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 June, 2010

Marshall McLuhan: Filmmaker.

Marshall McLuhan (1970, age 68/69).  Let’s make a movie!

I have just spent a very productive day with Jane Jacobs.  We have written a script for a movie, “A Burning Would.” (You will of course recognize the reference to Finnegans Wake, “A burning would has come to dance inane.”)  If all works out this film will either be the final word on the nature of film or stop the Spadina Expressway dead in its tracks.

Me (June 2010, age 57)   Lessons?

Jane Jacobs describes the chaotic and exhilarating day she spent with McLuhan writing a film script in Who was Marshall McLuhan.  The word “script” is an exaggeration.  Here’s how the day went:  he persuaded her to give it a try, they talked about ideas, McLuhan’s secretary, Margaret Stewart took notes, and typed them up, and McLuhan made arrangements to meet with the filmmaker David Mackay to discuss the “script.”  Jacobs describes the resulting “script” as “garbled and unreadable” but also as “dazzling sparks and fragments.”

Remarkably the film (12 minutes long) was made [and even more remarkably doesn’t seem to be posted on YouTube].  Jacobs says that the film was “good” but “the final product bore no relationship at all to our original script.”

Perhaps, the major lessons to be learned from this film are:

Don’t be afraid to try new things (neither Jacobs nor McLuhan had ever tried to write a script before.)

Get yourself good partners.

Don’t be afraid to fail.

What new things are you doing?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Who Was Marshall McLuhan. Edited by Barrington Nevitt with Maurice McLuhan, 1995, pp. 101-102.

For other inspiration see Julien Smith’s In over your head.

And thanks to Michael Edmunds for this interview of McLuhan on his plans for filmmaking originally published in Take One in the 1970sMarshall McLuhan makes a movie.

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Michael Hinton Wednesday, June 30th, 2010
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The maddening Marshall McLuhan.

Marshall McLuhan (1967, age 65/66).  In conversation with Howard Gossage

“Marshall,” said Howard Gossage, “tell me something.  Do you have to be such a maddening writer?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I’ll be reading along and at first it’s great.  “I find that [my] … independently arrived at theories not only are confirmed by, but fit neatly into [your] … far broader structure, it is very heady stuff indeed.  And then wham.  You hit me with one of your probes.  Something that requires 5,000 words of explanation and you give me none.”

“Howard, if I stopped to explain everything I said I’d never get anywhere, besides there has to be something for the reader to do.”

Me (June 2010, age 57).   So what’s a man, or a woman, to do?

Perhaps the only thing you can do when you hit a probe [a question or statement designed to stimulate thought or insight] is to grin and then decide whether or not to do your work.

Here are some McLuhan probes:

People will not accept war on TV.  They will accept war in movies.  They will accept it in newspapers.  Nobody will accept war on TV.  It is too close. (1973)

The ideal show on pay TV would be a great composer rehearsing a symphony, not playing his symphony. (1967)

The TV image is the first technology to project or externalize our tactile sense. (1961)

TV is a service medium only during a crisis. (1970)

The TV as a today show is a continuous present.  There are really no dates. (1971)

Do any of these probes still “madden”?  What if in each one the word “TV” were replaced by “Internet” or “FaceBook”?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Howard Luck Gossage, “You can see why the mighty would be curious.”  In McLuhan: Hot and Cool.

Probes: Eric McLuhan and Frank Zingrone, Essential McLuhan, 1995, pp. 294-295.

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Michael Hinton Tuesday, June 29th, 2010
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Teenagers are not adolescents.

Marshall McLuhan (1967, age 65/66). The adolescent is now obsolescent

In the 1930s and 1940s adolescence was the stage children passed through on their way to adulthood.  Adolescents were not adults they were adults in training.  Today, electric technology, in particular the transistor radio and television have banished this rite of passage.  Teenagers are not going through a stage today; they have become a different species.

