A six-foot-high hedge separated me from the garden next door but not from its voices. It was my first Sunday morning in the house I sublet on Wells Hill Avenue by Casa Loma in Toronto. I couldn’t make out what was being said but one of the voices sounded familiar. I moved closer and parted the hedge just enough for a covert glimpse of my new neighbours. A middle-aged man was lying on his back in a hammock with a book held up vertically above his head as he read aloud. Next to him a young man sat in a deck chair with a book on his lap. The young man said: “Vico’s cycles.” The older man said: “Vicious Circles.” “Viscous cyclones,“ said the young man. I was awestruck. My God, I thought, I must be the only person in the world at this moment listening to what looks like a tag team reading Finnegans Wake. Later I learned I had been witness to a regular occurrence. Eric McLuhan and his father, Marshall, were reading at each other.
I was a teaching fellow completing my graduate degree in English at the University of Toronto. A few weeks after my eavesdropping in the back garden, I found myself entering my new neighbour’s house by the front door for McLuhan’s informal (not-for-credit) Monday night seminar on communications, where I joined two dozen others crammed into the far from capacious front room of the family home. McLuhan’s kids, ranging from 15 on down, kept popping up and disappearing like a colony of gophers. We didn’t look to me much like a graduate seminar.
McLuhan, a stringy but handsome man at six foot two, with a literary moustache, could also have passed for a movie cowboy. He invited us to introduce ourselves. Anthropologist Ted Carpenter, notorious advocate of deinstitutionalized education and a long time cohort of McLuhan, muttered his name and gave a folksy wave. Three beatniks made no response. A sallow young man wearing a guitar gave a drowsy nod. A man in long short pants with knee socks who looked like an Eagle Scout, gave a perky salute and announced he was seeking transformation. Wilfred Watson, the poet and academic, was there, and his wife, Sheila Watson, author of The Double Hook. A dapper little man from an advertising firm reported he had come because he was looking for a fresh idea. A well-known announcer, Stanley Burke, who read the TV news on CBC, was there; also a professional magician wearing a cape, a dark-haired, bespangled fortune teller, an Inuit carver from Igloolik and a popular wrestler called Whipper Billy Watson. I and two others like me wore tweed jackets and ties, the standard garb of graduate students at the time.
McLuhan opened with a riff about movies. “Film is high-definition pictures. You don’t have to fill in the blanks, so you’re detached and can think critically. Radio, telephone—they give you less to go on, and you have to fill out the message with your own story. But they’re still relatively hot. At the far end of the gamut is TV. It’s cool, low definition; you get completely absorbed in processing the bombardment of dots, hypnotized. It’s also non-sequential, like newspapers. Movies flow narratively, sequentially, the way we see. TV throws everything at us holus-bolus like sound. We can see only one thing at a time, but we can hear many things at once, even around corners. That’s why film is an eye medium and TV an ear medium.”
Looking around I noticed eyes widening and perplexity come over some of the faces. What surprised me was that many of the faces glowed with excitement, and I too felt I was hearing something fresh and challenging. Before anyone could butt in too much, McLuhan went on to talk about tools. Fragments of ideas drifted over us like flakes of an early snowfall.
The phonetic alphabet fell like a bombshell on tribal man. The printing press hit him like a hydrogen bomb. Now we’ve been blitzkreiged by TV.
The horseless buggy was the only way people could describe the automobile. Families whose wealth was based on carriages and buggy whips soon went bankrupt. Horsepower moved from animals into cars.
The wheel extends the foot in an automobile. In this way the wheel amplifies the power and speed of the foot, but at the same time it amputates. In the act of pressing the gas peddle, the foot becomes so specialized it no longer performs its original function, which is to walk.
If the wheel is an extension of the foot, then money is an extension of muscle, radio an amplification of the human voice, and the hydrogen bomb an outgrowth of teeth and fingernails.
Why should the sending or receiving of a telegram seem more dramatic than even the ringing of a telephone?
What do you think Hitler meant when he said: “I go my way with the assurance of a sleepwalker?”
I went next door a week later to ask one of the McLuhan daughters to babysit. A voice called me in. There lay McLuhan, the fireplace alight despite the heat of the afternoon, flat on his back with a magazine suspended parallel to his stretched-out body. He knew who I was but he was never lavishly chummy with his students. Before I could speak he pointed a finger at me and said: “I’ll tell you why Americans are suddenly buying small cars. The time of the big car as arrow aimed at a target is over. Now the car is a womb, a little cozy place away from the hurly-burly.” I stood quietly, taking my medicine as McLuhan dosed it out, then I backed out the door as if the sole purpose of my visit had been to hear this important pronouncement.
