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 December, 2009

Merry Xmas, Professor McLuhan!

Marshall McLuhan (December, 1947, age 36).  Thank God it’s Xmas

Our fourth child, Stephanie, was born in October, Eric is only now just recovering from a bout with the flu, and I can’t hire anyone to help Corinne with the work around the house for less than my salary, which is the princely sum of $4,200.  Still Corinne is glowing and while I find marking end Xmas exams tiresome, you know me, tireless.  At present, I have three books on the go: one on Eliot and two on popular culture, Guide to Chaos and Typhon in America.

Me (December 2009, age 57).  I agree

It is time to leave Professor McLuhan to his household troubles and work on his books, and meditate on the 12 days of Christmas a period which as McLuhan knew marked the beginning of the year from the 7th century through to the 13th.  I will take a short break myself and make my next post on January 7th.

Before I do a few thoughts on the two books on popular culture McLuhan mentions above which eventually became one: The Mechanical Bride, his first book.  Bride has presented a bit of a problem for students of McLuhan.  Coming before his discovery of media it is far more accessible than his later books, and deals with a subject that would continue to fascinate McLuhan as a student of media, comics and advertising, but in a very different way.  Bride looks at comics and advertising for what they reveal about American culture and its values, and in particular for what they reveal about what McLuhan believes is wrong with American culture.  For example, Dagwood in the Blondie comic strip is a wimp and represents everything that is wrong with American men: in short they are not real men.  And many things readers of the later McLuhan will find familiar are there:  for example, Poe’s sailor caught in the maelstrom who escapes through understanding his situation, the idea that the book is not about the subjects or objects, or exhibits it discusses – advertisements and comics – but rather what they reveal about something else, American values and ways of living, a mosaic presentation in which the chapters can be read in any order.  Yet it is not the McLuhan that he will come to be.  He has not yet discovered his grand theme – the effects media have had on mankind because of the way they work rather than what they contain.  Instead what we find is many familiar things being used in an unfamiliar way.  Here is McLuhan the literary critic critiquing comics and advertising through close reading of their contents in ways he had learned at Cambridge.  For example, in the chapter titled “Horse Opera and Soap Opera” he observes that Westerns (the B movies also known as dusters and oaters) have much to teach us about the importance of the frontier, business, action, the office, and men in American culture while it is to soap opera that you must go to learn about the mainstream, society, feelings, the home, and women.  All of which is interesting but not important in the way the later McLuhan’s observation about media are important.  Because if you then say about any observation in Bride “Interesting, but so what?”  The answer more often than not is, “not much.”

In lieu of a question a greeting: Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, p. 190-191.

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Michael Hinton Friday, December 25th, 2009
Permalink 1930s and 40s, Culture, Vol. 1 No Comments

Still more on the critics!

Marshall McLuhan (June 2, 1960, age 48).  There’s no such thing as bad advertizing?

I still can’t get Robert Fulford off my mind after what he sad about me in Maclean’s.  Me, infuriating and arrogant?  Surely he ought to be jesting.  But is he?  I think not.  He thinks so I imagine because he thinks I have something to gain about my argument that electronic media is remaking us in the image of tribal man.  I do not.  I have no particular point of view.  I do not label the changes taking place in our world as good or bad.  I am an observer.  My task is not to like or dislike what is happening; it is to explain it.

Me (December 2009, age 57).  Still more critiquing of the critics

Why does McLuhan infuriate his critics so?  Lewis Lapham, in his introduction to the 1994, MIT Press edition of Understanding Media makes the point that McLuhan’s style of writing infuriated people because it is like the world as McLuhan saw it in the electric age – “nonlineal, repetitive, discontinuous, intuitive, proceeding by analogy instead of sequential order.”

Lapham proceeds this observation with the claim that, “Despite its title, the book was never easy to understand.  By turns [it is] brilliant and opaque.”  And so we meet once more the common complaint “brilliant” and bad.  But what precisely does Lapham find “opaque” or bad about Understanding Media?

(To be continued)

Is there anything in Understanding Media that you find “opaque?”  Tell me what it is and why it is opaque.

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, p. 300.

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Michael Hinton Thursday, December 24th, 2009
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More on the Critics!

