Marshall McLuhan:
Escape into Understanding

465 pages,
ISBN: 0773730451

Post Your Opinion
Hearthless Global Village
by Mark Wegierski

W. Terrence Gordon has tackled a huge subject. Indeed, this book is certainly an intellectual biography, a study as much of the ideas as of the life of the person.
Dr. Gordon did a huge amount of research for this book: thorough reading of the McLuhan canon, in-depth interviews with McLuhan's family and friends, consulting of all available archival sources, perusing the main secondary literature, and so forth. There are extensive notes, some of them rather discursive. The bibliography is divided into "Books by Marshall McLuhan", "Other Works by Marshall McLuhan", and "Other References". There are sixteen pages of well-chosen photographs.
The book begins with three iconic quotes, acknowledgements, and an introduction. Its main body is divided into six sections, the last of which assesses "McLuhan's Legacy". There are also two appendices: "Feedforward" and "Recent Works on McLuhan"; the second one mainly discusses three recent studies that Gordon thinks salient or representative. "Feedforward" is an interesting section in which he endeavours to apply McLuhanesque analysis to current-day situations and events that have happened since McLuhan died.
Reading the book (especially in the later chapters), one feels oneself to be on a huge rollercoaster ride of ideas. In that sense, the book captures the acceleration that was a characteristic of McLuhan's and late modern life in general. Where McLuhan's life, however, was consumed by enormous amounts of reading, which then allowed for unceasing, fruitful intellectual play, the conventional person is consumed by what Trollope a century before called "whirl".
At times, this biography reads almost like a parody (a sense that is reinforced by some rather odd errors and typos) and often seems excessive in its McLuhan-boosting. Although Gordon cites many arguments made against McLuhan's ideas, it is only to quickly and rather curtly dispatch them. Could he have been so right about everything?
The book also continually suggests how McLuhan so often anticipated his later ideas decades before they were fully laid out. The schematics of this are perhaps a little too pat.
One of the strengths of the book is that Gordon comes up with a relatively coherent picture of the relationship between McLuhan's Roman Catholicism and his media analyses. But it is still curious how thoroughly absent Catholicism appeared to be from his media theories.
There is also a peculiar sense of detachment from much of the turbulent history of the period, notably World War II and the 1960s.
One of the main characteristics of McLuhan's thinking was a very cool, "forensic" approach in his analysis of media. Living through the 1960s, which some think was the most revolutionary period in human history, he maintained an unflappable calm.
The two salient elements of McLuhan's thought, in my opinion, are his elevation of media as the master-concept of interpretation and his disdain for nationalism-his reduction of it to a print-derived, vernacular-centred, modern (i.e., fifteenth to twentieth century) phenomenon. But some sense of defence of hearth and home-of fighting for one's own, against hostile forces-has been an almost permanent feature of human existence.
Perhaps a sense of detachment such as McLuhan's is possible only in a society of "secure scholarship", as in Anglo-American countries, where the intellectual classes have never faced threats to their physical survival. In Anglo-American societies, internationalism becomes a natural position for Roman Catholic thought, as the national traditions have historically been generally Protestant, based on a vehement disdain for "Popery" or "Romanism". On the European Continent (and, of course, in Ireland), nationalism and Catholicism are often allied and intertwined. Coolly forensic views on socially-related matters are only possible in secure states where national survival has almost never been an issue. In Continental Europe and Russia, nationalism acquires an urgency and force that McLuhan was never able to appreciate. His reading lists appear to have been devoid of the great Continental European prophets and poets of rootedness, such as Herder and Mickiewicz. Only societies such as Poland, which have been subject to the near-extermination of their national intellectual leaderships (their nationalist intelligentsias-to use a term or concept highly alien to North America and Western Europe), can appreciate the preciousness of nationhood, and of rooted, reflective particularity. Like so many Anglo-American thinkers, who work in the historical context of a very secure and comfortable political and intellectual life, McLuhan tends towards internationalism.
Thus, McLuhanism can be viewed not only in terms of the internationalist interpretation of Roman Catholicism, but also of an Anglo-American internationalism that devalues "the national". Accompanying that devaluation is a fundamental lack of awareness of the near-permanent bloodiness of history, which such thinking associates with a now safely transcended, remote Old World.
There is little basis for McLuhanite hopefulness. McLuhan's cool insights need to be combined with some rather "hot" analyses of power-holders and their effects, in this managerial-therapeutic regime we live in. Ironically, the very safety, security, and enormous wealth of North American and other Western societies allow them to nourish all manner of competing centres and infrastructures of increasingly amplified minority consciousness, which one day may explode into widespread violence.
Media do shape consciousness, not only subliminally, but also explicitly. Arguably, we are awash in a "new philistinism" of consumerism, pop-culture, political correctness, and endless therapeutic sessions. This "new philistinism" stands in contrast with the "old philistinism", which nearly all Anglo-American artists and thinkers of the earlier twentieth century found stifling-including the self-consciously reactionary ones, notably Wyndham Lewis, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and G. K. Chesterton. McLuhan, who was-to a certain definable but not decisive extent-inspired by them, similarly disdained the old philistine Canada. But later, in his own ideas, he pulled much of the sting from their critique of the modern world. The old Canada, with its arid, Lowland Scots-Presbyterian origins, seemed especially to cut itself off from any possible sense of romantic nationalism or Celtic phantasie, which might have helped it resist or imaginatively synthesize the rising new internationalist or multicultural mediascape/cityscape. The old Canada was just waiting to be seduced by a figure like Trudeau.
The new orthodoxies meld themselves into people's minds through the unified field of media. (Television-watching begins at the age of five or earlier.) And now, many people are adamantly trying to turn their personal computers (whose core function is, after all, word-processing) into television sets, with graphics- and sound-oriented entertainments (computer games, CD-ROMs, computer games played by modem, participatory electronic settings), and the rush to make actual TV programs available on the Net. "Surfing the Net" is an addictive, TV-like entertainment in itself, as well as the source for further, ever more elaborate graphically-based amusements. The number of persons who escape (or have escaped) television's influence is negligible. Television = soft totalitarianism.
One need hardly add that in Canada today, non-designated minorities such as Ukrainian-, Italian-, Portuguese-, and Polish-Canadians, are reaching a vanishing point in terms of media influence, coverage, focus, concern, valorization, and representation.
And that is one of the messages of the medium.

Mark Wegierski is a freelance writer, most recently published in Telos and The Next City.


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