A tribute to and a lament for Marshall McLuhan continues. If he had lived Marshall would have been 100 on July 21, 2011. Join me in the countdown to his centennial, and an exploration of more of his observations on the way media work in the electric age in which we live.

1930s and 40s

Down Memory Lane (part three)

This week I’m featuring some of my favourite posts from this blog’s archive.  Submitted today for your approval: Marshall McLuhan discovers the importance of ads:

Cordially, Me


Michael Hinton Thursday, July 14th, 2011
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What is your task?

Marshall McLuhan (April 12, 1936, age 24).  My task?

“My task as a teacher will be to shake others from their complacency.”

Me (April, 2011, age 58).  But how?

As Marshall showed throughout his career the most effective method was a form of intellectual shock therapy.  To assert that the world was not as it appeared to be in the electronic age.  Cause did not precede effect it followed it.  Consumers were becoming producers.  Advertising was a substitute for consumption.  Print created history.  The medium is the message.   Impossible?   Far from itl.

Cordially, Marshall and Me


Marshall McLuhan, Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, p. 84.

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Michael Hinton Thursday, April 28th, 2011
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Three words a day.

Marshall McLuhan (September, 1930, age 19).  Dear Diary:

Today my habit of memorizing the meaning of three new words a day has paid off handsomely.  Professor Allison, who was lecturing today on Milton, started his lecture with a question.  “What is the meaning of “imprimatur”?  No one else but me could answer.

Me (December, 2010, age 58).  Words, words, words!

The habit of looking up words in the dictionary (the O.E.D. naturally) was one of the few McLuhan picked up from his father.  It was a habit he maintained for most of his life.  McLuhan’s biographer, Philip Marchand writes, that much later in his life McLuhan once remarked “that a single English word was more interesting than the entire NASA space program.”

Two of the words the young McLuhan committed to memory were “scaturient” and “sesquipedalian.”  Whether he ever found a time to use them seems unlikely.  “I say, Marshall, do you see those two streams, the one gushing forth one-and-a-half times more than the other?”  “Yes, their scaturient and sesquipedalian character certainly caught my eye.”  But that was not the point.  Words themselves fascinated him.  More than the launching of a rocket.  To understand this is to understand McLuhan.

Cordially, Marshall and Me


Philip Marchand, Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger, 1989, pp. 14and 19.

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Michael Hinton Tuesday, December 14th, 2010
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The fascination of advertising.

Marshall McLuhan (March 26, 1930, age 18). Dear Diary:

Today at the library I was leafing through some back issues of the Saturday Evening Post from  the twenties when it struck me.   The most fascinating reading is in the advertizing.  The ads capture the age more surely, speak its assumptions more assuredly, work their way into our minds more deeply than any other literary form.

Me (November, 2010, age 58).  The ads still draw us in.

What is it about advertising that draws us to it?  Pick up a magazine from 30 or 40 years ago and the articles may leave you cold, but the ads continue to fascinate.  As is evident in Marshall McLuhan’s writing – most notably in Culture is our Business and The Mechanical Bride – there is much to be learned about people and communication from advertising.  Here, for your fascination is an ad from the golden age of television:

Cordially, Marshall and Me


Philip Marchand, Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messanger, 1989, p. 40.

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Michael Hinton Saturday, November 27th, 2010
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Do you go out to do your homework?

Marshall McLuhan (December 14, 1960, age 49).  Everything is now done in teams

A team or corporate approach characterizes schooling today.  For example, you can see this “most emphatically in the study habits of high school students, who now say in the evening, “I’m going out to do my homework.”

Me (September, 2010, age 58).  The beat goes on

Today the internet kids still go out to do their homework, but now thanks to cell phones, Facebook  and computers they don’t have to go out to go out.


Cordially, Marshall and Me



Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, p. 275.


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Michael Hinton Wednesday, September 15th, 2010
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McLuhan was no gentleman.

Marshall McLuhan (1934 or 35, age 22/24). Tonight I crossed swords with Gertrude Stein.

Gertrude Stein came to Cambridge today to speak on the subject: “I am I because my little dog knows me.”  Naturally, I could not help letting the remark slip, rather loudly I admit, that this is a prime example of the infantile nature of her prose style.  She was not amused.  Stopping mid (child-like) sentence she fixed me with a look, grabbed her umbrella, and made her way through the crowd to where I was standing.  “What,” she said, “are people like you doing here at Cambridge?”  “My dear woman,” I said …

Me (August, 2010, age 58)  What did McLuhan say next?

Unfortunately, we do not know what Marshall McLuhan said next. And it is not clear that this is actually how he found himself crossing swords with Gertrude Stein.

