The medium is the Marshall

…"My critics think my interests are occult, when what I am doing is drawing our attention to the invisible." The supreme McLuhan paradox remains — so the often erudite essays in Understanding Me inform us — we must be literate to wholly comprehend the patterns of the non-verbal. A book may tell us to gaze between and beyond the words on the page.

The Globe and Mail
October 11, 2003

The medium is the Marshall
B.W. Powe

Understanding Me: Lectures and Interviews
By Marshall McLuhan
Edited by Stephanie McLuhan and David Staines
McClelland & Stewart,
320 pages, $36.99

Marshall. Your reputation has risen again, linked to the crystalline World Wide Web, after people thought you had crashed into gnomic obscurity. You imprinted our minds with your prophecies, when you repeatedly disavowed gifts of foresight. You said, few grasp the present: "water is invisible to fish"; but if we stared truly into the hyperintensities around us, we would black out, crack up, turn amnesiac, flee terrified into reductive rationales. So you warned. Your lightning aphorisms ground media studies everywhere. And still your personality appears like an electric prism, in which we read many signatures and signs. One of the mysteries in McLuhanisme — a word in the French dictionary — is you: What was this rather courteous and bookish medium who channelled such mantic messages trying to tell us?

Tom Wolfe, your good friend, once broke your work into international stardom in his crucial essay, What if He's Right? (The Pump House Gang, 1968). Now, he writes in his Foreword to the new Understanding Me: Lectures and Interviews, edited by your daughter Stephanie and another friend, CanLit academic David Staines: "New communication theorists will arise, as if from straight out of the asphalt, the concrete, the vinyl tiles, or the PermaPour flooring. But one thing will not change. First they will have to contend with McLuhan." Yes, reviews of your ideas and probes always impend: we are perpetually coming to terms with Herbert Marshall McLuhan.

Understanding Me offers 18 selections, talks and jibes, lectures and verbal jousts, taken from 20 years of high-wit engagements with the media maelstrom. These pieces form an archival retrieval: Some are transcripts from TV interviews, some notes and ideas from lectures. The footnotes are minimal; editors' comments, almost absent. The editors' intention: Give us a picture of McLuhan in process, the man swiftly jabbing toward often stark epiphanies about how we are being unconsciously processed — shocked, stunned — by electricity. His was a mind half at odds with the ecstasies of the new energies, and half-fascinated by the potential of a nerve-end nirvana, new harmony in the extensions of screen and microphone. This book evokes his spirit in a fearless trajectory toward … the future.

I had the McLuhan experience as a student in my graduate years at the University of Toronto, but have often found, time unfolding, that I largely missed the meaning of the moment. I circle around the encounter with altered frames of reference. One may think one has found something new about the effects of media, about literacy itself, only to discover he was there first, in an apparently tossed-off remark, in an aphorism packed beside dozens of other seemingly scattergun one-liners.

It strikes me now that there was nothing random about his methods, in the classroom, on the page or on the air. Understanding Me should have been titled Understanding H. M. M. (or "hmmm," the thoughtful interval, a pause for thought). Better yet, the editors could have called it Understanding MM: the "mm" becomes an interjection that echoes his initials and ("everything resonates in the acoustic world," he said) the first letters of the nouns in his most familiar "The medium is the message."

The aphorism was for him a shorthand way to incite mind, a spark to light a fire, elsewhere, at a later date. It was his deliberately controversial poetic method of attack, an anti-theory, he claimed, in which intuitive impulses, images, myths, quotations, conundrums, paradoxes, allusions and teases played a part in sketching outlines of the truth. Release the imp from the bottle and (who knows?) years after you may find yourself … liberated to trust your own thought.

Wolfe's Foreword recycles much of the material he wrote before on McLuhan. Staines's epilogue provides warm anecdotes about his subject.

These contributors choose, wisely, to stay out of the way of the man who urgently mainlined the ideas of media without watching much TV, and who somehow never managed to get his driver's licence. Anyone who spent time with him in a class or after in his congenial company knew that McLuhan often seemed like a medium for the very forces he observed. He appeared to be talking through, eerily vibrating to the overtones and intimations of whirlwind processes that were mostly invisible to others. "How do I know what I am thinking until I've said it?," he said, recasting Oscar Wilde's prodding line.

The book form itself could never quite sustain or contain the searching light of a mind dedicated to understanding processes of comprehension: the contexts, or conceptual frames, for our ways of perceiving. He wasn't so much anti-book — though I suspect he thought the literary scene resembled a gathering of fussy stamp collectors — as he was supra-book, scanning elsewhere, seeking out transparencies, gesturing at elements and powers hovering beyond the word. We see this in his love of oral instruction and collaboration.

Wolfe's keenest insight is his reference to the hidden influence of Teilhard de Chardin on McLuhan's thought. Now, few I know in McLuhan's circle want to follow up on the implied mysticism; it scares them off. He rarely made reference to the Catholic visionary who had been silenced by the Church (shades of Giordano Bruno, another mystic visionary, burned at the stake in 1600 for espousing a global ecumenical religion and the interconnection of consciousness with the cosmos), though Wolfe correctly, I believe, points out their affinities. McLuhan was often cunning in his references to writers who had influenced him. He singled out Harold Innis — an overrated influence, I think: Innis confirmed McLuhan's intuitions, he didn't help to originate them — and James Joyce, a link so obvious it hardly needs mentioning. It was a method to deflect and yet involve attention.

