Herbert Marshall McLuhan was born on July 21, 1911. The proud parents sent out announcements heralding the birth with the saying, “Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given.”
As a youngster, McLuhan was always quiet and retiring to the point of being antisocial. He had a great love of animals. “Rags,” an Airedale collie, was an integral and devotedly cared-for member of the family. In his earliest days at public school, McLuhan showed no promise as a future scholar. His report cards indicated marks ranging as low as 20% for spelling in Grade 3, borderline failures in other subjects, and few distinguished achievements other than in reading. At the end of Grade 6, he failed his year. But his mother Elsie, who was engaged in supply teaching at the time, prevailed on the teacher and school principal to give Marshall a chance in Grade 7. The probation was a success and more. His teacher, Mrs. Muir, proved to be the inspiration McLuhan needed, kindling the interest in English literature that would anchor his career. He put scholastic failure behind him but indulged himself in quirky spellings throughout his life.
At 10 years of age, McLuhan delivered newspapers. His route consisted of approximately 100 newspapers each day. The experience was encouraged by his mother to develop discipline and a sense of responsibility.
As he moved into his early teens, McLuhan began to shed his retiring nature. He played baseball and even formed a team from among the boys of the neighborhood, reserving the coveted position of pitcher for himself.
At 12 years of age, McLuhan became active in the Boy Scouts, participating for 2 years and earning his King’s Scout. Scoutmaster Charles A. Hill recognized McLuhan’s competence, and when guests were present, Hill invariably directed questions relating to scouting McLuhan’s way, confident that he would have the answers.
When McLuhan was 17 years old, he acquired blueprints for a sailboat and enlisted friends to help build the 14-footer. Using a neighbor’s garage, they set to work measuring, cutting, planning, and sanding, resorting to outside expertise only when the complexities of the spoon-shaped bow proved to be beyond them. In landlocked Winnipeg, they even managed to find 100 square feet of silk Egyptian sailcloth to ensure the lightness of the craft and improve its performance.
Sailing became a passion with McLuhan, a passion with a dimension he recognized as spiritual when he reflected on it some years later from the vantage point of Cambridge University. The passion for sailing led him to identify throughout his adult life with the sailor who survived the most harrowing of adventures in Edgar Allan Poe’s story “A Descent Into the Maelstrom.”
Beginning with a 1946 article titled “Footprints in the Sands of Crime,” McLuhan would evoke the story of the Maelstrom many times in his writing and teaching. It figured prominently in the preface to The Mechanical Bride, with an explicit statement of its place and importance in the McLuhan method: “Poe’s sailor saved himself by studying the action of the whirlpool and by cooperating with it.”
The manual skill of young McLuhan the boat builder seemed to dictate a career. And the company of practical-minded friends exerted its influence as well. McLuhan joined them in enrolling in the engineering program at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg in the fall of 1928. Before he had completed a year, however, McLuhan discovered that he was not in his element. Then, as he worked at a summer job among engineers, his misguided choice was confirmed. Some of his coworkers simply ignored McLuhan as he spent every free moment reading, whereas others resented the presence of the lean, self-absorbed 6-footer. In the fall of 1929, he switched to a 4-year B.A. program that would focus on English, history, and philosophy. The excitement of setting out on his intellectual odyssey was dampened as soon as McLuhan saw how vast a job it would be to master a domain he wanted to stake out. And nothing less than mastery would satisfy him. He set his own program of reading and developed his own uses for what he read. “I have to read outside the course to maintain interest,” he confided in his diary. Thomas Carlyle was an early favorite because of his bold innovative language. After Carlyle, Thomas Macauley and Samuel Johnson would beckon McLuhan to the heights of greatness. Later still, Trevelyan, Boswell, Thackeray, and Shakespeare did likewise.
By 1936, McLuhan had completed his university studies, and his options were teaching English in Wisconsin, being unemployed, or turning his life in a new direction. To be jobless after 8 years of university study was unthinkable, and the memory of hardships suffered by those around him during the worst of the Depression years in Winnipeg—hardships that the McLuhans themselves managed to escape—was still too vivid.
On September 9,1937, McLuhan left Wisconsin for a new teaching position at St. Louis University. He was moving to a larger city, to a larger university, and with a larger perspective. McLuhan thrived on intense mental stimulation. St. Louis held the promise of satisfying that need and soon delivered on it.
McLuhan was awarded his M.A. degree on January 20, 1940. Although his time at Cambridge was nearly over, it was a day for looking to the future more than for reminiscing. The return trip to America would require careful planning. A transatlantic crossing during wartime meant restrictions and complications.
On December 11, 1943, McLuhan earned his Ph.D. degree from Cambridge in absentia due to the war. From that point onward, McLuhan’s career exploded. By 1970, he was an international celebrity. In 1972, McLuhan made more than 30 appearances in person and on television, addressing audiences with his blend of entertainment and education. He spoke to teachers and writers, clubs and power brokers, medical doctors and business managers. But he aimed few remarks at their particular interests and made no concessions to those unwilling to be jolted into awareness of media effects by his inseparable weave of style and message: “Sputnik put an end to nature, turning the earth into an art form and the planet Polluto…. Roles have replaced goals…. We put on our technology as evolutionary clothing…. Childhood was unknown to the Middle Ages—it began in the Renaissance with painting and ends now in the TV age.”
