Re-Reading Marshall McLuhan: Hectic Zen, Rhetoric and Composition


Figure 1: All art unless otherwise indicated by Rex Veeder

by Rex Veeder


Marshall McLuhan deserves to be re-evaluated as a rhetorician because he has described and demonstrated a perspective on rhetoric that remains significant. That perspective involves aesthetic, social, and cultural elements that gravitate around a mythos of (w)holistic understanding: an auditory experience, which is the evolutionary result of electronic media. McLuhan’s explorations, not explanations, are in harmony with rhetorical studies, and he is a sophist. His work resonates with Kenneth Burke’s. Counter Statement and Counter Blast are manifestos for a revolution by evolution through the artistic creation necessary to resist “Mechanization.”

Those who recognize the vitality of counter rhetoric offer us access to them. For example, Jeff Rice’s The Rhetoric of Cool describes a rhetoric resonating with the patterns offered a composer, whether writer or reader, in the hectic environment of juxtaposition, nonlinearity, and imagery—the environment of the mosaic. Byron Hawk’s A Counter History of Composition acknowledges three motives for composition that apply to this environment: oppositional, investigative, and complex. In both cases, the environment and work site for composition becomes a rhetorical space where what is complex is massaged into meaning through the recognition of patterns (relationships) so that the complexity is revealed as more than chance. The mind of a composer in this situation becomes a Zen mind, dedicated to grasping and articulating the whole in moments of discovery amid the clamor of seemingly contradictory information.

Yet, we do not often practice our scholarly work with these things in mind, and depend instead upon the forms and structures of linear composition. What follows is an essay not an explanation, an exploration with argument growing from discoveries along the way. It is a compositional jazz riff, and offers the mosaic as a genre or form appropriate to the auditory universe McLuhan describes. The mosaic, in both visual and literary form, has a long history and is cross-cultural. The essay explores some of that history. Electronic rhetoric can be multi-modal and multi-genred. McLuhan’s interest in counter cultures, the beats and others, offers a warrant for working with art and poetry as one of the ways of exploring the topic.

A Hectic Zen Meditation

Sit in a dark room with one hundred mosquitoes
and listen to the news
play a blues baseline
as if each note were a coupon
for what we want to know

after time withers
grind black ink from pine
burned for weeks in the mountains

find white paper
this is when Burke’s dream
the grammar
and McLuhan’s space raider
drag you through a vanishing point

long for something missing
don’t be afraid
something is always missing

dance with the attraction

perform the longing
before the paper —
before paper turns to sand
paint on the sand


listen in the fuzzing
for what you want to say


this is Burke’s invitation to rhetoric
McLuhan’s hectic pattern dancing.
do the dance.

1. The scene

Figure 2

As a student of rhetoric, I was introduced to McLuhan in one or two classes during the 60s and 70s but the introduction was brief – more like having a family member introduce you to an uncle from Canada who, although he was family, some how didn’t fit in. He was inappropriate. Perhaps he would have one too many drinks and start to talk about family secrets or tell some jokes that would spoil the mood. I distrusted him, even though I was familiar with the political and cultural revolutions of the time. He was, I know now, something of a Timothy Leary in the eyes of my teachers. Someone who dealt out the drug of altered consciousness. My fundamental conclusion about McLuhan, however, was that he was also a gift giver.

McLuhan’s first gift is a gift of an altered perception that harmonizes us with the spirit of the age. His second gift is the recognition that media awareness and critique can afford us moments of response in the electronic hurricane. When we deliberately practice this repose, we are not awash anymore. When we make something of the fragmented information rather than wait for a message from it, we are massaged, and, perhaps for a moment, comforted. Like books, our analytical habits are not going to go away but will be transformed to this end by the instruments of the age.

Those instruments are a third gift to us, and I want to be conscious of those instruments. The jacket of Counter Blast has it that “We have passed beyond the plodding word by word along the straight and narrow path of Linotype, eyes glued to the track, the reward of Meaning awaiting us at the end.” Book lovers are experts at walking the path and understand the need for books, but if nothing else McLuhan has challenged us to address the current and future ocean of kinesthesia and simultaneous sensations in the holistic environment of his auditory experience.

2. Hectic Zen and Composition

I imagine a moment when someone asks Marshall McLuhan if his interest in the East meant that he would be interested in Zen. In my imaginary conversation his answer is: “Never mind.” I believe such a response would be in keeping with the kind of rhetoric McLuhan suggests to us. One perfectly clear note in Zen is once you have the idea you have lost the Zen. Or, having ideas is a preparation for the realization Zen practice offers. One of the best works on Zen and haiku is Robert Aitken’s A Zen Wave. Aitken quotes Yamada Roshi: “When your consciousness has become ripe in true zazen – pure like clear water, like a serene maintain lake, not moved by any wind – then anything may serve as a medium for realization”(3-4). Zen is the practice of preparing the mind for a moment of realization, and Zen practice encourages constant inquiry in preparation for a realization about a question or a problem rather than an answer. This is exploring rather than explaining and meaning making rather than answering. As Aitken says, “The entire teaching of Zen is framed by questions”(4). And, the art of Zen practice has to do with the performance of contemplating the questions that created the frame – or the background against which the drama of questioning is performed.

