Friday, May 15, 2015

Giving up on Marshall McLuhan


I was sitting in the Lincolnwood Town Center food court, under the vast ceiling of cloudy skylights, broken televisions and support beams, eating my processed food, when I realized that I was actively hating this book. I'm not sure that's ever happened before. Sitting in such a bland environment, I wasn't even sure where my frustration was coming from. I just knew that I really wanted to throw my book at something, possibly one of the many cell phone vendors hawking their service plans down below. Two birds with one tome and all that.

This was surprising, in a way. I've suffered through a lot of pretentious prose before, in the name of understanding an important book. Hell, I've read The Bible in two different translations all the way through, which is something more than most "Christians" do in their lifetime. But I don't think I've ever read such a obfuscated, hollow book before.

The writing style reminds me of both Ayn Rand and Jack Kerouac. On the one hand, like Rand, McLuhan will counter an argument by claiming a new use of a word, entirely different from the way that normal people talk or write. On the other hand, McLuhan doesn't believe in editing, giving the effect of an amphetamine addict vomiting his thoughts all over the page. There's nothing wrong with designing a compartmentalized, cross-referential book. Harold Bloom's Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, which I'm also reading, does this in a clear and useful fashion. But that's not really what Understanding Media does.

Those of us who work in retail know of a certain type of repeating customer, one that is just functional enough to walk into a store and not scare everyone, but who can't quite get enough coherent thoughts together to be sociable. That's this book. It doesn't care if the person listening gets any information and may not be able to express anything anyway. The medium and the message are both failures, whichever one is supposed to be carrying the other. And that's the real core problem: there is no great revelation gained from reading through the entire text.

In the end, one doesn't care about new forms of media carrying old media, or arbitrary distinctions of "hot" or "cool." Really, I just wanted to pat this crazy old man on the head and say, "it's all right guy, it's just the 21st century, there's nothing to be scared about." But I guess the talk shows and magazines of the 60s needed a harmless prophet of electronic doom. After all, media people love presenting stories about themselves. Otherwise, they'd have to discuss equal rights or something.

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