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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1706

A former librarian of Congress, the historian Daniel Boorstin described the printed book as the most efficient system ever devised for the storage and retrieval of information. Those who share his bias may find it ironic that many hours of Marshall McLuhan's pronouncements on the new electronic media, preserved in long obsolete videotape formats, are now readily accessible in book form. Yet McLuhan was a professor of literature and liked to remind television interviewers such as Tom Brokaw, “I teach books from morning till night.”

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McLuhan's only quarrel with the print universe was that it promotes linear, sequential thinking that ill prepares people for the electronic universe, where information travels at the speed of light. As he watched his children grow up with television, he realized that the younger generation perceived the world differently than their parents did, that the “generation gap” bewailed in the popular press was really a technology gap. Like Henry David Thoreau in the nineteenth century, McLuhan realized that tools use people as much as people use tools; while Thoreau concentrated on tools of industrial production, however, McLuhan focused on tools of communication. All tools, he said, are extensions of the individual human being.

McLuhan took to the new media more readily than most of his contemporaries, for he was a self-proclaimed “right-brain” man, temperamentally inclined to the creative and simultaneous rather than the rational and sequential. He thought in aphorisms and, while other aphoristic thinkers, such as his colleague Northrop Frye, worked hard to organize their insights into reasoned essays, he did not worry about consistency or coherence but preferred to let readers make their own connections. As a professor of literature and a close student of modernism, he built on the discontinuities of imagism in poetry and cubism in painting. He also anticipated the discontinuities of music videos, news crawlers, and push messages over the Internet.

Frye acknowledged that McLuhan taught him the importance of discontinuity in the modern world. Other professors were less kind and said McLuhan's books simply did not hold together. Indeed, once he became established as a media commentator, McLuhan tended to collaborate, bringing ideas to a book rather than architectonics.

Understanding Me is a posthumous collaboration between McLuhan and his daughter Stephanie, who became a television producer. The collaboration extends to his former student Staines, now a professor of literature himself, and to Tom Wolfe, the American journalist whose 1965 essay on McLuhan asked the inescapable question, “What if He's Right?” Much of the material that Stephanie McLuhan brought to David Staines for editing was already available in The Video McLuhan (1996), a set of six videotapes hosted by Wolfe and sold to libraries for $595. Very little is lost in the transposition to print, only McLuhan's cameo appearance in Annie Hall (1977) and reminders of how much people smoked in the 1960's and how oddly they dressed in the 1970's. Much is gained, meanwhile, from the addition of short introductions, unobtrusive notes, and a helpful index.

There are, in all, eighteen introductions to thirteen lectures and seven interviews, arranged in chronological sequence. (Some items are paired.) The range of tone is considerably greater than the subtitle's dichotomy suggests. The lectures vary from prepared presentations at academic conferences to after-dinner speeches for businessmen and talks to graduate and undergraduate students on various campuses. The interviews range from a panel discussion to serious conversations with fellow writers and light banter with television hosts. The panel features the venerable American journalist Gilbert Seldes, who covered radio, film, and early television in essays that culminated in The American Audience (1950). The conversations include both a studio exchange with the literary critic Frank Kermode and a backyard chat with Wolfe, who clearly “clicks” with McLuhan. The banter touches on topics such as the presidential debates between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter in 1976. (One regrets that McLuhan did not live to comment on Ronald Reagan's campaign speeches in 1980.)

McLuhan left most interviewers gasping. “You know,” said Tom Snyder, “you’re saying things that seem almost to be the opposite of old established truths.” That is exactly the point. McLuhan wanted people to confront their preconceptions. In the first published lecture, he warns American educators not to confuse information with the medium used to communicate it and introduces his most famous aphorism, “The medium is the message.” In later talks, he nudges the aphorism to maximum advantage; he suggests that a “cool” medium such as television soothes, delivering not only a message but also a massage. A true teacher by temperament, McLuhan never tired of explaining his distinctions, be they hot and cool media, the medium and the message, the figure and the ground, or some other set of terms. Those explanations make this book a highly accessible, if totally unsystematic, account of his thoughts. As Snyder said at the end of their interview, “It was easier listening to you than it is reading you.”

