A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Review of Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work!

Review of Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work!
by Douglas Coupland 2010; Atlas Company

Patricia Fancher, Clemson University
Carl Whithaus, University of California, Davis
Andrew Mara, North Dakota State University

Enculturation: http://enculturation.net/review-of-you-know-nothing (Published: November 26, 2011)


Douglas Coupland does not conform to the conventions of the biography genre in his latest publication, Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work! Instead, Coupland’s biography adheres to the convention of Marshall McLuhan’s scholarship, especially the oft-cited phrase, “The medium is the message.” Coupland traces the invention of McLuhan’s scholarship through material, social, and technological contexts. Coupland weaves together the material context of both the subject of the biography, McLuhan, and the context of the biographer. By integrating the biography with the biographer, Coupland produces a complex and self-reflexive portrait of Marshall McLuhan.

book cover, Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work!

Coupland's biography does not provide an exhaustive history of McLuhan’s life or explain the evolution of McLuhan’s scholarship. As Coupland points out, that task has already been accomplished in several scholars’ extensive biographies of McLuhan’s life (7). For instance, Philip Marchand’s biography, Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger, chronicles McLuhan’s life over 13 chapters, each detailing the events and scholarship produced during a specific period of time. Coupland acknowledges the value of these biographies to a specialized group of scholars (7). However, the exigency for writing Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work! is not to better understand McLuhan. Rather, Coupland tosses out McLuhan’s life and seemingly prescient ideas as a life raft for Coupland and readers to stay afloat within a constantly changing, media-saturated society. Like best-selling books What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly and Where do Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson, Coupland weaves together complex scholarship into an entertaining narrative. Kelly, Johnson, and Coupland all offer guides for readers to understand and navigate our rapidly changing media landscape. While many authors offer advice to understand how technology may be changing society, what makes this biography especially interesting is that Coupland presents McLuhan as a possible guide, but a guide who is flawed, unpredictable, often self-contradictory, and nevertheless possessing unique insights for contemporary readers.


Patricia writes, "Coupland traces the invention of McLuhan's scholarship through material, social, and technological contexts. Douglas Coupland weaves together the material context of both the subject of the biography, McLuhan, and the context of the biographer. By integrating the biography with the biographer, Coupland produces a complex and self-reflexive portrait of McLuhan."

And, indeed, one aspect of reading Coupland's book that struck me was the material—I read it in the cute 7½ x 5¼ hardcover edition rather than what has become my near-typical Kindle e-book reading experience of late. Perhaps it is facile to mention the materiality of this one reader's experience with Coupland's biography, but given MM's dictum "the medium is the message," and his even more playful punning on his own dictum when titling his 1967 book The Medium is the Massage, the materiality of how one reads about MM seems germane. [I want to note here that MM is Coupland's continual shorthand reference to MM throughout his book. It is not my being clever, but rather Coupland's cleverness—or peculiarly annoying stylistic tic—that is employed throughout the book].

So where are we in this feast of a biography about McLuhan? We're just getting started, and I [CW] am fessing up to how I read the book. I am staring at Patricia's comment that Coupland "traces" "McLuhan's scholarship through material, social, and technological contexts." And I agree. But I am wanting to linger over materiality for a moment. I'm lingering on the cover—a mouse plugged cleverly into a 1950s television, complete with dial knobs for tuning in UHF VHS, but with an ironic, po-mo touch of carrot surrounded html code scrolled up on the grayish-silver screen—and the title Marshall McLuhan: You know Nothing of My Work!. The cover art, of course, is not Coupland's but a creation from jacket designer Jason Ramirez. The title, of course, is and is not Coupland's but rather a(nother) McLuhan quotation: "You know nothing of my work!" But this quotation is not exactly a quote of from McLuhan's work, but rather a quote of McLuhan playing McLuhan during a cameo in Woody Allen's Annie Hall. [Side note: Coupland's biography sadly lacks an index. In the hard cover print version I am reading, I could not look up Woody Allen's name in the index (and of course I could not just search for Woody Allen as I could in an e-book). Instead I went to YouTube and looked for McLuhan and Woody Allen and found the clip embedded here.]


