Marshall McLuhan was a committed Christian. How did he come to his faith and did it influence his ideas? And has his work any meaning for the Church today?
Producer: Margaret Coffey
- Listen to the audio here – Download audio
- Read the transcript of the interview here – show transcript
This program was first broadcast on 17th July 2011.
Nina Sutton: Would you call yourself a very religious man?
Marshall McLuhan: I don’t know. I am I hope a very real, practising, believing Christian, I try to be.
Margaret Coffey: Marshall McLuhan, the man himself, on ABC Radio National’s Encounter – and here he’s a man of faith, and of religion.
Marshall McLuhan: I have no problems incidentally about being religious – no, I don’t find any conflicts.
Margaret Coffey: I’m Margaret Coffey, welcoming you to the program.
The Medium Is the Massage: Electric circuitry has rudely thrust us into a world that is quite unusual and quite unlike any previous world and for which no previous model of perception will serve.
Margaret Coffey: We’re marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of the man who made it popular to think about the effect of the media on our lives, either as individuals and in societies.
The Medium Is the Massage: The new feeling that people have about guilt is not something that can be privately assigned to some individual but is rather something shared by everybody in some mysterious way.
Margaret Coffey: And he was a man of whom it is also said:
Michael W. Higgins: It is difficult actually to identify him as either conservative Catholic or liberal Catholic. If they think of him at all as Catholic which is not largely the case I think and that is most unfortunate I think because it is to miss one of the major components of his thinking and is constitutive of his life, they tended to think of him as conservative: regular practising Catholic of the old way, fairly conventional, came into the church as he says himself in his twenties on his knees…
Marshall McLuhan: I had no religious yearnings or needs of any sort but I was quite aware of the claims of the church and I wanted to know what the claims were about.
Margaret Coffey: This Encounter shifts McLuhan out of that confining box, to complicate things, not to simplify them. And it’s necessary. At the big Barcelona McLuhan fest in May, no-one talked about McLuhan’s faith. Sociologist Chiara Giaccardi was there from the Catholic University of Milan.
Chiara Giaccardi: I was quite impressed to notice that McLuhan’s Catholic identity was not mentioned at all. And I think this is a very crucial point for the misunderstanding of McLuhan’s thought, because faith for McLuhan is the ground against which the figure of the work can be understood.
Margaret Coffey: Thirty-five years ago Marshall McLuhan was speaking to a journalist:
Nina Sutton: Nina Sutton. I’m an Anglo-French journalist.
Margaret Coffey: Nina Sutton is speaking from Paris…
Nina Sutton: My encounter with Marshall McLuhan took place in the fall of ‘75. I’d published a book in French about the Watergate scandal – my publisher was eager to have another book by me. He suggested, because that was all the rage at the time, that I do what we called a book interview with someone. You would do an in-depth interview and write the book in the first person and then the person interviewed would sign it. So I said Marshall McLuhan.
The Medium Is the Massage: If you take a sentence like the medium is the message which is very misunderstood..
Nina Sutton: …because the guy was very famous then – the man who had said the media is the message…
The Medium Is the Massage: The medium is the message, the medium is the message, right. From his little office in Toronto he had taken a whole generation by the scruff of the neck and said look at this problem …
Nina Sutton: And I flew to Toronto and spent a month there.
The Medium Is the Massage: …just made a certain kind of awareness…
Nina Sutton: And then, instead of finding the flashy media guru I was expecting I am met by this totally serious, tweed clad, English looking, professor of literature.
Marshall McLuhan: I have no problems incidentally about being religious – no, I don’t find any conflicts.
Margaret Coffey: Marshal McLuhan speaking out of the Canadian National Library and Archive.
Nina Sutton: You have no problem in belonging to the church?
Marshall McLuhan: None whatever. No. But you see I am a convert.
Nina Sutton: I myself had been trained at the Sorbonne and I was a pure product of French university teaching: I was rational, ideological, committed, certainly leaning to the left if not the ultra-Left.
Marshall McLuhan: By the way, converts come in through the back door of the church. Coming in through the back door is coming in through the effects of the church, and not through its teachings. When you come in the front door you have first to swallow all the doctrines and all the teachings, which is what happens to the kids you see in school.
Nina Sutton: Meanwhile there was a constant stream of visitors from all over the world because he was incredibly famous. So he would give seminars and lectures – I attended some, not all of them because my rational mind had great time coping.
Marshall McLuhan: I had learnt my religion at the upper level before I found anything down there at all. I had no religious yearnings or needs of any sort but I was quite aware of the claims of the church and I wanted to know what the claims were about. I became aware that the church had had an enormous effect in shaping Western man. I became aware of what the church claimed to be.
Nina Sutton: He had converted to Catholicism a long time before we met and he was a real true believer. And we discussed several times. And coming from a very Catholic country I had some very definite ideas about you know the unpleasant role that the church could play in a country etc.
