A tribute to and a lament for Marshall McLuhan.  Five days a week, Tuesday through Saturday, I present one of McLuhan’s observations and talk about its relevance today.  300 ideas. 300 days.  300 posts.

Archive for October, 2009

Be a Newton, a Darwin, an Einstein, or even a McLuhan

Marshall McLuhan (July, 1952, age 40).  Print makes us all equals

I am writing a book on “the end of the Gutenberg Era” in the west, which was quite a long era as eras go, lasting from the Greeks through to the Victorians. That is it is about the end of the world made visual by writing and print.  An end brought about by the electric media of the late 19th and the whole of the 20th century – telegraph, film, radio, and TV.  It is a subject rich in fascinating ideas.  Here is one:  Printing by movable type made it possible for ordinary people to be on equal terms with all the great geniuses of the western tradition.

Michael Hinton (October, 2009, age 57).  How?  Print elevates you and reduces them

Marshall McLuhan is saying that a book freezes the thought of men and women of genius at a single point in time.  At the same time the book is there for you to go through many times, put down and go back to.  Take Eliot’s poem the Wasteland for example.  When you read the poem and grow to understand what Eliot is saying, the result is not that you acquire the illusion of equality with Eliot.  You actually become the equal of the Eliot who has been translated from human form to the printed page. 

Does this matter?  Is it important?  I think the answer is yes.  The whole of the western tradition of liberal education through deep reading of the great books is built on the idea.  You cannot be equal to the living Plato, but you can be the equal of Plato of the printed page.  Note, McLuhan does not say that film or TV makes you the equal of what is being played on film or TV. 

What about film?  Theatre?  TV?  Do they have different effects from print?  If print creates equality, does TV create inequality?  What does theatre create?

 

Cordially, Marshall and Me

 

Reading for this post

The Letters of Marshall McLuhan.  Selected and edited by Matie Molinaro, Corinne McLuhan, and William Toye. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1987, p. 231-232.

Eliot, T.S. “The Wasteland,” 1922, in Modern Poetry, second edition. Edited by Maynard Mack, et. al. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-hall, 1961, pp. 142-161.

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Michael Hinton Saturday, October 17th, 2009
Permalink 1950s and 60s, Communication, Culture, Education, Technology, Vol. 1 2 Comments

McLuhan’s Law of Jokes

Marshall McLuhan (September, 1967, age 56).  All jokes are based on grievances

I am indebted to funnyman Steve Allen for the observation that all jokes are based on grievances.  I ran that backward and got, where there are grievances there are jokes.  For example, English Canadians have a lot of grievances about bilingualism.  Here’s the joke: Cat is hunting a mouse.  Mouse hides in hole.  Cat sneaks up to hole and goes, “squeak.”  Mouse comes out.  Cat eats mouse.  Morale of the story?  I guess it pays to be bilingual. 

Michael Hinton (October, 2009, age 57).  The best jokes are based on grievances

In the 1970s Marshall McLuhan had a problem finding a good secretary after the retirement of Marg Stewart, who had worked for him for many years and knew his ways.  One of the temps irritated him a great deal by arguing with him about the observation that he borrowed from Steve Allen that all jokes are based on grievances.  She insisted on pointing out to him that there were jokes that were not based on grievances.  I don’t know what examples she presented him with but here’s one: “Why did the bicycle keep falling asleep?  Because it was too/two tired. 

It drove McLuhan crazy.  Not the jokes, he loved puns.  But because of course she was right, Allen’s law of jokes is wrong.  But that’s not important.  The real law, I will call it McLuhan’s law, is that the best jokes are based on grievances.  Best being jokes worth telling because they are funny and because the grievance on which they are based is worth examining.  Proof: Take any joke, j, not based on grievances.  Then, I assert based on my long study of the literature, that there must exist a joke, j’, based on grievances that is superior in seriousness and funniness. Q.E.D.

