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.

1930s and 40s

Merry Xmas, Professor McLuhan!

Marshall McLuhan (December, 1947, age 36).  Thank God it’s Xmas

Our fourth child, Stephanie, was born in October, Eric is only now just recovering from a bout with the flu, and I can’t hire anyone to help Corinne with the work around the house for less than my salary, which is the princely sum of $4,200.  Still Corinne is glowing and while I find marking end Xmas exams tiresome, you know me, tireless.  At present, I have three books on the go: one on Eliot and two on popular culture, Guide to Chaos and Typhon in America.

Me (December 2009, age 57).  I agree

It is time to leave Professor McLuhan to his household troubles and work on his books, and meditate on the 12 days of Christmas a period which as McLuhan knew marked the beginning of the year from the 7th century through to the 13th.  I will take a short break myself and make my next post on January 7th.

Before I do a few thoughts on the two books on popular culture McLuhan mentions above which eventually became one: The Mechanical Bride, his first book.  Bride has presented a bit of a problem for students of McLuhan.  Coming before his discovery of media it is far more accessible than his later books, and deals with a subject that would continue to fascinate McLuhan as a student of media, comics and advertising, but in a very different way.  Bride looks at comics and advertising for what they reveal about American culture and its values, and in particular for what they reveal about what McLuhan believes is wrong with American culture.  For example, Dagwood in the Blondie comic strip is a wimp and represents everything that is wrong with American men: in short they are not real men.  And many things readers of the later McLuhan will find familiar are there:  for example, Poe’s sailor caught in the maelstrom who escapes through understanding his situation, the idea that the book is not about the subjects or objects, or exhibits it discusses – advertisements and comics – but rather what they reveal about something else, American values and ways of living, a mosaic presentation in which the chapters can be read in any order.  Yet it is not the McLuhan that he will come to be.  He has not yet discovered his grand theme – the effects media have had on mankind because of the way they work rather than what they contain.  Instead what we find is many familiar things being used in an unfamiliar way.  Here is McLuhan the literary critic critiquing comics and advertising through close reading of their contents in ways he had learned at Cambridge.  For example, in the chapter titled “Horse Opera and Soap Opera” he observes that Westerns (the B movies also known as dusters and oaters) have much to teach us about the importance of the frontier, business, action, the office, and men in American culture while it is to soap opera that you must go to learn about the mainstream, society, feelings, the home, and women.  All of which is interesting but not important in the way the later McLuhan’s observation about media are important.  Because if you then say about any observation in Bride “Interesting, but so what?”  The answer more often than not is, “not much.”

In lieu of a question a greeting: Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, p. 190-191.

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Michael Hinton Friday, December 25th, 2009
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Marshall McLuhan’s war

Marshall McLuhan (March, 1944, age 32).  Uncle Sam may want me, but I don’t want to go

According to the draft board here in St. Louis I am 1A and have been so for the last three months, that is since getting my Ph.D.  (Cambridge giveth and Uncle Sam threatens to taketh away!)  If I am drafted I have two choices serve Uncle Sam or return to Canada to fight for King and country.  I’d rather do neither.  My friend Wyndham Lewis [see previous posts] has been giving me dark looks about this.  No matter here is my thinking. (1) I need to support my family, Eric is 3, and Corinne is expecting.  (2) I want to be with my family.  Assumption College in Windsor may make me an offer , if so I will bundle up the family and leave St Louis on the first train, and say “Adios St. Louis.”

Michael Hinton (2009, age 57).  McLuhan was no hero

In 1944 my Father was 17 years old when he signed up with the British Fleet Air Arm, after being turned down because of his age by the Royal Canadian Air Force.  He had a good war.  The war ended just as he completed his training to be a pilot.  In 1918 my Grandfather was 15 and fighting in France with the British Army.  He had a goodish war, he lived, but never talked about it.  Today with Canadian troops in Afghanistan and the peace movement forgotten behind us, it’s difficult to look back non-judgementally at McLuhan’s avoidance of the war and his frank admission that he wanted no part of it.  McLuhan’s biographers say little about this episode.  But it is hard not to look at it with the dark unwanted thought that McLuhan was afraid, and for good reason.  Teenagers do what they do for many reasons and unreasons.  What motivates a boy of 15, or 17 to want to fight in a war may be just as dark and forbidding to look at as what motivates a man in his 30s with a pregnant wife and a three-year old son not want to fight.

