The Strange Afterlife of Marshall McLuhan
By Tim Cumming

"The old politics had parties, policies, planks, opposition. The new politics is concerned only with images. The problem in the new politics is to find the right image. Image hunting is the new thing, and policies no longer matter because whether your electric light is provided by Republicans or Democrats is rather unimportant compared to the service of light and power and all the other kinds of services that go with our cities. Service environment's the thing in place of political parties."

This is Marshall McLuhan speaking to the students of Florida State University in 1970. Virtually forgotten in the years after his death in 1980, McLuhan was the sixties media guru who predicted the death of the book, yet who saw his own books go out of print and his own reputation consigned to history's dustbin. McLuhan was described in the eighties as "laughably inadequate as an intellectual guide to our times," but his reputation was revived at the beginning of the nineties by the online generation and the spread of the Internet. Nevertheless, outside of a handful of familiar mantras–the medium is the message, the concept of the global village–and a famous cameo appearance in Annie Hall, as a cultural figure he is a museum piece who remains ahead of the times. His powers of prescience are uncanny, and his emphasis on the role of technological evolution rather than biological and genetic determinism is a vital tool for negotiating the brave new digital world.

Through his own idiosyncratic modes of communication–part medicine show huckster, part Zen master–he foresaw how television rather than the voting booth would win elections. He may not have foreseen the elevation of Dubya to the White House–banned by nervous advisors from committing his inarticulateness to e-mail–but he predicted the global village of e-mail culture, and he imagined cybersex encounters between people across the world decades before the technology was in place. His aphorisms, what he called probes, included envisioning the computer age as "an extension of the human nervous system" just as clothes were an extension of the skin, the wheel an extension of the foot, and the book an extension of the eye.

Last year California-based Gingko Press launched a major publishing program that extends through 2007 with new editions of McLuhan's late sixties classics The Medium Is the Massage and its sequel, War and Peace in the Global Village. Forthcoming are a new edition of his first book The Mechanical Bride, an unbound box of eighteen McLuhan essays–the first of three such volumes–and Anthology: A Book of Probes, containing McLuhanisms from his entire oeuvre.

McLuhan is important because he was the first to articulate a radical and contemporary understanding of the new media and the information environment. He noted, accurately, that in times of innovation "we look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future." The corporate invasion of the Internet is an example of this. As the virtual bubble created by venture capitalists evaporates into the new dot.gone culture, the prospect of a technological meltdown affects us all. The medium itself is under threat. With McLuhan to massage our brains with his probes, we can stop looking backwards and start looking around us at what virtuality really is.

In the 21st century, The Medium Is the Massage is both a classic Pop Artifact and a futuristic joke manual for negotiating our new media. It doesn't even matter, argues McLuhan, if you never log on, turn on, tune in. "Electronic information comes from all directions at once, and when information comes from all directions simultaneously, you are living in an acoustic world [cyberspace in today's parlance]. It doesn't matter whether you're listening or not, the fact is you're getting this acoustic pattern."

The Medium Is the Massage was his one bestseller, the book that put him on the cover of Time. It is of its time, of course, but its matter, its message, is way ahead of us still. We are still looking back, while McLuhan the media guru never did. He didn't even write his books, but dictated them. He rarely revised. He was careless, too, of his own legacy and reputation, instigating crackpot schemes such as an underwear deodorant called Prohtex to enhance "legitimate body odors." Thus the culture that made him an icon soon tired of him.

For The Medium Is the Massage he actually provided only the book's title. Jerome Agel collected the McLuhanisms, the "probes" that could be as enlightening as they were confusing, and Quentin Fiore created the design. Together they forged a sixties classic infused with the vernacular of the times, but whose implications transcend the era. The book's text-graphic interface carries its own political message. One passage quotes Indonesia's President Sukarno on the revolutionary role Hollywood's depiction of Western affluence played in the post-Colonial upheavals of Asia. I Love Lucy, it seems, can move mountains as much as Chairman Mao. Black activists such as Angela Davis numbered among McLuhan's students. What liberation ideologies did they take with them from his classes? His revolutionary focus on the medium exposed American society's subliminal messages on race, gender, age, consumption. McLuhan's was the meta approach. Where he first trod, political, radical text artists such as Barbara Kruger later followed.

The Gingko Press edition is a facsimile of the original, and though historians of culture may well have a dog-eared first edition somewhere on their shelves, this new edition offers the full-blown head massage to a new generation. Open it, and you're opening a time capsule, electronic culture's first prophetic book. Its spiky juxtapositions of text and image, sometimes explanatory and often disturbingly dislocated, are some way from McLuhan's early, notoriously dense, difficult texts, The Mechanical Bride (1951), The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) and Understanding Media (1964). McLuhan gained a reputation early on as a bad communicator who nevertheless had brilliant insights into modern communication. To his critics he came to represent obscurity and pretension; to his supporters he was a right-brained genius. It didn't matter if what he said was wrong–and it often was–what was important was the method, and how it made you stop and consider the defining environments of communication you had never considered before. A lover of puns, of wit over reason, an indefatigable talker, and a voracious reader, McLuhan himself remained unplugged. "I am resolutely opposed to all innovation, all change," he wrote, "but I am determined to understand what is happening, because I don't choose just to sit and let the juggernaut roll over me." As such, McLuhan is in some ways an odd choice for the Internet generation's guru. Born in 1911 in Edmonton, Alberta, and a convert to Catholicism in 1937, a religious mystic and political conservative, he was already in his fifties by the time he became the sixties' oddest youth icon. Nor did he engage with the actual media he studied–he was more bookworm than couch potato. The mediums he studied were personally foreign to him.

His early academic works argued for a kind of technological determinism, stretching back to the discovery of the alphabet. Just as the historian Lyn White suggested that the technology of the stirrup created the Middle Ages, so McLuhan argued for an explicit awareness of the technology of communication. Civilization, he says, proceeded through four major stages. The earliest oral tribal cultures were superceded by the technology of the alphabet, which led to the concept of the individual, because writing is a visual medium; we don't read collectively, but alone. The invention of moveable type drove the linear development of civilization, as well as concepts of nationhood and conquest, while the technology of the new media–the multimedia–has returned society to an acoustic, oral tribalism. The mode of society's communication is for McLuhan much more significant than its content. Behind the effects lie the pattern, and it is the pattern with which McLuhan concerned himself. It is the pattern, he says, in which we see where we really are. Take a newspaper, for instance, with its headings, subheadings, stand-firsts, advertisements. "People don't actually read newspapers," he remarked, "they get into them every morning like a hot bath." Rather than climbing into them himself, McLuhan was more inclined to test the temperature, measure the level–and pull the plug.

By adopting the McLuhan mindset, you can make your own media probes to embark on your own head massage. His legacy is more medium than message. It is yours to use; make of it what you will. The Medium Is the Massage is a wakeup call to look around you rather than in the rearview mirror. McLuhan was neither cheerleader nor Cassandra for the new medium. "Value judgements create smog in our culture," he wrote, "and distract attention from processes." By identifying the processes, we can liberate ourselves from them. It is up, or down, to us. We may even end up like the private McLuhan, who yearned for the pre-electronic era and wished, while aware of its futility, that the global village he saw shaping up before him had never arrived.

The Medium is the Massage and War and Peace in the Global Village are published by Gingko Press, California.