Marshall McLuhan: Now I had no religious belief at that time at all. I was an agnostic. But I finally decided that if the church is what it says it is, you are also told how to test that hypothesis and you are told to knock and knock and knock and demand to be shown.
Nina Sutton: But then that last encounter really moved me. I don’t know whether you can picture him now, but he was easily flippant, pretending to not mind, and to not think you know. Suddenly that last day we were sitting in that little office, attic shaped sort of little office that he had at the top of his institute.
Marshall McLuhan: …you are told to knock and knock and knock and demand to be shown…
Nina Sutton: And he actually believed in grace you see.
Marshall McLuhan: …that, if it is what it says it is, it also says that you will be given the means of knowing.
Nina Sutton: So for about an hour, without admitting to it, he tried to convince me to knock on God’s door.
Marshall McLuhan: …if it is what it says it is, it also says that you will be given the means of knowing.
Nina Sutton: …all you have to do Nina is knock and he will answer. And I was absolutely moved because it was so uncharacteristic and it came from such a deep place in him.
Margaret Coffey: Nina Sutton. Here’s a missing piece from a common McLuhan image.
Michael W. Higgins: My name is Michael W. – William – Higgins. I am the vice-president for mission and Catholic identity of Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut. I am the past president of two Canadian universities…
Margaret Coffey: Michael Higgins is talking to me from New Brunswick, Canada. He met McLuhan in the seventies, when he was a post-grad student.
Michael W. Higgins: Mass was held at the collegiate Church at the University of St Michael’s College which was known as St Basil’s. [Note: St Michael's is a Catholic College, part of the University of Toronto. McLuhan taught in Catholic institutions throughout his academic career].And Mass would be held every day at 12.10 and sometimes he would abbreviate his class or he would leave immediately after his class because the Eucharist meant a lot to him.
He saw it as largely undamaged by the shift from a visual world, a Gutenbergian world, to an electric world, an acoustic world, that so many other things changed and were in flux but there was something about the nature of the Mass… He was a daily communicant. It was like Teilhard’s notion of the Mass as the centre of the world or the great writings of David Jones, the artist, who understood the centrality of the Eucharist.
The Medium Is the Massage: And so on and so on and so on.
You know the most favourable moment to seize a man and influence him is when he is alone in the Mass. Where is A, it precedes B, B follows A and precedes C. Writing was an embalming process that froze language. It eliminated the art of ambiguity and made puns the lowest form of wit.
Michael W. Higgins: I also encountered him on several occasions subsequently. He was a lector at Mass at Holy Rosary Parish – he lived in Wychwood Park which is a kind of an exclusive enclave in downtown Toronto and this was his local parish. One of the things which struck me there was his remarkable and quite predictable ability at mispronouncing every name in the English language. This great communications guru would often would often get the name wrong, mispronounce it, if he was reading the first lesson he would read the second lesson, thereby driving the priest crazy or he would read the Gospel, thereby confounding the liturgy for the day. I was always quite struck by this.
Margaret Coffey: It seems Marshall McLuhan made a point of confounding expectation, or at least evading the drawing pin ….it keeps people writing and talking about him…and ABC McLuhan exploring – on digital radio and online!
Jeet Heer: My name is Jeet Heer.
Margaret Coffey: He edits the Canadian literary journal The Walrus.
Jeet Heer: Growing up in Canada it is hard not to become familiar with him because he is one of the few intellectual exports that we have. But I think it is partially because as university student I was very interested in popular culture, in things like movies and comic books and the like, and McLuhan was one of the major kind of theorists of these things. And he lived a little bit before the internet but a lot of his theories would apply to what we are familiar now with, with the World Wide Web and email.
Margaret Coffey: So he’s part of the Canadian cultural heritage?
Jeet Heer: Yes very much so. They have these TV commercials devoted to like major figures like the hockey player Rocket Richard or Prime Minister Trudeau and they have a little moment, a one minute commercial showing Marshall McLuhan sitting in his library and he comes up with the idea of the medium is the message.
Margaret Coffey: Jeet Heer has written about the way from the very beginning McLuhan inspired extreme responses.
Jeet Heer: I mean I don’t think it has really changed very much since he died. From the time he started to think and publish he had a sort of cohort of followers who thought that this is someone who has really novel insight into the modern world and what’s happening but there were always detractors who thought he was a charlatan or a fraud and who used very strong language against him. I mean a lot of the hostility towards McLuhan came from people with a literary background – people who had invested their entire lives in first of all learning how to read and then becoming writers and who were very vested in a literary tradition. And they saw McLuhan coming along who was talking about you know how the age of print will be supplanted by the age of the electronic medium and they thought that well this is a man who is basically saying that our whole life is worthless. And people thought that because McLuhan was describing these things that he was advocating these things.
Margaret Coffey: But it’s curious isn’t it that alongside that kind of literary foundation for the critique that from the very beginning his Catholicism also played a part in establishing those extreme reaction?
