Tony Tremblay - Issue 110

"Reading `McLuhan'" in a Postmodern Age: The Constructions of Glenn Willmott, Terry Gordon, Robert Logan, and Derrick de Kerckhove

As I contemplate this review article on the multiple constructions of Marshall McLuhan, my attentions are distracted by the 1997 federal election. The likenesses between populist postmodern politics and representing mcluhanisme, as the French call the McLuhan/popular art phenomenon, are not lost on me. During the first televised debate last night, both the media and the party leaders were eager to remind us of the positioning of "otherness": Reform and the Conservatives on the right; the NDP on the left; the Liberals slightly right of centre; and the Bloc somewhere far off the ideological map, too far off to register as part of the mainstream collective. Even globalism, it seems, has parameters. The curiosity of all this labelling is that while it is frequently used, it is rarely claimed—the NDP generally doesn't refer to itself as Left, nor does Reform refer to itself as right, yet both are quick to label their opponents. The designations of left, right, and centre, of course, are little more than mystical demarcations that simplify differentiation and encourage generalization, exactly the sentence that each party wants to impose on its opponents, and exactly the simplicity our media mavens think we require. Yet, structurally, a more fundamental phenomenon is at work in the cultural programme of demarcation, having something to do with a well-documented historical tendency, specifically with what Vico called "historical drift." Adopted by Harold Bloom as the centrepiece of his "anxiety" theory, Vico's notion of "drift" advanced that the presence of strong precursors, mentors, or opponents encouraged an unconscious programme of ideological theft, in which the psychology of individuation asserted itself by calculated dissimilarity.

The Liberal Party of Canada and Marshall McLuhan are good examples of Vico's historicist paradigm: just as Trudeau created a Liberal left by misreading Tommy Douglas, so has Jean Crétien created a Liberal right by misappropriating the fiscal logic of the Tories that preceded him. The result is two Liberal parties, different but equally legitimate in their drift from the high-modern master narrative called "Liberal," whatever that is. Such drift, said Vico, has been the progress of history—a crooked man, from a crooked house, walking a crooked line, all in an effort to reclaim a master narrative that defies simple categorization. But who ever has been able to pin-the-tail-on-the-rarefied-donkey? (That "crookedness" applies to my central political metaphor is just good luck.) Mcluhanisme is undergoing a similar fate today, its manifestations, like liberalism, neither good nor bad, just varied. McLuhan's name now appears to have become more a palimpsest than any kind of oracle, somethingLife magazine never anticipated when it named him "the oracle of the electric age" (25 February 1966). Those who now lay claim to McLuhan come from all sectors, their methods and motives from all angles and agendas.

Always concerned with "putting-on" his audience, McLuhan prophesized the dialogicity of his legacy as early as Understanding Media (1964), when he wrote, "Too many people know too much about each other. Our new environment compels commitment and participation" (21). As to the fate of his historical signature in the postmodern present—the so-called "global village" of Eliotary "simultaneity"—McLuhan's critical poetics were equally farsighted and generous. He told Gerald Emanuel in an interview:

  The more you create village conditions 
  [in this case the result of electronic acceleration 
  that retribalizes], the more discontinuity and 
  division and diversity. The global village 
  absolutely ensures maximal disagreement 
  on all points. 
  ("A Dialogue" 272 emphasis added)

True to form, McLuhan not only anticipates the future but offers us in the process an explanation for how we are to read mcluhanisme. The user is, after all, the content, an observation that Glenn Willmott makes in setting up his precept that "justifications for an individual style [are] of limited interest" given that McLuhan's message is "as diffuse as the responses to it" (169). I agree with Willmott and would add to his observation that while particular utterances of the idiosyncratic are indeed insignificant, the idiosyncratic act, as critical practice au courant, is highly significant, for it is a lasting register of the methodology of the Toronto School of Communications that McLuhan and Harold Adams Innis inhabit.

