Nicholas Carr reviews Douglas Coupland's Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work! in TNR:
One of my favorite YouTube videos is a clip from a Canadian television show in 1968 featuring a debate between Norman Mailer and Marshall McLuhan. The two men, both heroes of the ’60s, could hardly be more different. Leaning forward in his chair, Mailer is pugnacious, animated, engaged. McLuhan, abstracted and smiling wanly, seems to be on autopilot. He speaks in canned riddles. “The planet is no longer nature,” he declares, to Mailer’s uncomprehending stare; “it’s now the content of an art work.”
Watching McLuhan, you can’t quite decide whether he was a genius or just had a screw loose. Both impressions, it turns out, are valid. As Douglas Coupland argues in his pithy new biography, McLuhan’s mind was probably situated at the mild end of the autism spectrum. He also suffered from a couple of major cerebral traumas. In 1960, he had a stroke so severe that he was given his last rites. In 1967, just a few months before the Mailer debate, surgeons removed a tumor the size of an apple from the base of his brain. A later procedure revealed that McLuhan had an extra artery pumping blood into his cranium.
Between the stroke and the tumor, McLuhan managed to write a pair of extravagantly original books. The Gutenberg Galaxy, published in 1962, explored the cultural and personal consequences of the invention of the printing press, and argued that Gutenberg’s invention shaped the modern mind. Two years later, Understanding Media extended the analysis to the electronic media of the twentieth century, which, McLuhan famously argued, were destroying the individualist ethic of print culture and turning the world into a tightly networked global village.
McLuhan was a scholar of literature, with a doctorate from Cambridge, and his interpretation of the intellectual and social effects of media was richly allusive and erudite. But what particularly galvanized the public was the weirdness of his prose.