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

Home Sweet Home

Marshall McLuhan (May, 1969, age 57).  A Coach House of my own!

I never thought I’d say this, but I’m glad to be back in Toronto.  Of course, after my nightmare year in New York in academic 1967/68 what with the brain surgery and ‘the recovery’ it’s hardly a surprise that I’m reveling in the quiet and still delights of dear old Hog Town.  While I was away Toronto University gave me a new office and my own building to house it and my Center for Culture and Technology in, the Coach House.  It’s tucked in back of the Pontifical Center of Medieval studies, and close to all my favourite haunts: my old office at 96 St. Joseph, the coffee shop in the basement of the ROM and the bar on top of the Sutton Place Hotel.  Yesterday was the official opening.   No expense was spared for the party.  My secretary Margaret Stewart told me the final damage was $382.58.  The Toronto Star reported the event today with the head line, ‘Guru’ McLuhan boy at heart.  And so I am.  Which reminds me I promised to meet Tom Easterbrook at the Sutton Place bar at 5 pm for whiskey and cigars – don’t tell Corinne, my Doctors say no scotch, no cigars, but I’m tired of Doctors orders.  I’m back, and at long last I’ve got something to celebrate, and at the present moment I feel like celebrating.  Got to run, Tom’s awaiting.

Me (December 2009, age 57).  At least it made him happy

McLuhan loved The Coach House at 39A Queen’s Park Crescent.  It was his place.  And he filled it with the things he loved, his books, piled everywhere, his rowing oar from Cambridge, his files.  And it contained things he loved: a wonderfully-1960s floor-to-ceiling mural by McLuhan’s friend, who worked as a designer at Eaton’s, René Cera, The Pied Piper, and of course the Monday night Seminars, which were the high point in his week in the 1970s.  Here he brought and spoke with the wise and wonderful – Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Buckminster Fuller, Eric Havelock, and Peter Drucker to name a few.  The question is couldn’t the University of Toronto given him something better than the Coach House?  Even in the Spring of 1969 the Coach House, which was built in 1828, was small, rundown, “seedy,” and, well, as Bette Davis would have said, “a dump.”  (More on this tomorrow.)

Do you have a place of your own to work?  Is such a place necessary to be creative and productive?  What is the minimum necessary?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Virginia Wolfe, A Room of One’s Own, 1929.

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Michael Hinton Friday, December 11th, 2009
Permalink 1950s and 60s, Education, Vol. 1 1 Comment

Nowadays there is no conversation at all

Marshall (June, 1951, age 39).  Nowadays there is no conversation at all

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 an 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

PS:  See you back here on Tuesday October 13th.

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 Thursday, December 10th, 2009
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Celebrity Won

Marshall McLuhan (September, 1965, age 53).  The phone is ringing off the hook

Looks like Feigen and Gossage [see yesterday’s post] have done the trick.  They have succeeded in making me a celebrity after all.  How do I know?  The phone is ringing off the hook.   Lost my temper with one reporter who asked me to explain what I meant by the mini skirt being the ultimate form of violence.  Told him I couldn’t say, after all my work is very complicated.

Also just booked a speaking engagement for $25,000, which I don’t mind admitting has given my income a bit of a boost.  If only Mother could see me now.

Me (December 2009, age 57).  On celebrity

One reviewer of a biography of McLuhan said that the big question that remains unanswered about Marshall McLuhan’s life is how he went from Canadian academic obscurity to international media celebrity.  Indeed the question is difficult, yet in outline Tom Wolfe answered it in his 1965 “What if he’s right?” article.  Gossage and Feigen did it with their strategic marketing campaigns in May-August of 1965 in which they introduced McLuhan to key people in New York in May and in San Francisco in August, declaring his visit there Marshall McLuhan Week.  Of course, it helped that Understanding Media was a best seller.  It helped that McLuhan was alpha-confident and fluent in conversation.  It helped that in the 1960s people were looking for people with answers.  And McLuhan’s protestations that he had no final answers, no opinions, no points of view made him all the more appealing.