There was an exoteric side to McLuhan's pronouncements: This we see in the lectures and interviews assembled here, in his joyful put-ons and puns, his gleeful way of amusing ourselves back to life. He once said in class, "I make people laugh so that those with their trigger fingers on the buttons of destruction are too distracted to do anything." Then there is the esoteric side, the subtextual McLuhan: he slipped in things between the lines, in those gaps he left where, he said, "the action is," intervals of overtones which command contemplation, riddling spaces and silences meant for rumination.

The Teilhard relation is one of these deep patterns. And the essay in Understanding Me most likely to provoke new conversation around this link is aptly titled The Future of the Book, a lecture he gave in England in 1972. McLuhan was almost never autobiographical in his essays: He was the least introspective of philosophers. (The polar opposite, as it were, of the Northrop Frye we find in the recently published Notebooks.) If we want to read HMM himself, we must look at what quotations he marshals, what clues he leaves for our hands to trace.

He quotes the Symbolist poet Mallarmé's dictum, "All the world exists to end in a book," then observes: "in both the industrial and electric ages Nature is superceded by Art. Thus the future of the book is nothing less than to be the means of surpassing Nature itself. The material world is to be etherealized and encapsulated in a book whose characters will possess all the formulas for the knowledge and recreation of Being."

There is the enigmatic note he struck in Understanding Media (UM, for short), in the pivotal chapter on The Spoken Word: "Today computers hold out the promise of a means of instant translation of any code or language into any other code or language. The computer, in short, promises by technology a Pentecostal condition of universal understanding and unity." Back to The Future of the Book, and alchemy: "When the book and its author can mount the back of another medium like radio or TV or satellite, the scale of the operation both in time and in space seems to abolish the difference between the microscopic and macroscopic." Further: "if print drove Montaigne to minute self-investigation and self-portrayal, may we not expect the book of the electric age to turn this perspective on patterns of corporate human energy and association?" It helps to recall that Montaigne essayed the new subject of the late Renaissance: "I" in solitude. McLuhan here indicates that the next phase of awareness must be to embrace the globe itself.

Interpretation: All media are complementary, forged in patterns of interconnection. Opposition between screen and page is false; both articulate the human drive to encompass the cosmic pattern. Proclaiming the superiority of one medium over another takes us nowhere, because both are human artifacts, extending different senses. Taken together, in the Teilhard unity of the senses, our inventions cord and record us back to the energies that make the sun.

Teilhard, in Wolfe's detonating reference, moved McLuhan toward this exuberant vision of evolutionary wholeness, what Eliot called the mystic rose in Four Quartets. (McLuhan in class, 1979: "Next week, ladies and gentlemen, we shall be discussing Mr. Eliot's Quartets." He never mentioned the poem again. The unstated presumption: The poem was to be our ground, like a city we should inhabit.) Teilhard intimated that consciousness was expanding; through media, our spirits will gradually rise. Emphasis on the word "gradually." Yes, TV can spread image pollution; and books can spread lies. Cosmic consciousness will be the result of seeing the force of mind behind human artifacts, operating according to what McLuhan called, in his last essay here, "laws of the media." (Should that phrase, which also formed the title of McLuhan's last fomenting book, more precisely have read, "Poetics of Media"?)

Recalling Blake's bard in the Songs of Innocence, who sees the past, present and future in unison through the imagination, McLuhan projected this perceptive condition on participants in the global media theatre: E-media makes history now and in our living rooms. (Imperative on the word "living.") But he delighted in pointing out, we fare forward with our eyes wide shut.

Numerous references in Understanding Me (too many to quote) form an intelligible case for placing McLuhan in the Teilhard line of evolutionary consciousness. McLuhan's process of thinking, often provisional, suspended judgment, or moralizing, because he asked: How can we know for certain what is happening? Over the entrance to the Centre for Culture and Technology, McLuhan had pinned a sign, reading: "Don't give up perception, though it may cost you all you have."

The link with Teilhard evokes another strange association to another Canadian, almost forgotten, Richard Maurice Bucke and his book Cosmic Consciousness (1901). This highly eccentric work declares that humans are evolving toward an omega point of exalted awareness. (Could this be the noosphere, technology's extension of mind … and a prophecy of the global village?) Walt Whitman — whom Bucke, a psychologist, knew and treated — represented the apogee of this openness to the flood and flow of experience. Cosmic consciousness, or "the intuitional mind," according to Bucke, would be a result of technological, economic and psychological revolutions. The universe, he wrote, is "entirely spiritual and entirely alive." Bucke brought Whitman's transcendentalism into Canada, thus transporting Emerson too, and thus spreading the seeds of the original North American visionary tradition, which flowers in McLuhan and Frye. Understanding Me recollects McLuhan's fresh epiphanies and helps to open his insights to reinvention and amplification.

Marshall, you said we are entering a sensory fullness, we were explorers in the unknown, of energies we can't see. Once, you said wearily, "My critics think my interests are occult, when what I am doing is drawing our attention to the invisible." The mysterious nature of electricity is precisely its invisibility, and the subliminal, often dislocating reconfigurations it brings to our lives, like filings around an overlooked magnet.

Look, you said, the globe is being charged. The e-media are brimming over, immediate — glowing wild — there are whirlpools within whirlwinds. The principle of the self, which we all have within (if we only knew), can be found to help surf the surges that stir up the storms of the new. You said, admit this, but contemplate this, too.

The supreme McLuhan paradox remains — so the often erudite essays in Understanding Me inform us — we must be literate to wholly comprehend the patterns of the non-verbal. A book may tell us to gaze between and beyond the words on the page.

B. W. Powe is author of A Canada of Light and Outage. His new work is on mysticism and media. He was program co-ordinator for the Rethinking McLuhan conference at York University.


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