McLuhan and Father R.C. Williams

Harry Skornia in the November 1958 NAEB Newsletter:

After reading many of his articles and his fine magazine, Explorations, and hearing him at our Washington Conference [May 1958], I had suggested Dr. Marshall McLuhan of the University of Toronto as one of the speakers for the [October 1958 NAEB] convention [in Omaha]. This was roundly seconded by Father Williams of Creighton, who had studied under Professor McLuhan, and [by] the rest of the [convention program] committee. 

Roswell Clinton Williams, SJ, 1906-1975, was in the English Deparment faculty at St Louis University in the late 1930s and early 1940s. He had obtained his MA1 from SLU in 1932 and so did not study ‘under’ McLuhan in the same way as did his Jesuit colleagues, Walter Ong, Clement McNaspy, and Maurice McNamee. The department head at the time was William H. McCabe, SJ, McLuhan’s fellow graduate of Cambridge, mentor and friend. When McCabe left to head Rockhurst College in Kansas City (alma mater of Bernie Muller-Thym and Walter Ong), Williams joined him there. Then, when McCabe moved again to become president of the much larger Creighton University in Omaha, Williams once again went with him and spent the remainder of his teaching career there, eventually becoming its Director of Communications.2

Williams was a pioneer in the use of educational TV. Through his interest, Creighton appears to have been the first university in the country, and probably first in the world, to teach courses using television. Already in 1948 he published ‘Present and Future Television in Our Colleges‘.3 While there is no evidence, yet, that McLuhan knew of this article, he may well have. He certainly remained in touch with Ong and McNaspy and could have seen it through them or through Williams himself. But however that may have been, Williams’ article is noteworthy in making many points McLuhan would repeatedly take up in the 1950s:

  • Our [Jesuit’s] most legitimate claim to a place in the ancestry of television is through the scientific side of the family. For it was Father Athanasius Kircher [SJ], one of our greatest scientists, who invented the magic lantern or slide projector which paved the way for the motion picture and thus eventually for television.4 (142)
  • This statement [concerning the magic lantern] is, of course, a vast oversimplification. All that is meant is that the rapid succession of images which creates the illusion of movement in the motion picture is also employed in television, though the images in the latter are produced in a totally different fashion. (142)
  • No television camera takes a picture on film; what it does is to translate an image into electrical impulses… (143)
  • Within individual stations and networks of both radio and television there are men and women trained directly or indirectly in the philosophia perennis who are fully aware of their potential ability to help preserve the core of Christian civilization in a world where the issue with5 materialism and dualism (to use general terms)6 is perhaps more in the open than it has ever been before in history — due in no small measure to the global scope of communications. (149-150)
  • if there was ever a time when it was possible to supply “true principles to popular enthusiasm” (to quote Newman on the benefits of university education), that time would seem to be now.7 (150)
  • But today the doctor, or lawyer, or merchant, or priest may be called upon to communicate his ideas through radio, tomorrow through television. Are we even now equipping him to use these media effectively? We have taken into account the first revolution in communication — brought about by the printing press, which shifted the emphasis from ear to eye — a revolution emerging in St. Ignatius’ own lifetime. But have we sufficiently adverted to the second revolution — brought about by radio, which shifted the emphasis in communication from the eye back to the ear? And what adjustment must now be made for television?8 (151)
  • If the ideal of eloquentia perfecta is not altogether dead, and we should hesitate to say that it was, then in the contemporary world it surely must include some acquaintance with radio and television.9(152)
  • Rather than joining the chorus of those who now carp at radio and will carp at television for commercialization, would it not be wiser to train students who will help to improve the industries from within? Historically, culture has always been wedded to commerce to a certain extent…10 (155)
  1. Williams’ MA thesis on “The Ancient Tragic Chorus and Its Modern Counterparts” recalls Yeats ‘Emotion of Multitude’ and would have led easily to his later media studies.
  2. Further on Williams: R.C. Williams’ Assessment of McLuhan.
  3. ‘Present and Future Television in Our Colleges’, Jesuit Educational Quarterly, January 1948, 141-155.
  4. Williams’ attribution of the invention of the magic lantern to Kircher was mistaken. McLuhan did not repeat the mistake but often treated the early history of photography and cinema in the camera oscura.
  5. Williams: “between”.
  6. Williams qualifies his language here with an aside. But the problem with his remarks is not so much with the general terms “materialism and dualism”, but with the preposition “between” — as if Christian civilization ever came down on either one of these.
  7. McLuhan in 1961: “The ideal Marriage of Mercury and Philology, of spiritual values and perfected method, will be consummated, if ever, in the electronic age.” (Humanities in the Electronic Age)
  8. Williams cited Richard Hughes here — see Richard Hughes on media and the senses.
  9. The ideal of eloquentia perfecta was highlighted in McLuhan’s PhD thesis on Nashe, which he was writing in the early 1940s when Williams and McLuhan were both in the SLU English department.
  10. ‘Culture is our Business’ was the title of McLuhan’s talk at the 1958 NAEB annual meeting in Omaha 10 years later. Williams was on the program committee for the conference since he was both very active in the NAEB and resident in Omaha at Creighton.