defa­mil­iar­iza­tion and spir­i­tu­al rev­e­la­tion. Bergson’s short book Laugh­ter lays out the ideas devel­oped more ful­ly by sub­se­quent the­o­rists of defa­mil­iar­iza­tion. Berg­son employs the same veil metaphor and writes about art in a man­ner rem­i­nis­cent of Shel­ley, who had ear­li­er claimed of poet­ry that “it strips the veil of famil­iar­i­ty from the world, and lays bare the naked and sleep­ing beau­ty which is the spir­it of its forms” (Shel­ley 505). Berg­son for his part asks: “What is the object of art? .… All this is around and with­in us, and yet no whit of it do we dis­tinct­ly per­ceive. Between nature and our­selves, nay, between our­selves and our own con­scious­ness a veil is inter­posed: a veil that is dense and opaque for the com­mon herd—thin, almost trans­par­ent, for the artist and the poet” (157-58). Berg­son pro­claims the essence of his argu­ment when he states that “art, whether it be paint­ing or sculp­ture, poet­ry or music, has no oth­er objects than to brush aside the util­i­tar­i­an sym­bols, the con­ven­tion­al and social­ly accept­ed gen­er­al­i­ties, in short, every­thing that veils real­i­ty from us, in order to bring us face to face with real­i­ty itself” (162). This is one of the defin­i­tive state­ments on defa­mil­iar­iza­tion, and it can serve as the basis for rec­og­niz­ing lat­er vari­ants of the aes­thet­ic or aes­thet­ic-social-polit­i­cal type.

Bergson’s analy­sis of laugh­ter informs lat­er approach­es to art, linked to McLuhan’s coun­teren­vi­ron­ment, that are struc­tural­ly comedic in nature even when they deal with seri­ous and social­ly crit­i­cal sub­jects. Laugh­ter has an aes­thet­ic ele­ment, but it also involves a “social ges­ture” that “pur­sues a util­i­tar­i­an aim of gen­er­al improve­ment” (73). It is in this util­i­tar­i­an aspect that laughter’s defa­mil­iar­iza­tion comes to resem­ble coun­teren­vi­ron­men­tal art’s crit­i­cal deal­ings with its social frame­work. Berg­son writes, “there remains out­side this sphere of emo­tion and strug­gle… a cer­tain rigid­i­ty of body, mind and char­ac­ter that soci­ety would still like to get rid of in order to obtain from its mem­bers the great­est pos­si­ble degree of elas­tic­i­ty and socia­bil­i­ty. This rigid­i­ty is the com­ic, and laugh­ter is its cor­rec­tive” (73-74). For Berg­son the com­ic is a con­se­quence of a lack of per­son­al aware­ness that may extend to being obliv­i­ous toward oth­ers and the social con­text. He calls this inat­ten­tion “unso­cia­bil­i­ty,” link­ing it to rigid­i­ty, automa­tism, and absent­mind­ed­ness (155-56).

Just as Shel­ley main­tains that poet­ry “cre­ates anew the uni­verse after it has been anni­hi­lat­ed in our minds by the recur­rence of impres­sions blunt­ed by reit­er­a­tion”, Jan Walsh Hoken­son sug­gests that Bergson’s notion of the mechan­i­cal involves it dimin­ish­ing indi­vid­u­als’ free­dom in terms of behav­iour and per­cep­tion. By car­ry­ing out the same activ­i­ty repeat­ed­ly, the per­son is over­whelmed by rou­tine, result­ing in a sit­u­a­tion where “one ulti­mate­ly becomes igno­rant of the true sources of one’s actions” (Walsh Hoken­son 44). Walsh Hoken­son fur­ther writes: “Berg­son insists that the com­ic is a func­tion of the mechan­i­cal encrust­ed on the liv­ing, which includes soci­ety no less than the indi­vid­ual and nature” (44, orig­i­nal empha­sis). Paul Dou­glass iden­ti­fies the process by which Berg­son feels we can be lib­er­at­ed from this mechan­i­cal encrus­ta­tion: “At the same time that we are being con­sumed in time, ‘our liv­ing and con­crete self gets cov­ered with an out­er crust of clean-cut psy­chic states.’ The artist can­not change the nature of this real­i­ty, but by ‘dis­solv­ing or cor­rod­ing the out­er crust’ of our lives, art can ‘bring us back to the inner core,’ restore the aware­ness of ‘real time,’ and there­by return us ‘back to our own pres­ence’” (Dou­glass 110). Like Shelley’s “veil,” ref­er­ences to a “crust” form­ing on appear­ances, neces­si­tat­ing dis­rup­tion, repeat­ed­ly arise in the lit­er­a­ture on defa­mil­iar­iza­tion. Dou­glass explains the tech­nique for car­ry­ing out this dis­rup­tion: “Berg­son sug­gests, then, that the writer ‘insin­u­ates’ into the reader’s mind the per­cep­tion of truth, ‘baf­fling’ the read­er on pur­pose. In Bergson’s poet­ics, lit­er­a­ture employs mis­di­rec­tion, steal­ing in upon the con­scious mind and trick­ing it into a tem­po­rary moment of self-real­iza­tion” (110). McLuhan takes a sim­i­lar approach when he writes that one “can nev­er per­ceive the impact of any new tech­nol­o­gy direct­ly, but it can be done in the man­ner of Perseus look­ing in the mir­ror at Medusa. It has to be done indi­rect­ly. You have to per­ceive the con­se­quences of the new envi­ron­ment on the old envi­ron­ment before you know what the new envi­ron­ment is” (McLuhan, “Address” 228). Such per­cep­tion involves mem­o­ry. Jonathan Crary posi­tions Bergson’s view of per­son­al mem­o­ry in rela­tion to the social oper­a­tions of laugh­ter. Atten­tion can assist mem­o­ry in rein­forc­ing and renew­ing cur­rent per­cep­tion, which can mul­ti­ply and cre­ate a web of relat­ed mem­o­ries. Mem­o­ry may let us grasp in one intu­ition many moments of dura­tion, dis­tin­guish­ing itself from the larg­er flow of phe­nom­e­na. Regard­ing the revi­tal­iza­tion of per­cep­tion, Crary explains, “Berg­son sought to describe the rev­e­la­to­ry vital­i­ty, even the shock, of a moment when mem­o­ry ceas­es to mere­ly con­firm or adjust a per­cep­tion and instead opens up a rever­ber­at­ing process of ‘endos­mo­sis,’ of remak­ing an object of per­cep­tion, of cre­at­ing some­thing new” (Crary 322-23). Such a cre­ation of some­thing new is one of the aims of mod­ernism, sug­gest­ing that the stream of defa­mil­iar­iza­tion joins ear­ly on with the emer­gent ideals of avant-garde modernity.

