“Anybody can now be famous”

TV in the classroom means that the instructors presented will have a classroom of huge scope. (…) Theoretically one teacher might do all the arithmetic teaching for grade 6 for the whole country. In this way some teachers could become national figures as much as current celebrities of stage and screen. (…) TV could, then, in one sense take the teacher out of the classroom into a larger world. (Classroom TV, 1956)1

Although it is universally accepted that the idea of making McLuhan famous stemmed from San Francisco advertising and public relations gurus, Howard  Gossage and Gerald Feigen, in 1965, in fact McLuhan had precisely defined the ‘Kim Kardashian’ process already in 1962:2

In the mechanical age a man was famous for having done something. Today he is famous for being well known. In an age of information movement, fame is literally being known for being well known. The Graphic Revolution, by which a private image can be showered on the world overnight, scrambles and confuses all pre-electric categories of fame and greatness. But it also increases the demand for big names and big images. Let us keep in mind that the new reality is in the image and not [anything] behind it. (…) With photography and electronics it became possible to bypass the consumer phase in fame.3 One could simply become famous or celebrated for being famous or celebrated, without going through the tedious process of [actually doing something].4 It was now possible to shift the commodity fame from the consumer to the producer phase. Anybody or anything can now be made famous.5 (The Electronic Age – The Age of Implosion, 1962)6

McLuhan doubtless had a better idea of this process than Gossage and Feigen, particularly as regards his own ideas and goals. Indeed, it seems far more likely, instead of them promoting him for some vague purpose of theirs, that he used their skills for a precise purpose of his.

Decades before this, in a letter to Clement McNaspy, S.J., who had been one of his students at St Louis University, McLuhan wrote of his “increasing awareness”

of the ease with which Catholics can penetrate and dominate secular concerns — thanks to an emotional and spiritual economy denied to the confused secular mind. (Letters, 180)

This was from the turn of the year, 1945/1946, twenty years before McLuhan’s San Francisco ‘take-off’. One of his central ideas from early on was that contemporary society had no notion of its own nature and destiny. Its “emotional and spiritual economy” was witless. This emptiness at its core robbed it of direction and persistence even in practical matters.

In his 1967 interview with with Gerald Stearn, he put his notion of taking on the media, in the senses of taking it on as a challenge, taking it on in battle and taking it on as a put-on, as follows:

I am not in awe of media or their contents. For example: When you talk back to ads as I did in The Mechanical Bride, they become your servants. Since you cannot survive the effects of media if you huddle or hide, you must rush out and kick them in the guts — give them what for — right in  the midriff. And they respond very well to this treatment. Media, after all, are only extensions of ourselves. The road to understanding media effects begins with arrogant superiority. If one lacked this sense of superiority — this detachment — it would be quite impossible to write about them. It would be like an octopus attacking the great pyramids.7

Perhaps Gossage and Feigen were McLuhan’s means of ‘taking off’ by ‘taking on’ the media?

  1. Study Pamphlets in Canadian Education #12.
  2. An argument could be made that McLuhan had an intuition of this process of fame-making back in 1934 (when he was 23). He wrote to his mother from Cambridge that year: “Now it is my firm belief that if you had the time to study carefully some of his (Eliot’s) poetry and some of Yeats and Gerard Manley Hopkins (…) you could take the elite London by storm. (…) There is really an amazing opportunity for you Mother (…) You would be GIVEN the air by the B.B.C.”. (Letters, 42-43)
  3. By the “consumer phase in fame” McLuhan meant a type of fame determined by the estimation by observers of a real event, not necessarily at first hand, that something remarkable and therefore worthy of fame had been achieved in it. In contrast, a ‘producer phase in fame’ would mean fame as a “commodity” manufactured to supply its producer with the image of fame made for, not from, its consumers.
  4. McLuhan has: “without going through the tedious process of discovering and peddling some marketable commodity or entertaining stereotype”. The phrase ‘actually doing something’ is modeled on “having done something” from the first line of this same passage.
  5. Andy Warhol is famous for the quip, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” This was made in 1968, at least 6 years after McLuhan’s insight into the phenomenon appeared in print. Since Warhol is known to have been reading McLuhan in the 1960s, this “most famous” of all of Warhol’s quips was probably not his at all, but an illustration of his famous borrowing of ideas from famous others — illustrating another of McLuhan’s insights that “the new reality is in the image and not (anything) behind it”.
  6. In Mass Media in Canada, ed. John A Irving, 179-205, 1962.
  7. Compare the Playboy Interview: “I derive no joy from observing the traumatic effects of media on man, although I do obtain satisfaction from grasping their modes of operation. Such comprehension is inherently cool, since it is simultaneously involvement and detachment. This posture is essential in studying media. One must begin by becoming extra-environmental, putting oneself beyond the battle in order to study and understand the configuration of forces. It’s vital to adopt a posture of arrogant superiority; instead of scurrying into a corner and wailing about what media are doing to us, one should charge straight ahead and kick them in the electrodes. They respond beautifully to such resolute treatment and soon become servants rather than masters. But without this detached involvement, I could never objectively observe media; it would be like an octopus grappling with the Empire State Building. So I employ the greatest boon of literate culture: the power of man to act without reaction — the sort of specialization by dissociation that has been the driving motive force behind Western civilization.”