What do you think was the key factor, event, influence that propelled Marshall McLuhan to celebrity?  How well did McLuhan handle celebrity?  How well would you handle celebrity?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Philip Marchand, Marshall McLuhan:  The medium and the messenger, 1989.

Tom Wolfe, “What if he’s right?”, New York Magazine, November, 1965.

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Michael Hinton Wednesday, December 9th, 2009
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Celebrity and advertizing

Marshall McLuhan (August, 1965, age 53).  You mean it’s all going to be fun?

Dr. Gerald Feigen and Mr. Howard Gossage the San Francisco marketing boys, you will remember them from the Off Broadway, topless restaurant caper – and no as I told Corinne, I did not leave my heart in San Francisco – insist in no uncertain terms that they’re going to make me a celebrity.  You know what a celebrity is don’t you?  It’s someone who’s famous for being famous.

In all seriousness, I don’t mind fame, but my goal in life isn’t to be Zsa Zsa Gabor, or is it Eva Gabor?   How do the tabloids keep all those blondes straight?  No matter the point is to keep charting the uncharted waters of “the medium is the message.”  For example, and more specifically, you must have noticed that what advertizing advertizes is advertising.

Me (December 2009, age 57).  On celebrity and advertising

I spoke with David Weiner, who is a senior partner at National Public Relations in Toronto, to get his take on McLuhan.  I was interested in finding out what if anything advertising and PR executives think about McLuhan today.  In the 1960s McLuhan’s celebrity was such that he was invited to speak to groups of advertizing executives at business conventions for fees of $5,000 and $6,000.  Today, the answer would appear to be that advertising people don’t think much of Marshall McLuhan.

I quoted David Weiner what David Ogilvy says about Marshall McLuhan.  (According to the blurb on the back cover of Ogilvy on Advertising, David Ogilvy was “the most sought-after wizard in the advertising business” (Time) and was the genius behind “the man with the eye patch for Hathaway shirts, Commander Whitehead for Schweppes, and the famous electric clock for Rolls-Royce.)  “I learned nothing from Marshall McLuhan.”

“Exactly my view,” said David Weiner who was a social activist in the 1960s, and told me that although he had never met McLuhan he had met quite a few of his disciples. “McLuhan was kind of flakey and meaningless.  [In the PR business] I don’t hear people speaking about McLuhan.  [But then] Few books stand the test of time.

Is McLuhan essentially forgotten today by people who work in and work with the media?  What can advertizing people learn from Marshall McLuhan?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

David Ogilvy.  Ogilvy on Advertising.  Toronto: John Wiley & Sons, 1983.

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Michael Hinton Tuesday, December 8th, 2009
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Money, again!

Marshall McLuhan (November 14, 1980, age 69).  How much are my papers worth?

I’ve had a lot of time to think about my life lately.  This damn stroke has taken my voice away.  Can’t read, can’t write, can’t speak.  Things can get pretty bleak.  I had a thought the other day.  Unfortunately I can’t tell anybody about it.  Well, I can tell you.  I wonder how much money Corinne will be able to get for my books and papers.  I have a lot of stuff here. Why the letters from Pierre Elliot Trudeau alone should be worth a fortune.  And I have letters from everyone – Hubert Humphrey, Bucky Fuller, Duke Ellington, Peter Drucker – you name’em.

Me (December 2009, age 57).  A cool million

In July I spoke with Nicholas Olsberg about his experience valuing McLuhan’s papers (books, letters, photographs, documents, articles) for Corinne McLuhan and the McLuhan family after Marshall McLuhan’s death in December 1980.  He wrote me to explain that “The US offer I brought in for McLuhan in I think late 1982 was close to 1 million in Canadian dollars.  The prime minister’s office – exercising its legal right to match the offer in cash and tax allowances – did so.  I regret that it did not go to Buffalo, the US bidder, where it could have anchored a real program of continuing discourse and research that the national archives [in Ottawa] has no mandate or resources to pursue – and with no investment in the papers no moral compulsion to do so [although] I like what they have on the website.”

