Fifty years after the publication of his most famous works, we’re still making sense of Marshall McLuhan
It’s inconspicuous, even humble, just about the size of a tall two-car garage off a parking lot, near the larger buildings that make up St. Michael’s College. On the summer day I visit, the diminutive coach house where Marshall McLuhan once worked has been temporarily cleared of most of its furniture and umpteen books. There is just a sole remaining intimation that McLuhan spent the last decade of his life working here (he took it over in 1968 and died in 1980): In the almost empty main room, there’s the chaise longue that the lanky man used to lie upon during his famous seminars, extemporizing fluently. By the accounts of people who knew him, he was one of the 20th century’s great talkers.
Nearby, the bells toll at St. Basil’s Church – where McLuhan, a devout (but not dogmatic) Catholic went to mass every midday and where, in honour of his centenary (he would have turned 100 in July), a memorial mass was recently held for the family, friends and enthusiasts of the late media theorist.
On the walls of the coach house are photos of bygone technologies, ones that were cutting edge in McLuhan’s day – typewriters, Dictaphones, computers larger than 747s, which, despite their size, were less powerful than today’s laptops. These pictures, shot by photographer Robert Bean to honour McLuhan’s centenary, emphasize the theorist’s achievement in anticipating so much about the Internet. On a white screen, near the chaise longue, a slide-show depicts miscellaneous items from archives relating to McLuhan: the gaudy bands from the cigars he savoured; pages from a draft of one of his books typed by his wife with his edits scrawled all over them; a passport photo from when he was a fresh-faced youth from the prairies, about to embark on the international academic odyssey that would (eventually) bring him such acclaim.
I peer hard at this photo of a blandly handsome, long-headed young man, looking (in vain) for signs that he’d become remarkable. “Marshall McLuhan, what are you doin’?” This was a catchphrase on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, the comedy show big in the late 1960s – intended to poke gentle fun at the abstruse thinker. Certainly, McLuhan had been fab in that era. With the publication of Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man in 1964, he’d captivated – and puzzled – a generation. Suddenly, he seemed to be everywhere, referenced on Laugh-In; interviewed by Playboy; giving talks to the top executives at GE, IBM and Bell Telephone. No less astute a cultural observer than Tom Wolfe compared him in the pages of New York magazine to revolutionary thinkers such as Freud, Newton and Darwin. The Sage of Aquarius, they called him. Another academic might have squirmed at the cutesy designation. With his own love of wordplay and disdain for the often stuffy, standing-on-ceremony of academic life, he probably loved it.
Lewis Lapham, the former editor of Harper’s and current head of Lapham’s Quarterly, says that McLuhan was no less than the foremost oracle of his age. “Seldom in living memory,” he comments, “has so obscure a scholar descended so abruptly from so remote a garret into the centre ring of the celebrity circus.”
McLuhan grew up in the “remote garrets” of Edmonton and Winnipeg, the son of a sociable, seldom-do-well father and a striving and strident mother, who helped support the family by giving dramatic readings of the acknowledged literary greats across the prairies and sometimes beyond. After studying some of those sonorous greats himself at the University of Manitoba, McLuhan won a scholarship to continue his literary studies at Cambridge – the reason for obtaining a passport photo.
At Cambridge, he learned to prefer the modernists – James Joyce and T.S. Eliot, particularly – to the grand figures of the Victorian and earlier eras. The modernists larded their technically difficult works with references to the new electric technologies – telegraph, telephone, radio, motion pictures – providing a model for engagement with technology that McLuhan himself would follow. He learned to analyze poetry and prose dispassionately – the no-nos were to say how a work made you feel or to speak to its moral compass. He also closely examined combinations of words for their effects. This was, essentially, the same close-reading, ostensibly judgment-free, effects-based approach he’d later take to parsing newer media.
He began to shift gears from literary criticism to media analysis during his first teaching job at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. “I was confronted with young Americans I was incapable of understanding,” he was quoted saying in Playboy. “I felt an urgent need to study their popular culture in order to get through.”
And so, in his first book, The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man, he applied his literary-critic tools to magazine advertising and comic strips. His book, a series of essays, came out in 1951, five years after he’d come to the University of Toronto as a junior English professor at St. Michael’s College. It was idiosyncratic enough to dismay some of his new colleagues – pop-culture criticism was not yet a wholly respectable pursuit for an academic – and it also didn’t make much of a splash beyond the academy.
The Mechanical Bride lacked the intellectual framework that would distinguish his later works, but the book’s scattershot brilliance did impress a man who would become McLuhan’s key intellectual model: U of T economic historian Harold Innis, who had made his reputation by analyzing Canadian history through the lens of the staples it exported. The admiration was returned: McLuhan would emulate Innis’s so-called “mosaic” writing style (aphoristic, dense, not linear) and appreciated the substance of the older man’s thought. He found particularly intriguing Innis’s theory that different types of media each had a “bias” − a tendency toward different political and social messages. This would presage McLuhan’s more radical dictum that made the medium itself the message.