Aiken offers haiku as an analogy for this act of realization. Exploring the form and content of a traditional haiku, one that has three hundred years of exposition and contemplation on record, he describes the acts of the mind in practicing either writing in the form or in reading it.

Old pond!

Frog jumps in

water’s sound.

First, as W.S. Merwin points out in his introduction, the haiku is not just a single poem but has relationships with all other haikus. Reading a collection of haiku, for example, violates a sense of unity for the Western reader who might be expecting more means of development than the poem allows. The short poems, like fragments, jar the Western mind. One reader said that the experience was like “being pecked to death my doves” (xiii). But what seems to be fragments are not. The form of the haiku comes from poets writing poems together, each contributing a haiku and then passing the poem on. There was a communal act of creation and meaning making as poets contemplated the series of poems and then contributed something that completed the form at the moment. It was an act, I believe, of unifying a mosaic – Hectic Zen.

Figure 3: Dance after the plop in the pond

McLuhan’s work focuses on the hectic but acts in the spirit and formal space of Zen. His description of the electronic age, the auditory universe, reveals its frantic nature; there’s an assault on the mind and senses from fragments of experiences in images, sounds, words, thoughts, and immediacy of the global village, which is in itself a metaphor for a state of mind in need of unifying legislation. The term hectic echoes this cacophony and jangle but suggests the street version of the term, which partakes of being cool in the midst of chaos – and enjoying it. Thus, an intellectual haiku for Hectic Zen might be:

Frantic is to street

what cool is to beat!

in the ringing stillness extremes meet.

Again, the purpose of Zen is not answering questions but contemplating them. So, writing in a Zen space is always writing away from understanding—exploring rather than explaining, waiting for the plop of a frog in a pond of the mind. This is rhetoric in the acoustic—a rhetoric in a new key. I am grateful to Cynthia Selfe, Michael Spooner, Kathleen Yancey, Victor Vitanza, and Gail Hawisher. I like “composition in a new key,” and I imagine rhetoric in a new key is much the same since all rhetoric is about composition after all (see Yancey 791).

New technologies have become a new strange attractor in rhetoric and composition studies. Usually, the revitalization of rhetoric emerges through the study of rhetorical history and theory with composition studies echoing. Perhaps the McLuhan universe changes the ratios of influence in the relationship. It may be that rhetoric needs to focus on the acts of rhetoric and their products as composition more than ever before.

In The Rhetoric of Cool, Jeff Rice introduces a philosophy of electronic composition, and finds in the beats an example of a composition for a new consciousness. Rice works with Burroughs to draw from literature a process for composing as distinguished in emphasis from writing. The rip, mix, burn, and remix of the Flash presentation offers a composing process related to, perhaps, but distinguishable from writing processes as it has been taught. Writers and teachers, such as Selfe and those I mentioned earlier are organizing the environment for us. However, as Rice says, “Overall, the mix reveals this type of composing in most twentieth-and twenty-first-century new media writings. The one place the mix as appropriative rhetoric is missing is in writing pedagogy” (65). It is into this pedagogical gap that a concept and process, based on Hectic Zen can work to our advantage. The idea that we are working with a pedagogy of composing with writing as only one component among many is a powerful idea in itself.

Hectic Zen is the result of the fusion of electronic media with Zen practice. For McLuhan, the acoustic environment is the experience of allatonceness. It is a Hectic-Zen experience where enlightenment is possible, perhaps even as in the silence of deep meditation.

Figure 4: A strange attractor without math

Participating in McLuhan’s consciousness is an exploratory venture. In a situation where knowledge making is more important than knowledge explaining, exploration is essential, exploration in keeping with the McLuhan universe, which is the universe of the new physics where Strange Attractors make more sense than conventional organizational models. There is a mathematical definition of strange attractors, basically that, and I’ll go with a Wikipedia definition here, “an attractor is a set towards which a dynamical system evolves over time.” I am using the attractor as an analogy for centering in an electronic universe. For composition, attraction is pattern creation with the recognition of resonance. The pattern happens when a force gathers in a spot that attracts unexpected but perfectly aligned elements and they form up in a once-in-a-life-time shape. If our compositional design depended on strange attractors they would resemble Zen gardens.

