- Understanding McLuhan in Theological Space
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Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian mass communications scholar who achieved international celebrity in the sixties with his glittering aphorisms—“the medium is the message” and “the global village”—was a charismatic, controversial figure. He won many supporters and offended many critics with his theories about “hot” and “cold,” “low definition” and “high definition” media, and the psychic and social effects of new media technologies, as epitomized today by the convergence of digital and analog media.
By the seventies his influence had faded. Today, in the nineties there has been a resurgence of interest in his ideas. The “global village,” once only an influential catch-phrase, has become a political and social reality. With the arrival of the Internet, World Wide Web, and interactive technology, the world has shrunk to an infinite number of communities reflecting business, social, and personal interests which receive and send information instantly and inexpensively.
In revisiting McLuhan, who was undoubtedly a widely read and brilliant originator of provocative notions and verbal images, how shall we “probe” (a McLuhan term) his theories in order to appraise him? Was McLuhan a guru, [End Page 105] prophet, Pied Piper, media con man, or a wise and intuitive seer into the future of communications?
A personal encounter with McLuhan a quarter of a century ago has continued to intrigue me and has led me into deeper reflections on the significance and character of the man and his media theories. I discovered that McLuhan was superstitious. That’s a loaded word in academic discourse. Ever since the Enlightenment and the enthronement of reason, superstition has been denigrated—a throwback to primitive, outmoded ways of thinking from which intelligent, educated people are liberated.
From the sixteenth century to modernity, the word “superstition” summons up visions of ignorance, irrationality and benighted mental activity, including such pursuits as astrology, alchemy, animism, and other intellectually suspicious foolishness. This picture is at odds with the image of McLuhan who had a doctorate in English from Cambridge and taught for many years at the University of Toronto, but my personal encounter with McLuhan illuminates my assertion.
The year was 1966. I had joined the faculty of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. I was also TV-Radio Editor/Critic for the Saturday Review magazine, a national weekly of literature and the arts. In 1964, McLuhan had published his bestseller Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. The book elaborated a media study which the Canadian scholar had written in 1960 under a grant obtained with the help of the National Association of Educational Broadcasters (NAEB). At that time, I had friends in educational radio broadcasting including Harry Skornia, professor at the University of Illinois, and Jack White, President of National Educational Radio. They recommended that I write a Saturday Review piece about McLuhan and his novel media theories. [End Page 106]
Indeed, my friends informed me that they had helped McLuhan by rewriting parts of the NAEB report, making it more accessible to the average reader. For some reason, I failed to follow up and never set up an interview with McLuhan. When he hit the publishing jackpot with the bestseller, Understanding Media, colleagues at Saturday Review chided me for missing the opportunity to be among the first to recognize McLuhan as an outstanding, influential media analyst.
When the book gained unprecedented media attention, George Gerbner, Dean at the Annenberg School, and I decided to invite him to the school. We made a special night of his visit. McLuhan had become a buzzword in the television industry, especially among advertising executives who saw in his theories a justification for all that they did. If content were unimportant, they were off the hook—not guilty of the charge social critics leveled at them of manipulating the consumer in their broadcast ads.
Gerbner and I...