- Readers’ Forum Introduction: The Age of McLuhan, 100 Years On
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This year marks the centenary birthday of English literature professor, media theorist, and “global village” prophet Herbert Marshall McLuhan in Edmonton on 21 July 1911. Yearlong celebrations occurring across the globe—from Barcelona, Berlin, and Brussels to Copenhagen and Katowice—testify to his devoted fandom fueled by revived academic attention to McLuhan’s startling insights and interdisciplinary scholarship. In the prairie city of his early years, the University of Alberta is hosting a series of public and scholarly events, including the Media Ecology Association (mea) convention in late June. As convenors of mea 2011, we were initially surprised by the large number of delegates hailing from outside North America—Brazil, Mexico, Europe, and China. But as one contributor to this Reader’s Forum points out (Friesen), the McLuhan intellectual legacy, with its distinctive Canadian roots, has in fact been thriving abroad for decades.
For this Readers’ Forum, “The Age of McLuhan, 100 Years On,” we invited six scholars to reflect on the significance of Marshall McLuhan in today’s posthuman mediatic context. Canada Research Chair of E-Learning Practices, Norm Friesen opens by describing the depth of interest that German scholars have maintained in McLuhan, whom they identify fully with Canadian culture. Friesen echoes a heuristic that our colleague Rob Shields uses when discussing McLuhan’s body of work, that is, McLuhan himself is a kind of intellectual medium; he mediates disciplines, historical eras, sensibilities, and even national cultures.
McLuhan as medium also emerges in the contribution by B. W. Powe, poet, essayist, philosopher, and student of both McLuhan and Northrop Frye. Powe offers an excerpt from his forthcoming book, Apocalypse and Alchemy: Visions of Marshall McLuhan and Northrop Frye. In the larger work, he argues that McLuhan’s “presences and signatures,” the tracings of his intellectual work in Toronto’s social and geographical landscapes, may be compared with those of Northrop Frye. In his excerpt, Powe immerses us in the alchemy of McLuhan’s electric mind, probing us with his signature mix of interfacial abrasions intending to “snap the trances of [our] conditioning.”
English Professor and author of McLuhan in Space: A Cultural Geography, Richard Cavell considers the implications of McLuhan’s intellectual legacy for the study of literature in Canada and ultimately for the fate of the academy. Literary studies formed the foundation of McLuhan’s training and constituted a lifelong point of departure, tension, and creation. In preparation for his dissertation on the work of Thomas Nashe (1567–1601), [End Page 2] McLuhan studied the history and philosophy of the trivium and its division of knowledge into the streams of rhetoric (communication), dialectic (philosophy and logic), and grammar (literature, including the modes of interpretation). His theory of communication was to be articulated over the three decades of his academic career as a “grammar” of media, in which a new medium expanded and then transformed the social and economic effects of previous media. Cavell casts McLuhan’s grammarian vision of media in light of our Googling, Twittering Wikipedia world and sees renewed and unexpected dialogues emerging between public and academy.
Gordon Gow begins by quoting the late poet O. B. Hardison’s observation that culture can only be discerned through a “contemplation of the invisible in the obvious,” an epithet that McLuhan would surely affirm. McLuhan’s work is, as has been said, preparadigmatic. In response to this situation, Gow wonders if McLuhan’s theories can be understood using structures that we already know and if we are seeing a new form of transformation through media. Perhaps, as Gow suggests, we can contribute best if we simply “listen and watch.”
While McLuhan is certainly most famous for his media theory (“the medium is the message”), few realize that he was a remarkable teacher who wrote about pedagogy and media education throughout his career. For example, City as Classroom: Understanding Language and Media (1977), co-written just before his death with Kathryn Hutchon and his...