“The most convinced imbecile of the century”

It wasn’t just within his own academic community that McLuhan raised ire. 

Guy Debord, hardcore drunkard, poet, leader of the Siuationist International admired but sometimes could barely tolerate McLuhan.

Debord, as revolutionary leftist as they come, loved McLuhan’s media insight, but could not tolerate his steadfast political neutrality.

Debord goes as far as calling McLuhan a “convinced imbecile” in his “Notes on the Society of the Spectacle”, published 1990.

But as imbecilic as Debord thought McLuhan might be, it is important to note that he actually devoted an entire chapter in the aforementioned tome to McLuhan.

The Chapter entitled “The Spectacle’s first apologist,” attacks the ‘imbecile,’ but later Debord refers to McLuhan as the “sage of Toronto,” and later still, perhaps somewhat describes himself when he says that the current (1990s) academic community of  Toronto is rife with McLuhan contemporaries and hairs-breadth predecessors who are trying to make a name for themselves by making pople forget McLuhan. 

McLuhan’s ungrateful modern disciples are now trying to make people forget him hoping to establish their own careers in media celebration of all these new freedoms to choose at random from ephemera. And no doubt they will retract their claims faster than the man who inspired them.

Notes on

Society of the Spectacle p. 34

After he became world famous, McLuhan was the victim of a plot to ostracize him from the zeitgeist-makers of society, his academic colleagues at the University of Toronto conspired to destroy his career, have his tenure revoked. An MIT doctoral thesis has revealed that: 

At the University of Toronto in particular, the reaction to McLuhan’s celebrity was most intense. It got to the point that McLuhan warned his graduate students to erase any trace of his work in their theses and dissertations for fear of reprisals by their review committees.[12]

According to Eric McLuhan, “there were at least two concerted efforts (quiet ones, of course) to collect enough signatures to have his tenure revoked.”[13]

Debord loathed McLuhan’s silence on ethical issuse surrounding the media spectacle’s control of human populations. He interpreted McLuhan’s neutrality as support for the dominant capitalist system, and seethed at McLuhan in most of his writing. 

One reason McLuhan made Debord so angry is that Debord had nurtured his own understanding of the media upon McLuhan’s ideas, and found it tough to reconcile his respect for McLuhan with his distate for the absence of value judgements or politics on the part of “the Spectacle’s chief Apologist.”

But Debord could not abide by  the Toronto academic communitny’s push to ostracize McLuhan and discredit his insights, he had this to say: 

McLuhan’s ungrateful modern disciples are now trying to make people forget him hoping to establish their own careers in media celebration of all these new freedoms to choose at random from ephemera. And no doubt they will retract their claims faster than the man who inspired them.

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