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McLuhan 100: A McLuhanesque Bio

Gregory E. Reynolds

Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work! by Douglas Coupland. New York: Atlas, 2010, 216 pages, $24.00.

Written in the style of a McLuhanesque collage or mosaic, while at the same time in biographically chronological order, Coupland's tribute, I think, would have been appreciated by McLuhan. It captures a great deal of the man, his life, and his thought. Coupland is the author of a dozen novels and a visual artist, thus sharing many of the sensibilities that colored McLuhan's unusual and brilliant career. He mimics the 1967 hit The Medium Is the Massage[1] and The Gutenberg Galaxy,[2] a 279-page continuous text with only three clever interval markers, based on keyboard commands ... return / ...command ...shift / ...escape ...control. So, predictably, there is no index.

McLuhan was truly anomalous, considered a media devotee in the sixties, while despising electronic media. He did not own a TV or a car, attended mass daily, and yet in the sixties was on the cutting edge of cultural change. How can we explain such a man? Woody Allen famously includes McLuhan in a cameo appearance in his 1977 film Annie Hall. In it McLuhan tells a Columbia professor who teaches a course in "TV, Media, and Culture": "You know nothing of my work. You mean my whole fallacy is wrong. How you got to teach a course in anything is totally amazing." Hence the subtitle of Coupland's biography. Remarkably, I was able to find this on YouTube almost instantly. And, McLuhan foresaw this almost half a century before it happened. Did you catch the irony of McLuhan's retort, "you mean my whole fallacy is wrong"? Herein lies his genius, the brilliance of his probes and puns. The photographic montage, The Medium Is the Massage, ends tellingly with an Alan Dunn cartoon from The New Yorker Magazine (1966), in a library. That is where McLuhan's media criticism began.

Marshaling the Tools

McLuhan's mother, Elsie, was a cosmopolitan with a dramatic flair and an "emotional yo-yo," while his father was easy going and erudite (24-25); both were autodidacts (30). While Marshall struggled with his early education, he was a "born debating machine, able to demolish pretty much anyone in his orbit" (29, 36). He loved serious subjects, especially "English literature, history, and theology," and went on to graduate with a BA in liberal arts from the University of Manitoba (31).

While disliking the modern world, McLuhan "hungered for a framework to make sense of the modern world" (38). It was at Cambridge University, after a trying and unsatisfying attempt at teaching in Canada, that he came into his own intellectually. He discovered a kind of soul mate in the writings of G. K. Chesterton and learned a new form of literary criticism known as the New Criticism, which focused on the verbal structure, rather than the social and authorial background, of texts (42-45). It is here that McLuhan developed his already keen ability at pattern recognition. Professor F. R. Leavis was the first to encourage McLuhan to apply this skill to the real world (44). After achieving only second class honors at Cambridge for his second BA, he took a position at the University of Wisconsin as a teaching assistant (57). A year later, after his conversion to Catholicism, he took a position as full instructor at Saint Louis University, completing his Cambridge doctoral thesis in 1939 after a year of study in the UK (he received his DPhil in 1943). Finally after a brief and unhappy stint at Windsor's Assumption College, McLuhan ends up at his final academic institution, St. Michael's, the Catholic college at the University of Toronto (215).

McLuhan's doctoral thesis was on the sixteenth-century English satirist, rhetorician, and critic Thomas Nashe (68). It was through the, what might at first blush seem unlikely, study of the history of rhetoric that McLuhan eventually launched into a career in media criticism (74). His study of the ways in which rhetoric effected civilizations transformed into the study of the ways in which all communication media influence human consciousness and culture.

Making the Tools Speak

McLuhan sought to shock us into an awareness of our environment. Two of his main ideas have become clichés that have branded McLuhan: "the global village" and "the medium is the message" (12-13). But long before this, his broad cultural criticism began in the area of advertising and the mass culture it promotes. During the 1940s, several influences gave further direction to McLuhan's analytical instincts. The Swiss architectural historian Sigfried Giedion, author of Space, Time, and Architecture: The Growth of a New Tradition (1941), and Mechanization Takes Command (1948), "gave McLuhan intellectual permission to study not just novels, films, and poems, but everything." (95-96).

