From Sea to Sea

October 18, 2011 - Raymond J. de Souza

Marshall McLuhan and a New Magazine

The centenary of Marshall McLuhan's birth was celebrated this year, and the focus was understandably on how the great communications theorist anticipated the culture of the digital age. The mark of a great idea is that it is obvious once stated. That how we think and act is shaped by the mode of communication itself is now obvious to all.

The great professor was a serious Christian, a devout convert to Catholicism, a man who went to Mass daily, prayed the rosary with his family every night and rose early to read the Bible. McLuhan's religious thinking is essential to understanding his entire work, and the best introduction to his life as a Catholic thinker is a marvellous documentary made a few years back by Canadian filmmaker Deiren Masterson—McLuhan Way: In Search of Truth.

"Printing, radio, movies, TV—they actually alter our organs of perception without our knowing," the film quotes McLuhan, observing and also anticipating how patterns of thought, friendships and philosophies would change in the electronic age. When McLuhan was raising his six children, being sent to one's bedroom was a punishment of deprivation; today, parents try to get their kids out of their bedrooms, away from the laptop, video games and mobile phones. "In Jesus Christ there is no distance or separation between the medium and the message," McLuhan would say. "It's the one case where we can say that the medium and the message are fully one and the same."

McLuhan's famous dictum noted that how something is communicated—the medium—has its own effect on the message, independent of what is communicated. A text message may contain words of lapidary import, but the medium empties them of the significance they would assume if they were literally lapidary, carved in stone.

In the person of Jesus Christ, a divine person with a human nature, McLuhan saw that God reveals that He is personal and that He freely implicates Himself in the full breadth and depth of the human experience. The incarnate God chose a medium—our human nature – that contains its own message, namely that God loves His creation, enters it, suffers for it and redeems it. The Christian faith is that God came into this world of time and space in Jesus Christ, therefore this world of time and space was infused with indications, intuitions, and icons of the divine.

McLuhan's Catholic faith teaches that God makes us holy through the sacraments—baptism and Holy Communion above all. The Catholic sacramental imagination, the conviction that God uses the tangible things of this world—water, oil, bread, wine—as a means of grace is arguably the key to McLuhan's broader analysis of communication and culture.

Sacraments communicate the presence of an intangible person—God—through tangible things. In the same way, our body makes present an intangible reality greater than our body, namely our full personhood. The encounter of persons seeking not only communication but true communion—that deeper friendship rooted in a shared identity and mission—requires at some level an encounter of bodies, whether it is a smile, a handshake, a conversation or an embrace.

But our bodies are limited, and to overcome the distance that separates us we move to other forms of communication, each less corporeal than its predecessor—books, letters, phone calls, emails.

"When you are on the phone or on the air, you have no body," McLuhan said, speaking about modern communications creating "discarnate bodies."

The electronic age is thus fundamentally antisacramental. It does not make the intangible present through tangible matter, but rather takes tangible bodies and discarnates them, converting a person to . . . . . . .

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