Marshall McLuhan in a nutshell

by bakdor

The title of this posting suggests impossibility so the next best thing is for me to give an overall impression of my reading of Canada’s most recognized English professor, the late Marshall McLuhan (e.g., The Gutenberg Galaxy, The Mechanical Bride, and Understanding Media). Despite his famous phrase “the medium is the message” being first coined in the last title, I find this particular book dry and uninspiring, and my reading of it is spotty, skipping large chunks of it, at the time of this posting.

I see McLuhan as a twentieth century “reincarnation” of the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. They both wrote to a readership that was hostile to traditional Christianity. Kierkegaard’s audience was the Lutheran Protestants in Denmark, who in the main, had become embarrassed at the supernatural claims of the Christian faith, and become spiritually dead. McLuhan’s audience was a mostly Protestant one too, as much of the English speaking world was. By the middle of the twentieth century, religion was losing its grip on mainstream society in North America, but certain evangelical Protestant groups managed to hang on. At the time of the writing of The Gutenberg Galaxy, the Roman Catholic Church remained strong in Quebec, but the demise of Catholicism would soon be ushered in by the Quiet Revolution. Although not explicit, McLuhan was taking jabs at a religion that was given birth by the printing press. His books examined the fruits of that religion’s posture of Sola Scriptura–by Scripture alone. That religion is of course Protestant Christianity.

I’ve always been puzzled by Protestants despite my own beliefs having much in common with Protestantism and being baptized in a Protestant church. The birth place of Martin Luther and Protestantism–Germany–also is the birth place of National Socialism–Nazism. The great experiment in building a republic based on principles of liberty, democracy, and freedom of religion, that is America, was conducive to the practice slavery even as its citizens claimed belief in Christ. In the nineteenth century, a Christian Britain initiated wars with China in order to uphold their privilege to sell opium to Chinese citizens. The image of missionaries unloading Bibles at one end of an ocean faring ship and gentlemen overseeing the unloading of wooden crates containing balls of opium at the other end is truly perplexing to me.

Like Kierkegaard, McLuhan took pot shots at the contradictions of an alphabetic based society that professed Christianity. One of his conclusions is that the effects of the medium has as profound an effect, perhaps even more so, on the reader as the content of the medium do. The Christian reader may profess faith in the content of the Bible, but the impact of the medium of the printed book may result in evils that seem to negate the profession of faith.

Although I do not believe there is a direct cause and effect of typographic media on the beliefs and behavior of the reader, rather I believe that the inventions of the alphabet and the printing press introduce tendencies that are magnified through time and technological innovation. McLuhan sums it up in The Gutenberg Galaxy: “Schizophrenia may be a necessary consequence of literacy.”