Media Ecology Is Already Christian: Why McLuhan Is What the Church Needs for the New Evangelization

Media Ecology Is Already Christian

During his papacy, Pope Benedict XVI made the new media an important part of his emphasis on the new evangelization. As part of his message for the 45th World Communications Day in 2011, the Holy Father pointed to the “radical changes taking place in communications” that “are not only changing the way we communicate, but communication itself.” Pope Benedict further challenged lay people to place these new communications technologies “at the service of the integral good of the individual and of the whole of humanity. If used wisely,” he continued, “they can contribute to the satisfaction of the desire for meaning, truth, and unity which remain the most profound aspirations of each human being.” This new ecclesiastical focus on the influence of these technologies mirrors the relatively recent addition of communications departments to most universities within the past century. Relative to the rapid changes in this field however, the Church has been slow to develop a coherent way to approach the subject of media and communications. Of course, those of us who wish to build a culture of freedom cannot ignore the important role the new media play in shaping our culture.

Catholic educators have a particularly special responsibility in their role of shaping future generations and their understanding of media. For these educators, the branch of communication studies known as media ecology can be a fruitful approach to draw from both in its commitment to freedom and its deep roots in the Catholic rhetorical tradition. Thankfully, the long Catholic tradition of rhetoric is a natural and abundant resource for developing a critical understanding of media and technology in the modern era. The goals of this presentation are to present the work of Marshall McLuhan, who founded the discipline known as media ecology, as an inherently Catholic approach to media, show how his approach draws from the Catholic rhetorical tradition, explain how it can be integrated into a modern understanding of the liberal arts and most importantly, how it can fulfill Pope Benedict’s call to place the new communications technologies “at the service of the integral good of the individual and of the whole of humanity.”

Marshall McLuhan

First, a little background on Marshall McLuhan: in 1934, Marshall left his native Canada and entered Cambridge University to study literature. Earning his second BA in 1936, he continued on to graduate studies on the history of literature and the liberal arts during which he entered into the Roman Catholic Church in March of 1937. A key influence during his time at Cambridge was the New Criticism, which taught that the primary meaning of a work of literature could be derived from studying the formal elements of the work in itself. Encouraged by his instructors, I.A. Richards and F.R. Leavis, McLuhan began to apply this approach not only to literature but also to the real world.

Applying the tools he learned from literary and rhetorical criticism first to popular culture and later to technology led to McLuhan’s swift rise to cultural prominence in the 1960’s. During an era rife with technological change as television became a mass medium and the computational ability of computers increased exponentially, McLuhan appeared as a personality speaking confidently about technological and cultural changes that few people understood. Central to his discussions of technology was a unique application of the New Criticism, or as he famously put it in Understanding Media in 1964: “the medium is the message.” For McLuhan, the primary meaning of any medium of communication, just as in literature, could be derived from the formal elements of the medium itself. In his own words, “the ‘message’ of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs” (Understanding Media, 20). This approach got him quickly labeled by his critics as a technological determinist, and his theories were even titled in communication studies textbooks as “Technological Determinism.” His critics, often not satisfied with the label of technological determinist, went even further in condemning his approach, as, for example, Peter Green, a professor at Yale, who wrote of McLuhan:

There is afoot a mindless orgy of trend-catching anti-literacy, best typified by the appalling popularity of the jargon-laden, hyped-up, and profoundly ahistorical works of McLuhan, designed to flatter just about all the prejudices of a TV generation in which functional illiteracy is already well advanced (1989).

Despite these often scathing reviews however, McLuhan persisted in pointing to the cultural, social, and psychological effects of communications technologies as they developed during his lifetime.

In his writings that were published posthumously, McLuhan revealed his private views of technological determinism. In a letter to the editor of Life, dated March 1st, 1966, McLuhan wrote:

Determinism is the result of the behaviour of those who are determined to ignore what is happening around them. Recognition of the psychic and social consequences of technological change makes it possible to neutralize the effects of innovation. If we maintain lively dialogue with, and among, the technologies, we can enlist them on the side of traditional values instead of watching those values disappear while we play the helpless bystanders. (334)

Likewise, in the posthumous Laws of Media (1988), McLuhan notes: “There is no inevitability where there is a willingness to pay attention” (128). In this light, it becomes clear that McLuhan was not only not the technological determinist his critics made him out to be, but in reality a staunch defender of freedom in the face of technological progress.