Me (June 2010, age 57).   Howard Gossage explains …

As I said yesterday Marshall McLuhan liked to assert ideas but he did not like to explain them.  In McLuhan: Hot and Cool (pp. 28-29) Howard Gossage makes an attempt to provide an explanation for McLuhan’s idea that the teenager of the 1960s had become a different species.

“McLuhan’s theory is that this is the first generation of the electronic age.  He says they are different because the medium that controls their environment is not print – one thing at a time, one thing after another – as it has been for five hundred years.  It is television, which is everything happening at once, instantaneously, and enveloping.

A child who gets his educational training on television – and very few nowadays do not – learns the same way any member of a pre-literate society learns: from the direct experience of his eyes and ears without Gutenberg for a middle man.”

What about the teenager of today?  Has the internet so speeded up the electric age that we share the world with another new species?

Is the concern about the internet making people stupid missing the point?  It may be that it is not bringing us all down to some given preliterate level, but rather dividing generations more thoroughly and irrevocably than TV ever did.

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Howard Luck Gossage, “You can see why the mighty would be curious.”  In McLuhan: Hot and Cool, edited by Gerald Emanuel Stearn.

Nicholas Carr, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?:  What the internet is doing to our brains,” The Atlantic, July, 2008.

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Michael Hinton Saturday, June 26th, 2010
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Beware the specialist!

Marshall McLuhan (1967, age 65/66). What is a specialist?

As I was telling Howard Gossage just as a drama is a technology for delivering tragedy, a specialist is a technology for delivering his specialty.  Architects solve problems with buildings, surgeons solve problems with surgery, and lawyers solve problems with law suits.  Generalists have a great advantage over specialists because they are not committed by their training to particular solutions.

Me (June 2010, age 57). Howard Gossage explains …

Marshall McLuhan liked to assert ideas but he did not like to explain them.  In McLuhan: Hot and Cool (pp. 28-29) Howard Gossage makes an attempt to provide an explanation for McLuhan’s idea that the specialists goal is to advance their specialty not to solve your problems.

“Once you take a problem to a specialist you are wired in to a specialist’s solution.  However well executed it is, the odds are against its being a real answer.  Let us say your company is having growing pains, and is uncomfortable in its present quarters.  So you go to an architect.  Let us also suppose that he is a very good architect …  So he inquires after your needs, your ambitions, your hopes, your fears, what manner of people you are, etc.  Do you know what you are going to end up with?  A building.  Now, a building, however nice, may not be the answer to your problem at all.  Perhaps the real answer is to stop expanding,  or fire the traffic manager, or [have] everyone stay home and do cottage work connected by closed circuit TV.” (pp. 28-29.)

Cordially, Marshall and Me

What do you think?  Should we beware of specialists?

 

Reading for this post

Howard Luck Gossage, “You can see why the mighty would be curious.”  In McLuhan: Hot and Cool, edited by Gerald Emanuel Stearn.


 

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Michael Hinton Friday, June 25th, 2010
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What Marshall McLuhan was up to? [cont’d]

Marshall McLuhan (December 14, 1977, age 66).  Really, I was stunned!

I still can’t get over Peter Gzowski’s outrageous suggestion on television yesterday that I failed grade six!  I can’t imagine where he got the idea.   As told him – “I never failed any grade ever.”

Me (June 2010, age 57). Could McLuhan have actually forgotten that he failed grade six?

One might think it odd for a man to forget failing grade six.  Marshall McLuhan, however, forgot a great many things after the brain surgery he underwent in 1967.  For example, he forgot books he had read, his children’s birthdays, and where his friends lived.  Granted, his biographers do not comment on McLuhan’s denial that he failed grade six on the Gzowski show, which is when you think about it extremely odd.  Perhaps they didn’t because it seemed like a small, unimportant thing.  On the other hand it may also be a small, but striking example of how McLuhan was changed by the surgery and perhaps also his strokes.

