by Melanie McBride
Published: April 29, 2002
If there’s a message of the ‘for dummies’ age it’s that nothing is beyond our grasp. And our desire to believe this is reinforced by trends like usability, which privilege economy over elucidation. No one anticipated it all better than Marshall McLuhan, who whittled big insights into sound bites in order to engage an audience beyond the lecture halls of the University of Toronto. With the help of Tom Wolfe and others, the scholarly McLuhan became a cool media prophet. It was, and still is, a practical strategy in anti-intellectual times. But in the process, much of McLuhan’s meaning has been reduced to a one-liner. This has as much to do with the absence of commentary on McLuhan’s literary, philosophical and cultural influences as it does with the way his work is taught.
Few knew the intellectual McLuhan better than the colleagues and friends he taught with at the University of Toronto. As one of McLuhan’s first graduate students, Professor Emeritus Donald F. Theall was present during McLuhan’s transformation from professor to media-prophet. Theall’s experience of McLuhan during this time, and their relationship as colleagues and friends, is the subject of The Virtual Marshall McLuhan. Two parts scholarship, one part biography, The Virtual Marshall McLuhan illuminates the importance of the arts, poetry and philosophy to the formation of Mcluhan’s ideas and his varying roles as satirist, trickster, professor and prophet.