Today is Remembrance Day in Canada.  What would you have done in Marshall McLuhan’s position?  Who and what are you remembering today?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Handbook for Conscientious Objectors.  Edited by Arlo Tatum.  Published by the CCCO, an agency for military and draft counciling, established in 1948.  12th edition, April, 1972.

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, pp. 156-157.

Michael Hinton Wednesday, November 11th, 2009
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In the still and quiet air of delightful studies

Marshall McLuhan (July, 1938, age 28).  California here I am

Corinne is a big find, actually Mother’s find, but I’m really quite delighted with her.  If I have my way, and I will, we will be married within a year.  Here though my biggest find is at the Huntingdon Library, conveniently located in Pasadena not far from where Corinne and Mother are student actors at the Pasadena Playhouse.  Actually the big deal at the Huntingdon is their stunning collection of 16th century English pamphlets, especially those of the much misunderstood Thomas Nashe, who I am placing in the learning of his time for my Ph.D. at Cambridge University.  The thesis will be a history of the trivium from Cicero to Nashe, which I see as a battle between the grammarians (and logicians) and rhetoricians. 

A lot of ideas to chew on.  Here is one.  The job of a librarian is to prevent reading.  They do a pretty good job of this at the good old Huntingdon.

Michael Hinton (October, 2009, age 57).  Preventing reading is a big job

They still do a pretty good job of preventing reading at the Huntingdon.  I was there this summer, to see for myself the places where Marshall McLuhan did his research and where he met Corinne.  At the Huntingdon, which is a private museum of books and paintings amassed by the inheritor of a fortune earned in railroads.  It contains many wonderful things in addition to the pamphlets of Thomas Nashe.  There I was able to see McLuhan’s idea that the job of a librarian is to prevent reading in action. 

“Could I see the reading room of the Library?” I asked a guide to the library.  Answer, “No, you have to make an appointment in advance.  Preferably, a week in advance.”   I asked another question.  “Is the current reading room the reading room that was here in the 1930s?” Answer, “No it isn’t.” “Where was it?”  Answer, “You’re standing in it.”  I thanked the guide for their help and went and sat down in a red leather reading chair which may well have been there in 1938 and which McLuhan may have sat in, and reflected on how despite the obstacles in the way things sometimes do work out.

There were many books for me to look at for the old reading room was being used to display among other things books on science.  They had on display that day all (over 200 in number) of the editions of Darwin’s Origin of Species, from 1867 to 2001.  But these books, as McLuhan would not have been surprised to see were in locked display cases and only the covers could be read.  The prevention of reading continues. 

Why are books better left unread?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

 

Reading for this post

Marchand, Philip.  Marshall McLuhan: The medium and the messenger, pp. 48-64.

McLuhan, Marshall.  The Classical Trivium:  The place of Thomas Nashe in the learning of his time.  Edited by W. Terrence Gordon.  Corte Madera, California: Ginko Press, 2006, pp ix-xv.

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Michael Hinton Friday, October 23rd, 2009
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How Wyndham Lewis said no

Marshall McLuhan (December, 1944, age 33).  Wyndham Lewis’s sketch is insulting

Yesterday, recall, I said that great painter Wyndham Lewis presented me with a gift, a charcoal sketch that was really quite a shock.  It upset me.  Why he drew me this way I still do not know.  The fact that it is insulting is obvious.

Michael Hinton (October, 2009, age 57).  Why and how the sketch insults

The sketch, recall, shows Marshall McLuhan sitting, legs crossed, looking directly at you. McLuhan has one eye, a big left ear and the top half of his head, brain and all, is missing.  McLuhan’s biographers say the portrait upset McLuhan, but they do not say why.  It could be McLuhan was hurt because the portrait was unflattering, but that is unlikely.

