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Marshall McLuhan with televisions showing his image, circa 1967

It’s an easy trick, and an often potent one, to show how many unsettlingly accurate descriptions of our media-saturated, passive, and opinion-driven world came from Marshall McLuhan, and were coined over half a century ago. In his first book, The Mechanical Bride, in 1951, and even more in The Gutenberg Galaxy, in 1962—later works were mostly rephrasings of those early perceptions—McLuhan was able to look so closely at the froth of the culture around him that he could seem to make out the future. Typically combining about five points in one, he wrote, in one characteristic pronouncement, in 1962, thirteen years before the first personal computer was marketed:

A computer as a research and communication instrument could enhance retrieval, obsolesce mass library organization, retrieve the individual’s encyclopedic function and flip it into a private line to speedily tailored data of a saleable kind.

McLuhan’s prose was nearly always as unreadable as that sentence, impossibly dense, yet weirdly clairvoyant; and his readiness to produce the very quippy slogans he saw as prefiguring a future in which the medium would be the message ensured that he would win fame and opposition in equal measure. In his own mind, he was more diagnostician than celebrant, essentially sending up flares to warn of the split-screen, sedated, and unreal post-literate world he saw coming. But his inability to resist a bad pun or an easy paradox (money, he proclaimed, was the poor man’s credit card) and his knotty and self-enclosed readings left him sounding like a proto-text-messager or a pioneer of the sound byte (as well as one of its earliest critics). It is easy to see him today as a kind of Dr. Frankenstein of media theory, who set into motion precisely the monster that would first throw its arms around him and then gobble him up.

Still, it’s startling to turn back to his writing now and realize how much more durable he is than just a figure who appears on the masthead of Wired magazine as “Patron Saint” or the old guy who showed up in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. “For tribal man, space was the uncontrollable mystery. For technological man it is time that occupies the same role,” he wrote (in an essay, characteristically, on jukeboxes), anticipating the way that we feel less and less bounded by geography, yet more and more hostage to the moment. “To high speed change no adjustment is possible,” he proclaimed, in 1960. “We become spectators only and must escape into understanding.” It’s possible, in those words, to hear not just the neutrality of a man who would much rather have been with his books, rereading Finnegans Wake, but also precisely the bland fatalism that his detractors always misread. Then, as if to remind us that his essays were often Emersonian “probes,” a throwing off of possibilities, he also tells us, “I don’t necessarily agree with everything I say.”

All but one of the quotations above are cited in Marshall McLuhan, by Douglas Coupland, originally part of a new series on extraordinary Canadians brought out north of the border and overseen by John Ralston Saul, in which relatively well-known writers were asked to offer short, personal essays on celebrated compatriots of the past. The series itself is a vindication of sorts of McLuhan—many readers today want only a little on great minds, ideally as filtered through the often wildly idiosyncratic lens of brand-name authors. But Coupland’s suggestively elliptical and eccentric monograph is a reminder, too, of how much better it is to have some McLuhan than none at all. By the 1970s, the so-called “Apostle of the Electronic Age” already seemed to have been displaced by some of the developments he’d predicted, and by 1979 only six students were signing up for the classes of a “media guru” who had drawn hundreds only ten years before. Yet if McLuhan is largely forgotten today, outside Canada at least, it may be because we are living rather than reading him.

It is the gist of Coupland’s book—which draws heavily for its material on Philip Marchand’s delightfully readable and thorough biography from 1989, Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger—that the stuffy, devoutly Catholic, often fustily conservative McLuhan, going to Mass almost daily and the last on his block to own a TV set, indeed “hated the modern world and he hated technology.” In the early days of television, he simply had the cleverness to read the scene around him—its comic strips, ads, and pop-culture fluff—with the tenacity he had been taught by his teachers in New Criticism at Cambridge. Thus Superman, for him, became a symptom of what happens when philosophy and religion vanish from everyday thought, and Dale Carnegie was “America’s Machiavelli.” More than that, as Coupland stresses, it was McLuhan’s very Catholic removal from the world—he barely seemed to register World War II, even as he landed in England on September 2, 1939, the day after Germany invaded Poland—that allowed him to turn a somewhat impartial, quasi-scientific eye on the signs around him. The world was God’s creation, he believed, so we owed it to ourselves to pay close attention to it; and yet most of its creations were the products of time, and so could seem only flimsy in the light of eternity.


