Three Thousand Words On Coupland And McLuhan by Jen Reid

This year marks a century since the birth of Canadian media and communications explorer Marshall McLuhan (MM), author of The Mechanical Bride, The Gutenberg Galaxy, and Understanding Media, University of Toronto professor, and patron saint of Wired Magazine, popularly known for such aphorisms as “the medium is the message” and coinages such as “global village”. An overwhelming number of commemorative events are taking place worldwide in celebration of the centenary year. Most of the MM100 events have “embodied” and “discarnate” components in obvious salute to the McLuhan oeuvre. Mainstream events range from symposia and conferences on nationhood and communication (University of Bologna), to internet and prayer (University of Manitoba), to cinema and early media arts (The Marshall McLuhan Salon at the Canadian Embassy, Berlin). Independent or “fringe” events include a year-long conference with the acronym MoM (McLuhan on Maui).

MoM, the most inclusive and satirical (thence most serious) of all happenings on offer, is a leading contender for MM100 primacy. It is, after all, the self-proclaimed “first, longest, and last” of the centenery conferences and celebrations worldwide. MoM may well be the alpha-male of McLuhan and para-McLuhan studies forums simply for attempting to dig us out of the annihilating boredom of footnotes, archives, and academia. Well at least that’s its alias and alibi.

The lighter and darker side of McLuhan studies is that it is rife with gate-keeping, gate-crashing, tail-gating, idiolects, paranoia, misogyny, disinformation, misinformation, psychopaths, pissing-contests, and biographical wars. At the end of the day, a lot of pre-school sandboxism exists. It amounts to embarrassing “I know Marshall better than you do” cockfights between the ancient first-wave disciples and the more recent converts, academics and laymen, MM insiders and the DNA Family/Estate. The MM100 year as it unfolds is testimony to the accuracy of Lord Acton’s witty backhander: anything can be forgiven the founder of a school, except his school. There are many, many Peters fighting for the keys, as it were, to bind and loose the life, times, works, and effects of Marshall McLuhan. All to say that if the Canadian definition of “apotheosis” is, as Marshall McLuhan once observed, abdicating in favour of your own legend, McLuhan is right now among the gods laughing his ass off with a kind of superior horror.

Canadian author Douglas Coupland entered the fray with his recent biography of Marshall McLuhan for the Extraordinary Canadians series. In what was billed as the launch of “The Marshall McLuhan Centenary Year”, Coupland came to Toronto’s York University for a public conversation with Professor B.W. Powe, ambitiously titled “The Prophetic McLuhan”. (I went along, wearing a “RootsxDouglasCoupland” product tie-in, hoping that my fashionable sycophantism would not go unnoticed. It did not. I scored a compliment as to my “taste”, a chat, and a personalized autograph complete with an ‘X’!)

The event was every Faculty of Humanities’ wet dream. Not only was the roof leaking, but York University’s departments of English and Canadian Studies had combined to actually touch the elusive garment of contemporary relevance and meaning by riding the wave of MM100 revivalism. And it was pure Canadiana to boot. Powe (McLuhan scholar and author of The Mystic Trudeau) and Coupland spent some time going over the experience of writing on McLuhan, what it means to be engaged with McLuhan, and inevitably, who knows him best.

Douglas Coupland
As the conversation unfolds, the subject of Coupland’s authority regarding McLuhan is handled in an interesting way. In the first instance, he declares that he is no authority at all. He is not a McLuhan scholar in the academic sense. Coupland’s ostensible position is that McLuhan is for everyone, especially Canadians. There is the sense that he stumbled into the job. But not quite. His authority comes on the one hand quite naturally from the fact that it is a rare Canadian who cannot, on some level, identify with the image of himself in Coupland’s works; so too the works of Marshall McLuhan. Coupland’s works can claim a certain amount of foresight or at least accuracy regarding the state of contemporary culture; so too Marshall McLuhan. Coupland has coined a new piece of language (“Generation X”) that has been appropriated by “qualified” people; so too Marshall McLuhan. Coupland freely admits the influence that McLuhan has had on him as an artist.

