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 February, 2010

Do you know the people around you?

Marshall McLuhan (December 9, 1963, age 52). Someone should study this!

Have you noticed that there are a great many people in the organization you work for that you don’t know?  Our organizations appear to be organized to wall people off, to separate them, not to bring them together.  For example, it was only when I went to Brandeis University, in Waltham, Massachusetts, to give a talk at Maurice Stein’s invitation that I met Jack Seeley who teaches psychology at Toronto University.  At Toronto, Seeley and I never meet!  He is a delightful chap.  A related phenomenon is our neglect of the famous places where we live.  Casa Loma is a great tourist attraction here in Toronto and is located quite close to where I Iive.  Yet, I’ve never seen it!  I wonder why?

Me (February 2010, age 57).  I wonder

This is the type of observation McLuhan delighted in.  And it has a ring of truth.  Organizations today do seem to be organized to separate people, to isolate them, to have them work in silos.  Head offices have been relocated from city centers to isolated suburban parks.  Open office cubicles enable management to monitor office workers and at the same time separate them.  Elevators are places to avoid conversation.  The language of business, larded as it is with euphemisms, acronyms, and clichés, by increasing the level of abstraction supports the maintenance of distance between people.  Can you truly be engaged working with people you do not know?

Have you ever met someone you did not know who works for the same organization that you do while travelling on business or on holiday? How many people do you actually know in your organization?  Is your organization doing anything to strengthen relationships among employees?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, p.294.


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Michael Hinton Saturday, February 27th, 2010
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For your I-N-F-O-R-M-A-T-I-O-N

Marshall McLuhan (August 4, 1963, age 52). What is number 1?

I don’t know why people find it so hard to get.  In the electronic age in which we live the number 1 industry is the information industry.  In the machine age the number I industry was physical goods – pig iron, cotton yarn and cloth, and wheat.  Today the university is where it’s at.  GM is on the skids.  AT&T is the place to be.  The big boys are in the business of packaging, transporting, and consuming information.

“Corinne,” I said last night at dinner, “do you realize what business we are in?”

“Marshall,” she said, “if you don’t stop talking and start eating, your dinner will be ice cold.”

“Man, my dear, does not live on bread alone.  In fact we are living on it less and less with every passing year.”

“Marshall!”

Me (February 2010, age 57).  Would you believe ¼ of GDP is information?

That’s the number Professor Deirdre – then Donald – McCloskey came up with when she and Arjo Klamer measured the contribution of “persuasion” to the total production of goods and services in the U.S. economy.  (See their paper “One Quarter of GDP is Persuasion,” in the American Economic Review, May 1995.)

Too often, readers of Marshall McLuhan make the mistake of believing that he exaggerates.  That what he says is not meant to be understood literally.  That it is said for effect.  There is, I believe, more truth than meets the eye in McLuhan’s teaching.

What business are you in?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, p.290.

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Michael Hinton Friday, February 26th, 2010
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The final frontier?

Marshall McLuhan (March 3, 1963, age 51). What is there left to extend?

As you know my new center for the study of the media and society (aka “the Centre for Culture and Technology”) will be dedicated to the study of all technologies as extensions of man’s body or nervous system.  That Corinne assures me will keep us both busy.  Me thinking them up, and she employing them at my expense to run the McLuhan household.  Our bodies have been extended both mechanically and electrically.  Therefore brooms, vacuums, and dishwashers for Mrs. McLuhan.  If this keeps up I will need a raise.  But there is one last frontier still untouched by technical change.  You guessed it, consciousness.  Oh, must run, Corinne’s calling me, says dinner’s ready. 

Me (February 2010, age 57).  Is it?

The extension of consciousness by technology seems like something out of science fiction: computers that can feel and think like HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey.  But is it?  Some aspects of consciousness have been extended for a very long time.  For example, the ancient Greeks and Romans invented elaborate technologies for the extension of memory.  In the Art of Memory, historian Frances Yates describes the elaborate mental constructions the ancients trained themselves to create to extend memory.  Briefly, they taught themselves to place in their imaginations an image of the thing to be remembered in an imaginary place where it could be retrieved – such as a room in a palace or a chair around a table.  The purpose of this was to allow orators to remember their speeches, which in a world without teleprompters was a useful thing to be able to do.  Even today this technique has not died out.  I was taught a stripped down version of it when I took the Dale Carnegie course in the mid-1990s.  And I imagine in a hotel meeting room somewhere in America it’s still being taught.

