The Spiritual McLuhan

Digital Communion: Marshall McLuhan’s Spiritual Vision for a Virtual Age / Nick Ripatrazone

(Fortress Press, March 2022)

McCoy Tyner

John Fraim

The upcoming short and brilliant book called Digital Communion: Marshall McLuhan’s Spiritual Vision for a Virtual Age (Fortress Press, March 2022) by religious author Nick Ripatrazone, discusses the religious and spiritual ideas of Marshall McLuhan. His conversion to Catholicism and spiritual awakening. This took place when McLuhan was at Cambridge in the mid-30s. 

Although McLuhan is commonly known as the prophet of the digital age, the religious and spiritual aspects of this prophet are hardly known. For the most part, they’ve been taken for granted rather than investigated. One reason might be the perpetual attention of popular culture to just the shiny pieces of life. And, with the overwhelming popularity of McLuhan’s “shiny piece” ideas in the 60s (as well as today), there is less interest in these early years of the “prophet’s” life.  

But there is little doubt that he formed the foundation for his worldview during these years of the 30s while a student at Cambridge. In a large sense, Digital Communion offers an argument that we need to understand this period in McLuhan’s life, the mid-30s when he was in his mid-20s, to understand the spiritual and religious essence of Marshall McLuhan. It is something that has been, as we observed, taken for granted rather than investigated. Or probed. 

* * *

Towards the end of the book, Nick Ripatrazone talks about the spiritual ideas of McLuhan, observing, “The electronic world—and even more so, the virtual world—makes us all disembodied and discarnate. In a way, we become angels, as McLuhan thought. We are more than our bodies. Online, we are all soul. Imagine what might happen if we acted commensurate with that spirit. McLuhan’s theories offer us a guide. His theories arrived, and remain, as poetic mosaics, ponderings, and paradoxes. Structurally, they are challenging; intellectually, they are revelatory. The route we must take to achieve digital com­munion is not easy nor direct, but faith never is—and the result might feel like grace.” 

I had heard about this new book (probably in the general area of media studies) on the Marshall McLuhan List Serve today called the MEA List or Media Ecology ListServe. I’ve been on it for perhaps 20 years. It is the main communication source for those interested in the ideas of Marshall McLuhan. 

A week ago, Nick Ripatrazone posted to the MEA List notice of his new book. From the information that Nick posted to the list, it seemed a book I would be interested in reading. Not just another McLuhan worshipper book but something fresh and new about McLuhan. A new perspective on him. And, as a spiritual and religious prophet, his predictions for our world. This spirituality of McLuhan was something I had been interested since 1999 when Marshal’s son Eric sent me The Medium and the Light to read.

* * *

I remember reading it one summer while staying with my mother in Carmel Valley. I think the summer of 1999. It was an incredible book and gave me a new perspective on McLuhan. His early years at Cambridge when he studied and wrote his PhD thesis on the obscure writer Thomas Nashe. The book was a revelation. I saw McLuhan in a new perspective. There had always been very little written (or probed) about this early Cambridge period of his life. The Medium and the Light was about this period. It was so good Eric sent it to me and so good for me to read and digest. It seemed that McLuhan had not moved. Rather, the movement was on my part. It was the movement of a changed perspective from which I viewed him.  

When I read Nick’s announcement of Digital Communion on the MEA List, I considered whether I should reach out to him and offer to review the book. I had several projects on the old plate at the time. But I did reach out because his book reminded me so much of The Medium and the Light, Eric McLuhan sending it to me and my review of it. 

I contacted Nick and he graciously sent me galleys of the book before its publication in late March of 2022. In the same manner that McLuhan might “probe” something, I’ve been reading parts of the book in non-linear order. Ripatrazone’s words from his new book are so true for me. McLuhan’s theories and ideas remain for me “poetic mosaics, ponderings, and paradoxes.” It’s the way I approach most projects. Not from a linear perspective but a non-linear, spontaneous, piece of synchronicity. Pulling things together in my life via subliminal, unseen, unfelt, forces in my life. 