Clearly, McLuhan was not the man he once was after his surgery.  As McLuhan biographer Philip Marchand says: “his friend John Wain described him as ‘nervous, fragile, tense’ [in] the year after his operation.  To some extent, he remained that way for the rest of his life.”  And a neurologist Marcel Kinsbourne, who knew McLuhan in the 1970s, recalled “he was querulous and irritable in his later years …   He didn’t come across as being particularly mentally alert or flexible.”  The question is how fundamentally he was changed.  As readers of this blog know, I believe the changes were pronounced.  So much so as I have argued in earlier posts.  One can say the surgery cost McLuhan his genius.

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Philip Marchand, Marshall Mcluhan: the Medium and the Messenger, 1989, p. 214.

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Michael Hinton Thursday, June 24th, 2010
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What was Marshall McLuhan up to?

Marshall McLuhan (December 13, 1977, age 66). I’m stunned!

Peter Gzowski actually suggested on television today that I had failed grade six!  The fact is – as told him – “I never failed any grade ever.”

Me (June 2010, age 57).  What was McLuhan up to?

What Gzowski asked was whether ordinary people who hadn’t attained McLuhan’s academic stature (Full Professor Toronto, Cambridge Ph.D.)  should be able to feel better knowing that McLuhan had failed grade six.  An easy question.  At least one would think so.  At any rate, McLuhan’s response clearly surprised Gzowski.

Why did McLuhan deny he’d failed?  It is a fact that he did fail.  And you can read about it in the biographies of McLuhan by Philip Marchand and Terry Gordon.  It is also a fact that his Mother persuaded the school to let him go on to grade 7 and prove he could do the work, which he did.  So why didn’t McLuhan say this?  What was McLuhan up to?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

PS:  For something completely different see yesterday’s post

Reading for this post

W. Terrence Gordon. Marshall McLuhan: Escape into Understanding, 1997, p. 10.

Philip Marchand, Marshall Mcluhan: the Medium and the Messenger, 1989, p. 17-18.

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Michael Hinton Wednesday, June 23rd, 2010
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The elusive Marshall McLuhan

Marshall McLuhan (May 19, 1966, age 54).  Foul play!

“How is it Professor McLuhan,” Eric Goldman asked me earlier today on WNBC television program The Open Mind, “that you should be so concerned with media?  Here you are the son of Baptist parents, convert to Catholicism, a Canadian student of English literature, formerly an engineering student and now …”

“Oh, don’t bother with that data.” I said.

“Why?

“It’s all wrong!  And in any case quite unnecessary.”

Me (June 2010, age 57).  What was McLuhan up to?

Gerald Stern who quotes this exchange between McLuhan and Goldman in his introduction to McLuhan: Hot and Cool says that McLuhan typically refused to discuss his family life, personal opinions or his past.  As a result, “personal and biographical information about McLuhan is difficult to trace.” And, “Stearn adds, “there is a coy, almost purposeful elusiveness about the man himself.”   Why?  Stearn suggests there is no good reason why McLuhan side stepped these subjects:  he was simply a “puzzling” character.

This is possible, but there is I think a better answer.  It is more probable that McLuhan actually believed what he said: that biographical details were “quite unnecessary.”  McLuhan was trained at Cambridge in the close reading critical analysis of I. A. Richards.  I imagine if McLuhan had been asked if asked about the usefulness of biographical details in the understanding of any authors work he would have said these details were “quite unnecessary.”  Everything you needed to know to understand a poem or a novel, Richards taught, was in the written work – that is in the work’s diction, rhythm and structure.   And this was the method McLuhan followed in his teaching.

(And see tomorrow’s post for a more troubling example of McLuhan’s elusiveness.)

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

McLuhan: Hot and Cool.  Edited by Gerald Emanuel Stearn, 1967, p. IV.

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Michael Hinton Tuesday, June 22nd, 2010
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The McLuhan method.

Marshall McLuhan (Spring 1971, age 59). At work in the Coach House

Come in, come in.  Watch your step.  No it’s no bother.  Glad you came.  Mrs. Stewart, let’s continue this dictation later.  Now let me explain what I’m doing.  It may not look like it, but I’m writing a book.   You see these piles of books each with a file folder on top?  That’s how you write a book.  Get yourself some file folders, fill them with clippings and quotations, and then comment on them.  Commenting, by the way, is easier if you have a secretary to comment to.

