When we were ensconced in the ivory towers completing our grad and post-grad work, Marshall McLuhan was a name to conjure. He was "framed" according the academic narratives of the day as a prophet who was discerning the depths of the emerging technological culture, foreseeing the impact of mass media upon us all. To evoke McLuhan in an intellectual discussion was chic. To quote him was an intellectual tour de force.
Alan Jacobs, writing in the New Atlantis, evalutates McLuhan and his legacy. The distillate? Nothing much left, really. To quote a modern poet, "Ain't it funny how times slips away." Here are some of the more scintillating observations made by Jacobs.
I have been reading McLuhan off and on since, at age sixteen, I bought a copy of The Gutenberg Galaxy. His centenary — McLuhan was born in Edmonton, Alberta on July 21, 1911 — provides an occasion for me to clarify my own oscillating responses to his work and his reputation. I have come to certain conclusions.Ouch. Jacobs is not hostile, nor scathing. His piece is fair, considered, balanced. He points out that McLuhan was a scholar of literature, and was deeply influenced by Modernism.
First, that McLuhan never made arguments, only assertions.
Second, that those assertions are usually wrong, and when they are not wrong they are highly debatable.
Third, that McLuhan had an uncanny instinct for reading and quoting scholarly books that would become field-defining classics.
Fourth, that McLuhan’s determination to bring the vast resources of humanistic scholarship to bear upon the analysis of new media is an astonishingly fruitful one, and an example to be followed. And finally, that once one has absorbed that example there is no need to read anything that McLuhan ever wrote.
The Gutenberg Galaxy, published in 1962, made McLuhan famous. Like other major texts of Modernism, this one repudiates conventional forms of organization. It begins with a page explaining, in discreet small type, that the book “develops a mosaic or field approach to its problems. Such a mosaic image of numerous data and quotations in evidence offers the only practical means of revealing causal operations in history.” (The only practical means? So all the historians have been wrong?) For anyone confused or troubled by this method, McLuhan gently suggests that “the last section of the book, ‘The Galaxy Reconfigured,’ deals with the clash of electric and mechanical, or print, technologies, and the reader may find it the best prologue.” So The Gutenberg Galaxy opens, before the beginning as it were, with a suggestion that one might want to start at the end: a classically Modernist bit of deliberately disorienting stagecraft.McLuhan's basic thesis was that the age of being dominated by print media was over; new media would release mankind from the stupor and passivity induced by reading words. Electronic media were more engaging, more interactive, more liberating. He could not have been more wrong. But it was a good story at the time.
“The electric light is pure information,” McLuhan once told a gathering of businessmen. “It is a medium without a message, as it were.” He seems not to have noticed that those two sentences directly contradict each other, nor that if either is true, it is true in a completely trivial sense. It was Tom Wolfe who seems first to have scoped out what was happening here: “Perfect! Delphic! Cryptic! Metaphorical! Epigrammatic!,” he wrote in 1965. “With this even, even, even voice, this utter scholarly aplomb — with these pronouncements — ‘Art is always one technology behind. The content of the art of any age is the technology of the previous age’ — with all this Nietzschean certitude — McLuhan has become an intellectual star of the West.”Intellectual star of the West, indeed.
Throughout the 1960s, McLuhan moved with sedate dignity across the firmament, his Delphic-cryptic-epigrammatic pronouncements emerging with regular frequency. “The medium is the message,” yes, and we live in a “global village.” But also: “The day of political democracy as we know it today is finished.” “Mysticism is just tomorrow’s science dreamed today.” “Mass transportation is doomed to failure in North America because a person’s car is the only place where he can be alone and think.” “Well, of course, a city like New York is obsolete.” “Heat obliterates the distance between the speaker and the audience.” There seems to have been no subject on which McLuhan was not willing to pronounce authoritatively.And, here is Jacob's final concluding assessment:
It is easy to come to dismissive conclusions when dealing with a thinker as distinctive as McLuhan. W. H. Auden once wrote of Kierkegaard that heAs to the hip set on the commons of the liberal arts faculties in the sixties and seventies, we are left thinking that a significant part of the attraction of McLuhan lay just at this point: that he was prone to speak in contradictions, in conflicting metaphors. To a generation discovering LSD these attributes were stellar qualities--proof positive that McLuhan was seeing where no man had seen before.
is one of those writers whom it is very difficult to estimate justly. When one reads them for the first time, one is bowled over by their originality (they speak in a voice one has never heard before) and by the sharpness of their insights (they say things which no one before them has said, and which, henceforward, no reader will ever forget). But with successive readings one’s doubts grow, one begins to react against their overemphasis on one aspect of the truth at the expense of all the others, and one’s first enthusiasm may all too easily turn into an equally exaggerated aversion.McLuhan is also one of those writers, and the difficulty of estimating him justly is exacerbated by his one-time status as an international intellectual celebrity, appearing regularly on bestseller lists, jetting from place to place to give lectures to adoring crowds, appearing on television talk shows, and running an institute devoted to his own ideas at the University of Toronto.
It must then be remembered that McLuhan never asked for such celebrity; that he did much of his lecturing in order to provide for a family of eight; that in the last years of his career at Toronto he had to ask for administrative help in drumming up interest in the center he ran; that in his last semester of teaching, before a major stroke permanently disabled him, only six students signed up for his class. He outlived his fame.
And it must also be remembered that it is not likely that Postman, Kenner, Ong, and many others would have achieved anything like what they did had it not been for the example and the provocation of McLuhan. He was, to borrow a useful phrase from Michel Foucault, a “founder of discursivity” — someone who didn’t just have strong ideas but who invented a whole new way of talking, who created vocabularies that others could appropriate, adopt, adapt, improve, extend. . . . Much of what McLuhan wrote came an instant too soon, and perhaps that’s the best reason to read him, infuriating and confusing though that experience may be. To read McLuhan is to gain at least an inkling of what it might be like to look around the next corner of history.
In retrospect, this intellectual fad truly was the message. McLuhan had it dead right and dead wrong. Modern technological media were indeed going to revolutionise the way men communicated, thought and acted, but not to greater insight and creativity. These media and the education which both employed and deployed them has led to widespread social ignorance. In public discourse now the only way to proceed is by means fallacious and irrelevant. Ad hominem is regnant.
Eventually, of course, this will change. But it will happen only by going back to our future. Gutenberg and the power of the printed word to force man to think, reason, cogitate, evaluate, debate and discuss meaningfully will need to be rediscovered.