The Visionary Thought of Marshall McLuhan, Introduced and Demystified by Tom Wolfe

Mar­shall McLuhan and Tom Wolfe: both writ­ers, both astute observers of mod­ern human­i­ty, and both pub­lic fig­ures whose work has, over the years, enjoyed high fash­ion­abil­i­ty and endured high unfash­ion­abil­i­ty. You might think the con­nec­tion between them ends there. But when the 100th anniver­sary of McLuhan’s birth and the cen­ten­ni­al-cel­e­brat­ing site Mar­shall McLuhan Speaks came about, whose elo­quent intro­duc­tion to the thinker (who famous­ly declared the world a “glob­al vil­lage” where “the medi­um is the mes­sage”) got used there? Why, the man in white’s.

In the 20-minute video above, Wolfe lays out not just a pré­cis of the insights that made McLuhan “the first seer of cyber­space,” but gets into his biog­ra­phy as well: his humbly respectable ori­gins in Edmon­ton, his back­ground as a lit­er­ary schol­ar, his con­ver­sion to Catholi­cism, the begin­nings of his teach­ing career in Cam­bridge and Wis­con­sin, his “extracur­ric­u­lar gath­er­ings devot­ed to the folk­lore of indus­tri­al man,” his strug­gle to rec­on­cile his inter­est in the writ­ings of philoso­pher-pale­on­tol­o­gist Pierre Teil­hard de Chardin with his own reli­gious con­vic­tions, and the con­sid­er­able fame he accrued mak­ing pro­nounce­ments on the media in the media.

“No doubt the inter­net would have delight­ed him,” says Wolfe. “He would have seen it as a ful­fill­ment of prophe­cies he had made thir­ty years before it was born, as an instru­ment for the real­iza­tion of his dream of the mys­ti­cal uni­ty of all mankind. [Watch him pre­dict the world would be knit­ted into a glob­al vil­lage by dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy in some vin­tage video.] Here, in a spe­cif­ic, phys­i­cal, elec­tron­ic form, was the seam­less web of which he had so often spo­ken. Today thou­sands of young inter­net apos­tles are famil­iar with Mar­shall McLuhan, and are con­vinced his light shines round about them. From the edi­tors of Wired mag­a­zine to the most mis­er­able dot-com lizards of the chat room, they have made him their patron saint.”

To get an even deep­er sense of how much Wolfe has thought about McLuhan, have a look at his first annu­al Mar­shall McLuhan Lec­ture, deliv­ered at Ford­ham Uni­ver­si­ty in 1999. And unlike many intel­lec­tu­als who only turned back to re-exam­ine McLuhan after the age of the inter­net had retroac­tive­ly val­i­dat­ed even some of his wildest-sound­ing spec­u­la­tions, Wolfe has been tuned in to McLuhan’s fre­quen­cy since way back. In 1970, the two even got togeth­er for a tele­vised chat in McLuhan’s back yard (a clip of which you can watch just above), which revealed that, for all the fas­ci­na­tion Wolfe had with McLuhan, the inter­est was mutu­al.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Has Tech­nol­o­gy Changed Us?: BBC Ani­ma­tions Answer the Ques­tion with the Help of Mar­shall McLuhan

McLuhan Said “The Medi­um Is The Mes­sage”; Two Pieces Of Media Decode the Famous Phrase

Mar­shall McLuhan: The World is a Glob­al Vil­lage

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture as well as the video series The City in Cin­e­ma and writes essays on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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