Misunderstanding Media: The Bomb and Bad Translation
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Misunderstanding Media:
The Bomb and Bad Translation

"Gadget," we are reminded by Nicolas Freeling's 1977 novel of that name, was in Manhattan Project jargon "a playful and harmless word for what we would call an atomic bomb." The pathos of the death drive is radiant in this infantilizing slang, a register that is not at all remote from genital euphemism: the pathos, as well, of novelty, of the crudity of first-generation machines, spearing you with startled nostalgia in the understanding that time passes quickly, too quickly, and that miniaturization, in its alteration of the scale of human environments, works in a blind spot in that understanding. Freeling's novel turns the word over and over, linking the primitive device produced by America's best minds in the heat of a just war to the hacked-out contraption that is always already acquired by its most bitter enemies, and reflecting on the inversions of the age of insanity opened there: above all, on what can only be called the Bomb's satanic cuteness. In what follows, I mean to examine the work of the gadget in an age of miniaturization: the molecular age of packs, bands, cells, all the social miniatures in the panorama of stateless (and indeed, headless) terror. My argument will be, first, that as a sign for inhuman efficiency, a form of the machine evolving by becoming more radically present-to-hand, the gadget is simultaneously a sign for the human value of inefficiency, of waste and expenditure. Second, I will argue that in the form of the portable translator, the gadget can tell us something about the human and the inhuman in language, that most artificial rose: about bad translation, or translation applied in spontaneous or calculated bad taste, and about the waste of translation.


"Gadget" can be found in print as early as the late nineteenth century, as a phatic placeholder for maritime technical jargon.1 Today it seems to have retreated into innocuous synonymity with "gizmo" and other diminutives suggesting, at worst, opaque eccentricity. It is in its euphemistic violence, however, that Marshall [End Page 283] McLuhan invoked the word in "The Gadget Lover," one of the passages in Understanding Media, still his most frequently cited work, where an argument crossing the grain of McLuhan's popular image is clearly visible. As I argue here, we might say that McLuhan produced a strong analysis of that mediated narcissism from which his critical disavowals, deployed as rear-guard actions and from the source of his literary training, were later powerless to rescue him.

In an atomic age led by a muscular new American consumer society, McLuhan abandoned the futurist conservatism of The Mechanical Bride, his first publication, in which he had abandoned the traditional conservatism of his British New Critical training. Embracing Menippean satire as the mode of the age, McLuhan kept in play a constant flicker or oscillation between these two antecedents; that is, the insincere or gimmicky play of personae in the work that would make him famous. However, despite his later claim (very much in the satiric mode) never to have "expressed any preferences or values since The Mechanical Bride," McLuhan does enter quite openly into judgment on the gadget lover—who stands not for excessive affection, but rather for a kind of damaging reserve. This later, satirical (and familiar) McLuhan, valorizing human sensory extension through media as a with-it embrace of the consumer society and its universe of fetishized commodities, offers a critique of the gadget in its emblematic usefulness, in the superficiality of its extension. Through the image of the gadget lover, McLuhan linked the technophilic and autotelic hyper-consumption of postindustrial America to its most destructive product, the weapon that totalized and destroyed war's temporality.

The "deterrent" arms race, from which Jean Baudrillard fashioned analogies for the collapse of representation, makes planet Earth a totality of power relationships, a weapon that could go off at any time. The narcissism of the consumption cycle thus anchors at one end—that of the gadget as a commodity whose exchange value is its simulated use value—a spectrum at the other end of which we find...