But McLuhan has something more challenging than memory in mind.  Not simply the remembering of thought but the creation and analysis of thought.  Again, however, mechanical devices to stimulate creativity and analysis have been with us for a long time. McLuhan’s Dew-Line creativity card deck is an example. (see also What’s in the cards?, What’s Marshall McLuhan’s stuff worth?)  Other consciousness extending technologies that come to mind are: PowerPoint, the Oxford English Dictionary, Roget’s Thesaurus, the Internet and social media of all kinds, mentors, tobacco, coffee shops, and spouses [a la McLuhan, see above].

What technologies do you use to extend your consciousness?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, p.288.

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Michael Hinton Thursday, February 25th, 2010
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What’s in a name?

Marshall McLuhan (March 3, 1963, age 51). I hope it smells as sweet!

Congratulations are in order.  Cigars all round; I’ve just been appointed the Director of the Center for the Study of the Media as Extensions of Man – a new interdisciplinary seminar for graduate students.  Our aim will be to explore the hidden effects of media on society.  I cannot understand, however, why Graduate Studies and Claude Bissell – our beloved President at Toronto University – insisted it be called the “Centre for Culture and Technology.”  

Me (February 2010, age 57).  What’s in this name?

Today the “Centre for Culture and Technology” continues on as the “McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology.”  The original name has always struck me as a little odd, as does “Run for Breast Cancer.”  Why “for”?  Runners for Breast cancer are not for but against breast cancer.  McLuhan was “for” culture, but the centre’s job was not to fight “for” culture.  And he was not “for” technology.   If anything – he never drove a car, gave up radio in college, and was a late adopter of the wrist watch – he was against technology.

The center was as he described it in a letter “for the study of media and society.”  Why didn’t the university call it that?  Is it natural to assume “the study of” part is self evident?  And why the substitution of “technology” for “media” and “culture for “society”?  Are these really improvements?

What do you think?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, p.288.

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Michael Hinton Wednesday, February 24th, 2010
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Before and after

Last week, as you know if you’ve been following this blog, was different from previous weeks.  The standard format was dropped, and instead I posted a 5-part essay explaining what I believe is the single most important thing you need to know to understand Marshall McLuhan.

What I argued is that Marshall McLuhan lost his genius as a result of surgery to remove a brain tumor in November 1967 and as a result if you want to understand McLuhan you need to read and listen to him as he was before the surgery.  McLuhan before the surgery was in conversation lucid, mercurial, and inventive.  In print he is original and exciting.  McLuhan after the surgery was clever, but confusing.  In print he leaned too heavily on his coauthors without whom he might never have managed to meet a deadline.  In conversation he seems to be distracted by small things or stuck on the pursuit of new ways to frame his old ideas.  Gone is high definition low definition in figure and ground, left brain and right brain.

This is controversial.  I do not expect to persuade you to view McLuhan in a new way in one leap, for that is certainly not how I did it.  Consider first what is agreed by his biographers.  The 1967 surgery was dangerous.  He was changed as a result of it.  He lost his prodigious memory and energy.  He lost years of reading.  He became petty and short tempered.  The question is:  Was it a fundamental change?   I believe it was.

Below are two videos of McLuhan being interviewed:  The first from 1960, seven years before the surgery.  He is 46.  The second is from 1976, nine years after the surgery he is 65.  Watch them.  Compare McLuhan before and after.  Ask yourself: Is it just age that is damping him down?  Tomorrow, which my 100th post of this blog, which I remind you is both a tribute and lament for Marshall McLuhan, I return to the standard format.

