Marshall McLuhan
Marshall McLuhan; drawing by David Levine

As more and more pours out by and about McLuhan it becomes clear that, although little can now be profitably said about his work, the episode as a whole has some bearing, diagnostically on the condition of present-day intellectual life. It raises three questions. For what forms of malaise does he seem to bring relief? What is wrong with the contemporary version of rational discourse which he defies? And what has happened to education that people literate and interested enough to read his work can be so credulous or at best uncertain?

The second question is the most sobering to orthodoxy. McLuhan’s scornful rejection of logic and of linear progression from premises and data to conclusion serves, it is true, as a defense for untenable ideas, but it also appeals to an understandable discontent with the negative uses to which reasoning, logical criticism, and sound knowledge are too often put in the common run of intellectual discussion. Dubious maneuvers though they are, there is something attractive about his mosaic presentation, his “probes,” his invitations to explore, not argue, with him; these maneuvers try to break free from self-inhibition and sterile dispute. His writing is reminiscent of the lecturing of M. D. Forbes, who played a major part in creating the Cambridge English school (which began its existence as an independent school of the University only in 1919), helping to bring in I.A. Richards and contributing more than anyone else in those early years to the school’s unorthodox vitality and concern with contemporary literature. (A glimpse of his importance emerges from E. M. W. Tillyard’s The Muse Unchained, a history of the school’s development from the standpoint of a university politician.) Forbes died suddenly in 1936, during McLuhan’s second year in Cambridge, but until then, and in spite of the distractions of his immense range of interests, he offered to those who wanted it an invigorating element of iconoclasm, creativeness, and challenge, expressed whimsically with a sweep of paradoxical generalization, cross-fertilizing references from widely separated fields, tangential wit, and the explosive compression of meaning in puns.

That there should be room for such people, in spite of all the sober objections, is the feeling of Richard Kostelanetz in one of the “Pro” essays of Mr. Rosenthal’s new collection. He is indignant at the reviewers’ relative neglect of “significant recent explorations”: “Like Herman Kahn and Norman O. Brown, McLuhan believes in thinking which is exploratory and speculative, rather than substantive and definitive; and the books of all three are products of men who do not necessarily believe in their thoughts.” The risk is obvious of course—the false prophet, the spell-binder. Equally obvious is the need for a first stage, without rigorous critical discipline, in any new thinking, whether the author makes it public or not, and whether he or others do the equally necessary checking and closer formulation. If the exploratory stage is published it deserves an exploratory welcome. The Gutenberg Galaxy was well justified as a first stage. Not much would have survived testing but there might have been modified insights acceptable to historians and some leads for psychologists and social scientists.

But a cult formed, and instead of getting clinical trials the new formula was frothed up into an effervescent nostrum. Tom Wolfe* describes the launching of the cult by Gossage and Feigen, business consultants in San Francisco, whose organization, Generalists, Inc., specializes in being non-specialist and giving firms the over-all view of their problems that other specialists presumably miss. They saw possibilities in McLuhan’s merging of diverse disciplines and his hostility to specialism (“No specialist need apply” said a sign in his office), so they “invested about $6,000 into just taking McLuhan around to talk to people, Big Boys, all sorts, outside the academic world, on both coasts.” The rest of the story of lunches, conferences, and noisy festival parties is scattered throughout Wolfe’s article. Though he seems not to have meant it as an exposé, the story could have gone unchanged into The Mechanical Bride as an example of the public relations industry at work. Gossage himself, writing in McLuhan: Hot & Cool, is hilariously revealing on the Bride: “The Mechanical Bride, published in 1951, was his first book on the media and his most bizarre. I will not dwell on it more than to say it is a collector’s item fetching upward of fifty dollars in mint condition.”

