Marshall McLuhan & the 1960s “New Sensibility” Described by Tom Wolfe & Susan Sontag



The merging of high & low culture is old hat to us, but 50 years ago Sontag & Wolfe were breaking boundaries

A recent online article describes the “new sensibility” with respect to culture, defined by cultural mavens Susan Sontag and Tom Wolfe during the 1960s. Marshall McLuhan’s writings about media were for both of them a prime example of that new sensibility and both Sontag and Wolfe wrote about him; the essay is worth reading as an introduction to that new cultural sensibility, although it does not discuss Marshall McLuhan’s work. Here’s a short excerpt from the article by George Cotkin:-

“For Sontag, the New Sensibility was a battering ram against academic stodginess and purity. While this drew her to Camp culture (she had first hit the headlines with an essay about this phenomenon in 1964), she did not throw the baby out with the bathwater. She wanted all that culture had to offer, however outrageous … Wolfe invariably opted, at least in print, for the outrageous, especially when it allowed him further opportunity to poke fun at the self-inflated egos and pretensions of cultural worthies. Whether he identified with the old or new culture remained unclear, hidden behind his inscrutable smile.

Looking back 30 years later, Sontag admitted that her enthusiasm for the excesses of the New Sensibility had a strong element of the “evangelical zeal” of a recent convert. Yet, she remained adamant that the tired distinction between high and low culture needed to be cast aside. She had put her finger on the pulse of the emerging sensibility”. Read the rest at .

George Cotkin is Emeritus Professor of History, California Polytechnic University, and author of the forthcoming book Feast of Excess: A Cultural History of the New Sensibility”(Oxford University Press).


Tom Wolfe describes the new sensibility conveyed by McLuhan’s writings on media in his essay suppose he is what he sounds like, the most important thinker since newton, darwin, freud, einstein, and Pavlov what if he is right?” Here is an excerpt:-

“But, all right, he may have missed the mark on this or that, but McLuhan will remain a major figure in the social sciences if for no other reason than that he has opened up the whole subject of the way the new technologies are changing people’s thinking, reactions, life styles, everything. One means, well, one is in a supermarket and here comes some Adam’s-apply carbuncled kid with bad hair pushing a rolling hamper full of All Detergent Man Mountain Giant Bonus boxes, and he is not looking where he is going; he is not lo oking at anything; his eyes are turned off and screened over, and there is a plug in his skull leading to the transistor radio in the breast pocket of his shirt, and he is blamming his free hand on the Giant All boxes, blam blam ble-blam blam, keeping time to the Rolling Stones, Hey You Get Offa My Cloud; somewhere inside of his skull, blam blam, plugged into some kind of electronic circuit out there, another world-and one knows, instinctively, that all this is changing people in some kind of way. Sociologists and physiologists have done practically nothing on the subject. They have done practically nothing on the way the automobile has changed Americans, as long as cars have been around. Every time sociologists have a meeting, somebody gets up and says, why doesn’t somebody make a real study of the American automobile? Not just the stuff about how they’re choking our cities or how they made the big housing developments possible, but how they . . . well, change people.

Not even with cars! Much less with television, radio, computers -McLuhan comes on like the only man to reach a huge, hitherto unknown planet or something, and there is so much ground to cover and so little time, all this unknown ground, mothering earthquake, swallowing everybody up and they don’t even know it. That is the way McLuhan thinks of it, and he exasperates –“ Available at

 Susan Sontag wrote about McLuhan’s new sensibility in an essay titled “One Culture and the New Sensibility”, which was reprinted in her essay collection Against Interpretation (1960s), Here are some quotes from it:

The new sensibility understands art as the extension of life – this being understood as the representation of (new) modes of vivacity. There is no necessary denial of the role of moral evaluation here.  Only the scale has changed; it has become less gross, and what it sacrifices in discursive explicitness it gains in accuracy and subliminal power. For we are what we are able to see (hear, taste, smell, feel) even more powerfully and profoundly than we are what furniture of ideas we have stocked in our heads … A great work of art is never simply (or even mainly) a vehicle of ideas or of moral sentiments. It is, first of all, an object modifying our consciousness and sensibility, changing the composition, however slightly of the humus that nourishes all specific ideas and sentiments … Sensations, feelings, the abstract forms and styles of  sensibility count.  It is to these that contemporary art addresses itself. The basic unit for contemporary art is not the idea, but the analysis of and extension of sensations.”

“Marshall McLuhan has described human history as a succession of acts of technological extension of human capacity, each of which works a radical change upon our environment and our ways of thinking, feeling and valuing. The tendency, he remarks, is to upgrade the old environment into art form (thus nature became a vessel of aesthetic and spiritual values in the new industrial environment) “while the new conditions are regarded as corrupt and degrading.” Typically, it is only certain artists in any given era who “have the resources and temerity to live in immediate contact of the environment of their age …. More timid people prefer to accept the … previous environment’s values as the continuing reality of their time”.   

The above articles by Wolfe and Sontag can be found in full in the same volume: 

Stearn, G. E. (ed.) (1967). McLuhan: Hot and Cool: a primer for the understanding of and a critical symposium with responses by McLuhan. New York: Dial.

This collection of texts addressing McLuhan’s ideas was first published in 1967. The articles, book reviews and interviews were written by some of the leading thinkers and critics of the time, and the volume also includes a selection of essays by McLuhan himself, from the early part of his career.

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