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.


Bless advertising art.

Marshall McLuhan (1969, age 58).  Wonderous to behold!    

“Bless Advertising Art for its PICTORIAL vitality and verbal creativity.”

Me (March, 2011, age 58).  Let’s take a look.

All advertising may not be art, but some definitely is.  Would there were more.

 Cordially, Marshall and Me



Marshall McLuhan, Counter-Blast, 1969, p. 18.

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Michael Hinton Thursday, April 7th, 2011
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What’s real?

Marshall McLuhan (1970, age 59).  The genuine fake!    

“In art, the genuine fake, Rembrandt or Vermeer, is just as valid as the real thing because it provides the same new awareness or perception.”


Me (March, 2011, age 58).  An observation McLuhan made about advertising …

When he said that advertising was getting so good you don’t have to buy the product to enjoy it. 



 Cordially, Marshall and Me



Marshall McLuhan, Culture Is Our Business, 1970, p. 46.

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Michael Hinton Saturday, March 26th, 2011
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Which came first the film or the book?

Marshall McLuhan (1964, age 52).  The book of course

“Even the film industry regards all its greatest achievements as derived from novels.”

Me (November, 2010, age 58). Can you think of any film that inspired a great book?

McLuhan observes that the book and the film are closely related to one another.  As evidence for this he points to great films being inspired by novels and the difficulty of imagining a film being based on a newspaper.  Yet it is odd that the forces of inspiration seem to work in only one direction.  It is easy to think of novels (and plays and even comic books and video games) that inspired great (ok may be not great, but not completely schlock) films, but hard to think of any film that inspired a great (or even reasonably good) book and none outside the realm of fantasy and science fiction.  No disrespect to Alan Dean Foster, but he’s no Charlotte Bronte.


Cordially, Marshall and Me


Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media, 1964, p. 286.

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Michael Hinton Thursday, November 4th, 2010
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A picture is worth a thousand words.

Me (November, 2010, age 58). What can you learn from a cliché?

The cliché, a picture is worth a thousand words, is the idea that Marshall McLuhan starts out with but he takes it to a new place.  His take is that because a picture is worth a thousand words films (films are also known as pictures) must provide their audiences with at least a thousand words of detailed information in every scene.  Clothing and props in historical dramas, for example, must be exactly right in every detail.  On the stage or on TV – in sharp contrast – one can get away with far less detail.  From TV, a case in point [and a little humour]:


Of course McLuhan would be a lot easier to read if he stuck to plain and simple expressions of his ideas but then if he did he probably wouldn’t have come up with the ideas that he did.

Marshall McLuhan (1964, age 52).  Here is the way to say a picture is worth a thousand words …

“In terms of other media such as the printed page, film has the power to store and convey a great deal of information.  In an instant it presents a landscape with figures that require several pages of prose to describe.”

Cordially, Marshall and Me


Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media, 1964, p. 288.

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Michael Hinton Wednesday, November 3rd, 2010
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Perspective is learned.

Me (November, 2010, age 58). But what does it teach?

Marshall McLuhan said that a perspective is a dangerous thing.  Dangerous to our understanding of the world because it closes off other possibilities.  Here the artist David Hockney explores a different way of seeing:

Marshall McLuhan (1964, age 52).  Print taught us perspective

“The old belief that everybody really saw in perspective, but only that Renaissance painters had learned how to paint it, is erroneous.”

Cordially, Marshall and Me


Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media, 1964, p. 288.

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Michael Hinton Tuesday, November 2nd, 2010
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What’s art?

Marshall McLuhan (1970s?).  Of course …

I was chatting with the artist Eric Wesselow.  I asked him, “What is art?  He started in on the fact that etymologically, art simply means something that is made.

“Actually,” I told him, “art is what you can get away with.”

He looked somewhat taken aback.  So I asked him, “What is a portrait?  “A portrait,” I said, “is the picture of a person where there is always something wrong with the mouth.”

Me (August, 2010, age 58).  And yet …

I have always found these oddball definitions funny.  And perhaps that’s all they are.  However they also have a ring of truth.  The second calls to mind the most iconoclastic portrait in western culture – the Mona Lisa – the first has crossed the mind of anyone who has ever walked through a gallery of modern art.   At any rate the next time I go to an art gallery, I’m going to find it hard not to think of McLuhan’s definitions.

Cordially, Marshall and Me


Barrington Nevitt with Maurice McLuhan, Who Was Marshall McLuhan, 1994, p. 222.

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Michael Hinton Wednesday, August 4th, 2010
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Want to stand out?

Marshall McLuhan (January, 1964, age 52). Here’s the rule.

Just finished chatting with Wilfred Watson, as usual it was a highly productive conversation.  Wilfred is really quite a good listener.  I realized that one can toggle back and forth between standing out and blending in.  Anything that is part of the ground, the environment, is low definition, and goes unseen, unrecognized.  Anything that stands out is figure, high definition, and commands attention.  Stop reading and look at this page.  What do you see?  The words are figure, the space between them is ground.  You can make a part of the figure ground and thus involving and invisible by a simple rule: repeat it.  Thus:


To reverse the effect eliminate the repetitions. Thus:


Andy Warhol uses this technique to great effect in his Pop Art show.  Repetition is the trick that allows him to turn Marilyn Monroe – who I hope you’ll agree is quite the figure – into ground.  Ditto for Elvis.