Jeet Heer: Yes that’s very much the case. One of his most prominent critics of McLuhan was a British intellectual named Jonathan Miller who wrote a little book about McLuhan where he basically said that all of McLuhan’s thoughts amounted to nothing more than a system of lies. A running theme of that book was that McLuhan was not really a serious social scientist – that he was in fact a kind of Catholic apologist and that Catholic social themes were a covert message of McLuhan’s writing and there were a lot of other people who felt the same way. An American intellectual named Thomas Edwards said that a lot of the critiques of McLuhan hearkened back to the anti-Catholicism of the Reformation when there was a lot of fears of people like Guy Fawkes and a Popish plot and Edwards believed that there was this widespread sense that McLuhan and his Catholic colleagues were covertly trying to smuggle in Catholic dogma into media studies.
Margaret Coffey: It is amusing though isn’t it to read Jonathan Miller there – he is at his most protestant view of conspiratorial Catholicism – mentioning Thomas Aquinas is enough to lay bare the plot! [Note: Jonathan Miller, born into a Jewish family, didn't as he said go the whole - Jewish - hog.]
Jeet Heer: That’s right, yeah but I think that looking back on it in some ways Jonathan Miller, his position is not unlike that of more recent intellectuals like Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens – that there is this strong tradition in British intellectual life of a fear of religion, and not just of religion but particularly of Catholicism. There is a strong tradition of defining intellectual life in opposition to Catholicism. So in some ways to be a British intellectual at least in the tradition of Miller and Dawkins and Hitchens is to be anti-Catholic.Margaret Coffey: There is another strain which is slightly different and that’s the strain which describes him as a sort of covert fascist – it’s allied to the view of Catholicism but it has a touch difference about it, don’t you think?
Jeet Heer: Yes, that’s right, as you say it is related but it is distinct. It has a kind of basis in fact in that McLuhan is very much a man of the political right and especially when he was young in the 1930s he admired Franco. That was a period where he converted to Catholicism and he shared the view of some of his co-religionists that the European fascist dictators were a necessary bulwark against communism and anarchism. Now later in life McLuhan was much more cagey about politics and would not speak his political views so there were people who were suspicious because they knew in the past he had these views and later he very much admired the sort of southern agrarian tradition that held up the American south as a bulwark of tradition and so they thought that this is really the covert message of his work – that when he is denigrating print culture and celebrating the return of oral culture through technology he is really making a very reactionary, conservative point of view, denigrating reason, rationality, science and celebrating tribal culture. I think what it misses is the way that McLuhan himself evolved over time and the way the Catholic Church itself evolved. I think a big problem with all this discussion is that people have a very static view of Catholicism but if you actually look at things closely the Catholic Church went through a huge evolution in the middle of the twentieth century and a lot of Catholic intellectuals evolved and there was a sea shift from the sort of position that a Marshall McLuhan would have had in the 1930s to a position that started in the 1940s and fifties to take a much more positive view of democracy and coupled with that to take a much more positive view of technology and McLuhan was by no means alone in this. There was a lot of other Catholic intellectuals like Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson and the ultimate impact of these thinkers can be seen in the early sixties in Vatican 11. So I think that the view of McLuhan as a sort of covert fascist ignores the sort of real evolution of his thinking and more importantly ignores the way the Catholic Church itself was evolving during these years. [Note: Here is a journal article with an interesting interpretation of what lay behind the emergence of the Second Vatican Council. A seminal work to consult is A History of Vatican 11: v.1: Announcing and Preparing Vatican Council 11 - Towards a new era in Catholicism, edited by Giuseppe Alberigo; English ed edited by Joseph Komenchak. Orbis/Peeters, 1996]
Margaret Coffey: Which allows you to describe his achievement – I’m quoting you – as a mature thinker – I liked that – you know there’s a sense that one can develop as a thinker.
Jeet Heer: That’s right – I think that is one of the interesting things about McLuhan, that he wasn’t static. If you trace out his books, he was constantly trying to come up with new ideas and reacting to the world around him.
Margaret Coffey: Which must have been how Marshall McLuhan got to read Maritain and Gilson and Chesterton – they were writers of the moment when he was in his twenties.
Margaret Coffey: That’s G. K. Chesterton, and Christopher Dawson and Jacques Maritain…
Marshall McLuhan: I had no instruction even from clergy at any time but there was a friend of mine who said well since you don’t believe in Christianity – I was an agnostic – he said you could pray to God the Father. So you pray to God the Father and simply ask to be shown. And so I did.
And I didn’t know what I was going to be shown, all I said was show me, and I didn’t ask to be relieved of any problems. I had no problems. I had no belief and no problems.
Well I was shown in a quite amazing way and a quite unexpected. I was arguing about religion with a whole group of grad students one night at Wisconsin and one of them said to me suddenly why aren’t you a Catholic and I shut up because I didn’t know. Up to that moment it had never occurred to me that I would ever become a Catholic. But I was suddenly caught. I became a Catholic at once within a few days.
