Just Who Is Marshall McLuhan Anyway [Trenchant Edges]

Happy New Year!

And we're back!

Welcome to the Trenchant Edges, where we do deep dives into weird fringe ideas. At least, when I don't drop the ball. Fixing that here.

We're finally clear of Christmas, so it's going to be a bit of a rush this week. But that's OK. We've got some catching up to do. Don't worry, we're still going to finish up Terence, but I need to get back in the habit of writing this. So we're going to kind of skip ahead to Marshal McLuhan, the wizard of media studies.

I like to start these investigations with a bit of personal context because understanding my biases is useful to see why I come to the conclusions I do.

Marshall and Me

In the middle of high school, I found my mom's copy of Future Shock by Alvin Toffler. This bit of forgotten futurism from 1970 blew my mind and introduced me to many ideas I'm still chasing.

It was 2003 or 2004, so civilization had advanced enough that we had blessed broadband Internet, so I started looking more about Toffler up and came across a reference to McLuhan's most famous book: The Medium is the Massage (A print error Marshall loved and ran with).

He came up again in a course on rhetoric and propaganda in 2006, but I didn't read the Medium is the Massage until Fall semester 2007, when a friend recommended him.

I can't say I was blown away or anything. So much of McLuhan's ideas are now just common sense; even his weird hot takes seem kind of obvious. And the Medium is the Massage is all hot takes. McLuhan described them as Probes, a sort of provocative aphorism.

And so I quickly moved on to whatever held my attention next. Montage forward another eight years, and I was building 3D Printers in Memphis and getting WAY TOO INTO Terence McKenna.

I got the whole 13GB Complete Terence McKenna Talks Gigatorrent from The Pirate Bay, which is, objectively, too much Terence.

Anyway, at some point in that mess, I listened to Terence talk about McLuhan. He talked about the difference between hot and cold mediums, seeing vs. reading, print vs. handwritten manuscripts, and how much McLuhan's influence was everywhere in the 60s and early 70s.

But it was the seeing vs. reading thing that caught my attention. Terence didn't explain it well, so I decided to pick up one of McLuhan's books. I expected the local bookstore to have the Gutenberg Galaxy, or The Medium is the Massage.

Instead, it had Counterblast. How good is Counterblast?

Let me put it this way. The first page says, "Blast LSD forlorn strategy of chemical warfare against the bombardment of our sensibilities by The Man-Made Environment.

Here's what it looks like:

On the first page of the book proper, it answered my question about the difference between a manuscript and print, between seeing and reading.

The literal meaning of the phrase "movable type" suddenly clicked into place, and I saw that I wasn't seeing my world. I was reading it.

The focus on understanding the way his perception worked is the ground of McLuhan's method. What follows is delightfully wild extrapolation.

That's a taste of why I call him...

The Most Psychedelic Thinker of the 20th Century

You heard me. I don't even think it's a competition.

Not Huxley, not Leary, not McKenna, not Wilson, Not Watts.

Marshall McLuhan claimed not to have done acid, but he understood the grit of perception better than most. He was ahead of his time enough that when he was introduced on TV, they would emphasize that nobody had any clue what he was talking about with all this nonsense about a global village mediated by electric signals.

More than that, he occupied an even more liminal space than anyone else. Where Huxley sat at the cool kids' table among the establishment, Leary sunk into anti-establishment and eventual irrelevance, and the other three wobbled around the counterculture. McLuhan influenced the whole spectrum of them.

He's usually credited as the father of media studies, and his ideas appealed to figures as establishment as Steve Jobs.

Some of the things Tim Leary is most famous for are just random things McLuhan suggested to him. That great photo of Tim grinning like a fool while being arrested? McLuhan. Same with Turn on, tune in, and drop out.

Now, it's not all rosy. McLuhan's influence is wide enough that plenty of bad people have used his ideas to build their own. I've seen him come up in /pol and neo-Nazi discussions of propaganda strategy, NSA strategy documents, and plenty else.

Some of his hot takes venture into real trash territory, like his speculation in the Gutenberg Galaxy that illiteracy makes you susceptible to alcoholism (we'll get into that).

The point here is the guy's got a pretty broad set of observations about the world. And we'll be digging into them more next week.

Alright, that's enough for me, back to celebrating the new year by watching 80s British political satire.