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Marshal McLuhan – Charlatan or Visionary?

Copyright (c) 2003, Geoff Peters

Marshal McLuhan has been described as both a “media prophet” and a “pop professor” (Wilcox). Although his book The Medium is the Massage was rejected by some academics (Wilcox), it became a popular success outside the academic world. His ability to coin such phrases as the “global village” and his ideas on how media influences culture allowed McLuhan to become an icon of the counterculture movement of the 1960’s. Some scholars argue that McLuhan’s voice was even “swallowed up in the popular cultural movement” (Surette). The word macluhanisme has been adopted into the French language as “a synonym for the world of pop culture” (Playboy). But was McLuhan truly a pioneering scholar? It surely depends on how one defines “pioneering scholar”. I believe that many of McLuhan’s ideas, even if they have become their own clichés and are not wholly understood, are valuable contributions to our academic and cultural heritage by the fact that they are still discussed today.


McLuhan’s writings have opened up a forum for much discussion and academic study, and have laid the foundation for an area of study on communication mediums. In an interview with Playboy magazine, McLuhan argues that “man must, as a simple survival strategy, become aware of what is happening to him, despite the attendant pain of such comprehension” (Playboy). McLuhan states that his work has the “purpose of trying to understand our technological environment and its psychic and social consequences” (Playboy).


Many of McLuhan’s ideas concerning media can be classified as technologically deterministic. He argued that several technologies, alphabetic writing and movable type, were responsible for the “detribilization” of society. By “detribilization” he was referring to the creation of the individual who is responsible for his/her own ideas. He then argued that in recent times, a “retribilization” was occurring because of the introduction of electricity-based communications technologies such as radio and television. As Playboy writes, this is the “electronics revolution that will ultimately retribalize man by restoring his sensory balance”.


As critic Tom Wolfe asked: "Suppose [McLuhan] is what he sounds like: the most important thinker since Newton, Darwin, Freud, Einstein, and Pavlov - what if he is right?" (Hardwired) With the invention of the Internet, which some say McLuhan envisioned as the ultimate “cool” medium, many of McLuhan’s ideas seem almost prophetic. It is the test of time that will ultimately tell whether McLuhan was a true pioneering scholar.

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Wilcox, Felix.

Surette, Leon. McLuhan, Marshall.

"The Playboy Interview: Marshall McLuhan"
Playboy Magazine, March 1969.

Jones, Mark J. Lessons From A Master – A McLuhan Primer. 1995.