A Catholic Media Trinity: Marshall McLuhan, Walter Ong and Andy Warhol
“I make probes,” wrote Marshall McLuhan. “I don’t explain—I explore.” In 1967 he published The Medium Is the Massage, an eccentric journey into how our senses experience electric media. That same year, Walter Ong, S.J.—whose graduate thesis adviser happened to be McLuhan—released The Presence of the Word, a dense but visionary take on our evolution from oral to electronic communication. Also in 1967 Andy Warhol created a silkscreen portfolio of Marilyn Monroe. “The more you look at the same exact thing,” Warhol said, “the more the meaning goes away, and the better and emptier you feel.”
McLuhan, Ong and Warhol offered a profound vision of media, a Catholic vision. Their Catholicism was not incidental to their theories and their art; it was their structure, their spirit and their sustenance. Fifty years later, their simultaneous creations feel somehow both particular to their moment and prescient. We might even call them transcendent.
All oracles must divine from somewhere, and McLuhan’s source was Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J. Teilhard had conceived of the “noösphere,” an evolutionary phase in which a “thinking skin” covers the world. This “stupendous thinking machine” of a collective consciousness sounds much like a biological internet. Now imagine how Teilhard’s wild theory sounded to an academic like McLuhan, a literary scholar seeking patterns and connections in the history of media and communication.
Their Catholicism was not incidental to their theories and their art; it was their structure, their spirit and their sustenance.
McLuhan had written the former America editor Clement McNaspy, S.J., of his intellectual plan: “We must confront the secular in its most confident manifestations, and, with its own terms and postulates, to shock it into awareness of its confusion, its illiteracy, and the terrifying drift of its logic. There is no need to mention Christianity. It is enough that it be known that the operator is a Christian.”
Even that, it seems, was trouble. Although McLuhan’s conception of the “global village” created from technology was clearly indebted to Teilhard’s noösphere—consider lines like “the evolutionary process has shifted from biology to technology in an eminent degree since electricity”—he shied from acknowledging the French Jesuit’s work. In his book Hooking Up, the writer Tom Wolfe offers two reasons for this. As a Catholic convert, McLuhan was “highly devout,” and “the Church had declared Teilhard’s work heterodox.” And despite McLuhan’s private aspirations in his letters, he was a member of the secular intellectual community and had to avoid overt religious references.
The Medium Is the Massage is the work of a theorist at play. The book contains mini-essays, prose poems and typographic puzzles, juxtaposed with complementary and contrasting images, photographs, drawings, clippings from media and excerpts from James Joyce (the book was a collaboration with graphic designer Quentin Fiore). Although McLuhan’s particular focus was on television, he was clear that “all media work us over completely.” (Hence the massage: We are rubbed and relaxed by media. We enter another state).
In the electric river of television, “information pours upon us, instantaneously and continuously.” As a viewer, “images are projected at you. You are the screen. The images wrap around you. You are the vanishing point.” If “electric technology fosters and encourages unification and involvement,” it also disallows escape. The digital world is not going anywhere, and neither are we.
McLuhan’s detractors are skeptical of his pithy lines. He would smirk at their condemnations. McLuhan had a particular ability to look a bit askew at the world and distill the world into sly, aphoristic lines—much like tweets. His truncated sentences are not quite lyrical enough to be poetry, but they can seem as if they are cribbed from rambling prayers.
Those prayers, probes, pleas—whatever you would like to call them—are best understood through his context as a Catholic. That identity slowly became more obvious as McLuhan responded to both praise and critiques of his work. After quipping, “I have been bitterly reproached by my Catholic confrères for my lack of scholastic terminology and concepts,” he proceeded to offer a firm public stance: “The Christian concept of the mystical body—all men as members of the body of Christ—this becomes technologically a fact under electronic conditions.”
“The Christian concept of the mystical body—all men as members of the body of Christ—this becomes technologically a fact under electronic conditions.”
McLuhan’s largely playful The Medium Is the Massage existed within a larger tension in his work: Should we fear or embrace the digital era? In one interview, he sounded hopeful: “The computer thus holds out the promise of a technologically engendered state of universal understanding and unity, a state of absorption in the logos that could knit mankind into one family and create a perpetuity of collective harmony and peace. This is the real use of the computer, not to expedite marketing or solve technical problems but to speed the process of discovery and orchestrate terrestrial—and eventually galactic—environments and energies.”
Channeling Teilhard, McLuhan concluded: “Psychic communal integration, made possible at last by the electronic media, could create the universality of consciousness foreseen by Dante when he predicted that men would continue as no more than broken fragments until they were unified into an inclusive consciousness. In a Christian sense, this is merely a new interpretation of the mystical body of Christ; and Christ, after all, is the ultimate extension of man.”
Yet in private McLuhan was more cautious. In a letter to Jacques Maritain, he rewinds back to his earlier theories about Gutenberg’s invention. Although the printing press led to mass reproduction, in that time the “individual thought of himself as a fragmented entity.” Distance still had to be covered, and distance meant delay. Now, “the electric-oriented person thinks of himself as tribally inclusive of all mankind.” That could be good. But McLuhan had other ideas: “Electric information environments being utterly ethereal fosters the illusion of the world as spiritual substance. It is now a reasonable facsimile of the mystical body, a blatant manifestation of the Anti-Christ. After all, the Prince of this World is a very great electric engineer.”
The Jesuit Walter Ong’s insights have proved predictive of our digital present.
