The Medium Is the Message, 50 Years Later

Marshall McLuhan. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Marshall McLuhan. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

This was sent to me by Disinfonaut Chaos Dynamics via Disinfo tips.

via The Pacific Standard:

He had a thing for clip-on neckties. He once said LSD was the lazy man’s form of Finnegans Wake. When deciding whether a book was worth reading, he’d flip through its table of contents then skip ahead to page 69. If page 69 offered no insight, he’d put the book down and move onto the next. In a 1951 letter to Ezra Pound, he described himself as an “intellectual thug.”

That man was eclectic Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan, who lived from 1911 to the very last day of 1980, the same year CNN launched. This year, however, marks the 50th anniversary of his famous work, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, which builds upon his famous aphorism: “The medium is the message.” Last April, theJournal of Visual Culture devoted an entire issue to exploringUnderstanding Media‘s enduring influence. Article titles include “I Sing the Senses Electric,” “Reading for the Noise,” and “Terrorphone.”

Along with the success of his 1962 book The Gutenberg Galaxy, which describes how changes in communication technologies (e.g. the printing press) fundamentally alter people’s orientation to the world,Understanding Media propelled McLuhan into the realm of pop-culture priesthood. He appeared on The Dick Cavett Show and the cover ofNewsweek. Executives from General Electric and IBM arranged private meetings. In the New York Herald Tribune, Tom Wolfe wondered if McLuhan was the most important thinker since Newton, Darwin, Freud, and Einstein. A 1965 piece in Harper’s, titled “Marshall McLuhan: Canada’s Intellectual Comet,” states, “like it or not, he is on his way to becoming one of those annoying ‘seminal’ thinkers whose arguments you must adapt, incorporate, or dispose of before pressing ahead in his field or—as McLuhan clearly believes—into areas well beyond it.”

Still, McLuhan had his detractors. The critic Dwight MacDonald called his work “impure nonsense, nonsense adulterated by sense.” Timedescribed Understanding Media as “fuzzy-minded, lacking in perspective, low in definition and data, redundant, and contemptuous of logical sequence.” In the late ’70s, only six students enrolled in McLuhan’s once prominent seminar at the University of Toronto, where he spent many years teaching. According to one witness, cardboard boxes filled with unsold copies of McLuhan’s books littered the classroom.

TWENTY YEARS AGO, IN the introduction to a re-print ofUnderstanding Media, renowned editor Lewis H. Lapham wrote that much of what McLuhan had to say made a lot more sense in 1994 than it did in 1964, what with two terms of Reagan and the creation of MTV. Twenty years after that, the banality of McLuhan’s ideas have solidified their merit. When Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer, for example, compared the expansion of big data to the planet developing a central nervous system, that’s McLuhan. When Chief Justice John Roberts opined that an alien from Mars might mistake the smartphone as an integral feature of human anatomy, that’s McLuhan, too. In 2014, it’s hard to overstate McLuhan’s prescience.

“People who don’t like McLuhan in the academic world are either lazy, stupid, jealous, or some combination,” says Paul Levinson, a professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University, where McLuhan taught for a year in the late ’60s. “McLuhan wasn’t into commonsense, reasonable propositions. He liked looking at things in a poetic, metaphoric way.”

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9 Comments on "The Medium Is the Message, 50 Years Later"

  1. Chaos_Dynamics | Oct 7, 2014 at 12:05 pm |

    Massage the sensorium at disinfo daily.

  2. Craig Bickford | Oct 7, 2014 at 3:30 pm |

    Eclectic Canadian Media Theorist…I suppose that is one way to describe him, if you want to get away from the MK-ULTRA public relations psychopath image.

    • misinformation | Oct 8, 2014 at 2:53 am |

      Do have something specific to back up your assertions regarding this:

      ‘MK-ULTRA public relations psychopath’?

  3. BuzzCoastin | Oct 7, 2014 at 10:01 pm |

    The literate man is a sucker for propaganda…You cannot propagandize a native. You can sell him rum and trinkets, but you cannot sell him ideas.

Comments are closed.