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.
Marshall McLuhan (December 25, 1960, age 49).¬† Everybody!
I feel particularly Christmas-ee today.¬† Corinne‚Äôs parents sent us a smashingly swell-elegant crystal drinks tray.¬† It made the trip from Fort Worth, Texas, without a hitch, every surface unscratched and without any extra duty to be paid.¬† It will come in very handy in this the season to be entertaining and celebrating.¬† Also, my book job ‚ÄúThe Gutenberg Galaxy‚ÄĚ is almost done.¬† I am so wound up I can think of nothing else.¬† The manuscript will go to the publishers the day after tomorrow.¬† And on that very day I begin writing this other book on media after Gutenberg which has been on my mind.¬† I‚Äôve spent the last 20 years reading, it seems only right that I put out some things of my own.¬† Without Corinne‚Äôs help in typing and discussing the ideas swirling around me, I don‚Äôt know where I‚Äôd be.
Me (December, 2010, age 58).¬† And a Happy New Year!
A time to be thankful for all we‚Äôve got and the gifts we‚Äôve been given material and spiritual.¬† Like Marshall without the help of my wife, Debbie, who has posted this blog since its beginning in September 2009 and has encouraged me to make it better, I don‚Äôt know where I‚Äôd be.
Merry Christmas, Marshall and Me
Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, p. 276.
This week‚Äôs blogs are very different from those of previous weeks.¬† The standard format of two short letters, one from Marshall McLuhan and one from me, is abandoned.¬† Instead I am posting, in 5 parts, an essay which explains the single most important thing you need to know to understand Marshall McLuhan.
Previously, in part 1, posted Tuesday, I asserted that Marshall McLuhan lost his genius as a result of surgery to remove a brain tumor.¬† In part 2, posted Wednesday I explained why it was necessary and how it was carried out.¬† In part 3, posted Thursday, I explained why the operation was so damaging to McLuhan.¬† Did McLuhan lose his genius as a result of the operation?¬† I think so but you may want additional evidence.¬† Yesterday, in part 4, I talked about two other pieces to this puzzle.¬† Today, in part 5, the final chapter of this story, I talk about the meaning of it all.
Genius has brain surgery and loses his mind:¬† The untold story of Marshall McLuhan
By Michael Hinton
In the final chapter of classic detective fiction, the crime is solved when the great detective – Agatha Christie‚Äôs Hercule Poirot, for example – gathers all the suspects gathered together in the same room, lays out the evidence, and identifies the guilty party. Before I make my attempt to play the great detective, I want to say something briefly about what genius is and what it matters whether or not McLuhan‚Äôs genius was lost.
Genius the Romans thought was the essence of our character or personality.¬† There is no doubt that in this sense, McLuhan‚Äôs brain surgery killed his genius.¬† All his biographers I think would agree on this.¬† He was a different man after the operation. ¬†But this is not what I mean by genius.¬† I mean that ‚Äúinborn exalted intellectual power‚ÄĚ that ‚Äúextraordinary imaginative, creative or inventive‚ÄĚ spark that allows some minds to work faster than anyone else, for a longer time, and come to different conclusions.¬†¬† How many geniuses are there?¬† Dr. Del Maestro told me that he believes the answer is something like one in six billion and that he had no doubt that McLuhan was a genius.¬† How many lose their genius?¬† Some; certainly Churchill did and so did Dr. Johnson, as a result of illness and possibly dementia.¬† How many have lost their genius as a result of brain surgery?¬†¬† Possibly, only McLuhan, the numbers of true geniuses being small.
Understanding Media which was published 45 years ago is clearly the work of a genius, but not one who is easy to understand.¬† To understand McLuhan you need to know that: (1) his greatest ideas can be found most vigorously expressed in his speaking and writing before his brain surgery in 1967; (2) the spoken word is the vehicle of his genius; and (3) his earlier work is generally speaking easier to understand than his later work because in his earlier work he was less concerned with presenting his ideas in mosaic form.