In this regard, as Coupland often reiterates, it was precisely the fact that McLuhan was an expert on Renaissance literature—and a reader of Joyce—that enabled him to detect recurrences in the world of modern communications that few political scientists or sociologists could see so clearly. Trained in pattern recognition, he looked at what was around him as if it were a poem. And his research into Thomas Nashe, the sixteenth-century pamphleteer who was the subject of his doctoral dissertation, gave him an insight into the power of polemics, axioms and “polyphonic prose” over sustained argument that he brought into the present moment. It was the very fact that McLuhan was so steeped in the classical arts—rhetoric, grammar, and dialectic—that helped him, as Coupland deliberately points out, to read the new as someone immured in it never could.

The story of how McLuhan turned into a sight-reader of the moment and an interpreter of the stuff that we otherwise sleepwalk past has been told often, especially in Canada, and Coupland has little to add in his breezy biographical survey, except for some whimsical emphases. McLuhan himself said that being born in Edmonton (in 1911), grandson of a second- generation Irishman who had helped to set up roads and telephone lines in northwestern Ontario, trained him early in thinking about distances, and how to communicate across them. Growing up a few hundred miles north of the US also allowed him, as with many of his successors, to turn a keen if hardly admiring eye on the big brother nation in whose shadow he had to mature. Son of a real estate man and a mother who was a “travelling elocutionist”—biographers always fasten pointedly on the latter—he was an indifferent student of liberal arts at the University of Manitoba, a disconnected child of the prairies.

But even in his teens, in the middle of nowhere, he was confiding to his diary, “I must, must, must attain worldly success to a real degree.” His chance came when an undergraduate thesis on George Meredith, of all things, won him a memorial scholarship, paid for by the Daughters of the Empire, to study at Cambridge; it was there, under the tutelage of F.R. Leavis, I.A. Richards, and others, that he learned to pay close attention to words and, after he converted to Catholicism in his mid-twenties (his brother would become a Presbyterian minister), to search for a kind of unified field theory that, as Coupland has it, would “explain, or perhaps heal, the stress and disjointedness he saw in the world.”

The McLuhan Coupland presents us with was more a defiant and skeptical Cassandra than an excited visionary—“a skinny guy who seemed prematurely old, who talked only about religion and literature, who had no listening skills, and who would probably have tuned you out the moment he determined that you weren’t bombastic.” Shuffling around with cheese in his briefcase, horrifying others with his obliviousness (Coupland places him “on the mild end of the autistic spectrum”), waking his children up at 4 AM to read them the Bible, he was already driven by the impatience and distractedness that would later generate scattershot pronouncements.

In 1944, just as the Journal of the History of Ideas was asking him to rewrite a paper on “Francis Bacon’s Patristic Inheritance,” the much-read Catholic magazine Columbia was accepting his piece on Dagwood Bumstead, an emasculated figure, in McLuhan’s view, who needed to reclaim “the detached use of autonomous reason for the critical appraisal of life.” McLuhan quickly realized, as Coupland sees it, that the same textual skills that might turn him into just another literary professor in the provinces could, if applied to all the trivial, proliferating stuff of the postwar world, make him something original. “I find most pop culture monstrous and sickening,” he would say in later years, even as he was helping to father the field of media studies and setting off generations of unfettered deconstructionists.