The license for this diffusion and diversity of critical opinion—and issued by the master narrative himself, McLuhan—provides the lead-in to my task at hand, which is to make some sense of the highly stylized, postmodern constructions of mcluhanisme. And I say "postmodern" with deliberation, for, as slippery a term as it is, it does accommodate the multiplicity of representations of McLuhan that now bombard us, a mere four of which I am addressing in this review.1 Indeed, I could have chosen from literally hundreds of other representations, everything from popular misreadings such as Ted Turner being described by Time as "The Prince of the Global Village" (which should remind us of Hugh Kenner's quip that few really know what McLuhan meant) to more serious critical overtures that reclaim McLuhan, including the scholarly work of B.W. Powe and Donald Theall, as well as the anthologizing of Frank Zingrone and the living McLuhans, brother and son. Equally significant, though perhaps more subtle manifestations of the McLuhan register, are everywhere around us, now so unconsciously assimilated that they have become part of our cultural and ideological landscape. I am thinking of the CBC's "town hall" phenomenon; of the inundation of PictureTel units in corporate headquarters and distance education units around the globe; of our culture's quick acceptance (suspiciously quick) of the phenomenon of the World Wide Web; of the longevity of the Neil Postmans, Arthur Krokers, Peter Druckers, and other communications sages; and, finally, of the legitimacy of cultural and media studies as areas of serious academic inquiry. Each of these phenomena, concrete and subtle, has about it something of the McLuhan residue, which is not to say that McLuhan was thedefinitive seer of the intellectual world, but that, as Tom Wolfe intimated in his now-famous Herald Tribune article, he was right about enough things that people listened. And people still are paying attention, making the oracle of the electric age as malleable and abused as Freud and Nietzsche. But that is, one learns after reading McLuhan, the point of mcluhanisme, isn't it? Glenn Willmott concurs:

  McLuhan sacrificed himself to a problem which 
  continues to confront every concerned 
  intellectual struggling with his or her 
  postmodern condition: what form of critical 
  discourse will be able to communicate 
  critical consciousness from one of us to another 
  in the mass media of the Global Village? Today, 
  McLuhan's value lies less in his own explicit 
  answer, in his invention of a duplicitously 
  satirical criticism, than in his larger and 
  implicit, symbolic self-sacrifice to the problem 
  of the critic itself—of the critic's body 
  and medium—in relation to the already-produced 
  nature of itself and others. McLuhan's must be 
  retrieved as an archetype of the problem which 
  confronts every intellectual today in his or her 
  desire to empower, however partially, an audience 
  and milieu. (207)

I maintain that the postmodern register of McLuhan today—his own undying nature as a palimpsest of critical practice—is his historical signature and immortality. If his star fell in the early 70s, it has certainly risen again, which leads me to a final observation unrelated to the allowances of postmodern license. In the 1990s, we have finally distanced ourselves from the late-60s cliché of McLuhan. Time, neglect, and critical processing have worked to his advantage, finally rendering him non-environmental. McLuhan is therefore being treated today as he could not have been treated in his own generation—we are making of him what he made of the New Critics and High Modernists who preceded him. He is visible now, as "the first theologian of information" (qtd. in Gordon 8), as counter-environment. As archetype, he is now more the figure than the ground of our critical inquiry. Our intellectuals are looking to him to point the way, as he looked to Pound, Joyce, and Lewis, the so-called "Men of 1914." His visage is now firmly centred, if still not focussed, in our rear-view mirror.


"The reader wears the mask of the poet's work even as the author puts on the public as a mask. One is probe for the other. Joyce put it in a phrase: `My consumers, are they not my producers?'"

