Australian (ABC) Radio: Marshall McLuhan, Man of Faith

17Jul11

17 July 2011

Encounter – co-ordinated by Florence Spurling
This highly-acclaimed series explores the connections between religion and life.

Marshall McLuhan was a committed Christian. How did he come to his faith and did it influence his ideas? And has his work any meaning for the Church today?                                Listen to it all (about 48 1/2 minutes).

Or, if you prefer eyes to ears, reading text rather than listening to audio, you will find the complete transcript at the link at bottom. Here is the first part of this discussion:

Nina Sutton: Would you call yourself a very religious man?

Marshall McLuhan: I don’t know. I am I hope a very real, practicing, believing Christian, I try to be.

Margaret Coffey: Marshall McLuhan, the man himself, on ABC Radio National’s Encounter – and here he’s a man of faith, and of religion.

Marshall McLuhan: I have no problems incidentally about being religious – no, I don’t find any conflicts.

Margaret Coffey: I’m Margaret Coffey, welcoming you to the program – part of ABC McLuhan, a weekend on digital radio and online.

The Medium Is the Massage: Electric circuitry has rudely thrust us into a world that is quite unusual and quite unlike any previous world and for which no previous model of perception will serve.

Margaret Coffey: We’re marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of the man who made it popular to think about the effect of the media on our lives, either as individuals and in societies.

The Medium Is the Massage: The new feeling that people have about guilt is not something that can be privately assigned to some individual but is rather something shared by everybody in some mysterious way.

Margaret Coffey: And he was a man of whom it is also said:

Michael W. Higgins: It is difficult actually to identify him as either conservative Catholic or liberal Catholic. If they think of him at all as Catholic which is not largely the case I think and that is most unfortunate I think because it is to miss one of the major components of his thinking and is constitutive of his life, they tended to think of him as conservative: regular practising Catholic of the old way, fairly conventional, came into the church as he says himself in his twenties on his knees…

Marshall McLuhan: I had no religious yearnings or needs of any sort but I was quite aware of the claims of the church and I wanted to know what the claims were about.

Margaret Coffey: This Encounter shifts McLuhan out of that confining box, to complicate things, not to simplify them. And it’s necessary. At the big Barcelona McLuhan fest in May, no-one talked about McLuhan’s faith. Sociologist Chiara Giaccardi was there from the Catholic University of Milan.

Chiara Giaccardi: I was quite impressed to notice that McLuhan’s Catholic identity was not mentioned at all. And I think this is a very crucial point for the misunderstanding of McLuhan’s thought, because faith for McLuhan is the ground against which the figure of the work can be understood.

Margaret Coffey: Thirty-five years ago Marshall McLuhan was speaking to a journalist:

Nina Sutton: Nina Sutton. I’m an Anglo-French journalist.

Margaret Coffey: Nina Sutton is speaking from Paris…

Nina Sutton: My encounter with Marshall McLuhan took place in the fall of ’75. I’d published a book in French about the Watergate scandal – my publisher was eager to have another book by me. He suggested, because that was all the rage at the time, that I do what we called a book interview with someone. You would do an in-depth interview and write the book in the first person and then the person interviewed would sign it. So I said Marshall McLuhan.

The Medium Is the Massage: If you take a sentence like the medium is the message which is very misunderstood..

Nina Sutton: …because the guy was very famous then – the man who had said the media is the message…

The Medium Is the Massage: The medium is the message, the medium is the message, right. From his little office in Toronto he had taken a whole generation by the scruff of the neck and said look at this problem …

Nina Sutton: And I flew to Toronto and spent a month there.

The Medium Is the Massage: …just made a certain kind of awareness…

Nina Sutton: And then, instead of finding the flashy media guru I was expecting I am met by this totally serious, tweed clad, English looking, professor of literature.

Marshall McLuhan: I have no problems incidentally about being religious – no, I don’t find any conflicts.

Margaret Coffey: Marshal McLuhan speaking out of the Canadian National Library and Archive.

Nina Sutton: You have no problem in belonging to the church?

Marshall McLuhan: None whatever. No. But you see I am a convert.

Nina Sutton: I myself had been trained at the Sorbonne and I was a pure product of French university teaching: I was rational, ideological, committed, certainly leaning to the left if not the ultra-Left.

Marshall McLuhan: By the way, converts come in through the back door of the church. Coming in through the back door is coming in through the effects of the church, and not through its teachings. When you come in the front door you have first to swallow all the doctrines and all the teachings, which is what happens to the kids you see in school.

Nina Sutton: Meanwhile there was a constant stream of visitors from all over the world because he was incredibly famous. So he would give seminars and lectures – I attended some, not all of them because my rational mind had great time coping.

Marshall McLuhan: I had learnt my religion at the upper level before I found anything down there at all. I had no religious yearnings or needs of any sort but I was quite aware of the claims of the church and I wanted to know what the claims were about. I became aware that the church had had an enormous effect in shaping Western man. I became aware of what the church claimed to be.

