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

How did the operation end?

Marshall McLuhan (April 16, 2010, age 99). This is getting a bit too personal!

“Corinne, you will not believe what that Hinton bloke is going on about in his From Marshall and me blog.  Says the brain tumor operation cost me my genius!  How can he say such a thing?  Look at all that I did despite that operation.”

“Calm yourself Marshall.  Who are they going to believe?  You or him?  Did he win the Governor General’s award for non-fiction?  Did he win an Order of Canada?

Me (April 2010, age 57).  What do Marshall McLuhan’s biographers say?

Marshall McLuhan’s biographers have said that the operation was a nightmare, and McLuhan was forever changed by it, but he lived to go on to write books and articles and so the operation had a happy ending.

Here, for example is what Philip Marchand, Marshall McLuhan’s first major biographer, has to say about the effects of the operation on McLuhan: “The effects of the operation would linger for the rest of McLuhan’s life.  In the months immediately following, it was dramatically obvious to his associates that McLuhan had changed.” The changes being: hypersensitivity to sound, loss of energy (which had been “his most obvious professional asset’), loss of a “photographic memory,” permanent loss of specific memories of reading over the previous “several years of reading,” the loss of “emotional and intellectual resilience,” and a strange new degree of fragility, irrationality, inflexibility, and quarrelsomeness – resulting in his uncharacteristic abusiveness “to students and colleagues.”

And Douglas Coupland, Marshall McLuhan’s most recent biographer, says of the operation – which he describes as “a gross insult to the brain”: “he was back again, but he was back in reduced form.  He had, in fact, lost swaths of memory; curiously, he had trouble remembering books he’d read many times over. … [H]e lost some of his ability to be civil to colleagues and students. In addition, his hypersensitivity to noises, always high, became extreme.”  And “Marshall’s highly intrusive brain surgery at the age of fifty-six signaled the beginning of an end – the end of the high-water mark of Marshall’s fame, his notoriety, his earning potential, his vitality, and his ability to soak up information and to locate patterns.”

Again, if true, what implications are there for our reading and understanding of Marshall McLuhan? My final thoughts on this topic tomorrow.

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

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

Philip Marchand, Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger (1989), pp. 213-14

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Michael Hinton Friday, April 16th, 2010
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What a month!

Marshall McLuhan (December 28, 1967, age 55). You can say that again!

It’s a great to be home.  Hospitals and doctors are fine things but if you have a choice, I assure you, it’s best if you can avoid them.  On November 25 I underwent the most horrendous operation: 22 hours to remove a brain tumor.  Benign they told me, thank God, but still a devilish tricky thing; it was growing like weed.  Had to come out it was the size of an avocado.  Doctors said I’d go blind or mad if it didn’t.  I came home on December 12.  I’m delighted to be alive.  The question is:  Who am I now and what will happen next?

Me (April 2010, age 57)  What did happen next?

If you’ve been reading this blog you know what I think about who he became and happened next –  In short, the operation necessary for his survival robbed McLuhan of his genius and although he lived another 13 years in which books were published by him largely in co-authorship with other people the spark that made the Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) and Understanding Media (1964)  was gone. [see series of posts starting here]

In the next couple of posts I’ll take a look at what McLuhan’s biographers – including the most recent biography by Douglas Coupland – have to say about the effects of this operation.

If true, what implications are there for our reading and understanding of Marshall McLuhan?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 28 December, 1967, pp. 349-50.

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Michael Hinton Thursday, April 15th, 2010
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What’s wrong with competition?

Marshall McLuhan (October 8, 1966, age 55). What a day!

It’s amazing when a new idea hits home.  Take today, I’m talking with George Leonard, who’s an editor with Look.  We start at my house on Well’s Avenue at 10 am and finish up at 11 pm.  I know we had lunch and dinner together but I only remember the conversation.  The subject of competition and education came up.  Everyone knows it has negative effects on students’ performance, but the races still keep on going.  Why?  Well I said what if your goal isn’t helping kids to think but to conform?  The competition is great because it encourages kids to be alike to resemble one another more and more closely, albeit with some doing things faster and some better.