McLuhan recognized that the East’s orientation toward space offered a corrective or counter blast to Western perception. In Through the Vanishing Point, (a gesture to Alice’s looking glass) he includes a passage from of The Book of Tea: “The usefulness of a water pitcher dwelt in the emptiness where water might be put, not in the form of the pitcher or the material of which it was made. Vacuum is all potent because all containing. In vacuum alone motion becomes possible” (265). He also recognized the resonance of the new physics with art and Eastern perceptions, as in:

The more that one says about acoustic space the more one realizes that it’s the thing that mathematicians and physicists of the past fifty years have been calling space-time, relativity, and non-Euclidean systems of geometry. And it was into this acoustic world that the poets and painters began to thrust in the mid-19th century. Like Coleridge’s Mariner, they were the first that ever burst into that silent sea. (Counter Blast 114)

Whether Western Physics or Eastern Aesthetics, the emphasis for McLuhan is on the shift of perception away from the carefully fenced mind.

Figure 5: A question looking for a way out of the frame

The mythology of the well-made and orderly universe and the clock maker is clearly an idea McLuhan identifies as bankrupt. That mythology is countered by the mythology of the new physics, where all elements of the universe are subject to change through relationships with everything else. It is a mythology of “Wow” and “Oh. Oh.” Surprise, delight, and devastation are wrapped in the same package and the frail, emotional and psychological worlds of human beings must learn to account for this disruptive and volatile universe. Our universe is either fragmented or a mosaic.

McLuhan recognized the significance of art as a way to create a mosaic from the fragments of perception and society. In Through the Vanishing Point, he says: “Any artistic endeavor includes the preparing of an environment for human attention. A poem or a painting is in every sense a teaching machine for the training of perception and judgment” (238) By extension, the artistic act of unifying fragments becomes the human act of unifying cultures and nations.

Rhetoricians are well aware of the mosaic of human kind and its implications. Michael Halloran, for example, says in “Further Thoughts on the End of Rhetoric”:

What “O.E.R.” [“On the End of Rhetoric”] ignored was the possibility that we live in multiple and fragmentary worlds, worlds that overlap, compete, and transform themselves continuously, worlds provided by family, ethnic community, neighborhood, profession, political affiliation, and so on. A more accurate portrayal of the modern condition, and perhaps of the postmodern and premodern conditions as well, would have emphasized the way identity is shaped by the voices of these multiple worlds in which we live, each of us an unstable, occasionally harmonious but often cacophonous chorus of these voices or—to return to spatial metaphor—a mosaic or quilt, made up of bits and pieces of past identities that were themselves assemblages of fragments. (114)

With Halloran, I’ve made an obvious gesture to rhetoric’s historians. It is not necessary to reconcile McLuhan to rhetorical history and theory. His motives resonate with rhetoricians. Reading the Gutenberg Galaxy, we at some point recognize a history of rhetoric as heard through the timber and inflection of its technologies and epistemologies.

In addition, McLuhan addresses two areas of rhetoric relevant to both historians and theorists of rhetoric: aesthetics and epistemology. The aesthetic dimensions of his work are obvious and plentiful. His books and presentations, such as Through the Vanishing Point, are examples of art and dedicated to transforming consciousness (a way of making knowledge)—something he shared with the Beat generation, its Jazz and drugs and with Timothy Leary in regard to . . . well, consciousness and drugs.

The aesthetic experience in the counter and sub-cultures of the 50s through the 70s challenged not only the aesthetic sensibilities of the dominant culture but the epistemological and political dimensions as well. In McLuhan’s universe, poets and artist are explorers and on the edge. He says in Counter Blast:

The external landscape technique of the Romantic poets and painters were pushed to the extreme point where they suddenly become internal and musical with Rimbaud and the symbolists. Instead of using a single external space to evoke and control mental states, it was suddenly discovered that many spaces could be included in a single poem or picture. The newspaper contributed directly to this new art form. And no sooner had this occurred than artists were enabled to see that all language and experience was, and had always been, this simultaneous and many-layered thing. (83)

This is the acoustic universe recognized in art before the electronic universe became pervasive. In such a space, where seemingly discordant elements exist together, we either make meaning through a mosaic or live with fragments and alienation.

3. Poets, Rhetoricians, Sophists – Burke’s Vagabonds

In Culture is Our Business, McLuhan writes, “Poets and artists live on frontiers. They have no feedback, only feedforward. They have no identities. They are probes” (44). Always an artist, McLuhan’s revolution is a consciousness evolution. All his work is a mosaic, requiring our interpretation. What information he offers tempts us to reconsider, redesign, and to create our own knowledge. In his mosaic, time and space as we know them are moot and in the Zen sensibility evanescent. Among the implications of this mosaic is a particularly interesting and rhetorical one: the mosaic is suited to invention and the rhetorical practice of copia, which are both an attitude and a technique familiar to rhetorical conventions.

