“Marshall McLuhan: Escape Into Understanding”
By W. Terrence Gordon
Basic Books, 465 pp., $35
(reviewed for the Washington Post, 12/11/1997)
By Scott Rosenberg
Marshall McLuhan was the original media guru. He wrote voluminous, eye-opening and frequently baffling discourses on the hidden workings of media — yet ironically, his work chiefly survives via a handful of misunderstood soundbites. Everybody knows that “the medium is the message” — and everyone has a different idea of what the phrase means. Everybody’s heard of “the global village” — but most take it as a slogan for feel-good internationalism, a hipper way to sing “It’s A Small World After All,” when McLuhan had in mind far more specific (and disturbing) ideas about reversion to tribalism in the electronic age.
In McLuhan’s own media immortalization — via a cameo in Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” — he materializes from the back of a movie line to correct a scholar’s pretentious misinterpretations of his ideas. Yet even the editors of McLuhan’s books had a hard time with his prose: “You might make your train of thought plainer,” one wrote him, and another referred to his “often incomprehensible tidal wave of ideas.”
Understanding McLuhan has, perhaps, become somewhat easier in the 17 years since death stilled the Canadian professor’s scattershot volleys of verbiage; the world has begun to catch up with some of his insights. His fundamental notion, that different media radically transform the human environment, no longer raises eyebrows. The subtitle of the new McLuhan biography by W. Terrence Gordon, a linguist and former McLuhan student, is “Escape Into Understanding”; the phrase is meant to encapsulate McLuhan’s hope that he could help “immunize” his audience against the most violent and destructive effects of new media by exposing their invisible workings.
But there is another escape taking place in Gordon’s book — a flight from the dense, allusive, mosaic texture of McLuhan’s writing onto duller terrain. This is a dutiful “authorized” biography, and it fails to profile him in full color; it’s often too busy defending him from others’ brickbats.
Gordon is at his best as an informed and sympathetic explicator of McLuhan — both here and in his “McLuhan For Beginners,” a lively comic-book-style primer. In “Escape Into Understanding,” he traces McLuhan’s intellectual lineage back to his studies at Cambridge with I.A. Richards and F.R. Leavis; locates his affinities with the high Modernism of Joyce, Pound and Eliot; and explores other influences like G.K. Chesterton, Wyndham Lewis and Canadian economic historian Harold Innis.
His devout Catholicism notwithstanding, McLuhan chose to suspend moral judgment in his writing — he sought “the study of effects rather than the assertion of values.” (As he’d put it, he preferred put-ons to put-downs.) This caused many to think that, as he traced the decline of linear, literate culture, he was dancing on print’s grave and glorifying the new popular media. Gordon effectively demolishes this misreading of McLuhan, who was always a voracious reader and who usually fell asleep at the movies. In private, he wasn’t shy of thundering his disapprovals: in a letter to his son, McLuhan urged that his grandchild be kept away from TV, “a vile drug which permeates the nervous system, especially in the young.”
The trouble with “Escape Into Understanding” is that it never tackles the hard work of reconciling the public images of McLuhan — the clownish provocateur, the ’60s prophet of electronic culture — with its own, narrower portrait of a dedicated iconoclastic scholar. Mostly, the book ignores the public images entirely — but in omitting them, it also leaves out any broader pictures of the era in which McLuhan’s ideas were first enthusiastically embraced. It is, to use McLuhan’s terminology, all “figure” and no “ground.”
It is a fact that, somehow, this polymathic student of literature — whose dissertation on Elizabethan essayist Thomas Nashe delved into the minutiae of classical rhetoric — morphed into a celebrity chatting on the David Frost show about television as an “inner trip.” “Escape Into Understanding” not only fails to account for the transformation; it acts as though there was none. Instead, it hunts down slender intellectual threads to tie together McLuhan’s contrarian passions and heterodox ideas.
For all his internal contradictions — what Jonathan Miller called his “promiscuous” overloading of meanings on terms like “hot and cold media” and “acoustic versus visual space” — McLuhan refuses to fade, and in the ’90s he is experiencing a revival among students of the increasingly pervasive and immersive digital media. McLuhan’s insistence that we step out of the media bath and see it for what it is keeps getting timelier.
McLuhan defined computers as “extensions of the human central nervous system.” In a 1959 letter, decades before the popularization of the Internet, he predicted: “When the globe becomes a single electronic computer, with all its languages and cultures recorded on a single tribal drum, the fixed point of view of print culture becomes irrelevant and impossible, no matter how precious.”
As new generations of media swallow and redefine their predecessors at unprecedented speed, we need, more than ever, the immunities McLuhan hoped to confer. But were his ideas vaccines or placebos? “Marshall McLuhan: Escape Into Understanding” is too narrow, and too fervent in its partisanship, to provide a useful answer.