You can listen to McLuhan speak in his letters, his interviews, and his speeches.¬† His writing before Understanding Media and the Gutenberg Galaxy can be found in his essays from the 1950s and 1960s in McLuhan Unbound, and his Report on Understanding New Media, 1960.¬†¬† Even so he is never easy to understand for several other reasons.¬† His thought is densely packed with new ideas, in chapter 14 of Understanding Media, for example he identifies 100s of ways money can be thought of as an extension of our mind, bodies, or spirit.¬† He delights in decorating his ideas with references to writers from all disciplines.¬† In chapter 1 of the same book in the space of 6 pages (pages 9 to 14) he calls for support from the writings of Shakespeare (Romeo and Juliet, Othello, King Lear, Troilus and Cressida), Hans Selye, General David Sarnoff, W.W. Rostow, John Kenneth Galbraith, David Hume, E.H. Gombrich, Cardinal Newman, de Tocqueville, Gibbon, E.M. Forster, and Walt Whitman.
He uses a special vocabulary that does not mean what you might think it does; hot and cool, for example.¬† His terms are often value-loaded; fragmented and visual bias, for example.¬† His primary goal is often to jolt his readers and listeners out of their complacencies rather than to lead them to particular conclusions; his speech [this blog] at the Museum of the City of New York, in October 1967, he outraged his audience with the notion that the invention of the fire engine caused the proliferation of slums in 19th century western cities. Before this, of course, as the history of Paris and London shows, but McLuhan does not bother to explain, fires were responsible for the regular clearing away of slums and the re-building of newer and better-designed cities, although at great cost in terms of loss of life and misery for the urban poor. And, he loved to joke around; the medium is the massage, for example, making it difficult to tell when he is joking and when he is not.
Now, to deal with the difficult question of causality, a question McLuhan wrestled with a great deal.¬† Who killed McLuhan‚Äôs genius?
Was it Dr. Mount? (Aristotle would have called Mount the efficient cause.)¬† Was it the art and practice of brain surgery? (Aristotle‚Äôs formal cause.)¬† Was it the length of the operation, the copper or nickel lifts, and the bruising of brain tissue?¬† (Aristotle‚Äôs material cause.)¬† Or was it McLuhan‚Äôs desire to live rather than die from the growth of the tumor?¬† (Aristotle‚Äôs final cause.)
I prefer a final cause solution.¬† That McLuhan killed his own genius.¬† But this is not the most important question.¬† The case of Marshall McLuhan is not, after all,¬† a ‚Äúwho done it.‚ÄĚ¬† It‚Äôs a ‚Äúwhat got done.‚ÄĚ¬† What happened to McLuhan?¬† Did he lose his genius at the same time he lost his tumor?¬† If so a great deal about McLuhan which was mysterious now becomes clear.¬† Why his books after 1967 were never again as good as the ones before.¬† Why he can be read and understood more easily in his writing before 1967 than after 1967.¬† Why he was lionized in the 1960s and looked on as bit of a joke in the 1970s.¬† Why he is so poorly understood today.
McLuhan‚Äôs real tragedy was not the stroke that took away his power to speak in 1979.¬† His tragedy was that in choosing life in 1967 he had to let his genius go.¬† If there is a happy ending here it is that the real McLuhan, the genius, lives on in all that he did before November 1967.¬† And that is a legacy that will never die, and one we can return to whenever we wish for inspiration and enlightenment.
Yesterday, I explained that this week‚Äôs blogs will be very different from the previous ones.¬† This week, in the lead up to my 100th post, which will take place on Tuesday, February 23, the standard format of two short letters, one from Marshall McLuhan and one from me, is temporarily abandoned.¬† Instead I am posting, in 5 parts, an essay which explains the single most important thing you need to know to understand Marshall McLuhan.
In part 1, I asserted that Marshall McLuhan lost his genius as a result of surgery to remove a brain tumor.¬† In today‚Äôs post I tell you more about this operation.