Per­haps because Bergson’s pop­u­lar­i­ty as a pub­lic intel­lec­tu­al dimin­ished fol­low­ing World War I, he has not been suf­fi­cient­ly acknowl­edged for his essen­tial con­tri­bu­tions to the devel­op­ment of defa­mil­iar­iza­tion the­o­ries. When the extent of his influ­ence in the ear­ly-20th cen­tu­ry is tak­en into account, how­ev­er, it becomes eas­i­er to trace his lat­er impact, such as in the works of the Eng­lish mod­ernist lit­er­ary the­o­rists who drew on their own lit­er­ary her­itage while also being influ­enced by Bergson’s almost cult-like appeal at the time. In some ways the pop­u­lar McLuhanism of the mid to late 1960s was a rep­e­ti­tion of the ear­li­er rage for Bergson­ism. T.E. Hulme, a Berg­son-influ­enced crit­ic, wrote foun­da­tion­al essays that set the stage for lat­er the­o­ret­i­cal devel­op­ments in Eng­lish mod­ernism. McLuhan val­ued Hulme’s book of essays, Spec­u­la­tions, to such a degree that accord­ing to for­mer grad­u­ate stu­dent Don­ald F. Theall he assigned it as a required read­ing for grad­u­ate stu­dents in the 1950s (Theall 209). His inter­est in Hulme mat­ters because in the McLuhan lit­er­a­ture Berg­son is often down­played as a poten­tial influ­ence due to the sup­po­si­tion that, because McLuhan’s ear­ly idol Wyn­d­ham Lewis railed against him in lat­er years, McLuhan him­self must have paid lit­tle atten­tion to Berg­son. Yet Mary Ann Gillies records that Lewis was a great admir­er of Berg­son in his younger days and that Lewis typ­i­cal­ly assim­i­lat­ed what he could from sources and then repu­di­at­ed them (Gillies 50). Hulme trans­lat­ed some of Bergson’s writ­ings and advo­cat­ed his ideas, such as those relat­ed to defa­mil­iar­iza­tion, found in sev­er­al essays includ­ing “Bergson’s The­o­ry of Art,” in which he writes:

The cre­ative activ­i­ty of the artist is only nec­es­sary because of the lim­i­ta­tions placed on inter­nal and exter­nal per­cep­tion by the neces­si­ties of action. If we could break though the veil which actions inter­pose, if we could come into direct con­tact with sense and con­scious­ness, art would be use­less and unnec­es­sary.… [T]he func­tion of the artist is to pierce through here and there, acci­den­tal­ly as it were, the veil placed between us and real­i­ty by the lim­i­ta­tions of our per­cep­tion engen­dered by action. (Hulme 147)

Else­where in his essay Hulme employs a vari­ant of Bergson’s “crust” ref­er­ence when he states that in every art form “the artist picks out of real­i­ty some­thing which we, own­ing to a cer­tain hard­en­ing of our per­cep­tions, have been unable to see our­selves” (156).

Crit­ics such as James M. Cur­tis have argued that T.S. Eliot draws con­sid­er­ably from Berg­son,[3] notably with Eliot’s employ­ment of defa­mil­iar­iza­tion: “[Eliot] wrote in The Use of Poet­ry, ‘It [poet­ry] may effect rev­o­lu­tions in sen­si­bil­i­ty, such as are peri­od­i­cal­ly need­ed, may help break up the con­ven­tion­al modes of per­cep­tion and val­u­a­tion which are per­pet­u­al­ly form­ing, and make peo­ple see the world afresh, or some new part of it’” (Cur­tis, “French Struc­tural­ism” 373). It could be argued that Eliot is deriv­ing his idea as much from the Roman­tics as from Berg­son, but Dou­glass iden­ti­fies Bergson­ian ele­ments in many of Eliot’s works, includ­ing The Waste Land and Four Quar­tets (Dou­glass 114). In The Mechan­i­cal Bride (1951), McLuhan adopts one of Eliot’s state­ments on defa­mil­iar­iza­tion in poet­ry (with­out cit­ing it) in an ear­ly iter­a­tion of the coun­teren­vi­ron­ment. Regard­ing mod­ern adver­tis­ing, McLuhan argues that adver­tis­ers have invad­ed the “col­lec­tive pub­lic mind… in order to manip­u­late, exploit, con­trol” (McLuhan, The Mechan­i­cal Bride v). McLuhan’s crit­i­cal approach oper­ates in a man­ner that presages the coun­teren­vi­ron­ment: “This book revers­es that process by pro­vid­ing typ­i­cal visu­al imagery of our envi­ron­ment and dis­lo­cat­ing it into mean­ing by inspec­tion. Where visu­al sym­bols have been employed in an effort to par­a­lyze the mind, they are here used as a means of ener­giz­ing it” (v-vii). In “The Meta­phys­i­cal Poets” Eliot employs a sim­i­lar vocab­u­lary of dis­lo­ca­tion when writ­ing: “The poet must become more and more com­pre­hen­sive, more allu­sive, more indi­rect, in order to force, to dis­lo­cate if nec­es­sary, lan­guage into his mean­ing” (Eliot 289). In the above pas­sage McLuhan’s ref­er­enc­ing of Eliot demon­strates an indi­rect use of Bergson’s defa­mil­iar­iza­tion dur­ing the ear­ly stages of McLuhan’s for­mu­la­tion of the counterenvironment.

In “It’s Alive! Bertram Brook­er and Vital­ism,” Adam Laud­er con­sid­ers McLuhan’s rela­tion to Berg­son by way of Lewis (who was both indebt­ed to and con­flict­ed about Berg­son) and posits a pos­si­ble con­nec­tion in the Cana­di­an con­text through the painter, author, adver­tis­ing exec­u­tive, and the­o­rist Bertram Brook­er (81-105). In the lat­ter part of his doc­tor­al dis­ser­ta­tion, Laud­er dis­cuss­es McLuhan’s pos­si­ble use of Bergson’s Laugh­ter in cre­at­ing a tem­plate for his coun­teren­vi­ron­ment. Laud­er devel­ops the idea (also sug­gest­ed by Theall and McLuhan him­self) that McLuhan’s humour involves Menip­pean satire. Laud­er links this form to Lewis’s satir­i­cal writ­ing, McLuhan, Mikhail Bakhtin on the car­ni­va­lesque, and artist Robert Smith­son, who was an admir­er of Lewis:

