Marshall McLuhan strikes back (at Toronto’s International Festival of Authors)

18Oct11

Philip Marchand, author of Marshall McLuhan: the medium and the messenger

Philip Marchand, author of Marshall McLuhan: the medium and the messenger

Oct 18, 2011 

Of the myriad arcane factoids, theories, impressions and interpretations likely to be disclosed during the course of the International Festival of Authors’ three major McLuhan 100 readings and dissertations over the next week, one is of exceptional interest: the Toronto-based communications guru, who was able to see a bigger picture than other contemporaries in his field, had a physiological advantage over most other mammals — a unique vascular pattern in his left cerebral cortex seen only in cats.

“Actually, he used to say it was unique to tigers,” says McLuhan biographer and former Star books columnist, Philip Marchand, whose Marshall McLuhan: the medium and the messenger (1998), is considered one of the most compelling portraits of the complex and often incomprehensible academic and theorist, who is said to have pre-imagined the Internet, and laid out such forward thinking notions as “the medium is the message” and “the global village.”

“It was the result of brain surgery in 1967 to remove a benign tumor,” says Marchand, who began his biography after being appointed to the task of cataloguing McLuhan’s papers for the national archive. McLuhan died in 1980 from the effects of a stroke.

“He feared a blockage of blood vessels would necessitate another operation, but rather miraculously, new vascular systems developed that were apparently uncharacteristic in human anatomy.”

What effect this anomaly had on McLuhan’s legacy is anyone’s guess, though some of his peers subsequently noted that the operation that saved his life cost him his genius, and that his work in later years never matched the promise in The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man and Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, in the early 1960s.

McLuhan might have fallen out of favour at the time of his death — “he was seen as a bit of a charlatan, because he preferred talking to writing and publishing, and used language and phrases that other academics considered dense and impenetrable,” Marchand says — but he’s back with a vengeance now, as one by one, his media prophesies become not just the new reality of communications-driven world, but a way of life.

The International Festival of Author’s McLuhan 100 events, which gets underway Friday night at the Fleck Dance Theatre with an appearance by New York University professor and renowned social and technological networks consultant Clay Shirky, aren’t just manifestations of Toronto’s official year-long focus on the centenary of one of the city’s favourite sons, an international star, says festival director Geoffrey Taylor.

 Clay Shirky

“We were approached a year ago by the city to find a way of including McLuhan in the festival, which is, for the most part, a celebration of the written word and of new works of fiction.

“But it’s also a festival about ideas and communication, so it was an easy fit, particularly since McLuhan is being embraced by a new generation of writers.”

On Friday night Shirky will read from his latest book, Cognitive Surplus, and answer questions from Toronto broadcaster and graduate of the U of T’s McLuhan Program, Jesse Hirsh.

Saturday afternoon, at Studio Theatre, Brooke Gladstone, co-host and managing editor of U.S. National Public Radio’s news magazine On the Media, will present The Influencing Machine, a graphic novel on the complexities of the modern media, with illustrations by Josh Neufeld.

And Wednesday at Studio Theatre, Canadian novelist, essayist and filmmaker Douglas Coupland discusses his latest book, Marshall McLuhan, part of Penguin Group’s Extraordinary Canadians series.

The Generation X author will be interviewed by Nora Young, host and creator of CBC Radio’s Spark, which examines technology and culture.

McLuhan, says Taylor, is better appreciated in other parts of the world than in his homeland, “and generally underrated everywhere.

“But writers are having to deal with communications in so many different ways now … and McLuhan seems more relevant than ever.”

In a recent essay in the U.K. Guardian, Coupland, currently on tour in a remote region of China and outside the range of the Internet and email, outlined the origins of his fascination with McLuhan’s work, and the subject of his new book:

“To be fair, McLuhan was about more than ‘the medium is the message’, but that remains a fabulous reduction. McLuhan was an information canary, warning us that there were new media coming down the line, and it was the effects of these new media on the mind that he wondered about so extravagantly — the message seemed to be very dark, indeed.

“In his poetic and elliptical ways, McLuhan foresaw a fluid melting world of texting, email, YouTube, Google, smart phones and reality TV,” Coupland writes.

“Most of the content of any of these media is pure crap. But what’s spooking us all is the inevitable message of these new media: what will be the psychic fallout of these technologies on our inner lives?

“As with TV in the 1950s, don’t be fooled by the content of texts or blogging or online shopping. Look at what these media are doing to our souls. That’s what McLuhan did.”

Marchand isn’t so sure either that McLuhan would have liked living in the wired world he foresaw as the inevitable confluence of broadcasting technology and the demands of the age of information.

“For one thing, he loved books, and worked in a book-lined office. He devoured non-fiction by reading every second page, and never missed a thing. I don’t think he’d have enjoyed reading e-books.

“He died before personal computers were a reality, but I think he’d have loved the Internet’s immediacy, and would have had no difficulty understanding its surrounding effect, or that it seems more real than the natural world,” Marchand adds.

“But keyboards and texting, the reliance on literate skills in this new environment — I’m not sure what he’d have made of that.”

BOOKS BY MARSHALL MCLUHAN:

The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man 1951

The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man 1962

Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man 1964

Verbi-Voco-Visual Explorations 1967

Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects 1967

War and Peace in the Global Village with Quentin Fiore 1968

Through the Vanishing Point: Space in Poetry and in Painting with Harley Parker 1968

Counterblast with Harley Parker 1969

From Cliche to Archetype with Wilfred Watson 1970

Culture is Our Business 1970

Take Today: The Executive as Drop-out 1972

City as Classroom: Understanding Language and Media with Kathryn Hutchon and Eric McLuhan 1977

Posthumous books:

Laws of Media: The New Science with Eric McLuhan 1988

The Global Village: Transformations in World Life and Media in the 21st Century with Bruce R. Powers 1989    http://tinyurl.com/3cwq53u

 Douglas Coupland

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