Ideas

A PROPHET GETS SOME HONOUR

BRIAN D. JOHNSON looks at the McLuhan revival

December 2 2002
Ideas

A PROPHET GETS SOME HONOUR

BRIAN D. JOHNSON looks at the McLuhan revival

December 2 2002

A PROPHET GETS SOME HONOUR

Ideas

BRIAN D. JOHNSON looks at the McLuhan revival

MARSHALL McLUHAN, what are you doin’? During the late ’60s, that glib one-liner became a running gag on Laugh-In, network television’s kooky answer to the counterculture. It confirmed that McLuhan, a Toronto academic, had become an unlikely icon of American pop culture, a household name like Timothy Leary or Chairman Mao. But it was also a sign that this communications guru, the most prodigous intellectual of his time, was becoming absorbed, and erased, by the very phenomenon that he analyzed with such acuity—loss of identity in the media vortex.

‘Big discoveries are protected by public incredulity ’

THE MEDIA had their fun with McLuhan, treating him as a perplexing novelty act. But by his death in 1980, he had been discredited in the academic world, which looked askance at his vulgar celebrity. By the ’90s, most of his books were out of print. And now there are university graduates who draw a blank when you mention McLuhan’s name. Others may recall only a couple of catchphrases—“the global village” or “the medium is the message.” McLuhan laid the bedrock of what’s now called media studies, and envisaged the Internet decades before it existed. But his ideas have been so well subsumed by pop culture that we tend to forget where they came from. There’s no mention of McLuhan in Naomi Klein’s No Logo, the best-selling bible of the anti-globalization movement. Yet her notion of the “brandscape” seems inconceivable without his vision of the media as a supersaturated environment.

Finally, however, McLuhan appears to be enjoying a comeback. Wired magazine led the way by adopting him as a kind of

patron saint. His books are gradually finding their way back into print. Last week, at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre, award-winning Canadian playwright Jason Sherman presented a public workshop of The Message, a new play about McLuhan struggling to recover his memory after a stroke. And on Dec. 1, Ontario public broadcaster TVO launches “Marshall McLuhan Week.” It includes two new documentaries, McLuhan’s ABC and McLuhan’s Wake, plus a series of 15 commercial-length appetizers called McLuhan’s Probes—printing his aphorisms on NASA space footage set to classical music. “The resurgence is long overdue,” says David Sobelman, a McLuhan scholar who wrote the three TVO projects. “McLuhan is better known in Europe and the United States than in Canada.”

Directed by Kevin McMahon, McLuhan’s

Wake, a feature co-produced by the National Film Board, examines its subject in McLuhanesque style, choreographing his ideas with a maelstrom of images. McMahon seizes on the whirlpool—or the “world pool,” as McLuhan called it—as an overriding metaphor. In describing “the huge vortex of energy” created by technology, McLuhan drew on a story by Edgar Allan Poe, A Descent into the Maelstrom, and posed the question: “How are we to get out of the maelstrom created by our own ingenuity?”

McMahon seems to have the same problem. Intercutting his well-crafted documentary with overworked animation sequences of a sailor trapped in a whirlpool, he sucks the metaphor dry. The filmmaker,

who grew up in Niagara Falls, Ont., and made a documentary called The Falls, can’t seem to escape the vortex. But his film does a superb job of showing how McLuhan foresaw that “the electric age” would colour our world with a virtual environment.

4The future is not what it used to be’

LIKE MOST good prophets, McLuhan didn’t consider himself one. He said he was just magnifying what he saw around him. But he more or less predicted the Internet as early as 1966: “Instead of going out and buying a packaged book,” he said, “you will go to the telephone, describe your interests, your needs, your problems, and they at once Xerox with the help of computers from the libraries of the world, all the latest material

just for you personally. . . . This is where we’re headed under electronic information conditions.” Sounds like a definition of a search engine.

While McLuhan’s mantra, “the medium is the message,” has become a cliché, few people are familiar with the second half of the axiom—“the user is the content.” Again, he could be talking about the Internet. McLuhan also saw that the penetration of modern media cut both ways, that it could be potentially liberating, or Orwellian. Anticipating the anti-brand critique exemplified by No Logo, he said, “Advertising is a vast, military operation openly and brashly intended to conquer the human spirit. The advertiser is a manipulator, yes. He plays around with human beings as if they were his pigment. He smears us.”

4All advertising advertises advertising’

ALTHOUGH MCLUHAN was a staunch Roman Catholic and a conservative, McMahon’s film makes a compelling case that he was a revolutionary thinker. “People are cowed by technology,” says McMahon. “The optimistic side of McLuhan’s message is: you’ve built these things, and you can control them if you understand how they affect you. To me, his message is still really important. There are very few people who deal with technology as a force in and of itself, apart from economics.”

Part of what made McLuhan unfashionable, especially on the left, was his ability to turn a blind eye to both class and gender. In describing how “visual space” (literate culture) was giving way to “acoustic space” (electric culture), he would analyze media as pure technology. Whether he was discussing LSD (which he never tried) or television (which he rarely watched), he kept refusing to pass judgment. “I’m not advocating anything; I’m merely probing and predicting trends,” he insisted during a 1969 Playboy interview. Yes, Playboy! Talk about

He foresaw the Internet long before it existed. His ideas are so familiar we tend to forget where they came from.

a Fifties artifact of “visual space”—a skin magazine front-loaded with Big Ideas.

But that Playboy interview (reprinted in a 1995 anthology titled Essential McLuhan) offers one of the most coherent and comprehensive overviews of McLuhan’s philosophy. When pushed, he admits that he has “nothing but distaste for the process of change.” But in comparing the tribal potential of the electric age to old-fashioned print-think, he sounds like a New Age ecologist. “Literate man,” he says, “is alienated, impoverished man; retribalized man can lead a far richer and more fulfilling life ... in a seamless web of interdependence and harmony.”

McLuhan faced a peculiar dilemma. He was an exceptionally literate man, an English professor at the University of Toronto who read several hundred books a year. And his theories grew from an early fascination with the ancient roots of grammar, rhetoric and logic. But he became famous by going on television and predicting the death of literacy. Paradoxically, this hyper-literate thinker was a more lucid talker than a writer. “As he became a guru, I think he started to identify with the Dionysian wave of adulation that he was surfing,” says author Christopher Dewdney, a fellow of the U of T’s McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology. “He showed such a glee, an almost nihilistic identification with this revolution he was describing.”

‘Mysticism is just tomorrow’s science dreamed today ’

AS HE TOYED with the media, playing a kind of verbal jazz, McLuhan was, in effect, retribalizing the literary voice—going back to the oral tradition. At the time, people found him mystifying; now he makes perfect sense. Another artist ahead of his time. “McLuhan just keeps coming back,” says Dewdney, who explores the fabric of technology in The Secular Grail (1993) and Last Flesh (1998). “His acolytes have tried to extend his vision in a codified way. But it was so dependent on his personality and the chemistry of his mind. We need somebody like him, a second coming. But there’s no heir apparent.” In the meantime, we can always go back to the medium who became the message. And if anyone wants to know, Marshall McLuhan is doin’ just fine. [¡fl