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.
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.