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  • McLuhan and the Humanities
  • Richard Cavell (bio)

One of the constants of McLuhan criticism and biography is that his training as a scholar of Renaissance English literature and its debt to the rhetorical tradition, coupled with his lifelong interest in English literary modernism, especially Joyce and Eliot, morphed into his foundational theories of mediation.

McLuhan’s literary studies were undoubtedly crucial to his theories of how media shape messages. But what was to be the afterlife of these insights for the study of literature and for the humanities at large? What was to be their fate in the postliterate era, an era into which we have fully entered with Wikipedia, Google, the digital library, and e-books?

McLuhan addressed the philosophical and pedagogical implications of this question in a lecture he gave to the Humanities Association of Canada in Montreal in June 1961 and subsequently published in the Humanities Association Bulletin.

Tellingly, McLuhan’s first citation is from business management guru Peter Drucker, who wrote in Landmarks of Tomorrow that he first realized “the immediate relevance of encyclopedic liberal knowledge” when he turned from philosophy to management studies (McLuhan, “Humanities” 3; the paraphrase is McLuhan’s). What Drucker meant by this is that in [End Page 14] the corporate world—a world which, for McLuhan, was the one we now occupied by virtue of the fact that we had extended ourselves prosthetically through vast corpora of mediation—the impact of research was immediate. Liberal education becomes, in this context, an immense Bauhaus project, at once an embodiment of modernist aesthetic ideals (the total work of art) and an instance of applied knowledge in a social context. With his typical verve, McLuhan comments that “the corporations are much more aware of their need for high-level education than are the universities. The Ciceronian ideal of the doctus orator is current again” (3). This is so because the electronic age, with its onslaught of information vectors, demands a form of knowledge based on pattern recognition, and it was this sensitivity to patterns of expression that distinguished the orator, for whom knowledge was ultimately performative.

Thus McLuhan did not take flight from the incursion of the technological into the pedagogical. On the contrary, it was precisely because art was by definition the discourse which discerned patterns—because it was about form rather than about content (and here we see the legacy of the Modernists in McLuhan’s media theory)—that it was now more than ever crucial to contemporary society. Citing expat Canadian Kenneth Galbraith’s “Economics and Art” (a chapter in The Liberal Hour), McLuhan notes that the Harvard economist “ridicules the old commercial notion of arts as frivolity,” arguing that the arts now form a “navigational guide” in contemporary culture (“Humanities” 3).

Comments such as these did not endear McLuhan to his English department colleagues at the University of Toronto; as Doug Coupland remarks in his recent biofiction about McLuhan, “[m]ost of Marshall’s colleagues … viewed him as a nutbar” (127). We have to remember, however, that those colleagues were publishing articles in the same issue of The Humanities Bulletin with titles like “Mill and Arnold: Liberty and Culture—Friends or Enemies?” and reviewing books with titles like Of Paradise and Light: A Study of Vaughan’s Silex Scintillans. McLuhan comments on this recourse to traditionalism in times of rapid change, noting that “the panic for permanence drives us into ever greater depth understanding” (4). He notes this “without enthusiasm.” The vast explosions of information that confront us, he argued, demand breadth—pattern recognition. As Bertrand Russell remarked, and as McLuhan loved quoting, “the great achievement of the twentieth century [is] the technique of suspended judgment. That is, the discovery of the process of insight itself” (4). [End Page 15]

McLuhan’s approach to this injunction was to study effects: the “assembly line” of segmented knowledge yields under electronic organicism to “galaxy clusters of simultaneous operations” (6). This comment is resonant with an article in The New York Times published last November and provocatively titled “A New Enlightenment: Digital Keys to the Humanities’ Riches.” In that article, Patricia Cohen argues that the successor to formalism, Freudianism, structuralism, postcolonialism, etc., will...


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