Here is what I think McLuhan found insulting about the drawing.  Lewis did not idly draw McLuhan as one-eyed.  The one-eyed figure of Greek and Roman mythology is the Cyclops.  A race of giants who work in mines deep below the ground, with lamps hung from their foreheads to light their labours, making iron for the god Vulcan to forge thunder bolts for Jove.  In this poison-pen portrait McLuhan is the Cyclops, labouring away in the mines of academia teaching English literature and Lewis is Vulcan.  Vulcan, if you look up the legend, fell from grace by conspiring with Juno in a plot against Jupiter and was cast off Mount Olympus.  Vulcan landed on the island of Lemnos. (Lewis was cast out of London and landed with McLuhan in St. Louis.)  Because Vulcan’s wife Venus had an affair with Mars, Vulcan is also known as the patron of cuckolds.

The portrait is a medium.  And Lewis’s poisonous message is that Marshall McLuhan is an intellectual slave. [McLuhan was inspired by Wyndham Lewis’s writings.  In particular, his idea of the critical role artists play in society and the way technologies wrap around and enclose people, separating them from one another and their sense of the world about them.]

Both McLuhan and Lewis were trained critics.  For them this way of thinking in terms of ancient legends and symbols was not a leap, but a natural and obvious step to take.

Take a look at the sketch. (You can find it in Fitzgerald’s book on page 56.)  What do you think?   Is it insulting?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Fitzgerald, Judith.  Marshall McLuhan: Wise Guy.  Montreal: XYZ Publishing, 2001, pp. 56-62.

Gordon, W. Terrence.  Marshall McLuhan: Escape into understanding. Toronto: Stoddart, 1997, pp. 117-121.

Marchand, Philip.  Marshall McLuhan: The medium and the messenger.  Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1989; 1998.

“Cyclops,” and “Vulcan” in The Brewer Dictionary of Phrase and Fable.

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Michael Hinton Wednesday, October 21st, 2009
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For friendship to fail, only one has to say no*

Marshall McLuhan (December, 1944, age 33).  Why does Lewis want to hurt me?

This year Lewis presented me with a gift, a charcoal sketch that was really quite a shock.  Why he drew me this way I do not know.  I did make a comment about his self-portrait, but I meant no harm.  His cranial profile in his self-portrait did look just like a tomahawk.  Really, since his coming here, I have only tried to help him with his work, his painting, to find him people who will pay him cash to paint their portraits.  He needs the money.  And he insults me this way.  I do not understand.

Michael Hinton (October, 2009, age 57).  Lewis’s drawing is a medium of communication

Why Wyndham Lewis – a brilliant English painter and writer temporarily down on his luck that McLuhan admired and wanted to help – was angry with McLuhan is not known.  We know he took offense easily, struck out viciously when angered, and was a social boor, and in 1945 would tell McLuhan he wanted nothing more to do with him.  We can speculate on what it was exactly that caused him to flame out at McLuhan, but that is not I think very helpful.  Instead I want to look at the ways Lewis’s drawing of McLuhan was insulting.  That is to examine the way Lewis crafted it to spew forth his venom and have the effect that it did on McLuhan.  Why?  Because this is the method McLuhan learned from his teachers at Cambridge to analyse a poem or a novel, and which he employed to study media:  Look at their effects.  Understand how they are produced.  Here is a charcoal sketch, a medium of communication.  How does it have the effect that it does?

The sketch shows Marshall McLuhan sitting, legs crossed, looking directly at you, with one eye, a big left ear and the top half of his head, brain and all, missing.  McLuhan’s biographers say the portrait upset McLuhan, but they do not say why.  It could be vanity, but that seems unlikely, for the portrait is quite arresting, and if say a Picasso drew you would you be upset if he made you out of cubes and didn’t make you handsome? (To be continued.)

Have you ever been insulted by someone you thought of as a friend?  How did they insult you?  In what medium or media?  With what result?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Fitzgerald, Judith.  Marshall McLuhan: Wise guy.  Montreal: XYZ Publishing, 2001, pp. 56-62.

Fritz, Robert and Rosalind Fritz. “R is for relationships,” a seminar.  Robert Fritz Inc.

Gordon, W. Terrence.  Marshall McLuhan: Escape into understanding. Toronto: Stoddart, 1997, pp. 117-121.

Marchand, Philip.  Marshall McLuhan: The medium and the messenger.  Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1989; 1998.

