Interview with Eric McLuhan on the Laws of Media

05Aug10

This is an important interview with Dr. Eric McLuhan on the background, circumstances and evolution of The Laws of Media. He also explains his current publishing projects and forthcoming publications. This is essential reading for all media ecologists and anyone interested in the work of Eric’s father, Marshall McLuhan. I have only included a portion of the article here. Follow the link at bottom to its source.

  

Media Ecology, the Toronto School of Communication, Canadian Communication Studies, McLuhan studies – is there a difference among these terms? If so, where do you place yourself?

Of course there’s a difference. The “Toronto School” is completely ersatz, invented decades after the fact as a sort of attempt at branding what a few Canadians have tried to do by way of studying the effects of media. There are three or four main figures, including Innis and McLuhan. Those two barely met once or twice. McLuhan got interested in Innis when he learned that Innis was using the Mechanical Bride in his classes. He then read Innis’s work on the fur trade and the cod fisheries and both Empire and Communications and The Bias of Communication, and found them absorbing and useful in furthering his own work. But he and Innis never collaborated on anything or had deep conversations, so there is little to justify the name of a “Toronto School.” The people involved were working on their own.

Media Ecology is a term I invented when we were at Fordham. I discussed it with Postman and he ran with it.

I suppose if I have a place in this it is as my father’s son and heir. I am continuing the work he began and we furthered together. I  have a few new things of my own, to put it mildly, but they are not the same as his any more than I am the same as he.

You have written and edited a great number of books throughout your prolific academic career, but in my opinion Laws of Media: The New Science remains your masterpiece. I read it twice: first as an undergrad, then as an MA student as I was working on my thesis at Simon Fraser University. Though presented as a recapitulation of the gestation of Marshall McLuhan’s thought, which culminates in the tetrads, the book, which appeared posthumously, also distinguished you from you father. Indeed, the beginning of the book seems very McLuhanesque, at times incomprehensible, but by the time you get to page 93, it suddenly becomes surprisingly clear and concise, less poetic and more scientific. I think overall it proves to be a much more accessible volume than Understanding Media, which relied heavily on “probes” and aphorisms as a vehicle for provocation, almost as a device to blow things out of proportion in order to bring them back into focus. I’m wondering how much of the book was written by you and how much of it was written by your father…

Ahh, well there’s a question! Nobody has asked me that before. I left my father’s employ in the mid-70s to spend two years in graduate school. Newly-wed, with a baby daughter, we had daughter number two while we — my wife and I — were there. As soon as I got back we resumed work on the project to revise Understanding Media. McGraw had asked for a tenth-anniversary revision and rejected what we sent them. We had found the four laws and were going to use them as revisions, plus add a dozen or so new chapters to incorporate media that had appeared since 1964—cable TV, satellites, videotape, etc.  After McGraw turned the revisions down we began thinking about a new book. We put together three separate pieces for the job. One was a long, shapeless piece that we had been working on, which we called the Visual Space Essay. My father had been talking and writing about visual space, and acoustic space (and other-sensory spaces), for some time. He’d let slip a new observation from time to time and they were beginning to accumulate, but he had never set the ideas out in any sort of systematic fashion, so we determined to gather all that we had learned and put it together. That was the genesis of the Essay. From time to time we would pass a copy to a friend or colleague for comment, and after Dad’s death, from time to time, a piece of it would appear in the writings of one or another of those colleagues, without credit, I may add. A bit of homework will supply names…

A second piece of the mosaic that became Laws of Media: The New Science was another essay that we were writing as a result of excitement over the new studies of the two hemispheres of the brain that were just then breaking news. This became chapter two.

A third piece was of course the four new Laws. We had by this time well over a hundred examples. So we drafted an introductory essay (chapter three as it turned out) and used the laws themselves as the fourth chapter.

Converting the Visual Space Essay into chapter one was a job. By the time we decided to integrate it into the new manuscript, it had reached well over 135 pages and was still growing. We had to stop adding things and cut at least a quarter. We had decided to keep to the two kinds of space as they made — as always — a handy contrast that caught the reader’s imagination easily. We might have included other spaces, but didn’t, to keep matters simple. I must apologize for the painful style. I was fresh back from graduate school and so it reads like a long graduate essay, which in a way it was. Mea culpa. A good deal of it comes from a loooong paper I wrote (the sort that is never finished) on tracking the history of the logos.

When I took the final MSS to U of T Press, the editor assigned to it was R.I.K. Davidson, the man who had edited The Gutenberg Galaxy. Who could possibly have been better? RIK decided to rearrange the order of sections in Chapter One: the result was printed. The Press also decided to chuck about half of the tetrads that we had in Chapter Four in order to save space. (Now and then I print a few in this mag or that.)

As to who wrote what.  The easiest way to answer that is to say that Dad & I worked together over every sentence, though I did most of the actual writing. We would get together in the study on the top floor of Wychwood Park and begin composing aloud. I would do the writing-down during these sessions at the time, not afterward at home (as Barry Nevitt did with Take Today), and read them back and we’d edit on the fly. Handwriting. Then I’d take the MSS home and type it up on my old IBM model B. We did that for months. So I can claim that those parts of the book were 50-50 in the writing. Naturally, Dad had enormous erudition to bring to bear, and so he was responsible for that much more of it.

The final chapter we saw at the time as more of a post-face; it consisted of three or four pages of sketchy prose, when he died. We sent the incomplete MSS around to several publishers. Doubleday was one of them. They took it seriously enough to assign an artist to make sketches for it, and he did do so. I had also asked a former student, Dean Motter, to make a few, and he did so. For example:

Click on the image to expand it for readability.

Interview Source: http://figureground.org/interview-with-eric-mcluhan/

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