The story line as a means of organizing data has tended to disappear in many of the arts. In poetry it ended with Rimbaud, in painting it ended with abstract art, and in the movie it ends with Bergman and Fellini. One way of describing our situation in the electronic age is to say that we have come to the end of the neolithic age.
I found a Marshall McLuhan book I hadn’t read: UNDERSTANDING ME, a collection of interview and lecture transcripts and manuscripts. The culture goes through cycles of “rediscovering” McLuhan every few years: I cited him in a talk I gave in Brighton in 2012 and got a flood of email expressing delighted disbelief that I had mentioned such a prized archaeological entity. In the quote above, McLuhan actually brushes his tracks from the ancient sand: he was both media theorist and James Joyce scholar, and would likely have been of the opinion that Joyce’s ULYSSES was the peak of storyline as organising data. Joyce voiced the opinion that if Dublin had been obliterated the day after publication, it could be rebuilt down to the individual brick from ULYSSES, such was the density of the work. The Modernism it ushered in was supposed to free us from the “perfected” novel. Robbe-Grillet later made similar points.
Rian Hughes once accused me of being the last Modernist. I was never an ergodic writer, nor a steely postmodernist. I always kind of liked that tag. But perhaps not in this. I feel like, in McLuhan’s phrasing, that that Neolithic urge, for the basic organising of data into story, is indivisibly human. The electronic age didn’t knock that out of us. Electronics simply became a new tool in our storytelling Neolithic paw.
A thought to develop, maybe. Good old McLuhan. Still giving me ideas to test myself against after all these years. He should never have been forgotten, not for an instant.
UNDERSTANDING ME, Marshall McLuhan (link)
(written summer 2015)