Marshall as I Knew Him
- Donald F. Theall (Author)
The Virtual Marshall McLuhan. McGill-Queen's University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by David Thomson
Donald Theall’s most recent consideration of McLuhan’s legacy is impressive in scope but ultimately his ambitions are unsustainable. He engages with such a range of issues that he has to forego sustained argument in favour of brief considerations on a number of disparate topics. One general drift of the book aims at a recognition of McLuhan’s artistic or poetic concerns; Theall finds in McLuhan’s close affinity with Joyce a poetic sensibility that undermines the efforts of those who would see in his work any form of systematic agenda. From another perspective, the book aims to confirm McLuhan’s legacy as a foundational figure for postmodernist theory and as a crucial figure in the evolution of cyberculture. There is also a thread of cultural biography and autobiography as Theall intersperses his academic analysis with recollections of his personal relationship with "Marshall" at the University of Toronto during the 1950s and 1960s.
Given the tasks Theall sets himself, one might expect a work of considerable heft. Instead, the book is only 300 pages long, and even this modest length is deceptive; almost 40% of its content is given over to supplementary materials a preface, a lengthy introduction to McLuhan’s main ideas, two extended appendices, and so forth leaving Theall with around 175 pages to accommodate 12 chapters. As a consequence, the reader skims over the surface rather than delving into any of the objects of inquiry. Chapter 7, "McLuhan as Prepostmodernist," is perhaps the most egregious example of the hurried pace. In the space of 12 pages no less than 7 prominent French theorists Derrida, Barthes, Baudrillard, Lyotard, Virilio, Deleuze and Guattari are held up to McLuhan’s image to determine which one deserves the mantle of "the French McLuhan." Whether such an identification might be interesting or useful is open to question, but it is clear that a couple of paragraphs discussing, for example, the relationship of Derrida’s thought to McLuhan’s will not prove much.
The purpose of the book as a whole is hard to fathom, especially in the wake of Theall’s many other contributions to McLuhan scholarship. The title is provocative, yet its significance is never brought up directly. Perhaps the point is to expose McLuhan’s public image as a careful construct and cast some light on the "real" McLuhan. Some chapters do indeed make this point, but others head off in other directions. Topics are brought up and dropped so swiftly it is hard to get a sense of a developing argument.
Oddly, even as a lot of ground is covered a few key details show up again and again. It becomes something of a game to track the number of times certain items are mentioned. Take, for example, references to the fact that Theall was McLuhan’s first graduate student (7); references to McLuhan’s iconic status as the "patron saint" of the cyberculture magazine Wired (5); McLuhan’s comment about Ulysses and Finnegans Wake being Joyce’s "intellectual Black Mass" (6); and Theall’s assertion that McLuhan did not read Saussure until the mid-1970s (5). These and other repetitions are puzzling because on each occasion the point is made as if for the first time, and as a result the chapters appear unrelated to one another, more like separate units than parts of a sustained argument.
If it is arguable that the book fails to offer much critical insight, there is no denying that Theall’s many first-hand descriptions of McLuhan have human interest. As McLuhan’s first doctoral student and close collaborator until 1964, Theall is prone to interleaving his criticism with first-person observations. This tendency highlights his unique perspective on his subject, even if the sudden shifts from "McLuhan" to "Marshall" seem odd.
Indeed, it might have been for the best if Theall had let his previous work on McLuhan make his case and instead provided more anecdote and reminiscence. Such an approach motivates the appendix contributed by Edmund Carpenter, also one of McLuhan’s associates and collaborators. Entitled "That Not So Silent Sea," Carpenter’s account of McLuhan and the cultural milieu at the University of Toronto in the late 1950s and early 1960s is disjointed, impressionistic, and entirely subjective. It is also consistently entertaining and insightful. If Theall had followed Carpenter’s example and limited himself to a loosely biographical and autobiographical account of his relationship with "Marshall," the resulting book would have been more interesting for cultural historians and McLuhan scholars alike.
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Books reviewed: Uncommon Readers: Dennis Donoghue, Frank Kermode, George Steiner, and the Tradition of the Common Reader by Christopher J. Knight
- Frye's Legacy by Graham Nicol Forst
Books reviewed: Northrop Frye on Twentieth-Century Literature by Northrop Frye and Glen Robert Gill
- Queer Retrospectives by Moynan King
Books reviewed: Outspoken: A Canadian Collection of Lesbian Scenes and Monologues by Susan G. Cole, Queer Theatre in Canada by Rosalind Kerr, and This One's Going to Last Forever by Nairne Holtz
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Books reviewed: The Texture of Identity: The Fiction of MG Vassanji, Neil Bissoondath, and Rohinton Mistry by Martin Genetsch
MLA: Thomson, David. Marshall as I Knew Him. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 23 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #181 (Summer 2004), (Wiseman, Livesay, Sime, Connelly, Robinson). (pg. 179 - 181)
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