McLuhan Reconsidered

Alan Jacobs revisits the legacy of Marshall McLuhan :

I have been reading McLuhan off and on since, at age sixteen, I bought a copy of The Gutenberg Galaxy. His centenary — McLuhan was born in Edmonton, Alberta on July 21, 1911 — provides an occasion for me to clarify my own oscillating responses to his work and his reputation. I have come to certain conclusions. First, that McLuhan never made arguments, only assertions. Second, that those assertions are usually wrong, and when they are not wrong they are highly debatable. Third, that McLuhan had an uncanny instinct for reading and quoting scholarly books that would become field-defining classics. Fourth, that McLuhan’s determination to bring the vast resources of humanistic scholarship to bear upon the analysis of new media is an astonishingly fruitful one, and an example to be followed. And finally, that once one has absorbed that example there is no need to read anything that McLuhan ever wrote.

Jacobs is the author of the intriguing The Pleasures of Reading in An Age of Distraction , which sets off from a critical but not entirely unsympathetic reading of Mortimer Adler, whose fascination with Great Books and popular treatise on How To Read A Book are the very incarnation of middlebrow. Neoconservative Adler and Neoliberal McLuhan are interesting bookends to the study of new media, though on bad days one might think that New Media pundits have too readily mixed McLuhan’s polemics with Adler’s reactionary conservatism.