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 January, 2010

What’s in the cards?

Marshall McLuhan (1969 age 58).  The solution to life’s problems

My son Eric and Eugene Schwartz tell me that The Marshall McLuhan DEW-LINE Newsletter is selling like hot cakes.  I send them stuff when I can and they send it on to my subscribers.  Great idea that the Distant Early Warning (Card) Deck.  Worked that one out several years ago.  Eric put it together from my notes and Eugene came up with the cracking idea to charge the subscribers an extra $5 if they want to get the deck.  The card deck is a technology for delivering creative solutions to life’s problems.  I call it The Management Game.  Actually Games.  Here is how to play the simplest one:  Take any card.  On the card is an aphorism.  Relate the aphorism to your current hang up.  I drew the 5 of clubs.  The aphorism reads: “since life is short our faces must be long.”  My current hang up is my health.  Nothing seems the same since that brain surgery in November of 67.  Well, as Corinne says I must take each day as it comes.  Is that my solution, or is that my problem?

Me (January 2010, age 57).  Playing a different game

The distant early warning or DEW line was a 1950s cold-war radar alert system Canada and the United States built in Northern Canada in the 1950s.  The system was designed to give Americans and Canadians a heads up if Russia attacked by sending planes or missiles over the Arctic circle.  McLuhan liked to announce himself in speeches as a voice from the DEW-line.  That is he had to come to warn of dangers ahead.  But in naming his card deck – which if you live in Montreal you can see on display at the Canadian Center for Architecture until February 25th, 2010 – after this famous piece of cold-war technology, McLuhan misleads.  The name doesn’t quite fit.  The deck says you can find answers for your hang-ups or problems by contemplating the aphorisms on the cards.  Yet the DEW line was not a system for finding solutions to a problem (say nuclear attack), but a system for knowing whether you have a problem (look there’s a bomber!).

Let’s play McLuhan’s Management Game differently.  Instead of calling “to mind a private or corporate problem as you shuffle the cards,” as the game suggests,  and then picking  “a card and … [applying] its message,’  let’s  shuffle, select a card, look at the aphorism, and only then decide whether in fact we have a problem.

The card I’ve drawn for us all is the 4 of spades: “When all is said and done more will have been said than done.”  Sounds like a call for action.  I know what I’m going to do.  (Tell you about it on Tuesday.)  What will you do?

(Look next week for the announcement of a winner to our classify Marshall McLuhan contest.)

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Readings for this post

Marshall and me, Reading Marshall McLuhan’s Cards, December 3, 2009

Marshall and me, What’s Marshall McLuhan’s Stuff Worth, December 4, 2009

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Michael Hinton Saturday, January 16th, 2010
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Coming to terms with McLuhan

Marshall McLuhan (September 24, 1976, age 65). The Carter-Ford debate was stupid

Today I was taking with Tom Brokow and Ed Newman on the Today Show.  They were asking me about yesterday’s abominable debate between Ford and Carter.  I watched the debate on black & white and two kinds of colour, CBS colour and NBC colour.  What was abominable about the debate is that it was stupid.  It was all wrong for TV.  TV is a cool medium and the debate form is hot.  On TV audience’s attention spans are limited to 4 to 5 minutes, the debate went on for 90 minutes.  The TV couldn’t take it.  The medium rebelled against the bloody message.  Technically, I think it was an amplifier that blew up putting an end to the fiasco.

Me (January 2010, age 57). Who’s got the “corporate” image?

You can tell that Brokow and Newman aren’t quite sure whether to take McLuhan seriously or not.  For example, when McLuhan says he watched the debate on TV in two kinds of colour, CBS and NBC, you can feel their eyebrows go up.  Also, like hot and cool the terms McLuhan uses causes him problems.  Carter, McLuhan says, has a “corporate” image.  Brokow objects, surely not.  McLuhan then tries to explain that by corporate he means not “business” or “industry” but “public” as opposed to “private.”