Me (April 2010, age 57)  Have a look at Look

The heartland of competition is sports.  Everyone knows what they want to do and goes about doing it – which turns out to be what everyone else is doing – as quickly as possible.  But is this the model that is wanted for the workplace and education?  To all have the same goal, to run on the same track, to go quicker, faster?  The conventional wisdom says yes, the only down side being the stress.  But is the best of all world’s one where everyone winds up resembling everyone else?

How well does competition serve your ends?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Marshall McLuhan and George Leonard. “The Future of Education.”  Look, February 21, 1967.

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Michael Hinton Wednesday, April 14th, 2010
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The downside of celebrity

Marshall McLuhan (March 23, 1967, age 55). Adulation can be a drag.

I’m not saying that I don’t enjoy the attention but sometimes the adulation can be overwhelming.  The problem is that some people will not leave it alone.  Last night the phone started ringing at 6 p.m. and didn’t stop until I took it off the hook at 8.  People seem to think they have a right to talk to me whenever they like and sound shocked when I tell them I don’t have the time to talk to them.

Me (April 2010, age 57).  Marshall McLuhan had far more than the usual 15 minutes

A celebrity it is said is someone who is famous for being famous.  In this sense Marshall McLuhan’s fame began – according to Tom Wolfe – in the summer of 1965 and lasted until the fall of 1970 – according to Philip Marchand – when the New Yorker published a cartoon in which a couple are leaving a party and the woman says to the man “Ashley, are you sure it’s not too soon to go around parties saying, ‘What ever happened to Marshall McLuhan?’”

How well would you handle public “adulation”?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, p. 343.

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Michael Hinton Tuesday, April 13th, 2010
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The environment.

Marshall McLuhan (February 22, 1967, age 55). What you see is not what you are getting.

I have come up with a new idea.  New technologies create new environments that reveal the past (the old environment) but leave the present (the new environment) invisible.  I have hinted at this with my idea of the rear view mirror.  Traveling forward, eyes fixed on the rear view mirror, we see only where we have been.  Every age has done this traveling blind to its present and seeing only its past.  I imagine you know where this is going, so I will leave you to figure this out for yourself.

Me (April 2010, age 57).  Looking past the past.

An idea that rises up in response to Marshall McLuhan’s idea is that if we only see the past not the present, not surprisingly our social plans and policies are designed to deal with a world that no longer exists.  Graffiti for example.  In a world of private property (the past) graffiti is vandalism, an assault on property.  But if our world is actually one of public property, graffiti is the exercise of a common property right.  The problem is not that graffiti happens but that we are all not participating equally in its creation.

Have another look at the graffiti around you. On whose property is it most likely to appear?  “Public” or “Private”?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, p. 343.

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Michael Hinton Saturday, April 10th, 2010
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The best book I didn’t write?

Marshall McLuhan (December 1, 1966, age 55). The Medium is the Massage!

Frank Taylor, the editor in chief of the book division of McGraw-Hill, the publishers of Understanding Media, phoned today.  Poor chap was quite incensed to discover that Random House is publishing the Medium is the Massage.  Editors are as bad as wives.  Look at another woman and they think you’re having an affair.  I assured him he had nothing to fear from my dalliance with Random House.  McGraw-Hill is my true love.  Two reasons: (1) I wrote nothing new for this book – it’s all pictures and excerpts from my previous writing put together by others; and (2) It will push up the sales of my other books.  He seemed somewhat relieved.

Me (March 2010, age 57).  If best means understandable!

Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium is the Massage is a McLuhan book almost anyone can read with understanding – in part because of the pictures, and in part because someone else put it together.  (Graphic designer Quentin Fiore and writer Jerome Agel.  These two also put together War and Peace in the Global Village, another book McLuhan didn’t write.)