Cordially, Me

Marshall McLuhan

1. Marshall McLuhan Explorations: The global village on CBC Television [Broadcast Date: May 18, 1960]

http://archives.cbc.ca/arts_entertainment/media/clips/1814/

2. Marshall McLuhan on the Today Show interviewed by Tom Brokow [Broadcast Date: September 24, 1976 after the Presidential Campaign Debate Between Gerald R. Ford and Jimmy Carter, September 23, 1976]

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Michael Hinton Tuesday, February 23rd, 2010
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Now for something completely different, part 5 …

This week’s blogs are very different from those of previous weeks.  The standard format of two short letters, one from Marshall McLuhan and one from me, is abandoned.  Instead I am posting, in 5 parts, an essay which explains the single most important thing you need to know to understand Marshall McLuhan.

Previously, in part 1, posted Tuesday, I asserted that Marshall McLuhan lost his genius as a result of surgery to remove a brain tumor.  In part 2, posted Wednesday I explained why it was necessary and how it was carried out.  In part 3, posted Thursday, I explained why the operation was so damaging to McLuhan.  Did McLuhan lose his genius as a result of the operation?  I think so but you may want additional evidence.  Yesterday, in part 4, I talked about two other pieces to this puzzle.  Today, in part 5, the final chapter of this story, I talk about the meaning of it all.

Cordially, Me

Genius has brain surgery and loses his mind:  The untold story of Marshall McLuhan

By Michael Hinton

In the final chapter of classic detective fiction, the crime is solved when the great detective – Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, for example – gathers all the suspects gathered together in the same room, lays out the evidence, and identifies the guilty party. Before I make my attempt to play the great detective, I want to say something briefly about what genius is and what it matters whether or not McLuhan’s genius was lost.

Genius the Romans thought was the essence of our character or personality.  There is no doubt that in this sense, McLuhan’s brain surgery killed his genius.  All his biographers I think would agree on this.  He was a different man after the operation.  But this is not what I mean by genius.  I mean that “inborn exalted intellectual power” that “extraordinary imaginative, creative or inventive” spark that allows some minds to work faster than anyone else, for a longer time, and come to different conclusions.   How many geniuses are there?  Dr. Del Maestro told me that he believes the answer is something like one in six billion and that he had no doubt that McLuhan was a genius.  How many lose their genius?  Some; certainly Churchill did and so did Dr. Johnson, as a result of illness and possibly dementia.  How many have lost their genius as a result of brain surgery?   Possibly, only McLuhan, the numbers of true geniuses being small.

Understanding Media which was published 45 years ago is clearly the work of a genius, but not one who is easy to understand.  To understand McLuhan you need to know that: (1) his greatest ideas can be found most vigorously expressed in his speaking and writing before his brain surgery in 1967; (2) the spoken word is the vehicle of his genius; and (3) his earlier work is generally speaking easier to understand than his later work because in his earlier work he was less concerned with presenting his ideas in mosaic form.

You can listen to McLuhan speak in his letters, his interviews, and his speeches.  His writing before Understanding Media and the Gutenberg Galaxy can be found in his essays from the 1950s and 1960s in McLuhan Unbound, and his Report on Understanding New Media, 1960.   Even so he is never easy to understand for several other reasons.  His thought is densely packed with new ideas, in chapter 14 of Understanding Media, for example he identifies 100s of ways money can be thought of as an extension of our mind, bodies, or spirit.  He delights in decorating his ideas with references to writers from all disciplines.  In chapter 1 of the same book in the space of 6 pages (pages 9 to 14) he calls for support from the writings of Shakespeare (Romeo and Juliet, Othello, King Lear, Troilus and Cressida), Hans Selye, General David Sarnoff, W.W. Rostow, John Kenneth Galbraith, David Hume, E.H. Gombrich, Cardinal Newman, de Tocqueville, Gibbon, E.M. Forster, and Walt Whitman.

He uses a special vocabulary that does not mean what you might think it does; hot and cool, for example.  His terms are often value-loaded; fragmented and visual bias, for example.  His primary goal is often to jolt his readers and listeners out of their complacencies rather than to lead them to particular conclusions; his speech [this blog] at the Museum of the City of New York, in October 1967, he outraged his audience with the notion that the invention of the fire engine caused the proliferation of slums in 19th century western cities. Before this, of course, as the history of Paris and London shows, but McLuhan does not bother to explain, fires were responsible for the regular clearing away of slums and the re-building of newer and better-designed cities, although at great cost in terms of loss of life and misery for the urban poor. And, he loved to joke around; the medium is the massage, for example, making it difficult to tell when he is joking and when he is not.

