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Marshall McLuhan

There’s been a bit of back and forth about questions of translatability (here and here), and I thought it was worth some observations.

I have mentioned this before on the blog, but for those who do not know, I teach upper level ESL to students who plan on entering graduate school in North America. It’s basically a college writing class, but the ESL aspect creates interesting dilemmas for me as a teacher. For example, I’m consistently torn between allowing students the comfort of pulling out their electronic dictionaries and forcing them to live in the uncomfortable space between languages. If I allow dictionaries, I will essentially handicap (or allowing them to handicap) their future English skills. They will forever be tying English words to words or phrases in their native language. As a result, they will never be fully fluent in English (at least not in the same way as a native speaker is fluent–which is often what most of my students desire). If, however, I force them to use context, word roots, and experience to understand words, eventually they will understand English words in an English sense. Perhaps an end-run around this dilemma is letting them use an English dictionary, forcing them to associate English definitions with English words. Unfortunately, students often come upon words in the English definition that they don’t understand, so we’re back at the same dilemma again. Spare the rod, spoil the child, anybody?

Typically, by the time students get to a level or two below my class, electronic dictionaries are forbidden in the classroom. It’s much harder, though, to break them of the habit of composing whole sentences in their own language and translating them, an attempt which is doomed from the start. I get lots of grumble and pout when I tell them to start thinking about their papers in English. I feel a bit like a parent coaxing their child to stand up to a bully. And in many ways, a new language is a bully. I always tell my students that learning a new language is not really learning a new way to communicate, but a new way to think. When working in English, you have to know how to work within or manipulate the categories and expectations of English–something we native speakers do without realizing.

Which brings me back to the blog posts I mentioned in the beginning. As Geoffrey K. Pullum points out at Language Log, “untranslatable” doesn’t really mean there is no translation, it just means there is no one-word equivalent in English. This is the difficulty with translating poetry and why it is often such a fruitful angle to approach questions of poetics. What makes the poetics of a particular work tick? By poetics, I don’t just mean poetry, I mean all art forms (I tend to think of “poetics” as an arch-art form). Dziga Vertov, for example, thought that film was a new international language, a sort of visual esperanto. In his avant-garde film, Man with a Movie Camera, Vertov boldly declares in the first title cards:

The film Man with a Movie Camera represents
AN EXPERIMENTATION IN THE CINEMATIC TRANSMISSION
Of visual phenomena
WITHOUT THE USE OF INTERTITLES
(a film without intertitles)
WITHOUT THE HELP OF A SCRIPT
(a film without script)
WITHOUT THE HELP OF A THEATRE
(a film without actors, without sets, etc.)
This new experimentation work by Kino-Eye is directed towards the creation of an authentically international absolute language of cinema – ABSOLUTE KINOGRAPHY – on the basis of its complete separation from the language of theatre and literature.

Vertov’s ambition is palpable in the film. Each cut is gravid with meaning. Not only would film be the first international language, it would be the language of the revolution (according to Eisenstein). Many of us still think that film is an international language. In many ways, it is true. It certainly speaks across many cultures, but as McLuhan points out in Gutenberg Galaxy, film is the product of a literary mind. The conventions of film (at least as Vertov sees them) are the conventions of visual print culture. That is, we read films much in the same way we read books.

McLuhan describes the experience of aid workers (in the 1960s, I believe) showing hygiene films to people from what McLuhan identifies as aural-tactile culture (that is, lacking the thought structures that are inherited from print culture). It’s a bit too long to quote here (to read the whole section, click here), but the basic gist is this:

“Literacy gives people the power to focus a little way in front of the image so that we are able to take in the picture in a whole glance. Non-literate people have no such acquired habit and do not look at objects in our way.”

Later McLuhan quotes John Wilson:

“Film is, as produced in the West, a highly conventionalized piece of symbolism although it looks very real. For instance, we found that if you were telling a story about two men to an African audience and one had finished his business and he went off the edge of the screen, the audience wanted to know what had happened to him; they didn’t accept that this was just the end of him and that he was of no more interest in the story. They wanted to know what happened to the fellow, and we had to write stories that way, putting in a lot of information that wasn’t necessary to us. We had to follow him along the street until he took a natural turn–he mustn’t walk off the side of the screen, but must walk down the street and make a natural turn….Panning shots were very confusing because the audience didn’t realize what was happening. They thought the items and details inside the picture were literally moving….the convention was not accepted.”

