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Marshall McLuhan in 1963Erik Christensen/The Globe and Mail

Exactly two decades ago, literary journalist and cultural commentarian extraordinaire Philip Marchand and yours truly met for an unforgettable lunch at The Coyote, a cosy Harbourfront café dishing up delicious Tex-Mex feasts with a lovely view of Lake Ontario in all its glittering glory. I'm not sure if he even remembers our meeting; but, for me, it was one of those miraculously rare life-changing occasions that would both confirm my beliefs and colour my own literary pursuits to this very day:

"So," began I, "how does it feel to be sitting on what I am firmly convinced will soon become one of the most important works in this (or any other) world?"


I rummage around in my packsack, pull the precious gem out and place one dog-eared copy of The Medium and the Messenger on the table we share. He stares at me, incapable of uttering a word, totally taken aback, stunned by my question yet clearly pleased I had what he thought might well be the last hard-cover copy of his seminal work in existence.

"This," I insist, "this amazing biography of Marshall McLuhan, this brill beaut that had me rowing off some of its pages in deluges of tears and tearing into others with post-midnight hellarious howlings so loud and unrestrained, I'm sure I woke all the occupants of the entire Mimico sky-highrise where I lived at the time."

"Har," goes he. "It's about to be remaindered, I think, it's doing so poorly; but, I appreciate your incredible faith in the book's future. Thank you."

"No, thank you! I love your biography; that's why I asked you to lunch. Could you inscribe it for me before it becomes as well-known as its subject?"

He bursts into fresh peals of laughter, crossing and uncrossing his legs, looking out over the lake at the breathcatchingly perfect summer-day view of sailboats and the Toronto Islands, breaking up into spasms of giggly guffaws over and over before his gaze returns to meet mine. "I think you're crazy, Judith, at least when it comes to McLuhan's relevance; but, sure, I'll sign it for you."

"Great. I bought it second-hand at Book City. Got a bargoonly deal on it. Bought a couple of other McLu items at the same time. They're going to exponentially rise in value more sooner than later, you know?"

"You don't say?"

"I do so."

"Why so? McLuhan's so yesterday's news, I had trouble placing the book with any publisher, let alone one as respectable as Random House in Toronto as well as Boston's Ticknor & Fields" (1989).

"It's really well done and beautifully produced. You studied with him? What was he like, in your opinion? I'm working on a long poem in which he stars in several manifestations, Teiresias, King Lear, Joyce and Echo, for a tiny sample . . ."

"Did you study with him during your doctoral years at U of T?"

"No, not officially. I did hang around the places he haunted during the day and often watched him from a distance doing his erudite thing. Whenever I saw him on campus, I'd kind of follow him. He was usually avoiding the Department of English. Never went near it, not to my knowledge. The last time I saw him? I was walking home from lunch at Da Maria Pizzeria on St. Clair just west of Bathurst. He was in his garden at Wychwood Park, just walking with his hands clasped behind his back, clearly deep in thought. I didn't know it at the time, of course; but, six months later - give or take - he would be dead."

"So, 1980 then?"

"Right. For some incomprehensible and inexplicable reason - I shall never forget this - he suddenly stopped and looked directly at me with a mixture of what I can only describe as intense curiosity coupled with compassion but coloured by caution or, perhaps, a tad of confusion. A kind of staring contest. The silent exchange passing between us? Nothing short of electrifrying."

"Punny girl!"

"No, seriously, the world stood still and I revelled in those few seconds. Still do, always will do."

"Well," continues Marchand, "McLuhan couldn't speak by then; so, I guess that was his way of acknowledging you, especially if you were part of those sessions at his coach house."

"Never went to even one of them, Phil. Too scared. Couldn't have gone, anyway. Was driving cab 2323 for Metro Taxi at night during those years."

"Too bad. They were the highlight of his week; he loved them and the eclectic mix of misfits in regular attendance (including Trudeau one time").

"Har! Boy Punnoy!"

He hands me the inscribed copy of his book. We wrap up lunch and walk back to the Toronto Star building together, chitty-chatting (as my now-deceased BFF Ayanna Black would say).

"Thanks again for the vote of confidence, Fitz. I wish you were right; but, I'm afraid Marshall's completely out of favour, he's fallen off the readerly radar almost entirely, so to speak."

"Pas de sweat, Phil. I am right. You'll see. By the way, the University of Windsor's offered me its writer-in-rez position come September '93. I know his papers are in the vault there, at Assumption College. I really hope I can poke around in them."

