Baudrillard was influenced by Marshal McLuhan, the great media savant of the 1960s and 70s, who was himself a creation of the media.
McLuhan had already made a name for himself in academia, and was funded by the Ford Foundation to instigate seminars in Communications and Culture at Toronto University. At that point he became the beneficiary of an extraordinary intervention which transformed him into a high profile public intellectual – boosting his career into the stratosphere of public, corporate and academic adulation. Californian advertising executives Gerald Feigen and Howard Gossage were ‘genius-scouting’, and in McLuhan they found a mind that could articulate advertising to the advertisers, media to the mediators.
They embarked on a blitzkrieg of publicity, taking him to New York to meet the editors of the big magazines and newspapers (he was offered the use of an office at Newsweek and Time magazines any time he liked), and then organising a ‘McLuhan Festival’ at Gossage’s agency in San Francisco, where he strutted his stuff to the editors of Ramparts Magazine and the San Francisco Chronicle, and met Tom Wolfe. Newsweek did a cover story on him; Life Magazine, Harper’s Fortune, Esquire and even Playboy all ran stories and interviews.
And he was always good copy – a dazzling intellect, indeed. Cool, but not renegade: rather, a darling of the establishment, who flattered his sponsors with outrageous proclamations about advertising being the great art-form of the twentieth century.
McLuhan’s influence extended far beyond the academic world. From Terence McKenna to Andy Warhol to David Cronenberg, artists and intellectual celebrities took leads from him. His influence is not irrelevant the psychedelic movement, which now appears as a campaign to steer a generation away from political activism and into drug-fuelled hedonism; meeting with Dr Timothy Leary, McLuhan immediately started improvising advertising slogans for LSD, riffing on Brave New World‘s soma jingles.
‘Psychedelics hit the spot, 500 micrograms, that’s a lot’ (McLuhan).
‘Was and will will make me ill/ I take a gramme and only am’ (Huxley).
One of McLuhan’s jingles really did hit the spot, becoming in Leary’s mouth the pied-piper tune of the sixties: ‘Turn on, tune in, drop out.’
McLuhan eschewed the academic method, casting himself as a provocateur and describing his work as ‘probe, not package’. He had an extraordinary ability to engage others while floating clear of objections and counter-arguments; his method was to keep hitting his audience with highly generative, counter-intuitive ideas rather than getting bogged down in argument. Like Baudrillard his great talent was coinage and redefinition. He used language in unfamiliar ways, retuning words to create a cool, intriguing jargon fitted to the new and fluid circumstances he sought to explore. If a genius is a practitioner who doesn’t just master his field but re-imagines and permanently re-defines it, the ad-men had found their genius.
McLuhan took on the role of priming the public with a sense of imminent and unfathomable change and dressing these changes with a perverse intellectual glamour. He is often credited with predicting the internet, thirty years before it was rolled out. He certainly projected to its logical conclusions the trend towards electronic connectedness already seen in the advent of satellite television and telephone relays, arguing that such technologies turn the planet into what he called a ‘global village’. But the cosy, sentimental connotations of ‘village’ were not quite what he had in mind – what he meant was a more like a whispering gallery, a global echo chamber. A global village is, as anyone who has lived in a village knows, a global surveillance state.
Soon, however, he evolved his metaphor, perhaps realising that his vision of a huge circuit of village gossip didn’t sound cool enough. He began to speak instead of new media turning spectators into performers. Warhol, too, got his most famous sound-bite – ‘in the future, everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes’ – from McLuhan.
In this future all interactions become public, all identities performative. The new term he coined for this would have interested his younger contemporary Jean Baudrillard, whose ears must have pricked up at the phrase ‘global theatre’.
Instead of tending towards a vast Alexandrian library, the world has become a computer, an electronic brain, exactly as in an infantile piece of science fiction. And as our senses have gone outside us, Big Brother goes inside. So, unless aware of this dynamic, we shall at once move into a phase of panic terrors, exactly befitting a small world of tribal drums, total interdependence, and superimposed co-existence. […] Terror is the normal state of any oral society, for in it everything affects everything all the time.
(From Cliché to Archetype, 1970)
“The satellite medium,” McLuhan concludes, “encloses the Earth in a man-made environment, which ends ‘Nature’ and turns the globe into a repertory theatre to be programmed.”