Friday 27 January 2012

Marshall McLuhan

Best known these days for his phrases "The medium is the message" (the title of one of his books was The Medium is the Massage), and "the global village", not to mention a cameo appearance in Woody Allen's movie Annie Hall, Marshall McLuhan was a prophet of the new communications technology and the founder of Media Studies with his book Understanding Media (1964). Last year was the 100th anniversary of his birth, and he died in 1980. But there is a lot more to him than this, and as an educator and philosopher he repays careful attention. He was, by the way, a Catholic convert in 1937 thanks to the influence of G.K. Chesterton. Wikipedia (a phenomenon that would have interested him greatly) tells us not only that he claimed intellectual guidance from the Virgin Mary, but that he had a lifelong interest in the number 3 – his conversion began as he was studying the Trivium (the first three Liberal Arts) for his thesis at Cambridge University. That thesis was published for the first time in 2006 by Gingko Press, and examines the history of the Trivium from Classical times to the Renaissance. McLuhan himself was an exponent of Rhetoric in the traditional and broadest sense – hence his interest in the communications media. He saw how each new technology (writing, print, telephone, TV, computer) effectively transforms human cognition and society. He predicted the World Wide Web and analysed its effects as early as 1962.

The latest issue of The Chesterton Review contains a couple of pieces on McLuhan in "News & Comments". One (by Jeet Heer) concludes that to appreciate the full profundity of McLuhan's thought you need to read books like Hugh Kenner's The Mechanic Muse, Walter Ong's Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, and Nicholas Carr's The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. But don't neglect to read McLuhan.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this, Stratford. I need to read much more about McLuhan. For better or worse (probably worse), I really only know him from Peter Gabriel's lyrics (1974) to Lamb Lies Down. And, every time I hear or read McLuhan's name, the lyrics run through my head. I'll look into him more.