Massaging the medium man

…McLuhan was a poet-visionary" in the manner of William Blake, "and, like all such visionaries, often derided." Indeed, the apparent outrageousness of some of his observations "tempted his apoplectic critics to describe them as 'McLuhanacy.' "…Catholicism for McLuhan "was such a rock, an anchor-point, that it freed him up to be playful in his academic life … to be the holy fool."

The Globe and Mail
October 16, 2003

Massaging the medium man
For those who want to get in on the second wave of McLuhan mania, there are lots of fresh entry points, JAMES ADAMS writes.
James Adams

We're having a Marshall McLuhan moment right now. Or, as his good friend Tom Wolfe might put it, right … NOW (oh, yeah, baby)!!!! It is a rather odd moment. In the last five or six years, for instance, there has been a veritable tsunami of tomes about the Sage of Wychwood Park and his meditations on "tactility," "hot" and "cool," "visual specialism" and "art as a cliché probe."

But of the dozen or more books he authored or co-authored in his lifetime, less than a handful, including the epochal Understanding Media from 1964, remain in print. A strange fate for a man whom Wolfe proclaimed 38 years ago "the most important thinker since Newton, Darwin, Freud, Einstein and Pavlov."

Toronto, where McLuhan lived, taught and died (in 1980), has a Catholic high school bearing his name and a McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology at its main university. But in Edmonton, the city of his birth (in 1911) and early childhood, his moniker has yet to be affixed to a mall, park, or recreation centre (although it is on a "reserve list" for eventual use as a street name).

Interestingly, our current rediscovery, re-evaluation and exaltation of McLuhan aren't occurring around any of the 10th, 25th or 50th anniversary dates that usually are the pegs for these sorts of things. We still have eight years to go until the 100th anniversary of his birth, while the silver anniversary of his death happens on New Year's Eve day, 2005.

Still, you can't help but think McLuhan would appreciate the asymmetries at play here. He would probably see our renewed interest in and celebration of his thought, however patchwork, as a manifestation of the speeded-up/non-linear nature of the electronic age. Waiting around for another two years to get worked up about McLuhanism would be so, well … print-ish and linear.

This very weekend, in fact, was supposed to have been an apotheosis of sorts for the Oracle of the Aural Age. It was supposed to be the inaugural instalment of the Toronto International McLuhan Festival of the Future, four days of talking about "the knowledge economy" and "greenergy," with participants paying $1,000 to gather in his name and groove with such gurus as Bruce Mau and Prashant Kumar. Alas, the SARS outbreaks this spring forced the festival's main organizer, Toronto International Film Festival co-founder Bill Marshall, to recently make the announcement that TIMFOF was being postponed until some time next year.

A disappointment, to be sure. But again one wonders if McLuhan somewhere in the ether of the noosphere wouldn't find it entirely apt that a festival conceived in his name had flamed out because of a disease brought 8,000 kilometres to Toronto, through the miracle of intercontinental jet travel, from a chance encounter in a hotel elevator in Hong Kong. Everyone shares everything in the global village.

Still, for those who want to get in on this second great wave of McLuhan mania (the first having occurred circa 1963-1974), there are lots of fresh entry points. There's Understanding Me, a fascinating, often demanding collection of 19 previously unpublished lectures and interviews either by or with McLuhan, edited by his daughter, Stephanie, and noted Canadian academic and McLuhan pal David Staines.

Two years ago, Canadian poet and critic Judith Fitzgerald published a new, briskly paced biography of the man titled, appropriately enough, Wise Guy. "In my opinion," she said this week, "McLuhan was a poet-visionary" in the manner of William Blake, "and, like all such visionaries, often derided." Indeed, the apparent outrageousness of some of his observations "tempted his apoplectic critics to describe them as 'McLuhanacy.' "

One of the most absorbing looks at the man is a 94-minute mélange of documentary, animation, interview, music and special effects produced by the National Film Board and Toronto's Primitive Entertainment called McLuhan's Wake. Director Kevin McMahon completed the film, using New York hipster-musician Laurie Anderson as narrator, in 2002, but he'd started working on it four years before that, eventually collaborating with writer David Sobelman.