As in Bergson’s ear­li­er com­men­tary, Lewis viewed the mech­a­nized body as a key locus of the com­ic. But where­as the French thinker iden­ti­fied a util­i­tar­i­an pur­pose in laughter—namely as a cor­rec­tive ‘intend­ed to humil­i­ate’ unso­cia­ble behaviour—Lewis, by con­trast, took aim at Bergson’s anthro­po­mor­phic illu­sion. Rather than shoring up the human­ist delu­sions of lib­er­al democ­ra­cy, Lewis’s comedic bod­ies reveal the subject’s inher­ence in posthu­man pat­terns of mech­a­niza­tion that we would now rec­og­nize as specif­i­cal­ly pro­to-infor­mat­ic. The cyn­i­cal over­tones of Lewis’s trans­for­ma­tion of Bergson’s the­o­riza­tion of the com­ic reveals his indebt­ed­ness to tra­di­tions of Menip­pean satire: an ancient Greek genre that cast a long shad­ow on the sub­se­quent devel­op­ment of Euro­pean lit­er­a­ture, which was like­wise an endur­ing inspi­ra­tion to McLuhan. (Laud­er, “Dig­i­tal Mate­ri­alisms” 357-58)

Regard­ing Bakhtin’s writ­ing on humour and satire, Laris­sa Rudo­va notes that among the many Rus­sians read­ing Berg­son in the ear­ly-20th cen­tu­ry was Mikhail Bakhtin, whose book Rabelais and His World is said to have much in com­mon with Bergson’s Laugh­ter (Rudo­va 107n). Ele­na Lam­ber­ti favours the Menip­pean satire argu­ment, writ­ing that “more than a moral and cyn­i­cal satire, McLuhan’s can be per­ceived most­ly as a Menip­pean satire, which is devot­ed to inten­tion­al­ly attack­ing the read­er in order to wake him/her up” (Lam­ber­ti 192). It does seem that Menip­pean satire can involve a form of deau­tom­a­tiz­ing defa­mil­iar­iza­tion not unlike that the­o­rized by Berg­son, mean­ing that McLuhan could have employed Bergson­ian defa­mil­iar­iza­tion (at a time when Bergson’s rep­u­ta­tion had long been in eclipse) as a mod­el for his own coun­teren­vi­ron­men­tal defami­lar­iza­tion, while also under­stand­ing him­self to be writ­ing in the more eso­teric form of Menip­pean satire.

Though the Eng­lish mod­ernists and Russ­ian for­mal­ists were ide­o­log­i­cal­ly dis­tinct from each oth­er in many ways, both Cur­tis and Ewa Thomp­son have observed that each group adopt­ed Bergson’s ideas on defa­mil­iar­iza­tion with­in a short time of each oth­er (Cur­tis, “French Struc­tural­ism” 373; Thomp­son 67). Many writ­ers cite Shklovsky’s the­o­ry of ostra­ne­nie as the point of ori­gin for defa­mil­iar­iza­tion more gen­er­al­ly, despite the idea devel­op­ing for a cen­tu­ry or longer by the time he pro­mot­ed it as a rad­i­cal­ly new inter­pre­ta­tive tool. It may be that Shklovsky is giv­en this cred­it large­ly as a con­se­quence of ide­o­log­i­cal affil­i­a­tion in that his place at the ori­gins of the Russ­ian avant-garde may make him a more ide­al and con­ve­nient ances­tor fig­ure than Berg­son or the Roman­tics, who might seem less in tune with the social-polit­i­cal con­cerns of defa­mil­iar­iza­tion as it evolved in the lat­er-20th cen­tu­ry. It does appear that defa­mil­iar­iza­tion in Russ­ian for­mal­ism and Eng­lish mod­ernism share sim­i­lar roots in Roman­ti­cism and Berg­son. Robin­son argues that Shklovsky bor­rows one of the deau­tom­a­tiz­ing effects of ostra­ne­nie, see­ing as opposed to recog­ni­tion, from Berg­son in his 1914 essay “The Res­ur­rec­tion of the Word” (Robin­son 118-19). Cur­tis ear­li­er pro­posed that Shklovsky employed Berg­son as a tem­plate for “the par­a­digm, the struc­tur­al prin­ci­ples” for his own the­o­ret­i­cal ideas (Cur­tis, “Russ­ian For­mal­ism” 110). Shklovsky’s ostra­ne­nie was lit­tle known in North Amer­i­ca when McLuhan was for­mu­lat­ing his notions. How­ev­er, McLuhan does cite the writ­ings of the Russ­ian Sergei Eisen­stein and Hun­gar­i­an Lás­zló Moholy-Nagy, both relat­ed to Con­struc­tivism, as being among his intel­lec­tu­al influ­ences of the late 1940s and 50s. Theall points out that McLuhan read Moholy-Nagy’s Vision in Motion as well as Eisenstein’s Film Form (Theall 43). Even ear­li­er, cir­ca 1940, McLuhan wrote about his teach­ing meth­ods at St. Louis Uni­ver­si­ty: “I always spend at least two weeks intro­duc­ing them to the writ­ings of Pudovkin and Eisen­stein on film tech­nique and make them adapt a nov­el to sce­nario form” (Gor­don 97; McLuhan, Let­ters 107). While Eisenstein’s (or more suit­ably Dzi­ga Vertov’s) use of mon­tage can be an exam­ple of defa­mil­iar­iza­tion in prac­tice, Eisen­stein does not dis­cuss defa­mil­iar­iza­tion as such in Film Form. R. Bruce Elder more recent­ly con­sid­ers Eisenstein’s use of mon­tage in terms of defa­mil­iar­iza­tion (Elder 290-91), despite the lan­guage of defa­mil­iar­iza­tion being absent in the dis­cus­sion of mon­tage in Film Form.

