Marshall McLuhan is the mosquito. Annie Hall is the amber.
It’s entirely possible that for long stretches of time, the most well-known quotation of McLuhan’s has not been “The medium is the message,” or his notion that we live in a global village, but “You know nothing of my work.” McLuhan, his reputation and his thinking have gone down for the count several times since his death from a stroke on the last day of 1980, but just when we’re in danger of utterly forgetting him, Woody pulls him out from behind the marquee and reminds us that he was all that anyone with any intellectual pretensions at all was talking about in 1977.
And today, his 100th birthday, is as good a time as any to start sucking out the DNA of this continually forgotten, continually revived thinker about communication, and repopulating the world with people who get our new media’s messages.
He doesn’t seem to make it easy. His books start out lucid, and become more obscure, oracular. I used to think he was using James Joyce as his literary model, and I’ve kicked myself several times over the years for not being able to follow him along to the end.
But according to Philip Marchand, as quoted by Michael Valpy, he actually had some brain trouble, and his last few confusing books, like The Medium Is the Massage, are not so much Delphic as simply confused.
I’d never heard this explanation before, and I’ve no idea if it’s standard thinking on the subject of McLuhan’s later works these days. But if true, it makes things a lot easier.
You can see how people might not, in fact, have noticed, though, because even when he was fully compos mentis, he wrote and spoke in what he called probes. He’d run thoughts, theories and rhetoric up whatever flagpole he was given—a classroom, a book, the Today Show—and if people balked, he’d say something quippy and quotable, like “If you don’t like those ideas, I have others,” or “I don’t necessarily agree with everything I say.”
I hadn’t read McLuhan at all since Sergey Brin and Larry Page and Mark Zuckerberg changed my daily routines. It turns out much of what he says sounds a good deal less whacky these days. Like when he said that “People don’t read the morning newspaper, they slip into it like a warm bath.” This was one of his aphorisms that people especially liked to quote, mostly to use against him, to illustrate how unhinged his images were, how he seemed to say things because they sounded cool (or hot), rather than because they were true. As one of his opponents once said of him, “He’s swinging, switched on, with it and NOW. And wrong.”
A lot of what he wrote seemed extreme in the media context in which he wrote it. “If we understand the revolutionary transformations caused by new media, we can anticipate and control them; but if we continue in our self-induced subliminal trance, we will be their slaves,” he said in an interview with Playboy in 1969. Not many serious people were seriously thinking that television, radio and teletype would be enslaving us. But the Internet and social media?
When I get up in the morning and switch on the laptop and start opening the roundups the papers send me, swishing over to links to this blog or that aggregator, and glide over to Youtube to see the latest from Syria, Facebook to catch up on what my friends have been reading overnight, and Twitter to see what happened a second-and-a-half ago, it most certainly is a warm bath of information, like those pools Spielberg put Philip K. Dick’s precogs into. I didn’t see it when it was a single newspaper I was opening up every morning, but I see now that my data bath is just a more extreme version of what had already been happening with newspapers and evening news and morning traffic reports on the radio in the car into work. This sort of realization, of course, leads one to want to dive right back into everything of his, to see how much of it I might finally now have caught up with.
Later in the same interview, conducted by Eric Norden in front of the fireplace at McLuhan’s house at 3 Wychwood Park, he said, speaking of his critics, “Theirs is the customary human reaction when confronted with innovation: to flounder about attempting to adapt old responses to new situations or to simply condemn or ignore the harbingers of change—a practice refined by the Chinese emperors, who used to execute messengers bringing bad news. The new technological environments generate the most pain among those least prepared to alter their old value structures. The literati find the new electronic environment far more threatening than do those less committed to literacy as a way of life. When an individual or social group feels that its whole identity is jeopardized by social or psychic change, its natural reaction is to lash out in defensive fury. But for all their lamentations, the revolution has already taken place.”
As far as he was concerned, by 1969, the revolution had already taken place. It’s about time we caught up.
There’d be worse places to start than here, and worse books to read than Marchand’s biography, or Doug Coupland’s, or go to the man himself with The Mechanical Bride, The Gutenberg Galaxy, Understanding Media.