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 April, 2010

What is!

Marshall McLuhan (January 21, 1971, age 59). Frankly, I’m baffled!

What baffles me is the assumption many people make when they read my work.  The assumption that whatever happens ought to happen. And taking things one step further whatever can happen should happen.  These seem to me to be recipes for disaster.

Me (April 2010, age 57).  Me too!

This should be obvious, but apparently it’s not.  (These assumptions are made repeatedly in the discussion of social media.  Facebook and Twitter have happened but is it clear that they ought to have happened?  Or just because you can tweet you ought to tweet?)

A closely related idea to “Whatever happens ought to happen” is “Everything happens for a reason.”  A comforting idea for people trying to deal with evils by reframing them as goods.  For example, if my mother had not died I would never have known how much I loved her.  Everything then has its silver lining.  And nothing just happens.  It happens for a good reason.

Or not.

When life deals you a lemon do you try to make it into lemonade?  Or do you say, “Look a lemon, I wonder how it got here?”

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, p. 421.

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Michael Hinton Friday, April 30th, 2010
Permalink 1950s and 60s, Culture, Vol. 1 No Comments

The meaning of it all

Marshall McLuhan (April 29, 2010, age 98).  “Corinne, come and look at this!”

“What is it, now, Marshall?”

“The PowerPoint slide from a military presentation in Afghanistan everyone’s talking about.”

“What in Heaven’s a PowerPoint slide?”

“One in a sequence of overheated overhead slides.  This one’s a doozy.”

“Looks to me like a plate of spaghetti.”

“Forget the spaghetti.  Consider the medium.  PowerPoint is an electronic overhead or magic lantern slide show, one damn slide after another.  The business of the medium is push things through, relentlessly, to resolve difficulties to get it all over.  Its great advertising, but it’s not a conversation.”

“Why, Marshall, would they want a conversation in Afghanistan?”

“To come up with fresh ideas.”

Me (April 2010, age 57).   Another problem with PowerPoint

Every medium creates its own environment that for the most part is invisible.  But every now and again something happens to make the environment visible.  Seen outside it’s natural context, the military briefing, the slide reveals the hubris and waste of military resources that’s taking place in Afghanistan.  At home and in the field PowerPoint Rangers are fighting it out in an escalating war.  A war to present the illusion of the capture of the most detail in a single slide.

Cordially, Marshall and Me

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Michael Hinton Thursday, April 29th, 2010
Permalink Communication, Management, Technology, Vol. 1 1 Comment

What was McLuhan up to at Bilderberg?

Marshall McLuhan (April 28, 2010, age 98).  Something important, believe you me!

“Corinne, that Hinton bloke is on my case again.”

“What about?

“The Bilderberg Conference in 1969.  Says I used foul language, and was incomprehensible.”

“Marshall, is that true?”

“Yes, I lost my temper.  They weren’t getting it.”

“They?”

“The delegates, the political heavies, the MacNamaras and Rusks.  They did a double take when I told them that it was futile to understand our world of technology “without a knowledge of all the poets and painters and artists from Baudelaire to Joyce.  But they didn’t get i.”

“What didn’t they get?”

“That ‘a knowledge of all the poets’ does not mean to understand all the knowledge of all poets.  The key is to approach the world as an artist.  As Wyndham Lewis taught me, to observe, just observe.  Their problem is that they come to the world with a point of view.  And as a result they learn nothing from the world.  They only see what they’re prepared to see.”

Me (April 2010, age 57).   Mea culpa

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, pp. 372-73 and 531.

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Michael Hinton Wednesday, April 28th, 2010
Permalink Communication, Vol. 1 1 Comment

Pearls before swine?

Marshall McLuhan (May 14, 1969, age 57) Appalling!

Just got back from the Bilderberg Conference.  If I had known that the participants understood so little about the electric world in which we live I would never have agreed to speak.  As I told Prince Bernard of the Netherlands, who was a splendidly urbane host, only artists see the world as it is the rest – and I include the delegates to the Conference in this less than august company – see it as it was thirty years ago.  The shocking thing is that these are the people who are running our world.

Me (April 2010, age 57)   In every way!

McLuhan’s performance at Bilderberg was one of his worst.  And he was not invited back.  Apparently the delegates, who included such political heavy weights as Robert MacNamara, George Ball, and Dean Rusk, did not appreciate McLuhan’s “foul language.”  It is also likely that the delegates found that what McLuhan had to say foully expressed or not as insulting and incomprehensible.  For example here are three ideas McLuhan brought to the delegates attention:

(1)    By 1830 the Industrial Revolution had made England a communist state;

(2)    Today thanks to advertising we live in communist states; and

(3)    Given the above why the hell is America fighting communism.