McLuhan’s insights were never as new as the banner headlines would like us to believe; Lewis Mumford had aired some of the same ideas about the effects of technology in 1934, in Technics and Civilization, and McLuhan’s sometime friend Wyndham Lewis had noted in 1948, in America and Cosmic Man, that “the earth has become one big village, with telephones laid on from one end to the other.” It was the manner rather than the matter of McLuhan’s books that won notice. His colleague at the University of Toronto, the economic historian Harold Innis, was already exploring the consequences of different kinds of media for knowledge in his Bias of Communication, in 1951, and if you read Daniel Boorstin’s The Image (from almost exactly the same time as McLuhan’s Gutenberg Galaxy), you will find much deeper and more lucid perceptions about the Age of Image and the global screen, delivered with greater eloquence and historical wisdom. It was Boorstin, after all, who showed how “pseudo-events”—reproduced or simulated, most often in advertising and public relations—were fast superseding direct experience, and celebrity eclipsing personality.


But McLuhan’s gifts were for seeing how, as attention spans shortened, a bumper sticker slogan could hold people more easily than the most eloquent essay; he perfected the knack of speaking about twenty-first-century technology in oracular one-liners just as the Zen koan was coming into fashion in the Sixties. “All forms of violence are quests for identity,” he contended, and the very looseness of the phrasing gave the prophecy a magic (or quotability at least) that precision would squander. “The politician will be only too happy to abdicate in favor of his image,” he noted, eagerly offering advice to the likes of Pierre Trudeau and Jerry Brown, “because the image will be so much more powerful than he will ever be.” Even as fellow writers were rolling their eyes at his woolly phrase-making, innocent readers were popping the easily digested tablets.

It is in this regard that Coupland is most provocatively McLuhanesque in his short and determinedly quirky book; where most earlier writers on the master of media shorthand were students of McLuhan’s, cherishing the memory of a sage who spoke much better than he wrote, Coupland is an inadvertent literary godson. As he writes, with unsettled intimacy, he, too, a couple of generations later, has been branded with the terms he’s brought into being—“Generation X” and “McJobs”—and taken to be a cheerleader for a new order that in fact brings him mostly sadness. Deciding, it seems, that the best way of evoking “Marshall,” as he often calls him, is by making his medium his message, Coupland opens his work (in the Canadian edition at least) with six pages of anagrams formed from the letters in “Marshall McLuhan.” He follows that up with a McLuhan one-liner, alone on a page (“the name of a man is a numbing blow from which he never recovers”), and a list of Marshall McLuhan’s “online-generated Porn Star name,” “online-generated Mexican Wrestler name,” and “online-generated Outlaw Biker name.” He interrupts his essay at other points to give us MapQuest directions to McLuhan’s last home, a Tweet from Karl Lagerfeld, and a long footnote about Wikipedia (his source for much of his information, he cheerfully admits). In between encountering Abebooks listings, YouTube comments, two very long excerpts from Coupland’s recent novel Generation A, and four pages of anagrams of “the global village,” you can also enjoy here fifty questions that will show you your “Autism-Spectrum Quotient.”

This all seems gimmicky at first, and paper-thin, except that Coupland is choosing to show us by example how much we inhabit the world McLuhan foresaw. “We can all hopscotch from link to link to link,” Coupland writes—“it’s what most people do now, anyway”; the fact has largely been replaced by the fragment, or the legend, and for all the efforts of Wikipedia to simulate factual rigor, all three may soon become indistinguishable online. Biography itself has come to seem passé in the age of Google, unless it takes in the multimedia forms and alternative technologies of the new century (like McLuhan, Coupland is not afraid of hyperbole, because hyperbole itself is a sign of the times).

Coupland is disclosing something essential, I think, when he suggests that, like McLuhan, he is often miscast as a champion of the very scattered, dissociated world of which he is a victim (in one typically piercing footnote, he tells us that a freak accident has left him with hearing so hyperacute that he cannot attend events in large rooms or work in hotels until everyone else is asleep). The strength of his books has always lain in the wistfulness at their heart, as his young characters face a world in which community, history, even a sense of transcendence are all dissolved, and nothing has come up to replace them. His people have the poignancy of cartoons playing in syndication in a hotel room at 3 AM. It’s no surprise (and here he gladly co-opts McLuhan as a forebear) that one of his most resonant titles is Life After God.