In McLuhan’s thinking corporate works better on TV.  Private works better on radio or print media.  Tribal man he teaches is “corporate” not private.  He isn’t I think entirely successful in his chat with Brokow and Newman in part because his terms raise barriers to their understanding of him.

One observation McLuhan makes that they both dismiss is worth thinking about.  Why is it, says McLuhan, that the candidates – Carter and Ford – come off as much less authoritative and personable than the journalists who are questioning them?  Brokow and Newman say it’s because questioners typically have the advantage.  But is it merely this?  Look at the interview.  Isn’t it clear Brokow and Newman come off looking much stronger and more authoritative than McLuhan?   Why?  Perhaps because Brokow and Newman are more corporate than McLuhan.

Do you agree that Carter, Brokow and Newman look more corporate than Ford and McLuhan?  What could McLuhan do to come across better on TV?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

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Michael Hinton Friday, January 15th, 2010
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Who’s interviewing who? [for one last time]

Marshall McLuhan (December 1970, age 59).  Dick Cavett’s not listening

The other day, as I recounted yesterday, and as I again recount today, I was speaking to Dick-Cavett-Show host Dick Cavett, novelist Truman Capote, Chicago Bears running back Gale Sayers, and trumpeter Al Hirt.  Loved probing them.  But that Cavett kept spoiling the fun with his questions and his demands for logic.

Me (January 2010, age 57). Marshall McLuhan’s not listening

Again, as I said yesterday, McLuhan spends much time on the Dick Cavett Show probing and playing Cavett’s role.  But when it comes to probes McLuhan likes to do the probing.

At the beginning of the show Dick Cavett says that McLuhan is maddening.  And yet he is also delighting.  He forces you to think about old things in new ways.  The subject of Dick Cavett’s beard comes up (he is growing one and it itches) and McLuhan remarks that the beard is something Cavett is putting on to play with his audience.  It is a mask of sorts and as such corporate.  Now you can hear the disquiet in Cavett’s voice.  What do you mean it’s corporate?  With much toing and frowing McLuhan explains corporate is the opposite of private.  Which does not do much to clear things up for Cavett.  Beards then you can hear him think are cool.  Cool works on TV.  Politicians want to use TV to win elections.  How come – Cavett poses a probe of his own – I can’t think of one politician who has a beard?  Not one.  McLuhan, however, refuses to play the game.  He moves on to another idea.  But let’s stop and consider Cavett’s probe.

Two points.  Yes, I can think of a politician with a beard:  Fidel Castro, and now that I’ve got that hurdle passed Jerry McGuire.  And no I can’t think of any modern American politician (Lincoln and Grant aren’t moderns) with a beard.  But then I’m Canadian.

Is there an American politician today who wears a beard?  Are beards cool or are only some beards cool.  Does this help make a case for or against the usefulness of the terms hot and cool?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

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Michael Hinton Thursday, January 14th, 2010
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Who’s interviewing who? [continued]

Marshall McLuhan (December 1970, age 59).  Dick Cavett’s not listening

The other day, as I recounted yesterday, I was speaking on the Dick-Cavett-Show.  Unfortunately the host Dick Cavett kept interfering with the fun by asking me questions.

Me (January 2010, age 57) Marshall McLuhan’s not listening

As I said yesterday, McLuhan spent almost half of his time on the show asking questions, posing new topics for discussion and talking with the other guests – in short, playing Cavett’s role.

We ended yesterday with Marshall McLuhan’s observation that Nixon lost the 1960 Presidential debate to Kennedy because his hot image did not work with the cool medium of TV.  Cavett responds, if that’s true how come Nixon used TV to his advantage in 1968?  McLuhan’s response is something like “Did he?” And then basically to ignore the point, and move on to talk about Trudeau’s perfect coolness as a TV politician.  It is a good example of how infuriating McLuhan could be in relentlessly pushing his ideas and ignoring the ideas of others, particularly if they are ideas that make demands for rationality and consistency of thought.

