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 August, 2010

What did McLuhan mean by that?

Marshall McLuhan (1964, age 52).  Isn’t it obvious?

“Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses.”

Me (August, 2010, age 58).  Who’s looking at who?

In Understanding Media McLuhan says this old saying illustrates the fundamental principle “that distinguishes hot and cold media.”  That principle being that cold or cool media demand participation because they are low definition (providing little data) while hot media demand relatively little participation because they are high definition (providing much data).

If you’re wondering how this proverb illustrates this hold on to your hat.  McLuhan says, “Glasses intensify the outward-going vision, and fill in the feminine image exceedingly, Marion the Librarian notwithstanding.  Dark glasses, on the other hand, create the inscrutable and inaccessible image that invites a great deal of participation and completion.”  In other words, girls who wear dark glasses get the passes, not because they’re hot but because they’re cool.  And perhaps, also, boys who wear glasses don’t make passes, because they’re getting way too much information.  Seriously, somebody should study this.

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading

Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media, 1964, pp. 49.

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Michael Hinton Tuesday, August 31st, 2010
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The secret is to avoid eye contact

Marshall McLuhan (1964, age 52).  Isn’t it obvious?

“The name of a man is a numbing blow from which he never recovers.”

Me (August, 2010, age 58).  Really?

What did McLuhan mean by this?  Read Douglas Coupland’s recent biography of McLuhan and you will find this quotation separated from its context and put up as meaning that a man’s name has a subliminal effect.  If your last name is Rich, for example, people won’t think you’re poor.  A somewhat kooky idea that McLuhan adopted in his analysis of the difficulties of Richard Nixon. (See this blog – The Power of Names – in which I must admit I did not see this distinction as clearly as I do now.)

Take a look at what McLuhan is actually trying to say with this line in Understanding Media (p. 49).  He starts with the observation that “in a highly visual and highly literate culture” – read Canada, Britain or America – most people can’t quite catch the name of a person they’re being introduced to for the first time.  Why?  Because McLuhan says you’re so caught up in looking at the person that you don’t hear the name.  It’s as if the sound is blocked out or dimmed.  To get the name you then ask “How do you spell your name?”  (How much more visual can you get?)  This wouldn’t happen, he says, in a highly auditory ear culture.  In such a culture – to reach the quotation at last – “the sound of a man’s name … is a numbing blow from which he never recovers.”

If you lived in an ear culture rather than an eye culture, McLuhan says, you’d hear the name.  But we don’t do we?  Even today after half a century of television and now the internet we still seem to be a highly visual culture.  We still have trouble hearing names for the first time.  What do we do to help people hear names at large business meetings and social events?  We ask them to wear name tags. (How much more visual can you get?)

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading

Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media, 1964, pp. 49.

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Michael Hinton Saturday, August 28th, 2010
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The Twist is out

Marshall McLuhan (1964, age 52).  Isn’t it obvious?

If you want to know how media work you must look at how the world works.  Consider this fact which I ran across in the special “Russia” issue of Life magazine (September 13, 1963).  Apparently the Russians have declared the Twist “taboo” in restaurants and nightclubs.  The explanation for this state of affairs is obvious.  The twist is cool which is inconsistent with the hotness of Russia’s economic development programs that are driving its industrialization.

Me (August, 2010, age 58).  Really?

This explanation for the cool reception of the Twist in cold-war Russia is so wonderfully quirky that it boggles the mind.  And yet it is a remarkably apt analogy if you find analogies persuasive.  The Russian economic development program was focused on the growth of heavy machinery.  The very idea of an economic plan and heavy machinery is hot (low participation, high definition).  The Twist is the epitome of cool (high participation, low definition).  See for yourself….

Of course there are other reasons …

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading

Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media, 1964, pp. 44.

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Michael Hinton Friday, August 27th, 2010
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What if he’s right?

Marshall McLuhan (1964, age 52).  Here are two short lists.

Three things that haven’t worked in America since the coming of TV:

Movies

National magazines

Comic books

And two things that thanks to TV Americans have discovered a new passion for:

Skin diving

Small cars.

Me (August, 2010, age 58).  Now what?

I wonder if it’s too late to make a call to my broker?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading

Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media, 1964, pp. 417 and 421.

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Michael Hinton Thursday, August 26th, 2010
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What good is talk?

Marshall McLuhan (November 1965, age 54).  Talk is the way.

Of course, for me, the best way to explore a subject is by talking it through.  I can’t understand what I think about something until I start talking about it.  And sometimes it takes me four or five goes at it before I’m even close to capturing what an idea is really all about.  Some people have to think before they speak.  For me I don’t start thinking until I’m speaking.  Writing doesn’t usually help me think the way talking does.  When I’m talking I feel alive.

Me (August, 2010, age 58).  How do you think?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading

Philip Marchand, Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger, 1989, p. 66.

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Michael Hinton Wednesday, August 25th, 2010
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The understanding media pun contest

Me (August, 2010, age 58).  Pun.

Part II of Understanding Media contains 26 case studies, one for each letter of the alphabet.  Each deals with a particular medium or technology.  McLuhan delighted in puns and so it is not surprising to find puns in some of the titles of these chapters: for example “Clocks: The Scent of Time,” “Movies: The Reel World,” and “Automation: Learning a Living.”

Your challenge, should you decide to accept it is to come up with punning or joking chapter titles either for technologies that did not make it into Understanding Media or for chapters that did but for which McLuhan did not provide a punning subtitle.

For example, “Toasters:  A Slice of Leaven,” “The Passenger Pigeon: A Bird in the Band,” “The Sun Dial: Tempus Fidgit.”

