The North American intellectual tradition

To hell with European philosophers: The breakthroughs of non-European thinkers are the 1960s' greatest legacy.

Topics: Shakespeare,

The North American intellectual tradition

A war still rages over the legacy of the 1960s. For many conservatives that decade spawned the worst aspects of contemporary culture, from sexual promiscuity and epidemic divorce to drug abuse and educational decline.

What has been forgotten is that there were major intellectual breakthroughs in the 1960s, thanks to North American writers of an older generation. There was a rupture in continuity, since most young people influenced by those breakthroughs did not enter the professions. The cultural vacuum would be filled in the 1970s by jargon-ridden French post-structuralism and the Frankfurt School, which dominated literature departments for a quarter century.

It’s time for a recovery and reassessment of North American thinkers. Marshall McLuhan, Leslie Fiedler and Norman O. Brown are the linked triad I would substitute for Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, whose work belongs to ravaged postwar Europe and whose ideas transfer poorly into the Anglo-American tradition. McLuhan, Fiedler and Brown were steeped in literature, classical to modern. They understood the creative imagination, and they extended their insights into speculation about history and society. Their influence was positive and fruitful: They did not impose their system on acolytes but liberated a whole generation of students to think freely and to discover their own voices.

I feel fortunate indeed that McLuhan published his central work, “Understanding Media,” in the very year — 1964 — that I entered college. Fiedler’s “Love and Death in the American Novel” and Brown’s “Life Against Death” had appeared just five years before.

McLuhan’s pioneering examination of the revolution wrought by electronic media in Gutenberg’s print culture demonstrated how history could be reinterpreted with terms bridging high and popular culture. He had a breathtaking sweep of vision and a charming aptitude for the startling example. McLuhan’s irreverent, aphoristic wit was perfectly attuned to the brash spirit of my generation, with its absurdist “happenings” and its taste for zinging one-liners — in the satiric style of Lenny Bruce or the gnomic manner of Zen sages and Hindu gurus.

“Understanding Media,” which had a tremendous impact on me at a pivotal moment in my development, is a landmark of cultural analysis. It contains an epic panorama of Western culture: Greek myth, Shakespeare, William Blake, James Joyce, Pablo Picasso and Margaret Mead mingle with the Marx Brothers amid an “Alice in Wonderland” swirl of clocks, comic books, alphabets, telephones and typewriters. In its picaresque form and carnivalesque tone, “Understanding Media” resembles Petronius Arbiter’s “Satyricon,” with its vivid picture of Nero’s Rome. McLuhan finds the key to our overloaded cultural environment, and his swift rhythms, playful tone and deft touch make academic semiotics look ponderous, pretentious and pointlessly abstract.

My argument is that the North American intellectuals, typified by McLuhan, Fiedler and Brown, achieved a new fusion of ideas — a sensory pragmatism or engagement with concrete experience, rooted in the body, and at the same time a visionary celebration of artistic metaspace — that is, the fictive realm of art, fantasy and belief projected by great poetry and prefiguring our own cyberspace.

North American philosophers from the late 19th century on turned away from the metaphysical preoccupations and dour worldview of European thinkers. The pragmatism of William James was based on his early study of anatomy and physiology. James’ portrait of consciousness as an active agent anticipated McLuhan’s identification of modern media as “extensions” of the senses. John Dewey’s theories were also grounded in the senses, and his focus on educational reform prefigured McLuhan’s attentiveness to how the young process information in our media-saturated age. Dewey’s faith in democracy paralleled McLuhan’s opposition to Marxism, flowing from his recognition of how capitalism, in creating mass media, enhanced individualism and promoted social mobility.

The primacy of the body in the North American intellectual tradition is one of our great distinctions. McLuhan’s classification of different eras as “acoustic” or “visual” and his emphasis on the “haptic,” the sense of touch, meshes beautifully with the American arts. Exploration of the body inspired the revolutionary choreography of Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham; the Stanislavskian “Method” of Lee Strasberg’s Actors Studio; the organic pulses and respirations of the Black Mountain school of poetry; and the percussive rhythms of our glorious popular music from ragtime to rock ‘n’ roll.

You Might Also Like

European philosophy collapsed after Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. The post-structuralists, following the nihilist Husserl and Heidegger, were narrowly French thinkers who were struggling with the rationalism of French discourse. But North Americans who had absorbed McLuhan, Fiedler and Brown had no need for post-structuralism, with its Saussurean view of reality “mediated” through language. English speakers possess their own critique of language, contained in English literature itself from Chaucer’s Middle English and Shakespeare’s protean early modern English to the avant-garde experiments of Joyce, whom McLuhan, a lover of etymology, closely studied.

The North American intellectual tradition began, I maintain, in the encounter of British Romanticism with assertive, pragmatic North American English — the Protestant plain style in both the U.S. and Canada, with its no-nonsense Scottish immigrants. The crucial transitional writer was Ralph Waldo Emerson, the aphoristic poet and lecturer to whom I trace McLuhan’s intellectual lineage. McLuhan’s daring aphorisms, or as we now say “sound bites,” were his public signature.

