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Thursday, March 21, 2013

Understanding McLuhan

Beginning to know the medium and its message

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Looking back at the 20th century, it seems as if some philosophers deliberately marginalized philosophy by refusing to address important issues in language meaningful to the general public. Perhaps that disengagement resulted in much of the “big thinking” in academia coming from other departments. Marshall McLuhan taught English at the University of Toronto and became one of the world’s best-known thinkers after the success of his book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964). He coined a pair of unforgettable phrases, “the medium is the message” and “the global village,” was the subject of a Tom Wolfe essay and appeared as himself in a Woody Allen film. He received a posthumous second wave of acclaim from the acolytes of the Internet, but for author W. Terrence Gordon, his put-down of a pseudo-intellectual in Annie Hall is applicable to the writers of Wired magazine: “You know nothing of my work.”

Gordon’s McLuhan for Beginners is an admirable effort at sketching out the basics in pithy bursts of text and illustrations. If Gordon’s medium defines his message, then his lesson is that most people think in increments and pictures, and would rather read Hamlet in CliffsNotes than Shakespeare. McLuhan might have approved. He understood that education is effective when entertaining, and that the best entertainment is educational.

In the era when television reshaped the way people thought about the world, interest in McLuhan focused on his interpretation of electronic media. But his work was underpinned by something larger—nothing less than an effort to reach for an understanding of the reality that will always be beyond our grasp. “The meaning of meaning is relationship,” McLuhan wrote. Meaning: “Nothing has its meaning alone.” Context is key, and McLuhan might worry that the Internet information tsunami has swamped context. Meaning: many folks will be hard pressed to know what any of this information really means.

Perhaps McLuhan’s most profound intuition was, as Gordon puts it, “to refuse to have a fixed viewpoint.” Whatever reality may be, it manifests itself multi-dimensionally. “To fully understand anything, you have to look at it from several points of view.” Meaning: McLuhan may well have argued against his own theories, and we should be willing to do the same.

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