DECEMBER 20, 2016
WHEN MARSHALL MCLUHAN published Understanding Media in 1964, the Cambridge-trained literary scholar was not well known, even inside the academy. By 1967, he was on the covers of Newsweek and the Saturday Review, and the subject of an hourlong NBC documentary, all in the same month. Over three manic years, McLuhan had shot from scholarly obscurity to klieg-lit fame.
Like most celebrity ascensions, McLuhan’s was the product of a conscious publicity campaign. Handlers, press agents, and impresarios worked together to make “McLuhan” a household name. He was packaged and promoted like a promising starlet, with multimedia gusto. Understanding Media garnered a few mainstream print reviews upon publication, but McLuhan’s break came in early 1965, when a pair of San Francisco prospectors — one, Gerald Feigen, a physician, the other, Howard Gossage, an ad-agency executive — “discovered” McLuhan and promptly arranged to visit the Canadian in Toronto. Feigen and Gossage were self-fashioned avant-gardists, using profits from their business consulting firm for “genius scouting”; the doctor read Understanding Media and alerted his partner. Together they plotted a full-fledged publicity rollout, starting with cocktail parties in New York City with media and publishing figures. The pair staged a weeklong “McLuhan Festival” that summer, with nightly parties and a rotating cast of ad executives, newspaper editors, mayoral aides, and business leaders in attendance.
Tom Wolfe, not yet famous as a prophet of the New Journalism, was there too, on assignment for the New York Herald Tribune’s Sunday magazine New York. He soon published a feverish profile (“What If He’s Right?”): “Suppose he is what he sounds like, the most important thinker since Newton, Darwin, Freud, Einstein, and Pavlov?” Wolfe’s lead paragraph centered on McLuhan’s business appeal:
One of the big American corporations has offered him $5000 to present a closed-circuit —ours! — television lecture on — oracle! — the ways the products in its industry will be used in the future. Even before all this, IBM, General Electric, Bell Telephone were flying McLuhan in from Toronto to New York, Pittsburgh, God knows where else, to talk to their hierarchs about … well, about whatever this unseen world of electronic environments that only he sees fully is all about.
In late 1965, the same month that Wolfe’s piece appeared, Harper’s ran its own spread on “Canada’s Intellectual Comet.” The media sluice gates had opened. Over the next two years, extended profiles of McLuhan were published by Fortune, MacLean’s, the Saturday Review, Esquire, Newsweek, and the New York Times Magazine. McLuhan himself wrote articles for, or sat for interviews with, TV Guide, Family Circle, Mademoiselle, Look, Vogue, McCall’s, and Glamour. He appeared for lengthy segments on the BBC, NBC, CBC, NPR, and the Voice of America. The New Yorker ran its first cartoon on him (“You see, Dad, Professor McLuhan says…”), and a version of McLuhan’s new book, The Medium is the Massage, was released as an audio LP by CBS Records, the same month (March 1967) as the Newsweek cover and NBC documentary. McLuhan was famous.
There was plenty more to come — the Playboy interview, the televised summit with John Lennon, the indelible cameo in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall — but McLuhan’s celebrity was won in the few short years after Understanding Media.
The paradox of McLuhan is that the Panglossian media sage celebrated by PR flacks and radical counterculturalists like Abbie Hoffman began his career as a cranky enemy of modernity. The same man who claimed, in 1963, that our era “is the greatest in human history” had been decrying, only a few years before, an age “when a triumphant technology croons the sickly boasts of the advertising man, when the great vaults and vistas of the human soul are obscured by images of silken glamour, and when it is plain that man lives not by bread alone but by toothpaste also.” Prior to the 1960s, McLuhan was an articulate if unexceptional cultural pessimist, one who deemed his century “totally unﬁt for human habitation.” Tellingly, he never really abandoned the conservative worldview underpinning his early despair, even as he chatted with rock stars and fantasized about the ultimate, tech-enabled orgasm to Playboy.
