Scott Boms

Art is Anything You Can Get Away With

In my post queue, unfinished, for several weeks has been a bit of commentary from my father-in-law, Eric McLuhan on Match 4 from this past season’s edition of Layer Tennis.

Layer Tennis Match 4, Volley 5 by Scott Thomas
Layer Tennis Match 4, Volley 5 by Scott Thomas

A day or so after the match, I shared volley 5 by Scott Thomas with him as it contained both a quote from his father, Marshall McLuhan and a particular comment from match commentator John Gruber that caught my attention:

I like to think that McLuhan would have enjoyed Layer Tennis. His quote here is an apt description of the game.

So, who better to ask whether that might be true than someone close to the man’s work, arguably one of the few living experts — his eldest son and frequent co-collaborator. Here’s what Eric had to say:

The commentator is a third-party actor. Satire on the sports announcer. His function (it IS a male voice) is to do our thinking for us—to tell us what we know and can observe.

(It is important to identify the voice: where have you heard it before? What sport or game? A dog show? Cricket? Baseball? Then the actor emerges. That’s the beginning of Practical Criticism, by the way.)

In volley 6, McLuhan flips from (private voice) commentator (as he was in 5) to co-author (stage voice). This promotion occurs via the amount of play: the large block of quote, in that colour, in that spot, that strong. It had been a much smaller voice.

I found the progression enjoyable to watch. The tennis metaphor is quite apt. I have had that kind of fun with ideas with two or three people in my life. I know that a great number of people have also had it, that some do it for a living. It is very like improv theatre, with ideas, where Tennis was with images. But not the commentator. He is scripted, that is, he writes his essay and edits it. Presumably, the tennis players do not edit themselves; they return the volley with equal gusto and dispatch. Their responses tell the story in the styles, one as riposte to the other.

Although Eric didn’t explicitly answer my original question to him, I believe it’s safe to say that, based on his commentary, Marshall would have indeed enjoyed the match.