Michael Higgins: To some degree of course it is Newman, and it’s Newman’s elative sense and the accumulative power of argument to assent and then giving in to God’s grace. It’s interesting the degree that you can make some comparison with Thomas Merton. I wrote a book in 1978 called Heretic Blood and it’s the spiritual geography of Thomas Merton and I study Merton through the lens of William Blake who was the most important influence in Merton’s life. There is a marvellous point in his own autobiography, The Seven Story Mountain, in 1948, when he recounts his own conversion which is not unlike McLuhan’s. [Note: This book was published in England as Elected Silence .] Merton’s conversion is around 1936, he’s sitting at his desk, he’s working on his doctoral dissertation on Gerard Manley Hopkins, he suddenly has this overwhelming sense that he now has to give in, he has to assent, and this seems not dissimilar to McLuhan’s which would have been one year later.
Marshall McLuhan: But there was no trauma.
Jeet Heer: That’s an aspect of his Catholicism that might distinguish him from other sort of converts who were in some ways attracted to the Church because of a darker vision of sin. For McLuhan really came out of his reading of G. K. Chesterton and there is a sense in which Chesterton has this like very positive happy vision of Christianity where Christianity is a happy story, it’s a comedy rather than a tragedy because it ends with the story of the redemption of the world.
I think of McLuhan as a great sponge, you know, he’s always absorbing things. And one of the sources of his creativity is that he would absorb someone like Chesterton and then also absorb a polar opposite like James Joyce or =”">Jacques Maritain. And so in some ways that prevented McLuhan from becoming ossified or stuck in a repetitive mode of thinking.
Margaret Coffey: Jeet, how have you come to be so familiar with all of these figures and with this discussion?
Jeet Heer: It’s partially growing out of my work as an academic because I write about popular culture and I found McLuhan to be a very rich and kind of inspiring source for this. I mean it is a bit odd because I was born in India and I am a Sikh. So the amount of time I spend reading Catholic theology is a bit unusual. But I like to tell my friends that I am as positive about Catholic theology as it is possible for a Sikh to be.
Margaret Coffey: On Radio National you are listening to Encounter.
Was McLuhan a moralist? Because that seems to be the underlying theme of some of the rejection of McLuhan as Catholic.
Jeet Heer: That’s a tough question to answer. As I tried to emphasise before he tried to separate his own personal feelings about things from his analysis, to try to have an analysis that could be accepted by people who didn’t necessarily share his theological or political background. But having said that it’s not like he didn’t have moral points of view, but it’s more like he tried to create an analytical framework that could be suggestive and provocative and rich for anyone’s point of view. I think a good example of this is the issue of abortion where he was very much of the anti-abortion position of his church and he would never backtrack from that position or deny it. But when he was asked to comment on abortion one of the things he would do is try to bring his own analytical framework to it and so his analysis of abortion dealt with technology and disincarnation that we were talking about earlier, that he felt that abortion was easier to perform in a culture where bodies were alienated by technology, where the notion of incarnation has weakened.
Margaret Coffey: Jeet Heer. His essay on Marshall McLuhan is available online – you’ll find a link at =”">Romano Guardini for one, and in the English speaking world Chesterton – even though Chesterton dies even before the beginning of the Second World War, never mind the Second Vatican Council, he is now seen as the paragon of orthodoxy and if we could just get back within the Chesterton parameters, the old church would be reclaimed, the ancien regime would be restored, the excesses of the Council would be gone. He had no interest in doing any of those things. I think what interested him enormously in Chesterton was his deftness of mind, his agility as a writer, his ability to think in not just pre-modern but post-modern terms and that approach is not an approach largely shared by or even understood by those who have hi-jacked Chesterton.
Margaret Coffey: The thing is – what has all this rather in-house Catholic stuff got to do with Marshall McLuhan’s ideas about the media? In Barcelona, Chiara Giaccardi told us, where the focus was on understanding those ideas about the media, and up-dating them, no-one was interested in McLuhan’s Catholicism. And that’s reasonable, in the mind of Eric McLuhan, the son who has developed his father’s legacy.
Eric McLuhan: How much influence did McLuhan, my father’s religious leanings and religious beliefs, how much did these influence his work on media. And I can say pretty certainly not at all. They are very different things. That is, he could apply the techniques of study that he was using to matters concerning religion and religious developments in the world today, but he didn’t derive his media study from his religious beliefs at all. And I am very happy to put the lie to that one.
Margaret Coffey: That sounds like a strategy, in the circumstances.
Michael Higgins: Well it would be glib that it is largely due to the academy’s supple, sometimes extremely insidious, but rarely upfront anti-Catholicism. His faith in so many ways is constitutive of his thinking that it is kind of shocking that scholars and commentators, particularly in the year of his one hundredth anniversary, would look at various and several aspects of his life but would somehow look at his faith as if it were marginal or decorative. We had a similar thing here in Canada on the occasion of Pierre Elliott Trudeau and Trudeau in many ways is a kind of McLuhanesque politician, and a great jurist, political philosopher, and a man of enormously deep and reflective Catholic principles and an active spiritual life and a practising Catholic, and you know all the commentaries, all the biographies either put it on the margin or ignore it or see it as a eccentricity. The fate of Trudeau seems in no small way also the fate of McLuhan on this point.
