Author: Zukowski, Angela Ann
Date published: April 1, 2011
"We shape our tools and afterwards our tools shape us."
"If we want to express the Gospel today then we need to use symbolic language."
(Pierre Babin, OMI)
A quarter of a century ago Marshall McLuhan passed; yet, in celebrating his 100th birthday anniversary (2011), there is a resurgence of wonder concerning his prophetic voice. He was born Herbert Marshall McLuhan in Edmonton, Alberta, in 1911. He attended the University of Manitoba, receiving a BA before heading off to study at Cambridge. He taught at the University of Wisconsin (Madison), St. Louis University (St. Louis). Assumption College and St. Michael's College (Toronto). His growing renown eventually lead to the establishment of the Center of Culture and Technology (Toronto), which would serve as his intellectual base camp.
He remains one of the best recognized intellectuals of media studies. It was believed that he thought differently because he was wired differently. He was the subject of a vast number of national magazine and journal articles through the 1960s and 1970s. He cared deeply about popular culture. In a review of McLuhan's works, Wendy Robinson (2005) wrote of McLuhan: "I have come to consider McLuhan's lasting contributions to be 'rearviewmirrorism' (we tend to view the present and future through the prism of the past and, therefore, tend to use new media like older forms until we culturally figure out innovative uses for the innovations) and proto-cybernetic mediated extensions (media and technology act as second skin, extending human consciousness and the sensory reach)." Thus, we discover in McLuhan's words that: "We shape our tools and afterwards our tools shape us" (1962). McLuhan's ability to anticipate the effect of mass media when the phenomenon was in its infancy made him remarkable. He realized the toxic effect of media long before media became the air we all breathe. He did it before there was any genuine understanding of how human beings process mediated information.
McLuhan read the works of Bernard Lonergan (Jesuit philosopher, theologian and economist, 1904-1984) in the 1950s and was captured by his ideas. He was a teacher and friend of the great Lonergan scholar Jesuit Father Walter Ong, who adored McLuhan and wrote a piece on him titled, "McLuhan as Teacher: The Future is a Thing of the Past" (Journal of Communication 31 (1981): 129-35).
Humanity in a Global Membrane
McLuhan believed that the electronic telegraph- the "first pulsation of the real nervous system of the world"- sealed humanity in a "global membrane" of instant communication, a global commune or "global village." McLuhan saw the evolution of communication media as creating a new world- a global village atmosphere for the 21st century. Whether you conceptualize it or whether you verbalize it, you live in a global situation in which every event modifies and affects every other event (McLuhan, 2010. p. 33). He saw that soon information would be moving at relatively instantaneous speed. This would terrify ordinary people. He discussed how total global information would presses upon humanity daily as a continuous environment, bringing with it all of the dangers of instant decision making. In a way, he predicted a new Pentecost where one voice would resound throughout the global village (the Internet).
Oblate Father Pierre Babin (1927present), international presenter and creator of the Symbolic Way, became intrigued with McLuhan's conceptualization of the future media age. In his book "The New Era in Religious Communication (1991)," Babin explains how the encounter with Marshall McLuhan changed both his philosophy and orientation of teaching. The edited transcript of Babin's dialogues with McLuhan over several summers has been published in "The Medium and the Light" (2010). In a series of interviews with Babin (Zukowski 2000-2005). Babin stated: "I met McLuhan several times when McLuhan was in his 'glorious prophet years' (19701980). McLuhan turned my former ideological structure of religious training upside down. Formerly, my life was governed by the aphorism that 'ideas rule the world.' McLuhan opened my mind to the fact that the crucial factors changing culture and human behavior were not just ideas but more fundamentally the technological innovations of the dawning of a new era. I began to see how technology had changed my town over many years. McLuhan's vision was to see the complex interaction of technology with all aspects of our social and cultural reality. At the heart of his thinking, of course, is communication technologythe medium that is the message."
The conversations with McLuhan escorted Babin to a new concept for communicating faith. The message is the whole complex of ministries and conditions that are required for an effect to be produced. It is the face, the gestures, tone and clothes of the religious educator. The content of the faith message is not primarily the ideas or the teaching, but rather the listeners themselves, insofar as they are affected by the medium. "In the communication of faith, the content is not first and foremost the teaching of Christ. Rather, it is those who are being taught, insofar as they are reached by Christ and his church; again, insofar as they are affected by the medium."
