What can I say? I’m a BIG fan of Marshall McLuhan. I first came across him sometime around 1992 and I’d just completed my Post-Graduate Diploma in Music Information Technology. Just as I was finishing my dissertation (on synthesizer interface design) my research somehow led me to Understanding Media and it completely blew me away. Since then I’ve read most of his major works, his published letters, a biography, and several other books about him and his work. I’m the very proud owner of a First Edition of The Mechanical Bride.
His writing remains unique, especially for an academic. Most obviously, he deliberately and self-consciously avoids the expositional logico-scientific structures of the academic paper, preferring instead a kind of mosaic – or what he would probably call a ‘field’ – of fragments, references, allusions, metaphors, puns, and killer one-liners. These spiral around the subject under discussion like a swarm of determined and very clever bees.
For example: chapter 2 in Understanding Media is entitled ‘Media Hot and Cold’. The second paragraph begins with some basic definitions and is quite easy to read and understand:
There is a basic principle that distinguishes a hot medium like radio from a cool one like the telephone, or a hot medium like the movie from a cool one like TV. A hot medium is one that extends one single sense in “high definition.” High definition is the state of being well filled with data. A photograph is, visually, “high definition.” A cartoon is “low definition,” simply because very little visual information is provided.
Straightforward enough, no? But then over the next 10 pages he develops this simple idea, taking in along the way hieroglyphic vs ideogrammic writing, ballet, Freud, steel axes and the Australian Aborigine, Newton, Blake, Frank Lloyd Wright, anxiety, boredom, jazz, Margaret Mead, W.H. Auden and Shakespeare, a rationale for the great period in Athenian culture, Calvin Coolidge, traffic calming, Glenn Gould and Stravinsky, dark glasses, James Joyce, Constance Rourke, and Dr. Johnson. Phew!
Like all intertextuality, understanding and evaluation is only possible if you know the sources, and his range of references is extremely broad. It can make for exhausting reading, but at the end of the day there is no-one like him. No matter whether you love him or loathe him, agree or disagree, his work is challenging and visionary and more relevant now than it was when he wrote it (Understanding Media came out in 1964). He reminds me a bit of Freud, in the sense that – although many of his ideas may have been misguided, off target, or just plain wrong – his work has completely changed the way we think about the world (and ourselves).
Here’s a little snippet of him in action. It’s short, but it really does give the true flavour of his dense, aphoristic style:
As you can probably tell from the giveaway title for this post, I plan to write more on McLuhan. I hope that over time these might mount up to something substantial. But to round off today’s introductory sermon, I thought I’d end with one of my favourite quotes of his – McLuhan’s definition of politics:
Yesterday’s solutions to today’s problems.