Coupland’s prose here is willfully slangy and almost without weight; McLuhan is seen as “a fuddy-duddy in a glen plaid jacket” and “an information leaf blower.” The global village could project us into “a single 24-7 blobby, fuzzy, quasi-sentient metacommunity.” Life “becomes that strange experience in which you’re zooming along a freeway and suddenly realize that you haven’t paid any attention to driving for the last fifteen minutes, yet you’re still alive and didn’t crash.” But this is not all indulgence, since the closely argued, even exasperated demolition of McLuhan has already been written, many times over, not least by Jonathan Miller in a similarly short book in 1971.

The effect of all Coupland’s cute devices—now we suddenly follow a Google Book Search, now we get a two-page list of satellite names—is to show us how much McLuhan’s notorious “mosaic” thinking, his impenitent flight from linearity and from the very literature he loved and studied, is part of our nervous system now. If you believe that the Internet programs us as much as the other way around, and that “discarnate man,” as McLuhan had it, has lost touch with reality and is watched—and hypnotized—by the screens he thinks he’s watching (as Thomas Pynchon also suggests in his novel Vineland), you are an honorary citizen of the Gutenberg Galaxy. Like Thoreau before him, McLuhan sought to draw upon classical learning to show how much we have become tools of the tools we devise.

If McLuhan was overrated in the Sixties, because he managed to intuit the voice of the times before the times did, he is undervalued now precisely because, as he told us, our sense of history is so truncated and our sense of logic and continuity so fractured. We’re so tuned in to the new, we can’t see how old it is. As early as 1962, he was warning, with typical abruptness, “As our senses have gone outside us, Big Brother goes inside.” If we do not take the time to study this process, he implied, simply observing the signs as a scientist might observe an approaching storm system, undistracted by morality, “we shall at once move into a phase of panic terrors, exactly befitting a small world of tribal drums, total interdependence, and superimposed co-existence.” It is striking how often he cited terror as the sovereign feature of the global village.

In 1960, when he was only forty-eight, McLuhan suffered a stroke so severe that a priest was called in to deliver last rites. And from the time he was born, as Coupland goes out of his way to point out, he had not one artery at the base of his skull, as most humans do, but, like a cat, two. The nonlinearity of his thought processes might even have been neurological. Three years after he published Understanding Media, in 1964, his blackouts became so frequent and his sentences so bizarre that he had to undergo what was then the longest recorded neurological surgery in medical history, rendering him even harder to follow or to reach.

The private, crusty beliefs he held—that homosexuality “was probably the chief threat to contemporary morality,” that women were “constitutionally docile, uncritical, and routine loving,” and that God was really in charge of everything—would not recommend him to most twenty-first-century readers. And untrue to his image as a maverick (as Marchand, but not Coupland, tells us), he bombarded the likes of Jimmy Carter, King Carl Gustav of Sweden, and Henry Ford II with letters, advised Richard Nixon’s people on how to use the media against Hubert Humphrey in the 1968 presidential campaign, and told Timothy Leary, over lunch at the Plaza, that he should always remain smiling and positive before the media. He was never so averse to the new world of public relations as he liked to pretend. After a final, devastating stroke, however, in 1979, he was unable to speak clearly or read or write; in his final months, he was left singing hymns and repeating, “Oh boy!”

On the last day of 1980, McLuhan died, aged sixty-nine, three weeks after John Lennon was shot by a media-maddened man, and three weeks before Ronald Reagan brought Hollywood to the White House. The lettering on his gravestone, in a Catholic cemetery north of Toronto, is in computer data font, and announces “THE TRUTH SHALL MAKE YOU FREE.” It’s uncertain today how much that might be a typically self-confounding riddle—and how much just another piece of scriptural prophecy.

This Issue

May 26, 2011