Marshall Mcluhan: The Medium And The Messenger

by Philip Marchand
336 pages,
ISBN: 0394220102

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Figure And Ground
by Claude Bissell

DURING his lifetime Marshall McLuhan was the subject of numerous articles in a wide variety of magazines, from Playboy to the New York Review of Books. Many of these articles had apocalyptic titles: "Canada's Intellectual Giant," "Prophet of What?," "Salvation through McLuhan," "Born Under Telstar." Even the few book-length studies were often shrill and combative. Now, almost 10 Years since his death, the time has come for cooler appraisals. Recently we have 'had a collection of McLuhan letters, and now Philip Marchand has written the first full biography.

In his introduction, Marchand tells how he came to be interested in McLuhan. In 1968 he was a student in a class on modern poetry taught by McLuhan at St. Michael's College, in the University of Toronto. McLuhan would suddenly switch from Gerard Manley Hopkins and T. S. Eliot to immediate social issues - the student upheavals, the presidential campaign in the United .States - or to some of his own idiosyncratic subjects - hot and cold media, the tactility of television, acoustic space. McLuhan did not strike Marchand as living in two separate worlds. He was interested in his total environment, and poetry was a vivid and arresting part of that environment, often the key to its meaning. This perception was presumably the germ of the book Marchand has now written. In working on the book, the journalist and researcher superseded the enchanted student. Marchand is neither dithyrambic or dismissive. But on the middle ground he occupies, there is still a place for the wonder and admiration that the young student felt.

The book is, first of all, a serious study of McLuhan's ideas. Marchand follows McLuhan's long and intricate intellectual journey and reports on the advice he received on the way from a multitude of fellow travellers. There are roughly three phases of the journey. The first came to an end with the publication in 1951 of McLuhan's first book, The Mechanical Bride. Behind this book are the years at Cambridge, both as undergraduate and graduate student, and his eager absorption of the ideas of 1. A. Richards, William Empson, and F. R. Leavis and his wife, particularly their emphasis on the words in the text and their effect on the reader; his conversion to Catholicism in 1937 by way of a Chestertonian revulsion against materialism and nihilism; his association with Wyndham Lewis who "upheld certain classical values of contemplation . . . and of the autonomy of the individual," ideas congenial to McLuhan's recently acquired Catholicism, and the gradual extension of critical ideas developed in the study of literature to ideas about society that he found in the American social critic, Lewis Mumford, and the Swiss architect, Sigfried Giedion. I agree with Marchand that The Mechanical Bride is "the most delightful of McLuhan's books." The prophetic tone of the later books is absent. He is here satirist and moralist, who. revels in uncovering the shoddy secrets of advertising and the mass media.

The second, and major, period began a few years after he joined the English department at St.'Michael's College in 1946. The key influence in this period was the Toronto political economist, Harold Innis, who in his late work had examined the nature of communications in some early empires. Innis argued that communications based upon stone and clay tablets had resulted in empires severely limited in space, and in a concentration on moral and religious ideas that had a timeless verity. Papyrus enabled empires to expand sensationally, and encouraged a concern for immediate problems, and the consequent growth of law and administration at the expense of moral and philosophical speculation. After reading Innis, McLuhan saw that his satiric treatment of advertising and journalism could become a grandly illuminating study of all the media of communication - especially of the electronic media that were becoming more and more dominant. The impact of Innis's ideas was immediately apparent in the eight issues of the magazine, Explorations, which appeared between 1953 and 1957. The magazine was conceived and edited by McLuhan and Ted Carpenter, a member then of the University of Toronto Department of Anthropology. McLuhan contributed to every issue, and the very titles of his articles - "Culture Without Literacy," "Space, Time, and Poetry," "New Media as Political Forms," "Media as Art Freedom" - proclaimed the encyclopedic boldness that would henceforth characterize his writing. He was now the cool and erudite sleuth tracking down the effects of the electronic media. The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) and Understanding Media (1964) were the two McLuhan classics, and with their generally enthusiastic reception he became a celebrated world figure. In Understanding Media, technology became almost a benign tyrant. McLuhan wrote as if the new technology would recover our lost paradise, which would be, not a garden, but a global village.

The third and last period was anti-climactic. A series of books under McLuhan's name appeared in the '70s, but they often seemed to be compiled, not written, and they aroused little interest. During these years McLuhan carried on endless dialogues with associates at his centre in the university, and outside the centre he delivered hundreds of stereotyped speeches to business executives and public relations consultants. He continued to propound new ideas, all of them involving sharp dichotomies: cliche and archetype, the left and right brain hemispheres, figure and ground. He placed greatest emphasis on his explication of "the laws of the media," but the promised book never appeared in his lifetime., (His son, Eric, edited and completed the manuscript, and the book was published last year).