Download video: Ogg format | MP4 format

So, two paragraphs in, and I have gotten to the version of the biography I am reading, the cover art, and the title. I must confess that, as CW, I promise to be a much slower, much more painstaking, and probably much more of a pain-in-the-@$$ reviewer than Patricia. Her take is clean, crisp—a beautiful overview. My take winds into the obscure, the playful, the semi-relevant. But since Andrew and Patricia have agreed to give this a go, let's see where these thoughts lead... I wonder what other plays, ideas, possibilities that materiality brings up for folks... The materiality of McLuhan's works is a vital aspect of the works themselves, but it is also a vital aspect of Coupland's biography. Coupland works to situate McLuhan's works within his life, and I would say that in his biography, Coupland aims to give McLuhan back some of his life, some of his vitality, and crankiness, and humor that might have been bleached from more scholarly takes on McLuhan. Coupland wants us to see McLuhan as "crotchy and obtuse" (17) but also as a person who somehow "anticipated—four decades in advance—the internet" (10) "not by hanging around, say, NASA or IBM, but rather by studying arcane sixteenth-century Reformation pamphleteers, the writings of James Joyce, and Renaissance perspective drawings" (13-14). Strange.

Here I mean "strange" in a miraculous and not ironic way. Coupland's self-set task in Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work! is to explain the insights from this strange bird MM, Marshall, Marshall McLuhan, this rhetorician-turned-prophet-turned-celebrity-turned-often-cited-source-in-new-media-and-communication-scholarship. Coupland starts us down a path to thinking about Marshall McLuhan as a living person, working through ideas but always realizing that those ideas were shaped by the materials in which he was thinking.


Coupland’s short biography is divided into three chapters titled “... return,” “... command ... shift,” and “... escape ... control.” In the first chapter, Coupland explains why general audiences should take an interest in McLuhan’s life and ideas. He narrates McLuhan’s genealogy and his life as a child and young man in Canada, ending with a strong sense that McLuhan’s unique biography and biology have primed him to become an original and brilliant thinker. The second chapter, “... command ... shift,” narrates how McLuhan came to be an academic in the right place, at the right time. Coupland connects the many seemingly inconsequential events that eventually lead McLuhan to academic celebrity. The chapter ends with his mother’s death, McLuhan’s first stroke, and the publication of Gutenberg’s Galaxy. The final chapter traces McLuhan’s sudden rise to celebrity status and the difficult fall back to obscurity. Coupland ends the book with a series of “mediations” and a section "So Then, What Happens Next?" where Coupland outlines the major lessons learned from McLuhan’s life. In each of the chapters, Coupland suggests how McLuhan’s body and brain contributed to his genius, his celebrity, and eventually to McLuhan’s fall from fame. Throughout the book, the biographer also adds personal commentary, reflections, and artifacts from the past and present.

The form of the biography performs the spirit of McLuhan’s most-cited phrase: “The medium is the message." Coupland explains, “'The medium is the message' means that the ostensible content of all electronic media is insignificant; it is the medium itself that has the greater impact on the environment” (13). Likewise, the content of McLuhan’s life—his actions, personality, and choices—are insignificant compared with the historical context, nation, landscape, family, and body that constituted Marshall McLuhan. Coupland opens by asking, “where do good ideas come from” and answers by writing that “for a person to have a genius idea, millions of biographical factors need to be in place, and if even one of those factors is missing, well, there goes the genius idea” (12). Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of my Work! attempts to track some of those "millions of biographical factors" that enabled McLuhan to construct ideas. In this biography, we find a man whose country, landscape, family, associations, media consumption, and body weave together to allow for great inventiveness.

Course 1.... The Eggs of Materiality....: 

While Philip Marchand’s Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger argues that McLuhan possessed an unique intelligence that set him apart from his contemporaries, Coupland's biography is more idiosyncratic. That is, while Marchand might be making the type of argument that is typical in popular biography, Coupland's take is slipperier—it is somewhere between a scholarly take and a popular take. Like any good biographer, Coupland turns to McLuhan's early life and his relationships with his parents to foreground McLuhan's later development as a writer.