Genius has brain surgery and loses his mind:¬† The untold story of Marshall McLuhan [cont’d]
By Michael Hinton
It is time to tell you about the operation, the scene of the crime.¬† On the basic facts leading up to it and what happened during and after it his biographers (Marchand, Fitzgerald, and Gordon) are in substantial agreement:¬† In 1967, McLuhan had reached the pinnacle of his career.¬† The Gutenberg Galaxy had won him a Governor General‚Äôs award in 1962.¬† Understanding Media had sold 100,000 copies in the spring of 1964.¬† An east and west coast marketing campaign orchestrated by two San Francisco PR men and ‚Äėgenius scouts,‚Äô Howard Gossage and Gerald Feigen,¬† rocketed him to international stardom in 6 months in 1965.¬† Lionized by Fortune 500 corporations his key note speeches earned him $5,000 to $25,000 gigs in 1966.¬† Awarded a $100,000 teaching and research chair at Fordham University, in Brooklyn, he moved Corinne and 4 of their 6 children to New York City in August, 1967, where he arranged for jobs for two of his colleagues, Ted Carpenter and Harley Parker, and his eldest son Eric, and schooling for the other children, and a house for them all to live in close to the university.
With a new salary, new job, new office, new secretary, new city, and new home his stress levels must have reached record heights.¬† Stress was the last thing he needed.¬† Over the past 7 years he‚Äôd suffered from headaches and black-outs.¬† (In 1960 exhausted by a punishing work schedule, he‚Äôd suffered a stroke that he tried to pretend had never happened.)¬† Believing sickness was the result of weak will, and therefore a sign of weakness, McLuhan felt he could indulge his dislike of Doctors and hospitals by avoiding them.¬† In September and October 1967 the blackouts got worse.¬† In October he blacked out in class at Fordham.¬† Deeply concerned, Carpenter, John Culkin – who had persuaded McLuhan to come to Fordham – and Corinne persuaded McLuhan to see a neurologist in Manhattan.¬† Dr. Lester A. Mount examined McLuhan and arranged for tests which showed that McLuhan had brain tumor, a benign but growing meningioma the size of his fist, buried in the lower part of his brain at the base of his skull.
McLuhan‚Äôs choice was fairly simple:¬† have the operation which would not be easy and if all went well live, or suffer ever increasing pain, blackouts, blindness, insanity, and ultimately death.¬† The operation took place at the Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital in New York City.¬† Dr. Mount performed the operation which began at 8 in the morning of Saturday, November 25 and was not completed until 5 in the morning of Sunday, November 26, having lasted 22 hours, making it ‚Äúthe longest neurosurgical operation in American medical history.‚ÄĚ¬† Dr. Mount‚Äôs greatest concern, says Fitzgerald, was that the length of the operation which he estimated would take only 5 hours and might result if the utmost care was not taken in the exposure of ‚Äúsome of the cells of the brain‚Äôs surface to the potentially devastating effects of oxygenation‚ÄĚ because he had to ‚Äúlift McLuhan‚Äôs brain to get at the tumour.‚ÄĚ¬† ‚ÄúHis esteemed patient‚Äôs faculties will,‚ÄĚ she writes, ‚Äúalmost inevitably, [would] sustain some degree of damage.‚ÄĚ
McLuhan did suffer from the operation.¬† The pain was excruciating, for which he took heavy-duty pain killers, and his life was ‚Äúforever altered.‚ÄĚ¬† Five years of reading and people, places and associations were scrubbed from his memory.¬† He was ‚Äúvariously fragile, tense, irritable,‚ÄĚ she says,‚ÄĚ and, on occasion, uncharacteristically demanding and irrational.‚ÄĚ¬† No one, however, suggests the operation took away his genius.¬† Gordon remarks, instead, how remarkably productive McLuhan was in the years after the operation: 7 books and 21 articles.¬† And yet it is clear there was something wrong.¬† The articles were squibs.¬† Some quite obviously recycled from the years before his surgery.¬† With each year that passed and with the appearance of each new book his reputation fell.¬† Projects he thought important were left unfinished.¬† Six of the seven books were co-authored and the one that wasn‚Äôt, Culture is Our Business was viewed by McLuhan, as a failure.¬† Asked by his son Eric late in his life why he never dedicated his books to any one McLuhan told him it was because he wasn‚Äôt very proud of them.
