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.

Reading Marshall McLuhan’s cards

Marshall (November 15, 1968, age 57). Playing at creativity

Eugene Schwartz is in charge of selling DEW-LINE newsletter.  Here’s a game I had him make up for you to try.  DEW-LINE of course refers to the Distant Early Warning system, Canada’s contribution to the heating up of the cold war.  When the Russians fly their bombers over Falconbridge headed for Washington, Canada is to use its electronic eyes and ears to locate the Russian force and shout out to Uncle Sam that the nuclear payload’s on the way.  That’s my job, metaphorically speaking, in the electric age with respect to the new electric media.

The game is played with a special deck of playing cards:  the DEW-LINE Deck.  Each card has written on it one of my probes or a favorite quotation.  For example:  7 of clubs, “The silicon bosom is the thin edge of the trial balloon;” 5 of spades, “Propaganda is any culture in action (Jacques Ellul);” 3 of spades, “Fulton’s steamboat anticipated the miniskirt:  we don’t have to wait for the wind any more.”

Here’s how you play. Step (1) Think of some personal or business problem.  Step (2) Draw three cards from the deck.  Step (3) Read what’s written on each card and see what ideas pop into your head.  Top DEW-LINERS get their breakthroughs in thirty-seconds or less.”

Me (December 2009, age 57).  Okay, Let’s play

Last Thursday night I paid a visit to Montreal’s Canadian Center for Architecture (CCA).  The occasion was a party to celebrate the opening of a new show, Intermission, which is about speed and technology in the 1960s – Sputnik, NASA, the skateboard.  Many interesting short films.  Yet I could not then resist examining and now resist talking about McLuhan’s playing cards which were not part of the show but happened to be on display in a case near the entry to the show.

One of the cards displayed was the 9 of spades with the line about the silicon bosom.  This remark was stimulated by a topless fashion show McLuhan saw in San Francisco in 1965.  The show took place at the “Off-Broadway” in North Beach [Marshall McLuhan’s sexual adventure].  He watched the show with Tom Wolfe, who was writing a profile article on him, Herb Caen, a columnist with the San Francisco Chronicle, and two PR men Howard Gossage, and Dr. Gerald Feigen, who were determined to make McLuhan famous, which they did in part with this outing.  According to Tom Wolfe, after the show was over, McLuhan called out to the mistress of ceremonies, who was fully clothed, that he had a line she could use in her spiel, the restaurant having just won a test court case in an obscenity suit.  “You can say, [McLuhan said]  … The topless waitress is the opening wedge of the trial balloon.”  According to Caen what McLuhan said was “To mix a metaphor, it [the trial] was the thin edge of the trial balloons.” And Caen went on to comment “I’m sorry to report this, but it’s a fact that he [McLuhan] tittered at his own remark.”

What role Marshall McLuhan actually played in the development of the DEW-LINE deck and game is not clear.  Philip Marchand, says that McLuhan wrote “the text” printed on each card.  But whether McLuhan selected each text or simply okayed the end result, as he did for example in the making of the Medium is the Massage, is unclear.

No matter.  Let’s play the game.  My problem.  How to end this post.  My solution:  Move to the questions, one for each card noted above.

What is the propaganda in action in cultures with topless lunches?Was McLuhan a legman or a breast man?  If the topless waitress is the opening wedge in the trial balloon, where to further mix the metaphor does, and has, the slippery slope led to?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Philip Marchand, Marshall McLuhan: the medium and the messenger, 1989, p. 227.

Tom Wolfe, “What If He’s Right,” reprinted in The Pump House Gang. 1968, pp. 163-166.

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Michael Hinton Thursday, December 3rd, 2009
Permalink 1950s and 60s, Communication, Technology, Vol. 1 No Comments

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