"Doubt you'll have a problem with that. The place is a bloody mess, though, absolute chaos. Eric was his go-to guy. I highly doubt he'd have done all he did without Eric being a part of everything. True right-hand man. Nobody cares about protecting or cataloguing McLuhan's archives. There's not exactly a stampede to see them, either, you know? Interesting place. Some of the letters are amazing, especially those from Wyndham Lewis. Get ready to learn a lot about him, his - quote unique unquote - methodology and some of his correspondents. I'm sure you know Lewis wrote Self-Condemned and did that portrait of MM that caused their falling out?"

"Yeah. I was thinking about that drawing. Lewis captured him perfectly. Just the outline, only half a face, almost. Exactly the same way he relayed or related information, if you ask me. And, he was a southpaw; so, wouldn't that make Eric his left-hand man?"

"Whatever. You're a southpaw, too. He was really interested in left- and right-brain theories there for a bit. Who's publishing your long poem?"

"Search me. I'm still writing it in my head. Nothing's on paper. That's my modus operandi. I expect it'll run about 56 pages." [ River (Toronto: ECW Press, 1995) did run 56 pages; it was also a finalist for the Trillium Award the year it appeared.]

"Well, send me a copy, signed, when it appears, if you can."

"Of course, I will. Thanks encore."

"The pleasure's mine, Mademoiselle Fitz, especially since you paid. Let me know if there's anything I can do to help with your seeing the archives or whatever when you land in Windsor."

"Will do."

I did, too. When I arrived to take up the writer-in-rez post, I did spend at least a hundred hours among McLuhan's papers and reel-to-reel recordings. By November, I knew I wanted to organize a colloquium on the communications genius (which I did with the generous help of several slightly indulgent but wholly supportive individuals, Philip Marchand foremost among same). Makin' McLuhan - the celebratory event held March 24th in 1994 - exceeded everyone's expectations, my own included.

Four years later, Marchand's revamped and revised biography - with a fresh new foreword penned by Neil "Amusing Ourselves to Death" Postman and simultaneously published by Toronto's Vintage Canada and Cambridge's MIT Press - saw the printerly light of day. Foreign editions included DVA's German one (translated by Martin Baltes, Fritz Böhler, Rainer Höltschl and Jürgen Reuß) as well as a Chinese one published by Renmin University Press.

Clearly, the doctor was in.

Next, literally out of nowhere, I began work on my own biography of Dr. Herbert Marshall McLuhan, one intended for senior high-school students or newbie college and university students, Wise Guy (XYZ, 2001); the following year, Hélène Rioux's exquisitely and keenly sensitive translation, «Un visionnaire» (Les Éditions XYZ), appeared in Canada's other official language. To honour what would have been the good doctor's 100th birthday, we at "In Other Words" happily share "Critical Mass," the Introduction to the English edition, with both our regulars (especially leo bloom, Paul I, Sally Forth, Essex, Poetry Lover and SoLoDiVo) as well as our esteemed visitors (including Canada's first officially designated poet laureate, all-round utility-infielder genius author and "bullshit artist" George Bowering, divinely accomplished versifier Margaret Christakos, celebrated novelist Cathy Marie Buchanan and occasional contributors too numerous to I.D. (but to whom we shall always remain willingly indebted).


Critical Mass

The better part of my work on media is actually somewhat like a safe-cracker's. I don't know what's inside; maybe it's nothing. I just sit down and start to work. I grope, I listen, I test, I accept and discard; I try out different sequences - until the tumblers fall and the doors spring open.

- Marshall McLuhan

What Sigmund Freud is to psychoanalysis, Dr. Herbert Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980) is to communication theory and cultural anthropology. One of the most influential intellectual mavericks of twentieth-century thought, McLuhan began his career working within the relatively obscure confines of the ivory tower where he toiled away polishing essays analyzing literature and creating lectures on how to appreciate its merits and values.

Stylization, not imitation, was the key to McLuhan's approach. His speciality was media and he simply overturned all assumptions concerning same: "All media are active metaphors in their power to translate experience into new forms. The spoken word was the first technology by which man was able to let go of his environment in order to grasp it in a new way," he explained in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964).

Something of a seer-savant, most likely a genius (but most assuredly a giant on our cultural landscape), Canada's best-known visionary imagined the future and mapped its contours in living colour (or pallor). Now, his magical and initially bewildering signature, "the medium is the message," seamlessly supports his reputation as a "crisis" philosopher on the razor's edge of the information revolution, a crisis philosopher who'd crafted a lament for a world soon to be subsumed (or consumed) by the tyranny of technology.

Perhaps, more than any other single individual in recent history, McLuhan adequately equipped humankind with the mental charts, graphs, maps and practical means to learn its way through the maze of educating, illuminating and reconciling the planet's current population with the onslaught of what he termed The Age of Information.