The contours of that early despair took shape in the prairies of western Canada. Born in Edmonton in 1911, McLuhan, with his family, soon settled in Winnipeg, and received a strict religious upbringing. In 1928, he enrolled at the new University of Manitoba, where he studied English literature and read gluttonously. During a 1932 summer trip to England, he discovered the reactionary Catholic polemicist G. K. Chesterton’s What’s Wrong with the World. The young McLuhan embraced Chesterton’s medieval corporatism, agrarian politics, and caustic diagnosis of the times. By 1934, the year he left Manitoba to study at Cambridge University, he was issuing anti-modern screeds of his own, with titles like “Tomorrow and Tomorrow?” These texts were politically schizophrenic, informed by Chestertonian conservatism as well as by 19th-century British romantics of the left like William Morris and John Ruskin, but they were consistent in their scorn for a soulless industrial order. Chesterton, McLuhan wrote in one such piece, “has exposed the Christless cynicism of the supposedly iron laws of economics, and has shown that history is a road that must often be reconsidered and even retraced.”
At Cambridge, McLuhan grew increasingly loyal to the Catholic literary heritage, which he contrasted to the meager output of Protestant culture. (“The Reformation,” he once stated in tutorial, “was the greatest cultural disaster in the history of civilization.”) He officially converted to Catholicism in 1937, and maintained a lifelong affiliation with Catholic institutions of higher learning. Even at his most wired and ludic in the late 1960s, when he played the part of a countercultural icon in public, he recited the rosary and attended Mass daily.
In a series of essays from the late 1930s and ’40s, McLuhan repeatedly lashed out at a civilization built on mechanization and cold utilitarian thought. He savaged the mass culture it produced. “Hollywood dominates the psychic life of America,” he wrote, calling its films the “night-dreams which exorcise the terrors of the day-time actuality.” Like other conservative critics of the time, he faulted popular entertainment in aesthetic terms, judging it shabby and vulgar. Its ugliness appalled him most: the dime-store novel and Hollywood feature, he held, recast modern man in their image. “Nothing more lushly sentimental or feebly Satanic than modern detective fiction could be imagined,” he wrote in 1945.
The comic strip Blondie — and particularly its hapless male protagonist Dagwood — was the target of McLuhan’s most acute distress. “Blondie and her children own America,” he wrote in 1944, “control American business and entertainment, run hog-wild in spreading materialism into education and politics.” The wan, inert man cultivated by Blondie and similar drivel could no longer govern his family, which had therefore surrendered to womanly dominance or disintegrated altogether. (His never-finished book on the theme had the tentative title Sixty Million Mama’s Boys.) Everywhere he found evidence of sexual and moral breakdown: divorce, promiscuity, the pin-up epicureanism of the young. The puerile enticements of mass culture had weakened religion’s already arthritic grip. “Peter or Peter Pan?” McLuhan titled a typical jeremiad from the period: “Europe and America have heard the call of Anti-Christ without alarm, for it is the voice of Peter Pan.”
It wasn’t clear with what McLuhan hoped to replace the polluted, irreverent disorder he observed around him. In the mid-’30s he had a short-lived ﬂirtation with fascism, which he saw as untainted by, and hostile to, the cesspool chaos of American culture. Despite their “many deficiencies,” McLuhan wrote in 1934, fascists are a “new hope for bewildered and tired nations,” fighting “fiercely against the materialistic and emasculating assumptions of socialism and the conception of internationalism based on expansive appetite.” Fascism, he added, has unfurled a “new and inspiriting banner” that “promises to sustain men until they have devacinated [sic] the insidious metropolism that oppressed their souls with dusty death.”
By the 1940s, McLuhan had turned to the American South as an outlet for his preindustrial yearnings. The South, to McLuhan, stood as a living, thriving monument to the pastoral ideal — if not earthen cottages, clotted milk, and the god-fearing peasant, then at least a brackish sanctuary from capital and its soot-stained individualism, a real-world approximation of Chesterton’s Distributist vision. The region nurtured a distinct cluster of values — McLuhan called it the “Southern Quality” — rooted in a culture of aristocratic humanism, an agrarian economy, and respect for the cyclical rhythms of the land. McLuhan submitted a series of articles to Southern literary journals, and earned honorary membership in the Southern Agrarian cluster around Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom for his help in their rearguard campaign against (in Tate’s phrase) the “all-destroying abstraction America.” In a 1947 essay for Tate’s Sewanee Review, McLuhan criticized the “little sub-men” of the urban north, who, while “ostensibly setting about the freeing of the slaves,” became “enslaved” themselves, and “found in the wailing self-pity and crooning of the Negro the substitute for any life-style of their own.” Thus they “destroyed or rejected the best things in the South and took the worst.”