Now, to deal with the difficult question of causality, a question McLuhan wrestled with a great deal.  Who killed McLuhan’s genius?

Was it Dr. Mount? (Aristotle would have called Mount the efficient cause.)  Was it the art and practice of brain surgery? (Aristotle’s formal cause.)  Was it the length of the operation, the copper or nickel lifts, and the bruising of brain tissue?  (Aristotle’s material cause.)  Or was it McLuhan’s desire to live rather than die from the growth of the tumor?  (Aristotle’s final cause.)

I prefer a final cause solution.  That McLuhan killed his own genius.  But this is not the most important question.  The case of Marshall McLuhan is not, after all,  a “who done it.”  It’s a “what got done.”  What happened to McLuhan?  Did he lose his genius at the same time he lost his tumor?  If so a great deal about McLuhan which was mysterious now becomes clear.  Why his books after 1967 were never again as good as the ones before.  Why he can be read and understood more easily in his writing before 1967 than after 1967.  Why he was lionized in the 1960s and looked on as bit of a joke in the 1970s.  Why he is so poorly understood today.

McLuhan’s real tragedy was not the stroke that took away his power to speak in 1979.  His tragedy was that in choosing life in 1967 he had to let his genius go.  If there is a happy ending here it is that the real McLuhan, the genius, lives on in all that he did before November 1967.  And that is a legacy that will never die, and one we can return to whenever we wish for inspiration and enlightenment.

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Michael Hinton Saturday, February 20th, 2010
Permalink 1950s and 60s, Vol. 1 3 Comments

Now for something completely different, part 4 …

As you know if you’ve been following, this week’s blogs are very different from those of previous weeks.  The standard format of two short letters, one from Marshall McLuhan and one from me, is abandoned.  Instead I am posting, in 5 parts, an essay which explains the single most important thing you need to know to understand Marshall McLuhan.

Previously, in part 1, I asserted that Marshall McLuhan lost his genius as a result of surgery to remove a brain tumor.  In part 2, I explained why it was necessary and how it was carried out.  In part 3, I explained why the operation was so damaging to McLuhan.  Did McLuhan lose his genius as a result of the operation?  I think so but you may want additional evidence.  Today, in part 4, I talk about two other pieces to this puzzle.

Cordially, Me

Genius has brain surgery and loses his mind:  The untold story of Marshall McLuhan

By Michael Hinton

Did McLuhan lose his genius as a result of the operation?  Was he greatly changed?  Beyond the facts of the surgery itself, consider these two other clues.  First the first clue.  “Corinne [McLuhan] was very sharp and lovely and graceful,” historian Nicholas Olsberg, wrote me from his home in Arizona.   “Always seemed odd that she made her match with such a clumsy guy [Marshall].”

In the winter of 1981, not long after Marshall’s death, Nicholas Olsberg spent his days valuing McLuhan’s papers ($1 million Canadian was the final figure) and his evenings chatting with Corinne, as a guest in Marshall’s house, at 3 Wychwood Place – sleeping in his study, surrounded by his books.  It was during these conversations, undoubtedly, that Olsberg heard about Marshall’s clumsiness.  The answer to Olsberg’s puzzlement about why a beauty, a 10, like Corinne would marry a clumsy, a 5, like McLuhan, of course, is that Corinne didn’t marry a clumsy guy.  She married a tall powerful guy who won his rowing oar at Cambridge and missed a Rhodes scholarship, not for physical clumsiness, because for intellectual arrogance.  The clumsy guy was created I submit by seizures, strokes, and most of all by a surgical operation to remove a brain tumor and the medication he needed to take in recovery to deal with the pain.  The Marshall McLuhan Corinne talked about to Nicholas Olsberg was not the pre-1967 genius, but the post-1967 diminished, clumsy-guy.

