August 1997

Root Page of Article: Now, McLuhan is the Message, by Mick Doherty

Forward Through the Rearview Mirror: The Book

If you're like me, the moment you pick up Forward Through the Rearview Mirror  your first thought will be "This is a coffee-table book." Not that there's anything wrong with that; and perhaps that was even the intent of the authors and producers.

The book, whose editors were both deeply involved with the production of Understanding McLuhan  have produced a text which they claim intends to be an ...

... evocative and visually exciting exploration of McLuhan's life and work in the context of the information age. The book consists of short prose passages, aphorisms, interviews, letters, and dialogues by McLuhan--many never before published--interwoven with biographical text ... Part book, part magazine, part storyboard, this multidimensional look at the ideas and life of the patron saint of Wired magazine will appeal to anyone interested in technology, contemporary thought, and popular culture.

What they have actually produced is a self-conscious imitation of McLuhan's attempts at l'essai concrete,  which he introduced in The Medium is the Massage  and later developed in CounterBlast.  The collision of image and word, of page and print--McLuhan calls these books "collide-o-scopes"-- were highly experimental in the mid-1960's and drew a great deal of attention and critical response. In a post-MTV era where Wired  magazine has adopted l'essai concrete  as its primary modus operandi  and everyday television commercials aspire to be nouveau art, what made McLuhan's books exceptional 30 years ago make this book about him seem positively mainstream.

Of course, just because the style is no longer new doesn't dismiss the possibility of it being done particularly well--and in some places, this book is quite accomplished. The text consists of brief scattered entries, "coded" by text color, and which the authors claim "have been selected and positioned so that they can be read consecutively as a narrative or randomly as individual ideas." This attempt to mimic hypertextual writing space within the boundaries of the codex book is carried off somewhat better than I have seen attempted elsewhere; in fact, this book is far easier to read than the original McLuhan texts. My impression is that this is due to the presence of an actual "narrative," a story to be told -- that of McLuhan's life and teachings. His writings were never so narrative-driven, as he relied heavily on the aphorism and the pun to make his major points.

Contributors to this book include Lewis Lapham, Neil Postman, Eric McLuhan (Marshall's son), Camille Paglia, and other names the reader will no doubt recognize. As a whole, the book is a pleasant read, and a multivocal testimonial to the influence McLuhan weilded on a wide variety of postmodern thinkers. If you're looking for a reference book about McLuhan, stick to the Theall text mentioned above; if you want to get a good sense of his theoretical stances (or lack thereof), return to Understanding Media.  If you want a good sample of the writing style (or anti-style) McLuhan espoused, pick up CounterBlast  at a used bookstore. If you're looking for a text that does a little of all these things, but whose primary focus is to pay homage to a great thinker, then this book is precisely right--for your coffee table. View it as a conversation-starter, and then take your debate into the library where you keep the other books mentioned here, or to the computer to start up the CD-ROM. ^

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