New Technologies to Change the World
Babin knew that McLuhan changed the meaning of words, and this made it difficult to understand McLuhan's message. McLuhan saw the world from a different perspective. However, the fact that new technologies would change the world was evident. If we want to understand the world, we must change our way of looking at it and the way we perceive how it is connected. It took many years for Babin to come to terms with the meaning of the medium is the message. Babin saw it as a "Copernican Revolution." This meant that the initial act of communicating faith was a comprehensive movement involving images, gestures, sounds, etc., that were much more important than the doctrine of faith.
Fundamental to Babin's teaching was the concept that ground is more important than figure. It is not what you say that is so important but "what you are: the tone of your voice, your gestures and behavior." As time evolved. Babin understood that audiovisual media in general was an extension and modification of the body (ala McLuhan). He wrote, "When we say, 'Christ's Body,' we only give a Christian name to the term of 'medium.' Evangelizing in the media age is embodying Christ. Through the media, through ourselves, we make Christ a medium."
Babin's persistent intellectual curiosity, theological reflection and pastoral encounters with the evolving media age prepared the ground for The Symbolic Way. "If we want to express the Gospel today," Babin would say, "then we need to use symbolic language." Jesus used symbolic language, and it is the dominant language of the media culture. Symbolic language adds modulation to abstract words. "It is the royal way for communicating the invisible in our own age of sensory explosion." He believed that symbolic language is "tragically misunderstood."
As McLuhan's probing perspective left many perplexed, curious or simply rejecting his perceptions of a newer media-saturated world, so did many who encountered Babin's thinking. McLuhan's ideas behind hot and cool media, the concept of media as extensions of our senses, the notion that the medium is the message were prophetic and playful projections into the 21st century. For McLuhan. the media environment is a "vortex" of material and immaterial forces, corporal and incorporeal effects. This view of the media ecology as a matrix of forces in "constant flux" reveals the rigor of McLuhan's "mosaic method of analysis, which is so often dismissed as arbitrary and impressionistic. McLuhan abandons a fixed point of view- itself the product of print culture- on the media environment and instead creates a more subtle science of mixtures. McLuhan's aphorisms- the medium is the message, the medium is the massage, the medium is the mass-age- are verbal missiles (missives) designed to keep pace with the information and communication machines running at close to the speed of light." (MacDonald, 2006. p. 509)
Marshall McLuhan has influenced a wide and diversified audience, from academic scholars and researchers to diverse media agents. He was a prophetic media voice that unsettled, inspired and created curiosity regarding the impact of media on forming a new global village and being an extension of the human consciousness. What are teachers except those who awaken their students to think outside the box in new ways? Thus, McLuhan and Babin perceived the products of their thinking as "probes" into understanding the evolution of media culture. Their ideas created excitement even if they were not fully understood. They simply had a vast range of knowledge and genius that sparked imagination and creative thinking beyond the existing media norm.
A series of conferences and symposia on McLuhan are scheduled in Canada during the summer and fall of 2011. 1 encourage educators to be tuned into the publication and Web sites that are being established to probe and celebrate the meaning of Marshall McLuhan for the 21st century digital age!
Babin, P. & lannone. M. (1991). The new era in religious communication. Minneapolis. MN: Fortress Press.
Coupfand. D. (2010). Marshall McLuhan: Extraordinary Canadians series. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Penguin Group.
MacDonald, M, (2006). Empire and Communication: The Media Wars of Marshall McLuhan. Media. Culture & Society, 28 (4): 505-520.
McLuhan, M. (2010). The medium and the light: Reflections on religion. Eugene. OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers.
Ong. W. The Future is a Thing of the Past. Journal of Communication 31 (1981): 129-35.
Robinson, W. (2005). Marshall McLuhan Reconsidered: Review of Reprinted Editions, Previously Unpublished Work and Two Tributes. Sage Publications. New Media, Culture & Society, p. 271-273.
Zukowski, A. A. (2005). An introduction to the Symbolic Way with Pierre Babin. DVD. Produced by the Institute for Pastoral Initiatives. The University of Dayton.
Angela Ann Zukowski, MHSH
Sister Angela Ann Zukowski, MHSH. D. Min., /s director of the Institute for Pastoral Initiatives and professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Dayton. She has more than 30 years experience in the application of communication technology for Catholic education and catechesis. She also directs the Virtual Learning Community for Adult Faith FormationInternet courses (angela. zukowski@ notes.udayton.edu).