In 1946, McLuhan assumed a post at St. Michael’s College, the University of Toronto’s only Catholic college. There he assembled his scattered, scalding retorts to the mass culture into his ﬁrst book, The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man, published in 1951. The book — a collection of short, witty readings of speciﬁc American advertisements, comics, and articles — applied the New Critical technique of close textual scrutiny to the likes of Time, Emily Post, and Li’l Abner. The products of Hollywood and Tin Pan Alley received McLuhan’s familiar treatment, relentlessly pummeled for their inch-deep idiocy. He complained of the “unweaned whimpering of hit-parade crooning” and, in a typical observation, calls out a women’s deodorant ad: “When scrubbed, deloused, germ-free, and depilatorized, when doused with synthetic odors and chemicals, then she is ready to love. The question remains as to what is being loved, that gal or that soap?” But McLuhan’s earlier anxieties over moral decay and cultural breakdown are not aired nearly as pervasively in The Mechanical Bride. Instead, he employs the book’s scattershot chapters to construct an unexpectedly taut set of theses, organized around the idea that a “poisonous bilge” of pop culture secures the average man’s consent to a mangled, soul-destroying order. Vogue, Time, and radio, in McLuhan’s estimation, are “major political forces shepherding their flocks along the paths of comfort and thrills.”
The Mechanical Bride was as an early contribution to the American mass culture debate of the mid-to-late 1950s and early 1960s. (The book was published almost a decade before Dwight Macdonald’s “Masscult and Midcult,” for example.) It is also the rare offering that exhibits traits of both strands, left and right, of the gloomy, culture-as-soporiﬁc stance. Underneath the detritus of pop culture, McLuhan wrote, lurk “totalitarian techniques for mashing the public into process cheese.” A new class of worldview architects have burrowed inside the “collective public mind […] to manipulate […] to keep everybody in the helpless state engendered by prolonged mental rutting.” Like Macdonald, Irving Howe, Theodor Adorno, and countless other midcentury intellectuals, McLuhan drafted Freud to help account for all that smiling lethargy: Hollywood, PR agencies, and the ad men strip-mine the unconscious for the raw materials of a manufactured dreamworld. It is, McLuhan insisted, “wish-fulﬁllment on a huge scale” that ﬁxes man in his “subrational trance.” In particular, popular culture melds sex, death, and technology into a beguiling “riot of cadaverous ﬂeshiness.” With this and other sleights-of-the-unconscious, the mind managers — McLuhan called them a “collective novelist” — supply the “folklore of industrial man,” and thereby offer compensation for his stolen freedom.
For McLuhan, this was a catastrophic exchange. Behind the baubles and the glitter prowl Henry Ford, Frederick Taylor, and their dehumanizing machine logic. Their ultimate assembly-line product, for McLuhan, is “technological man” himself:
A huge passivity has settled on industrial society. For people carried about in mechanical vehicles, earning their living by waiting on machines, listening much of the waking day to canned music, watching packaged movie entertainment and capsulated news, for such people it would require an exceptional degree of awareness and an especial heroism of effort to be anything but supine consumers of processed goods.
The galling irony, for McLuhan, was that the cold industrial order maintains its grip through a calculated manufacture of preindustrial nostalgia, as the stuff of the dream world’s “siren onslaught.”
His proposed remedy is not unlike that put forward by “media literacy” advocates today: the idea was to nurture critical habits of mind in the populace, so that we may awaken from our dream state, consciously observe our own folklore, and thereby neutralize the PR puppeteers. McLuhan develops this ideal of an “alert and conscious public” by analogy to Edgar Allan Poe’s “A Descent into the Maelstrom”: Poe’s soldier hero, caught in a vicious whirlpool, opts for detached study over panic, and learns to work with the current as the only means of escape. The point isn’t to roll back commercial culture, but instead to turn that culture back upon itself. “Why not use the new commercial education as a means to enlighten its intended prey?” asked McLuhan. “Why not assist the public to observe consciously the drama which is intended to operate upon it unconsciously?” This was a lesson McLuhan had learned years before, when his students proved utterly unequipped to grasp the English literary canon. Then, as in the Bride, he decided to use their idiom, “though not necessarily for their ends.”