At another point in their conversation McLuhan insists that he is throwing out observations, making probes to illicit understanding, and that understanding is not a point of view.  What he is emphatically does not have is a point of view.  To which Cavett says, in essence, not having a point of view is in fact a point of view.  Naturally, McLuhan ignores the point.  (To be continued)

What then are we to make of McLuhan’s terms hot and cool?  Did Nixon make himself over into a cool personality for the 1968 election?  Was McGovern actually hot?  Was the 1968 election won or lost by other means?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Joe McGuinnis, The Selling of the President, Penguin Books, 1988; originally published as The Selling of the President, 1968. Simon & Shuster, 1969.

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Michael Hinton Wednesday, January 13th, 2010
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Who’s interviewing who?

Marshall McLuhan (December 1970, age 59).  Dick Cavett’s not listening

The other day I was speaking to Dick Cavett.  Actually I was on the Dick Cavett Show speaking to novelist Truman Capote, Chicago Bears running back Gale Sayers, and trumpeter Al Hirt.  I tried out a few of the probes I’ve been playing with to see what I can tease out of them in terms of new ideas.  Such as: rock only works in English; Nixon works better on radio than TV; and the instant replay has slowed down the game of football.   Unfortunately, Cavett kept interfering with the fun by asking me questions.

Me (January 2010, age 57).  Marshall McLuhan’s not listening

McLuhan spent almost half of his time on the show asking questions, and posing new topics for discussion and talking with the other guests.  So much so that at one point Cavett said ironically to McLuhan, and obviously enjoying the theatre, “You’re very easy to interview aren’t you?”

Marshall McLuhan’s one way conversation style was legendary.  As Professor Abe Rotstein who was a member of McLuhan’s conversation circle at U. of T. in the 1960s told me, McLuhan was a polite conversationalist.  He always waited for your lips to stop moving before he resumed speaking.  If you want to get a sense of McLuhan’s verbal pyrotechnics listen to the tape of this show.  But I said I would say more about hot and cool today.  So here goes.  In his conversation with Dick Cavett, McLuhan uses hot and cool to explain why a hot Nixon lost to a cool Kennedy in their 1964 debate on the cool medium of TV.    Tellingly, McLuhan observed that people who listened to the debate on radio, a hot medium, thought Nixon won the debate.  (To be continued)

Is Obama with his southern-preacher style of rhetoric – the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. tradition – too hot for TV?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

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Michael Hinton Tuesday, January 12th, 2010
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Hot or Cool?

Marshall McLuhan (May 1960, age 49).  Perhaps I should have stuck with High Definition or Low Definition

TV like the telephone is low definition and therefore a cool medium.  Very different from press, movie and radio, which are hot, high definition media providing a great deal of information.  Most people don’t get this.  They think TV is visual.  It’s not, Radio is visual.  TV’s acoustic, tactile and very involving because your senses must work hard to make sense of the meager data at hand.  TV doesn’t work the same way as visual media.  It’s an inward-looking medium.   When you watch it you are driven inward because you are the screen.

Me (January 2010, age 57). Perhaps

It is remarkable how confusing most people find McLuhan’s idea that TV is cool.  A director of programming for a TV network, whose major at university was communications, once said to me in conversation, “Are you sure McLuhan said TV is a cool medium?”  And when I assured her he said it was, remained doubtful.  It’s not surprising.  Cool today means “interesting” hot means “sexy.”  As in “she’s hot.”  You’re going snowboarding? “Cool.”  McLuhan took “hot and cool” from the world of jazz, where ”hot” jazz is a big rich sound with a lot of brass, and “cool” jazz is a smaller, ivory-tapping, more impromptu sound.  Most people don’t associate hot and cool with the jazz world of the 1940s and 1950s.  They use them the way California Valley-girls do.  And so if you turn to a recent book on McLuhan co-authored by Terrence Gordon, Everyman’s McLuhan, you will find a list of hot and cool media, in which TV is listed as a hot medium and the movie as cool.  This Gordon assures me is an error of the printer.  He does not believe TV is a hot medium nor does he think that it has changed from cool to hot over time as TV technology has changed from the wood cabinet rabbit-eared box of the 1950s to the HD digital flat-screen of today.  What is interesting about this error is that it is an error that is easily made.  The terms hot and cool confused McLuhan’s readers in the 1960s.  And they continue to confuse readers, and printers, today. (More on hot and cool tomorrow.)