To understand the context of McLuhan’s (w)holistic or auditory rhetoric, I want to create a space wherein McLuhan’s Counter Blast and Kenneth Burke’s Counter Statement resonate. For example, McLuhan, carried on Burke’s “program,” pretty much as Burke describes it. I am not suggesting that McLuhan’s reading of Burke shaped his approaches but that McLuhan’s motives and Burke’s resonate.

In the practice of Hectic-Zen composition, resonating and making replace the practice of matching information. One of the maddening things about research as it is currently practiced is the assumption that without a physical or temporal connection no connection exists. Copia and resonance are key terms for Hectic-Zen research, which is (w)holistic and auditory and suggests that to insist on proximity as a criteria is a kind of empirical babble.

In this mode of research, we are influenced; we tingle together through our systems of interest. Thus, we tend to look for patterns of agreement in ways other than chronological or proximity scholarship. It is our shared systems of interest and alliances with like thinkers, as well as strangers who contradict us, that encourage us to sound out the interesting possibilities found in a community of thought. For example, Gloria Anzaldua’s Borderlands is one of the most reverberating examples of mosaic rhetoric and resistance to the machine Kenneth Burke opposes in Counter Statement. If not for resonance, getting Anzaldua and Burke together for a dinner conversation would be impossible. Proximity scholarship denies familial and tribal sharing, whereas (w)holistic and auditory scholarship encourages it.

Another example, Richard Enos in his Greek Rhetoric Before Aristotle presents a history of Greek rhetoric influenced by Homeric traditions simpatico with Anzalua’s modality. The relationship of dialogue, rhetoric, and poetics is dynamic. If I might summarize Enos’s assertions, the assent and dominance of Aristotle and Plato’s rhetoric constitutes a major epistemological as well as cultural omission.

Aristotle’s intolerance for sophistic rhetoric and the popularity of his Rhetoric consigned the sophists and the epistemology of Homeric rhetoric to the back room closet of academics and public life and law. The Rhetoric, which separated mythos and poetics from the appeals and the epistemological foundations of western civilization, “produced a theory of rhetoric so constricted that later attempts to trace its development allocated commonly associated elements of rational discourse such as thought, conceptualization and expression to distinct disciplines (philosophy and rhetoric) rather than viewing a unified progression of cognitive processes” (89).

The reintegration of Sophistic and poetics with rhetoric are counter blasts to Aristotle’s dominance. This, too, is McLuhan’s message: “The poet dislocates language into meaning. The artist smashes open the doors of perception” (Culture is Our Business 44).

Let there be no mistake, this is a political act recognized by McLuhan, Burke, and the echoing voices in rhetoric’s history. Burke and McLuhan, both sensed and explored the reverberations of the poetic, the rhetorical stepchild, and recognized the social implications of the way we compose. For both of them the consciousness evolution requires the active participation of the artist.

Figure 6: Kenneth Burke’s Frog

K.B.’s program in Counter Statement is a testimony to the social involvement of an artist, literary critic, and dedicated “vagabond.” Burke’s blatant advertisements for his fiction and poetry at the beginning and end of the book are neither accidental nor offered with apology. I remember the first time I met Kenneth Burke. He was giving a talk to an academic audience in Normal Illinois. We were all waiting for a rendition of Dramatism. He cracked his journals and read us his poetry. Very Zen in Normal.

If the key to Burke’s rhetorical motives is identification, and it is, then Burke identifies with the artist as counter puncher in a fight for nothing less than humanity. His adversary is the efficient and productive culture that makes a religious duty of the practical, efficient, material possessions, and increased consumption along with “higher standards of living” and the “ubiquitous optimism” as well as “evangelizing” that characterizes the “practical-aesthetic” (110-111). Against the practical aesthetic, he posits the “Bohemian-aesthetic” in order to provide a corrective to the machine of efficiency and its pervasive culture. His exordium: “Let us attempt to bring to the fore such “Bohemian” qualities as destroy great practical enterprise” (119).

If you are following the ragged map I’m making and seeing the access roads that run along side, there is a philosophic resonance between Burke and McLuhan. The resonance may or may not be supported by scholarly documents and their own critiques of one another. In Language as Symbolic Action, Burke criticizes McLuhan for focusing on media while neglecting language but then acknowledges that some messages are best suited to certain media. However, if we look at their shared questions about society, McLuhan and Burke share an artistic, complex, and holistic form of exploration, writing, and thinking.

McLuhan, for example, would contend that the challenge of rhetoric is to “first restore, and then to understand in a connubium, the unity of all the elements which men have abstracted by their codes from the primordial matrix” (Counter Blast, 62). There is resonance, here, with Burkes understanding of rhetoric’s transforming and transcending role in the Rhetoric of Motives since rhetoric is “concerned with the state of Babel after the fall” (23) and seeks the final identification in “its ultimate expression in mysticism, the identification of the infinitesimally frail with the infinitely powerful” (326). Dealing with Babel and McLuhan’s primordial matrix requires both the adaptation of multiple vocabularies and multiple composition modes – practiced as a Hectic Zen meditation/contemplation in the mosaic genre.