Media Ecology and the Catholic Rhetorical Tradition

Significantly, McLuhan’s commitment to freedom and his approach to understanding media both have deep roots in the Catholic rhetorical tradition. To truly understand the depth of the connection between McLuhan’s Catholic worldview and the media ecological approach, we must turn to the dissertation he first submitted in 1943 for his doctorate in English Literature. Though originally titled, “The Place of Thomas Nashe in the Learning of His Time,” the actual content of the study is far more wide-ranging than a study of Nashe. In the course of his research, McLuhan realized his attempt to place Nashe in a meaningful context required a significant historical survey, during which he developed a distinct lens to view intellectual history. The title under which the thesis was published several years ago, The Classical Trivium, reflects the subject matter of most of the book. What started out as a study of Nashe led to a historical study of education and intellectual disputes from Cicero to Nashe (p. 5). This history became the focus of the dissertation, which uses the three modes of learning in the trivium—grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic—and the disputes between adherents to each of these schools as a lens through which one may correctly perceive every intellectual disagreement from Classical Greece up to the time of Nashe, and even beyond.

As McLuhan fills out his definitions of rhetoric, grammar, and dialectic, a divide between dialectic on one side and rhetoric and grammar becomes clearer. What separates the two groups for McLuhan is that dialectic on the one hand has as its goal the distilling of language to be as plain and clear as possible in order to reach ideas in their most pure form. On the other hand, grammar and rhetoric focus on the importance of stylistic devices and the text of that which is written or said in order to arrive at the meaning of any given artifact. Put more simply, in McLuhan’s schema, dialectic is a focus on pure ‘content’ while grammar and rhetoric tend to a holistic focus on the formal elements of a rhetorical artifact.

What is significant about this schema for the purpose at hand is that the Church Fathers, in general, were firmly committed to grammatical and rhetorical approaches to communication. Perhaps the most notable example of this is the Christian development of the metaphor of the Book of Nature. Understanding creation as an analogy of the divine Being, Christian thinkers throughout the centuries performed exegesis on the Book of Nature in order to better understand the Person of God. This metaphor developed from St Paul’s summation of natural law in his letter to the Romans:

For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. (1:19-20)

Perhaps the earliest instance of this metaphor is related in Evagrius Ponticus’ Praktikos:

One of the wise men of the time came to the just Anthony and said to him: ‘How can you, Father, bear to go without the comfort of books?’ He answered: ‘My book, philosopher, is the nature of all things created which stands before me whenever I wish to read God’s words.’ (as cited in Groh, 2005, p. 33)

Further examples of this methodology abound in the genre of the Hexameron, which were a detailed exegesis of the six days of creation and what aspects of the Creator were revealed in the minute details of His creation. The genre is recognized to have originated with St. Basil, though it was taken up by Sts. Ambrose, Augustine, Bonaventure, and Bede among many others. The writers in this tradition approach nature as a book with creation as the text. The actions, composition, instincts, and processes of the natural environment and all the creatures therein form a complex web of meaning that must be explicated in order to learn about God. Within this framework, writers like Basil and Augustine are then able to apply the grammatical and rhetorical tools of exegesis and explication they use with philosophical and theological texts to the grand text of God’s creation.

Of course, central to this methodology is a firm commitment to the doctrine of the Logos, or the divine reason behind creation. While this is present in McLuhan’s early history, it returns again throughout his work. Notably, in the posthumous Laws of Media, McLuhan notes: “The logos of creation explicitly presents us with the created order as a speech in which the words are things and the things are words, an awareness central to the present work”  (p. 217, emphasis added). The connection between the Church Fathers and McLuhan is the central awareness of the logos or universal reason behind all creation. As a result, the Church Fathers were able to reach new understanding of the Divine Person by performing rhetorical exegesis on creation. McLuhan’s approach to media studies assumes the intellectual commitments of the Church Fathers and then extends them one step further: if we can learn about God from His creation, we can certainly learn about humankind from our creation. The legacy of the Catholic rhetorical tradition provides media ecology with a toolset to delve into significant humanistic study of technology from a distinctly Catholic worldview that has yet to be fully explored.

Media Ecology and the Liberal Arts

The toolset that media ecology provides is different from the standard approaches to media studies which can tend toward more empirical methods of research and is completely at home in the liberal arts environment. As we’ve seen earlier, the media ecological approach developed out of historical study of both the classical definition of liberal arts and Christian rhetorical tradition and has the potential to be an important part of the modern liberal arts curriculum.

While the liberal arts have survived into the 21st century, they have not survived in a vacuum and the rapid changes in the communication environment of the 20th and 21st centuries necessarily entail changes in the education environment as well. Central to the media ecology approach is the idea that all media are educational in as much as they shape our perceptions. For McLuhan, education is that process wherein a “simple information technology [is] used by one community to reshape another” (2001, p. 149). The liberal arts, taken as a whole, are a kind of information technology passed down through Christian tradition to reshape (or restore) humanity to its unfallen nature.

