Nieman Journalism Labs: Marshall McLuhan, Superstar

23Jul11

Today would have been Marshall McLuhan’s 100th birthday. Continuing our informal McLuhan Week at the Lab, we present this essay by Maria Bustillos on McLuhan’s unique status as a media theorist who was also a media star.

There was no longer a single thing in [the] environment that was not interesting […] “Even if it’s some place I don’t find congenial, like a dull movie or a nightclub, I’m busy perceiving patterns,” he once told a reporter. A street sign, a building, a sports car — what, he would ask himself and others, did these things mean? —Philip Marchand, Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger

The public intellectual was invented in the mid-20th century. Certainly there were others before that who started the ball rolling — talented writers and academics with flexible, open minds taking the whole culture into account, trying to make sense of things as they were happening — but few of them penetrated far beyond the walls of the academy or the confines of some other single discipline. We might count Bertrand Russell as an early prototype, with his prominence in pacifist circles and campaigns against nuclear disarmament, or better still G.B. Shaw, an autodidact of boundless energy who cofounded the London School of Economics and also helped popularize Jaeger’s “sanitary” woolen undies. Until Al Gore came along, Shaw was the only person to have won both a Nobel Prize and an Oscar.

Both Russell and Shaw gained a great deal of influence outside their own spheres of work, but remained above it all, too; they were “authorities” who might be called on to offer their views to the public on this topic or that. But it was a devoutly Catholic, rather conservative Canadian academic who first succeeded in breaking down every barrier there was in the intensity of his effort to understand, interpret, and influence the world. Marshall McLuhan was quite possibly the first real public intellectual. That wide-ranging role having once been instantiated, others came to fill it, in ever-increasing numbers.

Though he was an ordinary English prof by trade, McLuhan’s work had measurable effects on the worlds of art, business, politics, advertising and broadcasting. He appeared on the cover of Newsweek and had office space at Time. Tom Wolfe took him to a “topless restaurant” and wrote about him for New York magazine (“What If He is Right?”). He was consulted by IBM and General Motors, and he coined the phrase, “Turn on, tune in, drop out,” according to Timothy Leary. He made the Canadian Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau, shave off his beard.

In 1969, McLuhan gave one of the most revealing and best interviews Playboy ever published (a high bar, there.)

PLAYBOY: Have you ever taken LSD yourself?

McLUHAN: No, I never have. I’m an observer in these matters, not a participant. I had an operation last year to remove a tumor that was expanding my brain in a less than pleasant manner, and during my prolonged convalescence I’m not allowed any stimulant stronger than coffee. Alas! A few months ago, however, I was almost “busted” on a drug charge. On a plane returning from Vancouver, where a university had awarded me an honorary degree, I ran into a colleague who asked me where I’d been. “To Vancouver to pick up my LL.D.,” I told him. I noticed a fellow passenger looking at me with a strange expression, and when I got off the plane at Toronto Airport, two customs guards pulled me into a little room and started going over my luggage. “Do you know Timothy Leary?” one asked. I replied I did and that seemed to wrap it up for him. “All right,” he said. “Where’s the stuff? We know you told somebody you’d gone to Vancouver to pick up some LL.D.” After a laborious dialog, I persuaded him that an LL.D. has nothing to do with consciousness expansion — just the opposite, in fact — and I was released.

Until the mid-century, there was a wall between what we now call popular culture and the “high culture” of the rich and educated, and there was another wall, at least as thick, between popular and academic discourse. Cracks had begun to appear by the 1930s, when the Marxist theorists of the Frankfurt School began to take on the subject of mass culture, culminating in works such as Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception(1944). These academics saw popular culture as a positive evil, though, undermining the chances of revolution; a new kind of “opiate of the masses.” Later critics such as Edward Shils and Herbert J. Gans would elaborate on the same themes. But none of these writers personally ID’d with mass culture in any way. Far from it. Indeed Shils said in 1959: “Some people dislike the working classes more than the middle classes, depending on their political backgrounds. But the real fact is that from an esthetic and moral standpoint, the objects of mass culture are repulsive to us.” To some degree, that academic standoffishness is with us even today. The sneering of the “high” for the “low”.

Marshall McLuhan’s first book, The Mechanical Bride: The Folklore of Industrial Man, was published in 1951, and it took a quite different approach to the task of lifting the veil of mass culture in order to expose the workings beneath. The chief difference was that McLuhan never saw or really even acknowledged that wall between the critic of culture and the culture itself. After all, he too was a human being, a citizen, a reader of newspapers and magazines. McLuhan’s critique took place from the inside.

“[B]eing highbrow, in McLuhan’s eyes, never conferred the slightest moral value on anything,” observed his biographer, Philip Marchand.

McLuhan’s student Walter J. Ong wrote magnificently on this theme in his essay, “McLuhan as Teacher: The Future Is a Thing of the Past,” published in the Sept. 1981 Journal of Communication.

When [McLuhan] did attend to […] popular works, as in his first book,The Mechanical Bride (1951), it was to invest them with high seriousness. He showed that such things as advertising and comic strips were in their own way as deeply into certain cyclonic centers of human existence — sex, death, religion, and the human-technology relationship — as was the most “serious” art, though both naively and meretriciously. However, awareness of the facts here was neither naive nor meretricious; it was upsetting and liberating.

Marshall Soules of Malaspina University-College had this comment on the “high seriousness” with which McLuhan treated popular works:

It is this strategic stance which distinguishes McLuhan from many media critics — like those associated with the Frankfurt or Birmingham Schools, or like Neil Postman, Mark Miller, Stewart Ewen and others — whose views imply an idealized literate culture corrupted by popular, commercialised, and manipulative media. McLuhan used his training as a literary critic to engage in a dialogue with the media from the centre of the maelstrom.

The Mechanical Bride consists of a selection of advertisements with essays and captions attached.

“Where did you see that bug-eyed romantic of action before?

Was it in a Hemingway novel?

Is the news world a cheap suburb for the artist’s bohemia?

— from The Mechanical Bride

The playful and wide-ranging tone of The Mechanical Bride was entirely new, given that its intentions were as serious as a heart attack. McLuhan thought that the manipulative characteristics of advertising might be resisted once they were understood. “It was, if anything, a critique of an entire culture, an exhilarating tour of the illusions behind John Wayne westerns, deodorants, and Buick ads. The tone of McLuhan’s essays was not without an occasional hint of admiration for the skill of advertisers and capturing the anxieties and appetites of that culture,” Marchand wrote.

Read the rest here: http://www.niemanlab.org/2011/07/marshall-mcluhan-superstar/

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