Marshall McLuhan (August 2010, age 99).  I like a challenge

What about: “The Microscope: To see or not to see,” “Etch-a-sketch:  Pane in the Ass,” or “Invisible Ink:  The Write Stuff.”

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading

Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media, 1964, pp.xi-xiii.

For more on puns and McLuhan

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Michael Hinton Tuesday, August 24th, 2010
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What would Marshall say? (continued)

Me (August, 2010, age 58). McLuhan in conversation (continued)

Yesterday we left Marshall in conversation with journalist Herb Caen at a topless restaurant in San Francisco in August 1965.  Readers will recall that McLuhan had called attention to the visual bias of Caen’s language.  Let’s take one more look – sorry, I apologize for my visual orientation – at that exchange.  Here, to refresh your memory is their conversation from yesterday:

[Caen]  Being President of the Leg Men of America, I never felt a primal urge to lunch among the topless ladies, but in such distinguished company who could resist?  ‘Strip steak sandwich,’ I said to waitress Marilyn, who was wearing blue sequin pasties and not much else.  As she walked away, I commented ‘A good-looking girl.

[McLuhan]  Interesting choice of words.  Good-LOOKING girl.  The remark of a man who is visually oriented, not tactually.  And I further noticed that you could not bring yourself to look at her breasts as she took your order.  You examined her only after she walked away – another example of the visual: the further she walked away, the more attractive she became.

Question:  What do you think Caen said next:

(a)    “If you say so Marshall.”

(b)   “Fascinating, I never noticed – look I’ve done it again – my visual orientation.”

(c)    “What?”

(d)   “Actually, I’m rather inhibited.”

Marshall McLuhan (August 1965, age 54)  The answer is …

Of course (d) – which, if memory serves me, I followed up with:

Another interesting word.  Inhibited is the opposite of exhibited, and what is exhibited causes you to be inhibited.

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading

Herb Caen, “Rainy Day Session,” San Francisco Chronicle, August 12, 1965, p. 25.

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Michael Hinton Saturday, August 21st, 2010
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What would Marshall say?

Me (August, 2010, age 58). McLuhan in conversation.

Forty-five years ago, in August 1965, McLuhan was in San Francisco to take part in the Marshall McLuhan Festival organized by the PR team of Howard Gossage and Gerald Feigen, who had organized the event to build McLuhan as a public figure.   One day they took McLuhan for lunch at a topless restaurant  along with journalists Tom Wolfe and Herb Caen.  In the article Caen wrote about the outing he reports this exchange between himself and McLuhan:

Being President of the Leg Men of America, I never felt a primal urge to lunch among the topless ladies, but in such distinguished company who could resist?  ‘Strip steak sandwich,’ I said to waitress Marilyn, who was wearing blue sequin pasties and not much else.  As she walked away, I commented ‘A good-looking girl.’

Question:  What do you think McLuhan said next?

(a)    “She certainly is.”

(b)   “I hear you Herb.”

(c)    “Excuse me, Marilyn, I’ll have the strip steak too.”

(d)   “Interesting choice of words.  Good-LOOKING girl.  The remark of a man who is visually oriented, not tactually.”

Marshall McLuhan (August 1965, age 54).  The answer is …

Of course (d) – I have little in the way of small talk.   And, if memory serves me, after I said that I said this:

And I further noticed that you could not bring yourself to look at her breasts as she took your order.  You examined her only after she walked away – another example of the visual: the further she walked away, the more attractive she became.

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading

Herb Caen, “Rainy Day Session,” San Francisco Chronicle, August 12, 1965, p. 25.

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Michael Hinton Friday, August 20th, 2010
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The stamp of approval.

Marshall McLuhan (2000, age 89).  Better late than never.

“Mail’s here, Marshall.”

“We get mail here in heaven?”

“We certainly do.  And you’ll want to take a good look at this envelope, in particular the stamp.”

“Why it’s me, Corinne.  Mother would have been over the moon.”

“She is Marshall, look who it’s from …”

Me (August, 2010, age 58).  The irony is…

The 46 cent commemorative postage stamp issued by Canada Post in 2000 – “Marshall McLuhan:  The man with a Message” is positioned side by side in a block of four stamps with one commemorating Northrop Frye, McLuhan’s “great rival in the English department at the University of Toronto” with whom he carried on a long running and increasingly bitter feud.

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading

Philip Marchand, Marshall McLuhan:  The medium and the messenger, 1989, pp. 114-115.

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Michael Hinton Thursday, August 19th, 2010
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To hell with the facts

Marshall McLuhan (1970s, age 60s).  Violence and media go hand in hand.

The media’s power to incite violence is evident in the structure of our language.  Did you know that the word violence is derived from the Latin word for crossroads?

Me (August, 2010, age 58).  “Cross” roads, of course, are “angry” roads.  And doesn’t anger frequently result in violence?

Unfortunately, if you look up the word violence in the dictionary, the Oxford, Mcluhan’s favourite dictionary, you will find that its origin is traced to the Latin word, violentia.  Violentia does not mean crossroads.  It means impetuous or furious, which is a shame because McLuhan’s derivation is far more interesting than the dictionary’s – at least to a student of media.

What was McLuhan thinking?  McLuhan-biographer Philip Marchand says, McLuhan never allowed the facts to govern his ideas.  And McLuhan is known to have defended his tendency to alter facts to suit his argument with the line – half a brick will break a window as easily as a whole one.  Granted.  But it is hard to escape the linear thought – however big the brick is it still has to hit the glass to cause damage.

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading

Philip Marchand, Marshall McLuhan:  The medium and the messenger, 1989, p. 62.

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Michael Hinton Wednesday, August 18th, 2010
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