Me (February 2010, age 57).  Can life imitate art?

This is an idea that strikes me as extremely useful if only it could be applied.  Say you’re at a party and you want to make an impression, to stand out.  What can you do to be “figure” rather than “ground.”  Or say you’re at the same party and you don’t want to be noticed.  What can you do to be “ground” rather than “figure”?

McLuhan says the key is repetition.  But how?  One way to go from ground to figure is to speed up.  To repeat is to slow down.  In the extreme if you stop moving entirely you are constantly repeating the same image of yourself.  This is what a wall flower does.

Some weeks ago Julien Smith asked the question; “Can you blend in and stand out at the same time?” McLuhan’s rule would seem to say no you can’t.  You can either be figure, stand out, or be ground, and blend in.  You can’t be both.

Or can you? [see earlier post]

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, p.297.

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Michael Hinton Thursday, March 4th, 2010
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McLuhan in a box?

Marshall McLuhan (February, 1967, age 55).  Undignified!  Not professorial!

Quentin Fiore tells me that Aspen Magazine is wild about putting me in one of their boxes.  I am the subject of their next issue, issue number 4, the McLuhan editionCorinne will be amused.  The graduate school – I am sure – will not.  This will give the Profs at Toronto University a fit.  I can hear them now.  Pure Commercialism! Undignified!  Not professorial!  Well that’s their look out.

For each issue Aspen’s editors assemble a mix of recordings, posters, essays and whatnot playing on a particular theme.  “Magazine” you know is a very interesting word.  It means a storehouse, a cache, typically for explosives.  This issue is undoubtedly going to result in fireworks.  The last one was on Warhol.  This one’s on me.    Haven’t seen it yet, but I will.  Perhaps next Sunday.

Me (February, 2010, age 57):  A 1960s time capsule.

Aspen Magazine, the brain child of Phyllis Johnson, a former editor for Women’s Wear Daily and Advertising Age began publication in 1965 and ceased publication in 1971.  U.S. Subscribers paid $12.95 a year for 4 quarterly issues and Canadians $14.95.  For this somewhat princely sum (Look or Life, popular 26-issue-a-year magazines, at this time cost Americans $5.00 a year and Canadians $5.50) the subscribers received a multi-media, extravaganza of visual, oral, and tactile delights. For us, viewing it today it is both a 1960s time capsule and time machine.

The McLuhan edition which arrived at the subscriber’s door in the spring of 1967 in a hinged box (9-½ by 12-½ by ¾ inches) decorated with an electronic circuit board and containing:

Is there a market for something like Aspen Magazine today?  How much do you think such a magazine would cost today? (In today’s money – adjusting for inflation – an American annual subscription of $12.95 would be worth $68.83, and a Canadian subscription of $14.95 would be worth $79.46 – amazing value for money) Do you know of any library, centre, or museum that has a copy of the Aspen McLuhan edition?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

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Michael Hinton Tuesday, February 2nd, 2010
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The power of the artist

Marshall McLuhan (Summer 1968, age 57).  You can give Mailer a compliment but he hasn’t the wit to accept it

That chat I had with Norman Mailer on the CBC’s TV program, “The Summer Way,” is still on my mind, largely because despite the title of the program, “Meeting of Minds,” there was so little meeting of minds.  Here’s how it went.  I’d make an observation.  (Violence is necessary to the formation of identity.) He’d say he didn’t like it.  So I made another observation, (the new electronic environment has abolished nature) and he’d say he didn’t like that and so it went.  I don’t have a problem with his liking or not liking my ideas.  But I don’t think liking or not liking is productive.  In fact I’m convinced it’s counter-productive.  Liking and not liking, which is so often masked as truth-seeking interferes as I said yesterday with just observation of the world.

I decided to try a new tactic.  Norman, I said, you will be delighted with this – the artist is the only one who is able to face the present and see it for what it is.  He alone has the ability to tell us what is happening.  Poor Mailer was not delighted.

Me (December 2009, age 57).  Marshall McLuhan:  Artist or scientist?

At this point, the moderator of the meeting, Ken Lefolii, stepped in and asked McLuhan whether he thought of himself as an artist or a scientist.  McLuhan’s answer was no, he didn’t think of himself as an artist or a scientist.  He said he rejected these categories as unhelpful, fragmenting, nineteenth century devices, and in particular he implied they were not helpful for thinking about him as an observer of the unfolding electric 20th century world.  McLuhan’s answer then in effect was “I refuse to be lumped in a category.”

But of those two boxes, artist and scientist, he seems to fit most easily into the artist category.  Scientists he said are in the matching game. Matching ideas about the world with evidence of the world.  Artists are in the breakthrough game.  Looking for new patterns in the world.  McLuhan tries his hand at the matching game in his observations about media.  For example, radio is visual, TV is tactile and children who watch TV look at the world from an average distance of 4’6”and therefore are hunters not readers.  But this science is not the science you met in High School.  The matching is often difficult to separate from assertion.

What category would you place yourself?  Artist or scientist?  What about the people closest to you?  Family, friends, colleagues?  Should businesses be in the matching game or the breakthrough game?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

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Michael Hinton Wednesday, December 16th, 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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