It is the Romantic respect for nature that I define as a primary characteristic of the North American intellectual tradition. The claustrophobic world of post-structuralism sees nothing but oppressive society operating on passive, helpless mankind. Nature at its wildest and most sublime rarely impinges on Paris. We in North America, however, with its powerful, ever-changing weather systems, its vast geography and monumental landmarks like Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon, know that nature is the ever-present ground of all human thought and action.

McLuhan’s vastness of perception partly came, as biographer Philip Marchand notes, from his prairie origins in Alberta — exactly the kind of landscape, in fact, that inspired the hugely influential “prairie style” of an American genius, architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Fiedler taught for 23 years in big-sky Montana and for over 30 years in snowy Buffalo. He and Brown attended graduate school in the north country of Wisconsin, where McLuhan began his teaching career. As a native of the snow belt of upstate New York, I too claim the feisty independence of the Northerner. I was raised, I like to say, breathing cold, clear Canadian air.

The North American synthesis of the pragmatic and the visionary in McLuhan, Fiedler and Brown is uniquely suited for analyzing the swifly changing present of our age of technology. Mass media and communication, which were developed and refined in the U.S. since the 19th century rise of mass-market newspapers, cannot be fully understood with European models. It was McLuhan who forecast what my generation lived, from transistor radios and stereo headphones to today’s 100 cable channels.

Education must be purged of desiccated European formulas, which burden and disable the student mind. We must recover North American paradigms and metaphors, to restore the North American idiom to academic discourse. Media and Internet communications are a Jamesian and Joycean “stream of consciousness,” fluid and mercurial, and our young people — from the brilliant Web entrepreneurs to the ingenious pirate hackers — occupy a radically different mental space than the valley of death of pre- and postwar Europe. As I know from my work with Salon, McLuhan’s “global village” has come to pass. Every day, the Web is fulfilling the 1960s dream of expanded perception or cosmic consciousness.

In his 1837 lecture “The American Scholar,” Emerson says, “We have listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe.” Of Americans, he vows, “We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak with our own minds.”

Camille Paglia is the University Professor of Humanities and Media Studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Her most recent book is "Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-Three of the World's Best Poems." You can write her at this address.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 13
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    Young Daya has yet to become entirely jaded, but she has the character's trademark skeptical pout down pat. And with a piece-of-work mother like Aleida -- who oscillates between jealousy and scorn for her creatively gifted daughter, chucking out the artwork she brings home from summer camp -- who can blame her?

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    With her marriage to prison penpal Vince Muccio, Lorna finally got to wear the white veil she has fantasized about since childhood (even if it was made of toilet paper).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    Cindy's embrace of Judaism makes sense when we see her childhood, lived under the fist of a terrifying father who preached a fire-and-brimstone version of Christianity. As she put it: "I was raised in a church where I was told to believe and pray. And if I was bad, I’d go to hell."

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    Joey Caputo has always tried to be a good guy, whether it's offering to fight a disabled wrestler at a high school wrestling event or giving up his musical ambitions to raise another man's child. But trying to be a nice guy never exactly worked out for him -- which might explain why he decides to take the selfish route in the Season 3 finale.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    In one of the season's more moving flashbacks, we see a young Boo -- who rejected the traditional trappings of femininity from a young age -- clashing with her mother over what to wear. Later, she makes the decision not to visit her mother on her deathbed if it means pretending to be something she's not. As she puts it, "I refuse to be invisible, Daddy. Not for you, not for Mom, not for anybody.”

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    We still don't know what landed Brooke Soso in the slammer, but a late-season flashback suggests that some seriously overbearing parenting may have been the impetus for her downward spiral.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    We already know a little about Poussey's relationship with her military father, but this season we saw a softer side of the spunky fan-favorite, who still pines for the loving mom that she lost too young.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    Pennsatucky had something of a redemption arc this season, and glimpses of her childhood only serve to increase viewer sympathy for the character, whose mother forced her to chug Mountain Dew outside the Social Security Administration office and stripped her of her sexual agency before she was even old enough to comprehend it.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    This season, we got an intense look at the teenage life of one of Litchfield's most isolated and underexplored inmates. Rebuffed and scorned by her suitor at an arranged marriage, the young Chinese immigrant stored up a grudge, and ultimately exacted a merciless revenge.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    It's difficult to sympathize with the racist, misogynist CO Sam Healy, but the snippets we get of his childhood -- raised by a mentally ill mother, vomited on by a homeless man he mistakes for Jesus when he runs to the church for help -- certainly help us understand him better.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    This season, we learned a lot about one of Litchfield's biggest enigmas, as we saw the roots of Norma's silence (a childhood stutter) and the reason for her incarceration (killing the oppressive cult leader she followed for decades).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    While Nicki's mother certainly isn't entirely to blame for her daughter's struggles with addiction, an early childhood flashback -- of an adorable young Nicki being rebuffed on Mother's Day -- certainly helps us understand the roots of Nicki's scarred psyche.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>