To be continued…
Marshall McLuhan (February 1, 1962, age 50).¬† C.P. Snow‚Äôs the bloke!
My editor at U of Toronto press, a canny Scot, came up with a great idea for the dust jacket testimonial for The Gutenberg Galaxy of which I hope to see the page proofs in the coming weeks.¬† We will get C.P. Snow ‚Äď Sir Charles now ‚Äď to write something complimentary.¬† Turns out he, and Lady Snow, met Walter Ong – my former student – at Wesleyan University and they had a meeting of minds.¬† ¬†How delightfully serendipitous are the ways of fate.¬† As you may know we are both Cambridge men and individually represent the opposite divides of the Two Cultures he has banged on about to great effect and acclaim.¬† The Gutenberg Galaxy is at heart about the making of the two cultures; two being one more than there was before the advent of printing.¬† I hope he agrees.¬† It will certainly make a world of difference to the sales of good old Galaxy if we can get the author of the Two Cultures to go to bat for me.¬† Must go, I have a letter to write.
Me (January 2010, age 57). ¬†I don‚Äôt think Snow had a hard time saying no.
C.P. Snow did not write a phrase for the dust jacket of the Galaxy.¬† As far as I have been able to learn he did not reply to McLuhan‚Äôs letter.¬† In that letter McLuhan writes, somewhat obsequiously, ‚ÄúThe Gutenberg Galaxy ‚Ä¶ undertakes, almost as a sequel to your Two Cultures, to explain the historical divergence of these two cultures, both before and since Gutenberg.¬† I dreamed, therefore, of seeing a phrase of yours on the jacket.‚ÄĚ
If Sir Charles bothered to read the page proofs of¬† The Gutenberg Galaxy – assuming that McLuhan actually went to the trouble and expense of sending them to him as he promised in his letter –¬† it is difficult to believe that Snow would have seen himself as a natural dust jacket testimonial writer for the book.¬† The first two opening sentences alone I suspect would have had this plain speaking Yorkshire man shaking his head:¬† ‚ÄúThe present volume is in many respects complementary to The Singer of Tales by Albert B. Lord. ¬†Professor Lord has continued the work of Milman Parry, whose Homeric studies led him to consider how oral and written poetry naturally followed diverse patterns and functions.‚ÄĚ
McLuhan might have found it crystal clear that Snow‚Äôs Two Cultures correspond to Lord and Parry‚Äôs ‚Äúoral‚ÄĚ and ‚Äúwritten‚ÄĚ ‚Äúpatterns and functions,‚ÄĚ but I don‚Äôt think Snow would have found it either obvious or enlightening.
What was McLuhan thinking?¬† That, of course, C. P. Snow would want to be a part of the Marshall McLuhan fan club?¬† What should he have done differently?¬† (I can think of quite a few things.¬† For example I imagine the last thing Snow would have wanted was to see the page proofs to the Galaxy.)¬† Perhaps the real lesson of this story is that McLuhan was at this time totally consumed with the ideas he was creating. What do you think?
Cordially, Marshall and Me
Reading for this post
Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, pp. 282-284.
Marshall McLuhan (December 25, 1960 age 49).¬† Its time!
I‚Äôve been too busy writing to write you a letter.¬† It seems that Sunday is the only day I can look up from what I‚Äôm doing.¬† For years I‚Äôve been reading other people‚Äôs stuff.¬† Reading it and re-reading it.¬† Now it‚Äôs time for me to see what I‚Äôve got to say. ¬†Actually, I‚Äôve found I have a lot to say.¬† I‚Äôve just finished the big book, The Gutenberg Galaxy, my book about yesterday, the world that has ended – 400 typescript pages in less than 30 days.¬† Must go, I‚Äôve got proof reading to do if I‚Äôm going to meet my deadline and get this off to the publisher the day after tomorrow.¬† And then I begin the next one, my book about today, the world about us which no one can see, Understanding Media.
