I first took Marshall McLuhan seriously when I was trying to claim in my dissertation that John Milton’s Paradise Lost is, among other things, a network of media effects. McLuhan’s The Medium and the Light and Understanding Media: The Extension of Man gave me the language I needed to persuade that Milton’s media ecologies—his gardens, his use of the epic form—are more important than his content (I’ve never really been that interested in Milton’s theology). Though McLuhan was interested in television and nascent computing networks, his famous maxim—“The medium is the message”—offered me a way of grappling with form and its world-shaping force in our lives.
By the time I was integrating McLuhan into my writing, though, his star as a theorist had faded. McLuhan’s over-saturation within his own media environments in the mid-20th century—the magazine covers, the television appearances, and the debates with the likes of W.H. Auden and Norman Mailer—turned him into a caricature. Yet his theories and his non-linear approach to observing how media rich environments shape our thinking and way of being in the world paved the way for contemporary discussions of affordance within our digital modes of experience.
In his new book Digital Communion: Marshall McLuhan’s Spiritual Vision for a Digital Age (Fortress Press, 2022), Nick Ripatrazone puts McLuhan the media theorist, the glib performer, the Renaissance scholar, and the devout Roman Catholic on full display. And he makes compelling claims for revitalizing McLuhan’s ideas and his methods today, as we navigate the digital worlds McLuhan predicted. In Ripatrazone’s view, it is McLuhan’s Roman Catholic faith that has been underexplored and remains necessary for appraising his work and applying it within both sacred and secular environments today.
We talked over a week through both written correspondence and a Zoom conversation, a mix of media environments that Marshall McLuhan would surely have wondered at. The following has been edited for concision and clarity.
Elise Lonich Ryan: On one hand, turning to Marshall McLuhan in our media saturated world seems natural. On the other hand, McLuhan can sometimes smell a bit of mothballs, or sound like a voice coming to us over cassette tape. Why do you want to engage McLuhan? How do your intellectual and personal concerns converge on this mid-20th century media theorist?
Nick Ripatrazone: As Douglas Coupland—one of the most perceptive readers of McLuhan has said—we don’t get to choose our prophets. McLuhan was the first to admit that he was an unlikely visionary, yet he was a rather nimble and capable showman. Central to McLuhan’s appeal to me is his concept of obsolescence: we can’t form a dynamic vision of the future if we focus on what is already obsolete, but if we are able to find that which is on its way out—the current modes of communicating and being that are evolving into something else—then we might begin to decipher the unknown. I’m also drawn to McLuhan as a Catholic public intellectual; that he experienced his highest level of renown at the same time as another public Catholic—Andy Warhol—fascinates me.
ELR: You’re sensitive to the distinctions between the “medium of touch” that McLuhan associated with TV image-projection and the touch-world, the thing-rich world, that Catholics inhabit. You write, “For McLuhan, mass media was a form of Mass.” Do you think replication was central to his idea of sacramentality?
NR: Yeah. I think that there’s an interesting overlap with McLuhan and Warhol, and they are coming to Catholicism from different experiences and certainly even different rites—the Byzantine Rite for Warhol—but there is something Warholian in McLuhan’s appreciation for mass reproduced things. Certainly, Warhol thought that reproduction of something didn’t neuter or lessen its sacramental possibilities. And I think McLuhan, although sometimes skeptical of what he would call “the electronic age,” had an appreciation for what it could do for the masses of believers. And he certainly appreciated the idea that a very working-class piety was central to Catholicism. That’s something Warhol grew up on, and that’s something McLuhan came to appreciate.
Whenever I see McLuhan speaking about mass culture in a skeptical way, I feel like his ultimate dream would be a mass-produced faith that didn’t sanitize things, that didn’t extract the sacramentality out of it that sustained it.
ELR: There is no way for me to have a conversation with you and not ask you to explain McLuhan’s most oft cited and likely least interrogated aphorism: “The medium is the message.” Or, as he put it in what is my favorite of McLuhan’s works: “The medium is the massage.” So, will you enlighten us once and for all on this?!
NR: McLuhan loved puns! He loved words; he loved jokes. His first book, The Mechanical Bride (1951), is a wonderfully strange exegesis of print advertising. Corporations and advertising firms of the day paid to pick his brain—we might call him, strangely enough, a certified influencer of his time. “The medium is the message” is most casually meant to describe how the media of our time (television, radio, the Internet, phones, etc.) themselves are important, or perhaps more important, than the minutiae of what is communicated through them. Basically, the content of the texts that we send to each other are less important than the fact that we are communicating via text. While it is a good starting point to engage McLuhan, it’s not the full story. McLuhan clarified his famous saying to mean: “a hidden environment of services created by an innovation, and the hidden environment of services is the thing that changes people. It is the environment that changes people, not the technology.” Twitter does not change us, but is the environment of Twitter, a way of being and performing in that space, that distorts us—we are massaged by that medium. McLuhan liked how “massage” could be split into mass age, Mass. The word itself, to borrow a locution of McLuhan, works us over completely.
