It’s time—again—for a resurgence of interest in Marshall McLuhan. After a posthumous revival in the 1970s and ‘80s, McLuhan fans renovated his legacy again in the mid-‘90s, as Muhlenberg professor of media Jefferson Pooley notes in a new appraisal at the Los Angeles Review of Books.
Just last year, Pooley observes, Tom Wolfe, who helped make McLuhan famous way back when, gave tribute in a taped appearance to his enduring relevance. “Today thousands of young Internet apostles are familiar with Marshall McLuhan,” the old New Journalist said, “and are convinced that his light shines round about them.”
To be sure, the visionary theorist, famous for buzz phrases like “the global village” and “the medium is the message,” was primed for importance in the Internet era back when the most even he could divine was a coming “electric age.” But were McLuhan merely a cross between David Riesman and Shingy, his voluminous pop prophesies would be plowed under by the very deluge of content and change-ology that he predicted would come to define our immersive media experience.
McLuhan is far more than an egghead or a guru—and, in a subtler way, beautifully less than either. He is, still, the most prolific and penetrating Christian humanist to grasp that technology has forced us to rediscover how humans can use it to advance our species and preserve its humanity. The time has come to care about McLuhan again because the time has come to pull off that rediscovery before it’s too late.
McLuhan Knew Internet Would Change Our Workplaces
But how? The key is found in the gap between the McLuhan of the elite imagination and the real McLuhan, the man of faith whose existence is a muted but open secret. The first McLuhan was already in place when Wolfe first profiled him—the McLuhan who foretold how the future us will act.
“They will work at home, connected to the corporation, the boss, not by roads or railroads, but by television,” Wolfe summed it up. “They will relay information by closed-circuit two-way TV and by computer systems. The great massive American rush-hour flow over all that asphalt surface, going to and from work every day, will be over. The hell with all that driving. Even shopping will be done via TV. All those grinding work-a-daddy cars will disappear. The only cars left will be playthings, sports cars. They’ll be just like horses are today, a sport. Somebody over at General Motors is saying—What if he is right?”
Well, he wasn’t all right. But in our ongoing headlong retreat from the collective effort of civil society, with the biggest of marketplaces moving out of the open air and the big box store and into the cloud, he could still be more right.
“Whole cities, and especially New York, will end too just like cars, no longer vital to the nation but…just playthings,” Wolfe marveled at the McLuhan whose prognostications captivated the elite mind. “People will come to New York solely to amuse themselves, do things, not marvel at the magnitude of the city or its riches, but just eat in the restaurants, go to the discotheques, browse through the galleries.”
Horrible! Or wonderful? From the age of “Mad Men” to the age of “Sex in the City” and the terminal (?) age of “Girls,” this titillating ambivalence has fueled our content-choked culture of work, play, communications, and commerce. Try as we might to keep up, we’ve felt increasingly uncertain about our command of the technology that lurches us ever faster into a future so heavy on the activity and light on the agency.
A Cry of Anxiety: ‘I Am the World’
Amid such velocity anxiety, it’s small wonder so many seek refuge in the pathos of selfhood and identitarianism. Delinked relationally from our fellow humans and wired into a decentered and disembodied realm of constant motion, we cry out for purchase on what Tocqueville called a “fixed point in the human heart,” and we increasingly surmise that today that point can only be found within the protective, prideful shell of our chosen and unchosen identities.
As McLuhan warned, under these pressures, the global village of “We Are the World” quickly and inevitably gives way. In a painful reversal, all the world becomes a stage and each villager becomes a little Macbeth—or, like the Scottish king, a Seigfried out of Wagner’s opera, thundering I am the world.
“When people get close together, they get more and more savage, impatient with each other,” McLuhan explained in one interview about how technology is laying bare the nature of humankind. “His tolerance is tested in those narrow circumstances very much. Village people aren’t that much in love with each other. The global village is a place of very arduous interfaces and very abrasive situations.”