But the talk and the biography both reveal a sense of authority that goes even further than these comparisons. In fact, the book is a double-narrative (auto)biography that intertwines the lives of its subject and its author even on ancestral and genetic grounds. Coupland threatens to go beyond the reasonable comparison of his and McLuhan’s shared Canadian prairies, Protestant, Scots-Irish demographic trajectory and cultural milieu to the point that one anticipates a punchline along the lines of “Luke, I am your father”. Coupland’s self-declared experience of life on the autistic spectrum prompts him to view McLuhan through the autistic lens, and he makes the positive diagnosis. During the conversation at York, Coupland asks, “Where does personality end and science begin?”. The question is a general one, but it also references Coupland’s other major diagnosis in the book: that there was a physical pathology underlying McLuhan’s insights, public performance, and oeuvre—in the form of a radically modified vascular system. Literal “fits of genius”, as it were.

The pseudo-scientific overlay both from physical and psychic points of view is perhaps the subconscious complement to the very conscious crafting of the biography as a product of the current age in format and style. What may well be an enthusiastic sense of self-identification and attempt to connect with McLuhan in the contemporary “participatory” manner, a hardened cynic might read as Coupland’s bid to sell more novels and to submit (albeit humbly) his own genius to the Canadian people on the bizarrest (yet most massive) of grounds. It’s possible that Coupland is getting ready to abdicate in favour of his own legend, too.

The talk at York University reinforced the seamlessness with which Coupland engaged in writing the MM biography and his novel Generation A. Both published in 2009, they read as compendia to each other. MM’s drive to restore human perceptions and faculties (the “common sense” or sensus communis) in the face of the dehumanizing conditions of contemporary culture and technology is absorbed as the plot of the novel. The biography reveals Coupland’s belief that MM’s drive was a coded compulsion of his DNA, and that this same DNA delivered him into an ironic, lasting, and fatal silence in the form of a catastrophic stroke.

The biography begins with the poignant vignette of MM encountering a bee—a buzzing sign of his post-ischemic aphasia, and Coupland spends a lot of time developing the theme of MM-as-GMO (genetically modified organism). The bee reappears as the major theme of Generation A. Unlike the bee-as-aphasia metaphor in the biography, bees in the novel have the effect of unlocking the word-hoard of five effectively aphasiac and sensorially numbed representatives of “Generation A”. These post-millennials are given the chance to start again from a place of lost “common sense” in a post-information, and increasingly post-linguistic age through bee stings.

Having become otherwise extinct worldwide due to the proliferation of GMOs, big agribusiness, and the production of an isolating, insulating, solipsism-inducing drug called “Solon”, a handful of bees reappear and sting a few individuals, separated by globally significant distances (Canada, USA, France, Sri Lanka, and New Zealand). The characters become caught up in a scientific vortex and are brought together to be poked, prodded and provoked. Ultimately, “Science” wants to get its hands on the bees for all the obvious reasons … including the drug Solon. But more important is the hypothesis that the bee-stung characters have been specifically chosen by these formerly extinct creatures. Why? The answer would seem to lie in Coupland’s contrasting use of the bee. Whereas McLuhan’s biographical bee is a harbinger of imminent death and a figure of the end of his linguistic life, the Generation A bee catalyzes a return to orality and social life. There is no individual, chosen saviour, but there is a chosen bi-part mode for saving the world: physical presence and telling stories. Generation A fictionalizes a desire for return to “common sense” and human scale, and as such, is easily twinned with McLuhan’s “grand project”. If he had one.

Coupland shares a personal anecdote from the biography. It’s the late 80s and he’s working marketing for a business magazine. He gets an idea for a “Celebrity Fax” publicity campaign. He takes a rubbing of the inscription on MM’s gravestone: “The truth shall set you free” and faxes it around the world. Coupland pushes the episode forward in Generation A by way of making a statement about power, authenticity and participation.

Serge, an “evil” scientist, has been feeding an isolated Haida community the drug “Solon” in a secret experiment. When he is discovered by the bee-sting crew of youths, he proclaims with nihilistic cynicism: “Does the truth make you happy? Does the truth set you free? Ha!”. Zack, one of the bee-stung youths retorts, “Serge, tell us, then, why are you fucking with the Haida?”. Serge reveals himself to be a generational throwback: “Why? Why? Oh, grow up, young man. You know nothing about power. Why do I do it? Why do I do it? I do it because I can” [Generation A, 287].