ELR: I’m taken by your claim in part because I think performativity is an under-examined category of McLuhan’s self- and intellectual-presentations, and since we often dismiss any performativity as inauthentic and deceptive, we miss the opportunities afforded by performance. How did a performance of self shape McLuhan’s message?
NR: McLuhan’s mother Elsie Naomi Hall McLuhan was an accomplished elocutionist, and young Marshall would travel along to her shows. He learned that language was pliable. McLuhan was an extemporaneous speaker whose thoughts didn’t match the expectations of most readers. Scholars wanted him to argue; McLuhan merely wanted to see. I suggest that people first listen to him, and then read him. When he said, “I don’t explain, I explore,” he offered the best way to appreciate him: a poet whose associative way of describing the world was far more prescient than the linear thinkers of his time. His doctoral thesis was on the acerbic satirist Thomas Nashe; McLuhan loved writers for whom play was their central spirit. He traded Nashe for Joyce, and then pivoted from examining Joyce as a writer of literature to appreciating Joyce as a Catholic parodist, an artist on the precipice of technological change. Joyce’s oeuvre is a put-on; McLuhan was inspired, and performed accordingly.
ELR: Digital Communion is a book as much about McLuhan the literary scholar as it is about McLuhan the media theorist. You write that we need to view McLuhan as “a prose-poet, a writer of almost mystical visions…a poet of the media, an artist who realized that an extemporaneous mode of communication worked better to capture the realities of his changing world than traditional literary techniques.” I’ll admit to being persuaded by your reading. Why do you think keeping poetry in view when reading and applying McLuhan is critical?
NR: McLuhan was essentially formed by his Cambridge years, and poetry was central to that intellectual and personal education. McLuhan’s literary criticism of Gerard Manley Hopkins is deft, and he correctly reads James Joyce for the novelist’s near-prosody (in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, especially). McLuhan was also drawn to Yeats, among other mystic poets, and I think he recognized after The Mechanical Bride that he needed to get with the times (or the media of his times). I think McLuhan realized that his attraction to poetry was largely structural, as a vehicle (or medium) for language—once you accept that, the shift to other media happens quickly.
ELR: Do you think that writing this book changed you as a writer? As I read Digital Communion, I was struck by the coherent collage-like effect of your prose. You have strong claims, but this isn’t a book that drives toward a traditional argument. Instead, following McLuhan’s lead, it’s a book that pays attention to our shifting electronic and digital environments and reports back from there. Do you think your prose style has been influenced by McLuhan?
NR: Thank you for saying “it’s a book that pays attention”—that was really my goal, to inhabit McLuhan’s methods and perform him, so to speak. I wanted to “explore” McLuhan’s world, and the man himself, and think biography should be prose-poetic in nature and gesture. Like McLuhan, I’m a fan of Francis Bacon’s concept of the aphorism: “Aphorisms, representing a knowledge broken, do invite men to inquire farther; whereas Methods, carrying the show of a total, do secure men, as if they were at farthest.” People, including myself, bemoan the brevity of digital communication, but there’s a calisthenic quality to rendering our thoughts in tight spaces—to perhaps leaving certain things unsaid.
I think he gave me license to write in a mosaic style, coming to this as a fiction writer originally, before I started writing nonfiction. So, I think his model offered a kind of prose poetic way forward. And also his disruption of linearity was pleasant.
It would almost feel sacrilegious to lineate McLuhan, to clean his meandering messes. Don’t we want our prophets to be weird and uncanny?
ELR: Do you find yourself wanting to offer a different kind of written engagement with literary, media, and theological questions?
NR: I’m writing a book now on mid-century nun and sister poets, women who published widely in magazines, who won awards, who had books, who were just significant writers in the time where it was really surprising they had the time or support to break through. And I don’t engage with McLuhan specifically in the book, but I do engage with that time.
There was something rather interesting happening in the Catholic intellectual world between the ‘40s and the ‘70s. It was a rich moment for a lot of people. How does that extend to the present? Does it? Because it’s easy to get nostalgic where you think the past was perfect. I am quite interested in that moment in Catholic intellectual history and how Catholics were, it seems, everywhere.
ELR: One of your foundational claims in Digital Communion is that there is no Marshall McLuhan as we know him without a consideration of his Catholic faith. Analogous to the forms of media he often described, McLuhan also saw Christ as the ultimate “extension” of humankind and the body upon which the space between the medium and the message collapsed. How does bringing McLuhan’s Catholicism into sharper focus give insight not only to his ideas but also to avenues of application that have been previously ignored?
