Herbert Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980), author of "Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man" (1964), coined the prescient phrase: "The medium is the message."
Widely acknowledged as a seminal philosopher and writer about the cultural effects of media, McLuhan was a convert, an almost daily communicant, and an ardent Catholic.
Born in Canada to Protestant parents, he attended the University of Manitoba and did graduate work at Cambridge University.
He moved to the United States, taught at the university level, and entered the Church in 1937 at the age of twenty-six. "I came in on my knees," he later observed. "That is the only way in."
In 1939, he married Corinne Lewis. The couple raised six children. His son Eric McLuhan recalls, "We said the rosary as a family before retiring to bed most nights."
The man who has been called variously the father of media studies, a communications theorist, and a prophet of the information age did not publicly discuss his religion. "People who can see don't walk around saying, 'I'm seeing things all day,'" he once noted. "They simply see the world."
Though charismatic and engaging, McLuhan had little use for academia, once telling an interlocutor "I have no theories whatever about anything. I make observations by way of discovering contours, lines of force, and pressures."
His great area of exploration was the process by which human perception is trained. He defined medium broadly. A light bulb, for example, is a medium "that creates an environment by its mere presence." Media, he believed, act as "technological extensions of our body." "The medium is the message" refers to the fact that the medium by which a message is conveyed influences the way the message is perceived.
McLuhan predated the dawn of cyberspace. But his theory that media affect how we view and experience the world — and thus, eventually, interpersonal and even religious interactions — could hardly be more relevant to contemporary times.
"I came in on my knees," he later observed. "That is the only way in."
"The content of any medium is always another medium," he proposed. One content of today's social media, for example, is photos: of ourselves, our pets, our friends. But the message is narcissism: a culture obsessed with watching others look at us as we look at ourselves in the mirror.
To the end, religion was the ground of his fife. His faith sustained him after a 1979 stroke. He died in his sleep on December 31, 1980.
McLuhan was no Luddite. But he did recognize that the real content of any given medium is the person who uses it. "There is a deep-seated repugnance in the human breast against understanding the processes in which we are involved," he observed. "Such understanding involves far too much responsibility for our actions."
The world becomes ever more addicted to virtual reality, a pale and pathetic perversion of the way, the truth, and the life. There is one medium that contains no other medium, that is irreducible, that is the Alpha and the Omega. That would be the real Body and the real Blood of Christ.
Heather King. "Marshall McLuhan." excerpt from Magnificat (July 2018).
Reprinted with permission from Magnificat.
photo: University of Toronto Archives
Heather King is a sober alcoholic, an ex-lawyer, a Catholic convert, and a full-time writer. She is the author of: Parched, Redeemed: Stumbling Toward God, Marginal Sanity, and the Peace That Passes All Understanding, Shirt of Flame: A Year with St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Poor Baby, Stripped, Holy Days and Gospel Reflections, and Stumble: Virtue, Vice, and the Space Between. She lives in Los Angeles. Visit her website here.Copyright © 2018 Magnificat
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