Derrick de Kerckhove on Marshall McLuhan (1995)

15Oct19
 Derrick de Kerckhove

This interview was published on a CD-ROM in 1996 titled Understanding McLuhan published by The Voyager Company. I have a copy of it but have lost the ability to look at it, as it requires Windows 3.11 or 95 neither of which I have any more in this era of Windows 10. Fortunately, the enterprising Clinton Ignatov does and posted the entire interview with Derrick de Kerckhove on his website (see https://tinyurl.com/yxlbpd3s). Thank you, Clinton.

Q: What influence has McLuhan had on you? Was there a flash when you realized the importance this man would have in your life or in the work that you would do?

A: Yes, the influence of McLuhan on me, and I am saying on me, not just my work, was pretty radical. Very strong, and very continuous. And it happened in stages, deepening stages. The first time was just coming into his room for the first class and being astounded at the completely different sound I was hearing here; the completely different kind of teaching I was getting here. Teaching—I am not even sure if the word applied. I didn’t have any clue about gurus or the ’60s. I didn’t come from the ’60s and I didn’t go through the ’60s revolution like an American would. I came from Europe. And though I met McLuhan in ’68, at the time when Europe was going through a revolutionary stage “mai soixante-huit,” and all that, I wasn’t prepared for that at all. Because I was not in the fermentation period in Europe and I was not in the fermentation period in North America.

So, coming on McLuhan after having listened to Frye and to Robertson Davies and to French professors in the French department, was a radical departure. This man was a complete surprise. He was saying things which had an authority in them that carried some kind of persuasive power. And I was just very flabbergasted when I first heard him talk. I didn’t understand anything. I didn’t understand his method. All I knew was what he was talking about was worth paying attention to, and was worth working for—trying to understand what he had to say was really worthwhile. That’s what I found in my first class.

I bungled along. I was one of his worst students. I got a C- in his class. I don’t think he paid a whole lot of attention to me. Except that one day, a year after the first year. I came back for more, because I didn’t understand anything in my first year. When I came back, I was one day standing here next to this table. And he had a paper in his hand from Le MondeLe Monde Diplomatique—it was an issue. A special issue of Le Monde of Paris and there was an article of an interview of him, or something that had been translated about education. And he asked me—he had this very kind of autocratic way—he had inspirations and he would just, without considering anything else, would simply say “What if I would just follow up on my inspiration? Here is a French-speaking person who knows a bit of my work. Well let’s see if this paper is well-translated.” I mean, he could have very well had not done it, but he gave me this and said “Hey, you are—you speak French. You tell me what you think this is worth.”

So I took it. And I must tell you that at that time I was really not at all cocksure about anything. So I would say, in fear and trembling, but I took the paper, I sat down and I began to read it and I found that there was lots of stuff in it that didn’t seem to jive with what I understood. With what I was beginning to understand, because I can’t claim I understood anything, really. But I pointed out three different areas in that paper which I didn’t think were very well-translated and I said so to him.

He was sitting on that side of the table and he looked at me with genuine surprise. McLuhan never personalized his contact with anybody. Very few times do I remember when he actually noticed me as me. I was just another student. But he did look at me at that time and he said “Wow, you know my stuff!” And I said “Oh, I don’t claim that at all, you know. Can I suggest an alternative for this, this is what I am saying.”

He had a regal, another regal gesture. He turned to his collaborator on the book at that time, Barry Nevitt, and he said to Barry, “From now on de Kerckhove will be our translator.” It was like being knighted, literally. It felt like the flat of a sword was hitting my shoulders. This didn’t make me friends with his previous translator, who didn’t like it one bit. We had even a discussion about whether, you know, one should translate the spirit of the letter. The man was a letter translator and I was a spirit translator. But that actually helped a lot. Translating McLuhan was an education to McLuhan that no other way could have given me… (Read the rest at https://tinyurl.com/yxlbpd3s).

Details of the content of the Understanding McLuhan CD-ROM are here: https://tinyurl.com/y52llhy2 



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