Marshall McLuhan (June 2, 1960, age 48).  There’s no such thing as bad advertizing?

Yesterday I told you  what Robert Fulford had to say about me in Maclean’s.  I must say the man really does not get me.  He is hung up as teenagers say on Euclidian space.  It blinds him to the truth of the medium is the message.  He says I’m repetitious.  But I have to keep repeating myself because he does not get it.  That is to say getting it is something he does not get.  Get it?

Me (December 2009, age 57).  More critiquing of the critics

Let us look now at the criticisms that can be found in the blurbs printed on the covers and dust jackets of the 4 copies of Understanding Media that I have on my McLuhan book shelf.  There is more than a hint of criticism to be found there because McLuhan’s publishers knew controversy sells books.

Second printing, October, 1966, Signet Book, new American Library of Canada: “Understanding Media is the book that’s making history and hysteria- with its radical view of the effects of electronic communications upon man and the twentieth century. Marshall McLuhan is the new spokesman of the electronic age- the oracle whose revolutionary ideas have blasted an explosion of debate from academy to coffee house. [The publisher] “His critics are infuriated by his ideas ….”  Richard Schickel, Harper’s.

Third printing, 1968, McGraw Hill, hard cover:  “An infuriating book.” Commonweal.

First MIT Press edition, 1994, soft cover:  “McLuhan’s theories continue to challenge our sensibilities and our assumptions about how and what we communicate. … There has been a notable resurgence of interest in McLuhan’s work in the last few years ….  Lewis H. Lapham revaluates McLuhan’s work in the light of the technological as well as the political and social changes that have occurred in the last part of this century.”

Critical edition, Ginko Press, hard cover, 2003:  “Infuriating, brilliant and incoherent. “ Commonweal Review.  “The medium is not the message.”  Umberto Eco.

There is a recurrent idea in the blurbs.  People are “infuriated” by the book.  Why?  Among other things Robert Fulford, whose criticism of McLuhan in Maclean’s set off this series of blogs on the criticism of Marshall McLuhan, presumably would say his arrogance is infuriating. (To be continued)

Is there anything in Understanding Media that you find infuriating?  Tell me what it is and why it is infuriating.

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for the is post

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, p. 300.

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Michael Hinton Wednesday, December 23rd, 2009
Permalink All categories, Communication, Culture, Technology, Vol. 1 No Comments


Marshall McLuhan (June 1, 1960, age 48).  There’s no such thing as bad advertizing?

That’s what they say, but having read what Robert Fulford had to say about me in Maclean’s, I’m beginning to have doubts.  At the very least Fulford’s the exception that proves the rule.  It’s actually amazing, as I told him myself, that he gets anything at all out of Understanding Media because he obviously doesn’t Understand Me.  I have a theme that governs everything I write, namely that for 5,000 years western man thought in the way print taught him to.  Splitting things up.  Fragmenting the world. Analyzing. Putting things in order.  Being logical and rational.  Now, with the advent of the electric age, all this has changed.  Welcome to the re-tribalized, acoustic, global village.

Me (December 2009, age 57).  Critiquing the critics

Robert Fulford wrote that Understanding Media was “arrogant, sloppy, repetitious and brilliant.”  A view which is both right and wrong headed.  This perception of Understanding Media as a large dollop of error and held together by a drop of brilliance was a common response to McLuhan in the 1960s.  (Around the same time, Richard Schickel wrote in Harper’s “his critics are infuriated by his ideas … but some think he has one of this continent’s most brilliant minds and that his theories foretell our real future.”)  But it is not Fulford or Schickel’s 45-year old responses I want to talk about.

Let us consider some of the current critics of McLuhan, beginning with the writer of a recent blog, who I will not name.  This critic wrote – I paraphrase to protect their anonymity- that 99 percent of what McLuhan wrote is bullshit, and the remaining 1 percent is pure genius.  And that is all.  They do not give an example of anything in McLuhan’s cannon they think is bullshit and explain why it is bullshit.  Nor do they give an example of an idea of McLuhan’s that they think is brilliant and explain why it is brilliant.  Remarkably, or perhaps unremarkably, this type of criticism of McLuhan is not unusual.  In fact this is a fairly typical response to McLuhan on the internet:  gossipy, intellectually lazy, and insulting.