Oliv­er Botar rec­og­nizes Moholy-Nagy’s indebt­ed­ness to the Ital­ian Futur­ists and indi­cates a dif­fer­ence between them:

As ear­ly as 1913 F.T. Marinet­ti wrote of ‘mul­ti­ple and simul­ta­ne­ous aware­ness in a sin­gle indi­vid­ual,’ a poten­tial­ly desta­bi­liz­ing state that the Futur­ists sought to aes­theti­cize and har­ness. How­ev­er, this desta­bi­liza­tion was not utopi­an in impe­tus. In their respons­es to moder­ni­ty, the Futur­ists sought, for the most part, to instill a sense of dis­com­fort and dis­ori­en­ta­tion rather than adap­ta­tion in their audi­ences. In Moholy-Nagy’s scheme, art and artists are accord­ed the role of edu­ca­tor rather than that of agent provo­ca­teur, and it is through this ped­a­gog­i­cal prism that art is refract­ed and pro­ject­ed toward medi­al exper­i­men­ta­tion and sen­so­ry training/expansion. (Botar 11)

In this sce­nario, it is the Futur­ists, more so than Moholy-Nagy, who were inter­est­ed in the pos­si­bil­i­ties of defa­mil­iar­iza­tion. McLuhan makes mul­ti­ple ref­er­ences to the Futur­ists in his writ­ings, and it is well known from their var­i­ous man­i­festos that they were devo­tees of Berg­son. McLuhan, giv­en his per­son­al rela­tion­ships with Lewis and Ezra Pound, was even more sym­pa­thet­ic to the Futur­ist-relat­ed Eng­lish Vor­ti­cists. Botar shows that Moholy-Nagy had con­sid­er­able access to Russ­ian Con­struc­tivist ideas in the ear­ly 1920s, not­ing that “in 1922 Moholy-Nagy teamed up with Hun­gar­i­an art his­to­ri­an Alfréd Kamény, who had just returned from Moscow full of the ideas of Alexan­der Bog­danov and his Pro­letkult move­ment” (21). Moholy-Nagy also knew El Lis­sitzky and the Hun­gar­i­an Béla Uitz, who was famil­iar with many mem­bers of the Russ­ian avant-garde. Moholy-Nagy and McLuhan shared a friend in the archi­tec­tur­al and tech­nol­o­gy his­to­ri­an Sigfried Giedion. Botar recounts that Giedion “remem­bers Moholy-Nagy lying on the ground and point­ing his cam­era upward from the ground and straight down­ward from a bal­cony dur­ing a joint vaca­tion at Belle-Île-en-Mer in 1925, short­ly after Moholy-Nagy began to use a cam­era. Moholy-Nagy’s obses­sion with nov­el view­points and visu­al qual­i­ties was part of his effort to ‘edu­cate’ vision” (Botar 33). Moholy-Nagy’s ear­ly pho­tog­ra­phy is of a defa­mil­iar­iz­ing nature, but his diverse influ­ences and activ­i­ties make it dif­fi­cult to sit­u­ate him with­in a sin­gle ten­den­cy. Her­bert Molder­ings writes about Moholy-Nagy’s pho­to­graph of the Berlin Radio Tow­er, cir­ca 1928, in a man­ner that con­scious­ly applies Shklovsky’s ideas and vocab­u­lary relat­ed to ostra­ne­nie: “The steep view from above alien­ates the view­er and makes the depict­ed detail of real­i­ty dif­fi­cult to rec­og­nize at first glance. Instead of pas­sive­ly per­ceiv­ing what the pho­to­graph shows, the view­er is expected—as he is when stand­ing in front of a Cubist painting—to piece togeth­er the depict­ed shapes into a rec­og­niz­able whole. Thus see­ing becomes a dif­fi­cult, delayed and hence con­scious process” (Molder­ings 41). Here Molder­ings dis­cuss­es the pho­tographs rather than Moholy-Nagy’s texts, mak­ing it pos­si­ble that his defa­mil­iar­iza­tion ref­er­ences derive more specif­i­cal­ly from Shklovsky as well as the lat­er lit­er­a­ture on pho­tog­ra­ph­er Alexan­der Rod­chenko and film­mak­er Dzi­ga Vertov.

Botar points out that Moholy-Nagy was very much involved with the­o­ries of “Bio­cen­trism” (12). His own writ­ings about art in Vision in Motion some­times resem­ble Piet Mondrian’s and Theo van Doesburg’s writ­ings on De Sti­jl, which deal in a philo­soph­i­cal way with relationships:

This devel­op­ment of the visu­al arts from fixed per­spec­tive to “vision in motion” is vision in rela­tion­ships. The fixed view­point, the iso­lat­ed han­dling of prob­lems as a norm is reject­ed and replaced by a flex­i­ble approach, by see­ing mat­ters in a con­stant­ly chang­ing mov­ing field of mutu­al rela­tion­ships. This may start a new phase in the his­to­ry of mankind, based upon the uni­ver­sal prin­ci­ple of rela­tion­ships. It is the clue to all the changes which took or will take place in the sci­ences as well as in phi­los­o­phy, includ­ing edu­ca­tion and all oth­er fields, in fact, in our whole civ­i­liza­tion. (Moholy-Nagy 114, orig­i­nal emphasis)

Moholy-Nagy con­cen­trates more on inte­gra­tion and rela­tion­ships than defa­mil­iar­iza­tion, focus­ing less on rev­e­la­tion than his idea of the Total Work. In one instance, how­ev­er, Moholy-Nagy echoes Shel­ley and McLuhan on the nature of cre­ative persons:

The artist uncon­scious­ly dis­en­tan­gles the most essen­tial strands of exis­tence from the con­tort­ed and chaot­ic com­plex­i­ties of actu­al­i­ty, and weaves them into an emo­tion­al fab­ric of com­pelling valid­i­ty, char­ac­ter­is­tic of him­self as well as of his epoch. This abil­i­ty of selec­tion is an out­stand­ing gift based upon intu­itive pow­er and insight, upon judg­ment and knowl­edge, and upon inner respon­si­bil­i­ty to fun­da­men­tal bio­log­i­cal and social laws which pro­voke a rein­ter­pre­ta­tion in every civ­i­liza­tion. This intu­itive pow­er is present in oth­er cre­ative work­ers, too, in philoso­phers, poets, sci­en­tists, tech­nol­o­gists. They pur­sue the same hopes, seek the same mean­ings, and—although the con­tent of their work appears to be different—the trends of their approach and the back­ground of their activ­i­ty are iden­ti­cal. (Moholy-Nagy 11)

Moholy-Nagy emerged as an artist at a time when Bergson­ism suf­fused Euro­pean mod­ernism, and by the ear­ly 1920s he would have had direct con­tact with the Russ­ian Shklovsky ver­sion of it. Hence, his prac­ti­cal and the­o­ret­i­cal ref­er­ences to defa­mil­iar­iza­tion may be asso­ci­at­ed with mul­ti­ple sources.

