In the ’60s, Marshall McLuhan was Toronto’s most famous intellectual; now, the world has finally caught up with him

06Jul11

Marshall McLuhan hasn’t had so much media coverage since the mid-1960s. This article from Toronto Life is about 10 pages long, so follow the link at bottom to read the whole thing. It includes family photographs that I have never seen before.

In the ’60s,  McLuhan was hobnobbing with celebrities, advising politicians and forever changing how we think about mass media. A hundred years after his birth, the world has finally caught up with his theories
By Jason McBride

Marshall McLuhan

Marshall McLuhan. (Image: Robert Lansdale Photography/University of Toronto Archives)

Nineteen sixty-five was the turning point of Marshall McLuhan’s career—the Annus McLuhanis, the Year of Marshall Law, the heady, vertiginous breakout of McLuhan-mania. It was the year the irreverent journalist Tom Wolfe published a star-making profile of the Canadian media guru in the New York Herald Tribune that repeatedly asked, in Wolfe’s typically antic, hyperbolic way: what if he is right? “Suppose heis what he sounds like,” Wolfe wrote, “the most important thinker since Newton, Darwin, Freud, Einstein and Pavlov, studs of the intelligentsia game—suppose he is the oracle of the modern times?”

In the 40-odd years since Wolfe first posed this question, many others have asked it again and again. McLuhan was right about so many things. Browse his books, dip into any of the interviews he gave, and almost every probing, aphoristic utterance feels preternaturally prescient. Decades before doomsayers decried the Internet’s negative rewiring of the brain, he dramatically outlined the psychic, physical and social consequences: “One of the effects of living with electric information is that we live habitually in a state of information overload. There’s always more than you can cope with.” He predicted the slow death of magazines and newspapers: “The monarchy of print has ended and an oligarchy of new media has usurped most of the power of that 500-year-old monarchy.” And he foresaw the rise of crowd-sourced news: “If we pay careful attention to the fact that the press is a mosaic, participant kind of organization and a do-it-yourself kind of world, we can see why it is so necessary to democratic government.” McLuhan anticipated reality TV long before it was a glimmer in the Survivor producer Mark Burnett’s eye: “I used to talk about the global village; I now speak of it more properly as the global theatre. Every kid is now concerned with acting. Doing his thing outside and raising a ruckus in a quest for identity.” When, in his bestselling book The Medium is the Massage, he wrote, “Wars, revolutions, civil uprisings are interfaces within the new environments created by electric informational media,” he could have been writing about how Twitter and Facebook shaped the Arab Spring. The world that McLuhan conjured is a world that now looks an awful lot like ours.

Okay, maybe McLuhan isn’t the most important thinker since Newton, but he’s certainly the most important—and most influential—thinker Canada has ever produced. There has never been anyone, before or since, as monumentally significant as McLuhan.

[McLuhan as Mechanical Bride?]

Marshall and Eric McLuhanMcLuhan and his son Eric, in 1967, in the family’s Triumph. (Image: Courtesy of the Estate of Marshall McLuhan)

Between 1965 and 1969, McLuhan was everywhere: on the cover of Newsweek, name-checked in New Yorker cartoons, profiled or interviewed in Harper’sLifeEsquire and Playboy. A popular, provocative attraction at conferences and think-tanks, he was fawned over by dozens of corporate executives and advertising firms hungry for his insights into their work and lives.

Countercultural icons like John Lennon and Abbie Hoffman embraced him (McLuhan interviewed Lennon and Yoko Ono on CBS about their War is Over! billboard campaign; Hoffman called McLuhan “more relevant than Marx” and said, “For an old guy, he does well”). On TV, McLuhan went toe to toe with a stuttering, perplexed Norman Mailer.

Newsweek, Maclean’s, Playboy

His 15 minutes: McLuhan was a ubiquitous, if unlikely, superstar in the mid-’60s. (Images: Newsweek courtesy of Newsweek; Playboy courtesy of Playboy; Maclean’s courtesy of Maclean’s)

The cultural bloodstream is now thoroughly infused with McLuhanism. On the centenary of his birth, he’s being celebrated, reappraised and repackaged around the world, in conferences and symposia; on comprehensive new websites; in books (Media and Formal Cause, a new collection of essays by McLuhan and his son and collaborator, Eric, as well as reissues of The Medium Is the Massage and Douglas Coupland’s affectionate biography, You Know Nothing of My Work!); multimedia art exhibitions; webinars; audio walking tours; and a thicket of articles like this one. The McLuhan in Europe project gathers together events, from Barcelona to Berlin, with ponderous titles like “Transgressing the Senses” and “Play McLuhan: Dialogues, Objects, Environments, Soundscapes.” Edmonton, where McLuhan was born, will proclaim July 21, his birthday, Marshall McLuhan Day.

Wolfe, returning to his old subject in the documentary Marshall McLuhan Speaks, rightly called him the “first seer of cyberspace.” McLuhan defined the web in 1962, long before the web defined itself: “A computer as a research and communication instrument could enhance retrieval, obsolesce mass library organization, retrieve the individual’s encyclopedic function and flip into a private line to speedily tailored data of a saleable kind.” McLuhan, of course, is now part of that data, dispersed across thousands and thousands of pages of search results, compressed into YouTube videos, audio clips, searchable catalogues of his quips and electronic editions of his books—he’s even a potential (if imaginary) friend on Facebook.

McLuhan didn’t really care if he was right. Right or wrong and good or bad had nothing to do with it. He was, he often claimed, not a moralist but an observer. An explorer, not an explainer. He was too fond of the paradox and the pun, always more of an imagistic and satiric poet. He was not a sociologist, nor was he, strictly speaking, a futurist. “If you really are curious about the future,” he said on CBC’s Ideas, “just study the present.”  http://tinyurl.com/3nkjxwg

Toronto Life

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2 Responses to “In the ’60s, Marshall McLuhan was Toronto’s most famous intellectual; now, the world has finally caught up with him”

  1. I’ve just returned from the University of Auckland. During their hosting of the Australasian Computer Music Conference 2011, Argentinean composer Jose Halac presented his audiovisual work “Universalis”, which is part of a DVD and Installation project with German artist Jana Kluge, titled “Gutenberg Galaxias”. The title of the project refers to Marshal McLuhan’s publication “Gutenberg Galaxy”. The DVD and installation consist of 14 electroacoustic compositions associated with the photograph exhibit, and inspired by the subject. The premiere of the exhibit and installation took place, significantly, at the site of the early Jesuit printing press in the San Alberto Museum in Cordoba, Argentina.
    http://www.invitarte.com.ar/gutenberggacetilla.htm
    http://janakluge.de/janakluge/artproject_files/ART%20PROJECT.pdf

    Gerardo Dirie
    Griffith University

    • Thank you Gerado. This information you’ve supplied deserves a more prominent place, so I’m copying it to a posting on the main blog page. the influence of Marshall McLuhan is deep and widespread………..AlexK


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