[Feature article] Reading McLuhan

My article below originally published in Mindjack Magazine online.

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 Catholicism.

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.

The Virtual Marshall McLuhan
Donald F. Theall
With an appendix by Edmund Carpenter
McGill-Queen’s University Press
ISBN 0-7735-2119-4

Buy this book at Amazon.com

As 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.

Theall 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.

While 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.

reviewed 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.