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  • Marshaling McLuhan for Media Theory
  • Norm Friesen (bio)

Hailed in recent years as a prophet of the Internet and as the patron saint of Wired magazine, Marshall McLuhan’s style and substance are evident in the interdisciplinary work of Genosko, Logan, and Levy. Despite this influence, a common and justifiable perception exists in North America that McLuhan’s contributions remain outside of mainstream academic research and scholarship. Affirmations of McLuhan’s importance are frequently qualified by reservations about aspects of his life and work. He is more readily remembered as a punner and prognosticator, a maven of Madison Avenue, a cameo in Annie Hall, or “A Part of Our [Canadian] Heritage,”1 than as a rigorous researcher. The sentiments of Joshua Meyrowitz, a self-confessed “McLuhanite” (“Morphing McLuhan”), are typical: “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” (No Sense of Place 21). Meyrowitz himself has suggested a number of ways for programmatically “Marshalling McLuhan” for the twenty-first century, such as [End Page 5] combining “McLuhanism” with aspects of Marx, Goffman, or Chomsky. Nevertheless, these suggestions have yet to be taken up.

However, there is a context where McLuhan’s insights have recently been marshalled to good effect. There is a cultural milieu in which his puns are all but excised—and his “direct, declaratory, and conclusive tone” tempered—via a language less inclined to polysemy, indirection, and euphemism than English. There is a setting in which he appears as a man without a popular past and in which his dalliances with Hollywood and Madison Avenue are largely unknown. It is a context where, in the midst of the doctrinaire 1960s, he was pronounced dead on arrival and in which he has subsequently experienced a resurrection more miraculous than in dot-com America. Perhaps improbably, this place is the heart of the Eurozone: Germany, Austria, and, to a lesser extent, Switzerland.

In Germany alone, over fifty media studies departments have recently appeared at universities from Bielefeld to Weimar, with more to be found in Austria and German-speaking Switzerland. McLuhan is widely referenced as a Medienphilosoph, he is the subject of Fueilleton or “cultural feature” articles in newspapers (for example, Boltz), of German-language academic conferences (for example, Universität Bayreuth), and his theory of “hot” and “cool” media, as one example, is taught in all earnestness in the fine arts. He is seen as no less than “the founder and figurehead of modern media theory” (Margreiter 135): “With the thesis that media are themselves the message, and the implied transition of research interests to mediatic forms, McLuhan himself actually created the terrain for an independent science of the media (Medienwissenschaft)” (Leschke 245).

Significantly, McLuhan is generally recognized in this German scholarship not as an isolated intellectual figure but very much as part of a larger Canadian milieu. In his chapter on McLuhan in his landmark Medienphilosophie, Frank Hartmann, for example, devotes considerable attention to Innis and makes significant use of interpretations of McLuhan by Ian Angus and Arthur Kroker. Leschke and Margreiter take a similar approach, introducing Derrick de Kerkhove alongside McLuhan in their respective introductions to Medientheorie and Medienphilosophie.

German-language interpretations of McLuhan have developed a number of ways of integrating and even marshaling McLuhan’s direct and declaratory “findings” into theoretical frames prominent in continental philosophizing. In German-language accounts of the development of media theory, the Canadian, or “Toronto School,” of media theorists is generally viewed as being the first to articulate what has been called a “mediatic a priori” (Margreiter, Winkler, Winthrop-Young 394). This refers [End Page 6] to “the various ways in which media ‘always already’ make possible and condition the production and circulation of information, knowledge, and experiences in everyday life” (Klöck). Echoing the Kantian transcendental a priori (that is, the form of all possible experience), this mediatic a priori has served as the basis for numerous analyses that trace the way that the media of a given age similarly provide the...


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