Here for example is a joke Marshall McLuhan told at a speech at Johns Hopkins in the 1970s.  The big Lufthansa jet was going down in the Mediterranean, a mile off shore.  The captain comes on the communication system to speak to the frightened crew and passengers:  “For those of you who can swim,” he says, “I say swim towards the setting sun for twenty minutes and you will reach safety.  For those of you who cannot swim, I say, Thank you for flying Lufthansa.”       

What grievance or grievances is the Lufthansa joke based on?  What message do you think McLuhan is sending to his audience in closing his speech with this joke?  What message do you think I’m sending in closing this blog with this joke?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

 

 

Reading for this post

McLuhan, Marshall.  Understanding Me: Lectures and interviews.  Edited by Stephanie McLuhan and David Staines. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2003, pp. 139-146.

Rare audio tape of McLuhan speaking at Johns Hopkins in the 1970s.  Posted by a reader in a comment to an earlier blog

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Michael Hinton Friday, October 16th, 2009
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The second-best meaning of the medium is the message

Marshall McLuhan (July, 1952, age 40).  The technique is the content

Yesterday, recall, I said:  “Somehow the bugbear of content” has so captured people’s minds that no one thinks about the way content is delivered.  They think only about the message not the technique or the technology by which it is sent and received.  It is time they did.

Michael Hinton (October 2009, age 57).  Imagine your favourite gadget is playing with your mind

Yesterday I talked about the many ways to understand the meaning of the medium is the message, and one way of understanding the phrase that I said was the best way.  There is also a second-best way, which I want to talk to you about today.  The second-best way is that the medium is affecting the way you think.  How?  McLuhan believed that our minds see the world through our senses.  (This is the concept of the sensorium.  An idea he found in the work of Harold Innis.)  And the senses are weighted in a particular balance by the dominant media of the day.  (In thinking about this balance and changes in it over time and space, it helps to think of the senses as numbering two (eye and ear) rather than five (eye, ear, nose, tongue, and finger tip.)   This idea strikes most people who have met it as both right and wrong, brilliant and crackers, science and science fiction.

If you have ever wondered why so many people thought McLuhan makes no sense – in the words of the running joke on the hit TV show, Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, which first aired in 1968, “whatcha doin’ Marshall McLuhan?” –  this is it.  People like Robert K. Merton, “perhaps the most distinguished sociologist” of his day, thought McLuhan was crackers.  (Famously, Merton said of a talk McLuhan gave at Columbia University in 1955, “[Your paper is] so chaotic I don’t know where to begin.”  McLuhan responded with, “You don’t like those ideas?   I got others.”)  Tom Wolfe believed he was a genius whose thinking was all but impossible to follow.  Neil Postman, who as a student also heard McLuhan’s talk, and went on to become the most distinguished social commentator of his generation, believed McLuhan to be brilliant, but also believed McLuhan’s theories about media having psychological affects via the sensorium to be crackers.

Questions:  Which one of the two best ways to understand the meaning of the medium is the message makes the most sense to you?  Whose opinion of McLuhan, Merton’s, Wolfe’s, or Postman’s, is most like your own?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

The Letters of Marshall McLuhan. Selected and edited by Matie Molinaro, Corinne McLuhan, and William Toye. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1987, p. 231-232.

Marchand, Philip.  Marshall McLuhan:  The medium and the messenger.  Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1989; 1998, pp. 141-142.

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Michael Hinton Thursday, October 15th, 2009
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The meaning of the medium is the message

Marshall McLuhan (July, 1952, age 40).  The technique is the content

“Somehow the bugbear of content” has so captured people’s minds that no one thinks about the way content is delivered.  They think only about the message not the technique or the technology by which it is sent and received.  It is time they did.

