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.

Opposites attract

Marshall McLuhan (February 7, 1960, age 50).  Watch out for Mr. In Between.

Marshall, Corinne said to me at breakfast, things are not all black and white.  I had simply said that telephone calls in this house must be strictly limited to no more than 2 minutes a call.  She said that our two oldest girls, Teresa and Mary, were teenagers and that we must expect them to want to talk for far more than 2 minutes a call.  I told her that of course she was right.  Between black and white there is grey.  But not everything is grey.  I said that when it comes to intellectual discovery – and what can be more important than that – it is better to ignore grey entirely and see what makes the most sense, black or white?  Corinne said what makes the most sense is the preservation of her sanity.  I imagine what that means is that telephone calls will not be strictly limited to less than 2 minutes.  Thank God – and believe me I do – I’ve got an office to escape to.  After all, I’ve work to do. 

Me (February 2010, age 57).  Figure and ground.

Marshall McLuhan liked to view the world through the tension of opposites.  Not black and white, with its suggestion of good and bad, but hot and cold, high definition and low definition, and, later, left brain and right brain, and figure and ground.

What he used to tell his students in the 1970s, I’m told, is that to truly understand a medium you must be able to look at it both as figure and ground at the same time.  That is to see it for what it is, the senses it extends and how (figure) and for how the environment around it adapts and adjusts to its presence (ground).  Which brings me to a question posed by Julien Smith, co-author of the New York Times bestseller Trust Agents, in a recent blog post:  Can you both stand out (make an impression, cut a figure) and fit in (be accepted, blend into the ground) at the same time? The answer is yes.  That’s what rhetoric is all about.  To persuade you must stand out and fit in.

Do you try only to stand out or only to fit in?  Or do you try to do both?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, pp. 286-287.

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Michael Hinton Tuesday, February 9th, 2010
Permalink 1950s and 60s, Communication, Vol. 1 No Comments

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