Through his ground-breaking explorations, investigations and "probes" (supported by his belief a thinking person must poke and prod everything from language to reality to self-identity), McLuhan developed tools to respond to the overwhelming technological challenges confronting the information-glutted "contemporary anybodies" sleepwalking through life's miraculous vistas (through no fault of their own).

A humanist to the core, McLuhan accurately discerned the post-industrial world derives its unity from technological imperatives and corporate or political forces rather than from nature, social responsibilities or human-scale requirements. Investigation of the electr(on)ic world's media and methods has replaced philosophical inquiry into worlds both natural and mechanical.

Taking his cue from author and painter Wyndham Lewis's observation that the "present cannot be revealed to people until it has become yesterday," McLuhan points out individuals see only the past as part and parcel of what he termed "the rear-view mirror phenomenon" obscuring the present and obliterating the future.

By contrast, his probing approach, a perceptually open one, provides the foundation for his insistence on differentiating between "concept" and "percept"; it is in this context that one of McLuhan's percepts further illuminates his reflections on the rear-view mirror phenomenon versus perceptions of unmediated (or unassisted or artificially enhanced) experience.

According to McLuhan, each new medium produces a new cultural environment that becomes invisible while making visible the one of the previous culture. Enter the artist, the only figure capable of apprehending what will happen since artists naturally see what is happening (or, by definition, they are not artists). The artist is a uniquely capable translator of the "invisible" cultural environment of the present.

The self-described satirist stresses that individuals intent on preserving both identity and self-reliant interdependence - in a world where everything's reduced to the lowest common denominator in order to realize maximum profits and returns - must arm themselves to the teeth with knowledge or risk a bite on the butt by ignorance.

Doffing his thinking cap to poet Robert Browning's "The Faultless Painter" as well as novelist James Joyce's zest for the palimpsest (an aphoristic phrase resonating with echoes of its genesis in a source outside itself), the incorrigible neologizer shamelessly promoted his agenda in one of his funniest - punniest? - messages: "A man's reach must exceed his grasp or what's a metaphor?"

Believing "we become what we behold," McLuhan went further: "We shape our tools and they in turn shape us." In all his work, in fact, it's not too far-fetched to suggest McLuhan penned a mournful eulogy for the billions of individuals (contemporary anybodies) afflicted with what he called "psychic rigor mortis," that state where the human being is stripped of personal identity, conscripted into uniform conformity and thwarted from truly living and experiencing a full and fruitful life by the unrelenting demands media, corporate and commercial interests make upon any and all who hang around the global village.

McLuhan intuitively understood that television signalled a threat to literacy and that computers would rapidly become extensions of the human being's central nervous system by expanding its range of sense perceptions. In reaching his conclusions and making his findings known, he helped rescue civilization from a fate worse than fate by condemning the mind-numbing effects of the commodification and commercialisation of absolutely everything (best evidenced in a society where the individual - the contemporary anybody - "prefers somnambulism to awareness").

The substance of his work and the style of his writing are considered to be apocalyptic, inscrutable, dogmatic, contradictory, bereft of traditional modes of scholarly or critical methodology and dismissive of careful and close argumentation in favour of repetition, paradox and dizzying digression. In response, McLuhan defends his collage-like approach - its splintered shapes amplified by jarring juxtapositions, tactile and textural contrasts, arresting arrangements, fractured variations and the inclusion of foreign materials - as the only one capable of fully conveying the chaos, complexity and contradictions of contemporary life.

An advocate of simultaneous perception (global thinking) from the moment he first discovered its benefits during his years at Cambridge (while studying with the duo largely responsible for the creation of the principles of New Criticism, I. A. Richards and F. R. Leavis), Professor McLuhan subsequently adopted the view that the only way to approach a work of literature was to examine it in terms of the way it works its magic or achieves its effects (rather than focusing exclusively on its major themes, representative motifs or the biography of its creator).

Hence, when it comes to media, messages, culture and technology, McLuhan sings the body electronic to underscore his number-one obsession, that is, that breakdown inevitably leads to breakthrough which always yields to greater understanding and the fine art of meaningful communication.

Another of McLuhan's celebrated percepts brings this notion into relief. It was sparked, oddly enough, by a passing comment from a European acquaintance. In America, it was observed, a person goes out "for a drive" for privacy because the home - largely under the influence of media - has become a public space. The automobile promises and provides refuge, serving as a temporary wrap-around haven for the harassed and harried, in perhaps one of the few remaining enclosed spaces where a human being still retains some sense of integration, autonomy and control.

In the 1960s, when the relatively new medium of television was radical, instant and global, McLuhan was frequently mentioned on Martin and Rowan's hip comedy programme, Laugh-In. At the same time, the metaphysician of media was informing GE, Bell Telephone and IBM they were not in the business of light bulbs, telephones and business machines; rather, they were in the business of moving information. The medium is the message.

