In the ’60s, Marshall McLuhan was Toronto’s most famous intellectual; now, the world has finally caught up with him
In the ’60s, McLuhan was hobnobbing with celebrities, advising politicians and forever changing how we think about mass media. A hundred years after his birth, the world has finally caught up with his theories
Nineteen sixty-five was the turning point of Marshall McLuhan’s career—the Annus McLuhanis, the Year of Marshall Law, the heady, vertiginous breakout of McLuhan-mania. It was the year the irreverent journalist Tom Wolfe published a star-making profile of the Canadian media guru in the New York Herald Tribune that repeatedly asked, in Wolfe’s typically antic, hyperbolic way: what if he is right? “Suppose he is what he sounds like,” Wolfe wrote, “the most important thinker since Newton, Darwin, Freud, Einstein and Pavlov, studs of the intelligentsia game—suppose he is the oracle of the modern times?”
In the 40-odd years since Wolfe first posed this question, many others have asked it again and again. McLuhan was right about so many things. Browse his books, dip into any of the interviews he gave, and almost every probing, aphoristic utterance feels preternaturally prescient. Decades before doomsayers decried the Internet’s negative rewiring of the brain, he dramatically outlined the psychic, physical and social consequences: “One of the effects of living with electric information is that we live habitually in a state of information overload. There’s always more than you can cope with.” He predicted the slow death of magazines and newspapers: “The monarchy of print has ended and an oligarchy of new media has usurped most of the power of that 500-year-old monarchy.” And he foresaw the rise of crowd-sourced news: “If we pay careful attention to the fact that the press is a mosaic, participant kind of organization and a do-it-yourself kind of world, we can see why it is so necessary to democratic government.” McLuhan anticipated reality TV long before it was a glimmer in the Survivor producer Mark Burnett’s eye: “I used to talk about the global village; I now speak of it more properly as the global theatre. Every kid is now concerned with acting. Doing his thing outside and raising a ruckus in a quest for identity.” When, in his bestselling book The Medium is the Massage, he wrote, “Wars, revolutions, civil uprisings are interfaces within the new environments created by electric informational media,” he could have been writing about how Twitter and Facebook shaped the Arab Spring. The world that McLuhan conjured is a world that now looks an awful lot like ours.
Okay, maybe McLuhan isn’t the most important thinker since Newton, but he’s certainly the most important—and most influential—thinker Canada has ever produced. There has never been anyone, before or since, as monumentally significant as McLuhan.
Between 1965 and 1969, McLuhan was everywhere: on the cover of Newsweek, name-checked in New Yorker cartoons, profiled or interviewed in Harper’s, Life, Esquire and Playboy. A popular, provocative attraction at conferences and think-tanks, he was fawned over by dozens of corporate executives and advertising firms hungry for his insights into their work and lives.
Countercultural icons like John Lennon and Abbie Hoffman embraced him (McLuhan interviewed Lennon and Yoko Ono on CBS about their War is Over! billboard campaign; Hoffman called McLuhan “more relevant than Marx” and said, “For an old guy, he does well”). On TV, McLuhan went toe to toe with a stuttering, perplexed Norman Mailer.
The cultural bloodstream is now thoroughly infused with McLuhanism. On the centenary of his birth, he’s being celebrated, reappraised and repackaged around the world, in conferences and symposia; on comprehensive new websites; in books (Media and Formal Cause, a new collection of essays by McLuhan and his son and collaborator, Eric, as well as reissues of The Medium Is the Massage and Douglas Coupland’s affectionate biography, You Know Nothing of My Work!); multimedia art exhibitions; webinars; audio walking tours; and a thicket of articles like this one. The McLuhan in Europe project gathers together events, from Barcelona to Berlin, with ponderous titles like “Transgressing the Senses” and “Play McLuhan: Dialogues, Objects, Environments, Soundscapes.” Edmonton, where McLuhan was born, will proclaim July 21, his birthday, Marshall McLuhan Day.
