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The McLuhanesque McLuhan, Esq.

June 04, 1989|THOMAS CAHILL | Cahill was for 12 years publisher/editor of the Cahill & Co. Reader's Catalogue. He has recently begun a new book review and catalogue called "The Bookperson." and Marshall McLuhan

The words Marshall McLuhan remain, 10 years after the Toronto theoretician's death, fighting words. His name seems to provoke but two reactions: aggressive contempt from leftish intellectuals and impish smiles from more practical communicators, such as artists, composers, and advertising and TV people. Still, when one presses past initial prejudice, virtually everybody admits to not having finished any of his books, only two of which ever sold in anything like influential quantities--the numbingly incomprehensible "Gutenberg Galaxy" and "The Medium Is the Message," a 160-page picture book that was "co-ordinated" by Jerome Agel in the same charmingly accessible style he used for "co-ordinating" "I Seem to Be a Verb," which popularized the theories of another thunder-thinker of the '60s, Buckminster Fuller.

This year has already seen the publication of more McLuhan than any year since the '60s. In addition to the first biography, Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger by Philip Marchand, there have appeared in quick succession three semi-posthumous volumes: The Global Village by McLuhan and Bruce Powers; Laws of Media by McLuhan and his son Eric; and Marshall McLuhan: The Man and His Message, edited by George Sanderson and Frank Macdonald, this last being a collection of McLuhan's essays interleaved with essays by some of his more lucid disciples.

The biography is quite good, offering in the course of its account of McLuhan's intellectual development the best--I might almost say the only good--precis of McLuhan's thought that I have ever read. It is rather less good on the life--to protect the living, I surmise--and it appears to have been proofread by an orangutang. The anthology is excellent--and almost as easy a read as McLuhan's one "linear" (i.e., well-edited) book, "Understanding Media." The "collaborations" (if that's the accurate word), completed posthumously by Powers and Eric McLuhan, are both worthy but overlapping--and will probably drive any but the advanced McLuhanatic to distraction. Enter them, as McLuhan would advise, "mosaically" (i.e., anywhere), seize the fugitive insight, and run.

But in the McLuhan mountains, "The Gutenberg Galaxy" remains Mount Everest, and there one must begin. The reason the book is so exasperating is that McLuhan never seems to prove anything, only to make the same odd assertions over and over. That is the objection of a practiced reader. To a student trying to crack communications theory, however, the initial stumbling block is not the lack of sequential logic but the stunning array of allusions to other works, other times. McLuhan was a man of inexhaustible energy who read (and more or less understood) everything and was always making connections. Once one begins to check his sources and discovers his basic faithfulness to them, one comes to surmise that jealousy at McLuhan's polymath performance is one reason for his harsh treatment at academic hands.

Another is his humor, which so often involves put-ons of high-brow reasoning. When, on the first page of "Gutenberg" he tells us that "King Lear" "is a presentation of the new strategy of culture and power as it affects the state, the family, and the individual psyche," he knows he is being outrageous. Really, he is just using quotations from "Lear" to anchor and illustrate his views, as a preacher might apply a Bible passage to a situation it was never intended for. Despite what he says, he is not actually trying to get us to view "Lear" as a case-book of "left-wing Machiavellianism."

Marchand, in his biography, relates the story of McLuhan's gnomic, omnivorous, breezy performance at a distinguished Columbia gathering. When he finished and asked for questions, the esteemed sociologist Robert Merton rose like a lion poised for the kill. "Well, Prof. McLuhan," said Merton, "there were so many things about your paper that need cross-examination. Uh, I don't know where to begin . . . with your title or the first paragraph."

"You don't like those ideas," McLuhan cut him off with a shrug. "I got others." Such insouciance did not endear him to his more earnest and plodding colleagues.

From Marchand we also learn that McLuhan was not at his best on paper. He could not bring himself to edit or rewrite, and he thought prose style nothing other than effete affectation. But what, beneath the tortured, allusion-studded, cyclical prose, was McLuhan saying?

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