Sidney Finkelstein vs Marshall McLuhan

Out of the mothballs:

This is ancient history, and quaint from the vantage point of today’s high tech media saturated environment. But the path from the past to the present is instructive. Finkelstein is referenced in all of the critiques of McLuhan’s work, which is noteworthy given that his book was published under the auspices of the Communist Party. In 1968, the television industry was 20 years old, and the impact of the medium was just beginning to be understood.

I always considered McLuhan a fraud. I first read this book in the 1970s, before the subcultures of that era were destroyed and their innovations fully commodified and processed into the hegemonic culture. I may be forgetting some predecessors, but I take McLuhan to be, fittingly, as the first truly pop intellectual. By this I do not mean a public intellectual, or a journalist or amateur writing a serious popular work on social phenomena, but a pop intellectual with all the hucksterism that suggests, whose very work is mimetic in duplicating and embodying the very commodity logic and ideological opacity of the phenomenon it purports to characterize.

Finkelstein is no Marcuse or Adorno; he doesn’t address the incorporation of popular subjectivity into the culture industry. Being a product of an earlier age and of working class militancy of that era, he doesn’t believe that the masses have been fully absorbed into the make-believe world that McLuhan consecrates. He is an old-fashioned product of the humanistic culture he defends, though he is not a philistine that Communist parties tend to generate. Finkelstein’s 1948 Jazz, A People’s Music, was fairly influential, and he wrote an intelligent book on alienation in American literature as an indictment of American society.

Not perfect, but I am in accord with his general outlook. Nobody could have dreamed what American culture would look like in 2014–and luckily for them, these folks didn’t live to have to see it. We have different fish to fry now. but again, the comparison of then and now helps to yield perspective.

 

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