McLuhan’s 1 Way Catholics Survive the Maelstrom

Marshall McLuhan was highly praised by Fr. John A. Hardon, who often cited that McLuhan observed, “all of the media is engaged in a Luciferian conspiracy against the truth.”  McLuhan wasn’t making a bald assertion, or a phantasmic observation. Rather, he was a studied philosopher of the first order who had many observations on how modern man was being toppled. Landon DePasquale gives us a good handle on one of those facets of McLuhan’s theory. 


Marshall McLuhan was fond of using Edgar Allan Poe’s story, The Descent into the Maelstrom, as an example of how modern people could recognize information in the midst of the overwhelming deluge they are faced with. In his lecture on Man and Media, delivered at York University in 1977, McLuhan recounts Poe’s story. He describes the situation where a sailor, not paying attention to the weather around him, finds himself caught up in a maelstrom. The sea is moving around him so quickly that the sailor cannot take in all the information that is presented to him. It is only in recognizing the pattern, that some things disappear and reappear, that he able to lash himself to a water cask and survive. McLuhan says in his lecture:

Pattern recognition in the midst of a huge, overwhelming, destructive force is the way out of the maelstrom. The huge vortices of energy created by our media present us with similar possibilities of evasion of the consequences of destruction. By studying the pattern of the effects of this huge vortex of energy in which we are involved, it may be possible to program a strategy of evasion and survival.

“It may be possible.” That less than sure suggestion, though meager, gives us something to go on. Yet, we might be left asking ourselves:

  • What are these patterns?
  • How does one recognize them?
  • What exactly are these objects that disappear and reappear?
  • Will it work?

For McLuhan, Patterns are the Essence of the Real, the True

The patterns that McLuhan has in mind are those things that we see over and over again in our culture that have permanence. These are ideas and truths that continue to reverberate through Western thought because there is some stability to them. One might think of the quote from Hamlet, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” as a good example. While we are obviously familiar with the reference because of the influence of Shakespeare, it is not simply common familiarity that gives way to a pattern, but rather, it is that the very concept communicated by it is so central to human experience. The truth that there is always something beyond human understanding and that our knowledge is necessarily finite forms the basis for the pattern. This familiar quote embodies one example of the pattern: it is one of the many water casks that appear, only to reappear in some other place and time.

We might think of these patterns as the anti-meme. A meme is a common idea that spreads throughout the culture by mimicry. The most common example that we see of this are images and text that make their way around the internet, purporting to share some truth in the form of humor. They follow specific conventions: each image communicates something along with the text, giving it a context within which one can understand it. These memes, though widely recognized, are the very opposite of the pattern McLuhan describes because they are fleeting. They are predicated on the novel, on the recent, on a collective surge in interest, only to have them relegated to being mocked or completely forgotten.

McLuhan suggests that we recognize these patterns primarily in art. He sees the artist as the one who can produce something capable of breaking through the maelstrom and revealing the pattern. In an interview with Norman Mailer, McLuhan said:

“The artist, when he encounters the present, the contemporary artist, is always seeking new patterns, new pattern recognition, which is his task, for heaven’s sake. His great need – the absolute indispensability of the artist – is that he alone in the encounter with the present can get the pattern recognition. He alone has the sensory awareness necessary to tell us what our world is made of.”

It would not be hard to see, following McLuhan’s argument, how the music of Palestrina was an important part of the counter-reformation just as the theological works of Cardinal Bellarmine were. They were seeking to expand the familiar, as McLuhan suggests. Palestrina saw the beautiful patterns of music and sought to expand them into new territory, expanding music into beautiful new places. Similarly, Cardinal Bellarmine saw the patterns of theology understood and sought to expand them into more complex and richer statements of truth. McLuhan calls this the job of the artist:  to seek the new way to state the pattern.

By McLuhan’s Pattern Analysis, Modern Art, By itself, Explains How Art Has Failed

This also answers, at least in part, why we are so bad at pattern recognition today. How can we hope to recognize any meaningful pattern when:

For the most part, modern artists have sold us out. Outside of a handful of examples, such as Daniel Mistui or Matthew Alderman, we’ve largely been abandoned by contemporary artists. Besides supporting that small handful of good artists, we are left in the unenviable position of clinging to traditional art that we know is good, true, and beautiful, but can’t speak to modern problems like transhumanism and technocracy or simply embracing the modern dreck disguised as art.

Art, after all, in McLuhan’s sight, is supposed to be speaking truth to us and helping us to compare the mess of society today against the firm essences of beauty in art. While falling back to known works aren’t our only options, they tend to be the most common ones we revert to. We are creatures of habit, and just as Palestrina portrays beauty years ago, it does again when beauty is what we seek. Is it any surprise that people are leaving our new churches when those churches no longer follow the patterns? They are lifeless spaces now, just as modern art is only shocking or shapeless. What then, do we do?

How Then Do We Survive Today’s Maelstrom?

This is usually the point where the purveyor of the blog post gives you his solution. It might be a good suggestion like attending the Latin Mass or sending your kids to a solid Catholic school. It might be a mediocre suggestion like living in an agrarian Catholic commune or focusing on social media. Sometimes, it is a downright shady suggestion like buying the latest Catholic product or going on a pilgrimage to a site of dubious authenticity. The reality is, there is no single easy fix either to escape the maelstrom or to restore the patterns necessary for surviving it. Even objectively good suggestions that are sure to help run the risk of diverting attention from other worthy ends if we focus on them exclusively. The daunting nature of the task before us might tempt us to despair of hope.

We can get caught up easily in grand pronouncements on how to solve the problems that surround us that we are completely unable to realize. Instead, I think it is valuable to focus on the things we can control. Namely, we can work to recognize the patterns in our own lives and we can work to pass on that recognition to those in our charge, like our families. We can go back to those things in our tradition: the sublime art, the beautiful music, the transcendent Mass, and we can use these as touchstones. Known standards of beauty can remind our minds of what those patterns are. Thus, by practicing with those, we become like an athlete training his body for a race, and we practice our recognition on those things we know to be stable, those patterns we know will recur, and those casks we know will take us out of the maelstrom. As we practice this recognition, we might find that there are places where we can see these truths shining through in our modern world. It might be that a film, or a book, or a piece of music gives us that hint at the truly foundational realities that will save us.

I agree with McLuhan, I’m not sure if we will be successful, but given that the maelstrom on all sides surrounds us, trying to recognize the pattern is worth it if it will give us a chance at salvation.

Scales of Judgment

This article, McLuhan’s 1 Way Catholics Survive the Maelstrom is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
Do not repost the entire article without written permission. Reasonable excerpts may be reposted so long as it is linked to this page.

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Randon LeDescale

Randon LeDescale is the former Director of New Evangelization at a large Catholic parish. His interests include Philosophy, Theology, and pipe smoking. He and his wife are the proud parents of four kids.

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