McLuhan 5: Two Biographies

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.

McLuhan 1: An Introduction

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.

Totally. Ciao!