Wolfe, returning to his old subject in the documentary Marshall McLuhan Speaks, rightly called him the “first seer of cyberspace.” McLuhan defined the web in 1962, long before the web defined itself: “A computer as a research and communication instrument could enhance retrieval, obsolesce mass library organization, retrieve the individual’s encyclopedic function and flip into a private line to speedily tailored data of a saleable kind.” McLuhan, of course, is now part of that data, dispersed across thousands and thousands of pages of search results, compressed into YouTube videos, audio clips, searchable catalogues of his quips and electronic editions of his books—he’s even a potential (if imaginary) friend on Facebook.
McLuhan didn’t really care if he was right. Right or wrong and good or bad had nothing to do with it. He was, he often claimed, not a moralist but an observer. An explorer, not an explainer. He was too fond of the paradox and the pun, always more of an imagistic and satiric poet. He was not a sociologist, nor was he, strictly speaking, a futurist. “If you really are curious about the future,” he said on CBC’s Ideas, “just study the present.”
What did McLuhan’s present look like? He grew up in Winnipeg with his younger brother, Maurice. McLuhan’s father, Herbert, was a good-natured real estate and insurance salesman; his mother, Elsie, was an ambitious and difficult schoolteacher and an elocution expert, and she had a profound influence on her son’s extraordinary verbal gifts (and left his head stuffed with Shakespeare and Milton). At age 18, McLuhan, goaded toward greatness by his mother and the puffed-up superiority of teenagers everywhere, wrote in his diary, “I must, must, must attain worldly success to a real degree.”
After earning an MA in English from the University of Manitoba, he won a scholarship to Cambridge. In England, McLuhan fell under the spell of the innovative literary critic F.R. Leavis and became an admirer of the Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton. McLuhan himself converted to Catholicism in 1937, around the same time as W.H. Auden and Evelyn Waugh. McLuhan would attend Mass and pray every day for the rest of his life. Catholicism, for many intellectuals, offered a kind of bulwark of reason in a chaotic, irrational world. (Waugh: “Conversion is like stepping across the chimney piece out of a Looking-Glass world, where everything is an absurd caricature, into the real world God made.”) For McLuhan, faith was a way of interpreting the world, a kind of sense like sight or hearing or touch, and just as real.
An alternating current of the sacred and the profane ran through McLuhan. He became devoted to a modish field of academic study: popular culture (a phrase he’d often abbreviate, in a nod to the poet Ezra Pound, as “pop kulch”). Suddenly, scholarly analysis was trained on the whole messy field of cultural production, not just a predictable and obvious cultural canon. Batman was no less significant than Bach, and their juxtaposition even more significant. Prefiguring what would later be termed cultural studies, he ignored, or outright obliterated, distinctions between high and low culture that he felt were beside the point: “All technologies, and all cultures, ancient and modern, are part of our immediate expanse,” he wrote in a letter to the editor of the magazine U.S. Catholic. “There is hope in this diversity since it creates vast new possibilities of detachment and amusement at human gullibility and self-deception.”
In 1946, McLuhan was hired as an associate professor at U of T’s Catholic college, St. Michael’s. He arrived with his wife, Corinne, a Texas-born actress and speech teacher (shades of Elsie), and lived in faculty housing on campus for nine years before moving into a small Tudor home just northwest of Casa Loma. He was a loving husband, but he was almost single-mindedly devoted to his work; running the house and caring for the couple’s six kids fell, for the most part, to Corinne. McLuhan would hole up in his office, consuming stacks of books (one of his speed-reading tricks was to read only the right-hand page, a reliable technique, he claimed, because most books were full of “redundancies”).
At first, McLuhan had no great love for Toronto. It was a grim, grey place, a “sanctimonious icebox,” to use the phrase of the polymath and McLuhan mentor Wyndham Lewis. Sundays were exclusively for church—Toronto was called the City of Churches—and sidewalk cafés were illegal. McLuhan could be sputteringly dismissive about his provincial surroundings. “Oh, the mental vacuum that is Canada,” he wrote in a letter to Lewis, and in 1957, he published an article in Saturday Night whose rib-jabbing title might have been written today: “Why the CBC Must Be Dull.” At the same time, Toronto served as a kind of serene vantage point from which the disorienting effects of the coming revolutions—in media, in youth culture, in civil rights and in political discourse—could be readily observed and analyzed. One of McLuhan’s favourite metaphors was the DEW Line—the Distant Early Warning radar system placed in the Canadian Arctic to warn of impending Soviet attacks. “I think of art as a DEW Line…that can always be relied on to tell the old culture what is beginning to happen to it,” he wrote. In uneventful Toronto, McLuhan could receive perfectly clear signals.