A straightforward exposure of the stupidities of advertising and the contemptible content of commercial entertainment had certainly better be written off as bizarre and not be dwelt on by the business interests who made a pet of the later McLuhan. “Why not use the new commercial education,” McLuhan had asked in the Preface, “as a means of enlightening its intended prey?” And in The Mechanical Bride McLuhan’s comparison between us in our cultural plight and Poe’s fisherman swept into the vortex of the Maelström always carried the same message—“we are now obliged not to attack or avoid the strom but to study its operation as a means of release from it.”


The purpose—release from it—was put unambiguously. And from all the double talk of the later work you can select reaffirmations of that attitude right down to The Medium Is the Massage and McLuhan: Hot & Cool, where in reply to the editor’s questions McLuhan said his detachment was like the doctor’s, surgeon’s, or scientist’s, and added “my own observation of our almost overwhelming cultural gradient toward the primitive—or involvement of all the senses—is attended by complete personal distaste and dissatisfaction.” If he had allowed this note to be heard clearly in his ambiguous utterances he would not have been fêted by advertisers, industrialists, and public relations consultants.

McLuhan (quoted in the useful biographical note in Mr. Rosenthal’s book) records that in his first teaching post he had found himself confronting “young Americans I was incapable of understanding. I felt an urgent need to study their popular culture in order to get through.” Had he been a middleaged exile from central Europe this would be readily understood, but coming from a Canadian of twenty-five whose own student days were directly behind him, it suggests an unusual susceptibility to feeling cut off. This, in the various forms it takes among writers and artists and their audience, is the malaise McLuhan offers to remedy: the outsiders’ sense of insecurity—out of touch with the conventional young, excluded from the scientist’s world and its prestige, and standing aside from practical men, especially men of business, who treat them at best with good-natured tolerance and whose power could put them out of existence.

McLuhan the prophet has the answer. He will show us how to understand the young (better than they do themselves) and welcome their contribution to the new world. He can tell the scientists how obsolete their assumptions are and how little they know what they’re doing until McLuhan enlightens them (those “space probes”—pathetically out of date). The business men, especially, if they want to stay in business, had better listen carefully to him and to the artists and learn how to ride the punch of the new technology instead of taking it on the chin (Understanding Media). Far more effective than the simple fantasy of the outsider getting his own back, McLuhan’s later endeavor tacitly conveys to the majority his yearning to be one of them, part of their great world, its prophet in fact, and a prophet who calls them not to repentance but to understanding and acceptance of themselves. Previous spokesmen of the cultural minority never attempted this strategy; they saw the majority simply as a threat to be resisted. McLuhan has the merit of at least seeking a more constructive and mutually tolerant relation between the ordinary public and the intellectual minority.

The Bride, for all its greater sophistication and sparkle, stems in spirit from Leavis and Thompson’s Culture and Environment, which was published the year before McLuhan went to Cambridge and which McLuhan mentions as having influenced him. It was an approach to the problem examined in Mass Civilization and Minority Culture, Leavis’s 1930 pamphlet. That problem is still pressing to Raymond Rosenthal in the analysis with which he skillfully introduces the essays in McLuhan: Pro & Con, in which he claims (and on the whole justly) that “you will encounter only the serious, analytical and personal reasoning of the hemmed-in intellectual network.” Emphasizing what a small minority this is, he goes on: “Yet the truth is that this network is the only one that discusses ideas for their own sake—for its sake, as a matter of fact, since a world that regarded ideas from a purely functional, practical standpoint would be a world in which that already small, beleaguered network no longer existed in any viable and significant form.”

Surely this is unsatisfactorily phrased, and leaves intellectuals more doubtful about themselves than they need be. If the beleaguered network were really discussing ideas for its sake, just to keep itself in existence, it would deserve rather little sympathy. It seems more important to notice that things of the mind are just as “functional” and “practical” as many other things whose practicality is never questioned, for instance the refinements of eating and drinking that go beyond the simple intake needed for bodily maintenance. The editor of an intellectual journal has no less claim to being functional than a restaurateur, a reviewer is as practical as a wine steward, and a writer who makes a modest living out of literature has no more need to feel non-functional in an advanced society than the manufacturer who makes a fortune out of cosmetics. But they are undoubtedly surrounded by a huge majority making propaganda for the sort of enjoyments that, if they were all we had, would be death to the more practiced intellectual and artistic activities. The threat grows more intimidating as the power and technical sophistication of majority propaganda in favor of contentment with majority enjoyments increase.


