Coming to Terms with the Future He Foresaw
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Coming to Terms with the Future He Foresaw
Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media

When first published in 1964, Marshall McLuhan's Understanding Media created—at least for a time—a bridge between the ivory tower and mainstream popular culture.1 When the book became available in paperback it sold a hundred thousand copies, making it a bestseller. It turned its English professor author into a pop culture icon, as people from many walks of life marveled at the book's insights on how media technologies affect human behavior. McLuhan reveled in the attention as perhaps no academic had done before. He published articles not only in respected scholarly journals but also in Family Circle, McCall's, Saturday Evening Post, Playboy (an interview), and a variety of newspapers. He had his ideas featured in art exhibits. And he made a now-classic cameo appearance in Woody Allen's 1977 movie Annie Hall.

McLuhan never shed the academic mantle, though, and until his death in 1980 continued to teach at St. Michael's College at the University of Toronto. It was there that he started the Centre for Culture and Technology—which, though it is now struggling financially, has set groundbreaking precedents in the humanistic study of technology. For those of us who look at electronic media in the ways literary scholars look at books, it is hard to think about the field of academic endeavor known as media studies without a nod to McLuhan. Even those who cannot accept his notion that "the medium is the message" have had to ponder his reasons for making this oft-quoted statement.

Of course, not everyone was equally wowed by McLuhan's splashy debut. [End Page 373] He did—and still does—have his critics. As Lewis Lapham explains, "the guardians of the established literary order in New York read Understanding Media as a portent of their own doom, and they were quick to find fault with what the more scornful among them called McLuhan's 'incantation.'"2 Dwight Macdonald was one such critic. Macdonald always expressed strong reservations about popular culture generally and no doubt was unnerved by McLuhan's fascination with television. While he did not have outright contempt for McLuhan's ideas, Macdonald considered him something of a fallen scholar. He saw Understanding Media as having one interesting, if debatable, core insight, but felt the book was excessive and that a journal article would have sufficed. Macdonald was especially critical of the aphoristic prose style McLuhan used in Understanding Media, claiming that the more one read it the more one found it ridden with "contradictions, non-sequiturs, facts that are distorted and facts that are not facts, exaggerations, and chronic rhetorical vagueness."3

Indeed, McLuhan's writing does seem to target a postmodern reader, one steeped in the disconnected messages of electronic media. As someone schooled in linear prose, perhaps even McLuhan would have had trouble comprehending his own sentences—had he not written them, of course. But his descendants have managed reasonably well. Understanding Media lacks the flow of the realist novel, but it surely packs the sound bite–driven punch of televisual messages. As with television, Understanding Media gives its reader scant opportunity to ponder the provenance of its prophetic revelations. Many of us raised on television have come to appreciate postmodern fiction for these very qualities. I believe Joshua Meyrowitz captures the issue in a less grandiloquent or judgmental way than Macdonald in suggesting that "McLuhan's 'findings' are in an unusual form and they are, therefore, not easily integrated into other theoretical research frames. [His] observations have a direct, declaratory, and conclusive tone that makes them easy to accept fully or reject fully, but difficult to apply or explore."4

It is this quality, unfortunately, that has caused McLuhan's work to be criticized for pretending to scientific investigation while failing to demonstrate appropriate investigative procedures. Producing scientific knowledge was never McLuhan's intention, though, and to read Understanding Media in this way is to overlook his background as a literary scholar not trained in empirical methods. Criticizing McLuhan for not demonstrating enough empirical evidence for his theories is akin to criticizing van Gogh...


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