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

McLuhan slandered?

Marshall McLuhan (January, 1996, age 84).  Unbelievable!

For the most part death agrees with me.  I’ve got a quiet room, and plenty of books.  Every now and then I look up from my studies and look down on earth to find out what people are saying about me.  It’s delightful to see that even now 16 years after my death – or as Corinne likes to call it my “unfortunate demise” – I’m still a celebrity.  The latest news on the Marshall McLuhan front is that Wired magazine has put me on their masthead as their patron Saint.  An excellent choice, if I do say so myself, and I do.  But I don’t like what that bloke Gary Wolf wrote about me.  Said someone else had written my books.  The nerve of the man, ordinarily I’d sue, but unfortunately given my present circumstances, that’s impossible.  No lawyers up here.

Me (February 2010, age 57).  Wolfe may have been right on the mark.

What Wolfe wrote is that “scholars agree that Marshall McLuhan’s earliest books were written by him, but there is mystery and uncertainty about who really wrote his subsequent works.”  What there is no “mystery and uncertainty” about is that all but one of McLuhan’s books published after Understanding Media were co-authored.  The question is how much did McLuhan actually contribute to the writing of these books and how much did his co-authors.  It is generally agreed, for example, that The Medium is the Massage was pieced together by his co-authors from McLuhan’s previous writing.  My own belief is that the McLuhan who wrote the Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media is not the same McLuhan who co-authored the later books.  I have written a long essay explaining more precisely what I mean by this, which I will publish serially in this blog, beginning next week.

Was the McLuhan who wrote The Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media a genius?  How do you define genius?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore. The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects. Produced by Jerome Agel, 1967.

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Michael Hinton Saturday, February 13th, 2010
Permalink Communication, Vol. 1 No Comments

Details, details!

Marshall McLuhan (July, 1948, age 37).  Finkelstein versus McLuhan.

My son, Eric, brought to my attention a slim volume of criticism on my books, Sense & Nonsense of McLuhan, by one Sidney Finkelstein.  In it Finkelstein alleges a good deal of nonsense and it would appear no sense.

The lamenting and lamentable Finkelstein, is caught up with details.  That’s not my bag.  However, I cannot resist pointing out that on page 17 he gets a detail wrong himself.  He writes, “Another great media revolutionist to McLuhan was Johann Gutenberg, who printed a Latin Bible from movable type in Mainz in 1437. (sic)“  Dates are not my strong point, but I think Finkelstein got that one wrong.  I’m a word man not a numbers man, myself.  For example, as Corinne keeps reminding me, I can never seem to remember the kids’ birthdays.    

Me (February 2010, age 57).  How important are the details?

The details would appear to be, although I am not an expert on the early book:  1436 is the year Gutenberg and his partner, Andreas Dritzehn, first started work on printing by movable type.  And the Mainz bible was not printed until 1454 or 1455.  But what does it matter 1436, 1437, 1454, 1455?

Mistakes in detail bothered McLuhan’s critics.  Why?  Scholars generally believe that errors in small things suggest the possibility of errors in big things.  They reveal a failure in seriousness – that you do not care enough to get them right.  And they worry about errors a great deal.  One professor of mine once offered to pay a dollar (a dollar was worth a good deal more then than it is now) for every mistake we could find in one of his textbooks.  It is amazing the number of errors you will find in any book, if you examine it closely.

In general Marshall McLuhan did not worry about details, although he could be a stickler for some details.  For example in the 1970s he insisted that his students refer to the “divisions” of rhetoric rather than the “parts” of rhetoric.  Details or facts, I seem to recall he once said somewhere, should never be allowed to interfere with the truth.

(More on McLuhan’s critics tomorrow.)

Do you sweat the small stuff?  Is it small stuff?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Sidney Finkelstein.  Sense & Nonsense of McLuhan, New York:  International Publishers, 1968.

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Michael Hinton Friday, February 12th, 2010
Permalink 1930s and 40s, Education, Vol. 1 No Comments

Inviting, confronting, and ignoring criticism

Marshall McLuhan (July, 1948, age 37).  Everybody’s a critic!

Ted Carpenter is a breath of fresh air.  With him at St. Michael’s Toronto is getting less parochial with every passing second.  Last night he had my darling wife Corinne in stitches at dinner.  He was lecturing he told us at the university on the sexual practices of the natives of Polynesia.  Apparently he upset the tender sensibilities of one of the more prudish co-eds in the class, and she walked out in disgust.  “No need to hurry,” he shouted after her, “there’s plenty of time to book your ship to the islands.”  Between giggles Corinne remarked that perhaps Ted was too hard on the girl.  I looked over at him.  “See Ted, everybody’s a critic.”

