understanding media

From Cliché to Archetype

McLuhan, M. and Wilfred Watson (1970). From Cliché to Archetype. New York: Viking.

On this module, we do not look at McLuhan's collaboration with Wilfred Watson, From Cliché and Archetype, but this short introduction is provided for those who are interested. This elegantly designed book is presented as a patchwork of short reflections, arranged in alphabetical order (even the Introduction and Table of Contents are combined with the other entries). The key terms "cliché" and "archetype" are two of McLuhan’s most difficult ideas, but the main theme of the discussion is our formulaic, habitual ways of engaging with the world, and how these have changed, particularly in the modern period.

The term "cliché" is a French word which derived originally from printing, and refers to the blocks that are used to make prints. Similarly, the word "archetype", which comes from Greek, first referred to an original pattern or model from which copies are made. A cliché has come to mean an overused expression which, though it was once fresh and conveyed something novel, has been repeated so many times that it is now a trite stereotype, such as "you are what you eat" or "you can’t teach an old dog new tricks". An archetype, in psychology and literary criticism, has come to mean a mythical, universal figure or idea that repeats itself throughout history and across cultures, such as the questing hero or the ill-fated lovers.

In From Cliché to Archetype, McLuhan extends these two terms beyond their usual verbal or literary meanings. For instance, he argues that our very perceptions are clichés, since they are patterned by the many hidden, surrounding structures of culture. We tend to see or hear what we expect to see or hear. So, at its simplest level, a cliché is a perceptual probe, which promises new information but merely reiterates old, stereotyped ways of understanding.

In addition, McLuhan links clichés to technologies. According to McLuhan, technologies extend our senses and abilities, allowing us to see further or move faster, for instance. But, as we quickly come to rely on these technologies, they create pervasive, persistent environments that actually numb our attention. Thus, we can also use "cliché" to describe technological extensions, which enlarge our sensory life but actually reduce our powers of attention and insight.

Finally, clichés can sometimes awake us from this dazed state, and provide a breakthrough into a new kind of experience. The continually repeated cliché can draw attention to itself, prompting a sting of perception or shock of recognition. In this sense, a "cliché" can be a breakthrough that actually enhances our understanding. Thus, McLuhan uses the term "cliché" to describe our perceptual probes into the surrounding culture, which are mostly numbed by the technologies that pervade this environment, but which occasionally provide us with insights into this very ubiquity.

Similarly, McLuhan broadens the meaning of the term "archetype." McLuhan argues that every technology initially extends some human faculty, creating a new cultural environment and mode or awareness (cliché). This technology and mode of awareness are then pushed aside or scrapped by a new technology, only to be retrieved later on by yet another technology. It is this process of retrieval that turns a cliché into an archetype. Thus, for McLuhan, archetypes are not universal or primordial figures or ideas which mystically appear from time to time, but are accumulated collections of particular, historically specific clichés. The title of the book, From Cliché to Archetype, refers to the process whereby a cliché becomes, through retrieval, an archetype.

So, why are the sections of the book arranged in alphabetical order, and why does the Table of Contents appear under T rather than at the beginning of the book? In fact, the form of the book illustrates the content, i.e. the key ideas of cliché and archetype. We can think of the alphabet as a cliché, a technology that has become so pervasive that we fail to notice the way that it shapes our thinking. A Table of Contents, meanwhile, is a kind of archetype, which retrieves other parts of a book. In From Cliché to Archetype, McLuhan and Watson upset our expectations by mischievously missing out some letters from their alphabetical list and repeating others, and also by placing the Table of Contents under T and the Introduction under I (even the Notes on Sources were supposed to appear under N, but the publisher put them at the end). In this way, the authors draw our attention to the regimented, disciplining effect of alphabetization by means of the cliché itself (cliché as breakthrough). Indeed, since the material is ordered alphabetically, the Table of Contents is in fact largely useless, except, as Terrence Gordon has pointed out, as a reminder that archetypes can themselves become clichés...

Key Sections (and suggested order in which to read them):
(1) Cliché as Probe (pp. 52-61). Provides a good introduction to McLuhan’s varied understanding of cliché, as hackneyed perceptual probe, numbing technological extension, and occasionally illuminating breakthrough.
(2) Environment (as Cliché) (pp. 76-79). Further consolidation of clichés: considers the city as a multiplicity of accumulated service environments, i.e. numbing clichés.
(3) Archetype (pp. 17-23). Introduces McLuhan’s understanding of the archetype, which considers it not as a primordial, universal symbol, but as a retrieved cliché, i.e. a technologically engendered mode of awareness from an earlier period.
(4) Introduction (pp. 116-30). Explains the relationship of cliché to archetype.
(5) Retrieval (pp. 185-90). Further consolidation of the cliché-to-archetype process: nostalgic “archetypalizing” is the tendency to see recent developments as instances of a universal archetype, rather than as the retrieval of earlier environments, i.e. clichés.

Useful Texts
Cavell, R. (2003). McLuhan in Space: A Cultural Geography. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, pp. 214-16. A short, dense account of McLuhan’s theory of the cliché-to-archetype process.
Gordon, W. Terrence (2010). McLuhan: A Guide for the Perplexed. New York: Continuum, pp. 120-25. Brief account of McLuhan’s understanding of clichés and archetypes, with several examples.
McLuhan, M. (1964). New Media and the Arts. Arts in Society 3.2 (September). University of Wisconsin Press, pp. 239-42. An early exploration by McLuhan of the cliché-to-archetype process.
Watson, W. (1974). Marshall McLuhan and Multi-Consciousness: The Place Marie Dialogues. Boundary 2, 3.1, A Canadian Issue (Autumn), pp. 197-212. Watson’s account of his dialogues with McLuhan, which formed the basis of From Cliché to Archetype.