Right Thinkers #3: Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980)
Marshall McLuhan is remembered as a Canadian sixties prophet who famously remarked that “the medium is the message” and foretold of the coming of the “global village.” His image floated around the sixties’ mediascape along with the images of countercultural prophets like Andy Warhol, Timothy Leary and John Lennon. There was something different about McLuhan, however: he was too detached, too conservative in appearance, and too hesitant to celebrate the new values of the counterculture. He was thrilled and fascinated by the intense sense of cultural liberation and social connection that new media had facilitated, but he had nothing positive to say about the evils that came with it: ‘free love,’ recreational drug use, the widespread use of birth control, and the revolt against traditional family structures. Morally, he was content to remain something of an enigma.
Anyone who looks into McLuhan’s intellectual roots will find that he was not the counterculture prophet he seemed to be. His greatest intellectual debts are owed to some the most ‘reactionary’ of the modernist authors: Wyndham Lewis, Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. He was a Catholic convert and remained devout, and many of his intellectual points of reference are from the Catholic and neo-Thomist thought of the 1930s and 40s. While there has been a persistent tendency to classify McLuhan as a liberal (although certainly not a leftist, given that his work pays no serious attention to Marx), a small number of critics have worked to reveal McLuhan’s hidden rightism.
Grant Havers, in “The right-wing postmodernism of Marshall McLuhan” attempts to portray McLuhan as a postmodern conservative in the tradition of Leo Strauss. He does not mention Strauss explicitly, but he references Shadia Drury’s work on Strauss and the Straussians and clearly situates McLuhan as being in agreement with the essence of Strauss’s teaching: “Recalling Drury, the right-wing postmodernists agree with their leftist counterparts that myth is indeed fiction, not truth, but the former also believe that myths are indispensable and must be preserved for the sake of a greater political purpose. McLuhan surely agreed with this view, since he believed that the young consciously and enthusiastically fill roles that the new myths of the global village provide in abundance” (520). McLuhan certainly believed in the cultural power of myth. I have never, however, come across any evidence that McLuhan saw cultural myths as purely historical constructions with no basis in unchanging, trans-historical truths. This would have conflicted with his Catholicism, which harnesses myth as a means of expressing the truth. Straussianism involves the manipulation of myth for the benefit of philosophers, and comes close to moral relativism.
Mark Krupnick, in a paper which is ostensibly a review essay on a McLuhan biography, comes much closer to the real McLuhan in his response to those who would portray McLuhan as a postmodernist of any kind: “Against the view of cyberspace types disposed to thinking that history is bunk . . . , I would argue for a view of McLuhan as a belated modernist who was hoping that the new science might be used to reverse the effects of Gutenberg technology, thereby restoring us to the unified oral world of the Catholic Middle Ages” (113). I prefer to see McLuhan in this light. He identified print culture with the modern sensibility, and saw in the oral culture of new media the possibility of a revival of both the thought of the ancients and of the Catholic Church. The Thomist conception of the good or just life as the teleological realization of potentialities contained in human nature is not incompatible with McLuhan’s ideas on media. In the same way that, according to McLuhan, the different types of media function as extensions of the human senses, they could also function as aids to the further realization of human potentialities. Through new media, humanity could flourish in the Thomist sense on a monumental scale.
The question is: why did McLuhan hide his moralism? His first book, The Mechanical Bride (1951), displays elements of a conservative or Catholic moral critique, but this is largely absent in his subsequent works. Most likely, McLuhan’s genial public persona was derived from that of the not-so-genial Wyndham Lewis, McLuhan’s onetime friend and mentor (when Lewis was living in Canada during Word War II). Lewis, like McLuhan after him, explored modern culture and formed radical theories about where it was going, but avoided moralistic criticism, despite his attraction to the Catholic Church.
Perhaps if McLuhan had been more forthright regarding his moral opinions, media studies would not have been overrun by the now-ubiquitous French theory and its offshoots. Maybe it is not too late: a little Thomism could still do wonders for reinvigorating media studies and cultural studies in general.
Havers, Grant. “The right-wing postmodernism of Marshall McLuhan.” Media, Culture & Society 25.4 (2003): 511-25.
Krupnick, Mark. “Marshall McLuhan Revisited: Media Guru as Catholic Modernist.” Rev. of Marshall McLuhan, Escape into Understanding: A Biography, by W. Terrence Gordon. Modernism/modernity 5.3 (1998): 107-22.