Serge, as a satirical grotesque of the entertainment/consumerist complex, is decidedly outmoded in his concept of “power”, and superceded by the fact of total involvement and “participation” that the younger, bee-stung characters of the novel represent. The more Serge and “Solon” manage to fragment and ensnare the individual in drug-induced solipsism, the more “power”—in the form of money and material control—Serge has. But the young people come to realise that participation through something as simple as shared embodied experience and storytelling is a more authentic form of power, and they collectively overcome the Old School.

Just ahead of the Wikileaks phenomenon, Generation A fictionalizes the ongoing war between good and evil in the total participatory environment characterized by current media forms and communication networks. In this war a state of equal-opportunity exists once past the post of media access. (As demonstrated by recent events in Egypt, who is there now who is less powerful than an elected official, a celebrity, a CEO, a scientist, or a weapon of mass destruction?) But the fact of the “power” revolution inherent in the new participatory environment remains for the most part obscured by its held-over entertainment, “I do it because I can” qualities and patterning. The difference between Generation X’s and Generation A’s notion of power can be imagined through the juxtaposition of the Nike “Just Do It” campaign of the late 1980s and the Adidas “All In” campaign of 2011.

As Coupland notes of McLuhan’s impact, “there was no visible revolution, Marxist, Industrial, Freudian, or otherwise” [187, DC/MM]. The shift that has taken place in the passing of the mantle from so-called Generation X to the post-millenials has likewise passed under the radar. The implication is that Generation X will continue to purchase and/or negotiate for younger, richer, hotter, and more pliable products and entities with which to reproduce old patterns of authority and power centering on the material, individualism and old-school rebellion to reinforce a sense of “self”. Generation A may well be the new moral fundamentalists formed on the re-tribalising “swarm” and “hive” principles of a post-ICT world. Generation A will form bonds and aspire to a more humanistic idealism commensurate with a return to the body and orality. The swing is not necessarily a good or right one, but it is, nevertheless, underway.

As Coupland’s conversation with Powe continues, he suggests that Canadians are uniquely poised to survive the transition from the “virtual reality” of the 80s and 90s to the “new reality” of the twenty-first century. Survival will not be based so much on our ready and early adoption of new technology, but because we are a people of peculiar ingenuity brought by our national identity … or lack thereof. As McLuhan once observed, we are the only nation in the world to have successfully survived without an “identity”.

Having picked up on the McLuhanesque notion that communication is not something that just happens, Coupland writes, “Canada is a cold country; distances are huge. Communication is hard work, and Canadians have to think harder than most where it comes to communicating. And Canadians, bunkered into cozy homes that fight the cold winds, have to think more about the abstract meaning of communication ... on a person-per-acre basis, we’re the most spread out and have to work the hardest, and because of our history, we have no overriding core belief system that prescribes our thinking for us.” [210, DC/MM].

Coupland considers McLuhan quintessentially Canadian on this basis, and it is this national “survivor-explorer” persona that will allow us to overcome the violence hastened by rapid changes in the technological landscape. He does not sugar-coat the necessity of the survivor-explorer persona: “the fact is that Marshall did foresee a long, painful process in which technology shifts would trigger massive identity collapses around the world, which would generate new and terrifying sources of disassociation between the reality of what was physically available to individuals and the unreality of the world depicted by electronic media. The result would be conflict, violence, war.” [189 DC/MM]

Crucially, Coupland sees “The Prophetic McLuhan” not simply as an adept prognosticator, but as a pastoral figure deeply concerned for the human being, the dignity of human life and the integrity of the individual. The shepherding quality that Coupland wishes to bring out in the life and times of MM is perhaps best articulated by Henry Miller’s account of the Shepherd and the Poet in The Colossus of Maroussi (1941): “for the Shepherd the Poet is too facile, too easily satiated. The poet would say “there was ... there were ...”. But the Shepherd says, “he lives, he is, he does ...”. The poet is always a thousand years too late—and blind to boot. The Shepherd is eternal, and earth-bound spirit, a renunciator. On these hillsides forever and ever there will be the shepherd with his flock: he will survive: he will survive everything, including the tradition of all that ever was” (92).