Critical analysis of mass culture, with resistance to much of it, is therefore necessary, but a hostile cleavage between mass and minority is not. In the last analysis cultural minorities survive because they enjoy at a high level certain things that the majority also enjoys in a less practiced form; and so far there have always been sufficient numbers of the majority who recognize this, at least dimly, to ensure some support for literature and the arts. A cultural minority, after all, must always be recruited from the majority, spiraling up out of it. McLuhan unfortunately became hypnotized by the downward spiral; and the parable of the Maelström carries a doubtful message. Poe’s fisherman survived not simply because he slowed down his descent by acting on detached observation but because the Maelström stopped in time. Unfortunately none of us will outlive the contemporary vortex, and for the later McLuhan release from it is no longer the clear message. He puts the problem plainly enough in the Galaxy: “Western man knows that his values and modalities are the products of literacy. Yet the very means of extending those values, technologically, seem to deny and reverse them….” But faced with this anxiety McLuhan now begins to persuade himself that the situation brings its own reassurance:

Our liberation from the dilemma may, as Joyce felt, come from the new electric technology, with its profound organic character. For the electric puts the mythic or collective dimensions of human experience fully into the conscious wake-a-day world.

This technique of coping with the threat is fatal. L. H. Myers described it long ago in The Near and the Far when his young Prince Jali, dismayed by a glimpse of evil in the world, is told by Hari that in order not to be afraid of this world you must belong to it yourself, or at least pretend to—“Didn’t I tell you once that in a nightmare the way to escape a pursuing tiger is to turn yourself into one?” Myers’s comment comes later when Hari follows his own advice, plunges into the social and political mêlée, failing to keep faith with his serious standards, and ends up with a knife in his back.

McLuhan is the desperate dreamer who has turned himself into a tiger, This in effect is what critic after critic has pointed out, in objecting that McLuhan never indicates clearly what he hopes his maneuver will achieve. Rosenthal rightly complains of McLuhan’s haziness:

…sometimes he seems to be saying that one can maintain a point of view only by getting into the act of electronic disintegration (which would seem to be a contradictory way of behaving, to say the least), and at other times he seems to be saying that the deliquescent and crumbling effect of the mass media will leave the individual no firm ground to stand on.

His ghastly success in turning himself into the tiger is all too clear in his later writing when he borrows the techniques of advertising copy, not to expose them as in the Bride, but to use them as the advertisers do. Notice for instance his factitious heightening of emotion in order to put across an untrue or unproven statement. Speaking of the fact that we see continuous pictures on the TV screen instead of rows of moving dots, he writes, “The TV image requires each instant that we ‘close’ the spaces in the mesh by a convulsive, sensuous participation….” What is “convulsive” doing here? The neural processes on which the impression of a continuous picture depends are unavoidable and automatic; to inhibit them would involve a convulsion in nature. Notice the advertiser’s quasi-hypnotic technique in the following extract (from The Medium Is the Massage) with its repeated emphases and the thumping similarity of sentence structure and rhythm:

In television, images are projected at you. You are the screen. The images wrap around you. You are the vanishing point. This creates a sort of inwardness, a sort of reverse perspective which has much in common with Oriental art.

How could an educated reader possibly swallow this? To take it seriously he must inhibit all questioning, he must not ask how TV differs in this respect from ordinary movies (a point McLuhan has never convincingly established), what it means for an image to “wrap around you,” what “a sort of inwardness” is, or whether in fact perceiving the TV picture is in the least like looking at the reverse perspective of Eastern art.