(To be continued)

Can you give me an example of something you think is bullshit in Understanding Media and explain why it is bullshit.  Also, and more challengingly, can you give me an example of one thing in the book besides “the medium is the message” or the world is becoming a “global village” you think is brilliant and explain why it is brilliant.

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, p. 300.

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Michael Hinton Tuesday, December 22nd, 2009
Permalink 1950s and 60s, Communication, Vol. 1 1 Comment

More on education at high speed

Marshall McLuhan (February 1960, age 48).  The adolescent has been replaced by the teenager

Teachers are failing to teach because they insist on treating teenagers as if they were adolescents.  (See Edgar Friedenberg’s fine book The Vanishing Adolescent.)  Adolescent means the stage between childhood and adulthood.  That stage no longer exists.  Electronic media have abolished the adolescent.  What we are left with is the teenager.  An adult aged 13 to 19.  I should know, several of them are underfoot at home.  To paraphrase the familiar anecdote, take my teenager, please.

Me (December 2009, age 57).  McLuhan underestimated the size of the problem

In The Disappearance of Childhood, Neil Postman argued that the electronic age has not only abolished adolescence it has robbed children of a great deal of their childhood.  In the middle ages children were treated as adults as soon as they could speak with fluency, say, age 6 to 8.  The print revolution caused childhood to be extended and adolescence added on because of the extra demands learning to read placed on young people in addition to learning to speak.  Today, Postman argues electric media have undone the work the print revolution did.

What does this mean for the understanding of schooling?  Basically, the problems of the teenager – disaffection and disengagement with traditional class room teaching, dropping out, illiteracy –  will be found increasingly among older children.

Why do people keep on insisting that children and teenagers be book-learned in the age of digital and social media?  You can try to keep twitter out the classroom but can you keep the classroom out of twitter?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Neil Postman.  The End of Education: Redefining the value of school.  New York: Vintage Books, 1995; 1996.

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Michael Hinton Saturday, December 19th, 2009
Permalink 1950s and 60s, Culture, Education, Vol. 1 No Comments

Education at high speed

Marshall McLuhan (May 1959, age 47).  Consumers are now producers

As I was saying yesterday my efforts to enlighten the Winnipeg Ad and Sales Club about the new business rules in our electronic age were not entirely successful.  If the only constant today is change, I told them, you will remember, it’s obvious that at the high speeds we are living at everyone is switching roles to keep up.  This is not a prediction it is an observation.  Just as producers are becoming consumers, the corollary is that consumers are becoming producers.  They gave me a puzzled look.  So I gave them something else to be puzzled about.  What I asked do Alexander the Great and Winnie the Pooh have in common?  Give up?  They both have the same middle name.

Me (December 2009, age 57).  What about in education?

“A lot of education,” says the writer of a letter to the editor of the Montreal Gazette, “takes place outside of school, and much it is self directed.” (Wednesday, December 16, 2009.)  Marshall McLuhan would have agreed that most education takes place outside school, but I believe he would have disagreed with the idea that it is self-directed.  In fact it is media-directed.  The difference is profound and if true disturbing. (We continue the examination of education tomorrow.  Hang on to your mortar boards.)

If most education today takes place outside the classroom, what is the content of the current curriculum?  Who or what sets the curriculum?  What do you think is the greatest difference between the education that goes on today inside and outside the class room?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, pp. 252-255.

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Michael Hinton Friday, December 18th, 2009
Permalink 1950s and 60s, Education, Vol. 1 No Comments

Speed up!

Marshall McLuhan (May 1959, age 47). Producers are now consumers

I just got back from Winnipeg.  Didn’t have time to visit my first alma mater, The University of Manitoba, as I was too busy informing the Winnipeg Ad and Sales Club about the new business rules in our electronic age.  Here’s the short version, everything is moving so fast in our electric age that the only way to get ahead is to speed up.  The alternative is obliteration.  Winnipeg was shaking its head in collective dumbfoundment.  Can’t really blame them.  Looking around on the corner of Portage and Main, I’d be tempted to draw the conclusion that the world is slowing down not speeding up!  Sometimes not seeing is believing.