Margaret Coffey: Chiara Giaccardi has a different approach: in her mind, McLuhan’s religious beliefs were the ground of his freedom to see – rather than simply something different or indeed his ideological straitjacket.
Chiara Giaccardi: I think it is exactly the opposite because he is anti-ideological because he is also very critical against the church, against many aspects of [the] Catholic institution and he is very, very close to the core of the message, which is the person in fact. And I think he is very free because he can adopt a stance towards culture, towards technological innovation which is again a counter-environmental stance. He was able to foresee a lot of things that happened many, many years later because of this freedom.
Margaret Coffey: McLuhan’s ideas, she says, have the freedom that allow a critical look at world – like the ideas that emerged when he played with the world of tribal man and the magical thinking that linked everything in this world – and then made a connection with television as producing a new magic turn.
Chiara Giaccardi: I’m fascinated by the idea of magic because McLuhan opened up a world by talking about the magic in the tribal era. Television in a way produced a neo-magic turn but also there is a danger because magic is about voice, and is about instantaneity, because things happen suddenly, with the right spell. There is a risk that for ordinary people life is not built anymore but we hope to find the right spell to make things happen suddenly – to fall in love with the right person, to become millionaires overnight and so on. This is a very false way of thinking about life but also in Italy it is particularly evident. Magic can also be a way to acquire power because there are people that McLuhan called emperors of the tribal world who can master the media and can become the new shamans of presence. They can make people see things and so they can have a great power and this is particularly evident in the Italian situation but is everywhere. And the global village brought about by television at the risk of the new magic turn which is not as in the tribal world a world of resonance but a way to survive individually in a difficult and risky world.
Margaret Coffey: Jeet Heer, writing for Canada’s literati in The Walrus journal (and you can find it online), Jeet had a slightly different take. He attends to McLuhan’s language.
Jeet Heer: When I read McLuhan it is hard for me not to see a strong element of Catholicism in his work, especially just in the very vocabulary that he talks about things. For example, when he is talking about the impact of things like the telephone or computers there is a way these things remove the body from experience – so when you are talking to someone on the phone you can hear their voice but their body is not present – and McLuhan’s term for that is disincarnation and he sees a lot of modern technology as disincarnating experience. Now the term ‘incarnation’ is very heavily loaded theologically. It really does come out of the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation.
And also I think nature, the way in which nature is a crucial issue for McLuhan can’t be separated from the Catholic tradition of natural law and there’s a way in which a lot of Catholic theology most prominently in the work of Aquinas deals with the question of what is natural – and McLuhan wants to problematise that issue or he sees that issue of what is natural as becoming more complicated because of technology, because technology itself changes nature. There’s many ways in which McLuhan’s characteristic concerns grow out of the concerns of the Catholic Church. Read the rest at http://tinyurl.com/azcmd6a .
St Basil’s Church, St Michael’s College, Toronto, where McLuhan worshipped
Published on Feb 8, 2013
I talk about Neil Postman shortly after his death in October 2003, at a New York State Communication Association (NYSCA) memorial in his honor in the Catskills. I recount how I first met Marshall McLuhan in 1977, when Postman asked me as his doctoral student at New York University to write an Introduction for McLuhan’s “Laws of the Media” (Tetrad) essay in et cetera Magazine. Also mentioned in my talk – Lance Strate, Thom Gencarelli, and Molly Vozick-Levinson. (Thanks to Claude Almansi for the caption transcript.)
Neil Postman (1931-2003) ***
Question posed to Neil Postman:-
Q: How do you think [Marshall McLuhan] has influenced your work?
A: I can’t think of a book that I’ve written that I could have written if not for McLuhan. Which is not to say of course that he approved of any he might have read, or would approve of others that he never did read, but so far as I’m concerned, I always have felt that the question that he asked which is I think his main contribution, is embedded in every idea that formed a book for me — whether I was writing about media in Amusing Ourselves to Death or writing about language in Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk, or writing about education in Teaching As A Subversive Activity – that the question that McLuhan posed is at the heart of it. http://www.kaschassociates.com/417web/PostmanOnMcLuhan.htmPaul Levinson Paul Levinson is an American author and professor of communications and media studies at Fordham University in New York City. Levinson’s novels, short fiction, and non-fiction works have been translated into twelve languages. Wikipedia
Children’s Own Media Museum, a collaboration of the former Children’s Own Museum & the McLuhan Legacy Network
Here we come again! This weekend, the Children’s Own Media Museum and the McLuhan Legacy Network will be co-hosting an event at Harbourfront, running Sunday, February 17 through Monday, February 18 (Family Day), 11am – 5pm on the west side of York Quay Centre (235 Queens Quay West). We will transform the West Arcade Bay at Harbourfront into a space where you can let your budding artists explore portraiture, and learn more about how we’re inspired by Marshall McLuhan.