While Marshall McLuhan's father (Herbert McLuhan) was a relatively weak figure ("cheerful, erudite, and happy to go along with life's flow" [25] according to Coupland), Marshall McLuhan's mother, Elsie, was a force to be reckoned with. Not only did she have "whip-cracking mood swings" and a "temper" (25), she taught elocution, traveling around the Great Plains and sometimes dragging Marshall and his brother with her. Coupland presents Elsie's fascination with elocution and her argumentative nature as shaping factors in Marshall's life. Writing in his Gen-X Microserf style as only he can write, Coupland says, "Elocution also taught young Marshall about the Play-Doh aspect of words, their mutability and their ability to morph and change texture on the tongue" (27). It's that reference to "Play-Doh" that does it for me—I knew that McLuhan loved words and their sounds as well as thinking about how media shaped our reception of ideas, but I hadn't quite gotten how intimate, how very rooted that insight was in McLuhan's childhood until reading Coupland. Of course, McLuhan himself probably did not play with Play-Doh, at least the trade-marked version of it, while growing up. But for me and Coupland as children of the late 60s and early 70s, the anachronism works. 

Yet, I want to be clear here: for Coupland, McLuhan's later focus on the materiality of language is not caused by his mother, but is rather more accidental—"be it hormones or DNA or a bump on the head that opened a neural dam . . . he became a book-reading machine, obsessed with words and all their aspects: historical, grammatical, and idiosyncratic, as well as (and this is important) the physical—the way the mouth forms a word, the way a word becomes art" (28). This accidental move, this variety of possible causations, shifts us from Coupland's concern with McLuhan's obsession with the materiality of language towards the more social aspects of McLuhan's intellectual biography. How'd he grow up? How'd he go from earning a B.A. at the University of Manitoba in 1934 to earning a second B.A. at Cambridge in 1936? When he returned to North America, how'd his journeys as a teacher lead him from Madison, Wisconsin through St. Louis, Missouri to Toronto and what did McLuhan pick up along the way? Those questions are all essential for Coupland as he traces McLuhan's life and the development of McLuhan's ideas.


Douglas Coupland connects McLuhan’s homeland with his theories on communication and language. McLuhan was raised on the expansive prairies of Western Canada. Communication and travel between cities would take time and significant effort. Coupland suggests that “Canada is a cold country; distances are huge. Communication is hard work, and Canadians have to think harder then most when it comes to communicating” (186). Elsie McLuhan traveled often; Marshall McLuhan must have acutely felt the distances between spaces (26-27). Elsie would write often, but each letter took several days to arrive. Coupland points out that, in western Canada before modern communication technologies, space was understood infinitely. Over McLuhan’s lifetime, the space between places collapsed. For instance, now we can instantly communicate across vast spaces. Changes in the mode of communication became a continued focus in McLuhan’s research. The shrinking of distance and instant communication technologies mark important changes that, McLuhan argues, move our culture toward a "global village" (13).

Coupland suggests that the physical structure of McLuhan’s brain must have contributed to his ability to think and invent. “The biological mechanisms that made and allowed him to think what he thought” were very different" (19). Coupland explains that McLuhan’s brain was wired differently and had “two arteries, not one, feeding blood to his brain” (129). In the 1960s, doctors discovered a lemon-size tumor in McLuhan’s brain (155). With these peculiar biological factors, it is no wonder that McLuhan invented peculiar, yet insightful, theories. Coupland suggests that the extra blood flowing the McLuhan’s brain allowed him to process massive quantities of information without losing sight of the big picture, a quality most obvious in his book, The Gutenberg Galaxy. The peculiarities within McLuhan’s brain caused his early death, but they also contributed towards the brilliance of his life. Coupland concludes, “Marshall’s life shows us the majesty of the human brain in all its flaws and kinks and wonders” (205).

Coupland is acutely aware of the biographer’s controlling hand in the reconstruction of McLuhan’s life. Coupland includes reflexive commentary on the biographical form. In a few places, he acknowledges that he is constructing a version of McLuhan, not detailing the truth about the man. For instance, Coupland notes how the form of the biography shapes the subject. He writes, “Marshall is, here in this book, the subject of a biography, but the ground against which he stands is the notion of 'biography' itself” (99). In other places, Coupland contemplates how this biography of McLuhan may shape the form of biographies. “Perhaps this opens the door to what may be one future for the biography of those who create new ideas, a form in which the biographer mixes historical circumstances with forensic medical diagnosis to create what might be called a pathography—an attempt to map a subject’s brain functions and to chart the way they create what we call the self” (51). On the page immediately following this quote, Coupland includes a 50-question test to “measure autistic traits in adults” (52). No explicit connection is made, but the test suggests that while reconstructing McLuhan’s biography we may also include autism as an aspect of the McLuhan pathography.