Me (June 2010, age 57).  Order out of chaos

Dictation probably worked well for McLuhan because he liked to talk ideas out.  I don’t.  I prefer to write ideas out.  The file folder method, however, is very similar the one I have chosen as the method for this blog.  Each blog begins with a book by or about McLuhan in which I mark passages and a sheet of paper on which I place other references, clippings and quotations, which I then comment on.  How’s it going?  As the man who jumped off the Empire State building, said as he hurtled past the 40th floor, “so far so good.”

What’s your method of workDid you choose it or did it choose you?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Who Was Marshall McLuhan, edited by Barrington Nevitt with Maurice McLuhan, 1995, pp. 141.

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Michael Hinton Saturday, June 19th, 2010
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The 100 percent sensible Marshall McLuhan.

Marshall McLuhan (Spring 1971, age 59).  McLuhan to Peter Newman

Did you hear about the man who went on a date with Siamese twins?  The following day a friend asked him if he had a good time.  The man’s reply: yes and no.

Me (June 2010, age 57).   Two cheers for Marshall

Yesterday a small test was made of Patrick Watson’s observation made on “This Hour has Seven Days” that no one can understand more than 10 percent of what Marshall McLuhan has to say.  The test of course was unscientific and leading rather than persuasive.  Today I want to present a more sweeping assessment of McLuhan’s sensibility.  Namely, that on unimportant subjects – that is subjects only tangentially related to media and media theory Marshall McLuhan is always easy to understand.  For example here is McLuhan talking about his personal dislike of technical innovation and change on the CBC television program “This Hour Has Seven Days.” (May 6, 1966):

“I’m resolutely opposed to all innovation, all change.  But I’m determined to understand what’s happening because I don’t choose to sit and let the juggernaut roll over me.  Many people seem to think that because you talk about something recent you’re in favour of it.  The exact opposite is true in my case.  Anything I talk about is almost certainly something I’m resolutely against and it seems to me that the best way of opposing it is to understand it.  Then you know where to turn off the button.”

What has this got to do with the man who dated Siamese twins? The punch line also works for the question:  Do you understand what Marshall McLuhan is saying?  Yes and no.

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Who Was Marshall McLuhan, edited by Barrington Nevitt with Maurice McLuhan, 1995, pp. 109, 135, and 136.

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Michael Hinton Friday, June 18th, 2010
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The measure of Marshall McLuhan

Marshall McLuhan (May 6, 1966, age 54).  Really?

Well, how’d I do Corinne?

You were magnificent Marshall.  But surely Patrick Watson was exaggerating when he said that “no one can make sense out of more than ten percent of what” you say.

Me (June 2010, age 57).  A test

While Marshall McLuhan was renowned for being difficult to understand to say that 90 percent of what he says is incomprehensible does seem an exaggeration.  Granted Patrick Watson’s aim was to be controversial when he said this on the CBC television program “This Hour Has Seven Days.” (May 6, 1966)  But this is as good an excuse as any to make the point that Marshall McLuhan is not as difficult to understand as is commonly thought.  Or maybe he is.

Here by way of a test is a bit of what Marshall McLuhan had to say on the program.

[The interviewer, Robert Fullford, asks.]  “Has [the world] changed because of TV?”

[McLuhan replies:] “Television gave the old electric circuitry that’s already here a huge extra push in this direction of involvement and inwardness.  You see, the circuit doesn’t simply push things out for inspection, it pushes you in. It involves you.  When you put a new medium into play, people’s sensory life shifts a bit, sometimes shifts a lot.  This changes their outlook, their attitudes, changes their feelings about studies, about school, about politics.  Since TV, Canadian, British and American politics have cooled off almost to the point of rigor mortis … .”

What do you think?  Is 90 percent of this something “no one can make sense out of?”

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Who Was Marshall McLuhan, edited by Barrington Nevitt with Maurice McLuhan, 1995, pp. 135-36.

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Michael Hinton Thursday, June 17th, 2010
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