The second clue is in the jokes that are told about McLuhan, and, in particular, one specific joke.  Jokes, McLuhan liked to say, borrowing the observation from Steve Allen, are based on grievances.  Jokes about McLuhan are based on the grievance, the complaint, that no one can understand him.  That was the joke on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In.  That was the joke in the famous New Yorker cartoons on McLuhan of the 1960s.  That was the joke in the famous bit of doggerel by A.J.M. Smith, “McLuhan put his telescope to his ear; What a lovely smell, he said, we have here.”  And that was the joke about McLuhan in Woody Allen’s film Annie Hall.

Canadians who were twenty somethings in the 1970s, as I was, probably remember McLuhan best from his walk-on role in Annie Hall.  The joke in the film, made in 1977, ten years after the operation, has been misunderstood by his fans.  His biographers Judith Fitzgerald and Terry Gordon, for example, talk about his performance as an example of what a funny guy McLuhan was and how Woody didn’t get him.  (The camera’s rolling.)  A Communications Prof. from NYU is talking to his girl out front of a movie theatre.  He’s talking about McLuhan.  TV’s a hot medium, he says, blah, blah, blah.  Woody hears this and gets irritated, (McLuhan said TV is a cool medium) and gets McLuhan.  And McLuhan tells the guy off, ad-libbing:  ‘You know nothing of my ideas. You think my fallacy is all wrong?”  This breaks everyone up. Woody gets irritated again.  (This time for real.  McLuhan’s up-staged him.)  Woody demands the scene be done over, and over again, which tires McLuhan.  (Who does look tired and very thin.)   He insists McLuhan say his lines differently – say focus not fallacy, and don’t say it as a question.  In the end fallacy stays but the joke, one of McLuhan’s favourite lines which he likes to use with hecklers, is spoilt.

The truth of course is different.  Woody not McLuhan knows best about comedy.  They re-shoot because that’s how movies get made.  McLuhan’s ad lib is not a brilliant performance.  The guy he tells off isn’t a heckler, he’s a misinformed fan.  McLuhan’s line is a solution for the wrong problem.  The genius McLuhan would never have done this.  He might have said “With friends like you, who needs fallacies,” or “You have my fallacies all wrong.”   McLuhan is funny in the film because the joke does not hinge on words; the joke is McLuhan. The joke is his very presence.

[to be continued…]

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Michael Hinton Friday, February 19th, 2010
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Now for something completely different, part 3 …

This week’s postings are very different from those of previous weeks.  The standard format of two short letters, one from Marshall McLuhan and one from me, is abandoned.  Instead I am posting, in 5 parts, an essay which explains the single most important thing you need to know to understand Marshall McLuhan.

Previously, in part 1, I asserted that Marshall McLuhan lost his genius as a result of surgery to remove a brain tumor.  In part 2, I explained why the surgery was necessary and how it was carried out.  In part 3, today’s post, I explain why the operation was so damaging to McLuhan.

Cordially, Me

Genius has brain surgery and loses his mind:  The untold story of Marshall McLuhan [cont’d]

By Michael Hinton

To get a second opinion on the possible consequences of McLuhan’s operation I spoke with Dr. Rolando Del Maestro, MD, Ph D, FRCS (c), FACS, and DABNS.   Dr. Del Maestro holds the William Feindel Chair in Neuro-Oncology at McGill, directs the university’s Brain Tumor Research Centre, and is Professor of Neurosurgery and Neurology and Professor of Oncology at McGill’s Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital.  He has performed or assisted in between 5,000 and 6,000 operations to remove brain tumors.  Perhaps not surprisingly, in the small world that is world-class neurosurgery and research, one of his teachers in neurosurgery at Western knew Dr. Mount, and he was also taught and was a colleague of Dr. Henry Barnett, who was McLuhan’s neurologist in the 1970s in Toronto and treated him for his stroke in 1979.  Last but not least, Dr. Del Maestro is a student of genius, in particular the life and work of Leonardo Da Vinci.