(Cliché 27-28)


Glenn Willmott's McLuhan, or Modernism in Reverse (1996), which bears a similarity in title and post-structuralist spirit to Jameson's important work on postmodern culture (see note 1), is the book I begin with because of what appeared to me at first reading to be a central trope: Willmott's book is the deepest of the four I read, and, in its depth, the most closed. The deeper Willmott probed, I felt, the murkier his thought became, not because his logic was flawed or his syntax tortuous, but because his book imagined a scholarly audience awash in the reified, private discourse of post-structuralism. McLuhan's justification for reading Innis, cited by Willmott, captures the feeling I initially had, namely that Innis offers "`a pattern of insights that are not packaged for the consumer palate'" (110). "So does Willmott," I was prepared to say, forgetting both McLuhan's legitimization of "division and diversity" and his loathing for simple dismissal, which he concluded was an effete post-Romantic tendency that privileged the transience of content for the historical permanence of form. For McLuhan, judgement was just so much naiveté, unworthy of critical practice. And so, I was and am happy to reconsider what is a post-structuralist, Jamesonian "reading" of McLuhan, as much for the object-lesson my initial reaction provides as for the opportunity to laud what is an important contribution to McLuhan studies, one that will find its place next to John Fekete'sThe Critical Twilight: Explorations in the Ideology of Anglo-American Literary Theory from Eliot to McLuhan (1978).

The object-lesson of my first reading of Willmott's book is where I'd like to start, for my annoyance is ideologically laden with the burden of reading McLuhan in the postmodern present—that is, of reading McLuhan as much through a media panoply as through the covers of his own books. We have become accustomed to reading representations of thinkers, even of those thinkers with whom we are most familiar. And in being bombarded by the shadow-shows of representations, we become naturalized to messages that slowly re-package our knowledge so that the figure of that knowledge is shape-shifted into another form by the ground of new representations. This is another way of saying that "ground" nourishes "figure." My initial reading of Willmott is a case in point: I wondered what business a philosopher-philologist had in McLuhan studies. The fact is, McLuhan was as critically indebted to traditional, philosophical scholarship as he was eager to employ that indebtedness, a truism that is easy to forget in the maelstrom of popular/MTV versions of mcluhanisme. The upshot of all this self-disclosure points to the precariousness of reading McLuhan in the postmodern present, an activity which should probably be placed in double quotation marks: i.e., "reading `McLuhan,'" hence my title. In short, when one "reads `McLuhan,'" one engages the whole historical unconscious, accessing at best what Willmott rightly calls "an imaginary scaffolding thrown together, not merely from the ideological, but from the technical clichés of ...culture" (206). McLuhan, therefore, is what both the philologist and the MTV VJ remembered and forgot from their reading of a panoply of readings of McLuhan. To be sure, reading McLuhan in the postmodern present is a "high-definition" activity; he is "hot," meaning fully defined and detailed. Reading McLuhan is not reading what McLuhan wrote, which proves exactly what McLuhan said—that in the global Risorgimento, or postmodern revival, we read corporately and collectively, engaging the whole of the historical unconscious. "Reading `McLuhan,'" then, provides an analogue to the act of reading. To have thought about and become comfortable with that paradox is to begin to understand McLuhan and his age.2

Willmott's book, to begin again, is one of three types I am considering in this review article: the kind that explains McLuhan. W. Terrence Gordon's "most excellent" McLuhan for Beginners(1997) is similar to Willmott's in that it too explains, but in documentary comic book form, the McLuhan phenomenon. The vast remove of both books from the centre indicates how wide the craft of explanation really is, and how varied the audience interested in McLuhan: Willmott's is the high-starched treatment and Gordon's the lower-brow, "Gen-Y" version. Where Gordon's readers probably wear sunglasses, Willmott's probably suffer from eye strain. What twins both reader groups, however, is their desire to know something about McLuhan, and whereas those readers likely to buy Willmott's book are also likely to read it, those courted by Gordon want theClassic-Comic-Book version of the McLuhan story, which he delivers with the opening salvo, "Not only have you never read any of McLuhan's books, you've probably never read anything that makes you think you should" (1). And so, where Willmott's book is deliberate, comprehensive, and historically inclined, investigating sources and pondering implications, Gordon's is snappy, fast, hip, and jazzy. If indeed, as McLuhan claimed, one steps into a newspaper as into a bath, then one steps into Gordon's book as into a mid-summer carnival, full of forward and reverse angles, fade-ins and fade-outs, and all manner of cartoony talking heads and multi-media gargoyles, exactly what is needed to communicate with the "excellent adventurers" travelling through history on the air waves.3

