In profiling the Canadian theorist and coiner of “The medium is the message” in Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing Of My Work!, Douglas Coupland assumes his effort will be futile, an assumption he professes his subject would share. But even allowing for this knowingly incomplete posture, Coupland’s book is still an unfinished sketch.
Coupland posits McLuhan’s scholarly progress as the byproduct of a childhood clamoring for the attention of his mother, who neglected her sons while crisscrossing Canada on speaking tours. After a much-sought-after Cambridge stint, McLuhan wandered in the wilderness for several years, teaching English at a string of state and private religious universities before collaborating at the University of Toronto with an anthropologist on an interdisciplinary course in communications (commonplace today, but once “racy and suspect,” Coupland notes). While McLuhan’s personal tastes in culture and politics ran to the reactionary—he adored G.K. Chesterton and Wyndham Lewis, and considered the comic strip Blondie the prototype of the emasculated man—Understanding Media briefly made him the intellectual hero of his generation before he drifted into obscurity, lost the center created around his body of work, and died of a series of strokes at home.
While famous abroad, McLuhan never outgrew his reputation as an eccentric in his native country, applying tirelessly for U.S. grants when he couldn’t get his home universities to sponsor them. Coupland explores the dimensions of that fame, from annotating the text with used-bookstore listings for McLuhan’s books to close-reading his titular reference to Annie Hall, but his devotion to his subject leads down some odd paths. Coupland’s summaries of Understanding Media and other works are more than adequate given their context, but his biographical material often seems irrelevant to the matter at hand. Coupland explores McLuhan’s conversion to Catholicism and rare neural condition (which probably saved him after his first stroke in the 1960s) without rolling out their implications to his body of work, and pronounces the scholarly journal McLuhan co-edited influential by comparison to the early years of Wired.
At times, Coupland’s desire to shoehorn himself into McLuhan’s world comes across as a determination not to engage further with the man he clearly admires. You Know Nothing! scratches at the surface of a man fascinated by surface effects, offering a better gloss on Coupland’s idea of the man than of his extremely influential ideas.