When I spoke with Dr. Del Maestro I told him what McLuhan’s biographers had to say about the surgery, and the circumstances leading up to it.  I expected him to tell me that there is little he can say about the possible effects McLuhan might have suffered without seeing his medical records and even so every case is different.  But he did not do so.  Instead he told me that McLuhan must have suffered some cognitive impairment.  The problem was the length of the operation.  Oxygenation is not a concern, however, the problem is that in the surgery, which in its fundamental aspects is carried out today in much the same way as it was done in Dr. Mount’s time, the brain is lifted to get at the tumour by nickel or copper lifts.  Over the many hours the brain was lifted the brain tissue, (the little grey cells Poirot called them) must inevitably be bruised, the cells damaged.  Forgive me for saying this, he said, if you were a construction worker you could recover from a surgery like this and return to work.  But if you’re a surgeon, an architect, or a NATO general performing at a high-level you can never go back and work at the same level.  In all your years of experience, I said to him, have you ever known or heard of anyone who fully recovered from an operation like McLuhan had?  No, he said.  But then, after a brief pause, he said.  Let me think about it.  If I discover such a case I’ll call you.  (So far, he has not called.)

But this isn’t conclusive evidence is it?  What would it take to persuade you if you are presently unpersuaded?

McLuhan’s medical records?  Even if I could show them to you, and I cannot – Columbia –Presbyterian will not release them without permission from McLuhan’s family and the McLuhan family is unlikely to give me their permission to see them – I doubt that would do the trick.

What about testimony  from Dr. Barnett, who treated McLuhan in the 1970s?  Perhaps.  I spoke with him – he is in his 90s – but he would not grant me an interview without the permission of a member of McLuhan’s family.  I phoned Stephanie McLuhan – one of Marshall McLuhan’s daughters.  I left a message asking her permission to speak with Dr. Barnett.  She returned my call, and left a message asking me who Dr. Barnett was, saying that she did not recognize the name.  I phoned back and left a message saying that he was her father’s neurologist.  She did not call me back.

What about letters to and from McLuhan in the months before and after the operation?  These might be revealing.   Unfortunately, McLuhan’s letters from 1967 and 1968 appear to be missing from the McLuhan Papers held by the National Archives.

But consider these two other items and see if they tip the scales.  The Nicholas Olsberg clue and the Annie Hall clue.

[to be continued…]

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Michael Hinton Thursday, February 18th, 2010
Permalink 1950s and 60s, 1970s and 80s, Vol. 1 2 Comments

Now for something completely different, part 2…

Yesterday, I explained that this week’s blogs will be very different from the previous ones.  This week, in the lead up to my 100th post, which will take place on Tuesday, February 23, the standard format of two short letters, one from Marshall McLuhan and one from me, is temporarily abandoned.  Instead I am posting, in 5 parts, an essay which explains the single most important thing you need to know to understand Marshall McLuhan.

In part 1, I asserted that Marshall McLuhan lost his genius as a result of surgery to remove a brain tumor.  In today’s post I tell you more about this operation.

Cordially Me

Genius has brain surgery and loses his mind:  The untold story of Marshall McLuhan [cont’d]

By Michael Hinton

It is time to tell you about the operation, the scene of the crime.  On the basic facts leading up to it and what happened during and after it his biographers (Marchand, Fitzgerald, and Gordon) are in substantial agreement:  In 1967, McLuhan had reached the pinnacle of his career.  The Gutenberg Galaxy had won him a Governor General’s award in 1962.  Understanding Media had sold 100,000 copies in the spring of 1964.  An east and west coast marketing campaign orchestrated by two San Francisco PR men and ‘genius scouts,’ Howard Gossage and Gerald Feigen,  rocketed him to international stardom in 6 months in 1965.  Lionized by Fortune 500 corporations his key note speeches earned him $5,000 to $25,000 gigs in 1966.  Awarded a $100,000 teaching and research chair at Fordham University, in Brooklyn, he moved Corinne and 4 of their 6 children to New York City in August, 1967, where he arranged for jobs for two of his colleagues, Ted Carpenter and Harley Parker, and his eldest son Eric, and schooling for the other children, and a house for them all to live in close to the university.