Shklovsky’s adop­tion of Bergson’s automa­tism and defa­mil­iar­iza­tion is evi­dent when he writes:

In study­ing poet­ic speech… we find mate­r­i­al obvi­ous­ly cre­at­ed to remove the automa­tism of per­cep­tion; the author’s pur­pose is to cre­ate the vision which results from that deau­tom­a­tized per­cep­tion. A work is cre­at­ed “artis­ti­cal­ly” so that its per­cep­tion is imped­ed and the great­est pos­si­ble effect is pro­duced through the slow­ness of the per­cep­tion. As a result of this lin­ger­ing, the object is per­ceived not in its exten­sion in space, but, so to speak, in its con­ti­nu­ity. (Shklovsky 27)

In a man­ner rem­i­nis­cent of Berg­son and the Roman­tics, Shklovsky dwells on the dead­en­ing of response that results from over-famil­iar­iza­tion and the neces­si­ty of dis­rup­tion in order to gain clar­i­ty of vision:

Habit­u­al­iza­tion devours works, clothes, fur­ni­ture, one’s wife, and the fear of war. “If the whole com­plex lives of many peo­ple go on uncon­scious­ly, then such lives are as if they had nev­er been.” And art exists that one may recov­er the sen­sa­tion of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The pur­pose of art is to impart the sen­sa­tion of things as they are per­ceived and not as they are known. The tech­nique of art is to make objects “unfa­mil­iar,” to make forms dif­fi­cult, to increase the dif­fi­cul­ty and length of per­cep­tion because the process of per­cep­tion is an aes­thet­ic end in itself and must be pro­longed. (20, orig­i­nal emphasis)

Jurij Striedter out­lines Shklovsky’s ideas on defa­mil­iar­iza­tion as follows:

On the one hand, the exclu­sive focus on the artis­tic func­tion of defa­mil­iar­iza­tion (neglect­ing any extra-artis­tic ref­er­ence of impli­ca­tion) now takes the form of a the­sis: Changes in art and in artis­tic forms occur through a process, whol­ly con­tained with­in the realm of art and indis­pens­able to it, where­by autom­a­tized forms and devices give way to new ones that defa­mil­iar­ize them afresh. (Striedter 30)

McLuhan sim­i­lar­ly sug­gests about the coun­teren­vi­ron­ment: “All the arts might be con­sid­ered to act as coun­teren­vi­ron­ments or coun­ter­gra­di­ents. Any envi­ron­men­tal form what­so­ev­er sat­u­rates per­cep­tion so that its own char­ac­ter is imper­cep­ti­ble; it has the pow­er to dis­tort or deflect human aware­ness. Even the most pop­u­lar arts can serve to increase the lev­el of aware­ness at least until they become entire­ly envi­ron­men­tal and unper­ceived” (McLuhan and Park­er 2). Impor­tant­ly, the oper­a­tions and effects of defa­mil­iar­iza­tion or the coun­teren­vi­ron­ment are his­tor­i­cal and are not inher­ent prop­er­ties of the work. Like a joke that los­es its provoca­tive pow­er with rep­e­ti­tion, what defa­mil­iar­izes at one time may oper­ate very dif­fer­ent­ly with repeat­ed expo­sure or when con­di­tions and expec­ta­tions have changed.

Accord­ing to the com­men­tary of John Wil­lett, Brecht began writ­ing and speak­ing about Ver­frem­dungsef­fekt, or the alien­ation effect, fol­low­ing his vis­it to Moscow in 1935. Wil­lett rea­son­ably argues that Brecht’s notion is derived from Shklovsky (Brecht, “Alien­ation Effects” 99), despite the fact that for­mal­ism was sup­pressed at that time in the Sovi­et Union with the insti­tu­tion­al­iza­tion of social­ist real­ism. Brecht’s alien­ation effect became a great influ­ence in the West at a time when ref­er­ences to ear­li­er Russ­ian for­mal­ist and Sovi­et avant-garde sources were dif­fi­cult to come by. Brecht’s sig­nif­i­cance is not only for the val­ue of his ver­sion of this the­o­ret­i­cal idea, but also for his polit­i­cal posi­tion with which many lat­er the­o­rists and artists could identify—perhaps more so than with Berg­son or cer­tain­ly the Romantics—if they want­ed to main­tain their sense of radicalism.

In his essay “Short Descrip­tion of a New Tech­nique of Act­ing Which Pro­duces an Alien­ation Effect,” Brecht writes:

The first con­di­tion for the A-effect’s appli­ca­tion to this end is that stage and audi­to­ri­um must be purged of every­thing “mag­i­cal” and that no “hyp­not­ic ten­sions” should be set up.… The audi­ence was not “worked up” by a dis­play of tem­pera­ment or “swept away” by act­ing with taut­ened mus­cles; in short, no attempt was made to put it in a trance and give it the illu­sion of watch­ing an ordi­nary unre­hearsed event. As will be seen present­ly, the audience’s ten­den­cy to plunge into such illu­sions has to be checked by spe­cif­ic artis­tic means. (136)

Brecht’s dis­cus­sion of the alien­ation effect pre­pares the ground­work for McLuhan’s coun­teren­vi­ron­ment and lat­er con­tem­po­rary art tech­niques that come to be known as insti­tu­tion­al cri­tique because of the insis­tence on remov­ing the mag­i­cal, the trance, and the illu­sion of the set­ting, result­ing in what Shel­ley terms lay­ing bare or Berg­son, Shel­ley, and Coleridge the remov­ing the veil that sup­press­es our encounter with actu­al­i­ty. Brecht rephras­es the Romantic’s under­stand­ing of defamiliarization:

The achieve­ment of the A-effect con­sti­tutes some­thing utter­ly ordi­nary, recur­rent; it is just a wide­ly-prac­tised way of draw­ing one’s own or some­one else’s atten­tion to a thing.… The A-effect con­sists in turn­ing the object of which one is to be made aware, to which one’s atten­tion is to be drawn, from some­thing ordi­nary, famil­iar, imme­di­ate­ly acces­si­ble, into some­thing pecu­liar, strik­ing and unex­pect­ed. What is obvi­ous is in a cer­tain sense made incom­pre­hen­si­ble, but this is only in order that it may then be made all the eas­i­er to com­pre­hend. (143-44)

Here Brecht does not essen­tial­ly add more to what Shel­ley, Berg­son, and Shklovsky had already pro­posed. Yet these rep­e­ti­tions are para­dox­i­cal­ly admired for their the­o­ret­i­cal orig­i­nal­i­ty, which may call to mind Ros­alind Krauss’s argu­ment con­cern­ing the recur­ring for­mat of the grid in avant-garde art. (Krauss 54-58) Brecht’s tru­ly inno­v­a­tive depar­ture is in the already men­tioned focus on the effects of stag­ing on the viewer.

