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Wednesday, February 24, 2021

McLuhan, the Alphabet, and Nudity

There's a famous, true story about a lecture Marshall McLuhan gave at Louis Forsdale's seminar at Columbia University in New York City in the 1950s.  McLuhan observed, at some point, that nudity wasn't a notable thing until the alphabet -- that sensitivity about nudity was an effect of alphabetic literacy.

When McLuhan concluded the lecture, Forsdale opened up the seminar to questions.  Robert K. Merton, often known as the "dean" of American sociology, was in the audience.  He raised his hand, was called upon, and stood.  His face was almost purple with anger.  "I don't where to begin," he began, "everything you say is nonsense, where is your evidence ... what on Earth does nudity have to do with the alphabet?" And he went on like that for at least ten minutes.

McLuhan rose, a twinkle in his eye, a smile on his face.  "Oh," he said, "you didn't like that idea?  Well, how about this one?"  And he proceeded to talk, much longer than Merton, about something completely different.

Now, this event is often cited, including by me, as an example of McLuhan prizing exploration and probes over explanation and proofs.  And it certainly is.

But someone asked me the other day what I thought McLuhan really meant about alphabetic literacy being the ground for interest in nudity.  This was my answer:

I never asked McLuhan about this, so I don’t know exactly what he meant about the alphabet making people more sensitive about nudity. But here’s what I would say, applying McLuhan’s thinking to this question: The alphabet is an abstract mode of communication – the letters of the alphabet have no direct resemblance to the objects they describe in written words. The word “cow” for example, looks nothing like a cow, the word “sun” looks nothing like the sun, etc. (Unlike ideographic writing, in which the written symbols look at least a little like the objects they describe.) So, people who use the alphabet are aware of the “cover” or the alphabetic word, and the reality it describes (the word “sun” and what the sun really looks like). And clothes, of course, are a cover, too – a dress or a shirt doesn’t really look like the naked body beneath. But just as we use the alphabet to write about things, so we usually see and interact with people in clothes. In such a society, we become hyper-aware, more sensitive, about someone wearing no clothes at all.

So, what did you think of my explanation?  Did you like it?  Not sure?  Ok ... let me tell you how my Prius retrieves Cinderella's Pumpkin Coach, when you leave it in the driveway for more than a month, undriven in this Covid lockdown.


Read Mercer Schuchardt said...


This is an interesting take on the alphabet/nudity question. Do you see these as, or do you think McLuhan would see these as: figure and ground? Does the figure of nudity suddenly "show up" against the ground of a "covered" word and thus world? This seems to parallel the Biblical account of the fall of man, for which the punishment was not simply banishment, but for which the "atonement" was also the same word in Hebrew as the word for clothing, or "to cover over" -- the word kaphar. Adam and Eve inhabited an acoustic world prior to this, and when they ate the fruit, their 'eyes were opened' and suddenly they were naked and ashamed (and conscious of it for the first time), whereas prior they had been naked and unashamed, which I take to mean unconscious of it because there was no emphasis on the visual, only the acoustic -- remember that they could not see God, but could only "hear the sound of him" in the garden. So it's a provocative idea, certainly, that the move from acoustic orality to visual literacy would simultaneously enhance one's self-consciousness of one's own nakedness, and that is how I've always read this particular McLuhanism.

Paul Levinson said...

Thanks for that information-rich comment, Read -- especially on atonement and clothing having the same word ("to cover up"). Yes, I think McLuhan definitely saw the alphabet as ground for the figure of nudity-as-a-big-deal. I think your reading of McLuhan on this -- how it plays out in religious custom and culture -- is spot on.

Unknown said...

I knew "Lou" Forsdale well, first as a student and then in his retirement, as a friend. The story about MM and what's-his-name Merton reminds me of another case of dwarfs trying to bring own their beters, although in this latter case, because the great man did not have tenure, the dwarfs succeeded: The psychoanalyst [Prince] M. Masud R. Khan. Dwarfs resented him for being better than they were. They thought he was a fraud but he had been lord of a feudal estate of 25,000 peasants. What really galled the dwarfs is that Khan played lightly with "the truth" --> their petty truths. If he had held a lavish dinner party the previous night, he might say the Queen was there (she was not). A great man's creative erroneous ideas are worth far more then the empirically correct declarative sentences excreted by dwarfs whichin no way expand or enrich our imaginative life. Who/whatever Mr Merton was, I'll take Professor McLuhan's errors. I have done so this very day: It's a long story, but in 7th grade (1958/59), I stopped writing cursive script and changed to all block uppercase letters: naked letters which are "in your face", esp.: in the face of the adults I was stuck with (parents and teach[er]s) who were dwarfs. Because I was an "A" student they didn't flunk me for it; they jus tthreatenedthat I would never be able to keep up in college (Yale, Summa....; where were they from?).

Paul Levinson said...

Great comment -- thanks so much. Here's my true handwriting story. When I was in 7th grade, my social studies teacher, Mrs. Silver, gave me back a paper I had written for the class. She gave me an 88, and wrote, next to the grade, something to the effect that my essay was perfect as far as facts, organization, and analysis. But she was deducting points from grade because of my handwriting. I of course complained to her. She refused to budge on the grade. I went to see the Dean. I told her what had happened and gave her my paper. She read it, and agreed it was excellent. "I'm raising your grade to 92," she said. "Why not raise it to 100?" I asked. "Since when does handwriting affect the grade?" Her response: "You're being unreasonable. You need to learn to compromise". An important lesson indeed.

Unknown said...

Rereading what I wrote some time ago here, let me try to sneak in something else, not about McLuhan but about his very close friend, Louis Forsdale. Forsdale was an embarrassingly humble man. I'm not exactly sure how he retired from Teachers College, but he had a sprained muscle playing handball that was mistaken for a heart attack and that may have contributed. In retirement he did have heart trouble and had his aorta replaced. A few years later he had a minor heart attack at his home in Santa Fe NM and was taken by ambulance to Albuquerque where they decided to do a cardiac catherization on him the next morning. I do not know but I imagine he was conscious and in his self-effacing humility, he went along with it. He died of a massive heart attack during the night. I personally believe Professor Forsdale died from a combination of his self-effacing humility and their medical malpractice. He was so self-effacing that I kept telling him to introduce himself to she Santa Fe Institute but he neve did, maybe I think wrongly, because he didn't feel he was important enough.