 

Is there anything more to these particular ideas than a peculiar sort of word association?  (Communism is defined to be a world in which an abundance of material wealth is found.)

 

Cordially, Marshall and Me

 

Reading for this post

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, pp. 372-73 and 531.

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Michael Hinton Tuesday, April 27th, 2010
Permalink 1950s and 60s, Communication, Vol. 1 No Comments

More than funny stories!

Marshall McLuhan (April 14, 1969, age 57).  A grievous thing happened to me on my way to the studio

I am indebted to Steve Allen who observed that all jokes are based on grievances.  That is why I collect funny stories.  Jokes provide a sensitive measure of what is bothering people.  For example drugs are one of the big grievances of our age.  Not surprising then that these two jokes have recently become part of my collection.  A reporter doing man-on-the-street interviews asks one man, “What do you think of LSD?”  The man replies, “He’s a great President.”  Then he asks, “What do you think of marijuana?” The man says, “My wife and I spent a week there on holidays and found it absolutely delightful.”

Me (April,  2010, age 57).  What are the jokes about now?

Even when he’s joking, and Marshall McLuhan loved jokes, it’s wise to take him seriously.  If McLuhan is right jokes are measures of what is bothering people.  Perhaps this is why so many old jokes aren’t funny.  They’ve outlived the grievances that gave them birth.

Judging by the comic strips in my morning newspaper, a commonly held current “public grievance” is the business presentation.  For example

“How was the presentation?” says one co-worker to another in Real Life Adventures.

“Very meaty,” she replies.

“As in ‘informative?’”

“As in ‘baloney.’”

What jokes do you think reveal our current public grievances?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, p. 367.

My earlier blog also on this topic.

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Michael Hinton Saturday, April 24th, 2010
Permalink 1950s and 60s, Communication, Culture, Vol. 1 No Comments

Store house or slaughter house?

Marshall McLuhan (March 7, 1969, age 57).  Don’t stop me if you’ve heard this one

The college President was overheard saying that the reason universities are such great store houses of knowledge is that students enter them knowing so much and leave them knowing so little.   That one always cracks me up.

Me (April 2010, age 57).  What is the role of the university?

At this time of year, when students at colleges across the country are busy studying for and writing final exams, it is worth thinking about the role of the university and what it is that students learn at them.  The serious side of the joke Marshall McLuhan tells is that what students learn at university is that a good deal of what they thought was true actually isn’t.  And as a result they leave the university knowing less, but knowing more.

What did you unlearn at college or university?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, p. 362.

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Michael Hinton Friday, April 23rd, 2010
Permalink 1950s and 60s, Education, Vol. 1 1 Comment

What’s the bad news?

Marshall McLuhan (January 24, 1969, age 57). It takes bad news to sell good news

As I was telling our Prime Minister, the coolest of the cool – Pierre Elliott Trudeau – the press, the newspapers, are ever on the lookout for bad news.  Friction is inevitable.  They are relentless in their search for bad news.  The bad news is what sells the good news, which is advertising, which is what keeps the newspapers going.  Incidentally, as you can see simply by opening your morning paper it takes a great deal of bad news to sell the good news of relief from perspiration, halitosis, and ring around the collar.

Me (April 2010, age 57).  What is your bad news?

If Marshall McLuhan is right, the problem with business today is that all they have to offer is good news.  What this means is that no one will want to read or hear what businesses have say unless businesses pay to have their messages snuck in along side of the bad news people will willingly read.

How can you get people to listen to what you have to say if all you have to tell them is good news?  Where can you find the bad news to set a long side your good news?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, p. 362.

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Michael Hinton Thursday, April 22nd, 2010
Permalink 1950s and 60s, Business, Communication, Culture, Vol. 1 1 Comment

Another lesson in the practicality of Marshall McLuhan

Marshall McLuhan (June 3, 1968, age 56). Don’t Do It Pierre!

I have been trying to explain to Pierre Trudeau why he should refuse to participate in TV debates.  It has nothing to do with his skills in political debate or his suitability to the medium.  It is the medium.  TV and debates do not mix.

Me (April 2010, age 57).  A Change of Heart?

As was noted yesterday, according to Douglas Coupland, Marshall McLuhan’s most recent biographer, the last thing you should look for in the work of Marshall McLuhan is usefulness or practicality.  “There are, perhaps, no practical political, religious, or financial applications to Marshall’s work,” he writes. “It could even be argued that it should be seen as a rarefied artifact unto itself, an intricate and fantastically ornate artwork that creates its own language and then writes poetry with it.”

