Extraordinary Canadians: Marshall Mcluhan

Author: Douglas Coupland

Release: March 16, 2010

Publisher: Viking

Genre: Biography, Communications, Philosophy

ISBN-10: 0670069221
ISBN-13: 978-0670069224

Synopsis: “The importance of Marshall McLuhan and his communication theories cannot be overstated, but his written works—dense, at times even daunting— are more often cited than read. Nonetheless, his predictions have been borne out: in the early 1960s, McLuhan wrote that visual, individualistic print culture would be replaced by what he called “electronic interdependence,” creating a new “global village” characterized by a collective identity with a tribal base. Novelist Douglas Coupland regards the celebrated academic as primarily an artist, a kind of performance artist offering profound but sometimes obscure insights into how technology was reshaping the world and its inhabitants. Coupland—prolific novelist, sculptor, visual artist, theatre performer—is a true child of McLuhan, whose body of work examines and often embodies McLuhan’s famous aphorism that “the medium is the message.” Written with his trademark humour and brilliance, Coupland’s McLuhan is a revelation.”

Declassified by Agent Palmer: A Perfect Pairing of Extraordinary Canadians, McLuhan and Coupland

Quotes and Lines

When you give people too much information, they instantly resort to pattern recognition to structure the experience. The work of the artist is to find patterns. – M.M.

…civilizations are built around many themes, but they require a shared public language… Words, words, words–it is around these that civilizations create and imagine themselves.

Douglas Coupland is not just a wonderful novelist and artist. He is in and of himself the contemporary expression of McLuhan’s theories, the natural child of McLuhanism, and therefore the perfect biographer for the man who broke the shackles of linear communications.

McLuhan is pegged for two ideas that went on to become cliches: “the medium is the message” and “the global village.” He did much more, but those words are his brand, so to speak.

Marshall, in fact, pined for pre-modern, pre-technology times when people talked and didn’t watch TV (he never took to it) and where books were read aloud in church by priests. Ironically, when he was demonized in later life, it was largely because his critics thought he was anti-book and pro-technology.

The only rule of thumb is that academic regimes invariably come and go, denunciations are made, careers are destroyed, scores are settled, people die, someone’s book gets made into a movie, vogues come and go, biographies mildew. Meanwhile, each new generation approaches the past like a box of Christmas decorations brought down from the attic: the curation of what survives operates by chains of events that rival the arbitrary selection and deletion processes used to assemble team members on TV reality shows.

He played some rugby and hockey and (of course) relished debating. He had one good friend, Tom Easterbrook, and their favourite pastime was arguing.

A famous “Chestertonism” (Chesterton love aphorisms and mangled puns as much as Marshall did) goes: “The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.”

So why write a biography? Maybe to get a sense of how it felt to be someone else in a different time. Maybe to cast new light on an old subject. Maybe to learn new ways of thinking. Maybe to try to enter an already vanishing mode of perceiving the past, the notion that a landscape is best viewed with a single source of light–the sun, one light bulb, a lone candle, a lone writer–so that all the shadows and highlights are true to each other.

With his first paycheque, he bought a briefcase and a steak.

In medieval universities, the trivium comprised the three subjects taught first: grammar, logic, and rhetoric.

A point of view can be a dangerous luxury when substituted for insight and understanding. – M.M.

Art is anything you can get away with. – M.M.

Canada is the only country in the world that knows how to live without an identity. – M.M.

I don’t necessarily agree with everything I say. – M.M.

Innumerable confusions and a feeling of profound despair invariably emerge in periods of great technological and cultural transition. – M.M.

He was, truth be told, an illogical and fusty old vehicle for new ideas, and some people couldn’t (and still can’t) reconcile Marshall’s appearance with what came out of his mouth. Perhaps if Marshall had looked like Bob Dylan, things might have turned out differently.

Mass transportation is doomed to failure in North America because a person’s car is the only place where he can be alone and think. – M.M.

…what makes him fresh and relevant now is the fact that (unlike so much other new thinking of the time) he always did focus on the individual in society, rather than on the mass of society as an entity unto itself. It was Marshall’s embrace of the individual–a poetic and artistic, highly humane embrace–that has allowed the reader (then and now) to enter his universe.

It requires a very unusual mind to undertake the analysis of the obvious. – Alfred North Whitehead

Morality often impedes free thinking. Moral indignation is a salve for people unable or unwilling to try to understand.

…getting into Marshall is, for most people, like visiting Antarctica. You have to have time, patience, endurance, means, and stubbornness to do so, and once you’re there, you’re unsure of just what it is you will find.

Understanding Media sold over 100,000 copies in hardcover. It was required reading for members of the global information class, whether to trash Marshall, to praise him, to bullshit about having read it, or whatever.

Our “Age of Anxiety” is, in great part, the result of trying to do today’s job with yesterday’s tools–with yesterday’s concepts. – M.M.

Call it religion or call it optimism, but hope, for Marshall, lay in the fact that humans are social creatures first, and that our ability to express intelligence and build civilizations stems from our inherent social needs as individuals.

I think of art, at its most significant, as a DEW Line, a Distant Early Warning system that can always be relied on to tell the old culture what is beginning to happen to it. – M.M.