by Douglas Coupland
I wanted to read this book because I thought Coupland (Generation X, Microserfs) would be the perfect person to channel McLuhan. Turns out he probably is, but that isn’t as entertaining or enlightening as I thought it would be.
Not that this is a bad book, it isn’t. Because Coupland is Coupland, this isn’t a straightforward biography. He imagines his way into McLuhan’s life and work, makes conjectures based on psychology, neuroscience, and a shared Canadian sense of space. He sprinkles zippy aphoristic McLuhan quotes throughout, such as:
A point of view can be a dangerous luxury when substituted for insight and understanding.
Art is anything you can get away with.
Innumerable confusions and a feeling of profound despair invariably emerge in periods of great technological and cultural transitions.
We shape our tools, and afterwards our tools shape us.
It’s a service, really, pulling out these bits from McLuhan’s text, as apparently he is mostly unreadable. In other words, McLuhan’s writing is dense, obtuse, and seemingly unconcerned with clear narrative: it’s the sort of thing that academics and lawyers specialize in. In a footnote, Coupland concedes that “there exists little self-apprehended grasp of the man’s thinking” and compares reading him to visiting Antarctica, as you “have to have time, patience, endurance, means, and stubbornness to do so”.
This caused me to reflect on my time in graduate school theory seminars where discussion was frequently fueled by bullshit: it must be profound because I don’t really understand it, and I can’t admit I don’t understand it so I’ll insist on its profundity. My personal belief that you aren’t being revolutionary if only ten people sitting around a seminar table can understand you was not so popular in the English department. I probably would have been entertained at the first of McLuhan’s lectures, and hated the rest.
Wired lists McLuhan as a patron saint; his ground-breaking media theorizing is often — incorrectly — conflated with support of new technologies. He was intellectually ambitious, quite conservative, and it is possible that brain damage from strokes explains more about some of his later behavior and work than any textual analysis could.
If you think you should read McLuhan and haven’t, you are probably the intended audience for this book. If you’ve read him and wondered what the giant fuss is, perhaps this will provide context that gives meaning to the fuss. That McLuhan was creating a theory of media was new and different and important at one point, even if what he was doing wasn’t always obvious or understandable.