In sum, I like many things about Willmott and Gordon's books, especially those ideas that are new or rarely examined. About Willmott's book I specifically like the treatment of the Greek notion of techne, which grounds the whole. Though Willmott doesn't credit Jacques Ellul directly for helping him apply the classical and seventeenth-century definitions of "technique" (later "technology") to McLuhan's use of the term, the spirit of Ellul certainly informs his treatment. As the unspoken creed of efficiency and regimentation—what a contemporary psychoanalyst might term the "symbolic order" of modernity—the subaltern, historical meaning of technology was certainly at the root of McLuhan's programme of illumination for social justice. In fact, after the fashion of Ezra Pound and I.A. Richards, McLuhan considered the process of unearthing etymologies to be one of the important tasks of the literati. As he wrote to Wyndham Lewis, his discovery of the real meaning of technology (primarily as extension, but also as constructivist systematization of process) would go a long way toward ending some of the "blackout of history." Willmott's book is especially valuable in its treatment of what McLuhan saw, again suggesting Ellul (but also Innis), as the unconscious technological imperative of high- and post-modernism. As early as The Mechanical Bride, McLuhan was warning of "the unity of the modern world becom[ing] increasingly a technological rather than a social affair" (87).

Willmott's book is also rigorously authoritative on McLuhan's sources and influences, thinkers as varied as Sergei Eistenstein, the Cambridge New Critics, Siegfried Giedion, Lewis Mumford, and the usual cornerstones: Pound, Lewis, and Innis. Curiously absent, however, is any sustained treatment of Joyce. If I have one criticism, finally, of Willmott's study—and I'll admit that it may be related more to the business of editing than writing—it is of the structural inference that McLuhan arrived at his ideas in an ordered way, that the journey from Pound through Lewis to Innis (from literary criticism to cultural anthropology) was paradigmatic for the development of his thought. In this inference, the book often falls for one of McLuhan's favourite metaphors for understanding the post-modern present—that of revisiting the scene of the crime, in this case a chronological investigation of McLuhan's many teachers. Surely McLuhan's own teachings are worth consulting here, for, simply put, subjectivity and cognition just do not work that way. Influence is as fickle as cliché, both more often than not remaining unexamined by the subject and unexaminable (except as fiction) by the critic.

In the same spirit of refutation I'll challenge Gordon's contention that if he were alive today McLuhan would probably not have an e-mail address (15). I rather doubt that, knowing what little I do about his fascination with early fax technology (presumably, McLuhan was one of the first Canadians to own a fax machine; so new was the technology that he had few recipients for his missives outside of the French and Japanese). Having said that, I also must say that Gordon's book is the best of the four I read in the way it summarizes McLuhan. Granted, that is the book's stated objective— to make McLuhan understandable to cyberspace travellers—however, Gordon's ability to synthesize McLuhan is first-rate, focussing on what the MTV crowd would want to know about the man: his views on TV and computers, popular culture, sex and advertising, and, of course, what all this global change means for youth. Gordon is also extremely effective in isolating and defining McLuhan's key tenets, so much so that McLuhan experts would find real value in reading Gordon's explanations of "the medium is the message," "hot and cool," "the global village," "cliché and archetype" and "laws of the media."