Michael Hinton (October 2009, age 57).  Imagine the world without your favourite gadget

Here Marshall McLuhan comes very close to saying “the medium is the message.”  So close that you can point to his statement in this letter (July 16, 1952) as the earliest statement of the idea.  What he actually says is “[you] should be interested in technique as content.”  What does he mean when he says this?  When an ad is playing on TV is he saying that the TV is persuading us to buy something? Everyman’s McLuhan says “McLuhan never intended the phrase… to have such a literal meaning.”  And that McLuhan “rephrased the medium is the message in different ways at different times for different audiences.”  For example, he also said: because a medium is an extension of our bodies, minds or spirits, the user is the content; mediums are environments that produce effects on us; ‘the medium of language is its own message”; and the medium is the massage.

Terry Gordon, McLuhan’s offical biographer, gives a handy formula for you to generate an infinite number of interpretations of the medium is the message.  Write it as “the medium (insert a defining word or phrase here) is the message (insert another additional defining word or phrase here).”  Which allows you to write, for example: “The medium (of the past) is the message (of the medium of the present.)  Or “The medium (of Angelina Jolie) is the message (of the medium of Brad Pitt.)  Or “The medium (of bullshit) is the message (of the medium of the PR spokesman).” 

This is fun, providing a way to pass the time and get academic articles published, but it is not very helpful in understanding Marshall McLuhan or his relevance to your life today.  The best way I know to explain the meaning of “the medium is the message” is to say that the world with the medium is different from the world without the medium.  And so I agree with Everyman’s McLuhan that when an ad is playing on your TV, your TV is not the message of that ad.  You are asking too much from the idea.  It explains some things but not everything.  To see the relevance of this big idea of Marshall McLuhan ask yourself these two questions:  How is the world of business with PowerPoint different from the world of business without PowerPoint?  How is your world with cell phones different from the world your parents or grandparents grew up in which was a world without cell phones ?               

Cordially, Marshall and Me

 

Reading for this post

The Letters of Marshall McLuhan.  Selected and edited by Matie Molinaro, Corinne McLuhan, and William Toye. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1987, p. 231-232.

Gordon, W. Terence, Eri Hamaji and Jacob Albert. Everyman’s McLuhan. New York; Mark Batty, 2007.

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Michael Hinton Wednesday, October 14th, 2009
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Machinery is all around us

Marshall (June, 1951, age 39).  Machinery is all around us

I was writing to Pound about this, too.  Machinery is all around us because we are inside the machine.  And the machine is inside us.  The two joined in an unholy duality.  We have become machines. 

Me (October 2009, age 57).  Machinery is all around us still

What’s wrong with being a machine?  McLuhan explains in the preface to the Mechanical Bride, which was his first book and is about advertising.  In the HBO TV series “Mad Men” Don Draper says advertising is about happiness.  McLuhan says the purpose of the happiness advertising offers is to get past your mental gatekeeper, to get inside your mind “in order to manipulate, exploit, [and] control.”

Take a look at the ads in Vanity Fair, Vogue or The New Yorker.  What is the happiness they are offering?  What social myths do they use to get inside us?  Why is it easy to see this happening in yesterday’s ads?  (More Doctors smoke Luckies than any other cigarette, that’s why we say they’re Doctor recommended.) Why is it harder to see this happening in today’s ads?  (Natural American Spirit is the only brand that features both cigarettes made with 100% certified organic tobacco as well as cigarettes made with 100% additive-free, natural tobacco.)  (Perhaps this one is not that hard to understand.)       

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

The Letters of Marshall McLuhan.  Selected and edited by Matie Molinaro, Corinne McLuhan, and William Toye. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1987, p. 227.

Marshall McLuhan. The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man. Gingko Press, 1951; 2002, pp. v-vii.

Natural American Spirit ad. Vanity Fair, September, 2009, pp. 253-254.

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Michael Hinton Tuesday, October 13th, 2009
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Nowadays there is no conversation at all

Marshall (June, 1951, age 39).    Nobody wants to talk.

I was writing to Pound about this.  Nobody wants to talk.  Not business men.  Not teachers.  Everyone distrusts talk.  They’re afraid of what they will discover.  That they’re lives are vacuous.  That’s why they turn the mirror to the wall

Me (October 2009, age 57).   Conversation still isn’t happening

Talk was the way McLuhan thought things through and thought things new, by talking it out.  His conversations tended to be one sided.  (Someone once said that McLuhan was very polite in conversation.  He always waited for your lips to stop moving before he started to speak.)

