The Great Marshall McLuhan-Northrop Frye Debate, At the McLuhan Centre for Culture & Technology, April 6

25Mar17

The Great McLuhan- Frye Debate

An academic debate is an educational practicum requiring students to employ rhetoric, histrionic abilities and knowledge of the assigned topic to debate a given proposition or question with the goal of influencing the opinions of observers and/or the judge(s). 

This debate will answer the question: Who best – Marshall McLuhan or Northrop Frye – provides us with a strategy, or vision, for comprehending our present conditions?

The debate participants will be students in Professor B.W. Powe’s English 4004 class (Fall/Winter) at York University in north Toronto. The Fall term of the course focused on Marshall McLuhan with Northrop Frye covered in the spring term. The students have been divided into 2 teams representing Marshall McLuhan and Northrop Frye and have been meeting before the event to develop their case for each.

The selection of the winner (a tie is possible) will depend upon which side is the most persuasive. The judge will be Professor Paolo Granata of the University of Bologna and McLuhan Centenary Fellow at the McLuhan Centre for Culture & Technology.

The Proceedings will unfold as each side presents the case for their visionary, starting with the McLuhan side (already decided by a coin toss), then the Frye side, followed by rebuttals from both. After a short break, each side will summarize what it presented and its position followed again by rebuttals from both sides. After another break, there will be a summary of each position, followed by the judge’s adjudication and declaration of the winner.

Professor Powe and his students have extended an invitation to interested parties to attend. Bring your lunch if you wish, as the event will start at noon.

Date & Time: Thursday, April 6th, 2017 – 12 pm until 3 pm

Location: McLuhan Centre for Culture & Technology,

39A Queen’s Park, Toronto, ON M5S 2C3

Course Description

This course examines and explores the point-counterpoint Canadian theoretical tradition of Marshall McLuhan and Northrop Frye. This is a course devoted to exploring the perceptions and thoughts, the provocative and inspiring works, of these two seminal and influential thinkers. It is also a course that explores the influence of their work on other seminal writers and artists; and how literary works reflect and evoke their imaginative and prophetic propositions.

In the first term we will be concentrating on Marshall McLuhan. Our primary text will be The Book of Probes. We will be examining his most influential and well-known aphorisms, his tetrads, and the essential explorations he made into the media realm. In McLuhan’s final works he wrote—or dictated (most of his last books were collaborations, often conducted through conversation and discussion, with colleagues)—in aphorisms, elliptical epigrams, fragments, mixed modes, all what he chose to call probes.

McLuhan was searching for laws, or codes, that operated through the effects of the electronic media. He saw electronic media as a new text of nature—a second creation. His work in these stages took on poetic density and allusiveness. Can he be understood, then, as the first great poet-theorist of media? The so-called “media guru”, however, began as a literary person, studying the Renaissance trivium and quadrivium at Cambridge, under F.R. Leavis and I.A. Richards; and continued his literary studies as a professor of Symbolist Literature in the Department of English at the University of Toronto. His first published works were essays on James Joyce, G.K. Chesterton, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Wyndham Lewis. How did a thinker steeped in the traditions of western literature become the avatar of the electronic cosmos, and the patron saint of the magazine called Wired? His non-systematic approaches anticipate post-modern and contemporary discourse. He denied he had a theory, calling his work “ground…and percept”.

We will examine McLuhan’s terminology and articulations, in his attempt to frame an understanding of the new circumstances that electricity and its technologies—television, radio, computers—brought to people. We will focus on his last powerful utterances and their prophetic attempts to awaken media users.

The second term is devoted to examining the works of Northrop Frye. His studies and literary publications began in the work of William Blake, in the canon-changing book, Fearful Symmetry. In that work Frye begins to approach the concept that there could be a deep underlying structure to all of literature. We will explore how spiritual knowledge burst through to him, so he argued, in his final works, beginning especially with The Great Code. Frye sought unity behind chaos, and attempted to present to his readers “a new system” of thought and awareness through a radical revision of what we mean by text. Frye thought cosmos could be comprehended through the code buried inside the metaphors of certain great works, primarily The Bible. Thus we will be concentrating on The Great Code, with examinations of his more synoptic works, The Educated Imagination and his last major essay, The Double Vision. We will also be looking at fragments from his late Notebooks. In these works the literary critic and theorist—the author of Anatomy of Criticism—enlarged his vision to encompass theology. He became a visionary contrarian—highly controversial in his understanding of The Bible, and his presentation of “counter-history” and the nature of mythic consciousness.

We will examine their conflicting rhetorical strategies: McLuhan, the wily prankster and punster, the prophet of new media and the subliminal environments of electricity; Frye, the seemingly detached scholar, whose heretical thinking and sublime visionary intentions were often masked in a careful prose.
Both must be regarded as much more than critics; they were creators of new imaginative and perceptive methodologies.

Moreover, these two Canadians knew one another, and often debated the other through their writings, sometimes expressing vehement disagreements. What were these disagreements? What are their areas of harmony? Both began as academic literary critics and ended up becoming influential beyond academia. Both were fascinated by popular culture and by extra-literary expressions. Both were visionaries, seeking the pattern behind the patterns, who shrouded their errant quests, often erratic—one in the masks of satire, and the other in the nuanced arguments of theory. McLuhan and Frye have had their periods when they were highly valued, then their periods when they were dismissed or disavowed by literary establishments. Both were obsessed with the meaning of the word, “apocalypse”. What do their visions, their provocations, their observations, their pursuits of codes and laws have to say to us now?

Note: The course will be offered again in the next academic year on Fridays, 11:30 am until 2:30 pm.

“In the double vision of a spiritual and a physical world simultaneously present, every moment we have lived through we have also died out of into another order.”
– Frye, The Double Vision

Academic Disputation

McLuhan Interview with Pierre Babin, 1977:
“The electric world, which is acoustic, intuitive, holistic…invites [us] into total immersion, and it doesn’t lean towards goals or objectives but focuses only on a certain quality of life.
Babin: Could we call this a return to mysticism?
McLuhan: I think so. Gutenberg emphasized the process of outering and Marconi marked the start of its ebb.”
– The Medium and the Light

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