Happy 100th birthweek, Marshall McLuhan, godfather of media studies


By Paul Graham Raven

Marshall McLuhan, the godfather of media studies, would have been 100 years old this week. Much has changed on the media landscape since McLuhan died in 1980 — not least the arrival of the internet — but that only makes his work more relevant.

The roots of McLuhan’s theories lie in his doctoral dissertation, a historical survey of the “trivium” of the verbal arts: logic, grammar and rhetoric. McLuhan proposed that the cultural transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance was caused less by the rediscovery of classical texts and sources than it was by a shift in focus from formal logic to rhetoric and grammar.

McLuhan’s own focus then shifted to more contemporary communications — and where better to examine the art of persuasion in the modern world than in advertising? His first book, The Mechanical Bride (1951), is a collection of essays that deconstruct adverts, revealing their hidden assumptions and underlying messages — a tradition upheld by adbusters and billboard hackers all over the world.

McLuhan’s best-known works examined the technologies of communication. The Gutenburg Galaxy (1962) examined their effects on human cultural and cognitive architecture, arguing that media — regardless of the content carried by them — fundamentally influence the way we think, and that the linear causality of alphabetic language in printed form had helped shape the individualist mindset of the Western world.

Back in the late Nineties, you couldn’t turn over a newspaper page or TV channel without some pundit talking about “the global village”, a McLuhan riff nearly four decades old. Networked computing was showing the first signs of turning global culture — those parts of it that could afford the bandwidth and hardware, at least — back towards collective identity and tribalism.

McLuhan believed that this shift would be caused by the resurgence of oral and aural communications toppling the cultural paradigm of the printed word. Perhaps the growth of what Bruce Sterling calls “vernacular video”, alongside the warring factions of today’s internet culture, could be seen as harbingers of McLuhan’s prophecies reaching fulfilment. McLuhan also believed that nationalism and capitalism were products of the print culture cognition model; whether the withering of the written word and the ubiquity of audiovisual web content will usher in some sort of post-nationalist global-socialist utopia is an open question, if not a thesis for a pop-philosophy book. (You can have that one for the price of a footnote credit, Mr. Žižek.)

Understanding Media itself draws together McLuhan’s earlier fascinations into a coherent whole, and birthed the discipline of media studies by emphasising the importance of examining the carrier as well as the content, as summed up in the slogan “the medium is the message”. Here, too, he makes the distinction between “hot” and “cool” media, a scale defined by the degree of active participation and involvement demanded of the consumer. The internet strikes me as something special, because it can be both hot and cool at once; whether McLuhan would have agreed, we’ll never know.

Perhaps the most interesting facet of McLuhan’s fascination with media was his refusal to make value judgements. Instead, he took it as a given that technologies would change cognition, claiming that “to raise a moral complaint about this is like cussing a buzz-saw for lopping off fingers”. It is this part of McLuhan’s attitude that seems most absent in these polarised times, as highlighted by misreportings of recent research into the effects of internet use on memory.

Moral panics aside, McLuhan’s influence is as pervasive as the media themselves, manifesting in thinkers as disparate as Nicholas Carr and R U Sirius, and last year Douglas Coupland published a biography of McLuhan that gleefully subverted the very form of biography itself.

His star may have waxed and waned over the years, but his work remains a 101 course in navigating the modern media ocean.

The McLuhan Foundation maintains a website full of introductory resources on McLuhan’s work, and has a programme of events and publications set to celebrate the centenary.  http://tinyurl.com/3rtbrae

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