Kevin McMahon’s McLuhan’s Wake , written and co-produced by David Sobelman, and produced by Kristina McLaughlin and Michael McMahon, is one of three recent nonfiction films devoted to the life and prophetic vision of Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980). Admittedly, McLuhan’s Wake (the title is a nod to McLuhan’s admiration for James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake ) is a little off my regular beat of theatrically released fiction films, but wasn’t it McLuhan who suggested that old academic geezers like me suffered from a hardening of the categories due to overspecialization?
Consumed as I am by the obsessive media coverage of the Iraq conflict, I find McLuhan’s once glib aphorisms about the role of the media now eerily relevant. For example, most of us are familiar with the McLuhanist mantra, “The medium is the message”-or, in another version, “The medium is the massage.” But few of us recall the corollary: “The user is the content.” In other words, we think we’re superior to the media, that we observe it critically-but according to McLuhan, the media actually absorbs us, shaping us into something new and different. This is not necessarily an evil or dehumanizing process. McLuhan was not a Luddite, nor was he nostalgic for the pre-electronic, supposedly innocent past. In The Gutenberg Galaxy , he contended that although the tribal impulse of humanity had been undermined by the use of the alphabet and the printing press, these inventions had enabled each tribe member to forge his individual destiny.
For McLuhan, every invention was simultaneously a step forward and a step backward. Thus, the car “has become the carapace, the protective and aggressive shell, of urban and suburban man.” He might have anticipated the crash of the Columbia when he noted: “Spaceship earth is still operated by railway conductors, just as NASA is managed by men with Newtonian goals.” And what better description can there be of our President’s foreign policy than this McLuhanism: “We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.”
I must confess that I’ve never gotten all the way through any of McLuhan’s books, which include The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man (1951), The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (1962), Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964) and two books written with Quentin Fiore, The Medium Is the Massage (1967) and War and Peace in the Global Village (1968). The titles alone indicate an acute awareness of changes in modern life-an awareness perhaps less available to thinkers in traditional, linear disciplines. Advances in industrial technology, for example, are nowadays inextricably linked to the corporate-suite-oriented economics of Alan Greenspan and the market’s notion of “productivity.” In practice, this means the firing of thousands of telephone operators who are replaced with machines. The machines are organized to herd the caller/consumer through an endless maze of numbered “options” that, in the end, discourage requests for assistance, repairs and refunds. A McLuhanist response to this abuse of technology would have the caller/victim pretend that he or she is using a rotary phone and therefore has no access to the illusory touch-tone choices. This caller must wait longer, but stands a better chance of eventually getting a real-life human being on the other end of the line. By observing the workings of the new technology, and by pretending to regress, the McLuhanist manages to advance his own objectives.
Mr. McMahon and Mr. Sobelman begin McLuhan’s Wake in this vein, with an animated rendition of Edgar Allan Poe’s “A Descent into the Maelstrom,” a story McLuhan frequently cited as one of his guiding metaphors. In the tale, a Norwegian fisherman and his brother are caught in a maelstrom that threatens to suck their frail boat down into the abyss of a raging whirlpool. The narrator’s brother is swept overboard, and plunges to his doom. While clinging to the boat’s mast for dear life, the narrator has time to observe the actions of the storm that threatens to engulf him. He notices that some objects do not sink into the whirlpool, but are blown about above the water’s surface. Abandoning his sinking boat, the fisherman wraps himself around a steamer trunk and thus escapes oblivion. But when he is finally rescued by fellow fishermen, no one will believe his story. As it turns out, the Poe tale serves a double allegorical function. The two morals are: 1) study closely the media vortex that threatens to engulf you, and 2) don’t expect anyone to listen when you tell them what you’ve learned. McLuhan himself was eventually ridiculed, scorned, ignored-and then forgotten by an entire generation.
Now that I find myself engulfed by my own media maelstrom, I seem to be in a perpetual rage that even invades my dreams. Recently, I dreamt I’d been drafted into the Army and was serving in Iraq. In the dream, I wondered aloud: “Why did the Army draft a 74-year-old man like me?” I’d been watching too much CNN, of course. And I’d had more than a dash of Rupert Murdoch’s right-wing channels dedicated to the canonization of George W. Bush. Recently, I’ve been especially depressed by the recurring spectacle of a former anti-Nixon agitator of the Watergate era having aged into a dithering, journalistic lapdog for the Bush administration. I am even more depressed to find myself missing Nixon and even Ronald Reagan amid the current Bushite frenzy to dismantle all the already underfunded social-welfare institutions put in place over the last 70 years. And not an inkling of this on CNN. In McLuhanist terms, I am swirling in the vortex of a media storm, trying to control it, at least in my mind. But I must guard against going too far and overreacting to media outrages. I refer to the deplorable remarks of my Columbia University colleague, who wished a million Mogadishus on the American troops in Iraq. I refuse to speculate about what McLuhan would say if he were alive today. A converted Catholic and a follower of St. Thomas Aquinas, he was in many ways a cultural conservative, with a holistic view of the universe based on the medieval trivium of grammar, rhetoric and logic.
