A tribute to and a lament for Marshall McLuhan.  Five days a week, Tuesday through Saturday, I present one of McLuhan’s observations and talk about its relevance today.  300 ideas. 300 days.  300 posts.

Douglas Coupland’s Marshall McLuhan [cont’d]

Marshall McLuhan (March 20, age 98).  I failed!

Corinne went out shopping – heaven’s not what I thought it was going to be – which gave me the opportunity to take that test in Douglas Coupland’s book about me.  For the record my score was 21, which is a delightful result, particularly because it is divisible by three.

Me (March 2010, age 57).  So did I!

As I promised to do yesterday, I took the test, too.  My score was 19, which, sadly, is not divisible by three, but is a prime!

The test as Coupland explains in Marshall McLuhan was devised by psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen and his colleagues at Cambridge.  It is called the Autism-Spectrum Quotient, or AQ, and is ‘a measure of the extent of autistic traits in adults.’  According to Coupland ‘in the first major trial using the test, the average score of the control group was 16.4.  Eighty percent of those diagnosed with autism or a related disorder scored 32 or higher.’

Coupland suggests that to understand Marshall McLuhan it is helpful to view him as autistic.  What does that mean?  It does not mean, as Coupland says, that McLuhan couldn’t function in the world.   He clearly did and so do many people who are autistic.  It means in living his life he displayed particular traits.  According to the test, someone with autism is more likely to prefer to do things on their own, do things the same way over and over again, and when imagining something, find it hard to create a picture in their mind.  People without autism are just the opposite.  Moreover the autistic tend to notice small sounds when others do not, are fascinated by numbers, and don’t particularly enjoy reading fiction.

But looking through this list I find it hard to see Marshall McLuhan as ‘autistic’.  For example:  He was fascinated by some kinds of numbers (numbers divisible by three – he was superstitious) but not all numbers (he thought of himself as a word man not a number man); and reading fiction was both his passion and his profession as a teacher of English literature at the University of Toronto.  Admittedly, however, he did love his routines and often claimed to dislike change of any kind.  The question is does the profile of someone with autism give us a quick and dirty way to profile Marshall McLuhan?  Douglas Coupland says it does.  I say no.  I never met Marshall McLuhan.  My understanding of him is based on my reading (including 4 biographies, his letters and books, and papers held at the National archives) and interviews with some people who knew him (including Professor Abraham Rotstein – who was part of McLuhan’s discussion group on media and technology at Toronto in the 1960s -and Dr. Michael Easterbrook – who is the son of McLuhan’s closest and oldest friend – Tom Easterbrook.

To profile Marshall McLuhan as ‘autistic’ makes for good tabloid reading.  McLuhan did have some of the characteristics of autism.  His hearing – like Coupland’s, apparently – was preternaturally acute.  But many of the traits of autism seem to me to be wrong or smudgy ways to understand him.  For example, the autistic, it is said, are often the last to understand the point of a joke.  Marshall McLuhan was an irrepressible punning wise guy.

At bottom, my view is that to profile him as autistic is wrong on two levels.  First, and most basically, it is wrong because the traits of autism mislead as much as they help in understanding McLuhan.  And second, more fundamentally, it is wrong because it suggests, falsely, that McLuhan can be understood in one simple step.  The messy reality of McLuhan is that he was an eccentrically unique complex individual who can and cannot be understood simply.  A man of extraordinary gifts – creative genius, a photographic memory, the ability to make profound associations between people and events that at first sight would seem to be unrelated – he was a brilliant and unstoppable talker and a horrendous listener, oblivious social niceties and the needs of others.  To label him as ‘autistic’ is not to know him better but to know him less.

Did you pass the test?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Douglas Coupland, Marshall McLuhan, 2009

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Michael Hinton Saturday, March 20th, 2010
Permalink Communication, Vol. 1 No Comments

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