There was no longer a single thing in [the] environment that was not interesting [...] “Even if it’s some place I don’t find congenial, like a dull movie or a nightclub, I’m busy perceiving patterns,” he once told a reporter. A street sign, a building, a sports car — what, he would ask himself and others, did these things mean?
—Philip Marchand, Marshall McLuhan:
The Medium and the Messenger
The public intellectual was invented in the mid-20th century. Certainly there were others before that who started the ball rolling — talented writers and academics with flexible, open minds taking the whole culture into account, trying to make sense of things as they were happening — but few of them penetrated far beyond the walls of the academy or the confines of some other single discipline. We might count Bertrand Russell as an early prototype, with his prominence in pacifist circles and campaigns against nuclear disarmament, or better still G.B. Shaw, an autodidact of boundless energy who cofounded the London School of Economics and also helped popularize Jaeger’s “sanitary” woolen undies. Until Al Gore came along, Shaw was the only person to have won both a Nobel Prize and an Oscar.
Both Russell and Shaw gained a great deal of influence outside their own spheres of work, but remained above it all, too; they were “authorities” who might be called on to offer their views to the public on this topic or that. But it was a devoutly Catholic, rather conservative Canadian academic who first succeeded in breaking down every barrier there was in the intensity of his effort to understand, interpret, and influence the world. Marshall McLuhan was quite possibly the first real public intellectual. That wide-ranging role having once been instantiated, others came to fill it, in ever-increasing numbers.
Though he was an ordinary English prof by trade, McLuhan’s work had measurable effects on the worlds of art, business, politics, advertising and broadcasting. He appeared on the cover of Newsweek and had office space at Time. Tom Wolfe took him to a “topless restaurant” and wrote about him for New York magazine (“What If He is Right?”). He was consulted by IBM and General Motors, and he coined the phrase, “Turn on, tune in, drop out,” according to Timothy Leary. He made the Canadian Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau, shave off his beard.
In 1969, McLuhan gave one of the most revealing and best interviews Playboy ever published (a high bar, there.)
PLAYBOY: Have you ever taken LSD yourself?
McLUHAN: No, I never have. I’m an observer in these matters, not a participant. I had an operation last year to remove a tumor that was expanding my brain in a less than pleasant manner, and during my prolonged convalescence I’m not allowed any stimulant stronger than coffee. Alas! A few months ago, however, I was almost “busted” on a drug charge. On a plane returning from Vancouver, where a university had awarded me an honorary degree, I ran into a colleague who asked me where I’d been. “To Vancouver to pick up my LL.D.,” I told him. I noticed a fellow passenger looking at me with a strange expression, and when I got off the plane at Toronto Airport, two customs guards pulled me into a little room and started going over my luggage. “Do you know Timothy Leary?” one asked. I replied I did and that seemed to wrap it up for him. “All right,” he said. “Where’s the stuff? We know you told somebody you’d gone to Vancouver to pick up some LL.D.” After a laborious dialog, I persuaded him that an LL.D. has nothing to do with consciousness expansion — just the opposite, in fact — and I was released.
Until the mid-century, there was a wall between what we now call popular culture and the “high culture” of the rich and educated, and there was another wall, at least as thick, between popular and academic discourse. Cracks had begun to appear by the 1930s, when the Marxist theorists of the Frankfurt School began to take on the subject of mass culture, culminating in works such as Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception (1944). These academics saw popular culture as a positive evil, though, undermining the chances of revolution; a new kind of “opiate of the masses.” Later critics such as Edward Shils and Herbert J. Gans would elaborate on the same themes. But none of these writers personally ID’d with mass culture in any way. Far from it. Indeed Shils said in 1959: “Some people dislike the working classes more than the middle classes, depending on their political backgrounds. But the real fact is that from an esthetic and moral standpoint, the objects of mass culture are repulsive to us.” To some degree, that academic standoffishness is with us even today. The sneering of the “high” for the “low”.
Marshall McLuhan’s first book, The Mechanical Bride: The Folklore of Industrial Man, was published in 1951, and it took a quite different approach to the task of lifting the veil of mass culture in order to expose the workings beneath. The chief difference was that McLuhan never saw or really even acknowledged that wall between the critic of culture and the culture itself. After all, he too was a human being, a citizen, a reader of newspapers and magazines. McLuhan’s critique took place from the inside.
“[B]eing highbrow, in McLuhan’s eyes, never conferred the slightest moral value on anything,” observed his biographer, Philip Marchand.
McLuhan’s student Walter J. Ong wrote magnificently on this theme in his essay, “McLuhan as Teacher: The Future Is a Thing of the Past,” published in the Sept. 1981 Journal of Communication.
When [McLuhan] did attend to [...] popular works, as in his first book, The Mechanical Bride (1951), it was to invest them with high seriousness. He showed that such things as advertising and comic strips were in their own way as deeply into certain cyclonic centers of human existence — sex, death, religion, and the human-technology relationship — as was the most “serious” art, though both naively and meretriciously. However, awareness of the facts here was neither naive nor meretricious; it was upsetting and liberating.