Nina Sutton: He had converted to Catholicism a long time before we met and he was a real true believer. And we discussed several times. And coming from a very Catholic country I had some very definite ideas about you know the unpleasant role that the church could play in a country etc.

Marshall McLuhan: Now I had no religious belief at that time at all. I was an agnostic. But I finally decided that if the church is what it says it is, you are also told how to test that hypothesis and you are told to knock and knock and knock and demand to be shown.

Nina Sutton: But then that last encounter really moved me. I don’t know whether you can picture him now, but he was easily flippant, pretending to not mind, and to not think you know. Suddenly that last day we were sitting in that little office, attic shaped sort of little office that he had at the top of his institute.

Marshall McLuhan: …you are told to knock and knock and knock and demand to be shown…

Nina Sutton: And he actually believed in grace you see.

Marshall McLuhan: …that, if it is what it says it is, it also says that you will be given the means of knowing.

Nina Sutton: So for about an hour, without admitting to it, he tried to convince me to knock on God’s door.

Marshall McLuhan: …if it is what it says it is, it also says that you will be given the means of knowing.

Nina Sutton: …all you have to do Nina is knock and he will answer. And I was absolutely moved because it was so uncharacteristic and it came from such a deep place in him.

Margaret Coffey: Nina Sutton. Here’s a missing piece from a common McLuhan image.

Michael W. Higgins: My name is Michael W. – William – Higgins . I am the vice-president for mission and Catholic identity of Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut. I am the past president of two Canadian universities…

Margaret Coffey: Michael Higgins is talking to me from New Brunswick, Canada. He met McLuhan in the seventies, when he was a post-grad student.

Michael W. Higgins: Mass was held at the collegiate Church at the University of St Michael’s College which was known as St Basil’s. [Note: St Michael’s is a Catholic College, part of the University of Toronto. McLuhan taught in Catholic institutions throughout his academic career].And Mass would be held every day at 12.10 and sometimes he would abbreviate his class or he would leave immediately after his class because the Eucharist meant a lot to him.

He saw it as largely undamaged by the shift from a visual world, a Gutenbergian world, to an electric world, an acoustic world, that so many other things changed and were in flux but there was something about the nature of the Mass…
He was a daily communicant. It was like Teilhard’s notion of the Mass as the centre of the world or the great writings of David Jones, the artist, who understood the centrality of the Eucharist.

The Medium Is the Massage: And so on and so on and so on.

You know the most favourable moment to seize a man and influence him is when he is alone in the Mass.
Where is A, it precedes B, B follows A and precedes C.
Writing was an embalming process that froze language. It eliminated the art of ambiguity and made puns the lowest form of wit.

Michael W. Higgins: I also encountered him on several occasions subsequently. He was a lector at Mass at Holy Rosary Parish – he lived in Wychwood Park which is a kind of an exclusive enclave in downtown Toronto and this was his local parish. One of the things which struck me there was his remarkable and quite predictable ability at mispronouncing every name in the English language. This great communications guru would often would often get the name wrong, mispronounce it, if he was reading the first lesson he would read the second lesson, thereby driving the priest crazy or he would read the Gospel, thereby confounding the liturgy for the day. I was always quite struck by this.

Margaret Coffey: It seems Marshall McLuhan made a point of confounding expectation, or at least evading the drawing pin ….it keeps people writing and talking about him…and ABC McLuhan exploring – on digital radio and online!

Jeet Heer: My name is Jeet Heer.

Margaret Coffey: He edits the Canadian literary journal The Walrus.

Jeet Heer: Growing up in Canada it is hard not to become familiar with him because he is one of the few intellectual exports that we have. But I think it is partially because as university student I was very interested in popular culture, in things like movies and comic books and the like, and McLuhan was one of the major kind of theorists of these things. And he lived a little bit before the internet but a lot of his theories would apply to what we are familiar now with, with the World Wide Web and email.

Margaret Coffey: So he’s part of the Canadian cultural heritage?

Jeet Heer: Yes very much so. They have these TV commercials devoted to like major figures like the hockey player Rocket Richard or Prime Minister Trudeau and they have a little moment, a one minute commercial showing Marshall McLuhan sitting in his library and he comes up with the idea of the medium is the message.

Margaret Coffey: Jeet Heer has written about the way from the very beginning McLuhan inspired extreme responses.

Jeet Heer: I mean I don’t think it has really changed very much since he died. From the time he started to think and publish he had a sort of cohort of followers who thought that this is someone who has really novel insight into the modern world and what’s happening but there were always detractors who thought he was a charlatan or a fraud and who used very strong language against him. I mean a lot of the hostility towards McLuhan came from people with a literary background – people who had invested their entire lives in first of all learning how to read and then becoming writers and who were very vested in a literary tradition. And they saw McLuhan coming along who was talking about you know how the age of print will be supplanted by the age of the electronic medium and they thought that well this is a man who is basically saying that our whole life is worthless. And people thought that because McLuhan was describing these things that he was advocating these things.

Read the rest here: http://www.abc.net.au/rn/encounter/stories/2011/3256612.htm

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