April 29, 2002 | If there's a message
of the 'for dummies' age it's that nothing is beyond our grasp.
And our desire to believe this is reinforced by trends like usability,
which privilege economy over elucidation. No one anticipated it
all better than Marshall McLuhan, who whittled big insights into
sound bites in order to engage an audience beyond the lecture halls
of the University of Toronto. With the help of Tom Wolfe and others,
the scholarly McLuhan became a cool media prophet. It was, and still
is, a practical strategy in anti-intellectual times. But in the
process, much of McLuhan's meaning has been reduced to a one-liner.
This has as much to do with the absence of commentary on McLuhan's
literary, philosophical and cultural influences as it does with
the way his work is taught.
Few knew the intellectual McLuhan better than the colleagues and
friends he taught with at the University of Toronto. As one of McLuhan's
first graduate students, Professor Emeritus Donald F. Theall was
present during McLuhan's transformation from professor to media-prophet.
Theall's experience of McLuhan during this time, and their relationship
as colleagues and friends, is the subject of The Virtual Marshall
McLuhan. Two parts scholarship, one part biography, The Virtual
Marshall McLuhan illuminates the importance of the arts, poetry
and philosophy to the formation of Mcluhan's ideas and his varying
roles as satirist, trickster, professor and prophet.
In 1950, Theall arrived at St. Michael's College at the University
of Toronto as a young graduate student eager to find the right advisor.
McLuhan was then the only lay-member of the St. Michael's College
English Department and a devout Catholic who attended daily mass
and took part in debates at the Pontifical Institute of Medieval
studies. But McLuhan was no square. Those who knew him knew he was
equally devoted to the works of James Joyce, whose ribald wit and
sensuality were powerful and paradoxical counterpoints to McLuhan's
Professor Emeritus Fred Flahiff first met McLuhan as a student
in one of his graduate courses on Joyce. They became lifelong friends.
Flahiff remembers McLuhan as "an extraordinarily devout Catholic
who revelled in Joyce the lapsed Catholic, whose imagination had
been imbued by his background." While these two sides may seem
antithetical, they shared a common theme. For McLuhan "literature
was a mode of revelation," says Flahiff.
Like his devotion to Catholicism McLuhan's study of Joyce played
a role in his thought and work. Theall describes Joyce's blend of
"orality, tactility, simultaneity and synaesthesia" as
a kind of "techno-poetic" language. Through Joyce, "McLuhan
intuited, but never fully developed, the fact that language was
being increasingly transformed leading to a variety of integrated
(multi-media) style languages, but since he could not really move
beyond media through which he had developed his analysis, he could
never quite speak of these new languages which moved beyond the
verbal and the visual, even though he intuited it in his stress
on tactility and his wanting to move beyond the orality/literacy
dichotomy," says Theall.
Virtual Marshall McLuhan
Donald F. Theall
an appendix by Edmund Carpenter
McGill-Queen's University Press
this book at Amazon.com
one of McLuhan's first graduate students, professor emeritus
Donald F. Theall was present during McLuhan's transition from
professor to media-prophet. Theall's experience of McLuhan
during this time and their relationship as colleagues and
friends is the subject of The Virtual Marshall McLuhan.
Two parts scholarship, one part biography, The Virtual Marshall
McLuhan illuminates the importance of the context of
the arts, poetry and philosophy to the formation of Mcluhan's
ideas and explores his varying roles as satirist, trickster,
professor and prophet.
presents McLuhan as an unapologetic intellectual whose interests
ran the gamut from the "trivium" - a classical program for
educating orators, which included grammar, dialectic and rhetoric
- to the trivial (the kooky side that brought a joke-book
along with him to lectures). In presenting the more personal
side of his relationship with McLuhan Theall skilfully avoids
the biographical pitfalls of hero-worship and treats the more
difficult revelations with thoughtfulness and restraint.
some might find The Virtual Marshall McLuhan overly
scholarly, it nonetheless offers crucial insights of McLuhan
formerly unspoken to in popular culture or communications
studies. And without such explorations into McLuhan's humanistic
roots, "the culture of the digital age is missing out
on very important insights about the integration of art, poetry,
science and technology and the rise of a new hyperverbal,
hypervisual language," says Theall.
by Melanie McBride
McLuhan's techno-poetic intuitions were further developed by his
study of modernist experiments in typography, cinema, art and architecture.