Then there was Harold Innes, who became McLuhan's colleague in 1946, when McLuhan came to Toronto. Innes's studies of the Canadian fur trade and railroad led him to understand how transportation technologies alter human communities. Before his untimely death in 1952, he concluded that print and radio "reorder human notions of time and space" (102). Coupland also discusses the influences of Wyndham Lewis, Hugh Kenner, Ezra Pound, and James Joyce, to name a few. Especially important is the mark made by Joyce's Finnegan's Wake (1939) on McLuhan's understanding of the effects of electronic media on human consciousness and culture, a "harmful disruption of the balance of senses used in daily life" (109-10).

He noticed that "the strategies used to promote tyrants were being used to promote laundry soap" (78). This resulted in the ground-breaking analysis of his first book, The Mechanical Bride, in 1951 (110-15). The book represents the last time McLuhan would emphasize content. Henceforth the medium is the message.

In 1953, McLuhan and colleague Ted Carpenter received a generous grant from the Behavioral Science division of the Ford Foundation. The resulting seminars were a huge success due to the American postwar interest in "renegotiating its relationship with technology" (119). The foundations for notoriety were being laid.

McLuhan's Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) catapulted him into celebrity status in the sixties by demonstrating "how a given medium shapes the environment in which it operates ... how various media shift our brains' focus between visual and acoustic space" (120-21).

Because McLuhan now took the stance of a descriptive observer of media, rather than a critic of its content, the people thought he was a cheerleader for the new media (122). He really thought of himself as "an artist ... on the frontiers of perception" (123), an idea promulgated by Ezra Pound. Like the fishermen in Poe's "A Descent into the Maelström" (1841), to survive the ocean vortex one must observe the patterns of its forces and act accordingly. Hidden in this uncharted sea of McLuhan's words (and leaving the false impression of uncritical enthusiasm about the electronic environment) are these startling, but almost entirely ignored, words: "Far from belittling the Gutenberg mechanical culture, it seems to me that we must work to retain its achieved values" (140).[3]

At the apex of his popularity, the University of Toronto allowed McLuhan to establish the Centre for Culture and Technology in 1963 (144). Then, just as the counterculture exploded onto the scene, he published Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man in 1964. In it he explored the sensory manipulation of electronic media in a more clearly organized way (146).[4] Now comes the concept of the "global village" made possible by media transcendence over space and time, "retribalizing" modern man (148); and the catch phrase "the medium is the message." Again, while thinking he approved of the global village, the public missed his real attitude, "When people get close to each other, they get more and more savage, impatient with each other ... the global village is a place of very arduous interfaces and abrasive situations" (163).

He made the cover of Time magazine (151). By the time he published The Medium Is the Massage in 1967, the cliché had become common cultural lingo, so McLuhan punned off of his own cliché (156). In that same year he was named the Albert Schweitzer Professor of the Humanities at Fordham University (156). But, in the same year, he had brain surgery to remove a tumor (he had a stroke in 1960) that proved a turning point, reducing his mental powers (158-9).

Coupland only briefly covers one of the more helpful concepts in McLuhan's thought. The electronic environment tends to disincarnate man. McLuhan was vehemently anti-gnostic. Electronic media tends to disconnect people from their bodies and the global village tends toward a loss of identity (176-77). McLuhan's anthropology is rooted in conservative Thomistic theology, a fact Coupland almost totally ignores. For this reason McLuhan cannot, as he often is, be categorized as a technological determinist. He believed that man as imago dei can choose to resist the worst tendencies of the modern world. "There is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is willingness to contemplate what is happening."[5] While Coupland understands that McLuhan is not a determinist, he doesn't know why.