This strategy of resistance through qualiﬁed embrace, which McLuhan would soon take much further, accounts for the book’s tonal hiccuping. Though the pages of The Mechanical Bride are singed with rage, McLuhan “offered [it] as an amusement,” and insisted, a bit halfheartedly, that the culture he decries “bears promises of rich new developments to which moral indignation is a very poor guide.” The book apes the look and feel of the ad culture it vitiates, down to the snappy headlines and sloganeering prose — as if, Neil Compton observed, “a severe moralist were writing for a kind of uncorrupt Variety.”
The Mechanical Bride was, in its pessimism, a very ’50s book. But it contained the germ of a new, more optimistic McLuhan philosophy. With an awkward juggle, McLuhan managed to accommodate his staunch anti-modern tenets by projecting them onto the very recent past and imagining an abrupt and fortuitous reversal. Thus, in his ’60s work, McLuhan continued to dismiss “homogenized Dagwoods,” but now blamed not industrial society but “typographic cultural bias.” Electronic technology had, he was claiming by the early 1960s, delivered a remedy: “We are suddenly eager to have things and people declare their beings totally,” he wrote in the preface to Understanding Media. “There is deep faith to be found in this new attitude — a faith that concerns the ultimate harmony of all being.” To anyone who reads through McLuhan’s oeuvre in order, this story — of paradise lost then, suddenly, regained — comes across as forced, as if Shakespeare had tacked on a ﬁnal, upbeat scene to King Lear.
McLuhan now proposed a comprehensive rereading of Western history that treated shifts in the technology of communication as the decisive turning points. His new claim was that the onset of writing goes a great deal farther in explaining the path that the West took over the last few millennia than any other meta-historical rival. Media are the switchmen of history, a status denied class struggle, high diplomacy, or the ferment of ideas. “It is the medium,” he wrote with typical self-assurance, “that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action.”
This framework for thinking about the past is really the elaborate corollary of a startling premise: for the analyst of media, the content is almost irrelevant, and certainly a diversion from the real cache of insight, those media’s formal attributes. The premise was not original; it had already been developed, as McLuhan admitted, in the writings of the economist historian Harold Adams Innis. But McLuhan popularized it. The medium, in his immortal phrase, is the message; the actual content “is like the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind.” It mattered a lot to McLuhan, for example, that the letters on a printed page are discrete, linear, and uniformly arranged, but it does not especially matter what those letters articulate. The point is to break the siren call of content ﬁxation — “the numb stance of the technological idiot” — and focus instead on the distinctions between competing modes of message delivery. As it is, he complained, the various media do their work behind men’s backs; they exert their undetected and largely invisible pull on the human psyche “steadily and without any resistance.” The media leave their mark by altering the human “sense ratio” (McLuhan’s somewhat mysterious measure of relative priority among the ﬁve senses). He imagined some kind of original sensual balance, when man heard, smelled, and felt in abundant and equal quantities. But this state of communion was rudely interrupted by a succession of communication technologies, which substituted new, lopsided ratios for the original synesthetic bliss.
To demonstrate this, McLuhan divided the West’s history into three epochs: the oral, the typographic, and the electric, each conditioned by a dominant medium. The oral era is characterized by that original sensorial cacophony. Preliterate tribal man relies on face-to-face talk, McLuhan explained, an especially felicitous medium for the rich interplay of the senses. It’s clear from the bright, melliﬂuous cadence of his prose that McLuhan considered tribal man, bathed in a “magical resonating world of simultaneous relations,” exceptionally fortunate. But then, in the typographic epoch, the tribesmen tasted of the book, and lost their manifold sensualism to a synthetic and deformed surrogate. The written word and printed page, it turns out, favor the eye over the ear, and by singling out vision they violate the orchestral collaboration of the oral sense-ratio. As a result, in the arch summary of one of McLuhan’s critics, literate man becomes “a sort of psychological cripple, conﬁned to the wheelchair of logical thought, incapable of venturing over the rough ground of intuition and imagination.”