*This is part of what Robert Fritz calls the “arithmetic of relationships”.

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Michael Hinton Tuesday, October 20th, 2009
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An airport is a wonderful thing

Marshall (November, 1949, age 38).  An airport is a wonderful thing

Visually that is.  Last night I saw a friend off on the plane to New York, which left from Malton Airport.  There is something grand about an airport especially at twilight when there’s just enough light to see but not so much as to take away the sky.    

Me (October 2009, age 57).  An airport is a horrible thing

The beginning to James Hilton’s Lost Horizon contains a magical scene in which three old school friends are having a party at Berlin’s Tempelhof International Airport.  They talk, drink, and watch the big planes land as the sky turns from blue to black.  Today such a scene is impossible to imagine.  Since 9/11 the airports of the world have become increasingly unpleasant places to be without it seems becoming significantly more secure.  The eye is forced to watch endless TV.  The ear is forced to listen to endless commentary on the need to watch your luggage.  The body is groped and scanned.  Flights are more costly, take longer, and are less comfortable.  Whenever possible I try not to fly. 

Is there a silver lining to the modern airport?  Can the past be recovered?   

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

The Letters of Marshall McLuhan.  Selected and edited by Matie Molinaro, Corinne McLuhan, and William Toye. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1987, p. 207.

James Hilton. Lost Horizon. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1933.  (Or watch Frank Capra’s 1937 film-version of the book, with the same title, starring Ronald Colman and Jane Wyatt)

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The arts can’t exist in America today

Marshall (December, 1948, age 37).  The arts can’t exist in America today

The American mind is 100 percent 18th century.  Jefferson, Voltaire, Dr. Johnson.  Rational beings.  Relentlessly logical beings seeking a rubbing together kind of causal understanding of the world. Minds ordered by the eye, by print.  The arts are all about the ear.  Minds alive to the textured, primitive, acoustic world where things happen all at once.  Not just one thing at a time.    

Me (October 2009, age 57).  The arts cannot but exist in America today

Today the American mind is 100 percent 21st century.  Oprah, Letterman, Dog Bounty Hunter.  Primitives.  Minds ordered by the ear, intuitive.  A world where the Arts cannot but exist.  This makes our world – for we are all Americans now – far more complex and complicated than that long vanished world of 1948.  We are all in need of ways to reach out, to build a bridge as Neil Postman said to the 18th century.  We need that strength visual thinking gives us to find the solutions we need to see through to the end of this century – solutions for the economy, the environment, the polity and society. 

Do you see the world becoming less rational? 

Cordially, Marshall and Me

 

Reading for this post

The Letters of Marshall McLuhan.  Selected and edited by Matie Molinaro, Corinne McLuhan, and William Toye. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1987, p. 207.

Neil Postman.  Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century: How the past can improve our future.  New York: Knopf, 1999.

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Michael Hinton Thursday, October 8th, 2009
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Appeal to the young

Marshall (September, 1948, age 37).      Appeal to the young

To appeal to the young is to speak to people who have not made up their minds about everything.  The old – that’s me and many of you – typically have not made up their minds by carefully thinking things through.  They haven’t.  They’ve just acquired answers, positions, points of view, ideas that they are more or less comfortable holding.  The young have not.  Therefore you can talk with them.    

Me (October 2009, age 57).         Wake up and wake other people up

What Marshall is talking about here is the need for rhetoric, that is the art of persuasion.  Rhetoric has had a bad reputation ever since Plato said Socrates said that it is the art of making the worse case the better.  But Plato and Socrates got it wrong.  Rhetoric is the art of dealing with ordinary people who are indifferent and stupid – like you and me.  All of us, perhaps I should add – some more, some less – are asleep to the world about us.  The world pulsates with life.  But we don’t see it; we’re stupid and indifferent to it.  There are tricks for waking up.  The top three being travel, talk to a child, break your routine and do something different.  However it is done, and there are many other ways to wake up and be woken up, to persuade people of whatever it is you want to persuade them of you need to wake them up, to excite their curiosity and speak in a way that makes it easy for them to understand what you’re saying.  Not to talk down to people, but to speak at their level. 

