McLuhan & The Messiah: The Ultimate Extension of Man

McLuhan & The Messiah: The Ultimate Extension of Man

Marshall McLuhan

Marshall McLuhan

  Canadian media philosopher, Herbert Marshall McLuhan’s paradigm shifting text, Understanding Media: The Extensions Of Man (1964) firmly established the enigmatic author as a founding figure in the study of media. Despite his many detractors in the scientific community, crowd-pleasing tenets such as “the medium is the message” and the global village cemented the McLuhan mythos and his fashionable dogma, coined “McLuhanisms,” in the historical ledger of the media conscious public.

   An expert of what he dubbed “putting people on,” i.e. the act of teasing or misleading others, he commanded a firm grasp on wordplay and its promotional effectiveness. The well-educated son of Elsie Hall, an elocutionist, McLuhan employed a mastery of the English language alongside an all-encompassing awareness of the effects of print, radio, and television mediums on public “sense perception ratios” (locally and collectively) to craft a mainstream secular narrative – which, for the most part, is a very terrestrial examination of the effects of media on mankind. This, had no less the result of raising McLuhan’s own public profile in the 1960’s, but also highlighted The High Priest of Pop Cult’s most explicit and intentionally controversial maxims (Steinberg 280).  

  Successfully thrust into the zeitgeist of the mid-twentieth century, McLuhan’s musings on the age of electric media lend themselves to his concept of an ever-increasing complexity of human consciousness called the global village; a theorem not unlike the Vatican-censored observations of Jesuit scholar and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and his theologically determinist concept of the noosphere-the inevitable evolution of mankind towards a singular, global consciousness. A total field view of McLuhan’s mercurial musings reveals a devout Catholic veiled by the public persona of a brilliant scholar. Consistently paradoxical, McLuhan portrayed himself as the objective observer, yet both his celebrity status and authorship of best selling, futurist works paint a contradictory picture in juxtaposition to his own popular narrative. For if “the medium is the message”, then surely McLuhan himself is the messenger. 

 “The truth shall set you free.” (Holy Bible: King James Version, John 8:32)  McLuhan’s final missive (engraved on his headstone) speaks to his flock from beyond the grave. Though poignant in death, the purpose of McLuhan’s ecclesiastical meditations that underscore his immortal body of work is most visible through the lens of his life. McLuhan was raised steadfastly Baptist with his family in Winnipeg, yet as a boy he found himself disinterested in the tenets of Protestantism. Contrarily, in the early 1930’s, a period that would influence the remainder of his life, McLuhan fell to the written influence of author G.K Chesterton-cementing his deliberate conversion to Catholicism. Thereafter, in the eyes of McLuhan, God was everywhere. To McLuhan, God was inevitable. In a letter to his younger brother, Maurice, dated within a year of his Baptism in 1937, McLuhan states, “To explain reality is to unfold...the ground of everything which is real - which is God. So to explain is to reveal or expose God (qtd. in Hsu).”

    If the act of explanation is Biblical revelation, then the whole of McLuhan’s published canon after his conversion to Catholicism is an expert attempt at exposing God to the masses. Having noted the adverse response to the religious insinuations of Teilhard de Chardin, whom he quoted in The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962), McLuhan opted for an indirect approach as he expanded upon the evangelical concepts of his pseudo-secular predecessor. Thus, the religious implications of McLuhan’s work are seldom readily apparent in his written compositions. This was not unintentional on McLuhan’s part, in a letter to an American colleague, Edward T. Hall, he remarked, “I deliberately keep Christianity out of all these discussions lest perception be diverted from structural processes by doctrinal sectarian passions. My own attitude to Christianity is, itself, awareness of process (qtd. in Hsu).” McLuhan was aware of the import of this edict as early as his first work in 1936, G.K. Chesterton: A Practical Mystic; revealing that, “All profound truth, philosophical and spiritual, makes game with appearances, yet without really contradicting common sense (qtd. in Hsu).” Employing his own observations, McLuhan knew that by altering the packaging of his pronouncements (content), his message would remain intact. The message, independent of the medium (himself), has the lasting impact.