"When I knew him he was excited about work such as that of
Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and especially Moholy-Nagy's final book, Vision
in Motion," Theall notes. "He also stressed the importance
of Duchamp, Cubism, Dadaism, LeCorbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright and
Mumford," says Theall.
Yet, despite such strong cultural and aesthetic influences, McLuhan's
work is often presented in the context of communications rather
than the humanities. And while there is no question that McLuhan
contributed substantially to the development of media theory, he
was reluctant to describe himself as a media theorist. In many ways
he had far more in common with Ezra Pound than Harold Innis. Teachers
generally situate McLuhan within the context of other media and
communications theorists such as Chomsky or Parenti, probably due
to the fact that much of McLuhan's literary and philosophical works
are unpublished. Perhaps most important of all McLuhan sources is
The Letters of Marshall McLuhan, which is, surprisingly,
now out of print (although it was only published in 1987). "The
simple answer to whether McLuhan is being taught properly is to
look at his own letters," says Theall. For it is in the Letters
that McLuhan "stresses the centrality of poetry, art, the new
technologically reproducible arts and the occult in his thought.
As he says again and again, the symbolistes, Eliot, Pound,
Lewis and, in particular, Joyce coupled with Aquinas and the classical
vision are the key to his work," says Theall.
In his introduction to his Essential McLuhan, McLuhan's
son Eric reminds us of the importance of literary traditions to
his father's work. Of all the selections chosen by Frank Zingrone
and Eric McLuhan, Marshall McLuhan's letter to Harold Innis is most
revealing of the centrality of literature to McLuhan's thought.
McLuhan's letter suggests the techniques and methods of literature
are a means of understanding emerging technology. It is worth noting
that in The Virtual Marshall McLuhan, Theall reveals that
McLuhan was "genuinely disappointed with Innis's lack of a
foundation in the arts." According to Theall and Flahiff, McLuhan
was alluding to both literary and philosophical approaches such
as aphorism, paradox, grammatical interpretation, paranomasia, Senecanism,
analogy, learned Menippean or Varronian satire, fragmentation, discontinuity
and ambiguity. And by applying the tools of the specialist to multi-disciplinary
ends, McLuhan was developing hybrid strategies that were also precurser
to critical-theory. A revelation that did not escape French theorists
who coined the term McLuhanisme to describe such strategies.
Another reason we might not know much about this side of McLuhan
has to do with the way we think about intellectuals. And if A
Beautiful Mind is any indication, we still prefer our intellectuals
to be tortured souls who must be assimilated into the status quo
in order to be redeemed. According to Theall, "if our entire
educational and cultural programmatic is meant to debunk the intellectual
in order to make everyone feel comfortable existing at the same
levels of insight and to promote primarily the pragmatic goals of
the corporate world, then it will be difficult to situate McLuhan
in the proper context, for his work is constructed on centuries
of effort in the arts, poetry and philosophy."
But we do accept intellectuals who allow us to participate in their
Godliness. We call them gurus. And we like them because we feel
involved in their deification. It is a problem that plagues most
contemporary thinkers who want to reach a large audience. Community
builder and author Howard Rheingold suggests "one problem with
the 'guru' stuff is that it's also a way of setting people up as
straw-men. I'm not that unhappy if my work has provoked discussion,
but so many times I can see that people are looking for a symbol
of some point they are trying to make, use me as a uni-dimensional
example of a technological optimist (entirely ignoring large chunks
of my writing, including the entire final chapter of The Virtual
Community, for one example) because they have a thematic or
political agenda." Yet he adds that "it's hard enough
to get large numbers of people to talk about ideas so if being a
straw man serves that, I'm happy about it."
Rheingold's ambivalence was shared by McLuhan. According to Theall,
McLuhan "allowed, even encouraged, his larger audience to take
him as a theorist (or a guru, if you like)." Once again, The
Letters tell most of the real story about McLuhan's feelings
on the subject. And as with Rheingold's experience, "McLuhan
is largely picked up by those who wish to promote their own agendas
under his name or who borrow a single concept from him to develop
their own directions," says Theall.
However you choose to read McLuhan it's something that should not
be done in isolation. McLuhan was an engineer who created multiplex
methods that found shape in Joyce and Pound then flew like Brancusi's
bird into an uncertain future. What we must look for in his work
is not a narcissistic reflection of the present but a vision of
the future through the past.
McBride is a freelance writer and
web content producer living in Toronto. You can visit her at htmel.net.