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Bruce P. Barten
- Published on Amazon.com
McLuhan is a comic hero for me. What seemed mysterious about McLuhan's mirth, when I was merely reading his books, might be even worse, now that I can`t stop thinking about how he topped everyone else, driven, as only a McLuhan fan would be, into trying to explain how Marshall McLuhan writing letters, attempting to explain his wildly radical ideas to the people of his world, ought to be understood as being comic, like a light-saber stab at grasping things that extended far beyond irony. Collapse might be the word that is used so often in this book that, if it had been listed in the Index, the Index would have been more than 15 pages.
To understand modern society as a comic society, it helps to get beyond the famous comedians, movie stars, and around the little kid characters of `South Park' who attempt, in a thoroughly juvenile manner, to create their own involvement in modern life. In the intellectual direction, Marshall McLuhan stands as a character possessing a level of thought which allows LETTERS OF MARSHALL McLUHAN to be a prime example of humor in action. This might not be the perfect book for every reader, but it coincides nicely with my appreciation of how entertainment values resonate with real life. This review is not an attempt to achieve some overall evaluation of this book. Out of spite, I will try the opposite approach, emphasizing the idiosyncratic abuse of intellect as a weapon used by Marshall McLuhan to attack everything which any superpower would attempt to do while disguising itself as ordinary.
There are several dozen references in the book to Canada, CBC, CBC-TV, and CRTC (Canadian Radio-Television Commission). McLuhan certainly felt enough at home there to enjoy himself by sending Pierre Elliott Trudeau a letter on January 5, 1973, which began:
A one-liner that is very flexible in its use goes: "As Zeus said to Narcissus: `Watch yourself!' " (p. 461).
At a time when the major powers were moving towards signing a ceasefire agreement in Paris, McLuhan was trying to draw attention to Viet Nam as a resonant interval, where the action is, a gap, an interface, understood as the political game, which is considered a game because it "would seem to be rooted in the awareness of `play' as crux in all forms of social action. It is a basic feature of play that it keeps us in touch, and is also extremely involving of our facilities." (p. 461). One of the key failures of the United States in Nam was the lack of success in imposing the official American policy on the views of those who were totally involved. Policy was set by top officials in meetings in which the top priorities were more concerned about global geopolitics, which is bound to stumble in a world that McLuhan was trying to describe to Trudeau as being much more complex, especially to individuals:
"When we are using only a small part of our faculties, we are working. When we are totally involved, we are playing. The artist is always at leisure, especially when most intensely engaged in making." (p. 461).
What kind of an artist was Marshall McLuhan? The easier question is how comic was he? He could easily picture people sitting at home, within their own four walls, raging at the world outside, and he wasn't afraid to mention ongoing events to tell people what he thought. After going to a dinner in Washington, D.C., at which he sat next to Vice President Hubert Humphrey and "jokingly explained the advantages of living in a backward country like Canada." (p. 342), McLuhan sent Humphrey a letter on February 9, 1967, thanking him for "sending me that splendid picture of us both." In case Humphrey wasn't quite sure what people were thinking, McLuhan also wrote:
"Viet is our first TV war. TV creates an audience involvement in depth that automatically creates alienation of the public. The same news covered by the old hot media like press has a very different effect.
"While we are Westernizing the East by our old technology, we are Easternizing ourselves by the new technology. TV is an orientalizing force, taking us all on an `inner trip' that blurs the old idea of private identity altogether." (p. 342).
Calling attention to such forces, McLuhan expected radical changes to come about. In a letter arranging a discussion in Maryland in 1969, McLuhan even predicted:
"By the same token, if the slaughter houses were on all media every day, meat would disappear from our diet at once. Photographic news coverage killed public hangings. TV coverage makes the Viet business difficult to get on with. . . . The interface between print culture and electronic culture not only creates student unrest, it creates a collapse of all existing organizations in business and other establishments of the world. This has nothing to do with ideology or concepts." (p. 389).
Students certainly aren't as big an issue since the 1960s ended and they rested, whether it was because the draft ended or the philosophy of political change dropped into some hole that McLuhan thought was already there. Second guessing how McLuhan was wrong about some of our own current events merely avoids a larger question that no one is showing any willingness to face, if a comic society is finally going to realize that a few ideas have to make sense, after the economic collapse follows the financial collapse that may come if owning stock becomes worth less than having a job or social security. Imagining the doom of American policy in Nam produced more mirth than we are likely to feel at the ultimate demise of everything we face today, but McLuhan ought to get credit for making us think about going off in this direction. After the laugh, how many of us have really been there, done that?