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"I don't know what is inside (the vault); maybe it's nothing. I just sit and start to work. I grope, I listen, I test, I accept and discard; I try out different sequences - until the tumblers fall and the door spring open." Marshall McLuhan

 

 

Between the time he was born to his passing on the last day of 1980 in Toronto, Marshall McLuhan compressed a monumental voyage of intellectual exploration and discovery into a remarkable life.

As a professor of English at the University of Toronto, McLuhan's eccentric yet exhilarating vortex of ideas were shared with only a modest circle of contemporaries, students and thinkers. His perception and insightful dialogue ranged from classic literature to pop music to feminism. His lecture halls were filled with with both the appreciatively curious and the confused.

His first book, The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man, 1951, followed by The Gutenberg Galaxy, published in 1962, stemmed mainstream academic and public inertia. McLuhan's eminence accelerated in a timely and welcome fashion in an era of heady optimism.

The media, which McLuhan predicted would shrink the world and the intellectual process, unwittingly became his pulpit. His public persona was now as the oracle, Canada's intellectual comet, the metaphysician of the media. Most probably by design, Marshall McLuhan became lecturer to the world. And the world eagerly listened.

His milestone work, Understanding Media. in 1964 fuelled his accent to international prominence.

McLuhan set an unrelenting pace. He was sought by key figures in academia, mass media and big business. He continued his professorial duties at the University of Toronto, intermixed with sabbatical forays. His unique visions and probing hypotheses were published frequently and absorbed by millions who craved insight, understanding and a degree of solace during the now apocalyptic mood of the late 1960's.

Captains of industry and world leaders invited his councel. He spoke wherever and to whomever, with an unbridled passion. For McLuhan, probing the the present and past towards discovering a feasible prediction about the human condition was an exercise of sheer exultation equal only to the imparting of discovery.

His now famous "probes," the attempt to discard as thoroughly as possible mental structures that interfere with pure insighs, were described as a process akin to cracking a vault: "I don't know what's inside [the vault]; maybe it's nothing. I just sit down and start to work. I grope, I listen, I test, I accept and discard; I try out different sequences - until the tumblers fall and the door springs open."

Indeed. The door sprung open often revealing nuggets of wisdom and insight, from his four-point tetras on McLuhan's Laws of the Media, to religious and corporate theory, from sexuality to the excesses of industrialization (as one of the first defenders of the environment,) to playful Canada-bashing in an effort to help a nation define it's identity and character.

Marshall McLuhan grasped unfathomable notions and concepts, distilled them into managable servings and offered them to those with a hunger for meaning.

 

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Last updated December 2008