Much to think about.  (We are not done with this conversation)

How does McLuhan stack up against the papers of Canadian-born idea people like Northrop Frye, John Kenneth Galbraith, or Hugh MacLennan?  Where do you think McLuhan’s papers should have gone?  Ottawa, Buffalo? Elsewhere?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Nicholas Olsberg, “Memoirs of a Man I Never Met. “ Art and Architecture, issue number 3, 2002? pp 108-111.

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Michael Hinton Saturday, December 5th, 2009
Permalink Communication, Vol. 1 1 Comment

What’s Marshall McLuhan’s stuff worth?

McLuhan (November 14, 1968, age 56). “The victor belongs to the spoils”

You will find the aphorism “The victor belongs to the spoils” on the 8 of clubs in my DEW-LINE card deck.  The deck is a technology I invented some years ago to quickly produce creative solutions to puzzles by playing the management game.  There are in fact four games you can play:  let’s play the first one.  “Take any card.  Relate the aphorism to your current hang up.”  My card is the 8 of clubs and my current hang up is money.  You see a year ago I had what the English would say was “a bit of bad news.”  I had an operation to remove a brain tumor.  Hurt like hell and cost a fortune.  The operation was in New York City.  I survived.  But haven’t felt much like myself ever since.  What with their poking around my brain for 22 hours and those damn drugs they say I have to keep taking. Can’t seem to match names up with faces and a lot of stuff I know I should know – dates, books, characters, plots – for the life of me I can’t remember.  On top of all that everyone says I need to make as much money as I can while I am a top celebrity.  Question is, how does the 8 of clubs aphorism relate to my hang-up?

Me (December 2009, age 57). Okay, Let’s play

“To the victor goes the spoils” is the way the original proverb reads.  Marshall McLuhan plays around with this to get “the victor belongs to the spoils.” The question is what controls what?  Do victors possess the spoils, the money, or do the spoils, the money, actually control or possess them.  If the latter, which is the message on the 8 of clubs, Marshall McLuhan would be well advised to spend less time worrying about money, or rather let other people continue to use his name (the McLuhan brand as people now say) to make money, and spend time on the preservation and growth of his intellectual reputation.

How much money was involved?  Who was cashing in?  Consider the year 1967 before it all went bad with the brain surgery.  Marshall McLuhan had won a $100,000 Schweitzer chair at Fordham University.  At that time a Professor of English literature, which is what McLuhan was, earned a salary of $14,000 a year.  $100,000 was big money.  Today adjusting for inflation $100,000 would be worth something like $500,000.  Of course this sum did not go all to McLuhan, others got a part of it.  For example, McLuhan hired his colleagues and friends at Toronto Ted Carpenter, Harley Parker, and his son Eric McLuhan to be his research team to help him teach a course called “Understanding media,” and do some projects.   And that was part of the problem.  Marshall McLuhan was now a business, an industry.  What was good for the business was not always good for Marshall McLuhan.

Challenge: Try Marshall McLuhan’s Management game and tell me how it goes.

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Philip Marchand, Marshall McLuhan: the medium and the messenger, 1989, p. 227.

Tom Wolfe, “What If He’s Right,” reprinted in The Pump House Gang. 1968, pp. 163-166

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Michael Hinton Friday, December 4th, 2009
Permalink 1950s and 60s, Business, Communication, Management, Vol. 1 1 Comment

Reading Marshall McLuhan’s cards

Marshall (November 15, 1968, age 57). Playing at creativity

Eugene Schwartz is in charge of selling DEW-LINE newsletter.  Here’s a game I had him make up for you to try.  DEW-LINE of course refers to the Distant Early Warning system, Canada’s contribution to the heating up of the cold war.  When the Russians fly their bombers over Falconbridge headed for Washington, Canada is to use its electronic eyes and ears to locate the Russian force and shout out to Uncle Sam that the nuclear payload’s on the way.  That’s my job, metaphorically speaking, in the electric age with respect to the new electric media.

