Marshall McLuhan

Douglas Coupland
2010

Strategies used to promote tyrants are being used to promote laundry soap. Unlucky you! Unlucky you! You’re alone in the middle of a big, blank continent, walking to work, thinking you’re crazy because nobody else can see that there’s a sick beauty to all of these crappy, crappy ads that are everywhere.

Douglas Coupland’s Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work! is not a conventional biography, but then McLuhan wasn’t a conventional thinker, and Coupland is not a conventional writer.

Other reviewers have dwelt on how much Coupland’s writing owes to McLuhan’s ideas — Coupland, like McLuhan, is notorious for an iconic catchphrase, “Generation X” following on the heels of the “Global Village” — and reading Marshall McLuhan shows above all else how much Coupland appreciates and identifies with his subject.

boy-oh-boy-boy, did he string together words in a way that now seems like dense, fabulous poetry!

Coupland’s book is light on the analysis of McLuhan’s ideas and almost as light on the nitty-gritty details of the definitive biography. What it offers is an incisive and often fascinating insight into McLuhan the man, the walking contradiction, the Renaissance esthete with a fascination for the terminally banal.

It all makes for a quick and entertaining read. I didn’t realize how much I was enjoying the book until it was over, and I found myself wishing there were more still to read.

Coupland constantly emphasizes the irony that McLuhan, who hated the way that the world was changing around him, has been popularly misunderstood as the guru of the electronic age: “Society was absorbing too much technology too quickly, and he knew it. Did he like this? No! He hated, loathed, abhorred it.”

McLuhan’s personal tastes may have been thoroughly unmodern, but the way he expressed his analysis of the emerging mediaverse matched his subject, not his sensibilities:

For Marshall, the fun of ideas lay in crashing them together to see what emerged from the collision. (Dear God, he would have enjoyed using the internet.)

Marshall’s Dagwood obsession foregrounded the fact that his critical writing only became truly fresh and alive when he fused formal academic knowledge with the observation of pop and media culture—when he used his words to span centuries and continents and knit them together.

Coupland expresses the disconnect between the private McLuhan and his public ideas with an insider’s insight.

You are witnessing the world, but you are not being affected by it. You are driven to a skyscraper where rich men are paying you thousands of dollars to say pretty much whatever passes through your mind.

Who’s the “you” here, McLuhan or Coupland?

While Coupland doesn’t spend much time on detailed analysis, when he does pause to summarize McLuhan’s ideas the result is usefully precise:

Marshall defined tribal societies as oral cultures whose members used emotionally laden speech to communicate. These non-literate societies were politically engaged, emotionally charged, tightly woven together, and unified. They lived in what Marshall called “acoustic space.”

Marshall believed the electronic media were extensions of the human nervous system, with TV being the most significant because it invokes multiple senses.

Discarnate man is happy to be asynchronous, as well as everywhere and nowhere—he is a pattern of information, inhabiting a cyberspace world of images and information patterns. Discarnate man prefers “a world between fantasy and a dream,” where barriers fall between consciousness and the unconscious. It is the dark underbelly of the global village— the total loss of identity.

In the last analysis, Coupland argues, the best way to look at McLuhan is not as a scholar, but as an artist, a proto-postmodernist, a writer whose breaching of the boundaries of his form of expression is itself an integral part of the content. You know, “the medium is the message,” that kind of thing.

Coupland writes, “Society had eclipsed the range of Marshall’s being. But there’s a different way of looking at it, through the lens of art.”

It’s art that Coupland is after throughout, and for that reason Marshall McLuhan is less than a biography, and more. And it’s the more that makes Douglas Copeland’s short book very much worth reading.

It was an adventure, Marshall, and wasn’t it grand? You would have hated the way things turned out, sir, but you would also have found it oh so very, very interesting. Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy.

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