McLuhan’s thoughts also gained solidity and momentum through an innovative collaboration with U of T colleagues from different disciplines, including anthropology, psychology, urban planning and economics. With a generous grant from the Ford Foundation to study the shifting media environment in the early days of the television era, McLuhan and his colleagues conducted research, held seminars and wrote up their thoughts in an academic magazine called Explorations, which was published at U of T. Typical was an experiment that had different students absorbing the same lecture by print, television and radio, and then being tested on their retention. TV won, radio came second and print brought up the rear. “In these seminars,” says Janine Marchessault, a York professor and McLuhan scholar, “it was really a think-tank environment, everyone trying to figure out, in McLuhan’s words, what the hell was going on.”
McLuhan conceived of and led this interdisciplinary project at a time when university departments were still, by and large, jealously guarded, separate fiefdoms. This was one of the many ways McLuhan would challenge academic tradition in the course of his career. “This was the dawn of interdisciplinarity,” says Dominique Scheffel- Dunand, director of the McLuhan Coach House Institute. “He pioneered the concept.” Just as his thoughts revolutionized thinking about the media, his actions challenged the idea of what a university was and what the professors who served it might usefully do.
And so, with the benefit of a framework adapted from Innis and the fresh thoughts coming out of the interdisciplinary seminars, McLuhan launched his first major intellectual rocket, The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (1962). It opened the discussion that he would continue for the rest of his life – in the confines of the coach house and elsewhere. Here, he began to say what, to his mind, the (dying) print age meant and what the (rising) electric era entailed.
In the Gutenberg Galaxy, in his magnum opus, Understanding Media (1964), and in the playful The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects (1967), he’d contrast the Gutenberg Galaxy with what he called the Marconi Constellation. He spoke in pithy sound bites, something the media loved. In this way also, he was ahead of his time: soon it would become common, even de rigueur for professors to try to share their ideas with the larger public. But it wasn’t so common then.
“He attracted a lot of attention to the university and also to himself,” says his son (and, in later years, his frequent collaborator) Eric. “This didn’t make some of his colleagues very happy, because they thought they knew at least as much as he did and they weren’t getting noticed.”
McLuhan served up a typical verbal gust in the Playboy interview, summarizing his view of what the invention of type meant: “As a drastic extension of man, it . . . was directly responsible for the rise of such disparate phenomena as nationalism, the Reformation, the assembly line and its offspring, the Industrial Revolution, the whole concept of causality, Cartesian and Newtonian concepts of the universe, perspective in art, narrative chronology in literature and a psychological mode of introspection or inner direction that greatly intensified the tendencies toward individualism and specialization.”
With this ability to cover such a sweep, it is little wonder that his students would sometimes leave his seminars exhilarated, sometimes stunned. One of his former students (and one of his biographers) Philip Marchand comments, “The class was at 9 o’clock, which for me was too early. But you didn’t want to miss them – they were events – so much went on in them.” Once, for instance, as a surprise, McLuhan brought the then-new prime minister Pierre Trudeau, a fan of McLuhan’s, to a class.
Another student, Bruce (B.W.) Powe, who’d become a friend of McLuhan’s and is now a media studies scholar and professor at York, remembers having an oral exam with McLuhan. “I asked him a question early on, and he just took off, and for the next two hours spoke.” Powe got an A. “Maybe I asked him the right question,” he says with a chuckle. Marchand heard many such stories when he worked on the biography Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger. “He always struck his colleagues as a bit of a wild man; he violated so many canons of academic behaviour.”
Still, on the strength of his first book, the attention he was garnering and the growing popularity of his seminars, U of T set up the Centre for Culture and Technology in 1963 for McLuhan to lead. It would “study the psychic and social consequences of technology and the media.” There wasn’t initially much to the centre apart from the title (it would move to the coach house in 1968) but it gave McLuhan the official approval to do what he was doing anyway: forging a new discipline – communication studies.
He never attempted to sketch out a globalizing theory of media. Instead, he poked at it with a series of intuitions he’d test in talks with his students and colleagues. He called these aphoristic thoughts “probes.” (This was another way he didn’t quite fit in academe, where definitiveness tends to be valued highly.)
Type, he’d say, privileged the eye over the other senses, as had the alphabet before it. By contrast, radio and television re-engaged the ears and were fluid where type was fixed. He’d point out that different media engaged the senses differently and therefore – this was the key point – had radically different effects on the brain. In this way, the medium itself is the message. This is an idea subsequent neurological research has largely borne out. “The recent research on the so-called iBrain,” Powe says, “That’s all anticipated in McLuhan.” (Gary Small and Gigi Vorgan summarize the latest research showing how significantly new technologies are altering our brains in a recent book, iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind.)