Me (February 2010, age 57):  Perhaps not everybody.  But there certainly were a lot!

Ted Carpenter and Marshall McLuhan met at Toronto in 1948.  They became close friends and worked together closely on the study of media in the 1950s and most of the 1960s.  Carpenter was known for his volubility, an ability to rub people the wrong way, and a wicked sense of humour – a teacher at a Catholic college he built up according to Phillip Marchand, “the largest collection of books on the devil and diabolism in Canada.”  Not surprisingly, he and McLuhan developed a large number of enemies at the university.  Anyone who has taught at a university knows this is not hard to do, but Carpenter and McLuhan seemed to have had a gift for it.  One of Carpenter’s favorite gambits, for example, was that when an enemy came in the common room and a chair was open beside him he would catch the man’s eye and at the same time, slowly tip the chair over.  McLuhan preferred to ignore his critics.  “Come on Ted,” he used to say, “if this is what we’re up against, we’re destined for kudos.”

And, of course, they were.  (More on McLuhan’s critics tomorrow.)

How do you deal with your critics?  Head on like Carpenter?  Or forget about them, like McLuhan?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Phillip Marchand.  Marshall McLuhan:  The medium and the messenger, 1989, p. 124-125.

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Michael Hinton Thursday, February 11th, 2010
Permalink 1930s and 40s, Communication, Education, Vol. 1 No Comments

What rubbish!

Marshall McLuhan (July, 1969, age 58). There’s no such thing as bad advertising.

It has seemed obvious to me, because it is grounded on observation, that “persons grouped around a fire or candle or warmth or light are less able to pursue independent tasks, than persons supplied with electricity.”  It has come to my attention, thanks to the sharp eyes and ears of my son Eric that Dame Rebecca West this month announced to the English Association in her presidential address that this observation is “rubbish!”  “Why,” she said, “should anybody listen to the writer of this sentence?”  Well, as I told Eric, evidently I can piss off some of the people some of the time, but fortunately I very much doubt if I can piss off all of the people all of the time.  No matter, what evidently pisses off the sainted Dame Rebecca is that people are listening to me.      

Me (February 2010, age 57).  What was her problem?

Marshall McLuhan carefully collected everything that was written about him.  Good and bad.  Boxes and boxes of books, magazines, off prints, clippings.  He sorted this material by topic into folders intending one day to use it in the revision of his books.  Although it is not clear how much revision he actually achieved.  In conversation, however, it is clear that his usual response to criticism was to ignore it.  Famously, in response to the criticism of Robert Merton at a scholarly seminar at Columbia University, he said, “Don’t like those ideas?  I got others.”  And his trademark reply to hecklers was:  “You think my fallacies are all wrong?”

What do you think?  Why was West so ticked off?  Why did people listen to McLuhan?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Rebecca West.  “McLuhan and the Future of Literature,” Presidential Address, 1969.  London: English Association, 1969.

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Michael Hinton Wednesday, February 10th, 2010
Permalink 1950s and 60s, Communication, Vol. 1 No Comments

Opposites attract

Marshall McLuhan (February 7, 1960, age 50).  Watch out for Mr. In Between.

Marshall, Corinne said to me at breakfast, things are not all black and white.  I had simply said that telephone calls in this house must be strictly limited to no more than 2 minutes a call.  She said that our two oldest girls, Teresa and Mary, were teenagers and that we must expect them to want to talk for far more than 2 minutes a call.  I told her that of course she was right.  Between black and white there is grey.  But not everything is grey.  I said that when it comes to intellectual discovery – and what can be more important than that – it is better to ignore grey entirely and see what makes the most sense, black or white?  Corinne said what makes the most sense is the preservation of her sanity.  I imagine what that means is that telephone calls will not be strictly limited to less than 2 minutes.  Thank God – and believe me I do – I’ve got an office to escape to.  After all, I’ve work to do. 

Me (February 2010, age 57).  Figure and ground.

Marshall McLuhan liked to view the world through the tension of opposites.  Not black and white, with its suggestion of good and bad, but hot and cold, high definition and low definition, and, later, left brain and right brain, and figure and ground.