Me (December 2009, age 57). Marshall McLuhan on how to speed up

The great speed the business world is moving at is an idea that everyone in business today agrees with and without hesitation.  Even, I would hazard a guess in Winnipeg.   Marshall McLuhan’s ideas about speed are still worth thinking about today not because McLuhan offers a brilliant solution as to how to live at hyper speed.  His solution is to trade places with your complement.  Whatever role you perform there is a complement.  For example the complement of teacher is student.  The complement of producer is consumer.  The complement of writer is reader.  By switching roles you are in effect moving at very high speed.  For example, by becoming consumers, producers are able to anticipate shifts in demand.

How fast does your life move relative to your parents and grandparents?  What do you do to deal with the speed of change at which you live?  What is your complement?  Can you put yourself in the position of your complement?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, pp. 252-255.

Speed Limits,  Canadian Centre for Architecture, 20 May to 8 November 2009

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Michael Hinton Thursday, December 17th, 2009
Permalink 1950s and 60s, Business, Communication, Culture, Vol. 1 No Comments

The power of the artist

Marshall McLuhan (Summer 1968, age 57).  You can give Mailer a compliment but he hasn’t the wit to accept it

That chat I had with Norman Mailer on the CBC’s TV program, “The Summer Way,” is still on my mind, largely because despite the title of the program, “Meeting of Minds,” there was so little meeting of minds.  Here’s how it went.  I’d make an observation.  (Violence is necessary to the formation of identity.) He’d say he didn’t like it.  So I made another observation, (the new electronic environment has abolished nature) and he’d say he didn’t like that and so it went.  I don’t have a problem with his liking or not liking my ideas.  But I don’t think liking or not liking is productive.  In fact I’m convinced it’s counter-productive.  Liking and not liking, which is so often masked as truth-seeking interferes as I said yesterday with just observation of the world.

I decided to try a new tactic.  Norman, I said, you will be delighted with this – the artist is the only one who is able to face the present and see it for what it is.  He alone has the ability to tell us what is happening.  Poor Mailer was not delighted.

Me (December 2009, age 57).  Marshall McLuhan:  Artist or scientist?

At this point, the moderator of the meeting, Ken Lefolii, stepped in and asked McLuhan whether he thought of himself as an artist or a scientist.  McLuhan’s answer was no, he didn’t think of himself as an artist or a scientist.  He said he rejected these categories as unhelpful, fragmenting, nineteenth century devices, and in particular he implied they were not helpful for thinking about him as an observer of the unfolding electric 20th century world.  McLuhan’s answer then in effect was “I refuse to be lumped in a category.”

But of those two boxes, artist and scientist, he seems to fit most easily into the artist category.  Scientists he said are in the matching game. Matching ideas about the world with evidence of the world.  Artists are in the breakthrough game.  Looking for new patterns in the world.  McLuhan tries his hand at the matching game in his observations about media.  For example, radio is visual, TV is tactile and children who watch TV look at the world from an average distance of 4’6”and therefore are hunters not readers.  But this science is not the science you met in High School.  The matching is often difficult to separate from assertion.

What category would you place yourself?  Artist or scientist?  What about the people closest to you?  Family, friends, colleagues?  Should businesses be in the matching game or the breakthrough game?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

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Michael Hinton Wednesday, December 16th, 2009
Permalink 1950s and 60s, Business, Communication, Culture, Vol. 1 No Comments

The bad of good and bad

Marshall McLuhan (Summer 1968, age 57). You can lead a Mailer to water but you can’t make him drink

This morning I had a chat with Norman Mailer on the CBC’s TV program “The Summer Way,” hosted by Warren Davis and Ken Lefolii.  The program was called a meeting of minds, which is half right, minds were present, but not much meeting was going on.

Mailer was good on the give and take of conversation.  He gave a lot compliments and then proceeded to take them away.  For example, he described my ideas as “fascinating ad repellent, no not repellent, stimulating.”  Can’t use that on a dust jacket blurb, can I?  Mailer also said he agreed with almost everything I have said but only up to a particular point.  For example, he said he agreed with the idea that electronic media are changing the planet, but thinks I err by not declaring this change a bad thing or a good thing.  I suggested that declaring value judgments about things of this magnitude is both impossible and injurious to the critical faculties, but he didn’t see the value of the point.  I wonder why?