As well, Susan Willmarth's numerous illustrations (there are at least two on every page) provide provocative complement to Gordon's explanations, setting up a paratactic dialogue between visual and textual representations of mcluhanisme. In this, Gordon and Willmarth's collaboration is reminiscent of the McLuhan/Harley Parker project Through the Vanishing Point: Space in Poetry and Painting (1968). Designed to heighten our sensory awareness, such collisions of signifiers (of words and images—phonetic and pictographic signs) add not only resonance to the flatness of purely typographic representation but also offer working models of the post-modernity of mosaic man, who, newly retribalized, experiences the world in depth and all-at-once, the clear danger of which, as Gordon infers, is a somnambulism unmatched by Gutenberg's invention. Gordon's way of presenting and interpreting McLuhan is therefore of special interest to young people and the critically uninitiated. The way the book starts and the way the book ends presents a necessary and invaluable ecology for the retribalized: "...the new environment that McLuhan discerns should be studied as carefully as the O2system in the Apollo spaceship" (3); "If we had to put McLuhan into one sentence, it could be this: He asks us `What haven't you noticed lately?'" (136). In presenting McLuhan not as the champion but as the often self-parodying interrogator of popular/mass culture, Gordon comes as close to the spirit of McLuhan as any of these representations under consideration.


"I've been going on from extemporizations of Marshall's for thirty years."
(Kenner 297)


The second type of McLuhan artifice or construction that I am examining is what might be called "extension." Where Willmott and Gordon explain McLuhan, Robert Logan and Derrick de Kerckhoveextend McLuhan outward, using him as a footnote to their own inquiry, yet in a spirit different from how McLuhan used Innis as footnote to The Gutenberg Galaxy (50). The difference today, in the postmodern present, is that many of the thinkers who use McLuhan rarely bother to explain or investigate the "McLuhan" reference. Perhaps in a retribalized milieu that recalls the Homeric rules of oral man, they assume they don't have to. The consequence, however, of loosening the demands of indebtedness is that the subtext — in this case McLuhan — too readily gets claimed as legitimizer of a particular kind of inquiry. Robert Logan's book, The Fifth Language: Learning a Living in the Computer Age (1995), is a case in point. Though Logan's title echoes the later McLuhan, and though his book opens with an intelligent and cogent chapter on the Innis/McLuhan phenomenon, the balance of his book exhibits a reluctance to apply the lessons of McLuhan to the material being investigated. Here is one example.

  Drawing parallels between the two notational 
  systems [reading/writing and mathematics] 
  could certainly help students to understand 
  the abstract nature of the alphabet and the 
  place number system. It might help those who 
  are strong in math but weak in reading, or 
  vice versa, to use their strengths   with one 
  notational system to better understand the 
  other. These suggestions are purely speculative 
  but certainly worthy of further examination 
  and research. 

Though foregrounding what Foucault would call "discursive formation" is an interesting idea, McLuhan, I think, would comment that it is not a characteristic of information or educational policy to do that kind of work explicitly, obeying our inputs — what we term "programming" — but, in fact, to change our work environment as a result of the foundational grammars of the information itself (the syntax of the inputs those grammars require "to make sense"). To speculate, then, that computers or information can solve educational problems and cognitive discrepancies is not to understand (or not to subscribe to) the structural bias of information that fascinated McLuhan and Innis.

The other peculiarity that makes Logan's book the least satisfying of the four I read is Logan's tendency to range far too widely into areas outside of what appears to be the scope of his book (I admit to my discomfort in saying this because I cannot honestly say what the book aims at). Though I found occasionally interesting his treatment of literacy, numeracy, abstract science, the language of mathematics, the phonetic syllabaries of Akkadian speakers, the bifurcation of impressed logograms, the economic organization of tribal societies, the sociological debate over the definition of the middle class, and the rise of information technologies (to name but a few of the dozens upon dozens of media phenomena he covers), I found myself searching for the book's "teche," to use Willmott's term, amid its penchant for the encyclopedic and historical. In fact, what appears to be the book's first premise — that the challenge the middle class mounted to compete with the ruling elites was a function of the information-processing skills they acquired through education — emerges at the mid-way point of the study. As a short-hand archaeology of the 5000-year evolution of dominant media (speech, money, and mathematics), Logan's The Fifth Language is valuable, offering a wealth of insight and summary from thinkers as varied as Eric Havelock and Denise Schmandt-Besserat; but as a McLuhan-grounded cultural study of the ways in which "the fifth language"—computing—changes the contemporary pedagogic landscape, Logan's book leaves me wanting more of what he touched on in chapter six, where he charts how McLuhan's influence affected the socio-educational doyens of "the Wired World" (Alvin Toffler, Peter Drucker, and Peter Senge).