   Upon first glance it’s quite easy to miss the true meaning of the mystic’s message. Look once more and witness a myriad of clues that reveal McLuhan’s intent.  A keen eye will note the religious subtext in McLuhan’s message as he warns against man’s worship of the false idolatry of technology. In Understanding Media, McLuhan references The Book of Psalm, Chapter 115, in the same breath as William Blake when he writes, “…we become what we behold (33).” Famously, the first verse of Psalm 115 (removed from the text) proclaims, “…but unto thy name [God] give glory.” It is no coincidence that the entirety of Chapter 115 in The Book of Psalm is a declaration of the psalmist’s faithfulness in a time of man’s blasphemous turn to the earthly gods made real by their own hands. McLuhan maintained his objectivity in the public’s eye, yet neutrality is a difficult defense when quoting the literal “Word of God” to punctuate opinion.

  The cornerstone of McLuhan’s laic message controversially asserts, “Our conventional response to all media, namely that it is how it is used that counts, is the numb stance of the technological idiot(UM 32).” In response to the Toynbee’s misguided discourse regarding the lack of societal effects of the industrial age on East Asian societies, McLuhan pointedly counters, “The operation of the money medium in seventeenth-century Japan had effects not unlike the operation of typography in the West… Money has reorganized the sense of life of peoples just because it is an extension of our sense lives. This change does not depend upon approval or disapproval of those living in the society (UM 33).”  He reiterates, The effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinions or concepts, but alter the sense ratios or patterns of perception steadily and without any resistance (UM 33).” 

   According to McLuhan, it is the personal and social consequences of any technology that results from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by the medium itself; opposed to the widespread “misperception” of the importance of the “content” (what it produces) or what any new technology is used for. Dependant upon the rate of scale of adoption-which he measured as “hot” (static) or “cool” (dynamic) media; a retribalization of the affected man occurs-often alongside a detribalization of others who find themselves unable to adapt to the new values and assumptions created by this new environment.

   McLuhan observed that, “The technological assumptions of Western society… place an undue burden on those who encounter it who are unable to adopt & conform to literary standard – thereby causing trauma to those who cannot; upending society on the whole (UM 31).” This “massacre of the innocents” is what McLuhan saw as the greatest social danger of media (UM 31). However, McLuhan saw man’s struggle with technology not only as a societal problem, but an individual one as well. The term “sense perception ratios” is used to represent the physiological (personal) parts of the body: the nervous system, the foot, the organs, as well as the parts of the collective body of man (social).

   McLuhan saw the individual body’s response to the “shock” of technology as a “numbing” or “self-amputation (UM 52).” He felt the technical numbing of the individual led to a collective numbness in society’s response to the effects of new media. One such consequence is the illusion of control over media and man’s obsession with content; a narcotic, coping response that leads man to self-amputate (detribalize) in an act that “forbids self-recognition (awareness/ consciousness).”

    Alongside his faith, perhaps it was the call of Pope Pius XII that emboldened McLuhan: It is not an exaggeration to say that the future of modern society and the stability of its inner life depend in large part on the maintenance of an equilibrium between the strength of the techniques of communication and the capacity of the individual’s own reaction (UM 34).” His task was set. Having studied the aftershock of man’s narcosis during the fragmented industrial age and use of Gutenberg’s technology that detribalized all too many parts of its own society, McLuhan warned of a more disconcerting threat in the sequence as information moved toward “the greatest of all reversals” – electric speed. “Electric Speed mingles the cultures of prehistory with the dregs of industrial marketers, the non-literate with the semiliterate and the post-literate (UM 32).” He cautioned that, “We are no more prepared to encounter radio and TV in our literature milieu than the native of Ghana is able to cope with the literacy that takes him out of his collective tribal world and beaches him in individual isolation (UM 33).”

    McLuhan saw the personal effects of electric speed equally as alarming. He defined the new media as man’s extension of his own central nervous system. He further admonishes that this development is a desperate and suicidal “auto-amputation” in response to the super-stimulation of the senses caused by the mechanized age and the invention of printing in secession. That is to say, man’s metaphorical attempt to protect the central nervous system by placing the consciousness outside of the body (similar to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s noosphere) as the organs could (or should) no longer be relied upon to guard against the “trauma” of new technologies.

