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Tom McG­lynn

McLuhan’s Photographic Gestalt (and the project of the object world)

Mar­shall McLuhan would often ini­ti­ate dis­course sim­ply to see where the con­ver­sa­tion would take him. His abid­ing inter­est was the per­pet­u­al advent and expand­ing poten­tial of human communication—its twists and turns of phrase, rather than any point to be made (what one has to say) or any ide­o­log­i­cal res­o­lu­tion. He was fond of inter­ject­ing at his pub­lic lec­tures, “I’m putting you on” (“The Medi­um is the Mes­sage”), inten­tion­al­ly deploy­ing the term in a play­ful mis­di­rec­tion, as Joyce might sig­ni­fy a spe­cif­ic turn of a col­lo­qui­al Irish phrase with a tran­scen­dent epiphany, both as a fool’s game to get the lan­guage flow­ing. McLuhan’s fool­ing was akin to the court jester who cre­ative­ly express­es a trans­gres­sive griev­ance to the accept­ed rule by mak­ing his state­ments tran­scen­dent­ly equiv­o­cal and there­fore uni­ver­sal. McLuhan’s wide-angled lens worked many angles. The resid­ual rel­e­van­cy of McLuhan’s work derives from his abil­i­ty to look at the kalei­do­scop­ic big pic­ture with­out get­ting ham­strung by the delim­it­ing per­spec­tive of the his­tor­i­cal­ly deter­mined, pri­vate sub­ject. His work pre­dict­ed today’s de-sub­jec­ti­fi­ca­tion of pri­vate iden­ti­ty in social media and the con­found­ing log­ic of the pri­vate sub­ject-as-object with­in the pub­lic net­work-as-verb of mod­ern com­mu­nica­tive media. McLuhan, ulti­mate­ly, was nev­er after any lit­er­al mean­ing but more a fig­u­ra­tive vision of lan­guage as pro­ject­ed sense. He would rather play with lan­guage than have its force of nam­ing con­sti­tute “the wretched mesh or sieve of our (pri­vate) atten­tion” (The Guten­berg Galaxy 249), which tends to lim­it the phe­nom­e­nal rich­ness of muta­ble expe­ri­ence.

In per­pet­u­at­ing my pho­to­graph­ic project I con­sid­er inci­den­tal topogra­phies in street fur­ni­ture, infra­struc­tur­al anom­alies, walls, trees, roads, build­ings, and peo­ple that occur in inter­sti­tial ram­bles through both urban and rur­al con­texts. I take in par­tial instan­ti­a­tions of these worlds. The object of my pho­to­graph­ic project, there­fore, is nev­er meant to be a clas­si­cal­ly-com­plet­ed sub­ject. My aim is rather to cre­ate an objec­tive topol­o­gy of sub­jec­tive par­ti­tion. The pri­vate, in this sense, is always already sub­sumed with­in the state­ment of an exte­ri­or­ized field. McLuhan described how, “con­fer­ring the means of self-delin­eation to objects, of ‘state­ment with­out syn­tax,’ pho­tog­ra­phy gave the impe­tus to a delin­eation of the inner world. State­ment with­out syn­tax or ver­bal­iza­tion was real­ly state­ment by ges­ture, by mime, and by gestalt” (Under­stand­ing Media 181). Con­tem­po­rary pho­to­graph­ic gestalt has become the panop­tic the­ater of exte­ri­or­ized rea­son, a rea­son that para­dox­i­cal­ly “fix­es” the exter­nal in the dark­room devel­op­ment of the erst­while pri­vate soul. If McLuhan has any­thing rel­e­vant say about this, it is prob­a­bly found in his state­ment “The immense tidy­ing-up of our inner lives (is max­i­mized by)the new pic­ture gestalt cul­ture” (Under­stand­ing Media 177). In light of the ever-accel­er­at­ing effi­cien­cy of our pho­to­graph­ic tidy­ing-up devices dis­trib­uted in hyper-net­worked and increas­ing­ly flu­id plat­forms such as Insta­gram, Snapchat, and Face­book, my intent at work­ing toward the elu­ci­da­tion of a sub­jec­tive “object­hood” in the vir­tu­al gestalt of the pho­to­graph­ic realm might seem a fool’s wager, but then again that would most like­ly be a bet that Mar­shall McLuhan would have very famil­iar­ly “put” on.

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Image Notes

McG­lynn, Tom. Ban­gor, Maine, Good­will Fur­ni­ture, 2013.

McG­lynn, Tom. Bench­es at Horse­shoe (Cana­di­an) Falls, 2015.

McG­lynn, Tom. Kala­ma­zoo mail­box­es, Jan­u­ary 2016.

McG­lynn, Tom. Low­er East Side gro­cery awning, NYC, 2015.

McG­lynn, Tom. Mani­la St. news box­es, Jer­sey City, 2015.

McG­lynn, Tom. met­al pre-fab build­ing, Judique, Nova Sco­tia, August 2013.

McG­lynn, Tom. Mon­tre­al (McGill) block and sign, 2015.

McG­lynn, Tom. New Jer­sey Turn­pike weeds, 2016.

McG­lynn, Tom. NYC car with body spot, 2015.

McG­lynn, Tom. paint­ed over cross­walk, Jer­sey City, 2016.

McG­lynn, Tom. sun­set park Brook­lyn paint­ed stereo speak­er, 2016.

McG­lynn, Tom. west side Man­hat­tan sil­ver van and dirty snow bank, 2014.

McG­lynn, Tom. yel­low load­ing dock, New Jer­sey, 2015.

Works Cited

McLuhan, Mar­shall. The Guten­berg Galaxy. U of T Press, 1966.

---. “The Medi­um is the Mes­sage.” Mon­day Con­fer­ence, ABC TV, 1977.

---. Under­stand­ing Media. McGraw Hill, 1964.


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