It has been said that the title was originally owing to a typographical error.  Possibly, but unlikely.  The message of the pun pervades the book:  The electronic media are working you over and here are a few of the things they are doing to you.

Have you looked at it? If so, what did you think?  If not, you should.

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, p. 339.

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Michael Hinton Friday, April 9th, 2010
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What do the experts know?

Marshall McLuhan (January 28, 1966, age 54). They know too much.

Did you hear the story of the soft-hearted brain surgeon who when a patient told him he couldn’t afford surgery offered the retouch his x-rays for free.  Experts never cease to amaze me.  Tom Paine said that it’s not what we don’t know that hurts us but what we know that isn’t true.  Experts are masters of this, of what they know that assures them that new ideas must be false.  Whatever you say, they rest easy, knowing it can’t be true.

Me (April,  2010, age 57).  Perhaps they do.

Marshall McLuhan’s idea is that the experts starting point to any idea is that it must be wrong.  That is that there is nothing new under the sun.  No matter what your idea is it must have already been tried.  And therefore it must be wrong because if it wasn’t it would have been shown to be right, and we would know it already.  What this means is that not being an expert gives you an advantage.

What is your advantage?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, p. 334.

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Michael Hinton Thursday, April 8th, 2010
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I’ll win your heart singing!

Marshall McLuhan (September 1979, age 68).  Song!

With this damn stroke going on, as you know I can’t speak, read or write. [Thank God for the magic of this blog. ] But you know, every now and then i just feel like singing.  And I do.

Michael Hinton (April 6, 2010, age 57).  Song!

Marshall McLuhan apparently did sing after he had his stroke.  Once I’ve read he sang an old Presbyterian hymn.  I’m not sure it was well received.

Here’s a short piece of music this blog has commissioned as a tribute to Marshall McLuhan.  The piece is called Lament for Marshall McLuhan and is by a young composer:  Sebastien Joseph.

What do you think?

Michael Hinton Wednesday, April 7th, 2010
Permalink 1970s and 80s, Communication, Vol. 1 No Comments

Good-bye to the class room?

Marshall McLuhan (October 18, 1966, age 55).   Kids are saying good bye.

Corinne is quite worried about our youngest son, Michael.  She says he has been talking about friends of his who are dropping out.  I told her the drop out phenomenon is readily understood.  In fact the article I am writing for Look with George Leonard explains it all quite simply, although it is a complex event.  TV kids are trained to get everything at once. They know nothing of specializations and disciplines.  (That is what books reflect, prepare, and support.)  Naturally when these tribal creatures are taken in the civilizing embrace of the class room, they react with shock.  There is nothing here they can relate to, nothing for them to learn when the city is their class room.  Naturally they drop out.  As far as Michael is concerned, nature may not have its way if I have anything to say about the matter.*

Me (March 2010, age 57).  Kids are staying, but they’re learning elsewhere.

And yet the school, the classroom, has survived.  How?  Perhaps because it is not what it appears to be.  Today the drop out phenomenon may have reappeared in another form.   Kids aren’t dropping out, but that’s not because they’re learning in class.  Literacy has declined and grades have inflated.  Kids are learning other things and they’re learning them elsewhere, on-line, in the hall ways.  School has survived as a way for parents to park their kids and for the kids to organize, refresh, and maintain their virtual lives.

Who is dropping out today?  And who is still learning the old fashioned way –by the book – in school?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

PS:  Marshall McLuhan was a devout Roman Catholic. So, “From Marshall and me” will not be published from Good Friday to after Easter.  We’ll be back here on  April 7th.

Reading for this post

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, p. 334.

*Biographical note: two years later, in 1968,  16-year old Michael dropped out and left home to vanish into the hippie world of Toronto’s Yorkville are and then to New York. Today he’s a photographer living in Owens Sound Ontario and the executor of the McLuhan estate.

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Michael Hinton Thursday, April 1st, 2010
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