This loveless intimacy’s open secret is that we lose more than love for one another. Even worse, it abrades away our love for being human. Thrust face to face by technologies that alternately project illusions of our fake selves and strip our real selves naked to raw public view, we see an ugliness in others that bares our own.
Marilyn Manson, whose “Mechanical Animals” is a dark shadow of McLuhan’s “The Mechanical Bride,” got the idea: “When I hate it I know I can feel,” he sang on “Fundamentally Loathsome,” “but when you love you know it’s not real.” Today it is impossible to understand the popularity of hatred if it’s seen as mere contempt. Rather than looking down on others in disgust, our experience of being more or less equals with people we loathe involves seeing in them, up close and personal, the things that make us feel worse about being human. The more we strike one another as bad news, the worse news it becomes that we’re human.
When We Hate Ourselves, We Have Two Options
This is a problem, history shows, that radical or reactionary politics cannot resolve. Even as we see identity politics sets our hearts against one another, fixed or no, the basis for socialistic solidarity—a shared lifeworld of fundamental dignity and respect—has been destroyed by a multigenerational pandemic of mutual loathsomeness.
Meanwhile, on the Right, the rise of Old World fantasies of white nationalism presumes a safe haven of tribal pride that the global village has also ground away. There is no going back: today and forevermore, the most important thing about us is that we are human, and if that fact drives us to despair, politics will at best incarnate that hatred of humanity in human destruction.
This brings us to McLuhan’s open secret—his Christianity. Although a devout Catholic, his Christian humanism was wisely ecumenical in its orientation around the most love-generating observations about the facts of life. Rather than prophesying how differently we humans all soon will act, this McLuhan revealed, with grace, that who we humans will be is identical to who we already are. At its most basic, the “good news” of the biblical gospel is that it is good to be human—and, just as important, that it is good enough.
Christ’s intervention in human history is more total and potent than any absolutist political project: after Christ, to be human is to be loved and to be lovable, no matter how unworthy. Now, it is not only unnecessary but unreasonable to seek shelter from despair in the subhumanity Samuel Johnson described (“he who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man”). Now, it is not just unreasonable to aim our hopes at becoming superhuman. It is unnecessary.
Accept these simple realities, and technology goes from tyrant to tool again—something we can freely embrace to further the ends of humankind because we are no longer driven by vengeful self-loathing to bring our humanity to an end.
We Love Him Because He First Loved Us
For McLuhan, the good news about being human revealed by and in Christ came along with a slight problem familiar to Christians for centuries: just because it was so obvious, few elites wanted to acknowledge it. Therefore, many ordinary people in the global village were all but incessantly programmed through messaging and everyday experience to deny it.
In McLuhan’s conceptual distinction between precepts (ideas you can abstractly state and subscribe to) and percepts (that which is comprehensible only as it is manifest), the good news about being human is the latter; “as Christ said over and over again, it is visible to babes, but not to sophisticates. The sophisticated, the conceptualizers, the Scribes and the Pharisees—these had too many theories to be able to perceive anything. Concepts are wonderful buffers for preventing people from confronting any form of percept.”
Nevertheless, given the rate at which technology is driving us toward subhuman and posthuman fantasies of escape from our loathsome condition, it is hard to sit back and wait for the percept of loving our humanity to reassert dominance over science and politics. Fortunately, there’s good news: we humans are naturally capable of locating a middle ground of human agency between pushing precepts and receiving percepts. We can orient one another’s gaze and one another’s hearts toward the sites where percepts are manifested or are likely to manifest.
Today, McLuhan helps us understand, if the good news about being human appears in the witness of Christ, it also appears in secular places where technology challenges our expectation that it’s driving us into subhuman or posthuman dystopias. Those places, a present-day McLuhan might say, are likely to include alien planets suitable for introducing human life and human civilization—in the awareness that it is already good and good enough to be human. No more, no less.