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Mcluhan's Wake

Director: Kevin McMahon
Cast: Laurie Anderson (narrator)

(National Film Board of Canada; US DVD: 23 Jan 2007)

McLuhan’s Wake is an intellectual biography of communications scholar and ‘60s/‘70s pop culture icon, Marshall McLuhan. Structurally, the film has elements of a traditional linear narrative. However, it departs from that convention in being broken into four acts organized not around events in its subject’s life, but around McLuhan’s “laws of media”, the subject of his final book, Laws of Media (1988, University of Toronto Press), which was finished after his death by co-author, and son, Eric McLuhan.


The final major piece of the film is an animated version of Edgar Allen Poe’s “Descent into the Maelstrom” (1841), which serves as a metaphor for McLuhan’s attempt to find patterns in the onrush of information and images generated through 20th century media, notably television (McLuhan himself references the story in The Mechanical Bride, 1951). McLuhan’s Wake is a Canadian production originally released in 2002. This DVD for the US market has recently been produced by The Disinformation Company.


The film begins abstractly with a quote from James Joyce, “The West shall shake the East awake . . .  while ye have the night for morn,” on a black background that dissolves into a wide shot of roiling water. As the quote fades, a montage of televisual images, a spinning, sparkling ballerina, a shot of the original moon landing, and one of the Challenger explosion, is added to the scene. From there, the film shifts to an underwater shot, and the audience first hears, and then also sees McLuhan, in black and white, delivering a lecture as if surrounded by sun streaked water.


The punchline to this segment is captured in the line, “How are we to get out of the maelstrom produced by our own ingenuity?” At this point, McLuhan introduces Poe’s story and the film cuts to a moving long shot of a man on a white streaked cliff overlooking a churning sea. As a narrator begins to recite the story, a boat with two men aboard enters the frame. This sequence, and all of the Poe footage, is animated so as to appear hand-painted.


As the boat is pulled into a vortex, the documentary cuts back to McLuhan suggesting that it might be possible to apprehend “the pattern of the effects” emanating from the technology in which we have enveloped ourselves, and that in tracing those effects, we might acquire the knowledge necessary to avoid being consumed by our own inventions. The film then returns to the Poe animation, and the lone survivor is being pulled out of the water. Not coincidentally, we’re told that his survival is made possible by his ability to correctly read the vortex’s pattern of movement. However, his rescuers refuse to believe his story.


In the background of the rescue is a chest turning in the water. The scene shifts to a live action shot of a chest sinking into the sea, and as it does, Laurie Anderson introduces the “laws of media”. Right as the chest is pulled under the water, an image of a nuclear blast also appears in the frame. Once the chest is fully underwater, the opening credits begin. From this point on, the film settles into a more regular rhythm, moving between photos and television clips from McLuhan’s life and Anderson’s introductions of the individual laws of media, each of which entails a return to the chest, now fully immersed in water and hemorrhaging books and pages of text.


The film’s reliance on The Laws of Media, which was published eight years after Marshall McLuhan’s death, is, superficially at least, a curious choice. Not only was it finished by his son and published posthumously, but it appeared well past the height of McLuhan’s influence and celebrity. Unlike, say, “the medium is the message” or “the global village”, none of the “laws” identified in the text, and that structure McLuhan’s Wake, have seeped into common usage or appear to have directly shaped major research agendas in the social sciences. On the other hand, the text was written, at least in part, as a direct response to McLuhan’s critics, particularly, those who charged his work with a lack of scientific rigor and substance. Laws of Media is as much a work in the philosophy of science as it is about communications and technology.


In an interesting adaptation of Karl Popper’s principle of “falsification”, the McLuhans present their laws of media not as declarative statements about invariant processes or forces, but as questions. Questions, unlike declarative statements, are inherently testable in that they can be, in equal measure, verified, through affirmative responses, or disproven, “falsified”, through negative responses. The four laws, as articulated in the film, are: what will a technology enhance? what will it obsolesce? what will it retrieve? and what will it reverse? The assumption here is that every form of media ultimately, and simultaneously, enhances some aspects of human life and capabilities, renders others obsolete, enables the retrieval of still others, and produces reversals in its own use.


McLuhan’s Wake uses various scenes of modern life, from video game arcades to a group of contemporary Native American,s or in proper Canadian fashion, “First Nations”, hunters, to illustrate the workings of these laws. In each case, the audience is given an example of how a particular technology works as an extension of the human self (e.g., the phonetic alphabet and communication); displaces some prior technology (e.g., guns in relation to the bow and arrow)’ allows us to recover something that had heretofore been lost (e.g., digital media’s ability to foster new goddesses, Britney Spears, and monsters, Osama bin Laden); and, eventually, undermines itself (e.g., freeway gridlock). These questions are the ones that McLuhan believed would allow us to detect “the pattern of the effects” in the maelstrom of our technologically mediated lives and selves.