The game is played with a special deck of playing cards:  the DEW-LINE Deck.  Each card has written on it one of my probes or a favorite quotation.  For example:  7 of clubs, “The silicon bosom is the thin edge of the trial balloon;” 5 of spades, “Propaganda is any culture in action (Jacques Ellul);” 3 of spades, “Fulton’s steamboat anticipated the miniskirt:  we don’t have to wait for the wind any more.”

Here’s how you play. Step (1) Think of some personal or business problem.  Step (2) Draw three cards from the deck.  Step (3) Read what’s written on each card and see what ideas pop into your head.  Top DEW-LINERS get their breakthroughs in thirty-seconds or less.”

Me (December 2009, age 57).  Okay, Let’s play

Last Thursday night I paid a visit to Montreal’s Canadian Center for Architecture (CCA).  The occasion was a party to celebrate the opening of a new show, Intermission, which is about speed and technology in the 1960s – Sputnik, NASA, the skateboard.  Many interesting short films.  Yet I could not then resist examining and now resist talking about McLuhan’s playing cards which were not part of the show but happened to be on display in a case near the entry to the show.

One of the cards displayed was the 9 of spades with the line about the silicon bosom.  This remark was stimulated by a topless fashion show McLuhan saw in San Francisco in 1965.  The show took place at the “Off-Broadway” in North Beach [Marshall McLuhan’s sexual adventure].  He watched the show with Tom Wolfe, who was writing a profile article on him, Herb Caen, a columnist with the San Francisco Chronicle, and two PR men Howard Gossage, and Dr. Gerald Feigen, who were determined to make McLuhan famous, which they did in part with this outing.  According to Tom Wolfe, after the show was over, McLuhan called out to the mistress of ceremonies, who was fully clothed, that he had a line she could use in her spiel, the restaurant having just won a test court case in an obscenity suit.  “You can say, [McLuhan said]  … The topless waitress is the opening wedge of the trial balloon.”  According to Caen what McLuhan said was “To mix a metaphor, it [the trial] was the thin edge of the trial balloons.” And Caen went on to comment “I’m sorry to report this, but it’s a fact that he [McLuhan] tittered at his own remark.”

What role Marshall McLuhan actually played in the development of the DEW-LINE deck and game is not clear.  Philip Marchand, says that McLuhan wrote “the text” printed on each card.  But whether McLuhan selected each text or simply okayed the end result, as he did for example in the making of the Medium is the Massage, is unclear.

No matter.  Let’s play the game.  My problem.  How to end this post.  My solution:  Move to the questions, one for each card noted above.

What is the propaganda in action in cultures with topless lunches?Was McLuhan a legman or a breast man?  If the topless waitress is the opening wedge in the trial balloon, where to further mix the metaphor does, and has, the slippery slope led to?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Philip Marchand, Marshall McLuhan: the medium and the messenger, 1989, p. 227.

Tom Wolfe, “What If He’s Right,” reprinted in The Pump House Gang. 1968, pp. 163-166.

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Michael Hinton Thursday, December 3rd, 2009
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Marshall McLuhan’s speciality

Marshall McLuhan (November 15, 1967, age 65).  Don’t fence me in

I remember the excitement I felt when I first realized I didn’t have to restrict my studies to literature.  Innis taught me that I could roam through all history and all subjects in search of the true meaning of the medium is the message.  My friend Tom Easterbrook who teaches economics at Toronto University tells me that F. von Hayek (Studies in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics, 1967) says, “Nobody can be a great economist who is only an economist – and I am even tempted to add that the economist who is only an economist is likely to become a nuisance if not a positive danger.”  Likewise, no student of media studies can afford to be only a student of media studies.  A man who only reads about TV is as good for a man as a steady diet of coke and chips.

If pressed to state my specialty it is the pursuit of all meaning, all understanding of the significance of the medium is the message.  Once the fence of content analysis is smashed through what vistas open up.