With a new salary, new job, new office, new secretary, new city, and new home his stress levels must have reached record heights.  Stress was the last thing he needed.  Over the past 7 years he’d suffered from headaches and black-outs.  (In 1960 exhausted by a punishing work schedule, he’d suffered a stroke that he tried to pretend had never happened.)  Believing sickness was the result of weak will, and therefore a sign of weakness, McLuhan felt he could indulge his dislike of Doctors and hospitals by avoiding them.  In September and October 1967 the blackouts got worse.  In October he blacked out in class at Fordham.  Deeply concerned, Carpenter, John Culkin – who had persuaded McLuhan to come to Fordham – and Corinne persuaded McLuhan to see a neurologist in Manhattan.  Dr. Lester A. Mount examined McLuhan and arranged for tests which showed that McLuhan had brain tumor, a benign but growing meningioma the size of his fist, buried in the lower part of his brain at the base of his skull.

McLuhan’s choice was fairly simple:  have the operation which would not be easy and if all went well live, or suffer ever increasing pain, blackouts, blindness, insanity, and ultimately death.  The operation took place at the Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital in New York City.  Dr. Mount performed the operation which began at 8 in the morning of Saturday, November 25 and was not completed until 5 in the morning of Sunday, November 26, having lasted 22 hours, making it “the longest neurosurgical operation in American medical history.”  Dr. Mount’s greatest concern, says Fitzgerald, was that the length of the operation which he estimated would take only 5 hours and might result if the utmost care was not taken in the exposure of “some of the cells of the brain’s surface to the potentially devastating effects of oxygenation” because he had to “lift McLuhan’s brain to get at the tumour.”  “His esteemed patient’s faculties will,” she writes, “almost inevitably, [would] sustain some degree of damage.”

McLuhan did suffer from the operation.  The pain was excruciating, for which he took heavy-duty pain killers, and his life was “forever altered.”  Five years of reading and people, places and associations were scrubbed from his memory.  He was “variously fragile, tense, irritable,” she says,” and, on occasion, uncharacteristically demanding and irrational.”  No one, however, suggests the operation took away his genius.  Gordon remarks, instead, how remarkably productive McLuhan was in the years after the operation: 7 books and 21 articles.  And yet it is clear there was something wrong.  The articles were squibs.  Some quite obviously recycled from the years before his surgery.  With each year that passed and with the appearance of each new book his reputation fell.  Projects he thought important were left unfinished.  Six of the seven books were co-authored and the one that wasn’t, Culture is Our Business was viewed by McLuhan, as a failure.  Asked by his son Eric late in his life why he never dedicated his books to any one McLuhan told him it was because he wasn’t very proud of them.

To be continued

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Michael Hinton Wednesday, February 17th, 2010
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Now for something completely different

Tuesday, February 23, 2010 will be my 100th post.  To those of you who have been following this blog, especially, I should say something, now, by way of explanation and introduction, because this week’s blogs will be very different from the previous ones.  Previously, each blog has consisted of two short letters.  The first is from Marshall McLuhan, and introduces a particular idea or event in his life.  (Perhaps I should make it clear – on the off-chance you have any doubts about it – these letters were not actually written by Marshall McLuhan, but by me as I have imagined him writing them.  I have, however, based them on things he actually did say or write in letters, interviews, essays, speeches, or books, and have tried as far as I can to imitate his style without parodying it.)   The second is from me talking about what Marshall says in his letter.  (These letters I assure you are all actually written by me.)  Hence the name of the blog: “From Marshall and Me.”

Today, I am posting the first part of a five-part essay on what I believe is the single most important thing you need to know to understand Marshall McLuhan.  Here is part one.  I hope you find it interesting and useful in making sense of one of Canada’s most extraordinary and perplexing minds.  If you have any comments I would like to hear them.

Cordially Me

Genius has brain surgery and loses his mind:  The untold story of Marshall McLuhan

By Michael Hinton

Thirty years ago, on September 26, 1979, Marshall McLuhan collapsed in his office, a book-strewn, file-piled, upstairs room in the Coach House at St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto.  A short walk away from where he lay was the basement cafeteria of the old ROM, his former office on St Joseph Street, his first two homes in Toronto, at 81 St Mary’s Street and 29 Wells Hill Road, and all of the other places he had made his breakthroughs in communications and media studies.  The cause of his collapse was a stroke that robbed him of the power to speak, read, and write for the last fifteen months of his life.