Conversation can mean many things: “talk, intercourse, communion, communication, discourse, conference and colloquy.”  But the meaning I have in mind is an exchange, a give and take, a two way street.  If it’s all one way it’s not an exchange; it’s an unloading, a filling up, a release, an exploration, a lecture.  It can be therapeutic, you can learn things, but it’s not n interaction.  Interactions are potentially dangerous things.  As McLuhan suggests you may find out things you don’t like.  There may be winners and losers.  Something new may be revealed and what’s new is not typically comforting and comfortable.

What kinds of conversations do you have?  How many are really just the sharing of feelings?  How many degenerate into lectures.  When you lecture who learns more, you or the person you’re lecturing to?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

The Letters of Marshall McLuhan. Selected and edited by Matie Molinaro, Corinne McLuhan, and William Toye. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1987, p. 227.

“Conversation,” in Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary. Second edition, 1958.

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Michael Hinton Saturday, October 10th, 2009
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An airport is a wonderful thing

Marshall (November, 1949, age 38).  An airport is a wonderful thing

Visually that is.  Last night I saw a friend off on the plane to New York, which left from Malton Airport.  There is something grand about an airport especially at twilight when there’s just enough light to see but not so much as to take away the sky.    

Me (October 2009, age 57).  An airport is a horrible thing

The beginning to James Hilton’s Lost Horizon contains a magical scene in which three old school friends are having a party at Berlin’s Tempelhof International Airport.  They talk, drink, and watch the big planes land as the sky turns from blue to black.  Today such a scene is impossible to imagine.  Since 9/11 the airports of the world have become increasingly unpleasant places to be without it seems becoming significantly more secure.  The eye is forced to watch endless TV.  The ear is forced to listen to endless commentary on the need to watch your luggage.  The body is groped and scanned.  Flights are more costly, take longer, and are less comfortable.  Whenever possible I try not to fly. 

Is there a silver lining to the modern airport?  Can the past be recovered?   

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

The Letters of Marshall McLuhan.  Selected and edited by Matie Molinaro, Corinne McLuhan, and William Toye. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1987, p. 207.

James Hilton. Lost Horizon. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1933.  (Or watch Frank Capra’s 1937 film-version of the book, with the same title, starring Ronald Colman and Jane Wyatt)

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The arts can’t exist in America today

Marshall (December, 1948, age 37).  The arts can’t exist in America today

The American mind is 100 percent 18th century.  Jefferson, Voltaire, Dr. Johnson.  Rational beings.  Relentlessly logical beings seeking a rubbing together kind of causal understanding of the world. Minds ordered by the eye, by print.  The arts are all about the ear.  Minds alive to the textured, primitive, acoustic world where things happen all at once.  Not just one thing at a time.    

Me (October 2009, age 57).  The arts cannot but exist in America today

Today the American mind is 100 percent 21st century.  Oprah, Letterman, Dog Bounty Hunter.  Primitives.  Minds ordered by the ear, intuitive.  A world where the Arts cannot but exist.  This makes our world – for we are all Americans now – far more complex and complicated than that long vanished world of 1948.  We are all in need of ways to reach out, to build a bridge as Neil Postman said to the 18th century.  We need that strength visual thinking gives us to find the solutions we need to see through to the end of this century – solutions for the economy, the environment, the polity and society. 

Do you see the world becoming less rational? 

Cordially, Marshall and Me

 

Reading for this post

The Letters of Marshall McLuhan.  Selected and edited by Matie Molinaro, Corinne McLuhan, and William Toye. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1987, p. 207.

Neil Postman.  Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century: How the past can improve our future.  New York: Knopf, 1999.