My dip into the conversation begins at the end: his tombstone. Douglas Coupland’s book designer renders McLuhan’s tombstone epitaph “THE TRUTH SHALL/MAKE YOU FREE” in a font that my computer cannot replicate (Time Machine Bold). The materiality of MM’s world cannot but be translated to fit better in the coffeetable-ready book Coupland wrote. We only get to McLuhan through multiple mediations—from tombstone to rubbings, to fax, and finally to print biography. Patricia writes that “Coupland includes reflexive commentary on the biographical form. In a few places, he acknowledges that he is constructing a version of McLuhan, not detailing the truth about the man,” and Carl focuses on the material “aspect of reading Coupland’s book.” That both reviewers locate Coupland’s biography at the the nexus of perception and production should not surpise. After all, this is an academic biography about colossus of media theory.

This biography seems aimed squarely at a media conversation that cannot decide whether or not the medium is either the message or the massage. Speaking to those on the material side, Coupland acknowledges the possible deeply material causes of McLuhan’s genius, the “underlying biological reasons for the acceleration of Marshall’s tics and eccentricities” (179). But something else emerges with Coupland’s playful cataloguing style. The message of MM gently starts to escape both the medium and the massage. McLuhanites like Gregory Ulmer and Jeff Rice would recognize the associative and allegorical possibilities of an additional brain artery nourishing the network that scholars point to as the birthplace of both cool and hot—MM's brain. Bending biology to analogy perfectly bypasses the question of whether MM was a prophet or a crank. He was what we make of him, and Coupland opens up one more vein of exploration in what MM might mean to media scholars.


Coupland is keenly aware of the biographer’s role in reconstructing McLuhan’s life. Coupland weaves his own life, perspective, and investment into McLuhan’s biography. Coupland explains his deep personal connection with McLuhan. “I chose, in part, to write this book because Marshall’s family so closely mirrors my own” (206). Coupland outlines some of their similarities, including their mutual cynicism toward new technologies, yet endlessly interested in the changes they bring. Coupland also connects McLuhan’s past with the present moment of the biographer. Coupland includes information on McLuhan’s book and reader’s reviews from Amazon.com. Footnotes add anecdotes about Coupland’s family, connections to contemporary publishing, and Coupland’s musings about the experience of reading McLuhan in the 21st century (100, 123, 142). After writing about how McLuhan’s brain may have changed in response to new media, Coupland steps out of McLuhan’s past and brings the reader to the writer’s present. Coupland writes a section titled “Spoooooooky”: “the moment I finished imputing the words preceding these, I went online and Google’s Gmail suggested the following article to me. 'Can the Internet change your brain? By Nick Heath silicon.com'” (180).


Synchronicity. Juxtaposition. Sometimes you cannot plan these hot-cold happenings.... Like the neurons in Geoff Sirc's brain, they just happen... to click.

What the heck do you mean, Carl? I mean yesterday while I was writing this review my Facebook and Twitter feeds both popped up this tag line: "Out of Our Brains

Andy Clark wonders: are devices like iPhones and BlackBerrys actually becoming extensions of our thinking selves?

It seems impossible that an entire article on embodied cognition and the extended mind would not reference Marshall McLuhan, but it is hard not to see traces of McLuhan's ideas echoing around in Clark's article...


Coupland does not write McLuhan's biography to offer an accurate picture of the past. Instead, Coupland pillages the rag and bone piles of McLuhan’s life in order to understand our present and imagine how we should proceed into the future. As McLuhan wrote, “we look at the present through a rearview mirror. We march backwards into the future” (quoted in Coupland 87). The book concludes with a series of "meditations;" each one offers "lessons learned" from McLuhan’s life and writing. For instance, Coupland writes, “Marshall lets us know that we, humanity, are part of something long and grand, that we’re not merely blips on a screen” (200). Each meditation is "remixed" into different letter patterns, fonts, or word games, which call the reader’s attention back to the medium.

Coupland opens this biography by asking “What might he think of us?” (16). Coupland concludes by answering this question: “It was an adventure, Marshall, and wasn’t it grand? You would have hated the way things turned out, sir, but you would also have found it oh so very, very interesting” (209). Although Coupland acknowledges that McLuhan may not have approved of the world in 2011, Coupland constructs a biography McLuhan may have found very interesting.

Works Cited

Coupland, Douglas. Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Life!. New York: Atlas, 2011. Print.

Marchand, Philip. Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger. Revised Edition. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998. Print.