It is the way I am reading Ripatrazone’s Digital Communion. I think in much the same way that McLuhan might set-forth on a new project. For example, today I read several of the Yeats and Gerald Manly Hopkins greatest poems that were mentioned in Digital Communion. I went back and re-read my review of The Medium and the Light

* * *

It’s a linear, straight approach to something. The project of reviewing a book seems to lend itself to this method. 

Yet this is not the way Digital Communion can be approached. Such a short book. Yet packed full of important aspects of Marshall McLuhan’s life that not known to the general public. 

The usual task of reviewing a books for me is usually a simple task. Usually (thank god) the books I get to review are just ordinary books, just contributions to the over-production of things in our lives. 

I get real worried – like now – when I have been sent the galleys to a new way of looking at a leading figure of 20thcentury thought. In many ways, the true prophet of the digital age. It is a prophet who is given religious and spiritual dimensions for the first time. Or at least suggest these play a part in his theories. It’s interesting that the focus in Digital Communion is on a period in McLuhan’s life, 30 years before his Understanding Media in the mid-60s. (A dog-eared copy of this book I carried with me through the late 60s.)

* * *

But when the book touches a particular passion within the reviewer, “fair” reviews might be dispensed with at the expense of passionate reviews. When I’m sent the PDF galleys of this book, I realize that the usual Western way of analysis and argument focused on content is not appropriate here. This book is altogether different and possesses its own spirit. In its attempt to present us with the idea that the spiritual aspects of McLuhan might play an important part in creating a larger view of McLuhan. The book in fact presents itself overall as McLuhan might make a case for his religious and spiritual aspects. 

I continue to read the book in a non-linear fashion. The same way that McLuhan would approach some new idea or project. I began to mix many references in the book to sources on the Internet. A new understanding came to me from exploring the tentacles of the names or links mentioned in books I had agreed to review. This book had long tentacles, tangled deeply in religion. Perhaps it is a proper new light to view Marshall McLuhan in? Few within the McLuhan followers ever consider this a possibility it seems to me.

In many ways, I would characterize my life as that of an artist, always needed to create something in life. I’ve been doing it since I created a newsletter when I was about seven for my brother and sister. Communicating through newsletters such as The Jazz Newsletter I published in the Bay Area from 1977-1981. Now, since 2015, it has been in the form of over 450 posts to my Midnight Oil Studios. 

* * *

I wrote a biography of John Coltrane called Spirit Catcher. This might be a new form of Spirit Catcher. A modern Coltrane? 

My review of this new book in the future needs to be something special and new. For me. No more bullshit. Only the truth. Life is too short to screw around.

The truth is that we are currently using McLuhan’s ideas to create and deliver posts like this. This is because my method of receiving information seems more like a McLuhan type of probe, attempting discovery rather than defining discovery. 

I’ve benefited from the greatest thing Marshall McLuhan gave to me. That outside perspective of someone looking in on something rather than the inside perspective of someone being looked at. The context of life. The medium of life. The symbolism of the Hollywood scene or set. The realization that this medium was even out there in the first place. 

* * *

All of us are constantly trained to focus on content rather than context of life. Message rather than medium. Even this when we are moving from the Pisces to Aquarius era. Focus on content is the true propaganda of our times. The most subtle propaganda. The most invisible. The most powerful. The one employed by those in control of the nation. Not owned by a particular political party. Offering up symbols for the times. 

McLuhan’s gift to me was this patch quilt way to see the world. In pieces cobbled together rather than events within a straight line in linear time. In fact, this way of assembling things in my mind. It is good to return to the brilliant yet forgotten book The Medium and the Light in that the book seems such a continuation of. Returning to a reflection on this book, the present Digital Communion seems very related.

Perhaps the main argument if I’m a McLuhan follower is that I approach the world using his method of probes in life? A probe always suggests something pushed into unknown areas. Foreign landscapes and territories. Something cool, or participatory, as McLuhan would say. A probe is a cool tool for the creative artist. More than anything, it seems to me that the spiritual McLuhan was more than anything else, an artist, probing new ways to create art in the digital age.


Coming – Our Review of Digital Communion

Leave a Reply