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Michael Hinton Thursday, October 8th, 2009
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Appeal to the young

Marshall (September, 1948, age 37).      Appeal to the young

To appeal to the young is to speak to people who have not made up their minds about everything.  The old – that’s me and many of you – typically have not made up their minds by carefully thinking things through.  They haven’t.  They’ve just acquired answers, positions, points of view, ideas that they are more or less comfortable holding.  The young have not.  Therefore you can talk with them.    

Me (October 2009, age 57).         Wake up and wake other people up

What Marshall is talking about here is the need for rhetoric, that is the art of persuasion.  Rhetoric has had a bad reputation ever since Plato said Socrates said that it is the art of making the worse case the better.  But Plato and Socrates got it wrong.  Rhetoric is the art of dealing with ordinary people who are indifferent and stupid – like you and me.  All of us, perhaps I should add – some more, some less – are asleep to the world about us.  The world pulsates with life.  But we don’t see it; we’re stupid and indifferent to it.  There are tricks for waking up.  The top three being travel, talk to a child, break your routine and do something different.  However it is done, and there are many other ways to wake up and be woken up, to persuade people of whatever it is you want to persuade them of you need to wake them up, to excite their curiosity and speak in a way that makes it easy for them to understand what you’re saying.  Not to talk down to people, but to speak at their level. 

Do you expect people to be awake, to be intelligent and passionate about the world?  If so, how well has that served you?  In what ways other than travel, children and routine breaking can you wake people up? 

Cordially, Marshall and Me

 

Reading for this post

The Letters of Marshall McLuhan.  Selected and edited by Matie Molinaro, Corinne McLuhan, and William Toye. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1987, p. 203.

Christopher Bonanos.  “Textbook Obama:  Which predecessor does his rhetoric most nearly echo?  The data don’t lie: It’s Ronald Reagan.” New Yorker, September 21, 2009, p. 16.

Paul Strathern.  Socrates in 90 Minutes.  Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1997.

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Michael Hinton Wednesday, October 7th, 2009
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Sometimes you need to shut up

Marshall (September 1948, age 37).  Sometimes you need to shut up

Kenner is one of my best students.  His ego has been much swelled by his recent publications. He’s going to Yale for his Ph.D. but he will fail unless he commits himself to the discipline of keeping his mouth shut.  Here’s why.  He needs the degree.  Professor Brooks and the others at Yale will be jealous of his success.  They have it in their power to give him the degree and the financial support he needs to live as a student providing he does not irritate or upset them, which he will surely do if he tries to impress them with his erudition.  They do not want to learn from him.  He has things to learn.  They have useful things to teach him.  Therefore, he needs to shut up.  It took me a long time to learn this.  The bible says otherwise but it is sometimes better to receive than to give.  

Me (October 2009, age 57).  Do you need to shut up?

I wish I’d learned this lesson a long time ago.  And it’s one I’m still learning.  If I learned it I know I would have fewer arguments with my wife, more friends, and be more successful at work.  In The Year of Magical Thinking Joan Didion says that once when she was arguing with her husband he said to her, “Why do you always have to be right?”  (She says she needed to be right because she always felt like she was wrong.  This may be true, but it is form of evasion, which has the unfortunate result of allowing the lesson to remain unlearned.)  Being smart (or not smart) is something you can’t do anything about, either you’re smart or you’re not.  But you can control what you say.  You don’t always have to tell the people around you how smart (or not smart) you are.  As Marshall advises sometimes it’s better to shut up, to receive rather than to give. 

Do you find yourself speaking up when you need to shut up?  Is this a lesson you need to learn?  Where in your life do you most need to apply it?  At home, school, or  work?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

 

Reading for this post

The Letters of Marshall McLuhan.  Selected and edited by Matie Molinaro, Corinne McLuhan, and Wiliam Toye. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1987, p. 203.

Joan Didion.  The Year of Magical Thinking. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005. p. 138.

Robert FritzThe Path of Least Resistance. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1989, p. 14-30.

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Michael Hinton Tuesday, October 6th, 2009
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