Me (January 2010, age 57). ¬†McLuhan uses deadlines to speed up.
From what‚Äôs said about Marshall McLuhan in magazines, on the web, deadlines are not something you would expect the philosopher of pop cult to be using to get work done.¬†¬† And of course he does use them.¬† McLuhan was a very practical if eccentric genius.¬† For example, he once took a speed reading course to get a fresh take on what it means to read in the electronic age.¬† He said that the main benefit of the course was that he was able to read and dispose of junk mail faster.¬† There are at least two ideas here worth following up.¬† And I will do so in the questions.
If speed reading‚Äôs benefit is to allow you to wade through junk writing faster is there a way to tell what‚Äôs junk without having to read it?¬† I profile.¬† What strategies do you use? And, in what way do you use deadlines in your own work? School is all about deadlines.¬† But those deadlines don‚Äôt work for everyone.¬† Do they, or did they, work for you?¬† Here’s what Julien Smith said about deadlines in a recent blog post.
Cordially, Marshall and Me
Reading for this post
Letters of Marshall McLuhan, p. 276.
Marshall McLuhan (May 1959, age 47).¬† Producers are becoming consumers
What an inauspicious day, Friday the thirteenth.¬† Thank God my flight was yesterday.¬† I flew in from Winnipeg where I spoke to the Winnipeg Ad and Sales Club.¬† I led off with one of my favourite anecdotes, ‚ÄúWhenever I fly, I always carry a powerful bomb with me.¬† This absolutely insures my safety, the probability of there being two such bombs on the plane being infinitesimally low.‚ÄĚ¬† They also liked my Newfie joke:¬† ‚ÄúWhat‚Äôs written on the bottom of a Newfie beer bottle?¬† Open other end.‚ÄĚ¬† Liked is a strong word, let‚Äôs say they were appreciative.
The ad men did a double take when I told them in the electric age, which is the age in which we live, things are moving so fast producers are becoming consumers.¬† It‚Äôs a complex phenomenon, but basically a simple idea.¬† Things are changing so fast producers have figured out ways to speed up, to go faster than the wave, and one way to do that is to understand consumers so well that you know them better than they do themselves.¬† And when you do that you can anticipate their wants.¬† That‚Äôs why the Russians launched Sputnik and why Prime Minister Diefenbaker is making a serious error in canceling the Avro Arrow.¬† The biggest investment business is making today is in research and development.¬† They do this not to create a lot of new machines, products, services but to speed up to stay ahead of all the change that‚Äôs built in to the system.
Michael Hinton (2009, age 57).¬† The rule of 2
If Marshall McLuhan believed in the magical power of 3, he also believed in the logical power of the number 2.¬† Pairs of concepts, the end points of a single dimension, opposites, either ors, this and that‚Äôs run through his work.¬† Hot and cool, high definition and low definition, figure and ground, right brain and left brain, clich√© and archetype, medium and message, visual and acoustic, eye and ear.¬† So that even in his doctoral dissertation which he described as a history of the Trivium, the 3 disciplines of grammar rhetoric and logic which dominated schooling in the middle ages, for analytical purposes he reduced to a battle between 2 forces over time, the grammarians and the rhetoricians.
Twos are powerful precisely because they exclude grey middle possibilities. They force you to make clear distinctions, to make decisions, to avoid weaseling and waffling.¬† All media he taught are hot or cool, not hot, warm, or cool.¬† This bias for black or white bothered his quibble-prone academic readers, even those who viewed his work positively.¬† For example, in his review of The Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media in the Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science, Kenneth Boulding argues that to McLuhan the key dimension on which hot and cool media differed was ‚Äúinvolvement.‚ÄĚ¬† But surely he argued other dimensions mattered too ‚Äď such as ‚Äúdemandingness or effort,‚ÄĚ ‚Äúrange in time and space,‚Äô and,‚ÄĚ ‚Äúdensity or capacity.‚ÄĚ¬† These quibbles it‚Äôs worth noting all implicitly reject McLuhan‚Äôs starting point that what matters is the medium not it‚Äôs content.
