Next Nature writes:
The two heroes of the ’60s are absolute opposites. Leaning forward in his chair, Mailer is assertive, animated, hot, engaged. McLuhan, abstracted and smiling wanly, leaning backward, cool. Mcluhan argues “The planet is no longer nature,” he declares, to Mailer’s uncomprehending stare; “it’s now the content of an art work.” Mailer: “Well, I think you are anticipating a century, perhaps.”
Norman Mailer and Marshall McLuhan give a master class in how to be richly, creatively, productively, necessarily wrong. Of course our notions of Nature are looks in the rearview mirror; of course nature is a void — empty, vast, and alive — and we’re far from putting an artificial environment around it. And yet even by giving shape to its character, I put it inside a little art work. Like Diogenes, McLuhan couldn’t satisfy his hunger by rubbing his stomach — and yet we can figure that hunger. And the very limitlessness of that figuration makes it part of nature, too.
Rough Type even directly address McLuhan’s psychiatric state:
Watching McLuhan, you can’t quite decide whether he was a genius or just had a screw loose. Both impressions, it turns out, are valid. As Douglas Coupland argues in his pithy new biography, McLuhan’s mind was probably situated at the mild end of the autism spectrum. He also suffered from a couple of major cerebral traumas. In 1960, he had a stroke so severe that he was given his last rites. In 1967, just a few months before the Mailer debate, surgeons removed a tumor the size of an apple from the base of his brain. A later procedure revealed that McLuhan had an extra artery pumping blood into his cranium.
I think the perceived wrongness (or even mental instability) here of McLuhan’s take on nature derives from a tendency to interpret him too literally. In An Enquiry into the Principles of Natural Knowledge and The Concept of Nature, A.N. Whitehead argues for a Jamesian, radical version of empiricism that posits nature as that which is experienced through the senses, while extending the concept to include abstractions, relations and events in all their complexities. More recent thinkers, such as Bruno Latour, have similarly challenged the bifurcation of nature and culture, arguing for a stronger ontological (rather than literal or physical) focus on the concept of nature. McLuhan here acts as one connecting link between figures like Whitehead and Latour, similarly interested in extending nature to incorporate constructions of environments without false distinctions between model and copy or real and reproduction.
Mailer refers to this extension of humans (and nature) as negatively “autoerotic” and “sinister,” while McLuhan sees it affirmatively as “psychedelic” and ‘kaleidoscopic.” This is perhaps why the latter privileges the artist as distinctly in tune with the present, recognizing its “patterns” and complex events, which others (including scientists) tend to fear. He even links music (including the nascent electronic kind) to issues of habitation and environment, while Mailer simply dismisses it as distortions of the real.
When McLuhan contends, “Nature has ceased to exist” he is simply extending the concept to incorporate environment as informational, technological, electronic and psychological, as well as material. McLuhan also links nature to history and memory, positing it as a temporal entity as much as a spatial one. McLuhan then provides historical support for his argument by invoking Kierkegaard’s Concept of Dread, which stemmed from the construction of a new environment around the old mechanical one in the nineteenth century.
Mailer remains decidedly realist and moral in the most reductive sense, resisting all change that is not visibly and morally progressive in a linear or causal sense. He finds disconcerting McLuhan’s refusal to label his ideas and the entities to which they refer as either good or bad. McLuhan, on the other hand, remains open and undeterred by our incapacity to make such moral judgments. McLuhan sees the metaphorical connection between these new environments and the body as productive, while Mailer calls both repulsive.
In other words, McLuhan accepts and accounts for change, while Mailer seeks to reverse it. While Mailer seems devoted to rediscovering a pristine nature opposed to the inferior simulacrum of it in which we currently live, McLuhan extends identity, subjectivity, emergence and individuation such that they embrace simulacrum as an affirmation of difference. He is never an idealist, however. In paraphrasing Ray Bradbury, he says, “violence is essentially the form of the quest for identity”. But for McLuhan this violence can be creative as a true encounter with the world. While Mailer seems overwhelmed by the choices facing us and our inability to view them as inherently right or wrong, McLuhan insists on the Bergsonian approach that selection is distortion, an ongoing, difficult, violent, but potentially rewarding process of habitation.