Philip Marchand tells the story this way in his biography of McLuhan.  But Terry Gordon in his biography of McLuhan tells the story very differently.  According to Gordon, McLuhan did not boorishly interrupt Stein’s address.  Instead, Stein spoke boringly and without interruption for an hour.  McLuhan, irritated, waited till the question period to ask what Stein thought of Wyndham Lewis’s thoughts about “the subject of time,” suspecting that it might well get a rise out of Stein because of the length of her talk and her well-known sensitivity to Lewis’s poisonous criticisms of her writing style.

No matter, whoever is more clearly the injured party – McLuhan in the Gordon version, Stein in the Marchand version – McLuhan proves himself to be no gentleman.  And either way, we can still speculate as to what McLuhan might have said next.  Two come-backs come to mind:  “My question exactly;” and “You mean my fallacy is all wrong?” 

What do you think Marshall might have said?

Cordially, Marshall and Me


Philip Marchand, Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger, 1989, p. 46.

W. Terrence Gordon, Marshall McLuhan:  Escape into Understanding, 1997, p. 62.

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Michael Hinton Friday, August 6th, 2010
Permalink 1930s and 40s, Communication, Vol. 1 1 Comment

Will the real Marshall McLuhan please stand up!

Marshall McLuhan (October, 1934, age 23).  A lesson from I.A. Richards.

I have had the most remarkable experience.  I. A. Richards whose lectures I am attending here at Cambridge invited us to participate in an experiment.  He handed out poems but did not tell us who wrote them and asked us to comment on them.  It really was quite embarrassing.  Thankfully not for me as I managed to escape for the most part with my dignity intact.  But many of my fellow students said the most laudatory things about pure doggerel and heaped undeserved criticism on poets of canonical standing.

Me (June 2010, age 57).   A lesson from McLuhan?

Here are four short passages.  It’s only fair to tell you that only one of these was actually written by Marshall McLuhan.  Which one is the real McLuhan?

(1)    A modern movie actress who tries to play a role will seem old fashioned.  To cope with this, actresses have cooled themselves way down, become numb blanks.  Thus today’s stars are totally tranquilized.  The smart thing for a girl nowadays is to play numb.  Dumb actresses used to be in demand, now numb actresses are in demand.  Rigor mortis is de rigueur.

(2)    There is a current issue of the TV Guide which contains a survey of convicts’ attitudes towards TV.  That is people really up for a long time, many of them for life, and how they regard television.  All convicts are apparently supplied with good TV sets.  Such is the hardship of our prisons.  They pass the word along:  all the new gimmicks, all the new twists they find in crimes; and these are passed along quickly to the boys who are on the way out, and are tried out quickly in the community.  There really is an astonishing story of how much television has helped to improve the level of crime.

(3)    The owner of a Hollywood hotel in an area where many movie and TV actors reside reported that tourists had switched their allegiance to TV stars.  Moreover, most TV stars are men, that is, “cool characters,’ while most movie stars are women, since they can be presented as “hot” characters.

(4)    By filling the space of the TV with a mosaic of close-ups, The Hollywood Squares hypnotizes its audience by paralyzing their senses and numbing their eyes to other distractions.  The movie-world is literally chopped up into nine squares, each of which contains a close up.  The theme music is the ticktock of a hypnotists watch.

See you tomorrow with the answer to this puzzle.

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Philip Marchand, Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger, 1989, pp. 35-37.

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Michael Hinton Thursday, June 10th, 2010
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Marshall McLuhan, idea consultant!

Marshall McLuhan (June 3, 1955, age 43).  I’ve got a billion of ’em!

Bill Hogan and I have hit upon a scheme that will make us rich.  We’ve formed a business called Idea Consultants.  We’re the perfect team – I’m a good talker and he’s a good listener.  Here’s our slogan – “A headache is a million-dollar idea trying to get born.  Idea Consultants are obstetricians for these ideas.”

Here are three of our ideas:

  • See-through potties for toilette training children
  • Pollen-free package tours for hay-fever sufferers
  • Urine-coloured underwear

All we need now is our first customer.

Me (June 2010, age 57).  In part, Marshall, in part!

It’s easy to make fun of Idea Consultants and the ideas they came up with.  {see two earlier posts – first, second] McLuhan and Hogan ran the business for two years, but never made a sale.  However, some of their ideas were fascinating ideas for products that were far ahead of their time.  For example today Mrs Hinton Googled “Idea Consultants” and got 17,300,000 results.  One of their product ideas was for “television platters” – the DVD or video cassette.  Another was for a TV program in which viewers would be presented with a dramatized business problem and a prize would be offered for the best solution.  McLuhan believed that ordinary viewers were more likely to come up with innovative solutions than the experts.

Here’s your chance to test this idea: Imagine such a program on the BP gulf coast oil spill. Would amateurs be able to deal with the disaster better than the experts?   What do you suggest BP do to cap the well?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Philip Marchand, Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger, 1989, p. 109.

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Michael Hinton Thursday, June 3rd, 2010
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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
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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
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