By 1973, McLuhan had collected eight honorary doctorates, been made a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, received the Christian Culture Award from Assumption College, received the Gold Medal Award from the president of the Italian Republic in recognition of his work as a philosopher of the mass media, received the President’s Cabinet Award from the University of Detroit, and been appointed by the Vatican to the Pontifical Commission for Social Communications.
Although the story of McLuhan’s life is an intellectual odyssey, the hero was no wandering Ulysses. In retrospect, the coherence of his work becomes apparent; it stems from his genius for returning constantly not to a single point but rather to a single strategy— probing and testing the forms and limits of an idea, forging links among ideas, developing a method for escape into understanding. This he did by using the prison walls of language as ramparts. In his book Understanding Media, McLuhan referred to language as humankind’s first technology for extending consciousness. It is the technology that has both translated thought into speech and been translated by a succession of other technologies throughout the course of civilization (e.g., hieroglyphics, phonetic alphabet, printing press, telegraph, phonograph, radio, television, telephone). Language was central to McLuhan’s teaching on media, their transformations, and their interactions.
McLuhan, realizing that electronic technology does not depend on words, saw further. The computer is the extension of the central nervous system. It offers the possibility of extending consciousness without verbalization, of getting past the fragmentation and numbing effect that makes the Tower of Babel the counterpart to Pentecost, of providing a way in which to achieve universal understanding and unity. McLuhan’s intellectual ferment emphasized the training of perception and prepared the way for the innovations that marked his thought until the end of his life.
McLuhan loved to teach, write, and lecture in public about the intellectual investigations of his life. A summary account of these investigations is given next, with McLuhan’s probes serving as section headings.
Acoustic space was a key topic for McLuhan. The idea was developed by E. A. Bott in the Department of Psychology at the University of Toronto, and news of it came at an interdisciplinary seminar. Although McLuhan never met Bott, he acknowledged Bott’s work as a stimulus for his own “study of olfactory space, and the rest.” Writing to one of his friends, McLuhan brought faith, physics, philosophy, and language through the vanishing point by way of acoustic space: “The ear creates acoustic space whose center is everywhere and whose margins are nowhere. This has often been mistaken for God by tribal societies as well as by neo-Platonists and the Oriental world.”
Figure and Ground
In the early pages of Understanding Media, McLuhan referred to “the unified ‘field’ character of our new electromagnetism.” Only his quotation marks around “field” hinted that the familiar world has a special meaning. Much later in the book, McLuhan discussed the automobile and how it “has quite refashioned all of the spaces that unite and separate men.” Figure ground eventually became his favored probe. The automobile could now be described as a figure against the ground of highways, service stations, motels, billboards, drive-in theaters, and suburbs.
The study of effects is the thread running through all of McLuhan’s media analysis, if not its entire rationale. It takes its roots in his training in practical criticism, where McLuhan learned to heed I. A. Richard’s call to “give a fuller and more entire response to the words” of poetry and to develop “the fullest realization of the varied powers upon us.”
By the end of his life, McLuhan had long since become an iconic figure in a world that knew little of his percept that the iconic merges figure and ground. But the popular consciousness of McLuhan the icon had earned him a limerick for his pronouncements on the merging of effect and cause:
Runs one of McLuhan’s mad laws,
The effect always precedes the cause.
Thus the baby’s produced,
Ere the maid is seduced;
Is it impertinent to ask who the pa is?
If the question does not invite a serious answer, McLuhan nevertheless supplied one, naming a hardy reincarnation of efficient causality as the offspring of print. To this, McLuhan added a rare plain statement of definition: “But I refer to formal cause not in the sense of classification of forms, but to their operation upon us and upon one another.”
McLuhan’s thinking during the 1970s, particularly during the middle years of the decade, was dominated by his own unique brand of structuralism. McLuhan had already outlined structuralism in the broadest terms—the trend of modern thought, in areas as diverse as physics, painting, and poetry, whereby “specialized segments of attention have shifted to total field.” Structuralism appealed to McLuhan for its own merits and because it invited the type of interdisciplinary inquiry to which his own natural bent led him. McLuhan died on December 31,1980.
- Heer, J. (1996, April). Marshall McLuhan and the politics of literary reputation. Literary Review of Canada, p. 23.
- Neill, S. D. (1993). Clarifying McLuhan: An assessment of process and product. Westport, CT: Greenwood.
- Nevitt, B., & McLuhan, M. (Eds.). (1995). Who was Marshall McLuhan? Toronto: Stoddart.
- Stamps, J. (1995). Unthinking modernity: Innis, McLuhan, and the Frankfurt School. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.
- Wilmott, G. (1996). McLuhan, or modernism in reverse. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.