Marshal McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work

A Denver Journal Review by Denver Seminary Professor Douglas Groothuis

by Douglas Coupland on January 22, 2013

Douglas Coupland, Marshal McLuhan: You Know Nothing of my Work Atlas, 2010. Hardback. 224 pages. $24.00.  ISBN-10: 1935633163ISBN-13: 978-1935633167.

Book-cover: Marshal McLuhan

Instead of tending towards a vast Alexandrian library the world has become a computer, an electronic brain, exactly as an infantile piece of science fiction. And as our senses have gone outside us, Big Brother goes inside. So, unless aware of this dynamic, we shall at once move into a phase of panic terrors, exactly befitting a small world of tribal drums, total interdependence, and superimposed co-existence. - Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy, 1962.

Canadian Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980) was a strange and rare bird: an academic expert in rhetoric who, for a time, was also an American media celebrity. The principal reason for this delightful oddity was that McLuhan was a philosopher of the media itself, a thinker who attempted to explain the rapid and unprecedented changes in communication from the 1950s through the 1970s, in light of technological changes going back to Gutenberg’s press. He attempted to explain electronic media, particularly visual media, to itself. Of course, he is most well-known for his often-cited (but typically misunderstood) aphorism: “the medium is the message.” As a rhetorician, McLuhan knew that each form of communication inexorably carries with it specific biases and prejudices. One cannot do higher math with smoke signals, for example. Nor can television ever give honor to the spoken word, since the entire point of tele-vision it to present moving images, not to deliver developed oratory. A live lecture or the radio is far better for that.

McLuhan was also an early prophet of globalization, speaking of the world as becoming a “global village”—and this long before the Internet took hold of civilization. (Duke Ellington, late in his career, even wrote a musical piece in honor of McLuhan called “Afro-Eurasian Eclipse,” which features a marvelous spoken introduction explaining some of McLuhan’s ideas.) How much the new global culture is like a village is certainly a matter of debate, however, given the impersonal (or non-face-to-face) nature of so many technologies. In fact, McLuhan’s remark at the beginning of this review speaks of “superimposed co-existence,” which is hardly village-like. It takes a real community to make a village.

While McLuhan was right about this (although wrong about many things), his insights and warnings often go unheeded. Most Americans tacitly assume that media are (yes, “media” is plural) neutral tools for communicating “content.” This content remains the same whether on television, in films, or on the Internet.  But if “the medium is the message,” this is false. Every medium affects its message. This is a fundamental principle of rhetoric, but, sadly, few seriously study this discipline today.

However, several Christian critics have recently begun to apply some of McLuhan’s insights to Kingdom concerns. Tim Challies’ book, The Next Story (Zondervan, 2011), sounds many of these themes. (This is reviewed at Denver Journal.) But even those once entranced and even addled by the allures of cyberspace are waking up to its perils. As a long-time writer and speaker on technology, I applaud this. May the tribe of Issachar increase (see 1 Chronicles 12:32).

In the book here under review, popular author (and visual artist), Douglas Coupland, considered the novelist and interpreter of Generation X, has written a short, quirky, appreciative, and sporadically perceptive book on Marshall McLuhan. This work, as a biography, differs considerable from his other works, such as Generation X (1991) and Life After God (1995), although it is a really another piece of social criticism in biographical form.

The subtitle needs explanation. In Woody Allen’s tragi-comic movie, “Annie Hall” (1977), Woody is in line for a film with Annie when he hears a professor wax ignorant about McLuhan’s thought. In the midst of Woody’s disgust, McLuhan himself appears and corrects the pompous professor with one sentence, “You know nothing of my work,” thus gratifying Woody, Annie, and the audience. (This scene is available on YouTube, and is worth watching.) Coupland believes that we should know something of McLuhan’s work, and that McLuhan can guide us through the electronic labyrinth of the Internet, even thirty years after McLuhan’s demise.

Coupland narrates the unlikely rise of a bookish and idiosyncratic academic fairly well, and tries to explain how such a character became a media celebrity, particularly in the late 1960s in light of McLuhan’s book, Understanding Media (1964). Coupland notes that while many thought that McLuhan celebrated the rise of television and visual media in general, he did not.