To compose with the mosaic, as composers, we have to suspend our point of view for a moment in an act of faith. We will want to plight our troth to the other, the strange, the anti-environment—not as tourists in a quest for exotic titillation or colonization but as thoughtful guests and vagabonds who recognize we are always as strange to ourselves as we are to others and they to us. The practice of this faithful and hectic composition is not idiosyncratic or rare.

4. Medley with four composers and mosaic

Figure 7: Zen Moon, Hectic Tree

Consider, what do we get when Burke, McLuhan, Gloria Anzaldua, and Ann E. Berthoff say the similar things in different modalities that create a shared effect and message? It’s research in the auditory mode, where what “proofs” are available are not dependent upon chronology or proximity.

We should, for a moment, think back to Jeff Rice’s assertion that “The one place the mix as appropriate rhetoric is missing is in writing pedagogy” (Rhetoric of Cool 65). The mosaic, and the satire, as a modes of composing in McLuhan’s electronic age offer an opportunity to see how disparate ideas and information may resonate and offer us a sense of process as we negotiate the electronic universe. In the mosaic, the writer engages the topics and issues from a variety of positions and tonalities and, sometimes, mixes the visual with the phonetic. There is a sense in which the mosaic is musically inspired, drawing on the repetition of themes amid a number of variations on those themes. Finally, the mosaic is a form of satire.

It’s a commonplace that McLuhan practiced Menippean satire with a mix of Joyce and Symbolist poets. Satire’s etymology includes its Latin roots, which is a dish of mixed fruits offered to the gods, a “medley” or “mishmash.” Our habitual understanding of satire includes irony, attacks on vices, and exaggeration. However, as a mode of composition, we also must recognize the kaleidoscopic formats and modualities of the satiric genre in poetry, novels, drama, and essays. The satire is a mosaic art, and when the irony and satirical intent is either toned down or dismissed, the mosaic remains. To say that McLuhan’s work is satirical is to acknowledge the mosaic as much as to acknowledge his wit and temperament.

McLuhan’s satire, his multi-modal and multi-genre explorations are foregrounded to the point that his books are performances. His poetic juxtaposition of words and images seldom settle anything for a reader but lead from the hint of an explanation to explore the scene in an act of interpretation and, like Burke, sense the resonance in seemingly dissociated thoughts. The typography in Counter Blast is an example of mosaic style, as if the words themselves were (as they truly are) susceptible to any configuration at any moment. Harley Parker performs McLuhan’s idea of the auditory through visual manipulations and the oral dimension of language is suggested in the shifts in typeface and point as well as juxtaposition of words that appear to be leaping from the page with standard type. McLuhan’s commitment to the mosaic is total, closely allied with his belief in the purpose of the book in the age of the mosaic. The book, he says, suggesting the whole of print culture as well, “HAS ACQUIRED NEW INTEREST AS A TOOL IN THE TRAINING OF PERCEPTION” (99).

In Burke, always the composer, the mosaic tendency as a habitual mode of composition is most obvious in his controlled associative approach to topics, and we read Burke best I think when we read him impromptu, choosing random sections to compare to other sections of his writing and sensing a resonance in his seemingly dissociated thoughts—a jazz tribute to linguistic riffing. With Burke, we are challenged to make meaning as he explains himself through exploring the interesting possibilities of a topic, where he comes to a position and abandons it with a concerned but satirical attitude, the attitude of a vagabond of thought.

The place where Burke and McLuhan meet is in the need for pattern recognition in McLuhan’s description and Burke’s focus on form. Burke recognizes that form is a matter of finding repose, or peace, in “a mutually adjusted set of terms” where “conflicting terms ‘cooperate’ in the building of an overall form” (Rhetoric of Motives 23). Thus, even the neurotic finds repose in form. McLuhan contends that our only response our neurotic environment of information overload is pattern recognition (Medium 132), the pattern being a fair analogy for the sense of form in Burke.

Gloria Anzaldua’s Borderlands/La Frontera is an example of mosaic and multi-genred composition. She writes as she reflects on writing Borderlands that, “In looking at this book . . . I see a mosaic pattern (Aztec-like) emerging, a weaving pattern, thin here, thick there”(88). La Frontera is also, in the terms of this discussion, a satire in keeping with McLuhan’s electronic universe. Her resonance of form and intention is a performance of McLuhan’s auditory rhetoric, Hectic Zen, although Anzaldua is naturally practicing composing from her position as an indigenous writer.