The point of sharing all this (aside from the point that it’s generally fascinating) is to show that even images, which we often consider somewhat universal, often require certain conventions of thought. So even there, the poetics of an art form are mitigated by “translation,” which, quite literally, must translate it from one form of thought to another.

I do believe fruitful translation can and does happen, but we must be aware of the “extra layer(s)” of intent that exists over top a piece. I want to focus more on what we as poets (and poeticists) can learn from and through translation when I review the new translations of Horace’s Odes (edited by J.D. McClatchy), so the rest of this discussion will be postponed until then.

In a recent post, I based a discussion about the relationship between the poetic line and print culture on some of Marshall McLuhan’s ideas. I was recently listening to the below lecture by McLuhan and he discussed the effects of the phonetic alphabet. He said that the phonetic alphabet divorced the visual sense from the other senses by emphasizing it above the others. This separation creates the possibility of linearity, the space for “logicians, analysts, classifiers, the individualist pattern of Greek life.” The phoenecian alphabet made possible Euclid, who revealed that visual space is continuous and connected and homogeneous and static. All the other spaces created by the other senses–of touch, acoustics, kinesthesial–all these other senses are discontinuous, resonant and dynamic.” He gives an interesting example to demonstrate this. A boy is on his first flight and asks his dad, “When do we get small?” The “canopy” of the plane limits the field of vision, creates a static environment. The moment a man with a parachute jumps out of the plane, he feels one inch tall.

When McLuhan described linearity (I think he actually used the term lineality…not sure if there’s a difference? Spell check doesn’t recognize the latter, if that means anything!), I couldn’t help but think about the poetic line and the way it is changing. As print culture (and hence the divorce made by the phonetic alphabet) ends, we move from the line, back to the field, back to non-linear, acoustic space.

In my experience, poetry workshops speak about how a poem looks on the page much more often than how the lines work. Perhaps this is describing the move from line (poetic line) to field (the page)? I think this line (!) of thought might yield much as we think about the developments of modern poetry (beginning with Baudelaire and the symbolists/high modernists), though I don’t have much time to chase it down the rabbit hole at this moment. Feel free to add your own thoughts in the comment section.

Watch the video. It’s worth your hour.

I’ve been reading a lot of Marshall McLuhan in the last several months. I know he’s not the most fashionable critic anymore, but I admire his attitude toward culture. I’ve heard some call him a “futurist” but this seems to run directly counter to McLuhan as I read him. If anything, McLuhan is a medievalist who has adapted himself to our futurist culture in order to bring a rather old timey message.

McLuhan created what he called a “tetrad.” The general idea is that for every new medium, four things always happen.

1. The new medium enhances some aspect of us or our life.
2. The new medium obsolesces some aspect of us or our life.
3. The new medium, when pushed to its maximum, ultimately reverses some aspect of our life.
4. The new medium retrieves some past aspect of us or our life.

For example, the car:

1. It enhances speed.
2. It obsolesces the horse and buggy.
3. When there are many cars on the road, it ultimately ends up reversing that speed (in the form of traffic jams)
4. It retrieves the “knight in shining armor” in the form of the boy with the bitchin’ car.

Now pondering on the advance of the press (and now the digital age), I’ve been thinking about the effects of various mediums on poetry (which is itself a medium). When poetry was primarily oral, it was filled with mnemoic devices of all sorts that allowed for it to be memorized easily. Even during the manuscript era, poetry was necessarily oral poetry. Yet with the growth of the printed manuscript, one didn’t have to memorize as much anymore.

I have not done any formal research, but I suspect that as the written/printed word gained ground, the formal constraints on poetry (which were originally there to allow for oral memory) began to fall by the wayside. They were no longer necessary, though it seems the inertia of tradition kept these conventions in place for a while. Once the instrumental use was gone, it was only a matter of time before poets began exploring less oral-friendly forms.

Now, of course, we are entering the digital age, and I suspect the next thing to go (indeed has already gone) is the poetic line itself. Words no longer need the inertia of the line to carry them forward if digital animation can do so. WC Williams (with his visual foot) was already pushing in that direction, as has prose poetry. Is it possible that the poetic line as the bread and butter of poetry may be on its way out?

I would not be surprised if anyone has advanced this thesis before.  Could anybody point me to another author who has written on this topic?