So, McLuhan now argued, it was print that brought about the cultural devastation and dehumanization he had spent his early career lamenting. “If the phonetic alphabet fell like a bombshell on tribal man,” McLuhan remarked, “the printing press hit him like a 100-megaton H-bomb.” In print, all the characteristics of writing were ampliﬁed and spread wide: the silent visual scanning, in particular, of discretely lettered sequences. Once mechanized by the printing press, the arbitrary symbols of writing assumed their standardized, regimented, and endlessly reproduced form. As the newly literate ﬁxed their gaze, the other senses atrophied by neglect. And more than that, the bookmen came to think in a manner proposed by the atomized and desiccated lettering on the page. Their thought patterns began to duplicate the abstract and linear character of print, to embrace that variety of cold and thrusting reﬂection we recognize as Enlightenment rationalism.
The adoption of this “logocentric” mindset seemed to McLuhan a grave intellectual calamity. The ecumenical and generalist cast of the old tribal thinking gave way to a division of intellectual labor, leading, in one direction, to the sterile, specialist Babel of the modern academy. “Scholars tend to work on the archaeological assumption that things need to be studied in isolation,” he wrote, a “habit” that “quite naturally derives from typographic culture.” And the damage spread from there, reverberating out from the mind to the foundations of social and economic life. The worldview generated by Gutenberg’s invention promoted a grubby solipsism in place of the rich communal character of village life. Worse still, none of this was apparent to the victims. Gutenberg man’s warped, glaucomic sensual faculties leave him hobbled, insensitive to print’s tragic consequences. He and his fellow “literacy victims” suffer from a kind of collective somnabulism.
So McLuhan had gathered together all the excreta of modernity — the same cluster of evils he grew hoarse denouncing as a young scholar — and attributed them to Gutenberg. This cleared the way for a restoration. And indeed he located in electronic media a release from that long catatonic interlude. Television, in particular, promised to break the “typographic spell” and, more than that, bring about a “return to the African within.” His claim was that electric circuitry and wiring, though undeniably synthetic extensions of our natural sensory equipment, manage nevertheless to replicate that plenary immersion of the tribesman. TV reestablished that sensory balance we knew in the state of nature: anarchic, boundless, and allergic to measurement. Thought, as a result, was freed from its shackles, reunited with that “most eminent form of rational awareness, the analogical.” Television recovered the ﬂushed and effervescent sensualism of the speech-soaked tribesman.
As many have noted, McLuhan’s three-act historical narrative — a pristine tribalism, violated by typography, then recovered through broadcasting — is unmistakably theological. Its three stages mimic the Judeo-Christian outline of human history: the original innocence of the Garden of Eden, later wilted by sinful knowledge, but with the promise of a messianic restoration. Nowhere is his prose so empurpled and windy as when he got on the topic of the “global village,” with all the pastoral connotations intended. The idea is that once-isolated pockets of humanity are, in the electronic age, newly joined in a network of synthetic capillaries. McLuhan, in this manner repeatedly conjured up the image of a big ﬂoating brain that would later prove attractive to Kevin Kelly and the Wired crowd:
Today, after more than a century of electric technology, we have extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace, abolishing both space and time as far as our planet is concerned. Rapidly, we approach the ﬁnal phase of the extensions of man — the technological simulation of consciousness, when the creative process of knowing will be collectively and corporately extended to the whole of human society, much as we have already extended our senses and our nerves by the various media.
This state of collective awareness, McLuhan insisted, mirrors the “preverbal” condition of primitive man. Electronic gadgetry, in the form of the then-emerging computer, promises a post-linguistic and “Pentecostal condition of universal understanding and unity.” The state of “‘weightlessness’ that biologists say promises physical immortality,” he added, “may be paralleled by the condition of a speechlessness that could confer a perpetuity of collective harmony and peace.” Already the cathode rays of television had penetrated the fog of print; now the cerebral fusion brought on by the computer will, it seems, fully recreate that long-dormant immersion of the tribesman.
McLuhan’s new theory of media catapulted him into the celebrity stratosphere. His exuberant, birdsong prose, Delphic bursts of forced profundity, and Whiggish faith in technological progress fed a hyper-mediated culture hungry for afﬁrmation. His optimism was decisive, not merely as a precondition for fame but also as the motor of his momentum. You don’t get invited to the TV studio again and again by trashing the networks and their viewers. (Just ask Noam Chomsky.) Conference halls won’t be booked for corporate executives to listen to gloomy takedowns of US consumer culture. It was McLuhan’s metamorphosis from pious agrarian to media mystagogue that attracted Vogue, NBC, and the American Marketing Association.