McLuhan’s repertory includes the politician’s techniques as well as the advertiser’s. Asked by Stearn (McLuhan: Hot & Cool) “Is the Cold War a sensory conflict?”—a perfectly fair question if McLuhan’s assertions are taken seriously—he completely evaded the question in a burst of irrelevant word-spinning that ended with an exaggerated statement of the familiar fact that accent and tone of voice are more important indicators of social background in England than in the US. It was worthy of a political candidate cornered at a press conference.

One bit or another of the hocus-pocus was attacked by critics from the start. Now the most patient, painstaking exposure of the whole illusionist bag of tricks is provided by Mr. Finkelstein, writing for what might be called “the adult education audience”—intelligent, concerned about social issues, and willing to read carefully, but short on formal schooling, glad to have allusions explained, welcoming the full development of arguments with nothing cryptic or taken for granted. One useful chapter, for instance, goes carefully into McLuhan’s use of “hot” and “cool” and demonstrates step by step the untenability of the notion that TV is in any intelligible sense “cool.” Unlike many of McLuhan’s other critics, Mr. Finkelstein is fortunately immune from the temptation to try to scintillate in McLuhan’s own style. The result is pedestrian but clear, and the criticisms are, it seems to me, unanswerable. For those who have not already succumbed to the toxins this book provides reliable immunization.

At a higher level of scholarship and intellectual sophistication, and less simply polemical than Mr. Finkelstein, an admirable long essay by James Carey in McLuhan: Pro & Con examines McLuhan’s intellectual parentage in the work of Harold A. Innis, a political economist, also of Toronto, whose book The Bias of Communication argues that the history of the modern West “is the history of a bias of communication and a monopoly of knowledge founded in print.” Both Innis and McLuhan, says Mr. Carey, assume the central importance of communications technology, but where McLuhan sees its main effects in sensory organization and thought, Innis saw them in social organization and culture.

Mr. Carey’s scholarly and fairminded analysis leads him to conclude, like Mr. Finkelstein, that the effects McLuhan attributes to sensory qualities of the media are in reality the result of social institutions. For Mr. Finkelstein it is clear that business and its associated advertising and entertainment are the institutions mainly involved, and he easily shows how well McLuhan’s ideas suit their problems. Mr. Carey concentrates on the attraction McLuhan has for the individual who is sensitive to ills that the tradition of rationality has not cured. McLuhan, he says, argues “that the reunification of man, the end of his alienation, the restoration of the ‘whole man’ will result from autonomous developments in communications technology. All individuals have to do to be put back in touch with their essential nature is to detach themselves from tradition and submit to the sensory powers of the electronic media.”

The salvation offered has its ominous overtones. Among the rich new developments that McLuhan blandly foresees is the manipulation of peoples in a way that supports Sidney Finkelstein’s suspicion of totalitarian complacencies in his thinking. In Understanding Media, for instance, McLuhan suggested that we are within conceivable range of a world where we might say “We can program twenty more hours of TV in South Africa next week to cool down the tribal temperature raised by radio last week.” Suppose that this is not meant to be more or less innocuous nonsense, suppose that it would work, then who are “we” who would do the programming in this new colonial administration?

We might have hoped for more detailed and developed argument when particular topics were treated within the general system. But about McLuhan in his latest books it is almost enough to repeat the mournful lines on the Prince Consort’s fatal illness at the opening of this age of electric circuitry:

Along the electric wire the mes- sage came:
“He is not better, he is much the same.”

They must be a disappointment to his followers. Here, in discussing war, poetry, and paintings, he neglected the chance to comment effectively on public themes instead of repetitively exercising on his private verbal trapeze.

Through the Vanishing Point is an anthology of poems and reproductions of paintings, with short comments suggested by McLuhan’s theories and drawing attention wherever possible to the treatment of space: “space” being given the most elastic if not unlimited meaning. The opening stanza of The Faerie Queene is quoted, “A Gentle Knight was pricking on the plaine…”, and the authors comment,

The stanza presents action on three planes, two of space and one of time, each one of which is like a single panel, or frame, of a Medieval narrative painting, where there is parataxis rather than linkage.