Defined as a Mestiza by society and by self-definition, Anzaldua accepts the mosaic of her culture and composes from that position. The cacophony of languages and genres in Borderlands is a harmonious composition of competing languages, personalities, and genres. Resistance, art, and rhetoric are blended, and Borderlands is intensely personal while intensely public. Azaludua’s poetry is an essential part of her argument and she chooses poetry, the use of line and image, to punctuate and deepen her message. Her final exordium, “Don’t Give In, Chicanita,” is a poem in both Spanish and English, and the last stanza nails her petition to the door:

Yes, in a few years or centuries

la Raza will rise up, tongue in tact

carrying the best of all the cultures.

that sleeping serpent,

rebellion-(r)evolution, will spring up.

Like old skin will fall the slave ways of

obedience, acceptance, silence.

Like serpent lightning we’ll move, little women.

You’ll see. (225)

On the one hand, Anzaldua writes about history, culture and race. On the other, she reflects on the processes of composition and the mestiza consciousness, passages in her chapter “Tlilli, Tlapalli/The Path of the Red and Black,” offer us an analogy for writing in an ambiguous and complex environment. In a segment entitled “A Tolerance For Ambiguity,” (a title Ann Berthoff would applaud) Anzaldua writes:

La mestiza constantly has to shift out of habitual formations; from convergent thinking, analytical reasoning that tends to use rationality to move toward a single goal (a Western mode), to divergent thinking, characterized by movement away from set patterns and goals toward a more whole perspective, one that includes rather than excludes. (101)

The mestiza stands, “where phenomena tend to collide. It is where the possibility of uniting all that is separate occurs” (101).

Interest in indigenous rhetorics, as demonstrated in the most recent CCC, Indigenous and Ethnic Rhetorics, indicates our recognition of counter and resistive rhetoric. The shift in emphasis in our profession from considering such rhetorics as necessary rather than exotic is welcomed. If anyone wants to understand the scope and significance of mestiza rhetoric, they should read Damian Baca’s Mestiz@ Scripts, Digital Migrations, and the Territories of Writing. Baca engages Anzaldua’s rhetoric as a strange attractor for a rhetoric of resistance and (r)evolution. He finds in the traditions:

performances of indigenous people of meaning-making that provide arguments for and against certain things, namely, the dominant narratives of assimilation. Moreover, both Mestiz@ ritual dance and paintings/writings embody a process of interactions whereby certain meanings and social realities specific to the Americas are shaped, destroyed, and sustained through official, resistant, and ritualistic use of rhetoric. (3)

Anzaldua’s artful rhetoric is the performance Baca describes, a performance that suggests how we might compose in the auditory environment McLuhan’s extended definition.

Ann E. Berthoff is a teacher, a philosopher of language and rhetoric, and composition theorist who raised composition theory above the empirical ocean and some considerable formulaic nonsense of modern traditional rhetoric. For her, Hectic Zen is a matter of responding to ambiguity, not in the sense of a dualistic perspective but in a multifaceted response where she follows I.A Richard’s lead in exploring the deliberate disciplines of the mind necessary to working with complexity and ambiguity as “the hinges of thought” (Making of Meaning 70-71). She writes that, “chaos is scary: the meanings that can emerge from it, which can be discerned taking shape within it, can be discovered only if the students who are learning to write can learn to tolerate ambiguity” (71). The disciplines of thinking and philosophy such as “Extremes meet, compare to learn, and abstract to unify, are offered as the means for working with complexity, the chaos she says is necessary for writing and that McLuhan argues is a permanent component of our lives.

Berthoff’s medium of choice is the mosaic. Like Burke’s, her writings are generally collages of language and topics framed by a directive idea. Forming, Thinking, Writing: The Composing Imagination is one of the most clear examples of mosaic composition, where “There are some enterprises in which a careful disorderliness is the true method” (Melville qtd. in Berthoff 49). She practices satire in the definition of satire as mosaic, being multi-genred and multifaceted and blending contrasting ideas into harmony. She says: “Satire offers what Kenneth Burke, a learned and witty rhetorician calls “perspectives by incongruity.” Things that don’t belong together can, in juxtaposition, give us new insights, help us form concepts. Transforming is at the heart of Burke’s theory of rhetoric” (138).

Such transformation can take us through the vanishing point McLuhan alludes to toward a place where we are making whatever we discover. In McLuhan’s words: “The method of our time is to use not a single but multiple models of exploration—the technique of the suspended judgment is the discovery of the twentieth century as the technique of invention was the discovery of the nineteenth” (Medium 89).

The mosaic seems an ironic choice to represent a holistic perspective. That is not, in fact, the function of the mosaic. Its function is the creation of perspectives that come from the contemplation of the whole as experienced in fragments, the complexity from which we create a perspective – Hectic Zen. Since the mosaic as a form breaks up a single point of view and compounds relationships and implications, it is an instrument allowing suspended judgment. The mosaic is a way of contemplation or (waiting for a Strange Attractor) that empties our singular perspective and our new understanding comes from the hollow of this absence.