McLuhan’s ideas are often porous and therefore so often misunderstood. He was a disruptor. Yet his ultimate goal was not the “opaquities and obliquities” of value judgments, but rather he was “interested in understanding processes.” McLuhan was inspirational, and that can be clearly seen in the work of his former student, Walter Ong. McLuhan’s cryptic sayings are perfect for bumper stickers. Ong’s insights in The Presence of the Word are far more scholarly, yet no less predictive of our digital present.
Early in the book he introduces an analogy: “It is useful to think of cultures in terms of the organization of the sensorium...the entire sensory apparatus as an operational complex.” We are overwhelmed with noise, and culture teaches us how to specialize, how to organize our perception. “Given sufficient knowledge of the sensorium exploited within a specific culture, one could probably define the culture as a whole in virtually all its aspects.”
Unlike McLuhan, Ong is primarily concerned with the mode of sound: “The electronic processes typical of today’s communications world are themselves of their very nature infravisible—not even truly imaginable in terms of sight.” Although the electronic age awakened us to the profound differences between the “old oral culture and the culture initiated with writing and matured with alphabetic type,” he channels McLuhan to say that “simultaneity is a mark of both early oral culture and of electronic culture.... Primitive life is simultaneous in that it has no records, so that its conscious contact with its past is governed by what people talk about.”
Our digital world is simultaneous, absolute, overwhelming in possibility. What does that mean for communion with others? “The fragmentation of consciousness initiated by the alphabet has in turn been countered by the electronic media which have made man present to himself across the globe, creating an intensity of self-possession on the part of the human race which is a new, and at times an upsetting, experience. Further transmutations lie ahead.”
We are living those transmutations now, and Ong’s questions remain: “Could the cry of Nietzsche’s madman, ‘God is dead’, derive from the fact that He cannot be readily found by the old signs in the newly organized sensorium where the word stands in such different relationship to the total complex of awareness by which man earlier situated himself in his life world?” Ong and McLuhan were both observers; rather than attempting to stop the tide of electronic change, they wanted to understand its rise and fall.
Meanwhile, another Catholic seemed content with riding that tide. In 1967 Warhol was staging his multimedia “Exploding Plastic Inevitable” events across the country. Strobe lights pulsed. Projectors reeled Warhol’s films against the walls. Dancers and their shadows cut through the images. Loudspeakers boomed simultaneous pop songs. The Velvet Underground, the band Warhol managed and produced in his own Warholian way, played live.
Nobody would label the content of Warhol’s provocative shows as Catholic, but that would be mistaking the media for the message. Warhol’s shows were sensory manipulations and experiences. He wanted to alter their states. McLuhan appreciated Warhol’s experiments enough to include a collage spread from the show in The Medium Is the Massage. Black-and-white faces from Warhol’s film panel the wall. The Velvet Underground and dancers blur above two sentences from Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake: “History as she is harped. Rite words in rote order.” McLuhan follows those pages with words that recall Ong: “We are enveloped by sound. It forms a seamless web around us.”
Warhol’s hidden Catholicism was never truly hidden.
High and low, sacred and mundane, immediate and eternal: Paradox is endemic to Catholic storytelling and art. Warhol was one of its finest visual prophets. At Warhol’s memorial service, the art historian John Richardson pulled back the veil: Warhol was a devout Catholic, and his faith was “the key to the artist’s psyche.” He went to daily Mass at the Church of St. Vincent Ferrer in New York and served meals to the homeless. “Never take Andy at face value,” Richardson explained. “The callous observer was in fact a recording angel.”
Warhol is certainly not the only celebrity to live a double life, but unlike most, his hidden Catholicism was never truly hidden. The Velvet Underground’s Lou Reed and John Cale reunited at Warhol’s memorial service and created an album about him titled “Songs for Drella.”One song, “Work,” perfectly captures Warhol’s blue-collar origins and ethos: “Andy was a Catholic, the ethic ran through his bones/ He lived alone with his mother, collecting gossip and toys/ Every Sunday when he went to church/ He’d kneel in his pew and say, ‘It’s just work, all that matters is work.’”
Warhol surrounded himself with Catholic artists, photographers, poets and managers: Fred Hughes, Gerald Malanga, Paul Morrissey, Bob Colacello, Natasha Fraser-Cavassoni, Christopher Makos, Robert Mapplethorpe and Vincent Fremont. The same year he created the “Exploding Plastic Inevitable” spectacles, Warhol created a silkscreen series of Marilyn Monroe. The portfolio’s varying shades and colors take an endlessly recycled face and imbue transformative life. There is something vaguely liturgical in Warhol’s recursive method.
This is not to say that such pop work was devotional; Warhol saved that for his Last Supper sequence. Alexandre Iolas commissioned Warhol to create a series based on Leonardo da Vinci’s famous work. For an artist who had made the mundane mystical—think soup cans and soda bottles—this was a different context. It was a print masterpiece resurrected, an artistic word made flesh: draped in camouflage, silkscreened, infused with layers of pop and piety. Warhol created over 100 takes on Leonardo’s creation, his repetition suffused with the rhythm of prayer. McLuhan did not live to see it, but he would have appreciated it.
Somewhere between Warhol’s public glam and his private, blue-collar Catholicism rested a spirit similar to the “inscape” of Gerard Manley Hopkins, the belief that even the most mundane and artificial objects existed in a divine world. Warhol’s fascination with death was the acknowledgment of his own mortality—perfectly appropriate for someone drawn to the life of Christ.
Fifty years ago, McLuhan, Ong and Warhol watched the electronic age arrive and did not blink. They found eternal patterns, moments of illumination, a new opportunity for communion, clarity and mysticism. Is God in the machine? We don’t know. But if we follow the lead of those Catholic visionaries, we should allow ourselves to be surprised.