Marshall McLuhan probably sits next to Freud up there as many scholars enjoy discrediting their work religiously. To ask whether McLuhan is relevant today and whether Understanding Media should be celebrated answers the question. Sometimes, it seems that McLuhan invented phrenology. Attacks on McLuhan often focus on his form (medium) and not just his ideas (message). For many he is an academic dilettante. Yet, the style that critics loath reflects digital communications today. McLuhan’s famous probes — short ideas expressed without elaborate explanations, are the modern day equivalent of tweets and SMS messages. Their brevity embodies their economy of words but not their insight.
Two common critiques of McLuhan’s are his obliviousness to political economy and his technological determinism. McLuhan’s prognosis on media appears to celebrate a burgeoning world order and global capitalism. The way he foreshadows cognitive capitalism appears deterministic. Critics attack McLuhan for being silent on the transformation of global capitalism. This criticism focuses on what McLuhan did not write in Understanding Media as opposed to what he did. It is interesting to note that European scholars, even those who with political economic inclinations do not scorn McLuhan the way North Americans do. They do not blame him for being the messenger of a cognitive capitalist message.
Yet, McLuhan addressed political economic concerns in his 1968 War and Peace in the Global Village. The book came out the same year scholar Sidney Walter Finkelstein criticized McLuhan for not covering issues related to the use of media against the Global South. While War and Peace is not a political economy critique of war of ideas, it is not oblivious to how technology and media are used to promote war. McLuhan’s demonstration is more than semantic. It is visual. Here his probes intersect with visuals in an elaborate spatial organization to deliver a staunch critique of the Vietnam War. But McLuhan did more than explain how television and other electronic media at the time could shape the public’s mind. In fact, he argued, again in War and Peace that by being exposed to the horrors of war daily, the public helped co-constitute the debate on war.
McLuhan rightly described and to some extent predicted how messages need not be unidirectional. When he argued that technology is an extension of the senses, he did not argue that a select few had agency over the shaping of the message. He argued that any person had that potential. Specifically, he described how alternates modes of literacy allowed non literary people to participate in a global discourse. This is McLuhan’s legacy and part of why his work should be celebrated today.
Finkelstein, Sidney Walter. Sense and Nonsense of McLuhan. New York: International Publishers, 1968.
McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extension of Man. First MIT Press edition, 1994. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1994.
McLuhan, Marshall, Quentin Fiore, and Jerome Agel. War and Peace in the Global Village. 2001. Corte Madera, California: Ginko Press, 2001.