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.

Julien Smith

Marshall McLuhan: Filmmaker.

Marshall McLuhan (1970, age 68/69).  Let’s make a movie!

I have just spent a very productive day with Jane Jacobs.  We have written a script for a movie, “A Burning Would.” (You will of course recognize the reference to Finnegans Wake, “A burning would has come to dance inane.”)  If all works out this film will either be the final word on the nature of film or stop the Spadina Expressway dead in its tracks.

Me (June 2010, age 57)   Lessons?

Jane Jacobs describes the chaotic and exhilarating day she spent with McLuhan writing a film script in Who was Marshall McLuhan.  The word “script” is an exaggeration.  Here’s how the day went:  he persuaded her to give it a try, they talked about ideas, McLuhan’s secretary, Margaret Stewart took notes, and typed them up, and McLuhan made arrangements to meet with the filmmaker David Mackay to discuss the “script.”  Jacobs describes the resulting “script” as “garbled and unreadable” but also as “dazzling sparks and fragments.”

Remarkably the film (12 minutes long) was made [and even more remarkably doesn’t seem to be posted on YouTube].  Jacobs says that the film was “good” but “the final product bore no relationship at all to our original script.”

Perhaps, the major lessons to be learned from this film are:

Don’t be afraid to try new things (neither Jacobs nor McLuhan had ever tried to write a script before.)

Get yourself good partners.

Don’t be afraid to fail.

What new things are you doing?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Who Was Marshall McLuhan. Edited by Barrington Nevitt with Maurice McLuhan, 1995, pp. 101-102.

For other inspiration see Julien Smith’s In over your head.

And thanks to Michael Edmunds for this interview of McLuhan on his plans for filmmaking originally published in Take One in the 1970sMarshall McLuhan makes a movie.

Tags: , , , , , ,

Michael Hinton Wednesday, June 30th, 2010
Permalink 1970s and 80s, Communication, Education, Vol. 1 2 Comments

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.

Tags: , , , ,

Michael Hinton Thursday, March 4th, 2010
Permalink 1950s and 60s, Communication, Vol. 1 No Comments

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.

Tags: , , ,

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

How productive are you?

Marshall McLuhan (December 25, 1960 age 49).  Its time!

I’ve been too busy writing to write you a letter.  It seems that Sunday is the only day I can look up from what I’m doing.  For years I’ve been reading other people’s stuff.  Reading it and re-reading it.  Now it’s time for me to see what I’ve got to say.  Actually, I’ve found I have a lot to say.  I’ve 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’ve got proof reading to do if I’m 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’s 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’s benefit is to allow you to wade through junk writing faster is there a way to tell what’s 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’t 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.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Michael Hinton Wednesday, January 20th, 2010
Permalink 1950s and 60s, Communication, Management, Vol. 1 No Comments