What did McLuhan believe the social consequences of these new technologies would be? The immediacy of television and other electrically powered devices (such as computers) would shift the very nature of time: instead of the one-thing-after-another, linear time of print, electronic media fostered an “all-at-onceness” that would characterize the new age. (Certainly, this observation seems even more applicable in the Internet era than it was in McLuhan’s day. “What is the Internet, but ‘all-at-onceness’?” Marchessault argues.)
This simultaneity – of everyone all over the world plugged in to the same media – would connect us in a “global village.” This term is often misused; it is not a warm and fuzzy place. For McLuhan, this village is as nasty as it is nice: “The global village makes maximum disagreement and creative dialog inevitable. Uniformity and tranquility are not hallmarks of the global village; far more likely are conflict and discord as well as love and harmony – the customary life mode of any tribal people.”
A new age called for a new kind of literacy taught in a new kind of university. As a New York Times reporter who interviewed McLuhan at the height of his fame summarized: “McLuhan advocates radical changes in education because he believes that a contemporary man is not fully ‘literate’ if reading is his sole pleasure. ‘You must be literate in umpteen media to be really ‘literate’ nowadays.’”
McLuhan pushed for a move away from what he saw as an over-reliance on print teaching tools, since these wouldn’t reach many young students weaned on the new technologies. A good teacher would equip students with tools to understand and engage with the new media, and would treat the classroom as a place where the group, through lively debate, could make joint discoveries. A professor was a facilitator of fresh thoughts about the environment, not a revealer (in lectures) of definitive truths. “The university he saw has yet to exist,” Marchessault says. “Its transformation into an institution for the electronic age remains incomplete.”
Indeed, there was a sense of mission not quite completed at his death in 1980. Afterwards McLuhan’s star faded as abruptly as it had risen. U of T cleared out the coach house, while it considered whether to continue McLuhan’s centre in the absence of its prime mover. As Lapham comments, “McLuhan’s name and reputation were sent to the attic with the rest of the sensibility (go-go boots, Sgt. Pepper, Woodstock, the Vietnam War) that embodied the faded hopes of a discredited decade.”
A professor in Fordham’s communication and media studies program (a program inspired by McLuhan’s work), Lance Strate remembers: “As graduate students then [in the 1980s], we were told if you want to get a job, don’t mention that you like McLuhan. If you want to get something published in a journal, don’t cite McLuhan.”
But McLuhan’s ideas wouldn’t stay down. His return to favour began, Lapham says, in the 1990s, when Wired magazine anointed him the patron saint of the Internet, and devoted space in some of its early issues to quote seemingly prescient bits of McLuhan’s writings on the media.
In a recent paper, McLuhan’s longtime collaborator and friend Robert Logan, a U of T physics professor emeritus, argues, convincingly, that McLuhan’s work anticipated many particulars of the Internet age, from Twitter to Wikipedia, from laptop computers and smartphones to, as a result of the “all-at-onceness,” reduced attention spans. “He paid such attention to the present,” his son Eric says, “and that enabled him to understand what would necessarily happen in the future.”
The Guardian and New York Times both recently put a book of McLuhan’s – most remarkably, different books – on their lists of the 100 greatest non-fiction works ever written. They were the only Canadian entries on either list.
And his centenary is turning out to be a big deal, in Toronto and elsewhere. There are slews of McLuhan-themed events: many book launches, mainly for works arguing that he remains relevant in the Internet Age (among them, Logan’s recently released Understanding New Media: Extending Marshall McLuhan); multimedia art installations (on the walls of the Toronto subway system and at Toronto’s Nuit Blanche in October); and, of course, conferences (in Australia, Germany, Italy, Paraguay, Spain and at U of T and throughout Toronto in November on the theme of “McLuhan 100: Then, Now, Next”).
At his beloved coach house there have been talks this year on the topic of the “Edge of Academe” – the metaphorical space McLuhan consistently (and gladly) occupied. Scheffel- Dunand comments: “We want his space, the Coach House, to be a place where you can do slow conversations, where you can really scrutinize what is happening to the university and the world today.”
McLuhan’s essential message to his students at the coach house was the same as his justification for studying new media in the context of a reformed university. As he told Playboy: “In the electronic age of instantaneous communication … our survival, and at the very least our comfort and happiness, is predicated on understanding the nature of our new environment. If we understand the revolutionary transformations caused by new media, we can anticipate and control them; but if we continue in our self-induced . . . trance, we will be their slaves.”
Alec Scott (LLB 1994) splits his time between Toronto and San Francisco. He writes frequently about arts, travel and the law. This story first appeared in U of T Magazine.