Marshall McLuhan: The High Priest of Pop Culture – An Archival Article from Macleans Magazine, 1965

19Aug18

The cover and first page of the July 3, 1965, Macleans Magazine that contains the”High Priest” article below.

This lengthy article from the July 3, 1965 issue of Macleans Magazine discusses Marshall McLuhan near or at his peak of fame and influence during the 1960s. His two most important books, The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) and Understanding Media (1964) had been published during the past 3 years and he was increasingly being featured in articles, interviews and magazine articles, sometimes with his picture on the front page. The first six paragraphs below describe a Marshall McLuhan Festival that the University of British Columbia held on campus. This is the only description of this event that I have been able to find. It contradicts the idea that university professors in Canada were all hostile to McLuhan and his ideas. 

For years, Marshall McLuhan preached his theories of mass communications—but hardly anybody understood him. Then, suddenly, he was the hottest intellectual fad since Buddhism

by Alexander Ross   –   Jul 3, 1965

Was it a Happening? Was it a huge practical joke staged by a bunch of mad professors? Or was it a serious tribute to the best-known, least-understood, most strikingly original mind ever spawned in Canada?

Actually, this strange exhibition, set up last January in the big, cement-floored armory at the University of British Columbia, was a bit of all three. It had overtones of dada and pop art, it puzzled, alarmed or amused most of the people who went through it, and the entire exhibition was designed to illustrate the increasingly fashionable theories of Dr. Herbert Marshall McLuhan, the University of Toronto English professor whose notions on how mass communications affect human society are becoming the object of a worldwide intellectual cult. This sensory fun house was probably the wildest, funniest tribute ever accorded a living Canadian, and here is what happened when you walked inside:

The centre of the armory was draped with big sheets of plastic, suspended from the ceiling to form a maze that people wandered through in no particular sequence. As they wandered, strange things happened. The exhibition’s designers, a group of McLuhan devotees on the UBC faculty, had placed slide projectors around the maze, and instructed their operators to use them like guns, aiming them at the ceiling, at the plastic curtains, onto the floor, or splattering the crowd itself with abstract projected images. They’d also scattered hunks of sculpture around, and they blasted the crowd with weird noises from hidden loudspeakers and ran off a long meaningless movie that showed nothing but the empty armory.

They had somebody standing on a podium hammering on a block of wood. They had bells and noisemakers hanging from the ceiling. They had dancers pirouetting through the crowd at unexpected intervals. Best of all. they’d rigged up something called a Sculptured Wall. This turned out to be a frame with stretch fabric pinned across it and a girl standing behind it, squirming up against it and — Great Hera! — you were supposed to palpate this squirming form from your side of the screen so you’d know what tactile communication was all about!

According to Abraham Rogatnick, the UBC architecture professor who staged it, the exhibition was supposed to illustrate McLuhan’s basic contention: that the various communications media have a built-in tendency to favor one or another of our senses; and that this sensory bias affects people and cultures in strange and little-understood ways. By exposing his audience to strange sounds, unexpected forms and new experiences in “touching” (like that girl behind the screen), Rogatnick was trying to reshuffle the sense patterns that his audience had acquired from a lifetime of reading books.

Anyhow, that was the general idea. Rogatnick feels it was a success; part of the audience, as he afterward expressed it, reacted with “swooning wonderment.” But what UBC’s wondrous McLuhan Festival really proved was that McLuhan the man (who was too busy to attend his own Happening) is rapidly being supplanted by McLuhanism — a holy new cult, with intellectual epopts scattered across the Western world, preaching a body of made-in-Toronto doctrine that eventually may alter much of our thinking about how to cope with the twentieth century.

McLuhan the man is a fifty-four-year-old Winnipeg native who was graduated from the University of Manitoba and from Cambridge, has taught English for the past twenty – one years at St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto and has, since 1963, been director of an academic talkshop known as the Centre For Culture And Technology. With his purposeful stride, his saucer-sized bald spot, his instinctive Oxbridge courtesy, his Roman Catholicism (he’s a convert), his wife and six children, his book-strewn office in an old house at the edge of the campus, McLuhan is a solid if highly visible citizen of the Canadian academic community.
Outside Canada, however, McLuhan has become an ism — a distinction shared by practically no other Canadian. Already, he is world famous — not massively famous like, say, Arnold Toynbee, but with the sort of furtive underground renown that has made his theories seem urgent to intellectual faddists and frontiersmen from Paris to Peru.Important people, such as admen and big-name professors, have been known to fly in from such places as Zurich and San Francisco, just to lunch with McLuhan. His books (he’s published three, collaborated on a fourth, is writing two more) are reviewed as a matter of course in all the O. K. publications such as the Times Lit. Supp., and are beginning to be noticed in the mass-circulation magazines as well.

In the French little magazines, the kind that run scholarly reviews on old American gangster movies, you’ll often find knowing references to mcluhanisme. His slogans (“global village,” “the medium is the message”) are beginning to enjoy the same popular currency as the Freudian jargon of half a century ago. UBC has run an extension course on understanding McLuhan. His disciples are beginning to infiltrate ad agencies, curriculum committees and newspaper offices across the country.

Read the rest of this longish essay at https://goo.gl/8976cM

 UBC



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