St. Mike’s hired McLuhan for a variety of reasons: he was young, Catholic, ambitious and one of the few experts on modern poetry in all of Ontario. The school was both a haven and hell for him. Priests and nuns made up almost the entire faculty; McLuhan was one of only two lay people who taught there. Every class began with prayer, and the university’s English department was still a conservative backwater whose curriculum largely consisted of literature published before 1850. At St. Mike’s, titles on the Vatican index of forbidden books—including McLuhan favourites like Francis Bacon and Montaigne—were kept under lock and key. The head of U of T’s graduate English department, a stuffy, arrogant Milton scholar named A.S.P. Woodhouse, despised McLuhan, saying that he was “not the sort of person we want at the University of Toronto.” Though McLuhan’s entrenched, hostile colleagues actively discouraged students from taking his courses, he quickly became one of the most popular professors. He described his fellow instructors as a “ghastly crew,” and they, in turn, branded him a nut job. He was given a travel allowance that enabled him to escape to New York four times a year.
McLuhan wanted to be much more than a professor of English. A colleague, the political economist Harold Innis, showed him how that could be possible. In 1950 and 1951, Innis published two idiosyncratic books, Empire and Communications and The Bias of Communication, that presaged and partly inspired the basic hypothesis of McLuhan’s future work—that any new communication medium radically alters those who use it and that technological form takes precedence over informative content. McLuhan would describe his own writings as merely a footnote to Innis’s work. In turn, Innis taught McLuhan’s first book, The Mechanical Bride, in his classes, and, while he and McLuhan were never close, he occasionally joined McLuhan and a gang of like-minded scholars in the coffee shop at the ROM, where they met almost every afternoon to discuss their fizzy new ideas.
McLuhan first uttered the phrase “the medium is the message” on a 1958 flight to Vancouver, where he was to speak to a gathering of broadcasters. He expanded on his idea at a conference in Chicago: “So rapidly have we begun to feel the effects of the electronic revolution that all of us today are displaced persons living in a world that has little to do with the one in which we grew up,” he said.
Displacement wasn’t necessarily negative—it at least liberated people from myopic, potentially self-destructive ways of thinking—but it was disturbing. Technology was moving so rapidly, and no one was stopping to see what precisely it was doing to our psychic and social selves. McLuhan believed that 3,000 years of mechanical technology were in the process of being displaced by a century of electronic technology. Electricity transformed everything at the same time—the homes we lived in, the schools we studied in, the modes of transportation we used, the ways we entertained ourselves.
The gaudy tipping point was television, a vast, transformative force that was almost entirely new in Canada. CBC Television began in Toronto and Montreal in 1952 and went coast to coast in 1958. It’s difficult now, in our post-Chatroulette era, to fully appreciate the hysteria and hype that once swirled around the new medium. Until McLuhan, no one had comprehensively catalogued its effects. And those effects were so dramatic, so complex, that McLuhan would spend the rest of his life articulating them. TV made famous actors so familiar they seemed like charismatic neighbours. TV united us all, for better or worse, in a global village that thoroughly vanquished time and space. “In the older book or print culture, people were not ‘with it,’ ” McLuhan said, adopting, as he often did (with varying degrees of awkwardness), the argot of the day. “They were away from it, by themselves, with their own private point of view….These new media of ours…have made our world into a single unit. The world is now like a continually sounding tribal drum where everybody gets the message all the time. A princess gets married in England and boom, boom, boom, go the drums, we all hear about it.”
In Toronto, that boom, boom, boom was amplified by the steady beat of wrecking balls and pile drivers. Between 1950 and 1970, pumped by post-war prosperity and population growth, the city swept aside what little history it had, demolishing crowded Depression-era housing and beachside pavilions alike, making way for a forest of steel-and-concrete skyscrapers, affordable apartment towers, new parks. Toronto expanded, remodelled and renewed itself, modernizing its downtown and suburbanizing the surrounding countryside. Throughout the U.S. in the ’60s, cities were being torn apart, but Toronto in the same period was more hopeful. It beamed with optimism. This was precisely the kind of world that was ready to receive McLuhan’s message.
McLuhan had electricity on the brain as early as 1951. In a letter to Pound, he compared modern poetry to a vacuum tube that draws immense amounts of energy from a very weak electrical pulse, shaping and amplifying it. Poetry similarly converts the energy of previous culture into new forms that are relevant to the current age. This insight was the theoretical springboard for McLuhan’s breakthrough work, The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man, published in 1962. The book had a clear, essential thesis: the 20th century’s electronic technologies were transforming contemporary society and culture just as radically as the development of the printing press transformed the Renaissance. The book’s structure was not quite as straightforward, however. Employing what he called a “mosaic” technique, it combined long quotations from almost 200 authors—from Plato to Simone de Beauvoir—with McLuhan’s own meditations and observations. He spent a summer in a St. Mike’s library assembling it, ordering and reordering his material.
McLuhan was a charismatic but bombastic motormouth. Riding the streetcar and oblivious to his fellow passengers, he pointed to an ad showing a young girl sipping a soda and exclaimed, “Coke sucker”
The technique had its antecedents in the poetic avant-garde—Pound was an influence—and McLuhan argued that it was the only way to properly represent the kaleidoscopic changes he was discussing. It was also an easy way to compose a book for a man who generally preferred talking to writing. McLuhan was a charismatic but bombastic motormouth whose favourite mode of speech—in a seminar room, in conversation, or in front of a TV camera—was a mischievous, digressive, punning monologue. He loved to use words and phrases in unexpected ways, often inserting nursery rhymes or ethnic jokes (such were the times). He was lousy at small talk but relentlessly capable of great theatre; he adored overstatement and provoking an audience. He often taught, or pronounced, on a couch in front of his fireplace, students sprawled on the floor in front of him. He would call friends and colleagues at four in the morning to discuss ideas. The anthropologist Edmund Carpenter recalls taking a streetcar ride with McLuhan, who, oblivious to his fellow passengers, loudly dissected the ads on the vehicle. Pointing at one showing a young girl sipping a soda, he exclaimed, “Coke sucker!”
In 1963, with McLuhan’s star on the rise and American universities trying to lure him away, U of T opened the Centre for Culture and Technology, a kind of McLuhan research centre and clubhouse, where he could develop his ideas. McLuhan, who generally abhorred bureaucracy, was allowed to run the centre entirely by himself (his teaching duties were cut in half), staffing it with his friends and his brother. The centre’s purpose was to investigate consequences of all technologies, and it ostensibly offered only one credit course throughout the ’60s, a course in media and society.
McLuhan won a Governor General’s Literary Award for The Gutenberg Galaxy, giving him his first significant taste of public glory. By the mid-’60s, he was producing books either by dictating to Corinne or an assistant or by collaborating with others, like his eldest son, Eric, who would do much of the heavy compositional lifting. In 1964, McLuhan published his most acclaimed book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. It was even more playful than Gutenberg, and perhaps more singular, a comprehensive, zippy guide to all media, from the printed word to TV, and their myriad effects on the individual. It was an accurate, incisive portrayal of the age. Media, for McLuhan, was broadly defined as an extension of the body—clothing extends skin, the wheel the human foot—but with the advent of electric technology, we were in the final, possibly apocalyptic phase of the extension of our senses: nothing less than the technological simulation of consciousness. While McLuhan reserved judgment about the social benefits of new technologies, he trusted our ability to use technology: “If we understand the revolutionary transformations caused by new media, we can anticipate and control them; but if we continue in our self-induced subliminal trance, we will be their slaves.” Shackles were being loosened everywhere, just as McLuhan slipped out of his own, academic ones: Understanding Media was a hit, reviewed all over North America in newspapers and academic journals and selling 100,000 copies.
The year Understanding Media came out, another internationally celebrated Torontonian, Glenn Gould, officially retired from the concert hall, devoting himself in his own way to the electronic media. McLuhan and Gould were acquaintances, having engaged in debates on the radio and exchanged letters. In Gould’s essay “The Prospects of Recording,” he detailed the superiority of recorded over live performance, and in a box of mementos he kept a quote from McLuhan that read, “Bless Glenn Gould for throwing the concert audience into the junkyard.” (Even the eccentric Gould thought McLuhan sometimes went too far: “He remains for me a subject both fascinating and frustrating in his writings,” Gould wrote to a friend in 1966, “an extraordinary mixture of wackiness with brilliant perception.”)
“I don’t think he has an original idea,” said Buckminster Fuller. “He has an irrepressible sense of the histrionic, like no one I’ve known since Frank Lloyd Wright”
McLuhanites began to appear everywhere. McLuhan befriended Buckminster Fuller, who quickly became a kind of shamanistic soulmate. The legendary Fuller, an architect and inventor best known for the geodesic dome, could talk as much as McLuhan (maybe even more) and was a gifted performer in his own right. The two exchanged ideas for decades—or rather, McLuhan borrowed Bucky’s ideas, something he was never shy about doing. “I don’t think he has an original idea,” Fuller said. “Not one. McLuhan says so himself. He’s really a great enthusiast, a marvellous popularizer and teacher. He has an irrepressible sense of the histrionic, like no one I’ve known since Frank Lloyd Wright.”
McLuhan was now part of an international pantheon of new intellectuals. Fame made him wealthy and spread his gospel around the globe. While he later complained about “the ballyhoo and notoriety,” he’d always sought fame—if only to increase his influence, to ensure that his words would be heard. In 1964, McLuhan travelled outside of Toronto more than 40 times for speaking engagements. In 1965, in San Francisco, Gerald Feigen and Howard Gossage, who ran a consulting firm in the business of “genius scouting,” introduced McLuhan to journalists and corporate executives. (This spectacle inspired Wolfe’s article.) Gossage created 50,000 bumper stickers that read, “Watcha Doin Marshall McLuhan?” The admen reportedly ensured that their media guru was paid up to $25,000 for his engagements and appearances. Everyone wanted a piece of McLuhan—even the mayor of Los Angeles asked his advice during the 1965 Watts Riots—and McLuhan welcomed the adulation.
In 1967 alone, he addressed corporations as varied as the American Marketing Association, AT&T and the Container Corporation of America. It was the dawn of the management consultant, and as perplexing and inscrutable as McLuhan’s insights could be, executives were willing to pay big money for this nutty professor to enlighten them about the upheavals of the era—the DEW Line would, they hoped, help the bottom line.
To capitalize on his fame, McLuhan’s ideas were repackaged in a slim, typographically inventive paperback called The Medium is the Massage. Each page contained a single provocative precept, culled from McLuhan’s other work, accompanied by photographs or graphics. The title was a typesetter’s error (the intended title was The Medium is the Message), but as it added yet more layers of meaning to a phrase already heavily laden with them, McLuhan insisted it be kept. A perfect pop-era totem, the book brought McLuhan to the masses, eventually selling a million copies. A record version and a one-hour TV show, both bearing the same name, quickly followed. “Ads are the cave art of the 20th century,” McLuhan said, and to borrow a phrase from Norman Mailer, McLuhan’s greatest advertisement became himself.
Like Andy Warhol, to whom he’s often compared—for his enormous, paradigm-shifting influence and his inscrutable, savant-like manner—McLuhan was an unlikely superstar, at least physically. He was a greying English prof who donned the same ill-fitting suits day after day (Michael Enright called him a “gangling egret of a man”). McLuhan argued that the source of a public figure’s “charisma” (he pronounced the word with a barely audible extra “r” at the end) was “looking like a lot of people,” and, at least in photographs, McLuhan himself looked like many people. In his youth, he could resemble silver screen icons like Fredric March or Ronald Colman, but in his later years, gawky and mustachioed, he looked more like the improbable love child of Salvador Dali and The Simpsons’ Mr. Burns. The cover of the March 6, 1967 edition of Newsweek depicted a small McLuhanian galaxy: one image of McLuhan’s self-satisfied face in the centre of the page, orbited by a half-dozen other, mercurial McLuhan faces, all on television screens.
After a year in New York, where McLuhan was a visiting scholar at Fordham University, the family moved back to Toronto. Now an international celebrity and seeking appropriate digs, he bought a huge Edwardian house in Wychwood Park, a leafy, utopian enclave originally conceived as an artists’ colony in the 1870s. The house, at Number 3, had a pond filled with plump goldfish (McLuhan dubbed it “Walden III,” after Thoreau and B.F. Skinner). He also got a new, bigger location for the Centre for Culture and Technology at U of T: a two-storey coach house hidden beside the St. Mike’s library. McLuhan’s office and library was upstairs; downstairs, a seminar room with 19 folding chairs. Peter Newman observed that the most prominent decoration was McLuhan’s old rowing oar from Cambridge (though McLuhan also liked to tack cartoons to the walls of the washrooms). These two spaces, both somewhat removed from the rest of the city, would be McLuhan’s personal and intellectual refuges for the last decade of his life.
On a hot day in August 1970, TV Ontario set up cameras in the backyard of McLuhan’s Wychwood Park home to film a conversation between McLuhan and Wolfe. The two sat on lawn chairs, Wolfe in a tie and his trademark white pants and shoes, McLuhan in a more casual shirt with a Hawaiian print. “The public wants to confront the poets,” McLuhan said to Wolfe. “Why don’t we just consider the tremendous publics opened up to what formerly had been rather limited publics with the written or printed forms, the tremendous new publics opened up by television and radio for poetry and drama and stories?” In other words, McLuhan saw that one great advantage of the electronic age was that it afforded the poet—and McLuhan always saw himself as a kind of poet—an infinitely larger, more engaged audience than at any time in history.
McLuhan had been on top of the world in the late ’60s. As that convulsive, hopeful decade melted into the next, gloomier one, with colour television and mass advertising as common as corn flakes, he became obsolete. He was routinely dismissed and derided, written off as a charlatan and sellout. His ideas were reduced to misunderstood catchphrases, his books fell out of print, his already poor health rapidly deteriorated. He didn’t disappear—on the contrary, he remained an eccentric, gabbing fixture on the CBC—but by the late ’70s, at least as far as the public was concerned, the man had been, ironically, swallowed whole by his own image. When Woody Allen cast him in Annie Hall—McLuhan played himself, wryly—he’d become a walking, talking punchline. In McLuhan’s scene, Allen’s character, Alvy Singer, is standing in a movie lineup, irritated with someone behind him who pretentiously name-drops McLuhan. Miraculously, the man himself appears and tells the guy, to Singer’s delight, “You know nothing of my work.”
Everyone now knows something of McLuhan’s work—even if you’ve never read a word of it. We all live, all the time, in McLuhan’s world. In 1980, the year McLuhan died, CNN was founded. The World Wide Web emerged roughly a decade later, and over the next 20 years, the engulfing digital revolution transfigured communication just as dramatically as the rise of radio and TV would upend and reorient McLuhan’s culture. McLuhan would likely have been appalled by our hyper-connected, hyper-electrified, hyperactive age. At the same time, he would have been thrilled by the recuperation of his reputation. In the early ’90s, every virtual car travelling on the information superhighway—that quaint phrase is already as dated as an episode of Max Headroom—had a bumper sticker that read, “I Brake For McLuhan.” The technotopian bible Wired famously appointed McLuhan as the magazine’s patron saint in 1993. Then, in 1994, MIT Press re-released McLuhan’s Understanding Media with an introduction by a baldly admiring Lewis Lapham (“The events of the last 30 years have proven him more often right than wrong”). Film and television documentaries (a couple of them produced by McLuhan’s daughter Stephanie) proliferated, as did biographies (the best of them being Philip Marchand’s empathetic Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger and Edmund Carpenter’s funny, fond memoir That Not-So-Silent Sea). In 1999, Saturday Night coined the term “McMcLuhanism” to describe the appropriation of his ideas by everyone from cyberpunk novelist William Gibson to CityTV co-founder Moses Znaimer.
McLuhan may not have lived to see what he predicted, but he didn’t live to predict. It’s an amusing parlour game to comb his writings for divination, but it’s much more fun to read the books like the swashbuckling prose poems that they are. A decade before his death, he said of himself: “The artist…is always thought of as being way ahead of his time because he lives in the present. There are very many reasons why most people prefer to live in the age just behind them. It’s safer. To live right on the shooting line, right on the frontier of change, is terrifying.” On the other side of the frontier he lived on, we know exactly what he meant.