As an introduction to McLuhan, this book has the virtue of presenting his thoughts in the decades of his greatest influence, the 1960's and the 1970's, and letting readers see them evolve. His remarks about the “global village” become increasingly pessimistic and, in a late interview, he observes that proximity can breed strife as easily as it can build community. A twenty-first century reader will be able to supply many examples of ethnic struggles reigniting as old political structures collapse and may see parallels between McLuhan's remarks on Vietnam and early twenty-first century commentary on Iraq. McLuhan's suggestion that war is a misguided form of cultural education may raise anew his hope that the American contempt for education will lead politicians to lose interest in war.

The ideas do not change so much as they expand. That is why Tom Wolfe can talk about McLuhan in Silicon Valley, even though McLuhan never saw a personal computer, and why the editors can characterize his comments about the information services as “predicting communication via the Internet.” McLuhan would become the “patron saint” of Wiredmagazine, which reported on Internet postings of his pronouncements. In an earlier age, such messages from the dead were said to have come through the “ether,” but these traveled by ethernet. Casual references to McLuhan in the popular press confirm that his ideas are as compelling in the age of high-definition television as they were when he called television a medium of “low definition,” meaning that viewers had to fill out the shadowy images and thus to become personally involved. Wolfe is surely right to conclude his lively introduction by saying that new communications theorists “will have to contend with McLuhan.”

A Canadian reviewer of this book, Bruce Powe, agrees with Wolfe and points to the great paradox of McLuhan: One must be literate, and must read books such as McLuhan's, in order to understand the new media. An American reviewer, Marshall Fishwick, remarks on how McLuhan's great strength was his ability to reconceive history as a story about the media that have recorded it. The history of communication turns out to be the secret of history and the key to understanding modern lives. It follows that one must think about one's life in terms of the communication devices that one has used. Both reviewers know McLuhan's work at first hand and have written about it at length. Both are well worth reading.

Transferring the spoken word to paper is no easy task, especially with a thinker as mercurial as McLuhan, and the editors deserve praise for judiciously punctuating the remarks to make them readable without the verbal inflections and body English on the videotapes. When he is elusive, they let him loose, resisting the temptation to gloss his bon mots and identify all the people he mentions in passing. Anyone unfamiliar with politician Edmund Burke or comedian Carol Burnett can visit an Internet search engine. The important terms become clear from repetition. Readers who have not heard of a “put on” (a deception, as in the question, “Are you putting me on?”) will soon realize that McLuhan thinks that an electronic medium, especially television, encourages subjects to “put on” masks, as improvements on their actual humdrum selves, and thus to “put on” the audience. (They will also discover his penchant for puns.) Staines contributes a personal tribute in the book's final pages. He recalls McLuhan's teaching style and, like Wolfe, emphasizes the importance of Catholicism in McLuhan's life and thought.

McLuhan's impromptu reflections, which he liked to call “probes,” are ideally suited to a collection. There have been other posthumous gatherings, and one can expect to see more. Eric McLuhan has edited a volume of his father's occasional writings on religion, published as The Medium and the Light (2002); he has also collected a boxed set of eighteen publishers’ offprints, offered in facsimile as Marshall McLuhan Unbound (2004). McLuhan's work has had special appeal in Canada, where he is now recognized as one of the country's seminal thinkers, but the United States is never far from his attention. In a lecture from 1967, the year of Canada's centennial, McLuhan suggested that Americans were no more aware of their environment than fish are of the sea. “As the U.S.A. becomes a world environment through its resources, technology, and enterprises,” he said, “Canada takes on the function of making that world environment perceptible to those who occupy it.”

In addition to snapshots of McLuhan talking to Wolfe and Staines, there is a striking cover portrait of him, credited to Harry Benson of Time/Lifebut otherwise unidentified. Former students will recognize that it shows McLuhan leaning over his desk in the seminar room of the University of Toronto's Centre for the Study of Culture and Technology, circa 1970. In the background is a swirling mural by a friend, the Toronto architect René Cera. It might be called a modernist mandala on the theme of television, with a large screen in the center and eyes flowering all around. The artist's title, Pied Pipers All, is a fair summary of McLuhan's take on the new media. There is no piper, but there are many who watch and listen and who, by watching and listening, call the tune and become part of the show.

Review Sources

Architectural Record 192, no. 10 (October, 2004): 90.

Journal of American Culture 27, no. 2 (June, 2004): 244-245.

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