Marshall McLuhan: Escape into Understanding, A Biography

by W. Terrence Gordon

(Stoddart, 1997, 465 pp., $35)

Marshall McLuhan: Escape into Understanding, A Biography by W. Terrence Gordon (Stoddart, 1997, 465 pp., $35)

Marshall McLuhan was a celebrity intellectual, famous both in Canada and abroad. In an age where philosophy has shrunk, he was usually called a communications theorist, but he was truly a philosopher who focused his considerable talents on the problem of knowing and understanding in a world of rapid technological change. He remained grounded in ancient and medieval philosophy, through which he converted to Catholicism in his mid-20s, and was devout until his death in 1980 at age 69.

Terrence Gordon has written a biography authorized by the family, and it shows. He is too busy celebrating to bother criticizing or explaining. Criticism is expendable, but explanation is not when presenting a thinker as complex as McLuhan. The subtitle of the book comes from McLuhan's observation that, “To high speed change no adjustment is possible. We become spectators only and must escape into understanding.’

McLuhanesque statements such as that need explanation, lest they escape from understanding. Is McLuhan here saying anything different from the ancient Greeks, who held that changing things could not be known, and so the mind had to move into the realm of understanding if man's world was to be intelligible? Perhaps he is, or perhaps he is not. Gordon never tells us. The book appears to be aimed at the general reader, but if so, Gordon assumes too much. He writes that contemporaries of McLuhan such as Etienne Gilson and Jacques Maritain had difficulty in figuring out exactly what he was up to. If the greatest philosophical minds of the century had difficulty, surely the general reader is entitled to a little help.

Gordon succeeds only in providing the most basic outline of McLuhan's thought. Most famous for his cryptic declaration that, “The medium is the message,” McLuhan examined the impact of communications technology upon culture, both understood in the broadest sense. McLuhan observed that technology shapes the human environment, and the communications media powerfully shape culture. Explaining his theories to renowned photographer Yousuf Karsh, who protested that he found McLuhan's work incomprehensible, McLuhan used the example of a camera. The very presence of a camera changes the relation between people, as one becomes the observer and the other the observed. We become far more self-conscious in the presence of the camera; the medium has changed our perception, our understanding, and our behavior.

At this level McLuhan remains banal. His originality lies in his application of his theories far and wide. He taught that the alphabet and later the printed word made the visual sense most important. The visual sense produces linear thinking, while reliance on the other senses, especially sound, results in broader and more complex thinking. He becomes audacious when he analyzes something like the Reformation: the Protestant use of the printing press introduced the disruption of linear thinking into a Catholic culture previously handed on in an organic and highly textured way.

Whether McLuhan is right or not is difficult to say, because it is always difficult to know exactly what he is saying. There can be no doubting his curiosity and intellectual fearlessness, but Gordon does not provide a guide to distinguish the true insight from mere snappy phrase-making, of which McLuhan was a media master.

Gordon treats McLuhan's conversion well, conveying his subject's enthusiasm for Chesterton and Aquinas. McLuhan considered himself a Thomist, giving his eldest son the name Thomas in honor of the saint. He insisted that examining how the sensory receipt of information shapes our understanding was nothing more than application of Thomistic epistemology to contemporary phenomena. But other biographers have thought that his examination of how communication shapes—not merely describes—reality was rooted more in the tradition of the Sophists and rhetoricians that he admired.

Though McLuhan once wrote to his mother that if he had converted five years earlier he would have become a priest, he did not make his Catholicism explicit in his scholarship. He believed that the Catholic intellectual tradition gave Catholic scholars an ability to see deeper into the truth of things, but that they could communicate that truth in secular language. Therefore he spoke about the effect of electronic technology in “dis-incarnating” man, leading to the view that the body was an obstacle to be overcome. He noted the tendency of television to frame matters in aggregates, and so to eclipse the sense of the individual. Gordon sees in McLuhan's warnings about the mechanization of birth and death a precursor of the papal phrase, “culture of death.’

Gordon succeeds in convincing the Catholic reader that McLuhan's philosophy of human communication, animated always by the eyes of faith, is an important contribution to the understanding of man and his society in the information age. The definition of that contribution eludes Gordon here.

Raymond de Souza is a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario.