Today marks Marshall McLuhan’s 100th birthday. While the Canadian-born media theorist wasn’t honored with a temporary electronic totem pole at the center of cyberspace — a Google Doodle — he perhaps should have been; McLuhan coined the very information-age phrase “the global village” in the early ’60s, a time when plans for an “intergalactic computer network” were only musings of bureaucrats at the Department of Defense.
The spring issue of The New Atlantis carries an excellent reflection on McLuhan by Alan Jacobs, who gets beyond the slogans — “the medium is the message” — that made McLuhan the Clay Shirky of his time. He is both overhyped and underappreciated, contends Jacobs, for McLuhan “never made arguments, only assertions … those assertions are usually wrong, and when they are not wrong, they are highly debatable.” At the same time, “McLuhan’s determination to bring the vast resources of humanistic scholarship to bear upon the analysis of new media is an astonishingly fruitful one, and an example to be followed.” It was an example that inspired the trenchant critic of television Neil Postman, who in Jacobs’ estimation does the job better than McLuhan — leading Jacobs to suggest that “once one has absorbed [McLuhan’s] example there is no need to read anything that McLuhan ever wrote.”
Jacobs points out that McLuhan’s writing style — frustrating to those trying to wring out an argument — may have been ahead of its time, resembling the assertion-based, quote-heavy, quick riffs that characterize much internet-based writing. In The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962), McLuhan shows familiarity with a wide literature, including many books that Jacobs contends later “transformed their disciplines.” Nevertheless,
To today’s reader, McLuhan’s responses to these works resemble nothing so much as a series of blog posts. … He quotes a passage, riffs on it for a few sentences or paragraphs, then moves on to another book: quote, riff, quote, riff. And sometimes just quote: one section consists largely of a lengthy three-paragraph selection from Iona and Peter Opie’s Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (1959), while another gives seven brief paragraphs from Erik Barnouw’s Mass Communication (1956), in both cases with very brief introduction but no comment. As I have noted, the “mosaic” method here is an intentional homage to or imitation of the non-linear structures of the great Modernists. It may even be significant that what Yeats wanted to do, had he been granted the privilege of traveling through time to Justinian’s Byzantium, was to work in mosaic tile, to be absorbed thereby into a great collective endeavor in devotion to which he could forget his own identity. McLuhan’s refusal to produce a consecutive argument might well be an indication of his own mental quirks and limitations, but surely it was an attempt to allow “the Gutenberg Galaxy” — the vast constellation of idea, inventions, and practices that constitute “the making of typographic man” — to speak for itself.
Jacobs includes a discussion of McLuhan’s staunch Catholicism, an attribute that puzzled many in his circles. A convert and daily communicant, McLuhan never publicized his religion or waded into theological discussions. McLuhan’s orthodoxy, argues Jacobs, was motivated in part by “a fundamental distrust of language.”
McLuhan’s comment that “Mysticism is just tomorrow’s science dreamed today” should, I think, be taken seriously. McLuhan may, as [Douglas] Coupland says, have “pined for” a time when “books were read aloud in church by priests,” but he knew perfectly well that that era held its own spiritual dangers. This is why his short chapter on orality in Understanding Media is called “The Spoken Word: Flower of Evil?” Every form of communication, for McLuhan, presents a temptation to idolatry. Its failure to live up to its own promises must, therefore, be demonstrated through an invocation of its technological alternatives. It cannot be demonstrated through comparison to the secure knowledge found in mystical contemplation and in the Eucharist itself, for these are beyond words.
McLuhan, for all his sloppy blog-style pop-theory, acknowledged a transcendent realm in which his tools were unfit for true understanding, areas of human experience “beyond words.” If only today’s bloggers heeded his example.