The Medium is the Message - Part 1

Marshall McLuhan has faded a bit from the firmament of serious thought. Having been lumped in with the hippies of the 60s, a lot of serious thinkers discarded him without having read much of what he wrote.

In reality McLuhan was a tweed-coated professor of literature, who actually didn't much like many modern communications technologies. And yet he saw it as his duty to understand them, which is noble and a long way removed from the mindset of most thinkers, who tend to have about one limited idea that they then flog repeatedly until retirement or redundancy overtakes them. (Actually even great thinkers tend to have not much more than one great idea, which they then explore all of the implications of, but what makes them great is that the idea isn't just some banal cliche.)

If you actually read McLuhan's books, you're in for a treat. They're very possibly some of the most creative and visionary works published in the 20th century. Yes some of them experiment with form and style and are full of pictures drawn from advertising and popular culture, and thus seem a bit lightweight and weird, but that was him genuinely experimenting with boundaries that had been rigidly defended in academe for centuries. And plenty of his work, and all of the best stuff, is just plain text.

The more I read McLuhan a few years ago, the more it occurred to me just how ahead of his time he was. Another reason he wasn't fully appreciated when he was actually writing. Very few thinkers really stretch the boundaries of the contemporary thinking of their day, it's nearly always a variation on a current theme. McLuhan was one of those thinkers who went so far beyond the concerns of his own day that many simply didn't see the importance of what he was doing.

I want to talk about some of his amazing ideas, in the next post. Including his ideas about cliches, which he saw as absolutely fundamental, rather than heaping scorn upon them like most of the rest of the literary establishment.


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