- Counterblasting Canada: Marshall McLuhan, Wyndham Lewis, Wilfred Watson, and Sheila Watson ed. by Gregory Betts, Paul Hjartarson, and Kristine Smitka
For several reasons, assessing the roles in Canadian culture, and the achievements, of Wyndham Lewis, Marshall McLuhan, Sheila Watson, and Wilfred Watson has proven to be problematic. In this invaluable volume on the work and interconnections of these four figures, the editors establish their own position at the outset, which is that, as a result of Lewis's influence in Canada, "McLuhan, Wilfred Watson, and Sheila Watson actively attempted to create an immersive maelstrom, ultimately a counter-environment, through which to finally regard the psychological and cultural impact of media." In developing this proposition, the twelve essayists gathered here offer a breadth of view that, among other things, throws light on the perplexing relationship between Sheila Watson's transformative 1959 novel, The Double Hook, and her study of Lewis and interactions with McLuhan (seen here as active misreading and resistance rather than as direct influence).
As Counterblasting Canada implicitly reminds us, the best metaphor for tradition is neither tree nor stream but, rather, web. For the authors of this volume, our understanding of both Sheila and Wilfred Watson's place in that tradition, along with McLuhan's, is therefore best located within "a rich network of Canadian intersections with, and extrapolations of, the vorticist narrative," which began in 1914 with Ezra Pound's little magazine Blast and [End Page 181] which aspired to "an unprecedented analysis of the present, including its technologies, media, politics, and architecture." In the connections investigated here, we see the strands connecting Pound to Wyndham Lewis (who, in order to sit out World War II, returned from England to his Canadian birthplace) and Lewis to McLuhan, whose responsiveness to Lewis's ideas began when he attended the 1943 lectures Lewis gave in Windsor, celebrating "North American cultural energy." McLuhan would later transmit his recast version of the Poundian–Lewisian line of thought to his University of Toronto students, including Sheila Watson (who had already formed her own ideas on the subject) and Hugh Kenner. At the same time, the "McLuhan" that emerged from this ferment became a generative force, manifesting itself in the visual arts as well as in the print and electronic media.
Lewis renounced an early infatuation with Fascism, but his politics and attitudes can still be troubling. Adam Hammond's description of McLuhan's raiding of Lewis's ideas as "an act of intellectual bricolage" is therefore helpful: "McLuhan did not hesitate to take the best elements of Lewis's thought and style, to recombine them in novel ways, and unceremoniously to abandon the remainder." Indeed, that approach is one that has been adopted by those of us who have subsequently responded to McLuhan's own theories and "probes," as we struggle with the legacy of the man Paul Tiessen wittily describes as someone who eventually became absorbed in his self-created "maelstrom of McLuhanisms." In the concluding coda, Darren Wershler observes that "there are a great many different Marshall McLuhans in circulation at the moment – perhaps even too many" and suggests that, in recuperating a McLuhan for our time, "[t]he best way to honour the spirit of our ghosts might be to betray the letter of their work."
Leon Surrette and Gregory Betts each enact that betrayal in their essays, treating McLuhan not as a theorist but, rather, as an avant-garde artist, one whose concepts are valuable for their heuristic power. For Betts, as a scholar of the Canadian avant-garde, what is most interesting about McLuhan is his vision of the new role of the artist (and also that of the teacher) in our technological age, which is to provide counter-environments that free us from socially constructed prisons – a reversal of art and education's earlier task of adjusting the individual to society. (Adam Welch, expanding on this point, observes that McLuhan also saw Canada as serving as a national "anti-environment" to the United...