Call it religion or call it optimism, but hope, for Marshall, lay in the fact that humans are social creatures first, and that our ability to express intelligence and build civilizations stems from our inherent social needs as individuals. (165)

One of my chief quarrels with this otherwise excellent biography is that Coupland does not pay enough attention to the religious dimension of McLuhan's thought, although he does report that all of the McLuhan family "agreed to some extent on Christianity's larger strokes" (32), and that he had early influences from Methodist and Baptist churches. In his mid thirties he converted to a highbrow brand of Catholicism while at Cambridge University. Coupland comes closest to the truth on this subject when he observes:

To him, Protestant-themed religions meant cheap houses, billboards, spraying dirt ditches with pesticides for thirty cents an hour—plus the absence of most forms of high culture. Catholicism offered Rome! History! Art! Beauty! Ritual! But most of all, it allowed Marshall a spot to park his overpowering need for a viewpoint that could explain, or perhaps heal, the stress and disjointedness he saw in the world. (46)

McLuhan himself claimed that his Christianity was at the center of his media ecology.

That McLuhan's religious convictions were essential to his Media Ecology is clear from his own correspondence. In a 1973 letter to Allen Maruyama McLuhan observed: "At one time, when I was first becoming interested in the Catholic Church, I studied the entire work of G. K. Chesterton and the entire group from the pre-Raphaelites and Cardinal Newman through to Christ opher Dawson and Eric Gill. All of this really is involved in my media study, but doesn't appear at all." To Joe Keogh he wrote in 1970: "Am enclosing Father Johnstone's piece. He's the first to notice that my approach to media is metaphysical rather than sociological or dialectical."[6]

That "Christ is the medium and the message" is a precept only "visible to babes, but not to sophisticates."[7] McLuhan declared: "Christianity proclaims its communication theory loud and clear. Every aspect of the Christian thing is communication and change and transformation."[8]

Coupland also spends a bit too much time speculating about the possibility of a mild autism explaining some of McLuhan's eccentricities (48-55). The speculation appears as a thread throughout the narrative.

How Does McLuhan Speak to Us Today?

Coupland sums up Marshall's thought nicely when he interprets his thought thus,

Although he never phrased it as such, it was the irreconcilability of the world with the afterworld that generated the contradictions that defined much of Marshall's career. On the one hand, technology was a bauble played within the mortal coil. It was not worthy of the respect accorded religion. On the other hand, it was a transformative agent for the mind and for society. (47)

Just as McLuhan sought to shock his readers and hearers into an awareness of our environment, preachers must seek to awaken people to the environment, not just of modernity, but of the world as it is since the fall of Adam. The electronic environment tends to weave a subtle, but enslaving web around us, slowly, silently cutting us off from the possibility of taking flight to another world. "Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you... . So then, let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober" (Eph. 5:14; 1 Thess. 5:6).


[1] Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore, The Medium Is the Massage (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967).

[2] Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1962).

[3] McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy, 135.

[4] Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1964).

[5] Gregory Reynolds, The Word Is Worth a Thousand Pictures: Preaching in the Electronic Age (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2001), 169.

[6] Reynolds, The Word Is Worth a Thousand Pictures, 165, quoting W. Terrence Gordon, Marshall McLuhan: Escape into Understanding, A Biography (New York: BasicBooks, 1997), 75, emphasis added, cf. fn. 373.

[7] Ibid., quoting Hubert Hoskins, "Electric Consciousness and the Church," in George Sanderson and Frank Macdonald, eds., Marshall McLuhan: The Man and His Message (Golden, CO: Fulcrum, Inc., 1989), 162. For an analysis of McLuhan's thought see Reynolds, The Word Is Worth a Thousand Pictures, 108-20; 161-70.

[8] Marshall McLuhan, Letters of Marshall McLuhan, eds. M. Molinaro, C. McLuhan, and W. Toye (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1987), 467-68 (letter to Barbara Ward, Feb. 9, 1973).

Gregory E. Reynolds serves as the pastor of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Manchester, New Hampshire, and is the editor of Ordained Servant. Ordained Servant Online, December 2011.

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