When celebrity arrived in the mid-1960s, McLuhan was determined to keep the embers hot. He signed with Harcourt Brace for a book on business management, and hurried to finish a sequel to The Mechanical Bride, only this one, Culture is Our Business, was an extended ode to advertising. “This is a book of exploration and discovery,” he wrote. “American ads are a world of festivity and celebration.” The flurry of popular pieces McLuhan published — usually sloppily dictated or written by others — have in common a breathless, prophetic cheer. His 1967 Look article on education, co-authored with the magazine’s editor, is all glossy ecstasy. “The student of the future,” he wrote, “will truly be an explorer, a researcher, a huntsman who ranges through the new educational world of electric circuitry and heightened human interaction just as the tribal huntsman ranged the wilds.” His 1968 Harper’s Bazaar fashion spread, featuring spear-wielding African warriors and Western models side-by-side, identified the culture’s new weightiness:
We are no longer interested in the surface appearance of things, least of all in the surface appearance of people. Wrinkles are ignored; the old, the blemished, are accepted for themselves. We are concerned with depth; we want to know the inner person.
This wasn’t good-faith conjecture. McLuhan was playing a part: the tuned-in media guru. In private, he was raging against the reforms of Vatican II, especially the end of the Latin Mass, and berating Fordham University’s Jesuits for his college-student son’s irreligious flirtations with the New York counterculture. At the same time he was telling Playboy that Christ is the “ultimate extension of man,” he was insisting to his Catholic friends that “the Prince of this World is a very great electric engineer.”
The case of McLuhan raises intriguing questions about the relationship between academic celebrity and intellectual influence. There is good reason to doubt a simple one-to-one correlation: the most famous scholars in their own time are rarely the most respected and consequential in the long run. Indeed, fame may exact a penalty in reputational terms. Public visibility can come off as lightweight pandering. Media savviness and the ability to give good soundbite may signal an unserious mind to scholars who labor over footnotes. Academic celebrities, simply by winning the spotlight, are suspect, judged to be “media whores.” The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, in On Television, made the point with unusual vigor, comparing media-friendly scholars to a Trojan horse. “Supported by external forces, these agents are accorded an authority they cannot get from their peers,” he wrote. Such scholars are “already, or are about to become, ‘failures,’” which explains their interest in screen time, “however precipitate, premature, and ephemeral.” Akin to collaborationists under the Occupation, they are the vessels by which “the laws of the market” contaminate otherwise autonomous scholarly fields.
McLuhan was certainly pummeled, in terms like these, by the scholars and intellectuals of the 1960s. Dwight Macdonald, who had once published the early, downcast McLuhan in his journal Politics, predicted a “brisk sale for [Understanding Media] on Madison Avenue.” The literary scholar Christopher Ricks, in a review of the book for the New Statesman, lamented the public’s appetite for “heady prophecies, especially those which skillfully and at the last moment substitute a sermon for a forecast.” The political philosopher Robert Meister called McLuhan an “obscure professor of English from the Canadian provinces” who “has succeeded in perpetrating a hoax so gigantic that it shows every sign of becoming an international intellectual scandal.”
From the mid-1970s through the 1980s, public interest in McLuhan waned. His health never fully recovered from the daring 1967 surgery to remove an enormous but benign brain tumor. He died in 1980 following a stroke, with the Times obituary referencing a “cult of McLuhanism that he did little to discourage.” Very little was published on McLuhan over the next decade, and next to nothing appeared on air. It seemed that he had been laughed off the stage of serious thought.
But McLuhan’s second, posthumous run of celebrity, which picked up in the 1990s, suggests a kind of sleeper effect, whereby the fame penalty recedes. Soon enough McLuhan’s slogans resurfaced as ad copy, and academic journals published, with exegetical care, special issues on his works. McLuhan conferences were organized, an off-Broadway show (The Medium) was staged in 1994, and knowing allusions reappeared in popular culture, including an early Sopranos episode. Ted Turner, Time’s 1991 man of the year, articulated what became the new line both inside and outside the academy: “McLuhan was wrong only temporarily.” At the end of the decade, the obligatory New York Times story announced that McLuhan had been brought back “from the dustbin of history.”
