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In an amazingly successful attempt to be true to the McLuhan he knew, Theall uses much of the same technique of McLuhan in presenting the pieces of the McLuhan puzzle. The student has learned well at the knee of the master. The result is that we have a gifted trickster of language describing one of history’s most gifted trickster’s of language. The effect is similar to entering a carnival funhouse full of mirrors.

The legendary trickster that Theall pursues in his quest is full of paradox, contradictions and ambiguities. Not because McLuhan tried to be ambiguous but rather because he believed that truth lingered somewhere within the enveloping haze of ambiguity. McLuhan’s method, Theall observes, was one of the "satiric poet" and that this allowed him to freely "construct his paradoxical probes, so that they may have multiple, often contradictory meanings."

It was used more as a strategy of rhetoric rather than as a method of building a bullet-proof theory. The problem, though, is that over the years many have looked for rules and laws in McLuhan’s "paradoxical probes." As Theall notes, "The potential weakness appears when his rhetorico-poetic project becomes fact or formula rather than insight and intuition."

Theall wants us to see McLuhan not as a media theorist and constructionist of grand media laws but rather as a poet with a poet’s way of looking at the world. Really, our first poet of the digital age.

As Theall observes in the book’s Introduction "No one would ever doubt McLuhan’s erudition or his wide reading in popular culture. His real power, however, was in his sensitivity to his social environment, for as a popular artist he firmly believed, along with Ezra Pound, that ‘artists are the antennae of the race,’ and thus possess the empathy to register motifs that respond to those significant moments that reveal the agenda of an era, thus presumably serving society as an early warning system about its ‘socio-unconscious.’ "

So it is as a prophetic artist rather than a guru of technology that Theall suggests McLuhan needs to be understood and revisioned. An artist tuned like the early warning detection technology of radar to the subtle winds to the zeitgeist of his times. In effect, a "medium for messages" rather than "messages from a medium."

In that syllabus written for an eleventh grade high school class that became Understanding Media (1964) McLuhan wrote in the book’s Introduction "The power of the arts to anticipate future social and technological developments, by a generation and more, has long been recognized. In this century Ezra Pound called the artist ‘the antennae of the race.’ Art as radar acts as ‘an early warning system,’ as it were, enabling us to discover social and psychic targets in lots of time to prepare to cope with them. This concept of the arts as prophetic, contrasts with the popular idea of them as mere self-expression. If art is an ‘early warning system,’ to use the phrase from World War II, when radar was new, art has the utmost relevance not only to media study but to the development of media controls."

Ultimately, Theall’s goal is one to place the prophetic artist in the context of his time. Theall defines it as an attempt to "contextualize McLuhan within the materials that had shaped him and to confront his work with the work of those from whom he borrowed heavily." One might say, it is an attempt to summon back the "medium of the messenger."

Theall’s contextualization project attempts to throw new light onto the McLuhan legend and, at the same time, offer possibilities of new paths outward from the McLuhan cathedral. As Theall notes, his project "illuminates his work, while also offering possibilities of new, different, and sometimes richer directions for exploring the inter-relation of culture, technology, and communication."

These possibilities for "richer" new "directions" for understanding the McLuhan phenomenon derive from much new, previously unpublished material on McLuhan. As Paul Heyer of Wilfred Laurier University notes in his review of the book, "Theall has done something no previous biographical study of McLuhan had adequately accomplished – he has provided us with an intimate and informed look at McLuhan’s sources, especially those in literature."

This "intimate and informed look at McLuhan’s sources" so far has been lacking in most McLuhan biographies. For example, three of the leading books about McLuhan - Terrence Gordon’s Marshall McLuhan: Escape Into Understanding, Paul Levinson’s Digital McLuhan and Philip Marchand’s Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger – are based on first meeting McLuhan in the mid-60s when McLuhan’s fame as a prophet was already assured.

As we suggested, this was too late. For McLuhan, fame had a way of creating a type of trickster mythology obscuring its trickster subject.