What about other media?  Is PowerPoint hot or cool? Is Facebook hot or cool? What about LinkedIn?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

W. Terrence Gordon, Eri Hamaji & Jacob Albert, Everyman’s McLuhan, New York: Mark Batty, 2007

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, p. 270.

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Michael Hinton Saturday, January 9th, 2010
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Classify Marshall McLuhan: A contest

Marshall McLuhan (Summer 1968, age 57). I reject all attempts to classify me

As I might have mentioned earlier, talking with Norman Mailer on CBC’s “The Summer Way” the other day, was like wrestling with a dark angel.  He kept trying to classify me, pin me down, put me in a Cartesian square.  But that’s the nineteenth century speaking.  I am not a square peg that fits happily in a just-large-enough square hole.  They asked me you will recall am I an artist or a scientist?  Artist I suppose, but in truth neither.  I am an observer.

Me (January 2010, age 57).  Let us try.

Marshall McLuhan disliked labels.  But that didn’t and hasn’t stopped people from labeling him.  Here are some of the labels people have given McLuhan:

Canadian communications theorist

Professor

Literary scholar

Genius

Intellectual messiah

Canada’s Aristotle

Gear stripper

Delphic oracle

Educator

Future salesman

Visionary educator

Oracle

Charlatan

Theoretical, cognitive psychologist

Writer

Scholar

Social reformer

Popular philosopher

Pop guru

Media prophet

Media/technology analyst

Media darling

Seminal thinker

What label, if any, do you think is most accurate?  Pick one or make one up of your own.  Next week we will announce the winner.  Good luck!

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for the post

McLuhan: Hot & Cool. Edited by Gerald Stern, New York: Signet Books, 1967.

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Michael Hinton Friday, January 8th, 2010
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Happy New Year Marshall McLuhan!

Marshall McLuhan (December 31. 1980, age 69).  What a night!

Tonight was a good night.  Father Stroud said Mass.  We had a good French burgundy for communion.  Later when we finished the burgundy with dinner there was champagne and Father Stroud and I watched the news on TV with cigars lit.  I must say it was a great way to end the year.  Of course, as you know, I cannot speak or write for that matter. (Except on this blog.  Thank God for small if fictional mercies!)  This damn stroke has shut me down and got me down.  Corinne pointed to my Order of Canada and told Father Stroud it is the thing I am most proud of.  That’s not true, but it’s not like I can speak up to correct her.  I do like it.  But the thing I am proudest of is …

Me (January 2010, age 57).  When did Marshall McLuhan die?

Marshall McLuhan died on the night of December 31, 1980.  He went up stairs to bed after Mass, wine, dinner, and cigars and by all reports died peacefully in his sleep.  That was the end of his life, but in a way it was not a particularly important event because in more significant ways he had died twice before already:  the second time on the 26 September 1979 when he suffered a stroke that took away his power to speak, read, and write; the first time on the 25 November 1967 when he underwent a long and difficult surgery to remove a brain tumor.  McLuhan survived the surgery but not, I believe, his genius.  I do not say this lightly or without much soul searching and researching. In the months ahead I will make a case that this tragic event is the single most important biographical event in McLuhan’s life.  Because if it is true, and there is a strong case to be made that it is true, it means that to understand McLuhan you must pay particular attention to things he said and wrote before 25 November 1967.  And you must be careful to discount much of what he said or wrote after 25 November 1967.

Consider this a hint of things to come over the months ahead rather than an announcement that the end is here. Before signing off let me hasten to say this is not the end of McLuhan or this blog.  We and the world are not yet done with Marshall McLuhan.

What do you think Marshall McLuhan was most proud of? What do you think he should have been most proud of?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Philip Marchand, Marshall McLuhan: The medium and the messenger, 1989, p.p. 286-288.

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Michael Hinton Thursday, January 7th, 2010
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