Me (December 2009, age 57). Marshall McLuhan on objectivity

In only one of his books does McLuhan embrace the making of value judgments – The Mechanical Bride (1951).  In that book, for example, He says about Professor Mortimer Adler and Dr Hutchins’ advertisement of their great books experiment at the University of Chicago that they have “come to bury and not praise Plato and other great men.”  That the purpose of public opinion polls is not to discover facts but change people’s minds about themselves, and for the most part this is only a good thing for companies who want to change minds in order to sell people more of what they produce.    Emily Post? For the “socially immature.”  Reader’s Digest?  For the “mentally exempt.” Mailer would have loved the this is good, that is bad Mechanical-Bride McLuhan.

McLuhan’s big idea is that calling things good and bad interferes with one’s ability to view the world objectively, to see the world as it is, rather than as you would like it to be or not to be.  This is an idea worth pursuing even if Mailer did not want to pursue it.  (More on the Mailer-McLuhan unmeeting of minds tomorrow.)

On what aspects of the world do you find yourself most quickly leaping to judgement?  Politics? Religion? Sex? Money?  If you’ve already made up your mind why bother looking?   Isn’t it far more comfortable to praise or condemn rather than have to change your life if you discover the world is not how you thought it was?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

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Michael Hinton Tuesday, December 15th, 2009
Permalink 1950s and 60s, Communication, Vol. 1 No Comments

A Fitting Memorial?

Marshall McLuhan (March, 1970, age 58). The Coach House!

Now that I have The Coach House I don’t think I will ever be happy anywhere else.  Unfortunately it seems I’m booked to be everywhere else this year.  Thanks to my assistant Margaret Stewart’s help here is the full list of destinations:  “the Bahamas [no, it will not better there], Washington, New York [no, I do not love NY), Montreal, Greece, St. Louis, Ottawa, and San Francisco [no, I will not leave my heart there].”  On top of this more brain problems.  The Dr Barnett has given me these blood thinners to take.  Well I’ll take them, if I remember to.  Don’t want a stroke.  But no more operations.  Look what happened last time.  I’ve got to keep going, even if I have to go away to do it.  Today, I don’t mind telling you, the medium is a mess.  Can’t seem to find anything.  Never mind I’ll make do with what’s at hand.  Let’s see what errors I can find today in Culture is Our Business. Somehow the damn thing got published without being proof read. Got to run, now, I’ve got work to do.

Me (December 2009, age 57).  An insult to Marshall McLuhan

Just a little more than two years earlier McLuhan’s year of triumph, academic 1967/1968, (which he had spent at Fordham University in New York City, where he had held a $100,000 Schweitzer chair in the Humanities) was interrupted in November 1967 by a tortuous ordeal.  He had undergone brain surgery to remove a tumor.  The surgery had been long and trying.  And his recovery had been long and trying.  He had suffered loss of memory and even now years later he was far from his old self.  The photographic memory was gone, the energy for which he was famous was damped down, and his quirks were exaggerated.  On a good day you could almost see the old McLuhan, but there were few good days.

McLuhan loved The Coach House.  The question is did he deserve the Coach House?  The Coach House in the 1970s was a small “seedy” building set back from the street.  In the Spring of this year on a trip to Toronto I went to visit it.  It was a pilgrimage of sorts I wanted to see for myself where McLuhan worked and where the famous Monday night seminars took place.  What I found was a small, locked, run-down, garbage-strewn,  windows-papered-over, lightless shack with a plaque on it proclaiming it the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology.   In a comment on a previous post, Michael Edmunds, wrote that the University of Toronto and St Michael’s College had “little respect for McLuhan.”  It would seem they wanted neither his papers nor his program.  It is understandable that neither Toronto nor St Mike’s had the money to bid for McLuhan’s papers.  It is less understandable that they would insult his memory by making a run-down 19th century garage his most visible memorial.

Is this right?  Why is the University of Toronto intent on insulting the memory of one Canada’s most extraordinary thinkers this way?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post


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Michael Hinton Saturday, December 12th, 2009
Permalink 1970s and 80s, Education, Vol. 1 1 Comment