me | probes | managers | virtual | space
McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Me: Lectures and Interviews. Eds. David Staines and Stephanie McLuhan. Boston: MIT Press, 2003.
Understanding Me: Lectures and Interviews (2003), edited by David Staines and Stephanie McLuhan, is a collection of previously unpublished lectures and transcripts from interviews that provide a chronological set of snapshots of McLuhan's thinking from 1959-79. Despite the title, this book will be most accessible to those already familiar with McLuhan.
A central drive of McLuhan's work was simply the desire to understand what was going on in the 20th century, or more precisely, the electric age since the invention of the telegraph in 1844. His most frequently cited book Understanding Media acknowledges this drive, and we can see in contemporary scholars like Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin (Remediation: Understanding New Media), and artists like Scott McCloud (Understanding Comics), a similar desire. Yet for many of McLuhan's contemporaries, understanding him was the central challenge.
Understanding Me, then, is a nice play on understanding media and understanding McLuhan. The book consists of a foreword by Tom Wolfe that provides both basic biographical information relevant to understanding the ebb and flow of McLuhan's career, as well as scholarly insight into McLuhan's intellectual and spiritual debt to the French Catholic scientist and theologian Pierre Tielhard de Chardin. The collection contains interviews conducted by literary scholar Frank Kermode, Canadian and American journalists, as well as lectures presented at various universities in North America and the United Kingdom.
Topics in this collection are closely related to his already published material "The Medium is the Massage" (1966, one year before the book with that title was published) or extensions of some of McLuhan's key probes: "The Future of the Book (1972), "Art as Survival in the Electric Age" (1973), and "Violence as a Quest for Identity (1977), for example. The editors have even chosen to title one of the TV interviews "Predicting Communication via the Internet" (1966).
McLuhan's daughter says in her introduction that "taken together, these lectures and interviews make up a biography/autobiography enabling you to read Marshall McLuhan in the original where you will find a more accessible, even unmediated encounter than is possible through his books" (xxvi). My sense, however, is that the lectures in particular require considerable familiarity with McLuhan's work, and would not in fact be more accessible than his books. This collection, read after some familiarity with McLuhan's work, and with the aid of books of like Theall's Virtual McLuhan and Cavell's McLuhan in Space, offers some analyses, definitions, and predictions that cannot be found in other works.
The very first lecture from the collection is a mix of obscurity and clarity. "Electronic Revolution: Revolutionary Effects of New Media" reprints an address McLuhan gave at a conference sponsored by the American Association of Higher Education in 1959. McLuhan offers an historical example to explain his already famous phrase "the medium is the message," but other key concepts from his work are offered without elaboration: "Living [...] with electronic images in which the image is formed by light through rather than light on (one major difference between TV and film), children respond with new sensory configurations and new attitudes toward their world" (2). He engages contemporary thinkers a provocative one paragraph analysis of the ways in which John Dewey's educational reforms have failed (9) and a one paragraph reference to his colleague at the University of Toronto, Harold Innis (6). The collection does not employ editorial footnotes to help readers contextualize McLuhan's frequent engagement with Dewey's writing, nor does it regularly attempt to introduce people like Harold Innis. The editors do contextualize each piece with two or three paragraphs of background information, and read consecutively, readers can see the editors sketching a minimalist biography. But for someone new to McLuhan, either of the biographies, the critical assessments, or McLuhan's published work, will be better starting points for engaging his ideas.
The clarity in this first lecture, however, comes in his analysis of the problems facing educators. He begins the talk by acknowledging why educators must continue to teach reading, but he also insists that "the task we must now tackle [is] the training of the young in the mastery of the new global media" (9). In addition to identifying what must be taught, McLuhan also saw the fundamental problems with the organization and delivery of education:Do not educators now recognize the education problems to be motivation rather than consumption of packaged information? The fully motivated student is creative in his consumption and cognition. He is co-author and co-producer, so that the new teaching must increasingly cast the student in the co-teacher roles. And, indeed, he is already potentially in such a position because of his vast intake of information in out-of-classroom experience, which is only in part shared by the teacher. (10)
In passages like this one, McLuhan's analysis still seems fresh and clear, and his vocabularly is strikingly contemporary for a talk delivered almost 50 years ago. At other points in the collection, McLuhan provides definitions for some of his slogans and concepts, like "the medium is the message."
When I say the medium is the message, I'm saying that the motor car is not a medium. The medium is the highway, the factories, and the oil companies. That is the medium. In other words, the medium of the car is the effects of the car. [...] The car is a figure in a ground of services. [...] So "the medium is the message" is not a simple remark, and I've always hesitated to explain it. It really means a hidden environment of services created by an innovation, and the hidden environment of services is the thing that changes people. It is the environment that changes people, not the technology. (241-42)
McLuhan's own definition of "the medium" is more robust than most definitions in the secondary scholarship on McLuhan, and numeours short passages like this one make Understanding Me a rewarding collection as a whole. Although the Book of Probes strips McLuhan's writing down into found poetry, I found myself engaging with Understanding Me in much the same way finding the poetry or the provocative passage, and then testing the claim, wondering "How did he see it coming?" "Why are we still wrestling with the same problems?" or in some cases like his observation that "the car is being phased out of our lives" (220), "Why have some claims proven so wrong?"
My central concern about the relevance of this book for rhetoric and composition, however, is that it will not serve as the accessible and unmediated introduction to McLuhan that the editors suggest it might. McLuhan's tone and intent are often difficult to perceive, and readers of this collection would benefit from keeping in mind Donald Theall's insistence that we recognize McLuhan as a satirist, trickster, and poet. Doing so is essential for not reading past the jokes or stinging one liners in some of the lectures, like "War as education. I think once people realize that war is a major all-out educational effort, they will quickly abandon it as disgusting. People aren't that fond of education" (143-44). McLuhan's vocabularly still seems fresh in some instances, but counter-intuitive in other cases, making Richard Cavell's McLuhan in Space a useful guide for understanding McLuhan's long discussion of visual and acoustic space in Understanding Me (193-94). These lectures and interviews are rich with insight and humor, but they are not likely the best first place to encounter McLuhan.