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Letters of Marshall McLuhan Hardcover – 3 Mar 1987

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 562 pages
  • Publisher: OUP. Toronto, Canada; 1st edition (3 Mar. 1987)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195405943
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195405941
  • Product Dimensions: 16.5 x 3.3 x 24.3 cm
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,334,321 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description

About the Author

About the Editor William Toye was the General Editor of The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature and co-editor of The Oxford Anthology of Canadian Literature. Matie Molinaro was McLuhan's agent. Corinne McLuhan was McLuhan's wife.

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Amazon.com: 3 reviews
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
To the point of absurdity, but still true enough 23 Dec. 2003
By Bruce P. Barten - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
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:
Dear Pierre,
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?
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
A Fascinating Look at the Method and the Man 5 Jan. 2012
By D. D. - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Marshall McLuhan produced so much work, and so much has been written about him that it can be difficult to know where to begin. This book was recommended to me as a starting point, but I myself would discourage a reader new to McLuhan to begin here. Instead, try Terrence Gordon's biography "Escape Into Understanding". He gives a good over view of McLuhan's ideas that will come in handy throughout this book when you encounter some of McLuhan's more obfuscated letters that refer to work not mentioned or ideas never fully explicated here. On the other hand, I would recommend anyone starting out to read this book directly after that biography and before jumping into Understanding Media or his other major works. McLuhan consistently broadened his thought, his approach and his concepts over the course of his life. This book is a fantastic account of that and much more.

After reading these letters I understood key concepts in McLuhan's work much better. There are many letters where he's explaining the same ideas to different people across all kinds of disciplines and professions, from politicians (Pierre Trudeau, Jimmy Carter) to fellow academics( Walter Ong, Hugh Kenner, Sheila Watson) to critics of his work ( Jonathan Miller). There were a few times when an idea of his suddenly became clear to me in a way that it never had before after reading the 4th or 5th letter in which he labored to explain it yet again.

It's interesting to watch his thoughts progress over the course of his life and career. I closed this book with a much better understanding of his thoughts on metaphor, Symbolism and the huge influence of Modernist literature on his perspective. I doubt it would even be possible for a person of my generation to read as much as he did. With that background in mind it's easier to understand why he was able to notice so many things that seemed so obvious in retrospect, yet had escaped the communities of both science and psychology alike. His interests moved far too fast for him to be bothered to waste his time trying to polish up a formal theory or systematize his ideas. This was a point that was clearly misunderstood over and over again by his critics. He worked through his "probes", which were meant to root out new perspectives and reveal hidden connections in our environment and our behavior, but never as hard and fast rules. Though he passionately defends his work throughout these letters, he never closed the book on his own ideas. They, like his aphorisms, were constantly evolving to undermine the automated responses of the public.

Also included is his famous and rather funny correspondence with Ezra Pound, as well as his rather sycophantic (in my opinion) one with Wyndam Lewis. He had an interesting relationship with both men, and I wish this book had included their responses to many of these letters.

I also felt a new connection to the man that I hadn't in the other books. The many letters to his mother, the ones about his courtship and marriage, the many letters in which he expressed his concerns over the perils of advancing technology all reveal a very warm hearted individual. I'll confess feeling a little emotional reading Prime Minister Trudeau's letter to McLuhan's wife after his death.

This is required reading for those seeking a complete understanding of this guru of perception. I'll leave you with a couple of my favorite passages from the book.

"Quite unconsciously, the habit of perspective, or a fixed stance from which to observe a slice or facet of any situation, tends to breed intense emotional responses. When you try to figure out "what's going on", a point of view is not very useful. Within any organization, each individual tends to have a point of view. The consultant who is called in to diagnose has the advantage of not having a point of view. In an environment of electric information, a total field approach is natural, since all types of data are simultaneously accessible." pg.332

"At electric speed of information movement, for example, the individual ego and identity is enormously reduced in proportion as it becomes deeply involved in the social lives of mankind. Paradoxically, the diminishing of the private identity results, on the one hand in a great deal of permissiveness and laxity, while on the other hand, it leads to a great intensity of demand for moral absolution in the public sector. All of that is in the area of figure. The ground is in the new speed of information movement, for it is the movement at the speed of light that not only transforms our image of ourselves but involves us in the lives of others in a completely new way." pg. 478
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
A treasure of insight 9 Oct. 2011
By Milivoi ZZap - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
McLuhan's letters are a treasure of insight. Every single letter contains an interesting and valuable idea. McLuhan used to grade student papers by the amount of new ideas they contained: zero new ideas, one new idea, two... Judging by McLuhan's own standard he definitely passed the test. Besides the valuable intellectual side, there is a personal note, as it is to be expected. The letters reveal the strong sense of tradition he had, the religious side of his thought and person.
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