Distant Early Warning: Coupland on McLuhan

January 25th, 2011 | Category: Reviews, Videos

If I had to pick a patron saint, a hero, or a single intellectual influence for my adult self, it would undoubtedly be Marshall McLuhan. If you’ve spent any time at all reading my work, you’ve seen his name and his ideas. Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work! (Atlas & Co., 2010) is the latest biography of the man and differs from previous versions in many ways, not the least of which is the author. Having struggled through several of Douglas Coupland’s novels, I had my reservations about his writing this book. I am glad to say he eloquently quelled most of my concerns.

The world weighs on my shoulders
But what am I to do?
You sometimes drive me crazy
But I worry about you — Rush, “Distant Early Warning”

There are several things that people often overlook or misunderstand about McLuhan that Coupland nailed in this book. One was his devout Catholic faith, which rooted his thinking in many ways once he found it, and another was his deep disdain of the media and its attendant technology. In spite of his insight, foresight, and prescience, he hated this stuff. Coupland points out many times that McLuhan wouldn’t have liked our current reliance on technology and connectivity one bit, but he would’ve found it interesting. Another of Coupland’s key insights is that, above all else, McLuhan was an artist, “one who happened to use ideas and words as others might use paint” (p. 16). Seen in this way, a lot of his work might make a hell of a lot more sense to newbies, critics, and haters alike. Like the best artists, he was a pattern perceiver of the highest order.

There’s really no considering this book, its author, or its subject without considering Canada. Yes, Canada, The Great White Wasteland that brought us Rush, hockey, Bob and Doug McKenzie, Justin Bieber, Coupland and McLuhan, as well as the latter’s most obvious forebear, Harold Innis. It’s cold up there, folks — cold and spread out. It makes one appreciate the human element.

“Call it religion or call it optimism,” Coupland writes, “but hope, for Marshall, lay in the fact that humans are social creatures first, and that our ability to express intelligence and build civilizations stems from our inherent social needs as individuals” (p. 165). Or, as McLuhan himself put it, “The user is the content” (Take that, so-called “social media experts”). McLuhan’s consistent focus on the individual is what has kept his ideas fresh in the face of new contrivances.

I know it makes no difference
To what you’re going through
But I see the tip of the iceberg
And I worry about you — Rush, “Distant Early Warning”

My problem with Coupland’s past work has had less to do with his writing ability (he’s an excellent writer) and more to do with his appropriation of Salingerisms, and not even a biography could escape. Coupland alludes to Catcher in the Rye by comparing McLuhan to Holden Caulfield on page 111. It’s an apt comparison, and it characterizes The Mechanical Bride-era McLuhan accurately, but I have to admit being irked at the reference.

With all of that said, You Know Nothing of My Work made me proud (I fancy myself something of a McLuhan scholar, so this is meant as a heartfelt compliment), and it made me cry (Though I already knew the story of McLuhan’s last days, a word-man unable to use words is still one of the saddest things I can imagine). I’d like to think Marshall McLuhan would’ve liked this book. It’s treats him with respect, humility, and humor, and I think it “gets” him. What else could he want from a biography?

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Here is a scene that illustrates the heights of McLuhan’s fame, what Coupland calls “every geek’s dream,” and this book’s namesake: Marshall Mcluhan in Woddy Allen’s Annie Hall (1977) [runtime: 2:43]:

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