Whatcha doing, Marshall McLuhan?

Or, the greatest Canadian wit

To really understand Marshall McLuhan, you had to be Marshall McLuhan. And even then, it was probably a bit foggy.

So let’s think of the media scholar as the Greatest Canadian Wit.

McLuhan began his 1958 keynote address to the National Association of Educational Broadcasters with a string of solid one-liners, including:

Some people use statistics as a drunk uses a lamppost — for support rather than illumination.

A man all wrapped up in himself makes a small package.

The future is not what it used to be; neither is the past.

Diaper backwards spelled repaid. Think about it.

Art is what you can get away with.

He leaned hard on jokey transitions, like “if I told you all media, which are based on the medium of language, have effects on the human psyche quite distinct from the information they seemingly provide, would you call me an ambulance? All right, I’m an ambulance.”

The speech, as recounted in Judith Fitzgerald’s 2001 biography, ended with “the medium is the message,” leaving his audience to scrape their brains off the back wall of the auditorium and launching McLuhan’s stellar career as a media theorist.

That blend of rapid-fire wit and enigmatic wisdom was McLuhan’s trademark, and it reflects his simultaneous bird’s eye and worm’s eye view of the world. At the macro level, he studied the information age like the literature professor he was, and in doing so was able to spot movements that were undetectable to the naked eye. Everyone else was looking at the trees from within the forest while he was grokking biomass from space. In his words, “we don’t know who discovered water, but we know it wasn’t the fish.”

And at the micro level, he was an incorrigible punster, always coining phrases and linking ideas just to see what would happen. He perfectly executed Wildean flips like “Invention is the mother of necessities” and “Money is the poor man’s credit card.” And like Hitchens, he was certainly a better talker than writer. Some of it was funny, some of it was nonsense, and most of it was greeted as gnomic wisdom you had to pretend to understand. This was the man who saw his book cover misprinted as The Medium is the Massage and decided that was an even better title. 

McLuhan saw a lot of things coming, but was he right like a stopped clock or a spooky prophet? In 1971, he predicted surveillance capitalism: “Espionage at the speed of light will become the biggest business in the world,” he told Peter C. Newman in Maclean’s. Oh, and in that same interview: “People tend to acquire multiple jobs. And with the computer at home, the cottage economy returns via the computer terminal at home. The idea of going out to work becomes obsolete.” There was a McLuhannissance in the 1990s as the internet came online, and maybe we’re due for another. 

Though he also said jukeboxes control our panic over the passage of time “by shredding it into ragtime.” I know nothing of his work, but I’m happy to celebrate the wordplay.

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Quick quips; lightning

“I see Canada as a country torn between a very northern, rather extraordinary, mystical spirit which it fears and its desire to present itself to the world as a Scotch banker.”
Robertson Davies

“Thousands of miles of wheat, indifference, and self-apology.”
— Mordecai Richler on Canada. Untrue! We’re metric!

“The media. It sounds like a convention of spiritualists.”
Tom Stoppard


Get Wit Quick No. 104 was as Canadian as possible, under the circumstances. Douglas Coupland’s zippy 2010 bio includes the fact that McLuhan’s online-generated drag name is Vanilla Thunderstorm alongside the McLuhan line “The name of a man is a numbing blow from which he never recovers.” When I worked in the piping-hot medium of newsprint, I’d quote the MM aphorism “People don’t actually read newspapers. They step into them every morning like a hot bath, but stress that we were building a Jacuzzi. My book Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting is like an infinity pool of words. Confirm your citizenship in the global village by tapping the ❤️ below.