What he used to tell his students in the 1970s, I’m told, is that to truly understand a medium you must be able to look at it both as figure and ground at the same time.  That is to see it for what it is, the senses it extends and how (figure) and for how the environment around it adapts and adjusts to its presence (ground).  Which brings me to a question posed by Julien Smith, co-author of the New York Times bestseller Trust Agents, in a recent blog post:  Can you both stand out (make an impression, cut a figure) and fit in (be accepted, blend into the ground) at the same time? The answer is yes.  That’s what rhetoric is all about.  To persuade you must stand out and fit in.

Do you try only to stand out or only to fit in?  Or do you try to do both?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, pp. 286-287.

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Michael Hinton Tuesday, February 9th, 2010
Permalink 1950s and 60s, Communication, Vol. 1 No Comments

Media extend us

Marshall McLuhan (February 27, 1962, age 50).  I thought it up.

Ed Hall says he got the idea that media are extensions of us, our bodies our minds, our spirits, from Bucky Fuller.  I didn’t get it from anybody.  It just hit me.  But now that I’ve got it I see the idea everywhere.  Blake put it this way – “If perceptive organs vary, Objects of Perception seem to vary: / If the perceptive organs close, their objects seem to close also.” In other words by extending the senses media vary our perceptions and as our perceptive organs vary and the objects of the world vary.  O brave new world!

Me (February,  2010, age 57).  What if he’s right?

Marshall McLuhan enjoyed the game of exploring the myriad ways media extend us and in so doing alter the way we see the world.  Every part of us he thought was a perceptive organ.

What is Twitter an extension of?  Our voice.  A yell.

What is the calculator an extension of?  Our fingers and toes.

What is PowerPoint an extension of?  Our palms and sleeves where we used to make notes to remind us of things we didn’t want to forget.

What is the digital book an extension of?

What is the digital newspaper an extension of?

What is the digit an extension of?

Is this more than a parlor game?  Does it really matter?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, pp. 286-287.

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Michael Hinton Saturday, February 6th, 2010
Permalink 1950s and 60s, Communication, Technology, Vol. 1 1 Comment

Look to the media

Marshall McLuhan (February 27, 1962, age 50).  TV!

Every family’s got a drop-out, magazine’s like Life are in trouble, the auto industry is veering out of control, the textbook industry and our schools are being completely overhauled.  Why do so few people see that these things and a great many more are directly attributable to the impact of TV!

TV is not the first medium to have entirely reshaped society and it will not be the last.  But in many ways it is the most obvious.  The book escaped me for years.  I caught on to TV in seconds.

Me (February, 2010, age 57).  What if he’s right?

Marshall McLuhan’s observation about TV suggests the connection between the rise of the internet and the decay of newspapers.

Extra!  Extra!  Read all about it!  In Atlanta where I was early last month for a conference, the 5 star hotel I stayed in (thanks to the special deal the American Economic Association was able to arrange for its members) did not supply newspapers for its guests, as the big hotels do in Toronto.  Their thinking being, I imagine that their guests would rather be on-line or in front of the TV.  In Montreal the English language newspaper The Gazette is given away outside metro stations to commuters in the mornings and in the afternoons, but few appear to want to take a paper.  Increasingly, the front page of the Gazette has become a showcase for advertisements, colour pictures and teasers about blogs and on-line stories.  Some days, like last Monday, the lead story no longer leads on the front page.

The French seem to be lagging in the abandonment of the newspaper.  The leading intellectual newspaper here is called Le Devoir.  What English language daily would call itself Homework?

Are you more likely to get your news from TV, on-line, or from a newspaper? When the newspaper disappears, where will the radio morning shows get their stories?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

The Montreal Gazette, February 1, 2010.

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Michael Hinton Friday, February 5th, 2010
Permalink 1950s and 60s, Business, Communication, Culture, Education, Vol. 1 1 Comment

Haiti will soon be a distant memory

Marshall McLuhan (April, 1965, age 53).  War on TV.

I was telling Tom Easterbrook just the other day The Vietnam War cannot be won on TV.  It could be won on radio, but not on TV.  TV is too involving.  One other thing, which I think is “verra” interesting.  Have you noticed that the media can only follow one war at a time?

Me (February, 2010, age 57).  What if he’s right?

Marshall McLuhan’s observation that the media can only follow one war at a time, suggests a prediction about the three week-old now disaster in Haiti. Sooner or later, the will media move on to some other bad news story to sell their good news (the advertisements).  Somalia, New Orleans, Bangladesh where are they on the 6 o’clock news?  Can Haiti, no matter how deserving of our attention remain long in the electronic eye once another story pops up.  At least Tiger is getting a break.  However, the hurricane season is fast approaching.  Haiti’s only chance is to suffer new disaster.

