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Food for Thought

Remembering Marshall McLuhan

Tim Madigan meditates on the man behind the message.

“It’s inevitable that the whirlpool of electronic information movement will toss us all about like corks on a stormy sea, but if we keep our cool during the descent into the maelstrom, studying the process as it happens… we can get through.” – Marshall McLuhan, Playboy Interview, 1969

I teach at St John Fisher College in upstate New York. A few years ago Diane Lucas, then the campus archivist, mentioned to me in passing that Marshall McLuhan’s daughter Stephanie had been doing research in our archives on her father’s work. Marshall McLuhan?! I was astonished to hear that name mentioned, as it had been years since I’d thought about the communications guru who had coined the phrases ‘the Global Village’ and ‘the medium is the message’. But more to the point, what possible connection did he have with St John Fisher College? To my astonishment, Diane told me that McLuhan had been a faculty member at St Michael’s College at the University of Toronto, which was founded by the Congregation of St Basil, the order which also founded St John Fisher College in Rochester, New York, in 1949. McLuhan had been active in helping to found our Department of Communication and Journalism, and often came to campus to give talks and meet with the faculty and students. Stephanie McLuhan was here to research a book she later edited of her father’s unpublished lectures, some of which were first delivered here.

McLuhan is often considered to be a prophet of the Information Age. Although he died just before the computer revolution really took off, his theories on communication and mass media remain both provocative and relevant. Yet McLuhan was no starry-eyed advocate for innovation in the means of communication. Indeed, much of his writing can be considered to be a strategy for maintaining human dignity in a time of rapid change, by making us aware of the forces shaping our perceptions. As he often said, “fish don’t know water exists until they’re beached.”

McLuhan’s was an ethics of awareness. He offered strategies for making us more aware of the ways the media shape our sense of reality, and how one can use such knowledge to escape being subsumed by such onslaughts. One of his favorite metaphors, as used in the opening quote, came from Edgar Allan Poe’s short story ‘A Descent into the Maelström’, in which a sailor caught within a whirlpool is able to survive by ascertaining the actions of the destructive force and adapting himself to it. “By studying the patterns of the effects of this huge vortex of energy in which we are involved,” McLuhan notes, “it may be possible to program a strategy of evasion and survival.”

As McLuhan was quick to point out to anyone who thought he was an advocate of the ‘Death of the Book’, he was a professor of literature with a deep love for the printed page. But the Age of Gutenberg was coming to a close, and McLuhan was one of the first to begin to speculate about what new Beast was slouching towards Bethlehem to replace it. Ironically enough, he managed to become a media darling himself, often interviewed by television reporters who never quite understood his cryptic remarks but who knew a good sound bite when they heard it. He even appeared as himself in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, thereby achieving a kind of cinematic immortality. I suspect that his theories on communication are even more pertinent in the era of Facebook and YouTube than the era of AT&T and network-programmed television in which he initially wrote his ‘probes’.

After learning from Diane about this previously-unknown-to-me campus connection with one of the Twentieth Century’s leading public intellectuals and gadflies, in 2008 I organized a panel discussion on McLuhan’s life and continuing influence, with Diane, Father Leo Hetzler, CSB – an Emeritus Professor of English at St John Fisher College who had taken courses with McLuhan at St Michael’s College and remembered him fondly – and Tom Proietti, a long-time member of the Communication and Journalism Department who had worked closely with McLuhan, and knew him well enough to call him ‘Mac’. In the archives Diane found a wonderful photo of McLuhan giving the commencement address to the graduating class of 1969 (the same year, by the way, in which his Playboy magazine interview appeared – I wonder if that’s in the archives?). Who should be sitting behind him on the stage but Fulton J. Sheen, then the Bishop of Rochester, looking magisterial in his bright red robes? In my office I now proudly display a copy of this photo of the Messenger of the Media and the Television Priest together at last – two proud and idiosyncratic Catholics who truly understood the power of public communications.

July 11, 2011 marked the 100th anniversary of Marshall McLuhan’s birth, and events were organized throughout the world to commemorate him. It’s important to recognise how our connections to the global village of today were foreseen by such a fascinating figure. Or, as Henry Gibson so aptly put it in the poem he delivered on the television show Laugh-In during McLuhan’s heyday in the late 1960s:

“Marshall McLuhan
What Ya Doin’?”

© Dr Timothy J. Madigan 2011

Tim Madigan, like the fellow in the movie line in Annie Hall, knows nothing of Marshall McLuhan’s work.

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