Book Review: McLuhan for Beginners (1997) by W. Terrence Gordon


Another belated book review for a volume published 16 years ago. Why now? Why not? The book is still in print and can be ordered from Amazon.

Massaging the Medium with Marshall McLuhan

By Frederik Sisa , May 17, 2013

A Review of McLuhan for Beginners by W. Terrence Gordon, with Illustrations by Susan Willmarth

Perhaps it indicates a gap in my education, or merely underlines the fact that my reading list exceeds my lifespan. But my only exposure to Marshall McLuhan so far has been through his post-modern disciple Jean Baudrillard and pop-culture memes. Yet, like most people plugged into the cybernetic zeitgeist, I am firmly entrenched in the strong field of influence generated by McLuhan’s often pithy media theory. A book like McLuhan for Beginners, then, is a timely wakeup call to take a moment and consider one of the 20th century’s foremost media and culture theorists even if that consideration reveals – as it does with Baudrillard – a mixture of brilliance and puffery.

Driving a renewed interest in McLuhan’s ideas are the editor of the Marshall McLuhan Publishing Program at Gingko Press, and Dalhousie University Professor Emeritus, W. Terrence Gordon draws. In partnership with illustrator Susan Willmarth, he adds another winning entry in the For Beginners series of documentary comic books with an overview that presents often obtuse concepts with good humour and, more often than not, clarity. There’s some biographical information, of course, such as the factoid that McLuhan was an “obscure professor of English till he published Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man in 1964.” From that eventful detonation spawned a high-profile career that yielded not only pop-culture memes such as “the medium is the message,” but a series of books, lectures and academic efforts aiming at raising provocative questions about the media. Of that cryptic equivocation, we can at least find some relief to a cognitive itch. Gordon helpfully explains that the equation makes sense in view of McLuhan’s redefinition of “medium” as an extension of our bodies and “message” as “any change in scale, pace, or pattern that a medium causes in societies or cultures.” The traditional concept of informational content and means of transmission is thus set aside as an inadequate model of our interactions with the media, while the new equation provides a framework for a more fruitful investigation.

With this necessary elucidation in place, Gordon proceeds to sketch out McLuhan’s ideas on specific media such as radio, television and comic books, as well as broader concepts such as language, print versus digital formats, clichés and archetypes, and the laws of media. Taking full advantage of the comic book/illustrated text format, Gordon even goes beyond clarifying concepts to highlighting the often eccentric, almost post-modern methodological qualities of McLuhan’s work – or, rather, an anti-methodological approach that favors non-linear structures along with a rejection of sustained theses and fixed viewpoints.

The entire project does succumb to the stunning effects of high-capacity ideas delivered in a caffeinated chatterbox’s rapid-fire style. By the time Gordon tries to explain the application of McLuhan’s laws of media in the form of tetrads, the dazed sensation already has begun to set in (just like it’s probably setting in as you read this review). It’s interesting, from a conceptual standpoint, to consider how McLuhan’s four laws dealing with extension, obsolescence, retrieval and reversal work simultaneously to describe the effects of media. Yet as presented under the rubric of science, the question is raised about shenanigans of the interpretive kind. It becomes less clear that McLuhan is articulating concrete concepts rather than merely projecting his own subjective understanding. Suddenly, the impression – accurate or not – that McLuhan lacks a sense of intellectual rigour beneath his fragmentary insight becomes all the more pressing.

It is unfortunate, then, that Gordon gives scant attention to McLuhan’s critics, usually only going so far as to acknowledge their existence with a few broad strokes. “Faith in the power of the probe,” Gordon writes about one of McLuhan’s interrogative techniques, “allowed McLuhan to take stabs at a wide range of topics, from the serious to the ridiculous, without necessarily committing himself to conclusions or testing his hypotheses scientifically – a habit that infuriated his critics and detractors.” McLuhan’s response was to “glibly dismiss many of his critics in academe as hacks,” which hardly seems mature, only to be partly disowned in turn by his disciple, Wired Magazine, as an “eccentric intellectual whose day in the media spotlight had come and gone.”

Far from being a reason to reject Gordon’s view of McLuhan’s significance, and recognizing that the book is a presentation of McLuhan’s ideas, not a critical exposition, Gordon succeeds in creating a better reason to seek out McLuhan’s work than agreement, namely, the potential for a vigourous debate. Already, weaknesses in McLuhan’s ideas are apparent. In response to the High Priest of Popcult’s notion that speech is a non-verbal and pure process, unlike writing which is a medium of speech, one can wield Jacques Derrida’s criticism of Western metaphysics’ phonocentrism, the privileging of speech of writing that deconstruction works to undermine. To the Laws of Media and his “challenge to the scientific community to disprove them,” one can deploy philosophies of science to highlight McLuhan’s fundamentally unempirical and self-serving hermeneutics that conceptually declares itself un-falsifiable and, consequently, un-provable. It all makes for exciting philosophical debates. Crucially, it highlights Gordon’s ultimate argument for reviving McLuhan in our media-saturated age and what I conceive as the pervasiveness of hyperdata. “If we had to put McLuhan into one sentence, it could be this: He asks us ‘What haven’t you noticed lately?’” because “McLuhan doesn’t care if we ask different questions and come up with different answers than he did, as long as we discover something about our world and what is happening to it.”

With that attitude, Gordon’s accessible book becomes an admirable first step into that larger world of inquiry and, as with the best For Beginners books, serves as a persuasive advocate for seeking out its subject’s original work.

 The Back Cover

Frédérik Sisa is the Page’s Assistant Editor and resident arts, entertainment, and culture critic. He invites you to visit his blog, Ink & Ashes, and join him on Twitter as he figures out this whole tweeting business.

This review first appeared at


W. Terrence Gordon has published more than twenty books including Marshall McLuhan: Escape into Understanding (Gingko Press) and Linguistics For Beginners. Gordon has also been the editor of the Marshall McLuhan Publishing Program at Gingko Press for the past 12 years and is currently Professor Emeritus at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. When he is not busy writing or teaching, Gordon photographs the haunting beauty of Nova Scotia, Canada, where he has lived since the 1970s.


Susan Willmarth was born in New Mexico and moved in the early ’70’s to New York City. Since graduating from Parsons School of Design, she has worked as a freelance editorial illustrator for Push Pin Press Books, Edward Booth-Clibborn editions, New York Magazine, The Open Society, Writers and Readers Publishing, and now For Beginners LLC. Past work includes Black History For Beginners, McLuhan For Beginners and Linguistics for Beginners. She lives in Manhattan with her bicycle…

McLuhan for Beginners (Tr) The original cover

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