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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 ...

Good news. This Thursday is the 100th anniversary of Marshall McLuhan's birth, and the communications and technology theorist celebrated by his most fervid admirers as Canada's greatest thinker of all time has emerged from the valley of darkness that closed around him in the last decade of his life.

The University of Toronto professor of English credited with foreseeing the Internet 30 years before it was invented and broadcasting scores of ideas about how electronic communications media was changing the way humans think has been redeemed from labels of McLuhanacy and psuedo-scientific charlatanism.

His work no longer is described, as it was in one erudite journal of the 1970s, as "a hoax so gigantic that it shows every sign of becoming an international intellectual scandal."

He is being honoured with bouquets of conferences in Edmonton, where he was born, in Winnipeg, where he grew up, in Toronto, where he taught at the University of Toronto's St. Michael's College for 34 years - McLuhanesque images will be shown on the subway system in addition to lectures and exhibits throughout the city this week and in November - and in 15 cities across Europe, where his popularity never flagged.

Moreover, cash-strapped U of T has found several hundred thousand dollars to create a re-designed, re-energized McLuhan program in culture and technology in the coach house on the eastern edge of the downtown campus where he conducted seminars for nearly 15 years until his death in 1980.

Whether he's the greatest Canadian thinker of all time is moot; the country has not been short of intellectual stars.

But he has been brought back into the intellectual sunshine, as the U.S. essayist Lewis Lapham writes, for the simple reason that he makes a lot more sense now that so much of what he foresaw in the 1960s has come true.

Which leads to two fascinating questions: Why in the space of less than 10 years did McLuhan slide from supernova oracle into a toxic sea of contempt and ridicule? And now that his oracular forecasts have come true, why still study him?

The rise and fall . . .

There's a rather charming signpost to the answers provided by Emily Kellogg, a fourth-year student in St. Michael's College book and media studies program, who is the summer author of the campus student-life blog, UpbeaT.

Deciding recently to pay a visit to the McLuhan coach house, she wrote: "To be perfectly honest, I had never heard of McLuhan until I moved into residence at SMC, and accidentally stumbled into the book and media studies program. But as I quickly learned, Marshall McLuhan is kind of a big deal. You know that phrase that you hear everywhere: 'The medium is the message?' Yeah, that was McLuhan."

And McLuhan's problem - one of his problems - is that his message couldn't escape his medium. As Douglas Coupland points out in a 2009 McLuhan biography, the wonderful, whimsical, boundlessly optimistic and imaginative sixties society that embraced him and lapped up his ideas morphed into the gloom of a change-fatigued seventies society that tired of hearing from him. Yet the brand remained strong. "You know that phrase that you hear everywhere: 'The medium is the message?'" Ms. Kellogg asks us. "Yeah, that was McLuhan."

Think of his intellectual history as a journey between two mountain peaks passing through a shadowed valley.

Beginning in the 1940s and continuing through most of the 1960s, he was one of the first theorists of technology to examine the significance and impact of electronic technology on human senses, society and culture, writes University of Calgary historian Douglas Francis, in his new book, The Technological Imperative in Canada: An Intellectual History. We're inclined to forget, as the peerless U.S. media theorist James Carey pointed out in 1967, that McLuhan and fellow U of T scholar Harold Innis were at one time alone among students of human society in making the history of mass media central to the history of civilization. Today it's a given.

McLuhan believed that each new technology created a new human environment and thus a new way of thinking. The medium-is-the-message meant that the content of electronic media is insignificant; it is the medium itself that has the greater impact on the environment. In other words, it wasn't what we were seeing on TV that was important; it was the fact that we were watching TV (and not doing other things) that altered our brains.

And because, as Prof. Francis points out, McLuhan saw humans as essentially communicative animals, he believed it was the technologies of communication that were primary in shaping who we were, what we thought, and how we acted, with effects that often were subliminal and therefore not recognized.

He saw three great changes in human history related to communications technology, each one having an exponentially greater effect on humanity, each one externalizing, or "outing," one or more of the senses.

The first was the introduction of the phonetic alphabet that changed the culture of humanity from aural to written or visual. The second was the introduction of the printing press and moveable type that, in McLuhan's thought, distorted the balance between the sensuous and the intellectual, between image and sound, between the concrete and the abstract.

"If the phonetic alphabet fell like a bombshell on tribal man," he said, "the printing press hit him like 100-megaton H-bomb."

Then came the advent of electronic communications technology, beginning with the telegraph, that "outed" all the senses at once, becoming an extension of the human nervous system. It is this period we are still going through, even those of us who aren't on Facebook, Twitter or whatever's next in the pipeline.

That was the kind of thinking that took him to the first mountain peak.

His first books, The Mechanical Bride (1951), The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) and Understanding Media (1964), were required reading for members of the global information class. Talk shows, writes Mr. Coupland, were incomplete without him. He made the cover of Time magazine's U.S. edition ("Canada's intellectual comet"). Tom Wolfe wrote a profile article ("What if he's right?") that cemented his stardom.

To be in McLuhan's presence in the early years, wrote Philip Marchand in a superb 1989 biography, Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger, was to experience "a stream of brilliant conversation, dizzying its listeners with insights that, when grasped, opened up worlds to them." Then came the slide toward the valley floor.

It was largely biologically initiated. A tumour growing in McLuhan's brain, eventually reaching the size of a lemon, underlay growing eccentricities (in the mid-60s he gave a speech blaming fire trucks for creating ghettoes).

The complex surgery to remove the tumour was successful but it resulted in significant memory loss. It also marked the high-water mark of his fame, his vitality, his ability to soak up information and locate patterns.

His intellectual reputation suffered with the production of what Mr. Marchand calls non-books: War and Peace in the Global Village, Counterblast, From Cliché to Archetype, The Medium is the Massage, Culture Is Our Business and Take Today (which sold just 4,000 copies and sank like a stone without reviews).

Magazines were no longer interested in interviewing him because he had been "done." Talk shows no longer wanted him. Critics became bolder in savaging him, and he, for his part, lacked the robust health to riposte. Editors began demanding he write more clearly. Over-blown advertisements for a newsletter he wrote fuelled suspicions of charlatanism.

Proposals were made for new books that never materialized and, by 1978, U.S. publishers were asking for the return of advances. Colleagues at the University of Toronto advised their students not to take his courses. In the fall of 1979 he arrived to teach his first class and found only six students enrolled.

In late September of that year he suffered a catastrophic stroke that left him unable to speak - a man, wrote Mr. Coupland, "[whose]life's core themes revolved around how we communicate from person to person, from generation to generation and from one century to the next."

He died on the last day of 1980.

. . . and rise

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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