In “The Author as Pro­duc­er,” Ben­jamin writes about Brecht’s epic theatre:

I remind you here of the songs, which have their chief func­tion in inter­rupt­ing the action. Here—in the prin­ci­ple of interruption—epic the­ater, as you see, takes up a pro­ce­dure that has become famil­iar to you in recent years from film and radio, press and pho­tog­ra­phy. I am speak­ing of the pro­ce­dure of mon­tage: the super­im­posed ele­ment dis­rupts the con­text in which it is insert­ed.… The inter­rup­tion of action, on account of which Brecht described his the­ater as epic, con­stant­ly coun­ter­acts an illu­sion in the audi­ence. For such illu­sion is a hin­drance to a the­ater that pro­pos­es to make use of ele­ments of real­i­ty in exper­i­men­tal rearrange­ments.… Epic the­ater… does not repro­duce sit­u­a­tions; rather, it dis­cov­ers them. This dis­cov­ery is accom­plished by means of the inter­rup­tion of sequences. Only inter­rup­tion here is not the char­ac­ter of a stim­u­lant but an orga­niz­ing func­tion. It arrests the action in its course, and there­by com­pels the lis­ten­er to adopt an atti­tude vis-à-vis the process, the actor vis-à-vis his role. (234-35, orig­i­nal emphasis)

Ben­jamin char­ac­ter­izes Brecht’s mon­tage as a pro­ce­dure of inter­rup­tion that “dis­rupts the con­text in which it is insert­ed”, there­by prompt­ing the dis­so­lu­tion of the audience’s illu­sion, lead­ing to their rec­og­niz­ing the real­i­ty of their sit­u­a­tion. This is very like the aes­thet­ic and social oper­a­tions of McLuhan’s coun­teren­vi­ron­ment as well as insti­tu­tion­al cri­tique, which have the capac­i­ty to trans­form aware­ness, lead­ing to poten­tial change.

Ben­jamin con­sid­ers the rela­tion of humour to the epic theater:

To con­struct from the small­est ele­ments of behav­ior what in Aris­totelian dra­matur­gy is called “action” is the pur­pose of epic the­ater. Its means are there­fore more mod­est than those of tra­di­tion­al the­ater; like­wise its aims. It is less con­cerned with fill­ing the pub­lic with feel­ings, even sedi­tious ones, than with alien­at­ing it in an endur­ing man­ner, through think­ing, from the con­di­tions in which it lives. It may be not­ed, by the way, that there is no bet­ter start for think­ing than laugh­ter. And, in par­tic­u­lar, con­vul­sion of the diaphragm usu­al­ly pro­vides bet­ter oppor­tu­ni­ties for thought than con­vul­sion of the soul. Epic the­ater is lav­ish only in occa­sions for laugh­ter. (236)

Benjamin’s reflec­tions on Brecht’s the­atre are remind­ful of Berg­son and McLuhan, who both iden­ti­fy the com­ic and the struc­ture of com­e­dy as being mod­els for the defa­mil­iar­iz­ing pro­duc­tion of rev­e­la­to­ry awareness.

The Eng­lish trans­la­tion of Brecht on The­atre, which out­lines the alien­ation effect, was pub­lished the same year as McLuhan’s Under­stand­ing Media. McLuhan for­mal­ized the term “coun­teren­vi­ron­ment” around that time, although he had already out­lined the basics of it in The Mechan­i­cal Bride. The coun­teren­vi­ron­ment is engaged in a ref­or­ma­tion of con­scious­ness; it devel­ops out of a mod­ern tra­di­tion in which the role of art is to direct people’s crit­i­cal atten­tion to their con­text and reawak­en their sen­si­bil­i­ties so as to enable a fresh engage­ment with their own imme­di­ate sit­u­a­tion. This is sim­i­lar to Bergson’s defa­mil­iar­iza­tion and how Fredric Jame­son char­ac­ter­izes Shklovsky’s ostra­ne­nie as “a way of restor­ing con­scious expe­ri­ence, of break­ing through dead­en­ing and mechan­i­cal habits of con­duct (autom­a­ti­za­tion, as the Czech For­mal­ists will lat­er call it), and allow­ing us to be reborn to the world in its exis­ten­tial fresh­ness and hor­ror” (Jame­son 51, orig­i­nal empha­sis). What is large­ly new with McLuhan is the focus on the envi­ron­ment as the locus of change and trans­for­ma­tion. How­ev­er, in Cul­ture and Envi­ron­ment (1933), McLuhan’s Cam­bridge instruc­tor F.R. Leav­is and Denys Thomp­son write about the environment’s adverse effects on the cit­i­zen­ry as well as the need to strug­gle against it and train aware­ness (Leav­is and Thomp­son 4-5; Marches­sault 28). Their use of the term envi­ron­ment resem­bles McLuhan’s because, impor­tant­ly, they do not use it to refer to space or nature but rather to process­es that shape and alter our out­looks and per­spec­tives. As McLuhan argues: “Envi­ron­ments are not pas­sive wrap­pings, but are, rather, active process­es which are invis­i­ble. The groundrules, per­va­sive struc­ture, and over-all pat­terns of envi­ron­ments elude easy per­cep­tion. Anti-envi­ron­ments, or coun­ter­si­t­u­a­tions made by artists, pro­vide means of direct atten­tion and enable us to see and under­stand more clear­ly” (McLuhan and Fiore 68). There is less a sense of repet­i­tive action caus­ing an automa­tist state than there is a recog­ni­tion that we are always in an envi­ron­men­tal sit­u­a­tion that requires ongo­ing defamiliarization.

McLuhan pro­pos­es that

[t]he func­tion of the artist in cor­rect­ing the uncon­scious bias of per­cep­tion in any giv­en cul­ture can be betrayed if he mere­ly repeats the bias of the cul­ture instead of read­just­ing it. In fact, it can be said that any cul­ture which feeds mere­ly on its direct antecedents is dying. In this sense the role of art is to cre­ate the means of per­cep­tion by cre­at­ing coun­teren­vi­ron­ments that open the door of per­cep­tion to peo­ple oth­er­wise numbed in a non­per­ceiv­able sit­u­a­tion. (McLuhan and Park­er 241)

McLuhan’s pas­sage on defa­mil­iar­iz­ing per­cep­tion echoes Shklovsky’s claim that “art exists that one may recov­er the sen­sa­tion of life; it exists to make one feel things”. McLuhan does not entire­ly equate con­ven­tion­al or tra­di­tion­al art with the coun­teren­vi­ron­ment because for him the role of the artist is to read­just the bias of cul­ture rather than to repeat or rein­force it. In some respects, he is restat­ing the idea and role of the avant-garde in modernity.

