Douglas Coupland on Marshall McLuhan
February 1, 2011 | by James Atlas
Douglas Coupland is the author of Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work!, a pithy biography of the Canadian professor and communication theorist. McLuhan, who was born in 1911, is perhaps best known for coining the phrase “the medium is the message” and for anticipating the Internet decades before its arrival. Earlier this month, Coupland answered a few questions about his work as a biographer and what drew him to McLuhan.
You used an unconventional form for your biography of Marshall McLuhan such as MapQuest, an autism assessment test, use of Wikipedia as a source.
Was this innovative method a deliberate reference to McLuhan’s own idiosyncrasies? Or is it the reflection of a personal quirk?
Since starting the project I’ve felt like an unwitting manifestation of McLuhan’s beliefs about the effects of media: born 1961, TV child, Photoshop user, and so on. Having said that, I think I started the book at the crisis point in the history of biographies, and it’s a happy coincidence it happened to be Marshall.
Twofold. First, if I want to know about Marshall or anyone, I can YouTube them, hear their voice, see them in action, read capsule biographies and dissertations on them—you name it. You can get a subjective and highly factual dossier on most anyone in the public realm almost instantly. It’s why publishers don’t worry about author photos any more; people just google a person and get on with things. Second, we’ve obviously entered the age of near total medicalization of personality. To write a biography of anyone, let alone someone so neuroconnectively fascinating as Marshall, seems like a gross abnegation of duty to truth. The biography has begun to morph into the pathography. Note: Marshall McLuhan’s left cerebral cortex was vascularized in a way only ever before seen in mammals in cats. He wasn’t just different; he was very different.
One critic has claimed that the freedoms you took with the linearity of traditional narrative were done more in a spirit of subversion than of literary innovation. Please defend.
Has that critic written a biography lately? I suppose one could take disparate chunks of information and stick them into a narrative through-line as in a pre-2000 biography, but with Marshall it felt like a nostalgic conceit. The fact that information comes from places like Wikipedia, YouTube, and Amazon seems to be a part of the overall message of a 2011 biography. Seamless concealment of sources seemed, in this instance, like an attempt to get away with something.
What attracted you to McLuhan as a subject?
Actually, nothing. A friend doing a series of biographies of Canadians writing about Canadians asked me to do it. I accepted and bailed three times before finally getting down to it.
Did you see him as a prophet of the revolution in global communications?
No. Like most people, I only knew his three clichés: Medium equals message, global village, and the scene from Annie Hall. I’ve found that most people truly would like to know more about the man, but it’s almost impossible to do. His language is a universe unto itself and is astonishingly dense and hard to navigate. He died the year I started art school , and his stock was at an all time low. His name never came up.
Why did you believe he was still relevant?
Well, I didn’t. I had to figure that out myself. It took months of reading and rereading his stuff to realize that in Marshall we had a classically trained scholar realizing that there’s this thing coming down the pipe—the Internet—yet because he didn’t understand the ultimate interface, he was frustrated in his inability to describe it clearly. I think that’s what people really respond to in Marshall: the almost vibrating sense of being in on one of the biggest prognostications of all time, yet having news of its arrival coming from this fuddy-duddy guy in 1950s Toronto. How on earth did that happen?
What do you think of the reference to Woody Allen’s Annie Hall in the title?
The press person at Atlas suggested it to me as a title and it was a eureka moment. The title is a wonderful welcome mat for people to try to enter his house.
Isn’t Allen, by way of McLuhan’s cameo in the film, making a comment on the way complex ideas are simplified for public consumption?
G. K. Chesterton, a Marshall favorite, said that the simplification of anything is always sensational. I think he was right, and I think that’s what Mr. Allen was addressing.
McLuhan said that the work of the artist is to find patterns.
He did. He also saw pattern recognition as a survival technique for staying sane in a universe of constant information bombardment.
Is there a pattern in his own work?
A few things come to mind: he preferred to collaborate than to write solo; he tended to say the same thing over and over again, albeit phrased differently; and he liked to say sensational things to provoke responses from his readers. The two preexisting biographies of him that I used doing research are dense in their margins with exclamation marks, swear words, and most importantly, ideas triggered by his way of thinking. Few writers can do that to people so consistently.
Was your own departure from fiction a rewarding experience?
Writing the book was a boot camp for understanding our new era. I lucked out in getting the chance to do it.
Do McLuhan’s ideas seem archaic now?
Oddly, no. A few of the pop culture material he references, like Blondie and Dagwood cartoons, feel a bit old, but the writing remains utterly fresh.
Then what is it like to actually read McLuhan in the twenty-first century? How does it sound to the contemporary ear—and mind?
It consistently addresses the human soul (Marshall’s work is deeply pastoral in that way) while, at the same time, in tone it comes across sounding like an alien entity hovering over planet Earth filing mission reports back to his own galaxy.
Was part of McLuhan’s attraction as a subject the fact that he’s a Canadian countryman of yours?
No, and I feel like a bad citizen for being so clueless about the man at the start. One further thing about my engagement with this book is that there’s an amazing ancestral, genetic and migratory overlap between his family and mine. That was an obvious carrot on a stick. I obtained a buccal DNA swap from his son, Eric, and took one from myself and did a comparison, which confirmed close DNA connection. But let me also add, those genetic testing companies are scams. They lure you in with the promise of data richness, and then they endlessly try to upsell you with the promises of upgraded Y DNA haplogrouping information and—just beware. I think that in the future, DNA tests, when possible, are to become an inevitable dimension of any biography. It’s happened. We’re there.