McMahon thinks McLuhan is having another day in the sun because what he said and wrote "is easier to understand now than at the time of his death." This is due, in large part, to what McMahon calls "the globalization of television, the CNN type of culture," coupled with the rise of the Internet, cellphones, instantaneous satellite transmission, cable radio, interactive electronic games, the personal computer and all the other paraphernalia of our hectic, intrusive electronic era.

McLuhan, we have to remember, wrote his prophetic works in the analog era when rotary telephones were still a household staple, the fax machine was nonexistent, a postal strike could bring a government to its knees, computer companies hired "key-punch operators," and, as McMahon noted, "radio stations were lucky if they had a 20-mile broadcast radius." Like Karl Marx's paeans to the still-nascent revolutionary powers of capitalism in The Communist Manifesto of 1848, McLuhan's books and interviews were describing a world of "new vortices and energies … a super-primitive swamp of integral, involved mankind" when that world was barely 40 years out of the horse-and-buggy era.

McLuhan dropped off our cultural radar from the late 1970s through the mid-90s in large part because "he was a victim of the medium he was exploring," according to McMahon. Initially, McLuhan was welcomed into the lairs of Tom Brokaw, Tom Snyder and Barbara Walters because "he sort of validated television" at a time when most intellectuals were decrying it as "the boob tube." McLuhan "tried to be glib and snappy for television and at first it sounded fresh, if not quite obscure," McMahon said. But then "they never really got it and after a while they got sick of trying to figure him out."

Academics, too, got sick of McLuhan. They saw his cross-disciplinary interests as facile dilettantism, appearances in Woody Allen's Annie Hall and on Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In a sell-out to crass celebrity, and his fondness for puns and aphorisms as just so much highfalutin charlatanism. (for example, "The medium is the massage"; "The production and consumption of information is the main business of our time"; "An actor puts on his audience as a poet puts on his language; a stripper puts on her audience as she takes off her clothes"; "The new organization man is an oral man with a heart of type"; "History is all thud and blunder").

This devaluation of McLuhan, often in favour of sundry European deconstructionists, post-structuralists and semioticians, was especially galling to Camille Paglia. In 1993, the author of Sexual Personae wrote: "We all thought, 'This is one of the great prophets of our time.' What's happened to him? Why are all these people reading Jacques Lacan or Michel Foucault who have no awareness at all of mass media … In none of that French crap is there any reference to media. Our culture is a pop culture. [North] Americans are the only ones who have to be interpreting the pop-culture reality."

One McLuhan moment we won't be experiencing this year is a proposed play on the last year of McLuhan's life. The Message, by Governor-General Award-winner Jason Sherman, was to have launched the 2003-2004 season of Toronto's Tarragon Theatre. However, objections by the family to Sherman's portrayal of the media maven prompted its postponement and possibly its outright cancellation.

Sherman got the idea for his drama in 2001 while watching a repeat instalment of CBC's classic current-affairs show of the 1960s, This Hour Has Seven Days. McLuhan was being interviewed by writer-editor Robert Fulford. Sherman said he didn't grasp much of what McLuhan was saying, "but every once in a while I'd say, 'Oh, I got that.' "

At interview's end, Sherman recalled McLuhan saying something like: "Don't get me wrong, Bob. I'm against progress. Turn off the television. Turn off the buttons.' And I thought, hmm, this is interesting."

Sherman said it's a matter of when, not if, his McLuhan play is finished and produced. It is set in the final year of McLuhan's life but shunts back and forth over 30 years.

It's Sherman's thesis that Catholicism for McLuhan "was such a rock, an anchor-point, that it freed him up to be playful in his academic life … to be the holy fool."

McLuhan suffered a severe stroke in 1979 that left him aphasic. According to McLuhan's Wake, the 68-year-old McLuhan could comprehend conversations in his final months, but was unable to contribute to them — except for an occasional "boyohboyohboy," a laugh, or scream of apparent frustration.

According to McLuhan's agent, the Sherman play "constantly uses vulgarities that [McLuhan] never said" in his aphasic state "or never would say." Sherman, of course, might reply that the language of his McLuhan could be viewed as an imaginative expression of his character's interior state. In other words, for someone who was both an adept with language and a devout Catholic who attended noon mass each day, aphasia might just have been seen as a particularly cruel, almost faith-shattering blow and therefore worthy of "vulgarities."

Whatever happens, it's clear that a quarter-century after his demise Herbert Marshall McLuhan is another Canadian who haunts us still.

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