5. Hectic Zen and the Art of Mosaic Maintenance: Be an Artist or Die

Figure 8

McLuhan’s embedded message is that the singular point-of-view no longer stands as the one way for the West. His bell sounding for the East and its aesthetic echoes throughout his works. Hectic Zen is practiced in the space between things. It is the means for connection among the many languages, voices, images, and civilizations that are now present to us through media and the inter-connectedness implied by the dance of electrons and tweets.

In that space a realizing intuition, some one thing, be it image or term, starts us moving toward a unified conception of the mosaic. This is pattern recognition and when it happens we have a Zen moment, an Aha! experience. Having the patience and discipline to suspend judgment and believe in such a moment is to practice Hectic Zen.

To practice Hectic Zen is to enter the spaces among things rather than the things themselves, much in the same way that one could practice trying to see the spaces among objects rather than the objects themselves. That sort of mediation is disorienting visually, as the practice of contemplating or resonating with the space between cultures and ideas is disorienting. Thus, disorient. Accept “perspective by incongruity.” What is predictable is meaningful to the degree the prediction is confounded. In a universe of information overload accepting disorientation is necessary, as well as gaining the repose in order to recognize relationships among the fragments. For McLuhan, Hectic Zen was a necessary instrument for survival. He writes:


A more emphatic statement, one that McLuhan might make, is: “Be an artist or die.” Like Burke, McLuhan sees the artist as providing a counter statement or counter blast to the dominant society. He also sees the artist as someone who demonstrates the activity of Hectic Zen, the discovery of patterns among complex relationships. McLuhan’s understanding of the artist reverberates with the Balinese indigenous perspective that art is doing life well. He points out in Through the Vanishing Point:

Like the Balinese . . . Electronic Man approaches the condition in which it is possible to deal with the entire environment as a work of art. This presents no solution to the previous problems of decorating the environment. Quite the contrary, the new possibility demands total understanding of artistic function of society. It will no longer be possible to add art to the environment. (7)

Figure 9

The most basic pattern recognition is “formal” in a more (w)holistic sense—some would say aesthetics, but that is a western way of describing the sensation and not passing on through the vanishing point. K.B. describes form as the arousal and fulfillment of expectations, and the opposite is also attractive and resonates with pattern recognition. In the electronic universe, as in art, the arousal and denial of expectations are central to moving on since what is next is always a surprise requiring integration. We need the spark of “bang,” “ahhh,” ahha,” ohoh,” or “zing” to keep our compositions and the world moving. Without this, education and living are reduced to looking for an answer to someone else’s questions, which like linear form is fine but not the end of it (or even the beginning). Hectic Zen realization is a sensation seeking whatever language makes it mean. We compose and move on, seeking the moment of “zing.”

Hectic Zen troubles those who want something particular. In Zen composition, if you want something you will not get it; what you do get might be better. What is hectic? If you don’t get it, you aren’t hectic enough. Incompatible-juxtaposition, pun and metaphor, diremption, Russian ostramenie. Be a stranger and you are there. You see what it is that you were enveloped in and breathing. It’s a break out and tearing up with a moment of making. To say it this way is not the experience, but saying it this way reminds me of it. We get there or we do not. We get it, or we do not.

In Hectic Zen composition, the composer, as an artist, becomes sophistic, becomes Homeric, becomes indiginous the composing, perhaps in harmony with Anzalua’s sense of complexity or McLuhan’s claim that we have “evoked a super-civilized sub-pimitive” being (Counter Blast). This is not in the sense of anyone “going native,” but in the reality of the social environment described by McLuhan. Also, an artistic rhetorician joins in a perspective Anzaldua describes for the writer as “shape changer, is a nahual, a shaman” (Borderlands 88). McLuhan writes:

The artist is a person who is especially aware of the challenge and dangers of new environments presented to human sensibility. Whereas the ordinary person seeks security by numbing his perceptions against the impact of new experience, the artist studies the distortion of sensory life produced by new environmental programming and tends to create artistic situations that correct the sensory bias and derangement brought about by the new form. In social terms the artist can be regarded as a navigator who gives adequate compass bearings in spite of magnetic deflection of the needle by the changing play of forces. So understood the artist is not a peddler of ideals or lofty experiences. He is rather the indispensable aid to action and reflection alike. (238)

The emphasis on rhetoric and society has always been on civic engagement and political action. Since Aristotle, however, poetics have been secondary considerations in social action and the most artistic division of rhetoric, the epideictic, given less attention. This doesn’t mean that in the 20th and 21st centuries rhetoricians and compositionists have neglected art and epideictic but that we should continue to explore ways of including them. I take it this is one of McLuhan’s primary points of exploration. He, by demonstration, mixed scholarly, artistic, and popular topics and modes of composition, demonstrating that the form and protocol of the scholarly article need not reflect the Newtonian universe or doggedly upholding the linear modes and models of composition.