As an "extender" of McLuhan and mcluhanisme, Derrick de Kerckhove's work has more resonance than Logan's—and not just because he worked with McLuhan (so did Logan), but because he brings a more sophisticated and creative cultural analysis to the consideration of media subtext. One need only read the first few pages of The Skin of Culture: Investigating the New Electronic Reality (1995) to discover what I mean, as the following should make clear:

  From the moment they take to computers, our 
  children develop a kind of speed addiction 
  that makes them howl and kick if their 
  favourite programs take more than a 
  nanosecond to come on-line.
  Where other cultural observers might have cited 
  forces of marketing, McLuhan saw in this 
  phenomenon a purely psychological pattern of 
  narcissistic identification with the power of 
  our toys. I see it as proof that we are indeed 
  becoming cyborgs, and that, as each technology 
  extends one of our faculties and transcends our 
  physical limitations, we are inspired to acquire 
  the very best extension of our own body. (3)

The success of de Kerckhove's techno-cultural commentary is related, in my reading, to his study of how McLuhan used his own footnotes to advantage, most notably Innis. Like McLuhan, de Kerckhove foregrounds his sources in an attempt to extend the implications of their thought, as all good cultural criticism does, building from foundation. And so, though de Kerckhove's leaps are often bold, as McLuhan's were, they resonate deeply in their observance of historical praxis, making them more credible inductions than the wild ahistorical guesses of digital hypsters such as Nicholas Negroponte and Louis Rossetto. In this, McLuhan's study of literary history as a barometer of how artists achieved "effect" seems to be an object-lesson that other forecasters also employ—and I am thinking specifically of Neil Postman and Jacques Ellul here. However elusive the formula for precocity is, it seems always balanced between the backward glance and the forward application. What Logan's book lacks in forward application, de Kerckhove's has in abundance, making The Skin of Culture, in many ways, the fin-de-siècle Understanding Media.

This is not necessarily to claim de Kerckhove as McLuhan's successor, a position many have tried to fill in the last few years, but to say that in his consideration of the duplicitous 1990's clichés like "3-D," "virtual reality," and quot;cyberspace," de Kerckhove comes as close to the method of McLuhan inquiry as any other techno-exegete I've read. In fact, one experiences in reading de Kerckhove the same kind of discovery and excitement that reading McLuhan provides; and, like McLuhan, his work begs paraphrase. Unfortunately, only a few examples will have to suffice:

  Because of the sequential properties of our 
  alphabetic conditioning, the western mind has 
  also been trained to divide information into 
  small chunks and reassemble them in a left-right 
  sequential order. The alphabet has supported the 
  basic inspiration and the models for the most 
  powerful codes of mankind: the atomic structure, 
  the genetic string of amino acids, the computer 
  bit. All these codes have a power of action, of 
  creation, and they all stem from the basic 
  model of the alphabet. 


  The fantasy of alien persecution, despite any 
  hard evidence to support it, is, of course, 
  a kind of traumatic metaphor. It could be 
  the psychological effect of the technologies 
  attacking the culture. But we should observe 
  that the Japanese variety is curiously more 
  intimate than the standard 
  `good-guys-versus-bad-guys' type. Indeed 
  Transformers are creatures of design that are 
  both organic and mechanical in turn. What 
  could be a closer approximation of the uneasy 
  adjustment of Japanese psychology to the 
  cyborgian integration of man and machine? 
  By comparison, westerners have been raped 
  by their machines almost without noticing it. 
  In essence, the western equivalent to the 
  Japanese Transformer are Bladerunner's 
  androids, mechanization taking an organic form; 
  Transformers portray organic beings turning 
  mechanical in self-defence. (162)