Kids of all ages can choose from different mediums and craft their own portrait or make a portrait of someone else and become part of the Museum “family”. We’ll be teaching kids how to draw a portrait, giving Ebru demonstrations, letting them make pinhole cameras and experiment with doodlebots and robotics.
Once the little artists have finished their portraits they’ll be digitized and posted on the wall. Everyone can watch our family grow!
So don’t miss it! We can’t wait to see what your mini Picasso’s come up with!
Best, The Children’s Own Media Museum team and the McLuhan Legacy Network.
“All the new media, including the press, are art forms which have the power of imposing, like poetry, their own assumptions. The new media are not ways of relating to us the old “real” world; they are the real world and they reshape what remains of the old world at will.” -Counterblast, by Marshall McLuhan
Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980), communications and media theorist and author of several books, had many ideas that have strong implications for the exponentially expanding phenomena of today’s internet and social media. McLuhan believed that it is the medium of a message that determines how that message will be perceived. McLuhan claimed that from the ancient oral tradition, to the development of the alphabet, to the invention and widespread usage of the printing press, to the electronic media that surrounds us today, the human race has been dynamically shaped by media in all its forms. Marshall McLuhan was not just a theorist and author, but a lecturer, a professor, a holder of nine honorary degrees, a recipient of several prestigious awards, and an overall academic that would forever change our views on media and how it shapes culture and society.
Watch this video: “Marshall McLuhan: The World is a Global Village,” to hear about McLuhan’s theories on the way the medium of media changes the way we perceive the message it portrays.
Books by Marshall McLuhan at the Luria Library:
The Interior Landscape; The Literary Criticism of Marshall McLuhan, 1943-1962
by Marshall McLuhan; Eugene McNamara
The Gutenberg Galaxy; The Making of Typographic Man
by Marshall McLuhan
The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man
by Marshall McLuhan
Culture is Our Business
by Marshall McLuhan
Through The Vanishing Point; Space in Poetry and Painting
by Marshall McLuhan; Harley Parker
From Cliche to Archetype
by Marshall McLuhan; Wilfred Watson
Take Today; The Executive As Dropout
by Marshall McLuhan; Barrington Nevitt
The Medium is The Massage: An Inventory of Effects
by Marshall McLuhan; Quentin Fiore; Jerome Agel
by Marshall McLuhan
War and Peace in The Global Village: An Inventory of Some of The Current Spastic Situations That Could Be Eliminated By More Feedforward
by Marshall McLuhan; Quentin Fiore
by Marshall McLuhan; Victor J Papanek; et al
Explorations in Communication, An Anthology
by Edmund Carpenter; Marshall McLuhan http://library.sbcc.edu/blog/2013/02/11/marshall-mcluhan/
Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D.
Professor of Philosophy, Denver Seminary, January 2013
“Instead of tending towards a vast Alexandrian library the world has become a computer, an electronic brain, exactly as an infantile piece of science fiction. And as our senses have gone outside us, Big Brother goes inside. So, unless aware of this dynamic, we shall at once move into a phase of panic terrors, exactly befitting a small world of tribal drums, total interdependence, and superimposed co-existence”. – Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy, 1962.
Canadian Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980) was a strange and rare bird: an academic expert in rhetoric who, for a time, was also an American media celebrity. The principal reason for this delightful oddity was that McLuhan was a philosopher of the media itself, a thinker who attempted to explain the rapid and unprecedented changes in communication from the 1950s through the 1970s, in light of technological changes going back to Gutenberg’s press. He attempted to explain electronic media, particularly visual media, to itself. Of course, he is most well-known for his often-cited (but typically misunderstood) aphorism: “the medium is the message.” As a rhetorician, McLuhan knew that each form of communication inexorably carries with it specific biases and prejudices. One cannot do higher math with smoke signals, for example. Nor can television ever give honor to the spoken word, since the entire point of tele-vision it to present moving images, not to deliver developed oratory. A live lecture or the radio is far better for that.
McLuhan was also an early prophet of globalization, speaking of the world as becoming a “global village”—and this long before the Internet took hold of civilization. (Duke Ellington, late in his career, even wrote a musical piece in honor of McLuhan called “Afro-Eurasian Eclipse,” which features a marvelous spoken introduction explaining some of McLuhan’s ideas.) How much the new global culture is like avillage is certainly a matter of debate, however, given the impersonal (or non-face-to-face) nature of so many technologies. In fact, McLuhan’s remark at the beginning of this review speaks of “superimposed co-existence,” which is hardly village-like. It takes a real community to make a village.
While McLuhan was right about this (although wrong about many things), his insightsand warnings often go unheeded. Most Americans tacitly assume that media are (yes, “media” is plural) neutral tools for communicating “content.” This content remains the same whether on television, in films, or on the Internet. But if “the medium is the message,” this is false. Every medium affects its message. This is a fundamental principle of rhetoric, but, sadly, few seriously study this discipline today.
