In the mid 1960s, when McLuhan began to be lionized in the US (giving license to Canadians to do so in train), the understanding was that he was a conservative capitalist who provided highfalutin thoughts on the great virtues of modern technology. Television and electric media generally were — the new God.
But then it turned out that McLuhan saw capitalism as the private rip-off of public goods and the new media as potentially enslaving and as certainly destructive of individual and social identity.1
Once this other side of McLuhan’s thought became known, he had to be exposed as a fraud and an idiot.2 Even worse, as a Catholic even! The press and the academy were duly organized to this end and the required result was soon obtained, first in the US and then, ever taking its cue, in Canada as well. McLuhan became an embarrassment.
McLuhan is usually considered as a student of the media. But his career may as usefully be studied as an object of manipulation3 by that rabid merger of media and intelligentsia that has torn off its mask today to reveal its monstrous power and terrible intent.
- Cf, Take Today, 41: “From tribal brotherhood to universal otherhood — Benjamin Nelson, Idea of Usury; 59-60: “Brooks Adams in 1896 produced his classic study of the effect of acceleration on social institutions: ‘Nothing so portentous overhangs humanity as this mysterious and relentless acceleration of movement, which changes methods of competition and alters paths of trade; for by it countless millions of men and women are foredoomed to happiness or misery, as certainly as the beasts and trees, which have flourished in the wilderness, are destined to vanish when the soil is subdued by man.’ — The Law of Civilization and Decay” ↩
- This effort continues unabated to this day. The bite of McLuhan’s insight into the modern world is such that there continues to be a good market for its discounting. ‘How to Become a Famous Media Scholar: The Case of Marshall McLuhan‘ by Jefferson Pooley (associate professor of media and communication at Muhlenberg College) is an outstanding contemporary example of such exposure: McLuhan as a media creation, McLuhan as a reactionary, McLuhan as “Panglossian seer”, McLuhan as “pious agrarian”, McLuhan as “media mystagogue”, McLuhan as “cultural pessimist”, McLuhan as self-contradictory, McLuhan as nostalgic for tribalism, McLuhan as pentacostal, McLuhan as “truth-indifferent”, McLuhan as “schizophrenic”, etc etc. There is little Pooley fails to throw against the wall to see what will stick. ↩
- Pooley notes with some truth: “In some ways, though, McLuhan was more a product of the media culture than its student.” But what Pooley thinks we find in this “product of the media culture” is, somehow, “the man” himself! More, this is the man himself as a media manipulator! Pooley is able to reach this bizarre conclusion because he holds, as a convinced Gutenbergian, directly contra McLuhan (and contra all the great moderns championed by McLuhan from Poe to Joyce), that the media environment is subject to individual control. McLuhan as a “product of the media culture” is immediately thereafter said to have “seduced Esquire and the ad men (and later Wired) because what he had to say resonated with Americans already primed for the good news about technology.” And exactly therefore (as Pooley ends his screed another sentence later): “the man (…) is more instructive than his books.” Where McLuhan, like Poe’s mariner in the Maelstrom, investigated the depths of the media sea to learn how it was that Americans are “already primed”, Pooley would direct our interest to the hero with a thousand faces making his way over that sea’s surface — a sort of Captain Cook of the media. ↩