Marshall McLuhan's birthday was July 11. Had he not died in 1980, the Canadian communications and media scholar would've been 95 this year.
Imagine the party. There's always one whose gifts outdo the rest. In McLuhan's case, Terry Gordon—who teaches French, Italian and linguistics at Dalhousie—and his body of work on the "media analyst and educational reformer," as he refers to McLuhan in his writing, puts everyone else to shame.
Gordon has written a biography called Escape into Understanding (1997) and a critical edition of McLuhan's breakthrough work from the early '60s, Understanding Media—Extensions of Man (2003), among others. Two new titles—the beautifully designed McLuhan Unbound , a collection of 20 booklet essays assembled for the first time and The Classical Trivium, McLuhan's graduate thesis from the late 1940s—are fresh on the shelves.
"For me, it was always a labour of love," Gordon says.
His devotion in print, at least, started in the mid-'90s with McLuhan for Beginners, one of the "documentary comics" series put out by Writers and Readers Publishing.
"That led to the invitation from the McLuhan family to write the biography," for which Gordon received unfettered access to private letters, interviews and notes, "and the biography led to the invitation to edit the new editions of his books. It's still a labour of love."
The roots of Gordon's loyalty go back to the mid-'60s when he was studying at Victoria College, the neighbouring school to McLuhan's St. Michael's at the University of Toronto. Reading and attending lectures by McLuhan, Gordon wrote of those younger days in his introduction to the biography Escape from Understanding: "I came to crave the mental bruising you could count on him to give."
For subsequent generations, McLuhan became more a symbol for sped-up communications technology and a speaker of catchphrases, such as "the global village" and "the medium is the message." (The latter concept forms the first chapter of Understanding Media but you can also read the preceding, original essay, number 17 of 20, in Unbound.)
"Everybody understands the global village' intuitively; few people, and not even that many McLuhan scholars, know or emphasize exactly what he said about it," Gordon says.
He invites a reading of a passage in the biography. There he shows readers that global village means an interdependent world, not a united—homogenized—one. In fact, the village in global, apparently to McLuhan, was a pretty brutish place. Gordon quotes him as saying, "I don't approve of the global village. I say we live in it."
Heritage Minute TV spots included, many attempts to pin down the meaning of medium is the message' have occurred. There is no pinning it down, Gordon says. "The medium is the message is counter-intuitive and deliberately so."
"McLuhan himself paraphrased the medium is the message' in at least six or seven different ways in his teaching over the years and invites readers to do the same."
Flowing, fluid, a wave gathering more water and flotsam as it rolls toward the sand; perhaps that's a suitable summer metaphor for McLuhan's basic concept.
"Printing depends on writing depends on alphabet depends on speech depends on thought processes, where the chain of media ends," says Gordon. "New technologies don't replace older ones. They just complicate one another, and if we don't understand their interaction we can't use them to best advantage and cannot understand their effects on our psychic lives, our patterns of social organization, reorganization."
McLuhan writes in Understanding Media, "Perhaps the most obvious closure' or psychic consequence of any new technology is just the demand for itÖ.Nobody is interested in TV until there are TV programs." He goes on to say that TV joins—doesn't replace—radio.
Think of cell phones and Blackberrys; many people want them when they see what they can do with them: watch email, surf, watch TV, talk and type, older forms all rolled into a newer one. While it can be annoying to walk into someone glued to one of the devices, it hardly marks the downfall of literate (or literary, as we still read books), so a 95-year-old McLuhan might say today.
In his stead, there's Terry Gordon, devotee and bearer of gifts for McLuhan and for all who want to go beyond the catchphrases.