McLuhan began ref­er­enc­ing the coun­teren­vi­ron­ment around 1964, at a moment of great change in the North Amer­i­can art world with the emer­gence of Min­i­mal­ism, Pop Art, Fluxus, and short­ly after­wards, Con­cep­tu­al Art, new media art forms, and insti­tu­tion­al cri­tique. It is easy now to for­get that the texts of Post­struc­tural­ism as well as those of Guy Debord and the Sit­u­a­tion­ists were not read­i­ly avail­able in North Amer­i­ca at the time. Eng­lish trans­la­tions of Pierre Bourdieu’s soci­o­log­i­cal writ­ings on cul­ture were still to come. But McLuhan was a North Amer­i­can cul­tur­al phe­nom­e­non, with his writ­ings eas­i­ly acces­si­ble and wide­ly read by artists, crit­ics, and oth­ers in the art­world. Some of Brecht’s the­o­ret­i­cal writ­ings were also avail­able, and some artists, espe­cial­ly the more politi­cized, cite his alien­ation effect as an influ­ence on their work. How­ev­er, for the type of art­work that emerged in North Amer­i­ca in the mid 1960s to ear­ly 70s involv­ing direct­ing one’s atten­tion to the con­tex­tu­al frame­work of one’s own sit­u­a­tion and activ­i­ty, McLuhan’s the­o­ry of the coun­teren­vi­ron­ment appears to have played a sig­nif­i­cant and under-acknowl­edged role in lay­ing down the the­o­ret­i­cal ground­work (Allan, “Con­cep­tu­al” 131; “Coun­teren­vi­ron­ment” 22-45; Laud­er, “Drop-In” 48-49).

The term insti­tu­tion­al cri­tique emerges in the mid- to late-1970s and is most close­ly asso­ci­at­ed with the writ­ings of Ben­jamin Buchloh that deal with an art form that, like the coun­teren­vi­ron­ment, does a Gestalt rever­sal by turn­ing the ground to fig­ure. Buchloh was the sec­ond edi­tor of the Ger­man mag­a­zine Inter­funk­tio­nen, which spe­cial­ized in pro­vid­ing space for artists’ mag­a­zine projects that are art­works employ­ing mass-pub­li­ca­tion tech­niques. The first edi­tor was Friedrich Heubach whose ini­tial issue of 1969 orig­i­nat­ed out of Wolf Vostell’s actions in oppo­si­tion to the 1968 Doc­u­men­ta exhi­bi­tion. This issue includes ref­er­ences to McLuhan in rela­tion to the inter­me­dia approach of Vostell (an artist with Fluxus con­nec­tions) and his fel­low artists (Inter­funk­tio­nen 17). Buchloh states that it is with the rise of Con­cep­tu­al Art in the late 1960s (he spec­i­fies 1968) that the canon­i­cal artists whom he asso­ciates with insti­tu­tion­al cri­tique emerge: Michael Ash­er, Daniel Buren, Mar­cel Broodthaers, Hans Haacke, Dan Gra­ham, and Lawrence Wein­er. Buchloh writes: “There I would sug­gest that only at this time did a rad­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent basis for crit­i­cal inter­ven­tions in the dis­cur­sive and insti­tu­tion­al frame­works deter­min­ing the pro­duc­tion and recep­tion of con­tem­po­rary art become estab­lished” (xxiv). This claim may be large­ly true of this cohort of artists at this spe­cif­ic moment in con­tem­po­rary art, but the gen­er­al the­o­ret­i­cal para­me­ters had been set for a very long time.

Authors on insti­tu­tion­al cri­tique typ­i­cal­ly adopt Buchloh’s nar­ra­tive. Para­dox­i­cal­ly, how­ev­er, these authors are often reluc­tant to use the tools pro­vid­ed by insti­tu­tion­al cri­tique to exam­ine its own pre­sup­po­si­tions and his­tor­i­cal back­ground. For exam­ple, Blake Stim­son writes: “Insti­tu­tion­al cri­tique, as it will be under­stood here, was a child of 1968” (20), assum­ing this year of polit­i­cal unrest as the technique’s point of ori­gin. Oth­er writ­ers on insti­tu­tion­al cri­tique, per­haps part­ly as a con­se­quence of the increased pop­u­lar­i­ty of Hans Haacke’s work in the 1980s, begin stress­ing the impor­tance of leg­i­ble polit­i­cal con­tent for such work, often refer­ring to thinkers such as Michel Fou­cault, Bour­dieu, and Debord as new points of ref­er­ence. Debord and the Sit­u­a­tion­ists employed a form of defa­mil­iar­iza­tion in work relat­ed to their the­o­ries of the dérive and détourne­ment (both seem­ing­ly adopt­ed from the Sur­re­al­ists). Bour­dieu, in the intro­duc­tion to the Eng­lish-lan­guage edi­tion of Dis­tinc­tions, writes of “a sort of estrange­ment from the famil­iar, domes­tic, native world, the cri­tique (in the Kant­ian sense) of cul­ture [that] invites each read­er, through the ‘mak­ing strange’ beloved of the Russ­ian for­mal­ists, to repro­duce on his or her own behalf the crit­i­cal break of which it is the prod­uct” (Bour­dieu xiv). With Bour­dieu, the con­nec­tion to the tra­di­tion of defa­mil­iar­iza­tion is main­tained, although it is curi­ous that, as a French writer, he does not rec­og­nize the part­ly Bergson­ian ori­gins of the Russ­ian for­mal­ist idea that he cites.

In “What is Insti­tu­tion­al Cri­tique?” Andrea Fras­er states that insti­tu­tion­al cri­tique “engages sites above all as social sites, struc­tured sets of rela­tions that are fun­da­men­tal­ly social rela­tions. To say that they are social rela­tions is not to oppose them to inter­sub­jec­tive or even intra­sub­jec­tive rela­tions, but to say that a site is a social field of those rela­tions” (Fras­er 305, empha­sis orig­i­nal). It is not only the vis­i­ble aspects of the site that are dealt with, but more impor­tant­ly “their struc­ture, par­tic­u­lar­ly what is hier­ar­chi­cal in that struc­ture and the forms of pow­er and dom­i­na­tion, sym­bol­ic and mate­r­i­al vio­lence, pro­duced by those hier­ar­chies” (307). Fras­er appears to be draw­ing on Bour­dieu as well as Fou­cault, employ­ing a chang­ing vocab­u­lary to describe defa­mil­iar­iza­tion. Yet the struc­tur­al man­ner in which sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion insti­tu­tion­al cri­tique func­tions remains remark­ably sim­i­lar to that of McLuhan’s coun­teren­vi­ron­ment and to the work of those artists who were influ­enced by his writ­ing on that sub­ject. Like insti­tu­tion­al cri­tique, the coun­teren­vi­ron­ment is both aes­thet­ic and social in its rev­e­la­to­ry qual­i­ties. How­ev­er, McLuhan had fall­en out of crit­i­cal favour by the mid-1970s, mak­ing him an ances­tral fig­ure many avoid­ed until the late-1990s. As a con­se­quence, McLuhan remains large­ly invis­i­ble in the lit­er­a­ture on insti­tu­tion­al critique.