The vector of the speaker’s voice tends to incline these separate planes toward each other. The preference of the age is in this direction of continuity and connectedness.

Apparently this means that Spenser describes a knight riding across a plain, thus evoking an image of action in three-dimensional space, and indicates something of the knight’s past and future; and since it’s all about one knight the two spatial planes and the time plane are associated, as they would be in many other descriptions. It may remind McLuhan and Parker of a medieval painting in juxtaposed panels, but this seems to be a private association. This commentary on “space” is made at the cost of omitting all reference to the moral, social, and psychological descriptions that Spenser packed into his opening stanza. The main gesture toward creative novelty in the book is the notion that in looking at some paintings the spectator becomes the vanishing point. This is one way of expressing the effect of the reversed perspective of Eastern art on the Western spectator, though whether the habituated Eastern spectator feels the same effect is questionable. The idea is linked with McLuhan’s implausible suggestion that the television viewer is in the same position. So on a reproduction of La Grande Jatte we get the comment, “Painting as light source flips viewer into vanishing point. The Oriental moment of reversal—Seurat prophet of TV.” They find this worth saying about Seurat!

About the causes of war McLuhan’s main assertion, in War and Peace in the Global Village, is that new technologies alter “the order of our sensory lives” and the images we make of ourselves and our world, and this so disturbs our inner lives “that wars necessarily result as misbegotten efforts to recover the old images.” The order of our sensory lives” is completely undefined (in spite of McLuhan’s constant use of this and similar phrases) and there is no indication how it affects our images of ourselves. When he gives an example he quotes the war of 1914 when “the Kaiser protested that Germany had become encircled as a result of the industrial advance of the Slavic peoples. The industrial development of backward countries, such as Hungary and Poland, disturbed the psychic balance and identity image of the Germans.” But this change clearly was institutional and material, a change in the Germans’ relative status and their markets, not in their sensory lives. And if wars necessarily result when the national image is threatened with change, the British, undergoing drastic revisions of their self-image, ought now to be bursting to go to war.

As for peace, McLuhan gives his usual vague hint of hope through passive absorption into the new environment. “Two centuries of mechanical environment had abrased and aborted nearly all human motivation, inspiring a lust for violence as a compensatory feedback. All that is now changing. The world of electric circuitry that is now the normal environment inspires quite opposite responses.” He then demonstrates this by the story of a man who took LSD and felt that life was so precious that his son ought not to go into the army and kill. As if that clinched the argument about electric circuitry McLuhan goes on: “The extreme and pervasive tactility of the new electric environment results from a mesh of pervasive energy that penetrates our nervous system incessantly.” This sounds like an advertiser’s cure for fibrositis. But his command of the limpidly meaningless never fails him.

That such writing can be accepted raises discouraging questions about the reading capacity of the educated public. Tom Wolfe reviewing these last books (in Book World) suggested that people will begin to insist “Start proving it.” That suggestion seems late in the day, but in fact a prior demand is necessary: “Start saying it”—i.e., make a statement sufficiently unambiguous, with terms sufficiently defined, to be capable of proof or disproof. This demand has obviously not been made. Close and questioning attention to an author’s crucial statements has not been established as a habit in many students and the educated readers that students become. In fact, at all levels of education logical thinking is increasingly channeled into scientific and mathematical language. Yet the most momentous social concerns still need clear thinking and expression in ordinary language. There may be more important things in education to which this has to be sacrificed; if so, the McLuhan cult is part of the price to be paid.

McLuhan’s acceptance of his role as a cult figure has meant a lamentable waste of the serious investigation that his development of Innis’s work might have stimulated. Undoubtedly we need to know with much greater certainty and thoroughness what print has done for us and what may be the gains and losses if TV and radio were to reduce their influence in certain fields of discussion or certain sections of society. Not only science but all skeptical inquiry depends on the close examination by many people of the steps leading to a conclusion, and for this a written record is almost a necessity. (McLuhan himself might well have been invulnerable as a purely oral guru, reported by disciples from afar.)

