A tribute to and a lament for Marshall McLuhan.  Five days a week, Tuesday through Saturday, I present one of McLuhan’s observations and talk about its relevance today.  300 ideas. 300 days.  300 posts.

The legacy of Marshall McLuhan

Marshall McLuhan (1955, age 44).  Photography killed conspicuous consumption

I spoke today to Professor Louis Forsdale’s class at Teachers College, Columbia University.  The $100 dollar honorarium will come in useful.  Corinne wants a new bed, says we’ve worn it out.  I told her six children is more than most people get out of a bed.  During my talk one young chap, Neil Postman, I think Forsdale said his name was, sat with his mouth open for the whole 55 minutes. 

Thought the class was going to burst a collective blood vessel when I told them my three latest ideas: that the invention of eyeglasses in the 13th century caused scientists to discover genetic manipulation, that the telegraph caused the decentralization of information, and finally, my favourite, that photography killed conspicuous consumption.  I told them that if they didn’t like those ideas I had others.  Also I told them my current favourite punning anecdote – “Though he may be more humble, there is no police like Holmes.”  The groans were deafening.   

Michael Hinton (2009, age 57).  With friends like Neil Postman who needs enemies  

Somewhere in the Sherlock Holmes stories, Holmes pays Watson, his friend and companion in detection, one of the greatest backhanded compliments in fiction.  He tells Watson that while he is not himself a source of light he is a stimulus to, or reflector of, light in others.  Forty-odd years after Neil Postman heard McLuhan speak at Columbia, Postman paid a similar backhanded compliment to McLuhan.  In the forward to Philip Marchand’s biography of McLuhan, Postman writes, “I was … charmed, refreshed, inspired by McLuhan’s story.  I’m older now, but I think I never really believed in his story.”  (The story, of course, is McLuhan’s big idea that the advent of writing and the printing press created the Western World as we know it – visual, logical, rational – and the coming of the new electric media of the 20th century returned us to a pre-Gutenberg, pre-writing primitive, tribal world – oral, intuitive, irrational.)

The mark of every great philosopher it has been said is that they got it wrong.  But it is quite a different thing to say they got it all wrong, which is what Postman says about McLuhan. 

Is McLuhan more a Watson than he is a Holmes?  Is Postman right?  Is the real legacy of Marshall McLuhan that he was a great stimulus to the thought of others but not himself a source of worthwhile thinking on media?  In other words, what he has to say, for example, about photography is wrong, but it gets other people like Postman thinking about other things rightly?   

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Postman, Neil.  “Forward,” to Philip Marchand, Marshall McLuhan: The medium and the messenger. 1989, pp. vii-xiii. 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Michael Hinton Tuesday, November 3rd, 2009
Permalink 1950s and 60s, Communication, Culture, Education, Technology, Vol. 1 2 Comments

2 Comments to The legacy of Marshall McLuhan

  • Tim Good says:

    I think to classify it as being right or wrong, light or reflection is too exact. I can think of a few things that McLuhan has said that I personally read and say,”no way.” (the majority are a resounding wow, I never realized that) I think McLuhan produced ideas and pushed people to think differently, so likely Postman was directly influence and pushed my McLuhan, but there are so many things that they line up in what they say. When the two agree is not McLuhan right, or is then Postman wrong. What I would say is that many people have come along after and made McLuhan’s concepts more readable and understandable, and once the reader makes sense, the ideas become “right” or “wrong”

  • Michael Hinton says:

    That Marshall McLuhan was an influence on other people’s thinking is beyond debate. There are many people, however, and Postman was one of them, who said that McLuhan was all influence and no substance. That when you look at his ideas carefully, they fail to persuade. That position I argue is untenable.

    Thanks for your comment.

  • Leave a Reply