An inter­est­ing fig­ure who strad­dles his­tor­i­cal per­spec­tives is the artist Krzysztof Wod­iczko, a Pol­ish émi­gré to Cana­da and sub­se­quent­ly to the Unit­ed States. Wodiczko’s pub­lic-mon­u­ment pho­to­graph­ic slide pro­jec­tions of the 1980s were a fas­ci­nat­ing form of insti­tu­tion­al cri­tique. His work was cham­pi­oned ear­ly on by the jour­nal Octo­ber, of which Buchloh is a found­ing edi­tor. Wod­iczko notes the impor­tance of Brecht and Sovi­et prece­dents, but he also ref­er­ences McLuhan and the Sit­u­a­tion­ists. He quotes from McLuhan: “In the name of ‘progress’ our offi­cial cul­ture is striv­ing to force the new media to do the work of the old” (qtd. in Wod­iczko 59). This quo­ta­tion intro­duces an illu­mi­na­tion pro­pos­al for Philadel­phia in 1987. In a fash­ion that illus­trates the con­ti­nu­ity of Wodiczko’s ideas with the long his­to­ry of defa­mil­iar­iza­tion, he writes: “The new task for City Hall will be to trans­form the sense of the entire pub­lic insti­tu­tion and its archi­tec­tur­al body into some­thing sen­si­tive, respond­ing, and respon­si­ble, to acknowl­edge the dai­ly rhythm or dai­ly life of the city. Our task is to reat­tach the pub­lic domain’s hold on con­tem­po­rary life and to chal­lenge its alien­at­ing, elu­sive effect” (60). Peter Boswell quotes Wod­iczko as say­ing: “What is implic­it about the build­ing must be exposed as explic­it, the myth must be visu­al­ly con­cretized and unmasked.… This must hap­pen at the very place of the myth on the site of its pro­duc­tion, on its body—the build­ing” (qtd. in Boswell 16). The action must inter­fere with the phys­i­cal build­ing itself and its pub­lic address. Fur­ther­more, Wod­iczko main­tains: “This will be a sym­bol-attack, a pub­lic, psy­cho­an­a­lyt­i­cal séance, unmask­ing and reveal­ing the uncon­scious of the build­ing, its body, the ‘medi­um’ of pow­er” (qtd. in Boswell 20). In this last state­ment, Wod­iczko seems to link his approach to defa­mil­iar­iza­tion with the lan­guages of Sur­re­al­ism, psy­cho­analy­sis, and Foucault.

In this brief sketch of the rela­tion of McLuhan’s coun­teren­vi­ron­ment to the larg­er his­to­ry of defa­mil­iar­iza­tion, I have addressed numer­ous points of con­ti­nu­ity. How­ev­er, because the basic idea is at least 200 years old, emerg­ing in tan­dem with the his­tor­i­cal peri­od of moder­ni­ty, the tem­po­ral frame­works spe­cif­ic to the rep­e­ti­tions of this con­cept will them­selves be trans­formed in the ever-chang­ing envi­ron­ment. Leszek Kolakows­ki (a poly­math who also wrote on Berg­son) iden­ti­fies a prob­lem­at­ic view of his­tor­i­cal rep­e­ti­tion in which:

…the only fac­tor of impor­tance is that which con­sti­tutes the unique­ness of a par­tic­u­lar his­tor­i­cal com­plex, every detail of which—although it may be indis­putably a rep­e­ti­tion of for­mer ideas—acquires a new mean­ing in its rela­tion­ship to that com­plex and is no longer sig­nif­i­cant in any oth­er way. This hermeneu­tic assump­tion clear­ly leads to a his­tor­i­cal nihilism of its own, since by insist­ing on the exclu­sive rela­tion­ship of every detail to a syn­chron­ic whole (whether the whole be an indi­vid­ual mind or an entire cul­tur­al epoch) it rules out all con­ti­nu­ity of inter­pre­ta­tion, oblig­ing us to treat the mind or the epoch as one of a series of closed, monadic enti­ties. It lays down in advance that there is no pos­si­bil­i­ty of com­mu­ni­ca­tion among such enti­ties and no lan­guage capa­ble of describ­ing them col­lec­tive­ly. (Kolakows­ki 11)

Like­wise, with McLuhan’s coun­teren­vi­ron­ment and the stream of defa­mil­iar­iza­tion more gen­er­al­ly, it behooves us to not imag­ine that the idea emerges out of nowhere in the many instances of its appear­ance, but to con­sid­er its his­tor­i­cal speci­fici­ty, while under­stand­ing it in rela­tion to the trans­for­ma­tive his­tor­i­cal process­es that involve a fusion of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, change, con­ti­nu­ity, and repetition.

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Walsh Hoken­son, Jan. “Come­dies of Errors: Bergson’s Laugh­ter in Mod­ernist Con­texts.” Under­stand­ing Berg­son, Under­stand­ing Mod­ernism. Edit­ed by Paul Ardoin et al, Blooms­bury, 2013, pp. 38-53.

Wod­iczko, Krzysztof. “City Hall Tow­er Illu­mi­na­tion, Philadel­phia.” Crit­i­cal Vehi­cles: Writ­ings, Projects, Inter­views. MIT Press, 1999, pp. 59-61.


[1] I deal with some of these sources in rela­tion to a coun­teren­vi­ron­ment-relat­ed art prac­tice of the 1960s and 70s in my arti­cle “Coun­teren­vi­ron­ment” (22-45).

[2] For more detail on the cul­tur­al pol­i­tics sur­round­ing Berg­son in ear­ly-20th-cen­tu­ry France, see Mark Antliff.

[3] Gillies sug­gests that Paul Douglass’s Berg­son, Eliot, & Amer­i­can Lit­er­a­ture (1986) makes a con­vinc­ing case for Eliot’s being influ­enced in his crit­i­cal writ­ing by Berg­son (64).

This arti­cle is licensed under a Cre­ative Com­mons 4.0 Inter­na­tion­al License although cer­tain works ref­er­enced here­in may be sep­a­rate­ly licensed, or the author has exer­cised their right to fair deal­ing under the Cana­di­an Copy­right Act.