I met McLuhan only once, on a Toronto radio panel in the 60′s, and I managed to make him sulk visibly for a brief moment before I hastened to smooth things over out of my genuine respect for him as a scholar. He had been trotting out his absurdist litany of “the plays of Beckett, Pinter and Ionesco.” When he repeated the litany, I complained-specialist that I am-that there were vast differences between the playwrights, as well as striking similarities. Looking back over this very trivial incident, I wonder if I’m as much of a specialist as I think I am. From the beginning of my career, I have been yearning for a unified-field theory of all the arts, with the cinema serving, perhaps, as the emotional fulcrum. The point is that I may always have been closer to McLuhan than I imagined. Curiously, I began my seminal essay on the auteur theory with a quote from Kierkegaard, and McLuhan’s Wake ends with McLuhan quoting Kierkegaard: “We can only understand our life backward, but we can only live our life forward.”
So back to the recent past: Why was Michael Moore booed by some people at this year’s Oscars when he denounced George Bush? Mr. Moore reportedly believed that he had no chance of winning the Oscar, and so when his name was announced, he hastily persuaded the other nominees to join him onstage and then repeated a McLuhan-like routine he had used at previous award ceremonies by making a distinction between the “nonfiction” films he and his colleagues make, and the “fictitious” President Bush with his “fictitious” electoral victory. Why were Mr. Moore’s words McLuhan-like? During the Vietnam War, McLuhan noted that the extensive television coverage of the conflict was watched by millions more people than were actually fighting in the field, thus turning it into a fictional entertainment.
Before he died, McLuhan suffered a stroke, the lingering effects of which left him unable to speak or write during the last months of his life. The year was 1980, the same year that CNN debuted and a time when the Internet was coming into existence-both of which have added to the velocity of the media maelstrom McLuhan had predicted after the advent of television. I suspect that he would’ve been amused by Mr. Moore’s apparent imperviousness to the maelstrom swirling around him.
For myself, I was exhilarated by what some of my best and most liberal friends deplored as Mr. Moore’s abrasive antics. Why shouldn’t we have a mad dog barking on our side for a change? We’re subjected to the drums of war banging incessantly on CNN-and all the while, people’s pensions are being looted in broad daylight by a new gang of corporate malefactors with access to the corridors of power.
Media malaise has set in with a vengeance, and not only just for me. The endless media coverage of the war has lowered the Nielsen ratings on the Oscars and the NCAA basketball tournament. It has reduced attendance at the movies and on Broadway, and made people less eager to shop and travel. And one can see what McLuhan meant when he said that televised wars become fictions. Right now, Iraq looks more and more like a too-long movie with too many subplots.
Even Donald Rumsfeld seemed a little flustered by the media maelstrom, when he complained that reporters were asking him questions about events in Iraq that appeared on television long before they were reported to the Pentagon by the commanders on the ground. The new phenomenon of “embedded” journalists with their unpredictable mood swings would have delighted McLuhan as much as the acceleration of audience expectations, so that a week seems like a month and a month like a year. Even in McLuhan’s time, 20 years and more before the end of the last millennium, he observed: “Today each of us lives several hundred years in a decade.”
In this maddening context of rapid change, the 75th-anniversary commemoration of the Oscars last month is already ancient history, but a few memories still linger. If anyone had told me in advance that Ronald Harwood would win the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for The Pianist , that the supposedly despised Roman Polanski would be voted Best Director and that Adrien Brody would be chosen Best Actor, I would have been willing to bet the rent money that The Pianist would be picked Best Picture. No such luck.
As it was, I was very pleased that Nicole Kidman won Best Actress for The Hours , and I didn’t mind any of the other acting winners. I was also pleased that Nowhere in Africa won as Best Foreign-Language Film after many of my esteemed colleagues dismissed it as too sentimental. The high point of the evening was Peter O’Toole’s graceful and gracious acceptance speech, particularly for his expression of gratitude to the United States at a time when demonstrators around the world are burning American flags. The British always seem to be better at accepting tributes than we are. Perhaps it’s because they never abandon the grand manner required of natural aristocrats, and Mr. O’Toole is as noble a thespian as there is.