Prevailing perspectives of McLuhan locate his major sources in the 20th century. They particularly congregate around the work of fellow Canadian Harold Innis with the argument that Innis was McLuhan’s grand mentor and link to insights about communications theory.

Yet a small group of McLuhan intimates like Donald Theall and Edmund Carpenter suggest otherwise. The links were never as strong with Innis as popular McLuhan mythology would have us believe. And what’s more, the argument of the small group of intimates suggest that sources for McLuhan’s ideas go back far beyond modern times.

In "That Not-So-Silent Sea" Carpenter notes that "I remain unconvinced of his allegiance to Innis" adding the Canadian communications theorist "was never Marshall’s mentor…Differences between McLuhan and Innis were unbridgeable."

And, Theall reminds, the main link was not with communications theory in the first place but with the humanities and arts. It was a link that connected McLuhan to ancient history, to the Greek and Roman educational system (Cicero in Augustan Rome) and the famous Trivium of Western intellectual tradition. The Trivium compressed all knowledge into the three streams of rhetoric (communication), dialectic (philosophy and logic), and grammar (literature). Although contemporary knowledge about the Trivium has faded, its three branches still serve as the foundation for our elementary school process based around teaching grammar (in grades K-6 and ages 4-11), logic (in grades 7-9 and ages 12-14) and rhetoric (in grades 10-12 and ages 15-18).

McLuhan’s studies of the Trivium advanced forward through the Middle Ages and Giambattista Vico’s New Science, the work of Thomas Nashe in Elizabethan England (Nashe was the subject of McLuhan’s Pd.D thesis at Cambridge) and eventually ended up centering around James Joyce in the twentieth century.

A major contention of The Virtual Marshall McLuhan is that James Joyce was the immediate precursor of McLuhan and ultimately contemporary cyberculture. As Theall observes, many writers in the area of the pre-history of cyberspace include McLuhan as one of the most important anticipators of the contemporary cyberculture but Joyce’s role is seldom acknowledged. "The crucial question," says Theall, "is whether in the process of popularization of modernisms, McLuhan obstructed others from realizing that Joyce not McLuhan, should be considered the precursor or forerunner of cyberculture if the complexity of cyberculture is to be fully appreciated and an appropriate satiric critique provide a balanced understanding of it."

This lack of acknowledgement of Joyce as the father of cyberculture is somewhat understandable. After all, there are probably no more than a handful of people who have actually read through Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegans Wake and an even smaller number who claim to have a clue as to what they are about.

Literary critic Wayne Booth puts the Joyce problem well in The Rhetoric of Fiction. "In all the skeleton keys and classroom guides there is an open assumption that his later works, Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, cannot be read; they can only be studied … The reader’s problems are handled, if they are to be handled at all, by rhetoric provided outside the work." (Interestingly, much of McLuhan’s work is similar to Joyce’s, often studied and interpreted through outside rhetoric but seldom read.)


Within the Joycean edifice, or for that matter the edifice of all contemporary literature, perhaps no masterpiece is more enigmatic and puzzling than Finnegans Wake. In the chapter "McLuhan, Joyce, and the Evolution of Cyberculture" Theall makes a convincing argument for the close connection of Finnegans Wake to McLuhan’s ideas and methods and to cyberculture.

In a sense, James Joyce was the great "trickster" from whom McLuhan learned many of his techniques. Joyce’s great trick was the invention of a language with multiple meanings. The trick was evident in that great gnarly puzzle called Finnegans Wake. As the work on the Wake went forward, Joyce became increasingly convinced of the inadequacy of literature and traditional novels to capture reality. In November of 1926 he wrote to his close friend Harriet Shaw Weaver "a great part of every human experience is passed in a state which cannot be rendered sensible by the use of wideawake language, cutanddry grammar and goahead plot."