Although MM used the work of artists and poets to reveal the hidden patterns and trends of culture as they were unfolding, and used them to on some level predict new changes, he also noted the loosening grip that these artists had on foresight as they were engulfed by mass media. The point, therefore, was not so much to become entrenched in or espouse allegiance to any particular new mode, but to survive the increasingly rapid changes with one’s humanity and perceptual abilities intact. Whereas the poet might be duped, the shepherd has an obligation to remain outside the chaos. Coupland opines, “I don’t think Marshall would be wondering about what technology comes next. His concern would probably be more oriented toward ministering to the human soul and on the way our senses of self and our interior voices cope with ever new worlds. Marshall’s ultimate message may well have been that the body is the medium and trumps all else” [236, DC/MM].

The unwary individual might find himself engulfed by the effects of any technological stage if he is not prepared to become a survivor-explorer. Tenessee Williams’ famous play, The Glass Menagerie (1944), anticipates the life of the “virtual man” created by the discarnating experience of the Electric Age up to the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century. Williams’ virtual man “was a telephone man who fell in love with long distances; he gave up his job with the telephone company and skipped the light fantastic out of town . . . The last we heard of him was a picture post-card from Mazatlan, on the Pacific coast of Mexico, containing a message of two words-- "Hello-- Good-bye!" and no address” [Scene 1]. This man did not survive. The distances subsumed him, and he became “mass man”, at the mercy of the whims and fluxes of himself as mere pattern, mashed up and remixed willy-nilly by the vagaries of whatever “monolithic” technological stage he happened to be passing through—or more to the point, that were passing through him—at the tme. Mass man, or as James Joyce called him in Finnegans Wake, HCE (Here Comes Everybody) was endlessly endless, a void. He disapeared and lapsed into silence. The Canadian—or McLuhan—solution, suggests Coupland, would have necessitated a different outcome.

Such are the lessons of the Coupland foray into the world of McLuhan through biographical and fictional means. Generation X was a folktale of discarnate angelism and digital angst based on speed-up and disappearance—“two clicks from the end of the alphabet, right?” as Kurt Vonnegut observed. Generation A is a celebration (and not entirely too late) of the resurgence of the body-as-medium, the sensorium, and, ultimately, a life committed to being human on the most basic of levels. It is absolutely current in illustrating a world of total participation, where the “virtual” implosion has already happened and now it’s time for a renaissance. Just like the post-traumatic, post-plague citizens of Boccaccio’s Decameron or the hapless creatures gearing up for the explosion of print-culture and the industrial revolution in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Coupland reminds us of the creative power in life: “simply by being here you’re storytelling” (282).

The characters of Generation A survive the deep distance of post-colonial citizens to one another by, ironically, shrinking into the landscape of Canada, coordinate: Haida Gwaii. They survive through embodiment, through bodily presence, not disappearance into illusory refuges. They explore through community, not by lingering in their statuses as exiles or refugees. There is a shattering of the seemingly whimsical patternings of human life and social interaction. To use the words of Professor Bruce Powe, the message is “entanglement not alienation”.

The Canadian launch of MM100 celebrations reinforces a very “McLuhan” social mandate for the twenty-first century, and not without a certain amount of conceit that it is we who know him best. Whether it's a very “Canadian” mandate is a matter for some scrutiny, but all of us in the “Global Village” must, as a matter of survival, revisit and revision what it means to be a “native” of planet earth. Like the Shepherd, we must be courageously radical enough in our vigilance to “survive everything, including the tradition of all that ever was”.

Main photo: Marshall McLuhan

Jen Reid is an academic and writer living globally.


Richard said...

Wonderful reviews and opinionz of ur hero. U really should engage in the next MoM, Doug prolly wont contribute cuz we wont be wearing beaver canoe signed Xists have landed shirts however if u'd like ur article dissected by some alpha humanz and reveal more about it and u then u have the patience to hear due to ur global academia. All in all ur url is very clever, diminutive and dim.

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