The Patron Saint of Media Studies: A Catholic View

18Jul18

Marshall McLuhan was a Catholic, having converted from the Baptist and Methodist faiths of his parents in 1937 at the age of 26. But is his body of work on media theory essentially Catholic in its scope and substance? Partially it certainly is. In his late teens and 20s he was influenced by Thomist philosophy and Catholic writers like G.K. Chesterton and Hillaire Belloc, but after he studied at Cambridge University he was at least equally influenced by non-Catholic thinkers like I.A. Richards, F.R. Leavis, T.S. Eliot, James Joyce (who left the Catholic Church, “non serviam”), Harold Innis, E.T. Hall and many others. For a word cloud of influences on McLuhan that suggest that religion by itself had little to do with his thinking about culture and technology, produced by Paolo Granata, see https://goo.gl/LtC5CF. In my opinion, an understanding of McLuhan’s Catholicism is important for an understanding of the man, but only to a certain extent for his media thought. (Thanks to Paolo Granata for bringing this recent article to my attention.)

By Brett Robinson   –  June 29, 2018

When WIRED magazine christened the Canadian media guru Marshall McLuhan its “patron saint” on the original masthead in 1992, it seemed like a fitting honor. After all, the new tech culture magazine was the self-proclaimed authority on where the world was headed in the digital age. So tagging McLuhan, the late English professor turned media philosopher, added some prophetic pomp. His popular slogans like “the medium is the message” sounded like Zen koans written by an ad man, perfect for a Silicon Valley culture fixated on spreading the gospel of techno-utopianism.

Here is something you will not find in WIRED magazine: “In Jesus Christ, there is no distance or separation between the medium and the message: it is the one case where we can say that the medium and the message are fully one and the same.”[1] A theological take on “the medium is the message.” This is also McLuhan.

Whether McLuhan coined his famous phrase while looking at a television or a crucifix is of little importance. What is interesting is how McLuhan applied his deeply Catholic imagination to understanding media. The rangy professor with a penchant for the prophetic was running on a different operating system than the secular elites of Silicon Valley.

McLuhan may not have been the patron saint WIRED was looking for; rather, he was a techno-heretic in electric sheep’s clothing. A scholar of James Joyce, McLuhan wrote in a style reminiscent of Joycean satire, skewering the advertisers and technologists who so admired his style. McLuhan was not unlike the protagonist in Joyce’s “The Holy Office”:

But all these men of whom I speak
Make me a sewer of their clique.
That they may dream their dreamy dreams
I carry off their filthy streams

Thus I relieve their timid arses,
Perform my office of Katharsis.
My scarlet leaves them white as wool
Through me they purge a bellyful. [2]

McLuhan hovered at a vantage point from which he could see clearly the naive romanticism and insularity of the media “professionals” who leaned on his work for justification.

In one breath McLuhan called advertising “the greatest art form of the 20th century” and in the next, “a vast, military operation to conquer the human spirit.” To try and pin down McLuhan would be a mistake. He was neither an optimist nor pessimist when it came to understanding our hyper-mediated environment. By his own description, he was only “apocalyptic.”

In a letter to Jacques Maritain, McLuhan wrote the following:

“Electric information environments being utterly ethereal fosters the illusion of the world as a spiritual substance. It is now a reasonable facsimile of the mystical body, a blatant manifestation of the Anti-Christ”. [3]

Maritain responded by agreeing that the rapidity of change did not allow time for adaptation and that the technological revolution was producing “grave” troubles for some Catholics. In an interview with Pierre Babin, McLuhan expanded his metaphysical view of media:

“Just think: each person can instantly be tuned to a “new Christ” and mistake him for the real Christ. At such times it becomes crucial to hear properly and to tune yourself in to the right frequency”. [4]

McLuhan’s apocalyptic view was not negative. As he explained it, “Apocalypse is not gloom. It’s salvation. No Christian could ever be an optimist or a pessimist: that’s a purely secular state of mind.” [5] Privately, he wondered if the new media environment might even usher in a “religious Renaissance.” [6]

The 1960’s were not a particularly friendly time for Catholic intellectuals of any stripe who sought to integrate the Church’s intellectual tradition with that of the social sciences. The academic tide had turned toward a more secular and critical approach to the disciplines. In his public appearances, McLuhan often veiled his religious commitments so as not to be outed. In a famous debate with the novelist Norman Mailer on Canadian public television, McLuhan tried to explain how the technology of the satellite had turned Nature into content. No longer something external and out of our control, Nature was now a work of art, visible in its totality from the outside and above, completely programmable.

[1] M. McLuhan, E. McLuhan, J. Szlarek, The Medium and the Light: Reflections on Religion (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2010), 102.

[2] J. Joyce, James Joyce: The Poems in Verse and Prose (London: Kyle Cathie Limited, 1996), 42.

[3] M. McLuhan, E. McLuhan, J. Szlarek, The Medium and the Light, op. cit., 72.

[4] Coste, review: M. McLuhan, Autre homme, autre chrétien à l’âge électronique (Book Review), Bulletin De Littérature Ecclésiastique (1980): 81, 233.

[5] M. McLuhan, E. McLuhan, J. Szlarek, The Medium and the Light, op. cit., 50.

[6] See: https://inscriptorium.wordpress.com/2011/06/08/did-gutberg-help-to-wed-the-estab-and-the-gospel/, accessed June 28, 2018.

Read the rest of this essay at https://goo.gl/Tf8hmL.

Two other essays on McLuhan and religion can be read at:-

D. de Kerckhove, Passion and Precision: The Faith of Marshall McLuhan (1982) at https://goo.gl/Uk9xJ3.

R.J. De Souza. Marshall McLuhan and the Divine Message (2011) at https://goo.gl/yLJpN1.

St. Basil’s Church, built in 1856, is the founding church of the Congregation of St. Basil in TorontoOntario, Canada, the college church of St. Michael’s College, Toronto, and a parish church serving a large local congregation. Marshall McLuhan went to mass there daily during his years at St Mike’s as the college is known as by locals.


2 Responses to “The Patron Saint of Media Studies: A Catholic View”

  1. 1 Michael Edmunds

    A techno-heretic- a laughable designation. Given McLuhan’s method of the put on what makes the writer think that his religious views were framed differently? Lucifer in electricity! Really!!!

    me

  2. Well, the reading of this digital content is electrifying. However, is there enough Lucifer in the message for the lightbulb to shine?

    AM

    Get Outlook for Android

    From: Michael Edmunds Sent: Thursday, July 19, 06:34 Subject: Re: [New post] The Patron Saint of Media Studies: A Catholic View To: McLuhan Galaxy Cc: alexanderkuskis@gmail.com, dekerckh@gmail.com, Bob, stuartmurray@cunet.carleton.ca, Twyla G Gibson, Donald Gillies, dscheffeldunand@gmail.com, john@megawattideas.com, Antonio Mendonca, davenewf@gmail.com, Warren Holder, ideasynch@yahoo.ca, chipbody@gmail.com, jenreid.ca@gmail.com, ken lavin

    A techno-heretic- a laughable designation. Given McLuhan’s method of the put on what makes the writer think that his religious views were framed differently? Lucifer in electricity! Really!!!

    me


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