However, several Christian critics have recently begun to apply some of McLuhan’s insights to Kingdom concerns. Tim Challies’ book, The Next Story (Zondervan, 2011), sounds many of these themes. (This is reviewed at Denver Journal.) But even those once entranced and even addled by the allures of cyberspace are waking up to its perils. As a long-time writer and speaker on technology, I applaud this. May the tribe of Issachar increase (see 1 Chronicles 12:32).
In the book here under review, popular author (and visual artist), Douglas Coupland, considered the novelist and interpreter of Generation X, has written a short, quirky, appreciative, and sporadically perceptive book on Marshall McLuhan. This work, as a biography, differs considerable from his other works, such as Generation X (1991) and Life After God (1995), although it is a really another piece of social criticism in biographical form.
The subtitle needs explanation. In Woody Allen’s tragi-comic movie, “Annie Hall” (1977), Woody is in line for a film with Annie when he hears a professor wax ignorant about McLuhan’s thought. In the midst of Woody’s disgust, McLuhan himself appears and corrects the pompous professor with one sentence, “You know nothing of my work,” thus gratifying Woody, Annie, and the audience. (This scene is available on YouTube, and is worth watching.) Coupland believes that we should know something of McLuhan’s work, and that McLuhan can guide us through the electronic labyrinth of the Internet, even thirty years after McLuhan’s demise.
Coupland narrates the unlikely rise of a bookish and idiosyncratic academic fairly well, and tries to explain how such a character became a media celebrity, particularly in the late 1960s in light of McLuhan’s book, Understanding Media (1964). Coupland notes that while many thought that McLuhan celebrated the rise of television and visual media in general, he did not.
Although McLuhan was an adult convert and life-long adherent to Roman Catholicism, he seldom moralized about his observations. However, his religious convictions did deeply inform his perspective. As Coupland astutely remarks:
Above all, he believed that because God made the world, it must, in the end be comprehensible, and that a sense of the divine could lead to an understanding of the mundane (61).
In this, McLuhan was a million miles from postmodernist critics, who find no overall meaning and who demote the religious realm to that of mere social construction.
McLuhan was not a systematic thinker, which can make interpreting his ideas difficult. He often delivered what he called “probes,” ideas which might be true and which could illuminate our thinking about media. These provocative or evocative ideas were not considered knowledge (as in justified true belief), but rather stimulants to understanding. Although Coupland does not dilate on this aspect of McLuhan’s method, I will explore this a bit, given my experience as a teacher.
In teaching philosophy, one aims at acquiring knowledge oneself, in growing in one’s knowledge, and in giving students knowledge. However, one must also learn to think critically and challenge students to do so as well. In this, a “probe” can be significant to arouse analysis. While McLuhan used probes mostly in the area of media studies, they are helpful in many sorts of subjects. Interestingly, even if a probe is false, it may generate knowledge through discourse. Nietzsche once wrote that the false ideas of great men are more important than the small truths of little men. (That idea itself is something of a probe.) Although Coupland does not mention it, McLuhan would give presentations where some of his probes were not well received. He would stop, and then say, “You don’t like these ideas? Here are some more!” This approach is not exactly the analytic philosophy in which I was trained, but it is a kind of high-powered brainstorming that may engender knowledge farther on down the road—if one is attentive, persistent and not flippant. The difference between “probing” and bovine excrement may be paper thin, so one should exercise dialogical caution.
While Marshall McLuhan is a fairly sturdy and clever introduction to the man and his thought, and some of its implications thirty years after his death, it sometimes lapses into outright incoherence. There may be some literary trick at work here that my lack of imagination failed to detect, but I cannot fathom what Coupland is saying on some pages of this book (206-209). Perhaps he has spent too much time on the Internet. Nor will one find a deep history study of the influence of McLuhan or the academic controversies over his work. For this, one must look to the more scholarly biographies and studies.
Whatever its weaknesses or omissions, Coupland’s primer should create a hunger to learn more about McLuhan’s observations and prognostications, to develop a philosophy of technology, and to consider the moral and spiritual implications of the technological envelope in which we live. Read the rest here http://tinyurl.com/bywg4nk .
The original University of Toronto Press cover
Last year was the 50th anniversary of the publication of Marshall McLuhan’s second most important book. Blogger David Barker offers some interesting thoughts on McLuhan’s ”The Gutenberg Galaxy”.The latest cover
This is the 14th installment of my January Book Project, an unexpected deviation from my reading list. The Gutenberg Galaxy is remarkable as an academic work both because it has wormed its way into popular consciousness and because it has persisted there for half a century. The reason for its popularity is that Marshall McLuhan knew not only how to think about media, but also how to exploit them. He reduced the book’s content to a simple three-word container and shot it like an arrow into popular consciousness: “The Global Village”.
What is The Global Village?