McLuhan was never lost for words, but he could be terse when it suited him. Entering the Royal Ontario Museum to join their breakfast club with his friend and co-author Ted Carpenter, they passed a mound of feces on the steps. According to Carpenter, McLuhan pointed at it and said simply: “Human.”
In his lectures he was never dull but frequently exasperating. In his (for credit) seminars, as he sprang from one seemingly random thought to another, there were tantalizing hints of some interstellar coherence that never quite got delivered. It was true of his writing as well as his discourse. Was it because he abandoned resolutions in a world of unceasing technological change? It may be that there is no through-line available in the electronic environment of ever-modulating mosaic fields, but the question remains: can the experience of electronic man be communicated in print without resorting to the ratiocinative and conceptual implements of literate man? As much as his disquieting ideas, it was McLuhan’s elided and disjunctive phraseology that raised the hackles of the academic establishment.
It had similarly done his career no service when, after Cambridge, he converted to Catholicism and took a job at the Catholic University of St. Louis. Catholics, especially openly declared Catholics, were not in hot demand in many departments of English in Canada and the United States in the 1950s. Moving later to the more lowly Assumption College in Windsor, Ontario, he published brilliant if conventional critical articles on the likes of Tennyson and Keats and, in 1951, his first book, The Mechanical Bride. It flopped … at first. With its publication and a gusher of articles on the new media he was beginning to be known in academic circles as a nuisance, even a crackpot. He was treating comic books and advertising as though they were worthy of study. Few people realized, perhaps not even McLuhan himself, that he was a detonator of what was soon to become the explosion called pop culture.
Then came the offer of a professorship at St. Michaels College, the Catholic affiliate at the University of Toronto. The graduate school of English at U of T in the late 1950s and early 1960s was headed by the great Milton scholar A.S.P. Woodhouse. Not only did he dictate appointments in English departments across Canada, but he also conspired with potentates at Harvard and Princeton and Yale and Oxford and Cambridge to direct the careers of his graduates. If A.S.P. gave you the nod, you were made. If not, you were sent to the boondocks.
U of T was emerging from denominational affiliations—Victoria College, United Church of Canada; Trinity College, Anglican; St. Michael’s College, Catholic. The nonsectarian campus was University College, sometimes referred to as the Jewish Enclave. The top professors from all four institutions made up the then prestigious graduate school of English. When Father Shook, the Chaucer expert at St. Michaels College, pushed to hire McLuhan, A.S.P. vigorously opposed him. His much quoted reason: “McLuhan is not the sort of person we want at this university.”
That was mild compared to the reaction in some quarters of academia. A published statement by a hugely influential classicist from Yale is not untypical: “There is afoot a mindless orgy of trend-catching anti-literacy, best typified by the appalling popularity of the jargon-laden, hyped-up, and profoundly ahistorical works of McLuhan, designed to flatter just about all the prejudices of a TV generation in which functional illiteracy is already well advanced.”
But there were also important allies. When he became president of the University of Toronto, Claude Bissell—maybe the last of the great humanist presidents to give U of T its stature—supported what many considered to be McLuhan’s outlandish ideas. Against serious academic protest he helped engineer a place for him, a dilapidated coach house behind an old mansion off St. Joseph Street, today bearing the name McLuhan Way. The ramshackle and never-renovated building became McLuhan’s world-renowned Centre for Culture and Technology. Weirdly it still stands, although vacant.
As a student and later as a lecturer, I didn’t know Professor Marshall McLuhan well. Not many of us did, with a few exceptions such as Philip Marchand and Hugh Kenner. My social relationship to him was through his daughters, whom I was eventually able to hire as babysitters. Terry, one of the twins, asked me once: “Do you think my father really loves me?” The question shocked me. I had never seen a more loving couple than Marshall and his wife, Corrine, nor a more closely knit family group than theirs. McLuhan didn’t drive a car. Unless travelling abroad, he was rarely away from home. They all went to mass together on Sunday. But Terry must have asked the question for a reason and I could only guess what it was. If there was an emotional distance from his children it must have been because much of the time he simply wasn’t “there” and could never focus on them long term and in depth, because he could never stop pondering the kaleidoscopic change going on around him. His mind, always spinning like a Catherine wheel, never stopped sending off sparks. The curse of genius?
