Does Marshall McLuhan Still Matter?

As part of my winter break reading list, I’ve been trying to plow through Essential McLuhan by Marshall McLuhan because for a while now I thought I was missing out on some crucial piece of my education in media theory, some lost piece about the medium I’m working in.

As it turns out, not so much.

While still an interesting read and while some of the concepts, namely “The Medium is The Message” which the internet makes perfectly obvious day after day, are still sound, a lot of these writings seem hopelessly dated and almost laughably irrelevant now, 40 years later. Saying that, for instance, radio is Hot (demanding the use of a single sense) while TV is Cool (requires more participation) seems, if not obvious, then at least non-helpful as a model in the age of satellite radio and TV like Lost. And the internet? Well, it pretty much blows the Hot/Cool thing to hell. It’s Hot and Cool, often at the same time, and as far as I can tell, the Hot/Cool model doesn’t much help us understand the medium (or its message) any better.

His simplistic take on the electronic world seems quaint now, almost Victorian in its language, filled with bad puns and quotes from Shakespeare and Joyce to prove his points. He’s not a fan of television and god knows what he would make of the web. He saw electronic media as the end of civilization and of the printed word. Satan is a great electrical engineer, he noted. And although he invented the term “global village,” he certainly doesn’t seem like he wants to live there.

In short, I don’t know what to make of his work. He could simply be one of those seminal figures who turned a critical eye on something overlooked (in his case television) and went on to influence other critics. Maybe he’s the Velvet Underground or Big Star of media theorists. Or maybe, just maybe, he was wrong about a lot of things. Electronic media like what you are reading now hasn’t destroyed the world or the printed word. The global village? Probably a good thing. Television? Awesome.

The most damning piece of evidence? The Wikipedia articles around McLuhan do a better, more concise job of explaining his theories than he does.

As for me, I’d rather watch TV.

6 thoughts on “Does Marshall McLuhan Still Matter?

  1. I still think “Understanding Media” is worth a read….though “Understanding Comics” might actually be the better book. But McLuhan gets credit for doing it first. Also, check out David Cronenberg’s movie, “Videodrome” for some interesting, if now quaint, McLuhanesque thoughts.

  2. There might be some of McLuhan’s writing that have been superseded throughout the decades however its remarkable how he many things he got right. As far as Lost is concerned its much less traditional TV but rather a product which is used transmedia strongly enhanced by fan culture. So a cold/hot classification would need to look at all media forms involved not only TV. Henry Jenkins has written an excellent book “Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide” which contains many samples of stories told across different media.

  3. well, this little blog post of yours is the most underwhelming attempt at criticism I’ve read to date.
    really, a hack like you calling Mcluhan “simplistic” without even mounting any sort of tangible argument? weak. Hit the books again smart ass.

  4. Well, I’m not gonna tell you you’re wrong, and I’m certainly not going to call you a hack, but I do feel you’re kind of missing out on something.
    I still find “Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man” – written on the cusp of McLuhan’s disappearance into the vortex of his own celebrity – to be an invaluable guide to the hows and whys of human augmentation, up to and including networked augmentation. He’s wrong on many of the details, and in fact I’d agree the whole “hot/cold” distinction is useless, but that’s not why I read him.
    Here’s a McLuhan story I was told, by someone who worked directly with him for decades, that gets much closer to the core of why I still go back to him every couple of years:
    McLuhan was invited to a formal dinner party fĂȘting the cream of the Canadian intelligentsia. Conversation raged around him, but he offered none of the bon mots for which, of course, he had specifically been invited. There he sat, through one course after another, saying nary a word.
    After awhile, the other guests started baiting him, hoping that if they dropped Joycean references or the like into their conversation, he’d be unable to resist temptation. This crass and obvious maneuver failed.
    A cheese course. Dessert. Wine. Nothing from the great man, nothing. Until one of the guests, at evening’s end, described something (and it doesn’t matter what) as a “tragedy.”
    At this, McLuhan pushes back his chair, pulls the pipestem half from his lips, and says, “Well, of course, tragedy was just a technology the Greeks invented to help them get over the pain the development of the alphabet had caused them.”
    I love that stuff. It’s for *that* kind of galactic-level mindfuck that I still read the guy.
    It doesn’t matter if he’s “right.” It doesn’t even strictly matter if what he says particularly makes any actual sense, because for me the real value in engaging McLuhan inheres in the act of trying to articulate my resistance or disagreement with what he’s said.
    You wind up having thought more deeply about the world you live in, the choices you’re offered, and especially what might lie outside those choices. At least, I did. Do.

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