   McLuhan equates technology’s influence on man as a disease, the “syndrome of being sick.” “If this is true…” McLuhan asks, “…how is it possible to present the matter to those who are in a position to do something about it? (UM Ch 7)” He claims that the electric age allows not only the instant spread of misinformation, but also knowledge. McLuhan likened himself to Louis Pasteur, “…telling doctors that their greatest enemy was quite invisible, and quite unrecognized by them (UM 33).” He believed that for the first time, “…art may be able to provide such immunity (from the disease of technology) because the serious artist (in any field, scientific or humanistic) is the man of “integral awareness (UM Ch 7).” The artist is of critical value because “he is an expert, aware of the changes in sense perception (UM 33).” The artist “picks up the message of cultural and technological challenge decades before its transforming impact occurs (UM Ch 7).” “Knowledge of this simple fact is now needed for human survival (UM Ch 7).”

   Art teaches man “how to cope with psychic and social consequences of the next technology (UM Ch 7).” Thus, the artist’s abilities are impervious to technological disruption. Note the works of Michelangelo, Galileo, Plato, and Kubrick - which, across different mediums have survived through man’s many iterations of himself. This is because, “The artist is always engaged in writing a detailed history of the future because he is the only person aware of the present (UM Ch 7).” – the pertinent words of Wyndham Lewis.

    Reluctant to admit as such publicly, McLuhan would consider himself a serious artist. The spread of his carefully crafted message served the purpose of the messenger. Hailed as a guru and a prophet, McLuhan’s understanding of man’s metaphorical translation (through information) into other forms of expression precedes his predictions about the Internet years before its arrival. He anticipated the rise of digital technology in filmmaking, including current innovations within the visual storytelling form (virtual reality, etc). He stated, “When electric speed further takes over from mechanical movie sequences, then the lines of force of structures and in media become loud and clear.” In the essence of which, “We return to the previous form of the icon (UM 30).”

  Here, McLuhan once again manipulates words to convey both a new prophecy and a secular observation. In this context, icon may be inferred to mean “a return to God.” It is also a reference to Austrian sociologist and philosopher, Otto Neurath – whose greatest accomplishments dealt with the creation of an iconic, universal language. McLuhan furthers this line of thought with a metaphor. “If the work of the city is the remaking or translating of man into a more suitable form than his nomadic ancestors achieved, then might not our current translation of our entire lives into the spiritual form of information seem to make of the entire globe, and of the human family, a single consciousness (UM Ch 6).”   

   Electric speed was a revelation to McLuhan, thus it became a cornerstone of his message. McLuhan affirmed that man’s extensions are inevitable; as narcosis is often the genesis of the process that causes him to extend himself through media. In the electric age this transformation is amplified, and the rate of change is rapidly increased until all communicative exchanges are instantaneous. McLuhan saw electricity as the terrestrial extension of light – an all-encompassing medium and the ultimate conduit – instant and unwavering. McLuhan believed the way to man’s salvation in the electric age was through the spread of collective awareness within the electric medium – his global village.

  Electric speed makes way for total field awareness while birthing a “social consciousness” that retribalizes man in a receptive state. As man is an expression of his Creator, McLuhan predicted that eventually this enlightened environment would be man’s ultimate reversal of form. He explains, “Psychic communal integration, made possible at last by the electronic media, could create the universality of consciousness foreseen by Dante when he predicted that men would continue as no more than broken fragments until they were unified into an inclusive consciousness (UM Ch 4).“

   McLuhan saw pure light as sacred; a perfect medium -“total and inclusive.” Light is a medium that needs no message. In The Book of John Chapter 8, Verse 12, Christ declared, “I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.”

   The first half of John 8:32 imparts, “… you shall know the truth.” Three years prior to his death, in 1977, McLuhan publicly conceded, "In Jesus Christ, there is no distance or separation between the medium and the message: it is the one case where we can say that the medium and the message are fully one and the same...” The message is the Messiah.

    Punctuating the final paragraph of chapter 4 in Understanding Media, McLuhan writes, “In the electric age we wear all of mankind as our skin.” Years later he revealed, “In a Christian sense, this is merely a new interpretation of the mystical body of Christ; and Christ, after all, is the ultimate extension of man (qtd. In Hsu).”   - Jon Alston

Works Cited:

Holy Bible: King James Version. Print. John 8:13

Holy Bible: King James Version. Print. John 8:32

Holy Bible: King James Version. Print. Psalm 115

Hsu, Promise. "100 Years of McLuhan, Medium and Message." The Media Project. 13 July 2011. Web. 16 Jan. 2016.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. 2nd ed. New York: New American Library, 1964. 23-77. Print.

Steinberg, Sheila. An Introduction to Communication Studies. Cape Town, South Africa: Juta, 2007. Print.