McLuhan, of course, had never really disappeared; he had survived in the popular lexicon, for example, and pockets of McLuhanite thought endured even in the post–Annie Hall era of neglect. McLuhan’s son Eric and a few collaborators tended the ﬂame in Toronto, while Neil Postman built up a thriving department at New York University centered on the study of McLuhan and like-minded scholars. With Toronto and New York stood Paris, where figures like Jean Cazeneuve and Jean Baudrillard incubated the macluhanisme mystique throughout the drought years.
Over time the contours of this new McLuhan began to assume a patterned shape: he was a misunderstood genius, maligned for knowing too much too early, consigned like Mozart to a pauper’s grave. His genius had now been vindicated by a computerized, postmodern culture that was, all along, the real object of his speculation. As the World Wide Web surfaced in the early 1990s, McLuhan’s return to the celebrity fold was fully certiﬁed. Old collaborators like Robert Logan, the eccentric Toronto physicist, were moved to label McLuhan an internet prophet: “Man, he understood the Internet. He was the Internet in the sixties. The world’s just ﬁnally caught up to him.”
By the mid-1990s, graduates of the Postman NYU program had formed an academic society to promote scholarship in the McLuhanite vein. Wired magazine, bible of the emerging internet culture, literally anointed McLuhan “Patron Saint” on its masthead, publishing, in a 1996 issue, three articles on “Saint Marshall,” including a channeled, posthumous “interview” with the media guru. All of this generated a publishing binge, complete with a student reader, three biographies, and a host of popular titles like McLuhan for Beginners and McLuhan for Managers. The stream of books swelled in the mid-1990s, continually fed by new offerings. More than 40 (not counting reissues of McLuhan’s own works) have appeared since then. Their jacket copies are remarkably consistent, touting McLuhan’s before-his-times sagacity: “McLuhan’s insights are fresher and more applicable today than when he first announced them to startled world” (The Essential McLuhan), “so ahead of his time that we are straining to catch up to him today” (Who was Marshall McLuhan?), and “media studies has been catching up with McLuhan over the last 50 years” (Marshall McLuhan on the Nature of Media).
A number of prominent cultural figures have taken up the McLuhan cause, including the journalist Lewis Lapham, the novelist Douglas Coupland, the composer John Cage, and (in a reprise) Tom Wolfe, who, in a 2015 video tribute, describes McLuhan as a born-again seer:
No doubt the internet would have delighted him. He would have seen it as a fulfillment of prophecies he had made thirty years before it was born, as a more direct and intimately tribal form of the global village than television, and as an even more likely instrument for the realization of his dream of the mystical unity of all mankind. […] Today thousands of young internet apostles are familiar with Marshall McLuhan and are convinced that his light shines round about them.
And so it has gone. On the centenary of McLuhan’s birth in 2011, academics and enthusiasts gathered for no less than 14 separate conferences around the world. There have been over a dozen conferences since, which are tracked, along with other bits of McLuhaniana, by a handful of devotional websites. A documentary, an official stamp, and a second theatrical production (McLuhan: The Musical) have, in their medium-specific ways, paid tribute to Canada’s intellectual comet. McLuhan is back, and there’s almost nothing of the old disdain to taint this second, more durable round of fame. He remains the same Panglossian seer, but now without the academic backlash. The distemper of literary intellectuals, so ferocious in the 1960s, has gone out. Was it the last breath of a doomed print culture, now dissipated? Or is there something ephemeral to the academic fame penalty, so that time (or time plus obscurity in McLuhan’s case) wears away the bad press?
McLuhan’s medium-is-the-message formalism has indeed provoked lots of important work in media studies. He’s the fountainhead for the modish “German media theory” that’s gaining fast syllabus traction in the English-speaking academy. The most interesting American media thinker, John Durham Peters, credits McLuhan as an “unmissable destination for media theorists.” In some ways, though, McLuhan was more a product of the media culture than its student. He seduced Esquire and the ad men (and later Wired) because what he had to say resonated with Americans already primed for the good news about technology. That’s no reason to stop reading him: McLuhan’s probes, taken as truth-indifferent provocations, really are good to think with. It’s just that the man — rewarded for closeting his gloom — is more instructive than his books.