Summer 2004

Missing the point of probes

The Book of Probes

By Marshall McLuhan and David Carson. Ed. Eric McLuhan / William Kuhns. Commentary by Terrence Gordon. Gingko Press, .95, 45 Euros

At 573 pages The Book of Probes is an extensive selection of Marshall McLuhan’s books, speeches, classes and short writings. And though McLuhan worked in the 1960s with designer Quentin Fiore on works such as The Medium is The Massage and War and Peace in the Global Village, it’s the

first time that he has ‘collaborated’ with David Carson. It’s also the first time Carson has worked with the dead (unless you include the infamous celebrity interview in Raygun, so lifeless that it could only be revived by running the interview in Dingbats).

McLuhan’s second coming in the 1990s mirrored Carson’s emerging superstar designer status. Both are ‘cool’, in McLuhan’s sense, meaning that their work is ‘low definition’. McLuhan’s writings, especially in the format of

The Book of Probes, are aphoristic, demanding the reader to fill in the

gaps, to make the sense, to take the ‘probe’ elsewhere.

He writes: ‘For me any of the little gestures I make are all tentative probes. That’s why I feel free to make them sound as outrageous or extreme as possible. Until you make it extreme the probe is not very efficient.’ The point of McLuhan’s probe is to move thinking on. Likewise Carson in his Raygun days made the reader fill the space left by the designer tearing up page layout and reading hierarchies.

For a fan of both men, The Book of Probes is a disappointment. It’s not that there aren’t enough of McLuhan’s invigorating, eccentric, and Delphic utterances. But compared to McLuhan’s and Fiore’s 1960s work, the design is uninspiring and humourless, and the photography is flat. There’s no sense of real-world visual context framing McLuhan’s probes.

The fault isn’t Carson’s. Even at the expense of legibility, you really want some old-school Carson. It’s to do with the format and the editorial direction of the project. At 572 pages, it is just too monumental. My old Penguin copy of The Medium is the Massage has about 160 pages, each spread has a different layout and demands you to dip and fiddle and thumb. It’s smart and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny. It’s Pop thinking.

The Book of Probes smacks of a bad brief, something that had little relation to the talents of McLuhan or Carson. Instead of a door-stop, it needed to be a quarterly two-year magazine project, with guest art directors, and topicality delivered through high-impact photography. It needed to be an event. Despite McLuhan’s engaging words, this book turns him into a coffee table academic. It is ironic and frustrating, that the two men most identified with the ‘end of print’, and speed of thought, have come together to create something slow and laborious.

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