McLuhan 5: Two Biographies

Posted by PH on August 04, 2007
Marshall McLuhan

I recently bought Marshall McLuhan: Escape Into Understanding, a biography by W. Terrence Gordon. Originally published in 1997, the book has become available again due to the Gingko Press‘s laudable and long overdue McLuhan reissue programme.

However, before reading it I decided to re-read the first McLuhan biog, Phillip Marchand’s Marshall McLuhan: The Medium And The Messenger. This was originally released in 1989 (but again remains available in the form of a 1998 MIT reissue with a new introduction by Neil Postman). I read it sometime in the early 1990s—a long time ago—and my getting the W. Terrence Gordon book seemed like an ideal opportunity to revisit it:

It’s a very good book: it’s written very clearly and really does attempt to get McLuhan’s difficult ideas across in plain English. The facts of McLuhan’s life are presented in a straightforward narrative, and in particular his difficult relationship with his influential mother really leaps off the page.

Gordon’s book is quite different. Although the basic narrative remains the same—the facts of McLuhan’s life seem unproblematic—the emphasis is quite different. McLuhan’s mother barely registers, whereas the relationship with his wife is touchingly and convincingly portrayed.

Far more of the book is given over to McLuhan’s ideas, which is both a blessing and a curse: on the one hand Gordon really does try to (say) fillet out and summarize the complex ideas in Understanding Media in a compact form, but on the other hand his explanations can be as confusing and as jargon-laden as the ideas he’s trying to explain. As a linguist and semiotician he’s far too immured in his own academic discourses.

The two books have many similarities. Both are written by ex-University of Toronto students. Both begin with almost identical opening sentences that unfold into stories outlining the authors’ initial contact with McLuhan. And as I’ve said, their basic narratives of McLuhan’s life are almost identical, albeit with different emphases. Perhaps the biggest difference between them, therefore, is the fact that the Gordon book comes from the Internet age whereas the Marchand book just precedes it. In those intervening ten years McLuhan’s ideas gained new currency as a result of the profound integration of computer networks into society, and the resulting (and ongoing) reconfiguration of all levels of society that this provoked. Gordon’s book therefore reflects this current re-analysis and re-evaluation of McLuhan in ways that Marchand’s book simply cannot.

For myself, I came away from these books with a renewed respect for McLuhan, and—ironically—a sense that I understood his work less than I did before. However, what this really means is that I’ve discovered new levels of meaning that I didn’t even know were there: McLuhan’s work on the Trivium (and the implications of this); his in-depth understanding of ideas like ’cause and effect’; the origin and effects of his compressed and aphoristic writing style; metaphor; etc.. I’ve discovered that even many of his most obvious and oft-used ideas are not straightforward: for example, what exactly did he mean when talking about ‘acoustic space’? Why is ‘visual space’ three-dimensional and ‘acoustic space’ only two-dimensional? And finally, is McLuhan a linguist? A communications theorist? Surrealist poet? Not that he would have cared what you called him, but you get the idea…

Truly fascinating stuff.

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