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Theall, Donald. The Virtual Marshall McLuhan. Montreal and Kingston: McGill/Queen's UP, 2001.
The Virtual Marshall McLuhan (2001) by Donald F. Theall, is a book by McLuhan's first graduate students that combines personal reflection and scholarly, historical assessment of McLuhan's work. Theall's book is the best comprehensive introduction to McLuhan's thinking, methods, and his roller-coaster career. If anyone were to lay claim to understanding Marshall McLuhan, it might be Donald Theall, but as the title of his book suggests, McLuhan's personality, thought, and interests resist a static, stable, identity.
The preface is specifically composed as a McLuhan primer, with subsequent chapters examining in more depth McLuhan as Theall understands him poet, trickster, satirist and McLuhan as he has been understood by others—media phenomenon, prepostmodernist, theorist. Theall suggests that McLuhan's style left his identity open to multiple interpretations:Pursuing a strategy utilizing insights of the French symbolists, Joyce, and Nietzsche, in which closure should be anathema, while continuing to stress simultaneously that he was a true believer seeking the integrity of a renewed medieval universalism and that professionally he was an "objective," "scientific" observer and recorder of facts, he attracted groups that would stress his pragmatic approach to modern media mania; groups that would promote his essentially Catholic image; groups that would see him as the epitome of the avant-garde looking to the future; and groups that would condemn him as the maverick of a serious pursuit of the study of communication and its history. And he delighted in the ambivalence he created! (102)What compositionists will be most surprised to find in this book is the story of a literary critic disciplined during the 1930s and 1940s whose interests and actions are largely embraced by compositionists today, if still resisted in traditional literary studies. According to Theall, McLuhan was an early practitioner of:
- Cultural studies: "to work with McLuhan was to live in a continuity of poetry, novel, painting, sculpture, classical music, advertising, science fiction, comics, radio, jazz, and other such forms a decade or more before the birth of 'cultural studies.'" (138).
- Interdisciplinarity and collaboration: "throughout his career McLuhan frequently collaborated on his various projects and writings with artists, writers, and critics, [including] collaborations with the anthropologist Ted Carpenter and later Barrington Nevitt, a consultant in international engineering, marketing, and management" (141).
- Alternative discourse (the new essay): In 1971, Theall labeled McLuhan a poète manqué and described his works as "essais concrete." Theall points out McLuhan's reading of Ezra Pound's "In a Station of the Metro" as an example of McLuhan's understanding of the imagistic turn in writing occurring under the charge of electricity (the light brigade). Theall sees in McLuhan's inclination to imitate Pound, Joyce and others a willingness on the part of McLuhan to pay attention to the shape of text on the page (141-48).
Of equal interest, perhaps, are the similarities between McLuhan and Kenneth Burke that Theall alludes to. McLuhan had clearly separated himself from his contemporary communication theorist like Shannon and Weaver, and Theall points out that McLuhan's sense of communication as participatory, involving the audience as co-creators, strikes cords with Burke's notions of symbolic action (60). Theall points out that artists like John Cage, Woody Allen, and Robert Rauschenberg were influenced by McLuhan (94), and he notes that as and scholars like George Landow, Richard Lanham, Stuart Moulthrop, and Jay Bolter (162) have all grappled with McLuhan (162). Theall consistently returns his argument that McLuhan should be understood as a satirist and poet rather than theorist, however, and the McLuhan was more influenced by artists than scholars, and in turn had a greater impact in literary and art circles than scholarly circles.
Theall's primary scholarly work has been on James Joyce as the real "precursor or forerunner of cyberculture, if the complexity of cyberculture is to be fully appreciated" (163), and this element of Theall's argument significantly shapes two chapters of the book. Theall's chapter on McLuhan's rise to global fame at the hands of Tom Wolfe and McLuhan's publicist goes a long way towards explaining the hype that surrounded, and ultimately damaged, McLuhan. Theall carefully locates McLuhan as a transitional figure, grounded in modernism but a clear forerunner to postmodernism, and he illuminates the ways in which Roland Barthes, Deleuze and Guattari, and most obviously Baudrillard were influenced by McLuhan. In a particularly fascinating chapter about McLuhan's interest in conspiracy theories and the occult, readers in rhetoric and composition might see that a re-assessment of McLuhan would significantly add to the work done by William Covino on rhetoric and/as magic, rhetoric as wondering.
All of this contextualization of McLuhan will be of great interest to readers seeking to understand the man and his relationship to ideas and culture. Theall's version of McLuhan as trickster, poet, satirist, and rhetorician, however, emerges clearly and consistently, and is never overwhelmed by the complexity of McLuhan's associations, ideas, or antics.