Even in an electronic era there will always be people who think, aided and tested by some form of multiplied record, whether in book form or not; and in the more oral culture which TV may be producing, a still bigger gulf might develop between those who think and those who only accept the outcome of thought. There might also, it is true, be more warmth of social contact, less of the loneliness of thinking independently, less desiccated bureaucratic communication, something of the cosiness suggested by “the global village.” And while the phrase “the global village” suggests vividly one possible outcome of accelerating transport and communication, the real effects are uncertain and depend not on technology but on human choice: the question is not how rapidly and realistically a picture of distant events can be transmitted, but which of the innumerable available events are selected. In particular we can only guess at the effects of telescoping together in TV all the most exciting moments, whether of war, sport, travel, or scientific work, and providing a daily contrast with the relative tedium of unphotographed existence. Again, the greater “tactility” McLuhan finds in TV, though a metaphor masquerading as a statement, may perhaps point toward a greater richness in the viewer’s associated imagery—of texture, consistency, temperature, smell, movement, pain, etc.—than most people get from reading or even perhaps from movies. Whether this really is so we don’t know, nor do we know what its consequences are if it does occur. The subject bristles with questions and the early McLuhan performed a service by insisting on its importance. But the broad questions are unanswerable, in fact unaskable; they need subdividing and defining more closely before they are strictly intelligible as questions. This is what McLuhan’s readers have failed to ask of him.

A second factor, vital to his success, must be his readers’ failure to bring to bear everyday knowledge, general reading, and personal observation on statements in books that claim scholarly status. As students they may instead have relied on assembling the opinions of other writers and seeing if some kind of balance sheet could be drawn up. How in the face of independent common sense could McLuhan get away with, for example, his claim that primitive cultures are oral and auditory and ours is visual? Questionable even in the limited context of the psychiatrist’s article he bases it on, the notion as a generalization is wildly implausible. The American Indians’ skill in tracking, the bedouins’ astonishing capacity for reading camel spoor, these are ordinary instances of the familiar fact that in many habitats the survival of a primitive people depended on constant visual alertness, acute discrimination, and highly trained inference from visual data.

Can any other culture have been more auditory than ours and demanded greater skill in listening to speech—in traffic, at cocktail parties, beside the conveyor belt? Can we be less oral than primitive peoples?—with our conferences, parties, lectures, conventions, committees, telephones, and television. One is left with the truism that we read a lot and preliterates don’t. The implications of that fact are well worth exploring, but we get no help from stories of alteration in some physiologically and psychologically undefined “sensory ratio.” What might have been tentatively welcomed as a first exploratory effort in The Gutenberg Galaxy has small claim for consideration when it is elaborated without being clarified. McLuhan’s glaring incoherences of thought and disregard of everyday observation are not confined to peripheral “probes”; they occur at nodal points of the system. And yet the cult sprang up. Something in our education abets the willing suspension of common sense which a belief in McLuhan requires.

Of course, common sense can never prevail once and for all. Protesting against the acceptance of Browning as a prophet or a philosopher, Santayana remarked (and to the Boston Browning Society):

Awakening may be mistaken for enlightenment, and the galvanizing of torpid sensations and impulses for wisdom. Against such fatuity reason should raise her voice. The vital and historic forces that produce illusions of this sort in large groups of men are indeed beyond the control of criticism. They must be allowed to fight out their desperate battle against the laws of nature and reason. But it is worth while, in the meantime, for the sake of the truth and of a just philosophy, to meet the varying though perpetual charlatanism of the world with a steady protest.

Of charlatanism, in the sense of deliberate trickery, McLuhan need not be suspected; feeling threatened by the civilization of which he is inescapably part, he so eagerly welcomed the reassurance offered by his prophetic vision that the sleights of mind producing it escaped his notice.

This Issue

January 2, 1969