Rethinking Marshall McLuhan: reflections on a media theorist.

Author:Fishman, Donald A.

One of the striking features of mass communication theory in the millennial decade has been the reemergence of Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980). McLuhan's prominence is not what it was during the peak of his influence during the mid-1960s, but McLuhan is currently undergoing a revival. Wired magazine and various Internet-oriented publications have adopted McLuhan as the patron saint of the digital age (Wolf, 1996). McLuhan's phrases such as the "global village" and the "medium is the message" provide support for those commentators who view McLuhan as the oracle of the digital era. During the past decade, more than a dozen new books and countless articles have been published focusing on McLuhan, including Levinson's (1999) Digital McLuhan, Gordon's (1997) biography Marshall McLuhan, and Theall's (2001) The Virtual Marshall McLuhan. The media ecology movement spearheaded by scholars at New York University and Fordham University has celebrated McLuhan as one of the major thinkers of the 20th century.

As a result of these developments, the moment is ripe to revisit Marshall McLuhan and to reassess his legacy. By way of self-disclosure, this author must admit that he has not been an uncritical admirer of McLuhan. Although a member of the media ecology movement, he has not displayed the boosterism of McLuhan that is characteristic of that organization. McLuhan's aphoristic way of speaking, his elliptical style of writing, and his heavy reliance on "probes" hurts the ability to understand his ideas. However, McLuhan's staying power is real, and the source of this power deserves to be examined.

To comment on McLuhan, his ideas, and his critics requires a book-length publication. Instead, space limitations warrant that remarks be restricted to a few central ideas. Thus, this brief article is divided into two sections. The first part looks at McLuhan as a public intellectual. It mixes Richard Posner's interpretation of a public intellectual with biographical materials about McLuhan. The second part focuses on McLuhan's overarching thesis about the development of mass media, and his paradoxical views on broadcasting: He mistrusted television's influence while he saw television as the ideal exemplar of his notion of a cool medium.

McLuhan as a Public Intellectual

In 2001, Posner published Public Intellectuals: A Study in Decline. It was the first systematic, book-length study of modern intellectuals who are academics but who respond to "market forces" in their nonacademic role as commentators on society. Posner defined a "public intellectual" by using a multitiered definition. For Posner, public intellectuals were "academics writing outside their field" or "writing for a general audience" (p. 1). Posner contended that because the modern university places such a great emphasis on specialization, heavily favoring depth versus breadth of knowledge, few academics are now trained, or inclined, to play the role of public intellectuals. To Posner, this narrow training and socialization process in the United States explains "why so many of the most distinguished academic public intellectuals active in the second half of the twentieth century were foreigners--individuals such as Raymond Aron, Hannah Arendt, Michel Foucault, Jurgen Habermas, Friedrick Hayek, Leo Strauss, and Amartya Sen" (pp. 4-5).

Using Posner's terminology, McLuhan was a public intellectual whose legacy was twofold: (a) his emphasis that mass communication has altered our perception of 20th-century life, and (b) his belief that the content of communication is dictated by its form. As Czitrom (1982) explained, "McLuhan's efforts instilled an urgent awareness of the media environment as a basic force in shaping the modern sensibility" (p. 165).

McLuhan invariably has been depicted as an academic rebel who did not follow an orthodox outlook or doctrine in his writings. Although correct, such a characterization tends to obscure two biographical points. First, McLuhan followed a very traditional career path. Born in 1911, he received his B.A. from the University of Manitoba in 1932, his M.A. from Cambridge University in 1939, and a Ph.D in English from Cambridge University in 1943. He was trained in English as a "Joyce scholar" and a student of modernism. Between 1946 and 1979, he taught at St. Michael's College of the University of Toronto. His book, The Mechanical Bride (McLuhan, 1951) was an attempt to apply the methods of New Criticism to the tensions between modern media and popular culture.

Second, McLuhan's entrance into public life was abrupt. Until 1961, McLuhan was unknown except to his students at the University of Toronto and a small circle of academics who either followed his abstruse articles in small-circulation journals or had a personal relationship with him. This group included Harry Skornia of the University of Illinois, Neil Postman of New York University, and James Carey, then at the University of Illinois. However, with the publication of The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) and Understanding Media (1964/1994), McLuhan became one of the hottest academic properties around.

Interestingly, the broadcast community played an important role in McLuhan's rise to prominence. During the late 1950s, McLuhan was introduced to academic professionals in communication through the intervention of Skornia, who asked McLuhan to be the keynote speaker at the...

To continue reading