2011 is the centennial of Marshall McLuhan’s birth. McLuhan was the first media critic in academia, a remarkable fact because today’s academia is rife with fashionable media criticism, with entire university departments studying TV, movies, and communications. When McLuhan first started writing about television and communication networks, English professors did not study popular culture, they wrote about Shakespeare and other canonized writers.
McLuhan’s work is not as influential as it once was; media critics today are far more likely to quote Derrida, Foucault, or more recent French critics, but McLuhan was there first. The contemporary academy has degenerated into trendiness and a tendency to replace major authors like Milton with pop culture, but we can’t blame that on McLuhan. McLuhan is often criticized for glamorizing modern technology, but if you read his work, rather than encounter it second or third hand, you will find that he was skeptical of many aspects of modern technology, he just felt it was important and needed to be studied and understood.
I just read Douglas Coupland’s brief pop culture biography, Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work, which I can recommend as a brief introduction to McLuhan’s life and thought that should be followed up with reading Understanding Media and then a meatier analysis of the author.
The book is a biography rather than an analysis of McLuhan’s ideas, but even with that I found it a little shallow at exploring McLuhan’s intellectual positions. After all, the only real reason we care about McLuhan’s life is his ideas; the details of his life are only interesting if they deepen our appreciation of his writing. McLuhan started out as a traditional literary critic and wrote his dissertation on the rhetoric of Thomas Nashe, an obscure Renaissance prose writer. McLuhan’s interest in rhetoric -- the study of how writers and speakers use language to create meaning -- is significant. Plato was critical of rhetoric because a sophisticated rhetorician could use appealing and emotional language to deceive people and turn them away from the truth. Aristotle disagreed with Plato’s criticism by pointing out that rhetoric is merely a tool; it can be used to make any argument more palatable, including a true and important argument. McLuhan ultimately broadened his interest in rhetoric to study not just how language creates meaning, but to analyze how all communication and media affect human consciousness and society.
YouTube and other websites contain extensive quotes, interviews, and videos of McLuhan explaining his work to everyone from Dick Cavett to Norman Mailer. Another good way to encounter the writer is to browse through a bunch of his aphoristic quotes. Kevin Kelly has a good collection at (http://www.kk.org/thetechnium/archives/2011/04/proverbs_of_st.php)
The site “Marshall McLuhan speaks” has dozens of videos (http://www1.marshallmcluhanspeaks.com/?video=0).
The Walrus Magazine recently published an article by Jeet Heer that argues that McLuhan’s Catholicism is central to his thought and is part of the reason he was an innovative thinker (http://brianweber.posterous.com/marshall-mcluhan-is-the-marx-of-the-medi...). “His faith provided him with special insights that enabled him to become the Marx of the media age and the Darwin of the digital revolution.” This argument is interesting because McLuhan’s Catholicism has caused intellectuals such as Jonathan Miller to attack his work as “reactionary” and even sympathetic critics of his work have avoided discussing the Catholicism, finding it an embarrassment.
McLuhan’s Catholicism caused him to believe that any phenomenon was intelligible, a view that made his faith intellectually liberating. McLuhan also examined the modern world without judging it, which gave his work great explanatory value. Even though McLuhan did not care for many aspects of the modern world he examined it dispassionately with the notion it was important to understand.
McLuhan believed that media reshaped human consciousness and human history. Print culture altered human thought patterns from the oral culture that preceded it, and electronic media changes human thought just as profoundly as print.
McLuhan’s most quoted phrase is “the medium is the message.” McLuhan argued that all forms of technology, from stirrups, to the wheel, to TV are active shaping forces in human behavior and history. The medium of television is more important than the content of the program because the fact that we’re watching television rather than reading a book changes the way our brain processes information and alters how we use our senses, causing us to emphasize sight (whereas an oral culture would emphasize hearing and touching). Electronics are an extension of our nervous system.
The “global village” is another popular quote derived from McLuhan’s work and explains how electronics intricately links the world, so that events in Cairo can be immediately televised and blogged about in New Jersey. We’re inured to that transition today, but it was new in the 60s and had not been discussed much before McLuhan. The Global Village (and you can substitute the Internet here) also implies that the whole world is extremely concerned with other people’s affairs. “The Global Village is as big as a planet and as small as a village post office,” is the phrase McLuhan used. In the Global Village people obsess over other people’s Facebook accounts or Charlie Sheen’s drug problems in ways that the medieval villagers were concerned about the local miller’s drinking problem. The Global Village is in no way harmonious; it implies that local tribal concerns become globalized and vice versa.
McLuhan’s writing is dense and aphoristic, but books such as Understanding Media and The Gutenberg Galaxy are well worth plowing through. McLuhan stated that he had a peculiar habit of only reading the right hand page of serious books because he finds most well written books repetitive. He will only read an entire book if it is frivolous and entertaining. By reading only the right hand page he’s able to pay attention and fill in the missing pages in his head. So if you’re short on time read the right hand pages of Understanding Media and spend some free time watching McLuhan on YouTube. You can also supplement your research by watching Videodrome, a movie directed by McLuhan’s fellow Canadian David Cronenberg, which has a character, Brian O’Blivion, based on McLuhan. Croenberg’s enigmatic, aphoristic prophet communicates only through broadcasted talks. He’s dead, but no one knows this fact because his followers continue to disseminate his many recorded videotapes. O’Blivion believes that television is more real than reality, a view that may have some resonance today if you replace it with the Internet or virtual reality. Like O’Blivion McLuhan is more real than ever on YouTube and the Internet, the perfect mediums for his continued existence.