The braiding of our threads of rhetorical studies since the 60s has included rhetoric(s) of resistance to our mediums and our message. Feminist, sophistic, ethnic, resistive, counter, and electric rhetoric(s) have been foregrounded in our discipline and yet the approach of scholarly discourse continues, in the main and under sail power, to plow through the sea of a traditional model. As Leonard Cohan puts it in a blues song, “Everybody knows the boat is leaking; everybody knows the Captain lied.” We are no longer able to be in the exact same boat, but have to find room on the sea of discourse for boats that we may share from time to time, and this may be one of the only ways to understand the Global Village or to live in it. Or, as the radrhetor Victor Vitanza has it in his afterword to Writing Histories of Rhetoric, “Preparing to Meet the Faces That ‘We’ Will Have Met”:

My Program is to a/void a program and thereby is to discover systemic (accountable) and nonsystemic (nonaccountable) places for all of us. In language we are all intermittently a (scape)goat. Language is/has a double effect, if not also a triple effect. It is not, then, a necessity any longer – as Puritans did in their sermons – of simply separating sheep from goats, or simply separating sheep from goats and dancing satyrs. So as to make the way for The (One True, and Catholic) History of Rhetorik. (247).

This passage is a demonstration of his earlier statement on writing; “When I write, I try to maintain a sense of ‘discovery,’ of being on the joyful Road to Serrendip; or to maintain a sophistic sense of the motion of the whole” (245). Do we sense the beat in this, the dealing with fragmentation in parallel comparisons, the resistance to a conclusion, and a playful (witty) engagement in a language seeking some unifying moment of repose in the complexity? Finding languages and structures to encounter and engage complexity, because complexity is not only our necessary environment but also because it can help us on a joyful road to realizing our world together, is the practice of Hectic Zen and the compositional compass for finding directions as we pass through the vanishing point into McLuhan’s universe.

Figure 10: A moment of repose

Dear Ann Berthoff,

To construe is to construct and
how we construe is how we construct,
and to construct is to construe.
What messages we MEAN are
more than seen and Strange
We feel what we think
and believe,
meaning (as well as understanding)
is a suspended-judgment bridge
and we are all poetry
an act of poetic faith
to be present to one another,
for a moment,
testifying to a system of interests
system sing
blue-green light on/in a web of light
if you live this, the world is yours;
if you do not, it belongs to another.
As Marshall McLhuan says,
Nothing is inevitable, preordered, (ordained)!
if there is a
to contemplate.


I am grateful to the readers and editors who have gone along with me on this exploration of Marshall McLuhan’s modes of composition. For one thing, I began with the notion of a parataxic approach that brings together starkly dissimilar ideas in parallel. This approach, one that McLuhan discusses in Through The Vanishing Point as contributing to the end of the “’story line’ as a means of organizing verbal structures,” (26) turns the composing process into an intellectual haiku, a mode of composing that McLuhan used throughout his work and that he saw important to negotiating the electronic or auditory environment. McLuhan uses this approach to comment on works of art and literature in Vanishing Point, as in his first comment on William Blake’s “The Tyger”: “Resonating acoustic space. A vast echo chamber for reader participation”(139).

Parataxis is particularly difficult to manage in a scholarly article since it abandons sublimation of phrases and clauses and the establishment of syntactical relationships in favor of leaving things parallel in order for the reader to make her or his own discoveries and connections. It happens on a structural and formal level more than with sentence construction. In order to manage the distance between the parataxic approach and the hypotaxic approach, which specifies relations, some wrangling is necessary. This is, of course, the challenge of composing scholarship in the mosaic genre, a challenge McLuhan managed to meet.

Once a writer (composer) shifts from parataxic to hypotaxic, the story line or history and reasoning are foregrounded, thus any article, such as this one, that attempts to shift from one to the other is difficult for a reader expecting a scholarly argument, much in the same way a haiku is difficult for Western readers. We, I think, have more practice with haiku than with parataxic form in scholarly writing. The editors and readers suffered with me through this back and forth transformation, and Kevin Brooks helped me fish out the argument that went with first my intellectual haiku and then my story line. He recognized that what the story line was attempting to do was “emphasize that this sort of auditory rhetoric and mosaic composition has been practiced for quite some time (Burke and McLuhan), has been practiced (or at least noticed) by people more closely associated with composition and rhetoric (Enos and Berthoff), and is practiced outside the discipline (Anzaldua and Mestiz@), emphasizing the long history of auditory rhetoric and mosaic composition.” I could hardly say it better.

Piece originally published at Enculturation | Creative Commons License

Works Cited

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