Nevertheless, the ‘technology’ of the liberal arts is also in competition with all other technologies, since all technology has the power to educate. This follows from the importance media ecology places on the formal elements of media and technology, or as Neil Postman explained, “the environment itself conveys the critical and dominant messages by controlling the perceptions and attitudes of those who participate in it” (1971, p. 17). Recognizing the power of all media to shape human perception is of central importance in understanding the changes to education resulting from the introduction of electric and digital media. Incorporating media ecology into a contemporary liberal arts education can be an important part of preserving the values passed on in the Catholic liberal arts tradition both in form and in content.

Teaching media ecology to students will require education in rhetorical and grammatical exegesis, utilizing the same skills and methods practiced by rhetoricians such as Augustine and Basil. Before students will be able to confidently analyze the formal elements of any given technology, they will need to be able to do the same for a speech, a sermon, a passage of Scripture, or a poem. Basing this introduction on the Catholic rhetorical tradition will give students a strong Catholic perspective from which to then approach the contemporary media environment. Since media ecology approaches media and technology as rhetorical devices, critical analysis of these subjects will result in humanistic understanding rather than empirical evidence. In Laws of Media, McLuhan devotes a section to “media poetics” to explore what it looks like to deconstruct the formal elements of a medium.

Conclusion

Accordingly, it may be argued that this kind of methodology is one of the most fitting ways to fulfill Pope Benedict’s call to “place the new communications technologies at the service of the integral good of the individual and of the whole of humanity.” By providing individuals with the rhetorical tools to approach media, media ecology provides a toolkit more readily accessible to lay people, rather than one limited to social scientists, with the added benefit that it is from an inherently Catholic framework. Media ecology promotes literacy in what we may call the “book of technology” by using skills that have been in use since the ancient beginnings of the Church. All one needs to approach communication technology in a manner that protects the “integral good of the individual” is the ability to identify, analyze, and evaluate the formal elements of such technology in order to arrive at a proper approach. Most importantly, the literacy gained in this framework for understanding media allows the individual a stronger sense of freedom which can only contribute to the “satisfaction of the desire for meaning, truth, and unity,” that Pope Benedict called for in 2011.

References

Groh, Dieter. (2005). “The emergence of creation theology. The doctrine of the book of nature in the early church fathers in the east and the west up to Augustine.” The book of nature in antiquity and the middle ages. Ed. Arjo Vanderjagt and Klaas van Berkel. Dudley, MA.

Green, Peter. (1989) Classical bearings: Interpreting ancient history and culture. London: Thames & Hudson.

McLuhan, M. (1987). Letters of Marshall McLuhan. Ed. Matie Molinaro, Corrine McLuhan, and
William Toye. Toronto: Oxford University Press.

McLuhan, M. and McLuhan, E. (1988). Laws of media: The new science. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

McLuhan, M, and Quentin Fiore. (2001) War and peace in the global village. Corte Madera: Gingko Press.

McLuhan, M. (2003). Understanding media: The extensions of man. Corte Madera: Gingko Press.

McLuhan, M. (2006). The classical trivium: The place of Thomas Nashe in the learning of his time. Corte Madera: Gingko Press.

Postman, Neil, and Charles Weingartner. (1971) Teaching as a subversive activity. New York: Dell Publishing.

 

Originally presented in April 2013 at the Symposium for the New Evangelization at Benedictine University under the title: The Place of Media Ecology in the Christian Liberal Arts.

 

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About the Contributor

Benjamin Robertson

Benjamin Robertson
Benjamin Robertson is a founding editor at Second Nature. He has worked in advertising for the Chicago Tribune and Gannett, and now is a web developer at Up&Up. He studied Communications and Media Studies under Dr. Read Schuchardt at Wheaton College in Illinois. He has presented papers on Marshall McLuhan, media ecology, and Christianity at the Media Ecology Association, National Communication Association, and the McLuhan's Philosophy of Media Centennial Conference in Brussels. He lives with his wife, Ruth, in Greenville, SC. His personal website is benjamingrobertson.com

Comments

  1. Thanks, Ben, and as we consider McLuhan’s background, we do not wish to overlook the influence of (the Jesuit) Father Walter Ong. Not only were they both at St. Louis University together from 1938-41, McLuhan was influenced also by Ong’s writings. In The Gutenberg Galaxy, for instance, McLuhan cited various writings by Ong on pages 104, 129, 146, 1590160, 162-63, and 174-176.

    • That’s a good point Dr. Gordon. I chose to focus on McLuhan in this presentation, but we could definitely look to Walter Ong and Jacques Ellul to trace the Christian origins of media ecology. I’ve spent the most time with McLuhan and Ellul, but Ong is on my list. I’m sure there’s much to be found there.

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