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McLuhan for Dummies

December 29, 2010

December 28th, MMX

The first workday since Christmas, and it is quiet in Scriptorium. Eric is in the house grading papers from the Harris Institute in front of the fire, Finnegan (the Golden Retriever) and Mr. Bean (the insane Jack Russell terrier) at his feet or thereabouts.

I am cataloging books, currently The Limerick by G. Legman. The book was a gift from Marshall’s daughter Stephanie on his 1975 birthday….64th? Legman wrote another book, Rationale of the Dirty Joke: an Analysis of Sexual Humor (1968, Grove Press) in which he devotes most of page 29 to what Eric tells me is a fairly typical slam of Marshall. It’s amazing how wrongly Legman portrays Marshall and his work – in fact, if you want to ‘understand McLuhan’ you can pretty much just take this excerpt, extrapolate the exact opposite interpretation, and there you have it.

I mentioned to Eric that I can’t understand how people got Marshall so wrong, especially the typical error that Marshall was against books and for electric media like television: nothing could be further from the truth, further from what he said so many times. Eric’s response was that people were either unable to, or too lazy to really make the effort to understand Marshall’s work, and tended to parrot what other critics said.

I get that. It’s not easy to ‘get it’. But then Marshall was not interested in making anything easy to understand, and why should he? He worked hard to develop his theories, his books were laboriously composed and revised endlessly. So he made, and makes, you work to understand… and I think one feels more satisfied to achieve something with hard work rather than having it handed to them. It did, however cause a lot of grief for him. But you know what? Good for him for not making it easy.

I will not quote from Annie Hall – at least, not today.

This says it well:

“Marshall McLuhan, who has gained a reputation as an enemy of books because he has called them obsolete while concentrating his analysis of communication media on the electric variety, is, in fact, a man of the book as much as any librarian; although librarians have tended to ignore him, considering him to have no relevance for their ‘science’. This is to their detriment. Not only is the format of his books of interest, as a mirror of his message, but there is also evidence that his purpose is and has been from the beginning to find the peculiar qualities of print and books which make them necessary to man. He finds these qualities not in the content but in the form; qualities which provide the sensory balance of objectivity and perspective as opposed to the field perceptivity of television. In tracing the evidence of McLuhan’s concern for the future of the book, we can see him as one who has, perhaps, a greater perception of the value of books and libraries, for civilization, than many librarians.”
-Abstract, Books and Marshall McLuhan, Sam Neill in the Library Quarterly Vol. 41, No. 4, October 1971

I remember some years ago the Estate was approached by the ‘for dummies’ book people to do a McLuhan for Dummies book. My grandmother, Corinne, refused – and rightly so. McLuhan’s not for people who want easy answers. Sanctioning a ‘for dummies’ book would be an insult to Marshall’s memory and work.

For my part, I didn’t always understand that. I thought for a long time about a project to ‘translate’ McLuhan so that people could more easily understand his work. Not only was this highly presumptuous on my part – if I could actually pull such a thing off, it would probably take most of my lifetime – it would be the equivalent of writing McLuhan for Dummies. At the time though, I thought it was a way to make McLuhan more accessible… which is actually another way of saying ‘dumbing it down’.

Understanding the work of Marshall McLuhan is not easy, but it is rewarding. Coming to understand the concept of figure and ground (which I am told came from the concept of center with/without margin, from economics) has made me see the world in different ways. Coming to view media as environments kind of blew my mind.

Just a side note on my use of addressing my father as ‘Eric’ or ‘dad’. I know I’ve not been consistent with this, and am still not sure which to use. ‘Dad’ is right to me, as that’s what I call him, but ‘Eric’ is more appropriate perhaps in this context. I’ll probably continue to use both.


7 Comments leave one →
  1. Marie Langley permalink
    December 31, 2010 2:21 pm

    Hi Andrew. I just came across your blog for the first time, via Graham. Aside from health and happiness for my family (Graham & Vicky etc etc) all I ask from life is that I not be bored. Your writing is thought provoking and it feels like a bit of a privilege to hear your perspective on your own family. The temptation (for others) to find a McLuhan for Dummies lurks in all the arts; I just listened to a CBC piece and read another in the National Post about the trend to batch and simplify the internet for us rather than encouraging users to roam wild and free. “If you liked this artist, then you’ll like these three…” Intellectually lazy and presumptuous.

    • January 25, 2011 9:57 am

      Thank you Marie – the privilege is mine, to be able to do this. Thanks for reading, and for your comment.

  2. January 5, 2011 12:29 pm

    Actually, the terms ‘figure’ and ‘ground’ come from the danish psychologist, Edgar Rubin, who, about 1915, decided to study the way the eyes work when they ‘see’ things. He needed a vocabulary and settled on “figure” to name what the eyes were focused on at any particular moment, and “ground” to denote everything else that was present but not conscious. The entire field of Gestalt Psychology grew out of those terms.

    Center-Margin is from economics. What more do you want?

    • January 5, 2011 12:47 pm

      -Dad read the post and told me I had it wrong, so I made him write the above comment. Then I started a second paragraph (he was eating) about Center-Margin to try and get him to talk about it and he says “Center-Margin is from economics”. Pause, I look expectantly. “What more do you want?” Okay then.

    • August 29, 2011 8:18 pm

      And remember the definition of God as Center that is everywhere and a circumference that is nowhere.


  3. February 24, 2011 2:49 pm

    Thanks for your interest Slowfox. I think my reasons against a “McLuhan for Dummies” book speak for themselves.


  1. McLuhan och hur man inte binder en bok « Slowfox

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