American novelist and social critic Norman Mailer referred to McLuhan's famous five-word pronouncement as an "irremovable harpoon" that would be "tormenting the vitals" of the culterati long after he'd departed the planet. In 1980, the year McLuhan did meet his Maker, CNN was up and running while personal computers were quickly becoming affordable acquisitions throughout the Western world.

"McLuhan," Northrop Frye astutely observed in 1988, "was celebrated for the wrong reasons in the 1960s, and then neglected for the wrong reasons later." Frye generously called for a long overdue reassessment of McLuhan's work and its value. Four years later, a Mondo 2000 scribe marvelled that "reading McLuhan is like reading Shakespeare - you keep stumbling on phrases that you thought were clichés, only this guy made them up!"

By the time the Internet was old news, McLuhan's considerable influence was everywhere evident and virtually impossible to mistake. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's Electronic Town-Hall Meetings? Aluminium soft-drink cans? David Letterman's Top-Ten Lists? Reality TV? Electronic garage-door openers? Television platters (or videocassettes)? Ubiquitous surveillance systems? Mass-murder epidemics? Check, check, check.

The name is McLuhan, Marshall McLuhan. The Oxford English Dictionary lists it in 346 entries, one of which cites Quentin Fiore, the gifted artist-designer who teamed up with McLuhan to collaborate on The Medium Is the Massage, the volume featuring playful and exhilarating spins, swirls and comminglings of texts, images and graphics that would come to serve as the template for magazines such as Shift, Details and Wired 30-odd years after the bestseller appeared in 1967.

At that time, McLuhan's initial percepts on the "retribalization" of culture appeared to be directly applicable to the "counterculture" of disillusioned youth experimenting with new definitions of social organisation by way of communes, drugs, sex, peace, free love, world travel and rock-and-roll music or, at least, that was the gist of what the mass media reported daily. (For a few brief years, regardless of the way the media ultimately defined what was happening, a touch of magical enchantment pacified the Western world, even for those who missed Woodstock in 1969.)

The new (or now or next) generation, fed up with the rut-race, heeded the warnings in collections of poetry such as Energy of Slaves (1972) and Lies (1973) by poets the stature of Leonard Cohen and John Newlove respectively. The new generation similarly took popular lyrics encouraging it to get back to the garden (Joni Mitchell's Woodstock) or to find a farm and grow grass and apples there (Cohen's Stories Of The Street) to heart. The beads and Roman sandals of that era gave way to ear, eyebrow, nose and navel rings while body piercings, tattoos and scarification decorated every conceivable location on the human body. Of course, only the costumes changed when the communes gave up the tribal beat to Charlie Manson's "family" and the Bloods and Crips.

Most importantly, though, McLuhan's observations have since come into their own as profound commentaries on the ways in which relationships among individuals have been altered in Cyberia, where the body remains parked (or paralyzed) while the mind of the techno-traveller jacks in and roams the gratification grids of the information galaxy.

As with many of McLuhan's pronouncements (including those that seem to have divined the nature and dynamics of the Internet many years before it even existed), this one seems to have been made by one of those unique individuals capable, in some ineffable way, of peering into the future. A number of his observations baffled and astonished audiences at the time - the outrageousness of some of them tempted his apoplectic critics to describe his theories as "McLuhanacy." Now, at the top of the second decade of the new millennium, they seem perfectly intelligible.

It's no surprise the prophet designation was - and continues to be - bandied about by many who search for a word to adequately describe the impact of insights and "outerings" (utterances) that boggle most minds. In his examination of the individual in the context of the global via the national, McLuhan correctly perceived electronic media would annihilate local culture. In the neo-tribalist global village where personality has been erased, sex sells and violence erupts as a quest for identity writ graphic.

As McLuhan cannily noted, new technologies would extend the range of both body and mind in ways that irrevocably altered an individual's relationships with both the environment and every other resident of the global village, creating a universal nervous system of vast complexity and sophistication shared by any and all in possession of the inclination and the equipment to participate.

Since the modern world seems now to have achieved that "complete break with 5,000 years of mechanical technology" McLuhan identifies as his "main theme," the "outerings" of the human sensorium (the senses considered collectively) combine and recombine to produce what he called network consciousness and what individuals have come to recognize as the realization of his "percept" that human beings will experience a world where the illusion of depth proliferates and all-inclusive nowness reaches critical mass.

Not surprisingly, then, when one of McLuhan's friends asked him whether he really believed there was life after death, McLuhan had cagily answered the question with one of his own: "Do you really believe there is any life before death?"

Canada Day 2001 (The Beautiful Downtown Middle of Nowhere)