One spark, often overlooked, but crucial, I found buried in The Gutenburg Galaxy, a book often passed over by those who prefer his later, more popular works. Philosophers have always asked what drives history. Is it revolutionary ideas, manifest destiny, great individuals, something called “the life force”? McLuhan denied none of these causes but, following one of his most influential mentors at U of T, Harold Innis, he asked: “How about tools?” We may think the end of the slave trade on the Atlantic was powered by humanitarians and abolitionists in England and America, and McLuhan would not disagree. But the main impetus, he would say, was the steam engine, a tool that reduced the need for muscle. This example is not one I have taken from McLuhan’s writings. As far as I know I arrived at it all by myself. But I would never have thought of it if I had not read McLuhan. That’s how his probes work.
The strangely under-read Gutenburg Galaxy has more to offer. King Lear, says McLuhan, has gone along with what Goneril and Regan say, and denied what he feels about Cordelia. He has broken what Shakespeare calls “the precious square of sense.” He has allowed the Renaissance emphasis on what the eye sees (appearance) to smother the earlier sense of felt reality (the fluent interplay of all the senses). Lear will suffer for it. It is not that the eye is inferior to the ear or vice versa. It is that the balanced “ratio of the senses” has become skewed by the tyranny of the visual ordering of experience brought on by print culture.
Like all original thinkers from Blake to Einstein, McLuhan was much misunderstood. He never promoted TV over books as popular accounts gave out. He never expressed a preference for tribal culture over individualism. He never said the patterns of perception imposed by the ear are superior to those of the eye. One small aphorism sticks with me: “When the globe becomes a single electronic web with all its languages and culture recorded on a single tribal drum, the fixed point of view of print culture becomes irrelevant, however precious.” However precious! Those are the operative words, about as far as McLuhan went in taking sides. But they also bring his innermost sympathies to the fore.
Until The Mechanical Bride in 1951 McLuhan despaired of the modern world in the manner of his youthful hero, G.K. Chesterton. After the book’s disappointing reception he changed his tune. He would no longer judge society by mocking it; he would simply describe it. By 1968 when the boy from Edmonton had become the most popular intellectual in the English-speaking world, far from vilifying modernity, he had become modernity, often pronouncing that the present age was the most challenging and exciting time since the beginning of civilization. To some that made him sound like an enemy of books, a cheerleader for TV, hoopla and pop culture.
But whatever his disparagers said of him during his rise to fame, McLuhan was no apologist for the modern age. Not only was he too much the detached observer as a matter of conscious policy—he was too playful. His love of probes, percepts, put-ons, puns and sometimes plain corny jokes was inextinguishable:
Lest old Aquinas be forgot.
A Jung man is easily Freudened.
A man’s reach must exceed his grasp, else what’s a metaphor?
Though he might have been more humble, there’s no police like Holmes.
That doesn’t mean these utterings (“outerings’) are all silly. Whether you believe the medium is the message or the medium is the massage, McLuhan never lost his deep revulsion for the banality of his age. For him the mass-age was ultimately a mess-age.
As the 1970s waned, so did McLuhan’s reputation, a phenomenon not unknown among the famous. But in the 1990s his star began to rise again as things like tribal wars, cyberspace and globalization emerged in fulfillment of his predictions. He declined the title futurologist. What he wanted was to stop looking at history through a rearview mirror and to probe the meaning of the present. Whether he liked it or not, however, he was a futurologist, if only because he never stopped repeating that with information travelling at the speed of light the present is the future.
I believe McLuhan is on a comeback but in a way more sustainable than first time around. Few writers on emerging technologies get far without quoting him or using his percepts and terminology. Communications as an academic discipline is only a generation old and shows no sign of going away. McLuhan was a co-founder of that discipline, if not its godfather. I think this time he is here to stay.
Much has been written about McLuhan, but nothing I know has yet captured the essence of the man. Could it be because he has no essence, no single point of view, but a galaxy of ever-changing perspectives expressed in aphorisms, catchphrases and elliptical prose that stops on a ledge, leaving the reader to leap or not? Although I have followed his writings and reputation ever since that first glimpse of him in the back garden on Wells Hill Avenue, I feel as if I am still only peeking through the hedge at the domain of a man with some far-fetched ideas, yes, but also with a host of insights that are seminal for the times.