Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Marshall McLuhan

I should think lawyers would be especially interested in the way that technology and media shape culture, so it's worthwhile noting the centenary of Marshall McLuhan's birthday on July 21. It's produced a series of good articles about the odd but interesting McLuhan, often remembered now (if at all) for his cameo appearance in Woody Allen's "Annie Hall" when McLuhan is produced by Allen in line at a movie theater to upbraid a pompous professor for misinterpreting McLuhan's work. Many of the recent pieces, including an article in yesterday's New York Times, have noted the importance of McLuhan's conversion to Catholicism to his work. See also Alan Jacobs at The New Atlantis (who is more circumspect about the extent of McLuhan's lasting contribution, while tracing out the scope of his influence on Neil Postman and two of McLuhan's students, the Jesuit Walter Ong and Hugh Kenner) and Father Raymond De Souza.

Nicholas Carr, in an essay adapted from The New Republic, summarizes the case:

Neither his fans nor his foes saw him clearly. The central fact of McLuhan's life was his conversion, at the age of twenty-five, to Catholicism, and his subsequent devotion to the religion’s rituals and tenets. He became a daily Mass-goer. Though he never discussed it, his faith forms the moral and intellectual backdrop to all his mature work. What lay in store, McLuhan believed, was the timelessness of eternity. The earthly conceptions of past, present, and future were by comparison of little consequence. His role as a thinker was not to celebrate or denigrate the world but simply to understand it, to recognize the patterns that would unlock history’s secrets and thus provide hints of God’s design. His job was not dissimilar, as he saw it, from that of the artist.

And that is echoed in this nice bit by Jeet Heer:

Indeed, [McLuhan's] faith made him a more ambitious and far-reaching thinker. Belonging to a Church that gloried in cathedrals and stained glass windows made him responsive to the visual environment, and liberated him from the textual prison inhabited by most intellectuals of his era. The global reach and ancient lineage of the Church encouraged him to frame his theories as broadly as possible, to encompass the whole of human history and the fate of the planet. The Church had suffered a grievous blow in the Gutenberg era, with the rise of printed Bibles leading to the Protestant Reformation. This perhaps explains McLuhan’s interest in technology as a shaper of history. More deeply, the security he felt in the promise of redemption allowed him to look unflinchingly at trends others were too timid to notice.

(Purely as an aside, it strikes me that although Canada has become more secularized than the US over the past few decades, Canadian Christianity has produced an outsized number of significant figures over that period--in addition to McLuhan, Charles Taylor, Bernard Lonergan, Robertson Davies, the unduly neglected George Parkin Grant, and, of course, Natalie MacMaster, the best Celtic fiddler in the world today and a native of Cape Breton Island.)


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Nice post. On your last point, I'll also note that Bob & Doug McKenzie embodied a very Catholic worldview on a host of issues.

Posted by: rob vischer | Jul 27, 2011 10:31:09 AM

Nice post. On your last point, I'll also note that Bob & Doug McKenzie embodied a very Catholic worldview on a host of issues.

Posted by: rob vischer | Jul 27, 2011 10:31:09 AM

I second Rob Vischer's "nice post" and your comment that Natalie MacMaster is "the best Celtic fiddler in the world today."(I'd add that she may be the best fidller in the world today...period.) For the unitiated, try her two-CD "Natalie MacMaster Live" album. The lady can fiddle!

Posted by: Bill Collier | Jul 27, 2011 12:25:10 PM

Perhaps the very fact of Canada's secularism makes the above-mentioned figures more palatable to non-religious Americans.

Posted by: BH | Sep 3, 2011 1:38:36 PM