Marshall Soules of Malaspina University-College had this comment on the “high seriousness” with which McLuhan treated popular works:
It is this strategic stance which distinguishes McLuhan from many media critics — like those associated with the Frankfurt or Birmingham Schools, or like Neil Postman, Mark Miller, Stewart Ewen and others — whose views imply an idealized literate culture corrupted by popular, commercialised, and manipulative media. McLuhan used his training as a literary critic to engage in a dialogue with the media from the centre of the maelstrom.
The Mechanical Bride consists of a selection of advertisements with essays and captions attached.
“Where did you see that bug-eyed romantic of action before?
Was it in a Hemingway novel?
Is the news world a cheap suburb for the artist’s bohemia?
— from The Mechanical Bride
The playful and wide-ranging tone of The Mechanical Bride was entirely new, given that its intentions were as serious as a heart attack. McLuhan thought that the manipulative characteristics of advertising might be resisted once they were understood. “It was, if anything, a critique of an entire culture, an exhilarating tour of the illusions behind John Wayne westerns, deodorants, and Buick ads. The tone of McLuhan’s essays was not without an occasional hint of admiration for the skill of advertisers and capturing the anxieties and appetites of that culture,” Marchand wrote.
The Mechanical Bride was way too far ahead of its time, selling only a few hundred copies, but that was okay because the author was just warming up. McLuhan had found the voice and style of inquiry that he would employ for the rest of his career. In the Playboy interview he said, “I consider myself a generalist, not a specialist who has staked out a tiny plot of study as his intellectual turf and is oblivious to everything else [...] Only by standing aside from any phenomenon and taking an overview can you discover its operative principles and lines of force.”
This inclusiveness, the penetrating, metaphorical free-for-all investigative method that appeared in McLuhan’s first book would gain him increasing admiration, as an understanding of the “rearview mirror view” of the world he used to talk about gained currency: “[A]n environment becomes fully visible only when it has been superseded by a new environment; thus we are always one step behind in our view of the world [...] The present is always invisible because it’s environmental and saturates the whole field of attention so overwhelmingly; thus everyone but the artist, the man of integral awareness, is alive in an earlier day.”
Because he refused to put himself on a pedestal, because everything was of interest to him, McLuhan was able to join the wires of pure academic curiosity with the vast cultural output of the mid-century to create an explosion of insights (or a “galaxy”, I should say) that is still incandescent with possibility a half-century later. Simply by taking the whole of society as a fit subject for serious discourse, he unshackled the intellectuals from their first-class seats, and they have been quite free to roam about the cabin of culture ever since.
As his books were published, McLuhan’s influence continued to spread through high culture and low. He loved being interviewed and would talk his head off to practically anyone, about the Symbolist poets and about Joyce, about car advertisements and cuneiform. You might say that he embraced the culture, and the culture embraced him right back. The Smothers Brothers loved him, and so did Glenn Gould and Goldie Hawn, Susan Sontag, John Lennon and Woody Allen. (Apropos of the latter, McLuhan very much enjoyed doing the famous cameo in Annie Hall, though he had, characteristically, his own ideas about what his lines ought to have been, and a “sharp exchange” occurred between Allen and himself. McLuhan’s most famous line in the movie, “You know nothing of my work,” is in fact one that he had long employed in real life as a put-down of opponents in debate.)
An aside: In 1977, Woody Allen was very far from being the grand old man of cinema that he is now. He had yet to win an Oscar, and had at that time directed only extremely goofy comedies. It was a mark of McLuhan’s willingness to get out there and try stuff, his total unpretentiousness, that he went along with the idea of being in a Woody Allen film. Only imagine any of today’s intellectuals being asked, say, to appear in an Apatow comedy. Would Noam Chomsky do it? Jürgen Habermas? Slavoj Zizek? (Well, Zizek might.)
Even better was Henry Gibson’s recurring two-line poem about McLuhan on the U.S. television show Laugh-In:
What are you doin’?
Last year, I briefly attended the Modern Language Association conference in Los Angeles, met a number of eminent English scholars, and attended some of their presentations on Wordsworth and Derrida and on the development of that new, McLuhanesque-sounding discipline, the digital humanities. What I wished most, when I left the conference, was that these fascinating theorists were not all locked away behind the walls of the academy, and that anyone could come and enjoy their talks. The McLuhan manner of appearing anywhere he found interesting, which is to say all over the place, instead of just during office hours, does not diminish serious academics or writers: It enlarges them.
Is this, when it comes down to it, a mere matter of shyness? Or is it a matter of professional dignity, of amour-propre? The academy has so much to contribute to the broader culture; huge numbers of non-academics, I feel sure, would enjoy a great deal of what they have to say, and perhaps vice-versa. But somehow I find it difficult to imagine most of the academics I know agreeing to visit a topless restaurant with Tom Wolfe (on the record, at least). I hope, though, that they will consider venturing out to try such things more and more, and that today’s Wolfes will feel emboldened to ask them, and that the culture indeed becomes more egalitarian, blurrier, “retribalized” as McLuhan seemed to believe it would.
Personally, I have a great faith in the resiliency and adaptability of man, and I tend to look to our tomorrows with a surge of excitement and hope.
— from the 1969 Playboy interview