For McLuhan, however, the power of a single dimension with 2 possibilities only was greater than the power of safer equivocating and qualifying multidimensional thinking.¬† He believed in absolutes.¬† Qualifications were for the intellectually weak of heart. ¬†¬†¬†
What other examples of 2s in McLuhan‚Äôs work are there?¬† Which is the one you have found most stimulating?
Cordially, Marshall and Me
Reading for this post
Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, p. 252-255.
Boulding, Kenneth E.¬† ‚ÄúThe Medium and the Message,‚ÄĚ reprinted in McLuhan: Hot and Cool. Edited by Gerald Emanuel Stearn. New York: New American Library, 1967, pp. 68-75.
Marshall McLuhan (1968, age 57).¬† The rule of 3
I‚Äôm told I‚Äôm so famous now I need an agent.¬† People are making money off my name and I mean to get my share.¬† My agent is Matie Molinaro.¬† I asked her if she was a secret agent.¬† She seems to like my jokes, obviously a woman of good taste, says if I‚Äôm going to do movie work I have to be a member of ACTRA and AFTRA. ¬†Corinne says she hopes the films will all be talkies.¬† I said, me too, silent film will not do me justice, and I‚Äôm also hoping for a predominance of black and white. Colour is an unnecessary technical change and in my case not an improvement.¬† Not incidentally, I asked Matie to make sure my ACTRA and AFTRA numbers are divisible by 3.¬† I‚Äôm convinced, no, I‚Äôm persuaded by experience, that the number 3 and numbers divisible by three are lucky.¬† Consider: I have 6 children; I live at 3 Wychwood Park; and Corrine and I were married in 1939. Q.E.D.
Michael Hinton (2009, age 57).¬† The rule of 2
Marshall McLuhan was adamant about the luckiness of the number 3 and numbers divisible by 3.¬† As a result the number 3 works its way through almost everything McLuhan touched. For example, he often said that the best place to test-read a book was on page 69.¬† If that page was interesting then he said the book was worth reading, if not then you should move on.¬†¬†Understanding Media: The extensions of man, (6 words) is comprised of 33 chapters.¬† The Gutenberg Galaxy (3 words, 8 if you count the subtitle) is a bit more complicated example.¬† In manuscript the book consisted of 399 pages.¬† The book is comprised of 111 mosaic bits ‚Äď ‚ÄėPrologue‚Äô, plus ‚ÄėGutenberg Galaxy‚Äô, the 107 ‚Äėchapter glosses‚Äô, ‚ÄėThe Galaxy Reconfigured‚Äô, and ‚ÄėBibliographic Index‚Äô.¬† 112, however, if you count the ‚ÄėIndex of Chapter Glosses.‚Äô)¬† In setting up this blog you will see that the magic number 3 has played a role. For example, I‚Äôve promised to do a total of 300 ideas, 300 days, and 300 posts.¬† And the headline for this blog is 9 words.
The power of 3 on the mind of Marshall McLuhan notwithstanding, a strong case can be made that Marshall McLuhan felt the number 2 was as powerful if not more powerful than 3.¬† (To be continued tomorrow.)
What are you superstitious about?¬† Certain numbers?¬† Avoiding black cats and walking under ladders?¬†¬†¬† Do you have a lucky shirt, lucky shoes, or a lucky colour? ¬†¬†Any other 3s in Marshall McLuhan‚Äôs life and writing that you would like to add?
Cordially, Marshall and Me
Reading for this post
Molinaro, Matie Armstrong.¬† ‚ÄúMarshalling McLuhan,‚ÄĚ in Marshall McLuhan: the man and his message. Edited by George Sanderson and Frank Macdonald. Golden, Colorado: Fulcrum, 1989, pp. 88.
W. Terrence Gordon, Marshall McLuhan: Escape into understanding, 1997, pp.185-190.