It was the 1920s and the early years of a new technology called cinema. The new technology also created a new language of multiple meanings with its simultaneous combination of sight and sound. Joyce had completed Ulysses (1922) and was starting on his almost two decade project of Finnegans Wake (1939). Having done the longest day in literature with Ulysses Joyce set himself an even greater challenge with Finnegans Wake and its exploration of the longest night in literature. The work would use the resources of some sixty languages. As Joyce said about his book, "A nocturnal state…that is what I want to convey: what goes on in a dream, during a dream."

At the time, Joyce himself was under the spell of the new cinematic technology and particularly its first grand theorist Sergei Eisenstein and his famous book Film Form. As Theall says, "Eisenstein had noted that Joyce wanted, first through interior monologue of Ulysses and then in the language of the Wake, to use speech and print to achieve the nearest approximation to the inclusive, syncretistic character of film, including color and sound, that epitomized the most recent stage in the orchestration of the then-existing arts."

But Eisenstein did not think Joyce’s project could succeed. Yet Joyce proceeded ahead anyway. Theall writes that Joyce, "fascinated by film and intrigued by Eisenstein, realized that the intensities and complexities of the poetry of the verbal arts must become part of any such future orchestration and that for this to occur verbal language must undergo a transformation."

The "verbal transformation" Joyce attempted was an extension of the printed word into multiple meanings like cinema. Joyce wondered if two or more sensations and meanings could exist at the same time. Theall mentions a number of theories prevalent in Joyce’s time postulating this simultaneous mixing of various senses. One was "synesthesia" or a concomitant sensation mixing senses such as sight and sound. A color might be loud. A noise might be bright. Another was "syncretism" or the combination of different forms of belief or practice. Another was "polysemous" or having multiple meanings.

Theall suggests that Joyce’s invention of his own polysemic language (epitomized in Finnegans Wake) was really an attempt to design "a way for language to cope with the problems presented by new technological possibilities for synaesthetic and coenaesthetic modes of communication and expression." The question for Joyce was really whether written language could be expanded to meet the challenge of the new technology of cinema.

Perhaps it could if a new written language was created that garnered its power from being read. A visual linear media might transform into an auditory non-linear media by the act of reading it out loud.

This was a major part of the Joyce experiment in Finnegans Wake. In The Gutenberg Galaxy McLuhan associated Joyce’s project in the Wake with a return to the orality of a manuscript culture. McLuhan often recalled that Joyce never tired of explaining how in Finnegans Wake "the words the reader sees are not the words that he will hear." As with a poet like Gerard Manly Hopkins, the language of Joyce only came alive when read aloud, creating a synaesthesia or interplay of the senses. Theall notes, "For McLuhan, reading aloud meant reversing the effect of print by restoring what had been lost in a world of silent reading."

One could say that Joyce’s literary experiments in Finnegans Wake were put to work by McLuhan who lived and spoke the theory Joyce wrote in the Wake. One of the reasons McLuhan felt so close to Joyce might be found in the similar movement of their lives. As Umberto Eco notes in The Aesthetics of Chaosmos, Joyce’s movement was from a Catholic, Thomist position to a disordered, decentered, anarchic vision of life that characterized Ulysses and Finnegans. It had a startling similar movement to the flow of McLuhan’s life.

By the late 60s, McLuhan’s Wake inspired theories were beginning to crawl into new media forms. At Expo 1967 in Montreal, Theall notes "The overt recognition of the importance of synaesthesia and the convergence of media to the further development of extensions of cinema and other media – intermedia – was well developed" with many exhibits making specific reference to McLuhan.

With the 70s, "intermedia" evolved into what critics called "expanded cinema." The "expansion" of cinema came to increasingly involve computers and other forms of telecommunication. Virtual reality and cyberculture were the result of this evolution in the 80s and 90s.

Looking around today, in these early years of the new millennium, it seems that the new media Joyce and McLuhan worked to create has been realized in that historical condition called postmodernism. Certainly one of its effects has been a type of assault on the senses from all sides. Events, people, places, things, images, sounds come at us jumbled together so that our day world of consumer culture is similar to that night world of dream Joyce created in the Wake. Culture itself has become the new "text" that Joyce and McLuhan once wrote and spoke about.

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