NR: McLuhan is sometimes dismissed as a glib carnival barker; merely a product of his pop moment. His religious foundation reveals that his public pronouncements, including his aphorisms, were part of a greater project. For example: McLuhan’s essential medium was television. At the same time Pope Pius XII was pondering how the television viewer was “drawn on, as it were, to take an active part” in viewed events, McLuhan was positing that we should understand television as light through, rather than light on—the mode of film and photography. At first it seems like a strange claim, but when we recognize that McLuhan was relating television to stained glass, it begins to make sense. McLuhan was very much a Jesuit-influenced Catholic; a thinker in the Ignatian tradition, who saw God in all things. Paul Elie has said that being a Catholic means considering the border between the sacred and profane, and recognizing the tension there—it is a rather porous one, often, in the real world.
ELR: Throughout the book, you show rather clearly that the Roman Catholic Church attempted to address and to consider seriously technological advances. And yet, you also show how there have been a string of missed opportunities—McLuhan never received a full voice in Councils; McLuhan’s own reliance upon yet ambivalence toward Teilhard de Chardin prevented a powerful synthesis of worldviews; a persistent recalcitrance in prioritizing what is happening over how it happens within the Church. What is at stake for the Catholic Church today in its engagement (or lack thereof) with media rich environments?
NR: The Church, as both an abstract and material Body, needs to transcend the current moment, while also recognizing the needs of its people. I wish McLuhan had been offered a true voice in those committees; it is one of the tantalizing footnotes of history where things could have actually worked out, well, perfectly. Yet you can tell that McLuhan’s language, rhythms, and vision did find its way into elements of the Church writ large. His greatest cheerleader was a Jesuit priest, Father John Culkin. McLuhan’s student, another Jesuit named Walter Ong, was a brilliant thinker who carried and evolved McLuhan’s theories even beyond the scope of his mentor. It’s no wonder that I keep on using the word Jesuit: America: The Jesuit Review of Faith & Culture, is where I’ve most written about McLuhan over the years. Catholics fail to listen to McLuhan at their own peril.
And to not use him as a resource is a lost opportunity. And I guess the question is who will the church listen to now? Are they listening to people? If you ask the average priest or nun or sister, they might connect the dots, but if you ask a typical Catholic, first of all, they would have to have heard of McLuhan and then they’d have to understand his sometimes almost psychedelic theories. I would hope that at some point they’re going to break through.
ELR: You titled your book Digital Communion. How do you understand the connection between McLuhan’s sense of communication and Catholics’ understanding of communion/communication?
NR: I’ve been drawn again and again in the book, and kind of beyond, to the St. Clare story [of how she miraculously received the Eucharist on Christmas Eve while lying ill in bed] and how there’s something there where you have an incredibly pious person who longed for the Eucharist so much that, at least in her vision, she felt as if she partook of the Eucharist in that moment. Certainly, saint stories are embellished all the time, but there’s something powerful in just imagining her as someone who was incapable of being by the altar [who could] emote it and feel it. So, I keep on going back to her as this idea of extending the traditional concept of communion, while also feeling the significant, I would say rhetorical, push or narrative of tradition itself.
I think it’s a healthy tension to be in as a person, as a writer, to ask yourself to what extent can communion be extended? We’ve had to extend it in the past two years, and I think it’s been successful for a lot of people. But we are on the precipice now where if things do get back to some sort of a traditional normal, the Church and to certain extents parishes have to decide what are they getting to do with these extensions of mass, which are oddly McLuhanesque in the idea of the extension of the body.
But I do think, as you note in your question, that it seems like the right time to be having a conversation about the mystical elements of this. Because if we are going to name someone as a Saint in the church and valorize that miraculous moment, in what ways could we extend it to others who would benefit from them? The church has already in place a way to deliver communion and Eucharist to people who are not healthy in the moment or for whatever reason are unable to attend. There’s something there that could happen, but we are in this oddly tense moment where [the Church and parishes] are going to have to make some decisions.
ELR: If you had to recommend one place to start with McLuhan, where would you suggest we go?
NR: I would say The Medium Is the Massage is the best way to understand the environment of McLuhan perhaps. And then once you recognize that itself is almost like a mix tape of sorts and then you can follow the trail to his other work. Once people read a lot of McLuhan, his literary reviews are really fascinating and his work with Kenyon Review and Sewanee Review was really fun to read for this book. And that’s a part of McLuhan I think a lot of people don’t see, but that’s what he was trained to do. He was good at it. I use McLuhan with high school students, AP language students, and they enjoy it because he’s kind of on their wavelength.
ELR: Why are we ready for McLuhan now?
NR: It’s been long enough. McLuhan went from being perceived as an obscure Canadian scholar of literature to a wildly popular media guru to a bombast to, hopefully, a minor prophet. The true McLuhan is the McLuhan charged by God. I think of great lines from “Pied Beauty,” a poem McLuhan returned to while traveling through England: “All things counter, original, spare, strange; / Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?).” That parenthetical move by Hopkins is McLuhan incarnate. Such a spirit of playful, curious, and sacred inquiry would serve us well in the digital age.