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The 100th anniversary of Marshall McLuhan's birth is on July 21, 2011. (Photo illustration by David Woodside/Photo illustration by David Woodside)
The 100th anniversary of Marshall McLuhan's birth is on July 21, 2011. (Photo illustration by David Woodside/Photo illustration by David Woodside)

The return of Marshall McLuhan Add to ...

His posthumous climb up the second mountain?

There are three reasons for scholars' and students' renewed interest in McLuhan.

First, McLuhan spoke in what he called "probes" - ideas tossed out into the public sphere, unfinished, uncooked, rough at the edges. As he used to say, if people didn't like the ideas he gave them, he had others.

There always will be academic validity in scholars musing on his probes, says Prof. Dominique Scheffel-Dunand, director of the McLuhan Centre for Culture and Technology, who has organized a  conference on July 21 where each invitee will be assigned a McLuhan probe on which to comment.

Second, McLuhan's third great shift is still in progress, and no one knows how the real electronic communications generation is redefining literacy. What is the impact of digital social media on society? How does the brain behave when shaped from earliest cognition by computers and video games?

Prof. Scheffel-Dunand has plans for a massive research study.

Third, McLuhan is coming to life as what, academically, he was: a superb literary scholar. In his writing he drew on a vast array of sources ancient and modern and his own arcane studies of early English prosody and rhetoric. The study of the trivium - the medieval theory of education: grammar, logic and rhetoric - was the foundation of his doctoral dissertation.

He studied under the Cambridge New Criticism scholars, I.A. Richards and F. L. Leavis, who taught him that words were best studied not in terms of their "content" - their dictionary meaning - but in terms of their effects in a given context, effects that were often subliminal.

The writer Edgar Allan Poe's A Descent into the Maelstrom gave him his metaphor for understanding electronic communications technology by immersing oneself in it. He took on poet Ezra Pound's guise of cultural sleuth and copied his metaphorical and aphoristic speech. He loved James Joyce's puns, obscure gnomic references and dense exploration of the human psyche.

He followed the French symbolist poets Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Flaubert in desiring to make intensive studies of the effects of media and technology on humanity and society.

To McLuhan, great artists were prophets: "The artist picks up the message of cultural and  technical challenge decades before its transforming impact occurs. He then builds models for Noah's arks for facing the change that is ahead."

To truly understand McLuhan and his ideas, says Prof. Scheffel-Dunand, students have to read him.

Most students of McLuhan today, she says, read scholars who write about McLuhan rather than read McLuhan himself. Which is a mistake, she says, because McLuhan wrote as a poet: he wrote metaphorically, aphoristically, he wrote in what he called "mosaics." 

Biographer Philip Marchand agrees. "My suggestion for students is to begin with the articles written by McLuhan - 'Acoustic Space' and 'The Effect of the Printed Book on the language of the 16th century' and a couple others that appear in the anthology entitled Explorations in Communication. These articles are lucid, comprehensible introductions to McLuhan's thought."

To rejoin UpbeaT blogger Emily Kellogg on her coach house tour: "I don't want to bore you, dear readers, but I just can't help gushing. I dig this stuff. These kind of conversations, are the things that make an undergraduate degree worth pursuing. They're the ones that give you an adrenalin rush because you're thinking so quickly - and your brain kind of feels like a trapeze artist jumping from idea to idea.

There's also something innately cool about having an intellectual conversation that ranges from iPhones to Heidegger in five seconds flat in the place that housed Marshall McLuhan as he wrote the books that revolutionized the field of media research."

Ms. Kellogg: 2011 medium of McLuhan's message.

Michael Valpy is a freelance writer based in Toronto.

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