Is there a difference between radio coverage of the story and TV coverage?  If so, what is it? Does TV coverage, while it lasts, increase the likelihood that something will be done to rescue Haiti?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore.  War and Peace in the Global Village, 1968.

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Michael Hinton Thursday, February 4th, 2010
Permalink 1950s and 60s, Communication, Technology, Vol. 1 1 Comment

Who should take the risks?

Marshall McLuhan (March, 1962, age 50).  Risk is not for the young scientist!

Gordie Thompson, one of the boffins – one of the senior engineers, that is – in the research group at Bell, was telling me that as one of the old buggers he’s the one who has to be the guy who puts the breaks on, who slows things down, who is the sober voice of second thoughts.  I told him, Gordie, you’ve got it all wrong.  When it comes to scientific research, you’re the only one who understands the science who can afford to take risks, to make a big mistake. The boys in administration won’t take chances because they don’t understand the science.  The young guys just out of graduate school are too busy worrying what will happen to them and their jobs if things don’t work out.  Gordie, I said, you’re the one who has to do it.  You understand what’s going on.  You’ve already proved your worth.  You can afford to get things wrong.  So go out and take a chance.  What if you turn out to be right?  

Me (February,  2010, age 57).  What if he’s right?

Marshall McLuhan’s genius was to be able to pick the counter-intuitive out of thin air, brush it off and get you to look at it and the world in a new way.  The conventional wisdom says the old are the spokesmen for stasis.  It’s the young you need to look to for change.  McLuhan says no.  Of those who can take risks in science the young aren’t strong enough in their position in their jobs, in their world to be truly creative.

What McLuhan says about science, I think applies equally to the Arts and every other area of life in which there is a discipline to be mastered.  To hazard a prediction of my own, the people I would suggest you look to for the next truly innovative risky technical moves are the old:  Margaret Atwood, Myrill Streep, Leonard Cohen, Stephen King, Stephen Hawking, David Susuki, Bill Gates

Who are the risk takers in your business?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Philip Marchand, Marshall McLuhan:  The medium and the messenger, 1989, p. 186.

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Michael Hinton Wednesday, February 3rd, 2010
Permalink 1950s and 60s, Education, Technology, Vol. 1 No Comments

McLuhan in a box?

Marshall McLuhan (February, 1967, age 55).  Undignified!  Not professorial!

Quentin Fiore tells me that Aspen Magazine is wild about putting me in one of their boxes.  I am the subject of their next issue, issue number 4, the McLuhan editionCorinne will be amused.  The graduate school – I am sure – will not.  This will give the Profs at Toronto University a fit.  I can hear them now.  Pure Commercialism! Undignified!  Not professorial!  Well that’s their look out.

For each issue Aspen’s editors assemble a mix of recordings, posters, essays and whatnot playing on a particular theme.  “Magazine” you know is a very interesting word.  It means a storehouse, a cache, typically for explosives.  This issue is undoubtedly going to result in fireworks.  The last one was on Warhol.  This one’s on me.    Haven’t seen it yet, but I will.  Perhaps next Sunday.

Me (February, 2010, age 57):  A 1960s time capsule.

Aspen Magazine, the brain child of Phyllis Johnson, a former editor for Women’s Wear Daily and Advertising Age began publication in 1965 and ceased publication in 1971.  U.S. Subscribers paid $12.95 a year for 4 quarterly issues and Canadians $14.95.  For this somewhat princely sum (Look or Life, popular 26-issue-a-year magazines, at this time cost Americans $5.00 a year and Canadians $5.50) the subscribers received a multi-media, extravaganza of visual, oral, and tactile delights. For us, viewing it today it is both a 1960s time capsule and time machine.

The McLuhan edition which arrived at the subscriber’s door in the spring of 1967 in a hinged box (9-½ by 12-½ by ¾ inches) decorated with an electronic circuit board and containing:

Is there a market for something like Aspen Magazine today?  How much do you think such a magazine would cost today? (In today’s money – adjusting for inflation – an American annual subscription of $12.95 would be worth $68.83, and a Canadian subscription of $14.95 would be worth $79.46 – amazing value for money) Do you know of any library, centre, or museum that has a copy of the Aspen McLuhan edition?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

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Michael Hinton Tuesday, February 2nd, 2010
Permalink 1950s and 60s, Communication, Culture, Vol. 1 4 Comments