I watched a very good documentary on Marshall McLuhan yesterday, McLuhan’s Wake, courtesy of Eko –you know, that subliminal kid. It is not so much the director (Kevin McMahon), however, that is to be credited for the success of the documentary as the subject matter himself. The most interesting parts of the documentary for me were the old footage that showed McLuhan lecturing to a captive audience –be it in an auditorium or a TV show. With a subject matter as charismatic and amusing as McLuhan, I suppose the real difficult job would be to make a bad documentary. To the director’s credit, though, some of the interviews (with McLuhan’s son, wife and colleagues) were also very engaging and illuminating.

As for the title of this blog entry…until I saw the documentary, I wasn’t aware of the parallels/affinities between the lives of these two thinkers, which are so striking that it makes you wonder why you don’t hear Zizek being referred to as the “21st century McLuhan” more often (Saint ymm recalls seeing on the back cover of a Zizek book an epithet along these lines). In the interviews you hear how, back in the day, people were awestruck by McLuhan’s meshing of high- and low-culture: “he can use Elvis Presley & Plato in the same sentence”. Replace that couplet with Hitchcock & Lacan and…It is only natural, I suppose, that this iconoclastic attitude of McLuhan’s toward cultural hierarchy (or hierarchization of culture) is reflected in his transgressive attitude toward disciplinary boundaries; you can’t juxtapose Presley and Plato without “short-circuiting” (a la Zizek) a few disciplines. As McLuhan’s wife points out, however, when McLuhan first began to capture public’s attention (and capture he did), neither cultural/media studies nor interdisciplinarity were de rigueur as they are today (are they?).

Speaking of public attention, also shared by McLuhan and Zizek is a penchant for the limelight. No need to remind the fellow bloggers of Surplus Thought of the numerous appearances of Zizek before the (TV or movie) camera. It might come as a surprise to folks, however, to learn that McLuhan, during his heyday, was a household name for many Americans, who watched him on their TV sets in shows like the Today Show and many others. So much so that I imagine back in the 70s if you overheard somebody say “McLuhan on TV”, it was as likely that s/he meant “his opinions on TV” as “he is actually on TV” – much like “Zizek on movie”, I suppose.

Popularity, however, is a mixed blessing. While the public was obviously enchanted with McLuhan, this fascination seems to be borne out of not so much appreciation for the profundity of his thought, but rather for his eccentricities –that is, his entertaining qualities, shock value, sensational musings (“Word merchant”, they called him). And as attested by another documentary, “the giant of Ljubljana” suffers from the same Faustian dilemma (or should I say, ‘deal”?). Zizek admits to being positively irritated by his admirers who treat him like a pop star. He wants people to understand that behind this entertaining persona lies a monster. Yet all these confessions are being addressed to a camera, whose footage is to become Zizek! The Movie. Medium is the message, indeed.

PS To his defense, though, Zizek’s attitude toward being filmed is more sincere than the reluctance exhibited by Derrida in Derrida the Movie. In the said documentary we hear Derrida openly objecting to the idea of capturing somebody’s life on camera, with a thinly disguised contempt for the director. In a scene where Derrida and a colleague of his are walking across the street, Derrida’s colleague smugly remarks –in the direction of the camera crew– that “Americans don’t believe they exist unless they’re being filmed”. Despite all the condescension and protests, however, the movie wouldn’t be possible without the consent and the cooperation of Derrida.
PPS In Umbr(a)‘s issue on ‘Incurable’ (ed. by a fellow Surplus Thinker, Andrew Skomra), there is a very insightful review of Zizek! The Movie. Umbr(a), by the way, is probably the most underappreciated publication on the face of the earth –after Rethinking Marxism, that is : )

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McLuhan & Zizek