Marx, Freud, and … McLuhan

Just wanted to pass along Jeet Heer’s piece, “Divine Inspiration” in The Walrus, on Marshall McLuhan, his legacy, and his Catholicism.  Excerpts below.  Click through for the whole piece which is not long at all.

  • It’s a measure of McLuhan’s ability to recalibrate the intellectual universe that in this debate, [Norman] Mailer — a Charlie Sheen–style roughneck with a history of substance abuse, domestic violence, and public mental breakdowns — comes across as the voice of sobriety and sweet reason. Mailer once observed that McLuhan “had the fastest brain of anyone I have ever met, and I never knew whether what he was saying was profound or garbage.”
  • Indeed, his faith made him a more ambitious and far-reaching thinker. Belonging to a Church that gloried in cathedrals and stained glass windows made him responsive to the visual environment, and liberated him from the textual prison inhabited by most intellectuals of his era. The global reach and ancient lineage of the Church encouraged him to frame his theories as broadly as possible, to encompass the whole of human history and the fate of the planet. The Church had suffered a grievous blow in the Gutenberg era, with the rise of printed Bibles leading to the Protestant Reformation. This perhaps explains McLuhan’s interest in technology as a shaper of history. More deeply, the security he felt in the promise of redemption allowed him to look unflinchingly at trends others were too timid to notice.
  • Like Marx and Freud, he was an intellectual agitator, a conceptual mind expander, the yeast in the dough. After Marx, we can no longer ignore the reality of class difference; after Freud, we can’t pretend that our mental life isn’t saturated with sexual impulses; after McLuhan, we can’t imagine that technology is just a neutral tool. Moreover, like Darwin and Marx, McLuhan is no longer just one man but rather a living and evolving body of thought.

A few months ago I posted a link to a YouTube clip of the Mailer/McLuhan debate here, and here is a piece on Chesterton’s influence on McLuhan.

Incidentally, while pairing McLuhan with the likes of Marx, Darwin, and Freud is in some respects incongruous, what they do have in common is an awareness, sometimes overplayed, of the external forces shaping and influencing human thought  and personality.  What may set McLuhan apart on this score is his unwillingness to slide into determinism:

“There is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening.”  — Marshall McLuhan, The Medium is the Massage

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