Do you expect people to be awake, to be intelligent and passionate about the world?  If so, how well has that served you?  In what ways other than travel, children and routine breaking can you wake people up? 

Cordially, Marshall and Me

 

Reading for this post

The Letters of Marshall McLuhan.  Selected and edited by Matie Molinaro, Corinne McLuhan, and William Toye. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1987, p. 203.

Christopher Bonanos.  “Textbook Obama:  Which predecessor does his rhetoric most nearly echo?  The data don’t lie: It’s Ronald Reagan.” New Yorker, September 21, 2009, p. 16.

Paul Strathern.  Socrates in 90 Minutes.  Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1997.

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Michael Hinton Wednesday, October 7th, 2009
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Sometimes you need to shut up

Marshall (September 1948, age 37).  Sometimes you need to shut up

Kenner is one of my best students.  His ego has been much swelled by his recent publications. He’s going to Yale for his Ph.D. but he will fail unless he commits himself to the discipline of keeping his mouth shut.  Here’s why.  He needs the degree.  Professor Brooks and the others at Yale will be jealous of his success.  They have it in their power to give him the degree and the financial support he needs to live as a student providing he does not irritate or upset them, which he will surely do if he tries to impress them with his erudition.  They do not want to learn from him.  He has things to learn.  They have useful things to teach him.  Therefore, he needs to shut up.  It took me a long time to learn this.  The bible says otherwise but it is sometimes better to receive than to give.  

Me (October 2009, age 57).  Do you need to shut up?

I wish I’d learned this lesson a long time ago.  And it’s one I’m still learning.  If I learned it I know I would have fewer arguments with my wife, more friends, and be more successful at work.  In The Year of Magical Thinking Joan Didion says that once when she was arguing with her husband he said to her, “Why do you always have to be right?”  (She says she needed to be right because she always felt like she was wrong.  This may be true, but it is form of evasion, which has the unfortunate result of allowing the lesson to remain unlearned.)  Being smart (or not smart) is something you can’t do anything about, either you’re smart or you’re not.  But you can control what you say.  You don’t always have to tell the people around you how smart (or not smart) you are.  As Marshall advises sometimes it’s better to shut up, to receive rather than to give. 

Do you find yourself speaking up when you need to shut up?  Is this a lesson you need to learn?  Where in your life do you most need to apply it?  At home, school, or  work?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

 

Reading for this post

The Letters of Marshall McLuhan.  Selected and edited by Matie Molinaro, Corinne McLuhan, and Wiliam Toye. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1987, p. 203.

Joan Didion.  The Year of Magical Thinking. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005. p. 138.

Robert FritzThe Path of Least Resistance. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1989, p. 14-30.

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Michael Hinton Tuesday, October 6th, 2009
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Speed up or slow down

Marshall (August 1948, age 37).  Speed up or slow down

I’ve noticed that people today read at only one pace.  Whatever that pace is, usually it’s the one you see people reading novels at the beach, they expect that every book can be read at that pace.  This is crazy and yet it is the fundamental unexamined assumption of all of our ‘best’ literary critics.  The fact is that some books (such as E. Pound’s) can only be read slowly and some (such as A. Christie’s) can be read extremely fast.   

Me (October 2009, age 57).  Business books are best read fast

Most business books if they are to be read at all, and a great many need not be read, can be read very fastTo read a business book slowly is to pay it an undeserved compliment.  That there are ideas there it will take deep thought to unlock.  There is a lot of jargon, metaphor and euphemism that can slow you down – but as Micklethwait and Wooldridge say in The Witch Doctors, “Dig into virtually any area of management theory and you will find, eventually, a coherent position of sorts.  The problem is that in order to extract the nugget you have to dig through an enormous amount of waffle.”

Which is why you need to read them fast.

How fast do you read business books?  

Cordially, Marshall and Me

P.S.  See you here next Tuesday       

READING FOR THIS POST

The Letters of Marshall McLuhan.  Selected and edited by Matie Molinaro, Corinne McLuhan, and William Toye. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1987, p. 200.

John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge.  The Witch Doctors:  Making Sense of the Management Gurus, New York: Times Books, 1997,  p. 19.

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Michael Hinton Saturday, October 3rd, 2009
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