Centenary of Influence – Undervalued By Mainstream

20Dec11

Photograph of McLuhan holding a mirror that contains his reflection, 1967, by John Reeves

Marshall McLuhan, 1967. Photograph by John Reeves

 – Print, Broadcasting & Web Journalist, Author: “The Media Beat” – 12/19/11

This declining year has been the centennial of Marshall McLuhan’s birth — the man who was, if not the father or godfather, then at least our leading prophet of media-driven political and social change.

Oddly, or then again perhaps not, mainstream media sources have not done much to mark the McLuhan Century. Aptly enough, it’s in the digital space that we can find the most thorough-going appreciations. Most intriguing and engaging is the website launched early in the centennial year with the direct and very literal URL, www.marshallmcluhanspeaks.com.

It’s so far been cloaked in anonymity, but I can reveal (in the leaden words of some “legacy” media practitioners) that it was set up, through years of diligent preparation, by the prophet’s daughter, Stephanie McLuhan.

The younger McLuhan may have wanted it not to look like a family enterprise, and therefore possibly too parti-pris, but in fact this well-curated collection of material (mostly on video) benefits enormously from being the work of someone very close to MM who herself has long worked in the television business — and could track his various broadcast and privately-recorded appearances. That’s no mean feat, since they of course occurred well before the days of ubiquitous digital recording.

There’s obvious stuff in abundance, too, though. The site inevitably — and happily — carries the famous clip (a delicious piece of geek fantasy) from “Annie Hall” where Woody Allen gets to summon the great guru to support him in a movie-line argument.

McLuhan, we know, was the inventor of such prescient phrases as “the global village”. And my, haven’t the satellite television link-ups and the worldwide web on which we’ve depended this year for news from rattled Arab dictatorships fully demonstrated the “electronic interdependence” that McLuhan said would characterize a world community without essential borders? Other familiar McLuhan coinages include of course “the medium is the message”, but also — remarkably — that redolent ‘Sixties saying: “turn on, tune in, drop out”. You doubt me? Well, it was attributed to McLuhan with uncharacteristic selflessness by its insistent popularizer, Timothy Leary, who usually gets credit for it himself.

The uniqueness of marshallmcluhanspeaks.com lies in the very fact that the man does indeed speak. Much of what appears there simply isn’t to be found anywhere in his books.

The site gathers together his speeches, lectures, interviews and some more casual dissertations, and organizes them under helpful headings like “Prophecies“, “Television“, “The Electric Age“. There’s also a trenchant introduction on video from Tom Wolfe, who first introduced McLuhan to a wider public with his 1965 New York Herald Tribune‘s magazine essay “What If He Is Right?” (By the way, a little belatedly perhaps, the Spring 2012 edition of Lapham’s Quarterly will be devoted to ‘The Media‘ and Lewis Lapham himself, an early convert to McLuhanism following in Wolfe’s footsteps, will contribute an evaluation).

It’s invidious to pick any one piece — but as a typical Amazon.com customer and Google Books user I was especially taken by a particular clip, in the “Prophecies” category. It’s part of a TV interview dating from 1966, astonishingly, and Stephanie McLuhan – in a quite deliberate anachronism – has entitled it “Communication via the internet“. You’ll see why. It’s uncanny.

Read more of David Tereshchuk’s media industry insights at his weekly column, The Media Beat”, with accompanying video and audio. Listen also to The Media Beat podcasts on demand from Connecticut’s NPR station WHDD. http://tinyurl.com/83g5ojt 

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