Although McLuhan was an adult convert and life-long adherent to Roman Catholicism, he seldom moralized about his observations.  However, his religious convictions did deeply inform his perspective. As Coupland astutely remarks:

Above all, he believed that because God made the world, it must, in the end be comprehensible, and that a sense of the divine could lead to an understanding of the mundane (61).

In this, McLuhan was a million miles from postmodernist critics, who find no overall meaning and who demote the religious realm to that of mere social construction.

McLuhan was not a systematic thinker, which can make interpreting his ideas difficult. He often delivered what he called “probes,” ideas which might be true and which could illuminate our thinking about media. These provocative or evocative ideas were not considered knowledge (as in justified true belief), but rather stimulants to understanding. Although Coupland does not dilate on this aspect of McLuhan’s method, I will explore this a bit, given my experience as a teacher.

In teaching philosophy, one aims at acquiring knowledge oneself, in growing in one’s knowledge, and in giving students knowledge. However, one must also learn to think critically and challenge students to do so as well. In this, a “probe” can be significant to arouse analysis. While McLuhan used probes mostly in the area of media studies, they are helpful in many sorts of subjects. Interestingly, even if a probe is false, it may generate knowledge through discourse. Nietzsche once wrote that the false ideas of great men are more important than the small truths of little men. (That idea itself is something of a probe.) Although Coupland does not mention it, McLuhan would give presentations where some of his probes were not well received. He would stop, and then say, “You don’t like these ideas? Here are some more!” This approach is not exactly the analytic philosophy in which I was trained, but it is a kind of high-powered brainstorming that may engender knowledge farther on down the road—if one is attentive, persistent and not flippant. The difference between “probing” and bovine excrement may be paper thin, so one should exercise dialogical caution.

While Marshall McLuhan is a fairly sturdy and clever introduction to the man and his thought, and some of its implications thirty years after his death, it sometimes lapses into outright incoherence. There may be some literary trick at work here that my lack of imagination failed to detect, but I cannot fathom what Coupland is saying on some pages of this book (206-209). Perhaps he has spent too much time on the Internet. Nor will one find a deep history study of the influence of McLuhan or the academic controversies over his work. For this, one must look to the more scholarly biographies and studies.

Whatever its weaknesses or omissions, Coupland’s primer should create a hunger to learn more about McLuhan’s observations and prognostications, to develop a philosophy of technology, and to consider the moral and spiritual implications of the technological envelope in which we live.

Christians should particularly take interest, given the many and serious biblical injunctions against worldliness (1 John 2:15-17). Technology can easily distract us from eternal matters, blind us to obvious evils, and habituate us to less-than-virtuous patterns of life (which then become invisible to us). For these reasons, we should remain skeptical of its extravagant claims and always remember that “the medium is the message.” Or, as McLuhan also said, “You become what you behold.” But this insight is not new to him. He was profoundly influenced by Psalm 115, which warns of betraying the one true God through idolatry, which takes many forms:

Why do the nations say,
    “Where is their God?”
Our God is in heaven;
    he does whatever pleases him.
But their idols are silver and gold,
    made by human hands.
They have mouths, but cannot speak,
    eyes, but cannot see.
They have ears, but cannot hear,
    noses, but cannot smell.
They have hands, but cannot feel,
    feet, but cannot walk,
    nor can they utter a sound with their throats.
Those who make them will be like them—
    and so will all who trust in them.
  — Psalm 115:2-8

Sadly, Coupland’s own worldview, as revealed in his writing here, is little more than a futile wish. Near the end of the book, he confesses:  “We must find solace, as Marshall did, in natural law—and we must hope that, regardless of the system used to measure human goodness and evil, goodness will always be larger than badness by just one increment (205).” But Christians have a hope that is sure, given the knowable realities concerning Jesus Christ (John 1:18; Luke 1:1-4; 1 Peter 3:15). We know that there is a “natural law” of moral truth based on the very character of the eternal God and made known through Christ and the Scriptures (2 Timothy 3:15-16). With this in mind, we may, through careful study and prayerful reflection, bring needed light to a world so often darkened by technological stupefaction.

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D.
Professor of Philosophy
Denver Seminary
January 2013

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