Five Books That Illustrate the Marshall McLuhan Revival/Retrieval That Started in the 1990s


Marshall McLuhan

The McLuhan Retrieval Reviewed

Understanding MeUnderstanding Me: Lectures and Interviews. Boston: MIT Press, 2003.
The Book of Probes. NY: Ginko Press, 2003.
McLuhan for Managers: New Tools for New Thinking. Ontario, Canada: Viking, 2003.
The Virtual Marshall McLuhan. NY: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001.
McLuhan in Space: A Cultural Geography. Ontario, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 2003.

Review by Kevin Brooks   –   North Dakota State University

Despite the fact that trying to teach composition as an adjunct to first-year students at the University of Wisconsin in 1936 changed the trajectory of Marshall McLuhan’s career and spun him out of the cycle of formalist literary criticism and into rhetorical and cultural criticism, the field of rhetoric and composition has drawn very little from McLuhan’s 30+ years of publishing, and by-and-large has not participated in the McLuhan revival (or what he himself would call “retrieval”) of the last 15 years.

“In 1936, when I arrived at Wisconsin, I confronted classes of freshmen and I suddenly realized that I was incapable of understanding them. I felt an urgent need to study their popular culture: advertising, games, movies […] to meet them on their own grounds was my strategy in pedagogy: the world of pop culture”. (The Letters of Marshall McLuhan 173)

The retrieval is often dated from the Wired issue of 1996 in which McLuhan was on the cover, hailed as “Saint Marshall, the Holy Fool of the digital revolution,” but it can be traced back to the posthumous publication of The Laws of Media (1988, with Eric McLuhan) andThe Global Village: Transformations in World Life and Media in the 21st Century (1989, with Bruce Powers). These works were followed by two biographies, a collection of his letters, and scholarly reassessments coming out of communications, history, cultural studies, literary studies, and comparative literature.

This essay reviews five recent books from the past three years that contribute to the McLuhan revival in ways ranging from making available previously unpublished McLuhan speeches and interviews to locating McLuhan in the intellectual/artistic tradition of space-time studies. None of these books are by compositionists or rhetoricians, but this review emphasizes ways in which each book might appeal to or challenge the readers of Kairos, whether interested in intellectual history, classroom activities, or both.

  1. Understanding Me: Lectures and Interviews (2003), edited by Stephanie McLuhan and David Staines, is a collection of previously unpublished lectures and transcripts from interviews that provide a chronological set of snapshots of McLuhan’s thinking from 1959-79. Despite the title, this book will be most accessible to those already familiar with McLuhan. [Read more.]
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2. The Book of Probes (2003) by Marshall McLuhan and David Carson, edited by Eric McLuhan and William Kuhns, treats McLuhan’s writing as found poetry, and in the hands of Carson, the most celebrated graphic designer of the last 20 years, pushes the visual/verbal style of McLuhan’s The Medium is the Massage to its limits. This book exemplifies what McLuhan would call the “cool” style – it explores rather than explains, it requires participation and engagement, and it will only frustrate or annoy those who approach it as detached observers wanting evidence and facts to support the many claims. [Read more.]

3. McLuhan for Managers: New Tools for New Thinking (2003) by Mark Federman and Derrick de Kerckhove, is an explication and application of some of McLuhan’s often misunderstood heuristics and aphorisms, like “figure/ground,” the role of clichés, and the laws of media. While the identified audience is “managers,” the clarity of definitions and applications serves as an excellent introduction to McLuhan’s analytical and predictive tools, more so than an introduction to or re-assessment of the scholar. In addressing managers, it could be of particular value to Writing Program Administrators or other members of the academic managerial class. [Read more.]

Virtual Marshall McLuhan4. The Virtual Marshall McLuhan (2001) by Donald F. Theall, is a book by McLuhan’s first graduate student that combines personal reflection and scholarly, historical assessment of McLuhan’s work. Theall’s book is the best comprehensive introduction to McLuhan’s thinking, methods, and his roller-coaster career. [Read more.]

McLuhan in Space5. McLuhan in Space: A Cultural Geography (2002) by Richard Cavell, is a scholarly re-assessment of the importance of “space” as the master trope in McLuhan’s work. Although McLuhan is clearly positioned as the central figure in this book, Cavell is generally interested in explicating “space studies” as the domain of 21st century (post) humanists, a concept gaining significant attention in rhetoric and composition. [Read more.]

McLuhan’s body of work is much wider and deeper than the two texts that typically receive obligatory citations in rhetoric and composition – The Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media – and for those who wish to orient their work in an historical tradition, McLuhan’s texts and methods can provide a rich starting point. Jeff Rice concludes a recent article in Computers and Composition by acknowledging that McLuhan had already anticipated his pedagogy and sketched it out in the City as Classroom, a McLuhan collaborative project from 1977. In retrieving McLuhan, we are likely to find ideas, instincts, and percepts that are familiar, rather than strange; we might find a guide, a touchstone, a jumping off point for recognizing that our perceptions of the changing spaces of communication are not new or radical or unfounded, but have been visible from the start of the electric age.

Works Cited

Bolter, Jay David, and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1999.

Carson, David. Fotografiks: An Equilibrium Between Photography and Design Through Graphic Expression That Evolves From Content. Corte Madera, CA: Gingko P, 1999.

Clark, Gregory. “Writing as Travel, or Rhetoric on the Road.” College Composition and Communication 49 (1998): 9-23.

Covino, William A. Magic, Rhetoric, and Literacy: An Eccentric History of the Composing Imagination. New York: State U of New York P, 1994.

Haynes, Cynthia. “Writing Offshore: The Disappearing Coastline of Composition Theory.” JAC: A Journal of Composition Theory. 23.4 (2003): 667-724.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. Northampton, MA : Kitchen Sink P, 1993.

McLuhan, Marshall. Letters of Marshall McLuhan. Selected and ed. by Matie Molinaro, Corinne McLuhan, and William Toye. Toronto: Oxford UP, 1987.

McLuhan, Marshall, and Quentin Fiore. The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects. 1967. Produced by Jerome Agel. Corte Madera, CA: Ginko P, 2001.

Rice, Jeff. “Writing About Cool: Teaching Hypertext as Juxtaposition.” Computers and Composition 20 (2003): 221-36.

Reynolds, Nedra. “‘Who’s Going to Cross this Border?’ Travel Metaphors, Material Conditions, and Contested Places.” JAC: A Journal of Composition Theory 20 (2000): 541-64.

Sirc, Geoffrey. English Composition as a Happening. Logan UT: Utah State UP, 2002.


3 Responses to “Five Books That Illustrate the Marshall McLuhan Revival/Retrieval That Started in the 1990s”

  1. The LETTERS OF MARSHALL McLUHAN started it in 1987. Then, Phil Marchand’s bio in 1989 helped, capped off by WIRED naming MM their patron saint in the Spring of 1993. McLuhan even got noticed in Canada as a result of WIRED in 1993, leading to 2 plays (one in New York City in 1994 and one in Ottawa in 1995, I think). And I should mention that Dave Newfeld’s 2 CD’s in 1992 and 1993 (BOB’S MEDIA ECOLOGY and BOB’S MEDIA ECOLOGY SQUARED) brought a lot of attention to McLuhan in North American college radio and in England and Italy.


    • Also, I recall major articles titled “McLuhan vs. Marx” in TIME and NEWSWEEK during the Tiananmen Square events in June, 1989. These helped Marchand’s book to be noticed.


  2. Quite right, Bob. Thanks for filling in the record……….Alex


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