While the laws of enhancement, obsolescence, retrieval, and reversal maybe unfamiliar, the filmmakers are mindful to relate these terms back to McLuhan’s more famous / infamous pronouncements, particularly the aforementioned “the medium is the message” and “the global village”. The former is at the heart of the law of enhancement, while the latter is a form of retrieval. McLuhan was concerned that a fixation with the content of media, particularly television, was blinding people to the ways in which electronic communications were remaking the world, becoming our eyes and ears, and leading to “disembodiment” as we begin to, almost literally, transmit ourselves through the air and via electronic circuitry.


The filmmakers explicitly play with this idea of disembodiment through the soundtrack, which consists mostly of voices from people you never see until the very end of the film, and includes friends, family, former students, and other scholars of communications. When rearticulated as “the medium is the massage”, McLuhan’s observations about the transformative potential of electronic media becomes a warning about the hijacking of ourselves by corporate interests. For McLuhan these same media also worked to turn the world into “a constantly sounding tribal drum” that delivers images and information to us from all sides. Living in the world is like living in an ancient village in that, for better and worse, everyone knows everyone else’s business.


As the film will tell you, by the time of his death, not only was Marshall McLuhan disabled by stroke, but his time had seemingly past. Following his death, the University of Toronto wasted no time in closing down the McLuhan-led Centre for Culture and Technology. However, in 1994, just a few years after the publication of Laws of Media, the university started the McLuhan Program in Technology and Culture within its Faculty of Information Studies. That there would be resurgent interest in McLuhan’s scholarship in the midst of the dot com boom, and the building of the “information superhighway”, seems not just predictable, but perhaps even inevitable.


For their part, the makers of McLuhan’s Wake, while clearly admiring of their subject, refrain from grand pronouncements about his genius and contemporary relevance. The selection of images to illustrate McLuhan’s life and the laws of media are clearly meant to be persuasive in favor of the man and his work, but viewers are largely left to make their own connections between text, words, and images when it comes to passing judgment on the value of both.


The DVD comes packaged with a number of extras that augment the film. The “Movies” section includes McLuhan’s Wake, plus an uncut version of the animated “Descent into the Maelstrom” and an extended interview with McLuhan’s wife, Corrine McLuhan. The “Voices” section is a collection of audio files, including a 1966 speech and an interview with McLuhan himself, as well as extended discussions with the members of “the chorus”, a group that includes Neil Postman, Lewis Lapham, and Eric McLuhan.


“Laws” is an interactive selection of “tetrads”, the McLuhans’ term for charts that map out responses to the four laws as applied to specific technologies, from chairs to cell phones. Finally, “Documents” contains a copy of the shooting script, a set of director’s notes, a transcript of the film, a McLuhan biography and bibliography, a list of recommended websites, a study guide, and a gallery of photographs and McLuhan quotes. All but the last are only fully accessibly on a computer DVD drive Of particular interest in this array of extras is the 1966 interview with McLuhan, which provides a lively and engaging explanation of “the medium is the message,” probably his most used and least understood bon mot.


A word of warning about the added features: at least on the copy I received for review, many of these were mislabeled in one way or another. The Corrine McLuhan interview, for example, is listed at 12 minutes, but actually runs for over 30. Similarly, the bios provided for the “Voices” are not properly matched with the audio files (of course, maybe the DVD producers are simply pushing the boundaries of the medium is the message; if so, I think they’ve taken it a little too literally).


By the end of McLuhan’s Wake it’s hard not to return to the opening sequence. In retrospect, this part of the film seems to be the filmmakers’ most eloquent defense and explanation of both McLuhan’s worldview and the nature of his intellectual project. The disorienting nature of the imagery creates the kind of confusion that McLuhan feared would consume humanity, and yet as dangerous as the world seems to be, it is also enchanting; all the more reason to try to understand the ways in which we are being affected, refigured even, by the tools of our own invention.


This is McLuhan’s underlying purpose: to understand how we change our own natures through the technological media we create, and take for granted, in our daily lives. If anything, the world is more village-like than it was when McLuhan first gave it that description. However, the global village is, at once, close knit and violently fractious. McLuhan’s Wake quietly suggests that revisiting Marshall McLuhan is a good place to start for any effort to find insight into the dynamics of our highly networked, but also highly uneven, world.

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Shaun Huston is an associate professor in Geography and Film Studies at Western Oregon University, where he primarily teaches courses in political and cultural geography. He also makes films, including Comic Book City, Portland, Oregon, USA (2012), a documentary on the community of comics creators in Portland, Oregon (view details on IMDB).


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