This general pattern (the tripartite division is mine, but is implied by Marchand) is enunciated deftly and clearly. My principal reservation is that Marchand does not deal adequately with a major part of the "ground" to McLuhan's "figure." For almost all of his career, Canada was the principal ground, and for the crucial 30 years, a particular area of Canada, the campus of the University of Toronto. Like all Canadian intellectuals, McLuhan could be contemptuous of his native country, and Marchand collects his barbs with great gusto "There is no serious writing going on in Canada to-day - by anybody," "English Canada is the most apathetic and unenthusiastic territory in all creation," etc.

But a more sensitive and informed critic would have realized that McLuhan really cherished much of his Canadian ground." He outlined the Canadian as sets in a piece called "Canada: the Borderline Case." "Since the United States has become an environment," he wrote, "Canada has become the anti-environment that renders the United States more intelligible to many small countries in the world," and incidentally, we might add, it has given the views of Marshall McLuhan, the archetypal Canadian, born and raised in the Canadian West, now living in a major city in the east, a special relevance and cogency. Later on McLuhan converts Canadian self-belittle ment into a major virtue.

Canadians never got "delivery" on their first national identity image in the nineteenth century, and are the people who learned how to live with out the bold accents of the national ego-trippers of other lands.

I remember with delight an incident at an international conference that I attended with McLuhan. At an informal session in the evening, Dean Rusk, an American delegate, inquired testily about Canadian indifference to NATO. Marshall leaped to the defence, and I watched with delight the transfixed look on the face of the former secretary of state. "Canada" said Marshall,

is a land of multiple borderlines, psychic, social, and geographic. Canadians live at the interfaces where opposites clash. We have, therefore, no recognizable identity, and are suspicious of those who think they have.

McLuhan could also be sharply critical of the University of Toronto. Again Marchand collects McLuhan's critical barbs, and adds his own unquestioning testimony. In the book a dark picture of the university emerges, chiefly Marchand's extrapolation from occasional McLuhan gibes. The English department was mired in the 19th century, and indifferent to the work of the so-called 11 new critics." There are grubby portraits of the two greatest scholars in the department - Arthur Woodhouse and Northrop Frye. The university adopted a policy that weakened the colleges. It became a mega-university, whose gross symbol was the new research library. Such is the dark picture that emerges in Marchand's book.

No doubt McLuhan half-believed these canards. But a biographer should not accept them as solemn truths. There were, for instance, plenty of changes in the English curriculum before McLuhan arrived on the scene, and as an undergraduate in the '30s I heard a good deal about T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and the Cambridge critics. The university's policy towards the colleges reduced economic inequalities and, incidentally, enabled McLuhan to flourish with his own domain in a college setting. After his serious operation in New York, he came to Harvard, where I was teaching, to discuss arrangements for his return to Toronto, and was obviously relieved and delighted when the university met all his conditions.

As a graduate student, Marchand was presumably aware that the new research library was a boon to him and his fellow students. Far from being a symbol of the mega-university, it was a reassertion of traditional humanistic values. I was aware of Marshall's shrill campaign against the library, but put it down to his tendency to see his science-fiction ruminations as immediate realities. (He never mentioned his library opposition to me, perhaps out of consideration for our friendship that had begun when we both joined the Department of English just after the second World War.)

Marchand tells us a good deal about McLuhan the man, his family life and his attitude towards friends and associates. The dominant emphasis is that of a man of prodigious energy and ability who was concerned with the whole of his environment and the necessity of understanding its laws. Inevitably his large family there were six children - did not receive their father's full attention, although each child subsequently asserted his individuality. The care of the children, most domestic decisions, secretarial responsibilities (until Marshall got his own Centre) fell to his wife; and Corinne McLuhan emerges in the book as the heroine of the McLuhan story, her beauty and southern charm immaculate in trial or triumph. In the pursuit of his ideas, McLuhan could be, especially in his late years of stress, arrogant and in tolerant even with close associates. In his cathedral there were any number of acolytes, but only one priest. Nevertheless he was basically warm and unintimidating, completely without snobbery and with a keen sense of justice. Marchand gives a moving account of his tragic last days when he was deprived of his greatest joy and his most seductive attribute - speech. The book closes with a fine tribute.


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