There’s a joke – an anecdote in McLuhan-speak about this: it probably didn’t make him any harder to understand.   McLuhan’s wife Corinne once said, I’m paraphrasing here, that Marshall had three passions in life God, work, and her.  But she ran a very distant third.  After the stroke he still had God and Corinne, but the work was gone.  Walking, but only just, barely able to move his hands, the man who rocketed to international stardom in 1966 with his dumbfounding eloquence – observing most famously that “the medium is the message” and that media had made the world “a global village” – was unable to communicate in any other way than by shrugging, grunting, grimacing, and forcing out an occasional “oh boy, um, ah, [and] yes.”  Once looking out the window on a rainy day, Patrick Watson says, a bit of a poem came out, ‘April is the cruelest month.”  A story that always moves me because he spent 40 years of his life teaching English literature, and what he must have been trying to say to his friend by quoting this first line from “The Wasteland.”

The wonder is not that poetry came out of his mouth.  Aphasics frequently may sing more easily than they can speak and speak poetry when they cannot speak prose.   And McLuhan loved poetry.  At one time he had committed most of the Oxford book of English verse to memory.  The wonder what he meant by this quotation.  It could have been idle word play.  This is April, it’s raining, here’s some poetry that loosely fits.  But that I think is unlikely.  What is more likely is that McLuhan was well aware of the dark meaning of that line of poetry, and of the darker meaning of the epigram that introduces the poem.  April, Eliot is saying, is cruel because it wakens the world from its painless sleep to the misery of life in the wasteland.  To McLuhan his current life of sharply constrained communication must have felt like a wasteland.  The epigram of the poem is a passage from The Satyricon by Petronius.  A scene is played out in the town square of ancient Cumae where the Sibyl – a prophetess  – is imprisoned in a cage and is being taunted by a gang of children.  “What do you want, Sibyl, they cry.”  And she says,“I want to die.”

I wrote to Patrick Watson about the story of “April is the cruelest month.”  He didn’t want to speak to me about this over the phone.  Instead he asked me to send him questions by e-mail.  I asked him a two-part question: Was the story true, that McLuhan had actually said this particular line of poetry, and what did he (Patrick Watson) say after McLuhan said it.  He wrote me back the next day, to confirm that the story was true and add a question of his own, but unfortunately he left the second part of my question unanswered. (His e-mail reads: “Yes, I think that’s true. Do you know the source of the line?”)  Too bad.  I’d hoped to be able to discern from his answer something about McLuhan’s state of mind and his at the time.   Wonder?  Joy?  Amazement?  Foreboding?  Sorrow?  Indifference?  Or what?  Perhaps he couldn’t remember, or didn’t want to.  But it doesn’t matter all that much now because McLuhan’s stroke and what happened afterward is not my concern.  It was tragic, but it did not cause McLuhan to lose his genius.

That happened I believe a dozen years earlier in New York City, in November 1967 in the course of a long and harrowing operation McLuhan underwent to remove a brain tumor.  Saying this I know will anger and upset many people, not only his surviving family and friends, but thousands of his followers around the world bound together by the internet.  (The truth McLuhan liked to say, quoting Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot “is whatever upsets the apple cart.”)  My intention however is not to upset people, especially the people who loved him, but to tell a story that needs to be told.  A story that provides the best answer to a question that appeared in a New Yorker cartoon in 1970 when McLuhan’s celebrity was clearly ebbing:  Says she to he on leaving a party “Are you sure it isn’t too early to ask, ‘Whatever happened to Marshall McLuhan?’ ”  The story explains much about his life and work that otherwise would remain a mystery.  In particular the decline in the quality of his work and the decay of his reputation after 1967.  McLuhan you will discover did not die a genius tragically trapped inside a body that didn’t work.  He died more tragically as a man who used to be a genius trapped inside a mind he found increasingly hard to recognize and to be reconciled with.

Part 2 tomorrow

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Michael Hinton Tuesday, February 16th, 2010
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