And yet here again what McLuhan says to Pierre Trudeau about debating and TV seems to have a practical aspect to it.  The idea is that TV is a cool conversational medium not a hot debating medium.  McLuhan’s advice to Trudeau is to refuse to debate on TV.  This is practical advice.  However, it is not without its difficulties.  How Trudeau could have explained such a decision persuasively to the press and his political opponents is far from clear.  It also represents an apparent change in McLuhan’s thinking on the subject.  In Understanding Media, for example, McLuhan suggests that only hot personalities have problems with debates on TV.  He says Kennedy beat Nixon in their debate on TV because Kennedy was cool and therefore more naturally suited to the TV medium while Nixon who he said was hot looked bad on it.

Have political debates on TV been a misuse of the medium? Can cool personalities win in debates on TV?  Or do we all lose?

Dip into the Kennedy Nixon debates and weigh in.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C6Xn4ipHiwE&feature=related

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Douglas Coupland, Marshall McLuhan, Toronto, Penguin, 2009, pp. 142-43.

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, p. 352.

Marshall McLuhan.  Understanding Media,  1964, pp. 329-30.

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Michael Hinton Wednesday, April 21st, 2010
Permalink 1950s and 60s, Communication, Technology, Vol. 1 No Comments

Was Marshall McLuhan’s thinking impractical?

Marshall McLuhan (February 9, 1967, age 55). No!

I had a grand time chatting with U.S. Vice-President Hubert Humphrey when I was invited to a dinner in Washington.  I told him that America was losing the war in Vietnam on TV.  Unlike newspapers, TV is a totally involving medium.  TV coverage of the war, our first TV war, is alienating the American people.  He seemed to be listening, but I’m not sure that he really was.

Me (April 2010, age 57).  No!

According to Douglas Coupland, Marshall McLuhan’s most recent biographer, the last thing you should look for in the work of Marshall McLuhan is usefulness or practicality.  “There are, perhaps, no practical political, religious, or financial applications to Marshall’s work,” he writes. “It could even be argued that it should be seen as a rarefied artifact unto itself, an intricate and fantastically ornate artwork that creates its own language and then writes poetry with it.”

And yet what McLuhan says about TV seems to have a practical aspect to it.  If McLuhan is right and TV is a deeply-involving cool medium.  Then businesses and politicians need to be careful how they use it.  Hot subjects (for example war, strikes, and natural disasters) may well be too hot for TV.  You may argue with him, but this is a practical application of his thinking.  More on this tomorrow.

What hot subjects are showing up on the TV monitors in the halls where you work?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Douglas Coupland, Marshall McLuhan, Toronto, Penguin, 2009, pp. 142-43.

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, p. 342.

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Michael Hinton Tuesday, April 20th, 2010
Permalink 1950s and 60s, Business, Communication, Technology, Vol. 1 1 Comment

So what?

Marshall McLuhan (April 16, 2010, age 99). This is too much!

“Corinne, he’s at it again!  That Hinton bloke is going to be the death of me.”

“Marshall, you know that’s impossible.”

Me (April 2010, age 57).  The implications are profound

Clearly, Marshall McLuhan’s biographers have recognized that McLuhan’s brain surgery had serious and irreversible effects on Marshall McLuhan:  that he was fundamentally changed.  But they do not seem to realize – or want to realize – the extent to which McLuhan changed or what this change means for our understanding of McLuhan and his work.

Of all McLuhan’s biographers, Douglas Coupland comes closest to capturing the seriousness of the effects of the surgery.  But he does not go far enough or draw from it some basic conclusions.  (If you have been following this blog you know that my belief is that the surgery killed McLuhan’s genius.)  Here, I think, are three of those conclusions:

  1. Reading McLuhan is difficult, but the true McLuhan is to be found in the essays and books he published before the surgery of November 1967.
  2. Reading McLuhan is far more difficult in the essays and books published after his surgery because they were stamped by the influence of the surgery and that of his colleagues and co-authors.
  3. The best way to understand McLuhan (conversation not writing was his strength) is to attempt to hear him speak in interviews, letters, and the memoirs of the people who knew him.  As always, I believe, it is best to pay more careful attention to McLuhan in the years before his surgery than after.

What implications of this for your understanding of Marshall McLuhan?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Douglas Coupland, Marshall McLuhan (2009)], pp. 182-83, p. 185

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Michael Hinton Saturday, April 17th, 2010
Permalink Uncategorized, Vol. 1 1 Comment