Best known for his coinages—“the medium is the message” and “the global village”—Marshall McLuhan (1911–1980) did more than any other individual to stimulate public discourse about the social implications and consequences of new media. He had an uncanny ability to take an obscure topic or idea and make it relevant, to form questions that no one else had considered, and to recognize the future, and past, in the conditions of the present. His pronouncements on the social impact of electronic communications simultaneously amused, perplexed, frustrated, and intrigued popular and scholarly audiences alike. While some of his assertions and theories were considered indecipherable or ridiculous, others seemed brilliant, even clairvoyant. Not surprisingly, he garnered both praise and criticism throughout his long and often very public academic career. Along with his official and semiofficial titles (English professor, poet, and media critic), he picked up a host of both derogatory and complimentary epithets (academic rebel, genius, pop guru, prophet of new media, publicity hound, and oracle of the electronic age). By all accounts, he took the good with the bad, accepting that publication was as he once called it “a self-invasion of privacy” and schizophrenia“a necessary consequence of literacy.”
The elder of two children, Herbert Marshall was born to Elsie and Herbert McLuhan on July 21, 1911, in Edmonton, Alberta. He earned bachelor's and master's degrees in English at the University of Manitoba before enrolling at Trinity Hall, Cambridge University. There, he earned another bachelor's and master's, and completed his doctorate in 1943. He taught English at the University of Wisconsin, St. Louis University, and Assumption College in Windsor, Ontario, before settling in at St. Michael's College, University of Toronto, where he stayed from 1946–1977. Biographers suggest that his early training had a few significant effects on the evolution of his thinking. At Manitoba, he was captivated by essayist Gilbert Chesterton's masterful use of paradox, devotion to Roman Catholicism, and vigorous denunciations of modernity (McLuhan eventually embraced all three). At Cambridge, he came under the influence of Ivor Armstrong Richards and F. R. Leavis and would eventually adopt their pioneering approach to literature known as New Criticism. This method of critical analysis examined, among other details, how words communicated meaning through structure, imagery, and tone. Richards was interested in how language stimulated responses in the reader. Tellingly, McLuhan modified and applied these methods in his doctoral thesis, “The Place of Thomas Nashe in the Learning of His Time.”
As he worked on his own hybrid New Criticism, McLuhan eventually used it in his analysis of the whole spectrum of new media. McLuhan's first book, The Mechanical Bride (1951), employs his new methodology to explore the rhetorical strategies and underlying assumptions in the text of newspaper advertisements. An early advocate of “media literacy,” McLuhan developed a curriculum for the study of media in schools for the National Association for Educational Broadcasters in the United States. This curriculum was the impetus for his most famous books, The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) and Understanding Media (1964), and marks the last stage in the maturation of his theories about media. Clearly influenced by the work of Harold Innis (a professor of political economy at University of Toronto), McLuhan broadens his documentary scope in these books to include all the major means of human communication, especially electronic broadcasting. This is where his ideas of the “global village,” “the medium is the message,” “hot and cool” designations for channels of communications, and technologies being “the extension of man” are first widely disseminated. These works, with their groundbreaking and highly original ideas, caught the attention of U.S. and European critics and intellectuals, propelling the relatively unknown Canadian scholar into the world media spotlight.
By all accounts, he liked the attention. Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, McLuhan fashioned a scholar cum-pop guru persona so successfully that his name became a catchphrase on the TV variety show, Laugh In. He also had several articles written about him in general interest magazines, was profiled in New York Magazine by Tom Wolfe, interviewed in Playboy, appeared on the cover of Newsweek, and had a short scene in Woody Allen's film, Annie Hall (1977). In many ways, he was to the field of media theory what Andy Warhol was to the world of pop art. The irony of using media to critique media was not lost on McLuhan. In fact, irony and paradox were always investigation devices that he used in every facet of his life.
McLuhan was neither a traditional pedagogue nor a conventional writer. Students often found his lectures vague and impenetrable, while book reviewers criticized his random organization and disregard for the conventions of formal writing. He did not always substantiate his arguments, prompting some to dismiss his scholarship altogether. Most of his biographers agree that he found writing books intellectually constricting and that his preferred medium of communication was oratory. McLuhan was a master of wordplay, aphorism, and paradox, rhetorical tools he used to great effect throughout his academic career. His aphoristic style encouraged active listener and reader participation and left plenty of room for individual interpretation. McLuhan enjoyed a playful freedom with his own thinking and tried, whenever possible, to encourage the same in others.
From 1967 to 1972, McLuhan wrote or collaborated on nine books. He often utilized a “field approach,” taking chunks or fragments of information and stringing them together into sentences and paragraphs (sometimes juxtaposed with images). Here again, the burden was on the reader to negotiate a maze of imagery and ideas. Much of this methodology grew from his interest in Gestalt psychology and its figure/ground schema. McLuhan did not produce a grand theory or pathbreaking methodology in the traditional sense. Instead, his true legacy is found in the new understanding he engendered for mass media–both in the general population and academic theoreticians. Furthermore, he succeeded in changing the critical focus from a traditional, content-based analysis of communications media and toward a more comprehensive, effects-oriented method.
McLuhan's popularity peaked in the mid-1960s before beginning a slow decline that culminated, in 1980, with the closing of his Centre for Culture at the University of Toronto and his death in December. Since the early 1990s, with the reopening of his Centre, his “patron saint” status proclaimed by Wired magazine, and publication of several biographies and posthumous books, a new generation of students and scholars is rediscovering McLuhan, and his writings have experienced something of a renaissance. His radical theories, his concept of technological determinism, and his various aphorisms, metaphors, and expressions still inspire careful public deliberation and warrant serious scholarly engagement.
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