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Friday, October 22, 2010

What a wonderful whirl: Marshall McLuhan @ 99+

Terrence Gordon launches centenary lectures

Posted By on Fri, Oct 22, 2010 at 11:26 AM

Marshall McLuhan
  • Marshall McLuhan

McLuhan biographer Terrence Gordon drew laughter from an audience at Saint Mary's on Wednesday as he told a story about how the famed media guru appeared on American TV as Apollo 11 sat on the launchpad preparing for mankind's first voyage to the moon.

"McLuhan was a contrarian and there he is being called to comment on the launch of Apollo 11 and his comment is that we have to learn to laugh at the pomposity of moon shots," Gordon said. "Not exactly what the producer wanted to hear. But what he meant was what’s the point of conquering outer space if we haven’t conquered inner space, the inner space of the psyche."

Gordon was delivering the first in a series of travelling lectures that he hopes will take him across Canada, the U.S., and Europe to mark the 100th anniversary of McLuhan's birth in Edmonton on July 21, 1911.

Terrence (Terry) Gordon
  • Terrence (Terry) Gordon

Gordon noted that McLuhan's best-known book, Understanding Media, appeared in 1964, helping to catapult him to fame. (McLuhan had already won a Governor General's Award for his previous book, The Gutenberg Galaxy.)

"The flower-power generation embraced McLuhan as cool, perhaps because John Lennon and Yoko Ono had made a pilgrimage to visit him," he said.

"There was more than a little irony in young people, many of whom embraced the cliche that God is dead, conferring the epithet 'cool' on a mid-fiftyish, deeply devout, and conservative adult convert to Catholicism, but the irony was largely lost at the time."

Gordon showed a clip from Woody Allen's 1977 movie Annie Hall, in which McLuhan accuses a pompous, pontificating professor of media studies at Columbia of not understanding his work. "You mean my whole fallacy is wrong,” he tells the surprised prof. “How you ever got to teach a course in anything is amazing." (By coincidence, McLuhan's Nova Scotian grandmother had been named Annie Hall.)

Who gave you that numb?

Gordon pointed out that as a university undergraduate, McLuhan disliked "many, if not most of his professors." Apparently, he regarded them as short-sighted, poorly educated and incapable of creative thinking. Yet McLuhan himself ended up as an English prof with a lifelong passion for James Joyce, a linguistically sophisticated writer who used puns and wordplay to pry meaning from language.

Gordon showed a slide of a Joycean pun from Finnegan's Wake, —- "Who gave you that numb?" In Understanding Media, McLuhan argues that the whirling assault of modern "electric media" requires us to protectively numb our central nervous systems. Yet, he also contends that the dominance of print media in earlier times led to the fragmentation of knowledge as well as the separation of thought and feeling —- literacy/spliteracy.

During an interview after his lecture, Gordon said his fascination with McLuhan started in the mid 1960s when he was in his third year studying modern languages and philosophy at the University of Toronto. McLuhan gave a public lecture shortly after Understanding Media was published.

"The place was packed," he said. "And about 10 minutes into that I said to myself ‘I’ve been at university for three years. This is the kind of intellectual challenge I came here for. This is the first day I’m getting it.’ So I became a groupie, day one."

Later, after Gordon had written a McLuhan for Beginners book, he got a phone call from Corinne McLuhan. "She said to me ‘you understand my husband’s work so well, I’d like you to write his biography.’ I didn’t feel I could say no," Gordon says with a chuckle.

The biography led to what he calls "a 15-year detour" in which he has written and edited several books on McLuhan, who died on December 31, 1980.

Understanding McLuhan

In his lecture, Gordon explained that one of the main stumbling blocks to understanding McLuhan is that he stretches the meanings of words. For McLuhan, the word medium includes everything that changes the scale, speed or pattern of human interactions. A medium is any extension of our bodies or minds. Thus, McLuhan classifies Scotch tape, paper clips and electric light bulbs as media alongside TV and newspapers.

"If we insist that words be restricted only to the meanings that are most familiar to us, we miss the way that McLuhan uses words as tools for exploring," Gordon said, "not exploring what we cannot see but what we do not pay attention to. His main challenge to us is always to ask ourselves: "What haven't you noticed lately?"

Gordon asked the audience to consider, for example, what it would be like getting around Halifax if there were no numbers or words on any of the buses at Scotia Square. "Can we even imagine today's world," he wondered, "if language existed only in spoken form?"


Gordon said McLuhan's habit of constantly asking questions was his way of championing process thinking. Then, he showed a slide of the Golden Arches. Some thought that McLuhan himself — prolific author, fast-talking pun artist and world-wide celebrity — eventually became a product, Gordon said.

Terrence Gordon is the author of the biography, Marshall McLuhan: Escape into Understanding. He has also written several other books on McLuhan including his most recent, McLuhan: A Guide for the Perplexed. He is a part-time professor of linguistics at Saint Mary's University.

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