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Wolfe-ing Down McLuhan
by Lance Strate, Chair, Department of Communication and Media Studies,
Fordham University, New York.
With the publication of his November, 1965 New York magazine article, "What If He’s Right?" Tom Wolfe’s place in the McLuhan mythos was assured. Others may have worked harder and contributed more to bring Marshall McLuhan’s work to the public’s attention. But Wolfe’s prior (and future) reputation, coupled with his elegance as a writer, and applied to McLuhan’s thought in the year following the publication of Understanding Media, together generated a milestone in McLuhan’s career as a public intellectual. Moreover, with a doctorate in American Studies from Yale University and experience as a working journalist, Wolfe had the background to interpret McLuhan for the masses, and the credentials to affirm and validate his work.
"What If He’s Right?" also reflects Wolfe’s affection for McLuhan, and the friendship that was beginning to form between the two (and would continue for the remainder of McLuhan’s lifetime). Wolfe’s affinity for McLuhan and his work has endured over the two decades since McLuhan’s death, and is evident, for example, in the 1996 documentary, The Video McLuhan, produced by Stephanie McLuhan-Ortved, and written and narrated by Wolfe. Clearly, Wolfe recognized a kindred spirit in McLuhan.
Like McLuhan, Wolfe has been something of an intellectual maverick, working across scholarly, journalistic, and artistic boundaries, and thereby defying categorization. Both individuals have been outsiders, McLuhan having been rejected by the academic establishment until recently, Wolfe still being viewed with skepticism by the literacy establishment, despite such accomplishments as The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, The Pump House Gang, Radical Chic, The Painted Word, The Right Stuff, From Bauhaus to Our House, The Bonfire of the Vanities, and last year’s A Man In Full. Given their iconoclastic (one might say non-Euclidean) tendencies, McLuhan and Wolfe might well be characterized as parallel lines that did in fact meet.
Thus, when the Canadian Consulate in New York approached us about sponsoring an annual McLuhan Lecture at Fordham University (motivated in part by the success of the McLuhan Symposium we hosted in 1998) Tom Wolfe seemed like the ideal choice to launch the series. Wolfe agreed with this assessment, and gave the Inaugural Marshall McLuhan Fordham University Lecture on Understanding Media on February 25th, 1999, at Fordham Law School's McNally Auditorium in New York City, across the street from Lincoln Center. Over three hundred people were in attendance, with an overflow crowd viewing the event from outside the auditorium via closed-circuit television. The media were out in full force, interviewing Wolfe before the lecture, while C-SPAN taped the event.
Wolfe wore his trademark white suit, and when he entered the auditorium the audience greeted him with the kind of applause normally reserved for rock stars. Wolfe was introduced by Fordham University President, Joseph A. O'Hare, S.J., who took the opportunity to good-naturedly scold Wolfe for his depiction of the Bronx (the site of Fordham's main campus, where McLuhan spent the 1967-1968 school year as our first Albert Schweitzer Professor) in The Bonfire of the Vanities. Canada's Consul General also spoke, declaring McLuhan Canada's greatest intellectual.
Wolfe's lecture was extemporaneous and enthralling, combining personal anecdotes (including the often-repeated story of Wolfe and McLuhan's trip to a topless restaurant in San Francisco, told in unprecedented detail), biographical information, and a explication of McLuhan's key insights. James Carey, CBS Professor of International Journalism at Columbia University and the author of numerous articles on McLuhan and Harold Innis, commented to me that after going over the extensive notes he had taken during the talk, he realized with admiration that behind Wolfe's string of memories, anecdotes, and observations was "a marvelously coherent logical structure." The event itself was a great success, due to the generosity of the Canadian Consulate and the hard work of my colleague John M. Phelan, and the dean of our Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Robert Himmelberg and his staff.
As for the content of Wolfe's talk, the material would be familiar to anyone
who has read "What If He’s Right?" and/or viewed The Video McLuhan. In
fact, there was a bit of irony in the fact that the audience included no small number of McLuhan scholars who knew more about McLuhan's work than
Wolfe, and who became slightly miffed at factual errors in his lecture. I
would suggest, however, that in this case the significance of the event was
in the medium rather than the message. What mattered was Wolfe's rhetorical prowess, and his eloquence as a speaker. Lending his style and his celebrity status to the cause of McLuhan studies and media ecology scholarship, Wolfe's appeal was one of a ritual re-enactment of his earlier McLuhan milestone.
And when asked, "What if he's right?" Wolfe still responded that we won't
really know the answer until neuroscience is much further advanced than it is right now. I should add that for those who were not familiar with McLuhan, the lecture served as a wonderful introduction to his life and work.
The most controversial aspect of Wolfe's talk was his emphasis on the Jesuit
paleontologist and theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin as one of the major
influences on McLuhan's thought. McLuhan certainly was familiar with
Teilhard de Chardin, and his concept of the global village may well have
evolved from Teilhard's noosphere. The idea that Teilhard's influence was of
the same weight as, say, that of Harold Innis or I.A. Richards seems to be
idiosyncratic to Wolfe, however, and most certainly misleading. After all,
others aside from Teilhard contributed to the genesis of the global village,
which in all fairness represents only one of McLuhan's innumerable probes and insights. And while it is one of his most successful memes, it is less
significant than such ideas as the medium is the message, media as human
extensions, technologies as human environments, sense ratios, and the laws of the media. Wolfe may be projecting his own fascination with Teilhard onto
McLuhan, and his reading may be debatable, but it is also mostly harmless.
Anyone interested in understanding media or understanding McLuhan will not find all that much that is helpful in Teilhard de Chardin, but those who are interested in Teilhard may benefit from being directed to McLuhan. And as Carey noted in his keynote address "Where Do We Go With Marshall McLuhan?" delivered at the 1998 New York State Communication Association Convention (October 9-11, Monticello, NY), McLuhan has become something of a Rorschach test, open to being interpreted as a postmodernist, as a cyberspace pioneer, and as a dialectical materialist. This sort of ferment is a sign of McLuhan's importance as a scholar, and is a fate he shares with other noteworthy intellectuals.
Wolfe's McLuhan is one of many, it is true. But his McLuhan stands out
because Wolfe is one of our century's great mythmakers, and the tale he
weaves of McLuhan's intellectual odyssey is of Homeric proportions. The song he sings of McLuhan may not be the most accurate, nor the most detailed, but it is the poetic truth, not the facts, that concerns him. Wolfe's McLuhan is larger than life, part of a pantheon that includes Darwin, Einstein, and Pavlov, a giant on whose shoulders we can feel proud to stand.
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