  Television modulates our emotions and our 
  imaginations in a way comparable to the 
  power of music. That is why the rock video 
  is a natural television creature.
  This is another aspect of the mysteriously 
  tactile dimension that McLuhan attributed 
  to television. When he suggested in later 
  books that `the medium is the massage,' 
  making fun of his own celebrated aphorism, 
  what he meant was that television caresses 
  us and rubs its meaning under our skin.... 
  The overnight success of Trivial Pursuit 
  seems to indicate that most of us share 
  approximately the same body of trivia. In 
  all this, TV may very well be doing our 
  thinking for us. (16-17)


  Now, as we penetrate the screen's virtual 
  realities with eyephones, datagloves and data 
  suits, we are entering the third media era: 
  Cyberculture. Cyberculture is the product of 
  the multiplication of mass by speed, as video 
  technologies are intensified by computer 
  technologies. High Definition Television is a 
  typical example of this kind of multiplication. 
  The deeper message of HDTV is not better 
  definition or finer resolution, but more power 
  to the frame. HDTV is television educated by 
  computer. (125)

The constant in de Kerckhove's book is a willingness to intuit from available evidence and scholarship, an action that relies on a thorough investigation of the deep structure of media subtexts combined with an intimate knowledge of popular culture. The combination, as with McLuhan thirty years earlier, is both exciting and critically valuable. For a McLuhan-inspired (and extended) exploration of the latest cyber-cosmologies, de Kerckhove's The Skin of Culture is first-rate.


"Innis sacrificed point of view and prestige to his sense of the urgent need for insight.... He is setting up a mosaic configuration or galaxy of insight.... Innis makes no effort to `spell out' the interrelations between the components in his galaxy. He offers no consumer packages in his later work, but only do-it-yourself kits, like a symbolist poet or abstract painter."
(GG 216-17)


The final type of McLuhan "reading" I should mention here is what only could be termed "the McLuhan mosaic"—McLuhan in preview, sound bite, and trailer. The consciously mosaicconfiguration of this kind of testament is more frequent than the two other treatments I examined in this review, a curiosity that reflects our need to have McLuhan presented to us, in the first-person, again and again. Part of this need is related to the complexity and topicality of his thought, part related to our pride in producing such a thinker, and part to the success McLuhan has had in turning us into information anthologizers, those who articulate the world in (and assimilate the world by) "info nuggets." A few of the more notable of these information anthologies that capture the McLuhan mosaic are George Sanderson and Frank Macdonald's Marshall McLuhan: The Man and His Message (1989), Barrington Nevitt and Maurice McLuhan's Who Was Marshall McLuhan? (1994), Eric McLuhan and Frank Zingrone's Essential McLuhan (1995), Paul Benedetti and Nancy DeHart's Forward Through the Rear View Mirror: Reflections On and By Marshall McLuhan (1996), and, of course, the electronic Understanding McLuhan (1996). Most of these, to add another curiosity, are coffee table books, multi-media kaleidoscopes that present the full sensory complex of McLuhan's thought.

Having said that I'll end on my favourite hobby-horse and say, as I think inductively about this review article, that the multiple constructions and representations of McLuhan are themselves representative of a ground that electronic text is now appropriating, and at the expense of literacy. Sellers of hypertext and digital hype claim that the true mosaic configuration is theirs, that before McLuhan's so-called "electrically-configured whirl" (Massage 150) the linearity of type rendered the historical unconscious hopelessly teleological. That reading can indeed be extracted from McLuhan, especially if one reads only a few chapters of The Gutenberg Galaxy; however, if one samples the full McLuhan plate and considers the multi-sensory implications of his thought, then surely the mosaic configuration which McLuhan first discovered in Innis's methodology predates the electronic claim by generations and even centuries. In reporting on his own archaeology of post-Gutenberg cultural knowledge, Foucault concurs:

  The frontiers of a book are never clear-cut: 
  beyond the title, the first lines, and the 
  last full stop, beyond its internal 
  configuration and its autonomous form, it 
  is caught up in a system of references to 
  other books, other texts, other sentences: 
  it is a node within a network....the unity 
  of the book, even in the sense of a group of 
  relations, cannot be regarded as identical 
  in each case. The book is not simply the 
  object that one holds in one's hands; and 
  it cannot remain within the little 
  parallelepiped that contains it: its unity is 
  variable and relative. As soon as one 
  questions that unity, it loses its 
  self-evidence; it indicates itself, 
  constructs itself, only on the basis of a 
  complex field of disclosure. (The Archaeology of Knowledge 23)

So it is with McLuhan, and so it is with the rich multi-sensory musée imaginaire of literacy that, like Pound, he explored—and, as Pound writes in The Cantos, "not as land looks on map / but as sea bord seen by men sailing" (59/324). In other words, in three dimensions. Both McLuhan and the typographic, therefore, are as hyper-extended as hypertext and other digital phenomena. If Negroponte's "being digital" indeed means having exploded your borders, then that is an old schtick, one from the old typographic world of authors and subjects. Your reading of my reading of "reading `McLuhan'" would seem ample proof.


  1. Significant as well to McLuhan's postmodernism is that the pre-eminent postmodernist critic, Frederic Jameson, has used McLuhan frequently as a harbinger of the postmodern, one whose critical practice threw the gate open for Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Lacan to critique the high modernism of the New Critics and the industrial re-tooling of the early twentieth century. Jameson's Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991), is especially revealing in this light, as is the fact that Willmott's book under consideration in this review was written at Duke University under Jameson's supervision. And Willmott's is not the first doctoral thesis on McLuhan that Jameson has been involved with.
  2. I am still working on it, which is to admit something important, namely that all this "confessing" is not anything like a series of false starts; rather, my confessing is proof of the diligence we must have in interrogating our own sensibility, which remains predominantly visual in character and expectation, especially in its institutional—i.e., what Roland Barthes called "writerly"—aspects.
  3. Of course, McLuhan too, as Gordon reminds us, altered his prose "to capture the pop objects of [an] emerging technological age"(25). I.A. Richards' belief in the servitude of language to thought was never far removed from McLuhan's practice, nor, it appears, the practice of McLuhan explainers today. Once again, the medium is the message; we communicate as much by how we say something as by whatwe say.

Works Cited

  1. Foucalt, Michel. The Archaeology of Knowledge & The Discourse on Language. New York: Pantheon Books, 1972.
  2. Gordon, W. Terrence. McLuhan for Beginners. Illustrated by Susan Willmarth. New York: Writers and Readers Publishing, Inc., 1997.
  3. Kenner, Hugh. Mazes. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1989.
  4. de Kerckhove, Derrick. The Skin of Culture: Investigating the New Electronic Reality. Toronto: Somerville House Publishing, 1995.
  5. Logan, Robert K. The Fifth Language: Learning a Living in the Computer Age. Toronto: Stoddart, 1995.
  6. McLuhan, Marshall. The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1962.
  7. The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man. New York: The Vanguard Press, Inc., 1951.
  8. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1964.
  9. McLuhan, Marshall and Quentin Fiore. The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects. New York: Bantam Books, Inc., 1967.
  10. McLuhan, Marshall and Harley Parker. Through the Vanishing Point: Space in Poetry and Painting. New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1968.
  11. McLuhan, Marshall and Wilfred Watson. From Cliché to Archetype. New York: Viking Press, 1971.
  12. Pound, Ezra. The Cantos of Ezra Pound. 1934. New York: New Directions, 1981.
  13. Stearn, Gerald Emanuel. Ed. McLuhan: Hot & Cool. 1967. Toronto: Signet Books, 1969.
  14. Willmott, Glenn. McLuhan, or Modernism in Reverse. Toronto: U of T Press. 1996.