Me (December 2009, age 57).  McLuhan the specialist-generalist

Marshall McLuhan’s specialization was in his approach to all literature, all subjects, rather than in the choice of any one particular field of discourse.  To everything he read, to everything he observed, he always asked himself how does this reveal the ways media work on us, the messages they send us by their being what they are and doing what they do.  Thus he found clues to the way media work on us in the writings of Adam Smith and Harold Innis (economics and economic history), William Blake and W. B. Yeats (poetry), and Edgar Allan Poe and Sigfried Giedeon (prose and architecture).

One of the questions I always ask myself is “How does this thought, event, phrase, or circumstance relate to the life and thought of Marshall McLuhan?”  I call it the Marshall McLuhan game.  For example, take the word “Economics.” How does Economics relate to the life and thought of Marshall McLuhan?  Answer: when Marshall McLuhan graduated from the University of Manitoba in 1933, he won the gold medal in English and the silver medal in Economics.  That same year his friend, Tom Easterbrook, won the Gold medal in Economics and the Silver medal in English.  I have only been stumped once since I started playing the game in August:  One morning Mrs Hinton says to me at breakfast, “We have to watch Dog Bounty Hunter on TV tonight, Baby Lyssa’s pregnant and Dog’s going to talk to her boyfriend.”

What is your speciality?  Do you have a question or group of questions you are pursuing ruthlessly? If you did imagine what power this concentration of focus would bring to your ability to understand the world.

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Marshall McLuhan. The Gutenberg Galaxy, 1962, p.265-279.

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Michael Hinton Wednesday, December 2nd, 2009
Permalink 1950s and 60s, Communication, Education, Vol. 1 No Comments

Marshall McLuhan’s Flaws of Media

Marshall (November 17, 1976, age 65).  This will show them

Sir Karl Popper says that Science is what can be disproved but is not.  Took me two years of looking, reading, asking people the question, what is science? to get this gem. Finally I found the answer in Popper’s Objective Knowledge.

Now, Eric and I were talking and we came up with three laws of media pretty fast – things all media do –  laws that put to the test cannot be disproved, and then after much thinking a fourth.  Here they are:  (1) all media are extensions of us, enhancing, extending or amplifying our minds, bodies, or spirits in some way; (2) in coming into being all media displace or make obsolescent some old condition, situation or thing; (3) at the same time as they displace they also retrieve some previously displaced condition, situation, or thing; (4) at the same time all media when pushed to the limit reverse, shifting 180 degrees in their defining characters or qualities.  (For some reason the third law was the hardest to discover.  Took me three weeks.  The other three took half a day.)  Here’s the kicker, I bet you can’t disprove even one of them.  In fact I challenge anyone to disprove any of them.

Me (December 2009, age 57).  Whatever they are McLuhan’s laws aren’t science

The problem with Marshall McLuhan’s Laws of Media is that they cannot be disproved because they’re not disprovable.  They’re definitions pretending to be laws.

Newton’s laws of motion can be tested.  McLuhan’s laws of media cannot be tested.  The laws of media are descriptive.  To be testable a law must be written in such a way that you can imagine a situation in which it does not hold.  For example, water boiling at 99 degrees centigrade at sea level, or apples falling at 33 feet per second squared in a vacuum.  But McLuhan’s laws cannot be imagined failing in the sense that if you observed “this” then you could say “that” did not happen.

The laws of media are like Monty Python’s theory of dinosaurs – small at one end, big in the middle, and small at the other end.

With the laws of media you cannot test their truth, they are true by definition.  No extension? No medium.  But  you can  ask are they useful.

Are McLuhan’s laws useful?  If so what are they useful for?  What part of Mcluhan’s thinking is testable?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Forward Through the Rearview Mirror: Reflections On and By Marshall McLuhan. Ed. Paul Benedetti and Nancy DeHart. Scarborough Ontario: Prentice-Hall, 1996, p. 188.

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Michael Hinton Tuesday, December 1st, 2009
Permalink 1970s and 80s, Communication, Education, Vol. 1 2 Comments