We’ve all heard the phrase. And I suspect most people (myself included) believe they know what it means. Before I read the book, I assumed that the phrase was descriptive: we live in a shrinking world. The proliferation of electronic media and high-speed transportation has changed our perception of the world’s size. We can have conversations with people on the other side of the world and, if we prefer to wait a few hours, we can board airplanes and hold those conversations face-to-face. National boundaries grow increasingly porous. Protectionist trade policies have been dismantled so goods and labour move around the globe unimpeded. The global village is simply the description of an observant man who was trying to understand our changed and changing modes of social and political organization.
But what is it really?
On reading The Gutenberg Galaxy, I discovered that my presuppositions were wrong. Yes, “the global village” can be taken as purely descriptive. But we don’t need a whole book to describe something that is obvious to anyone who’s even nominally conscious. McLuhan means something more by the phrase.
As the title suggests, McLuhan is concerned with a precise moment in Western history—the invention of the printing press. At that moment, Western culture was launched on a journey of transformation from an audile-tactile culture to a predominantly visual culture. Print had existed prior to the invention of the printing press, but its cultural effects were negligible until the printing press introduced mass production to publication. This had a number of consequences including:
>> creation of the author (notions like plagiarism, attribution, and moral rights in a text didn’t exist until the Statute of Anne in 1709)
>> creation of the individual
>> commoditization of text (the very first mass-produced commodity for commercial trade)
>> creation of the unconscious (print text emphasized the visual, forcing our other modes of experience and communication to go underground)
>> regimentation of linear time (previously, the simultaneity of modes of experience had meant that time was relatively unimportant as a function of media)
McLuhan theorizes that because electronic media reintroduce simultaneity into our communications, and because they restore the audile-tactile to a dominant position, our culture is transforming once again. We have more in common with oral cultures of pre-literate societies than we do with, say, Shakespeare’s Renaissance, or Darwin’s Beagle. We are more like tribal people living in a village, not because our world has shrunk, but because our culture is less visual.
What about the internet?
McLuhan published The Gutenberg Galaxy in 1962. While he was well aware of computer technology (which gets some treatment in his book), he could not have predicted what would happen when computers became globally networked (although it has been suggested that he imagined something like the world-wide web). It’s arguable that he coined the term “surfing”. He uses it in a section called “Heidegger surf-boards along on the electronic wave as triumphantly as Descartes rode the mechanical wave.”
One could point to the graphic user interface and the development of ebook technology to argue that the oral/aural function of electronic media of 1962 was just a blip along a long-term cultural trajectory that prefers the visual. But I’m inclined to think he would regard the media enabled by the internet as synaesthetic. They don’t prefer any sense, but integrate them. (DigiScents even tried to integrate the olfactory sense into the online experience, although PC magazine named it one of the 10 worst technologies ever developed.)
Although it’s possible to apply typographical principles to online design, that doesn’t seem to be the direction we’re taking. Flash was an ideal tool for “forcing” traditional design into the browser space, but that’s pretty much dead. And it seems inevitable that single purpose tablets (aka ereaders) will converge with general purpose tablets. Faber’s T.S. Eliot app integrates tactile, audile & visual, and it provides a model for exploiting new (synaesthetic) media. Online media have also transformed time. Our narratives are now emphatically non-linear. Blogs and Facebook timelines present in reverse chronology, and organic search engines, like Google and Facebook’s soon-to-be-released Graph search, produce search returns that are decontextualized both in space and time.
While book-lovers sometimes deride the blog/tweet/Facebook post/text message/YouTube video/surfing/gaming/Skyping world we’ve created, I don’t think proclaiming it right or wrong, or better or worse, is useful. I prefer McLuhan’s approach which is simply to ask: how far has new media seeped into popular consciousness? By that measure, book-lovers may find themselves in the position of King Canute trying to hold back the tide. Although we may wish that it didn’t wash so far ashore, it serves no purpose to judge the tide.
But is McLuhan right?
I do find one thing rather odd in The Gutenberg Galaxy. The book reads like a “big idea” book. You know the kind. They’re the sort of books Malcolm Gladwell writes. He observes a bunch of fascinating and seemingly unrelated effects, then accounts for them all by relating them to a single unexpected and often miniscule cause. The big idea is that this one phenomenon determines so much in our lives, and we’d never noticed until Gladwell was kind enough to point it out. In a more academic way, that’s what McLuhan does with the printing press. Without it, there could be no psychoanalysis, no Newtonian physics, no nation states, no conception of the individual or of individual liberties. The problem is that this line of reasoning invokes causal relationships that are only possible with a linear conception of time. But that linearity is one of the very things that falls into question here. I’m left wondering if this isn’t a bootstrapping argument (or whatever its opposite). He wants to smash our conception of the hammer by swinging a hammer at it.
Republished by permission from http://tinyurl.com/ayk22pfwoodcut from 1568 shows the left printer removing a page from the press while the one at right inks the text-blocks. Such a duo could reach 14,000 hand movements per working day, printing around 3,600 pages in the process.