The Trouble with Marshall McLuhan

I often wonder what Claire, our five-year-old Yorkie, understands of our speech. She certainly gets the idea when we say, “Where’s your ball?” Off she goes, hunting for one of the little, squeaky balls Darlene keeps in stock.  I suspect she understands our urgent tone more than the words, but who knows?

Dipping into Marshall McLuhan’s The Gutenberg Galaxy after a week away from the project, I feel like a Yorkie trying to understand a tougher question. Like maybe, “Claire, what do you think of Standard & Poor’s downgrading of the nation’s debt?”  Or this:

The immense length and arching plasticity of line in all these musics is evidence of the advantages, counterbalancing the obvious limitations, of music conceived in terms of a single line; if one sacrifices the possibilities of harmony and sonorous contrast, one gains the possibility of creating melody free of the inhibitions of mensuration.  (p. 200)

If one looks up the word “mensuration” in the New Oxford American Dictionary embedded on one’s Kindle, one finds that it means “measuring,” with a special-usage definition from mathematics of “the measuring of geometric magnitudes, lengths, areas, and volumes.”

A few pages further, McLuhan quotes James Sutherland’s biting critique ofThomas Nashe, the Elizabethan pamphleteer, playwright, poet and satirist, as follows:

The trouble with Nashe is partly that he is a good deal less interested in making things easy for the reader than in enjoying his own superiority over him; or, if that seems too harsh a judgment, in exploiting the linguistic resources of the language for his own amusement.” (p. 202)

McLuhan has a dog in this fight, and his name is Nashe. Sutherland, we’re told, “mistakes this polyphony in Nashe for a failure to be a sensible man of letters.” The horror! No one would ever accuse MM of being “a sensible man of letters.”  Linguistic provocateur, perhaps, or mad-dog visionary and media mystic. But I seriously doubt that McLuhan often sat down to write seeking words “chosen in accordance with wisdom or prudence; likely to be of benefit,” which is how the NOAD defines “sensible.”

And thank goodness. It’s why I perk up my ears whenever I hear his name or turn to his silent voice in the text of his books.  Maybe this time I’ll understand what he’s saying, and run off to get it myself.


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