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.

Mechanical Bride

Hot’s not hot!

Marshall McLuhan (December 13, 1977, age 66).  In a word, you need charisma.

Today, Peter Gzowski asked me if the age of the Sophia Loren woman – the movie star – was over.  Of course it is.   To succeed today you must be able to succeed on television.  And on television you can’t succeed with that hot stuff.  That’s what killed Senator Joe McCarthy.  One appearance on television and his career was over.  That’s what killed Nixon too.  The key is you’ve got to look like a lot of other nice people.  That’s charisma.

Me (July, 2010, age 57).   The meaning of charisma.

If you watch the McLuhan interview on Gzowski’s show you can tell that Gzowski doesn’t really know what to make of McLuhan.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DyvMVfa23CA&feature=PlayList&p=5C29E759A4EED9C6&playnext_from=PL&playnext=1&index=10 Take for example McLuhan’s definition of charisma:  looking “like a lot of other nice people.”  Gzowski laughs.  He isn’t sure what to make of this.  But clearly there is something in that definition that rings true and yet is unexpected.     The definition forces you to think in the way a typical dictionary definition does not.  For example a typical dictionary definition of the word is:  “A capacity to inspire devotion and enthusiasm.” (The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.) McLuhan’s definition explains how that power or capacity is conferred with different media.  On television, he is saying, the power to inspire devotion and enthusiasm is given to people who we think look like us.  In McLuhan’s language they have a corporate or social image.  But in the movies things are different.  There the people who inspire devotion and enthusiasm – movie stars – do not look like us.  They have their own unique private image.  This is not a theoretical position.  It is an observation.

Is it true?  Is it true today?  Is the same true for social media?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

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Michael Hinton Tuesday, July 6th, 2010
Permalink 1970s and 80s, Communication, Culture, Technology, Vol. 1 No Comments

The writing methods of Marshall McLuhan

Marshall McLuhan (Fall 1951, age 40).  Boredom is the enemy!

Finally my book on industrial folklore is being published by Vanguard Press.  I will be very glad to get it out of my mind as it now seems to me to be ancient history.  I’ve lectured it, written it, and the editors have hounded me to re-write it for years.  I’m thoroughly sick of it.

Me (May 2010, age 57).   Avoiding boredom came at a cost

Like all of McLuhan’s books his first one, The Mechanical Bride, is not easy reading.  Part of the reason is that he could not bring himself to rewrite.  He wrote it seems to amuse himself and he wrote very quickly.  Whenever he was asked by his editors to look again at anything he wrote he refused to clarify his ideas but instead added on new ideas to the ones already there.

The problem, said Seon Manley, who was an editor at Vanguard in the 1940s, is that anything that smacked of good writing – clarifying an idea, cutting extraneous material, or providing a telling example – bored McLuhan.  And McLuhan refused “to bore himself.”  The result was a style of writing many have found impenetrable.

How then should an intelligent reader approach the task of reading Marshall McLuhan?  Read fast?  Don’t be afraid to skim or jump about?  Don’t worry if you don’t get it?  Realize, perhaps, you’re not meant to?

Is it true, as McLuhan liked to say, “clear prose indicates the absence of thought?”

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Philip Marchand, Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger, 1989, pp. 118.

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Michael Hinton Tuesday, May 25th, 2010
Permalink 1950s and 60s, Communication, Vol. 1 3 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.

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

Merry Xmas, Professor McLuhan!

Marshall McLuhan (December, 1947, age 36).  Thank God it’s Xmas

Our fourth child, Stephanie, was born in October, Eric is only now just recovering from a bout with the flu, and I can’t hire anyone to help Corinne with the work around the house for less than my salary, which is the princely sum of $4,200.  Still Corinne is glowing and while I find marking end Xmas exams tiresome, you know me, tireless.  At present, I have three books on the go: one on Eliot and two on popular culture, Guide to Chaos and Typhon in America.

Me (December 2009, age 57).  I agree

It is time to leave Professor McLuhan to his household troubles and work on his books, and meditate on the 12 days of Christmas a period which as McLuhan knew marked the beginning of the year from the 7th century through to the 13th.  I will take a short break myself and make my next post on January 7th.

Before I do a few thoughts on the two books on popular culture McLuhan mentions above which eventually became one: The Mechanical Bride, his first book.  Bride has presented a bit of a problem for students of McLuhan.  Coming before his discovery of media it is far more accessible than his later books, and deals with a subject that would continue to fascinate McLuhan as a student of media, comics and advertising, but in a very different way.  Bride looks at comics and advertising for what they reveal about American culture and its values, and in particular for what they reveal about what McLuhan believes is wrong with American culture.  For example, Dagwood in the Blondie comic strip is a wimp and represents everything that is wrong with American men: in short they are not real men.  And many things readers of the later McLuhan will find familiar are there:  for example, Poe’s sailor caught in the maelstrom who escapes through understanding his situation, the idea that the book is not about the subjects or objects, or exhibits it discusses – advertisements and comics – but rather what they reveal about something else, American values and ways of living, a mosaic presentation in which the chapters can be read in any order.  Yet it is not the McLuhan that he will come to be.  He has not yet discovered his grand theme – the effects media have had on mankind because of the way they work rather than what they contain.  Instead what we find is many familiar things being used in an unfamiliar way.  Here is McLuhan the literary critic critiquing comics and advertising through close reading of their contents in ways he had learned at Cambridge.  For example, in the chapter titled “Horse Opera and Soap Opera” he observes that Westerns (the B movies also known as dusters and oaters) have much to teach us about the importance of the frontier, business, action, the office, and men in American culture while it is to soap opera that you must go to learn about the mainstream, society, feelings, the home, and women.  All of which is interesting but not important in the way the later McLuhan’s observation about media are important.  Because if you then say about any observation in Bride “Interesting, but so what?”  The answer more often than not is, “not much.”

In lieu of a question a greeting: Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, p. 190-191.

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Michael Hinton Friday, December 25th, 2009
Permalink 1930s and 40s, Culture, Vol. 1 No Comments

The bad of good and bad

Marshall McLuhan (Summer 1968, age 57). You can lead a Mailer to water but you can’t make him drink

This morning I had a chat with Norman Mailer on the CBC’s TV program “The Summer Way,” hosted by Warren Davis and Ken Lefolii.  The program was called a meeting of minds, which is half right, minds were present, but not much meeting was going on.

Mailer was good on the give and take of conversation.  He gave a lot compliments and then proceeded to take them away.  For example, he described my ideas as “fascinating ad repellent, no not repellent, stimulating.”  Can’t use that on a dust jacket blurb, can I?  Mailer also said he agreed with almost everything I have said but only up to a particular point.  For example, he said he agreed with the idea that electronic media are changing the planet, but thinks I err by not declaring this change a bad thing or a good thing.  I suggested that declaring value judgments about things of this magnitude is both impossible and injurious to the critical faculties, but he didn’t see the value of the point.  I wonder why?

Me (December 2009, age 57). Marshall McLuhan on objectivity

In only one of his books does McLuhan embrace the making of value judgments – The Mechanical Bride (1951).  In that book, for example, He says about Professor Mortimer Adler and Dr Hutchins’ advertisement of their great books experiment at the University of Chicago that they have “come to bury and not praise Plato and other great men.”  That the purpose of public opinion polls is not to discover facts but change people’s minds about themselves, and for the most part this is only a good thing for companies who want to change minds in order to sell people more of what they produce.    Emily Post? For the “socially immature.”  Reader’s Digest?  For the “mentally exempt.” Mailer would have loved the this is good, that is bad Mechanical-Bride McLuhan.

McLuhan’s big idea is that calling things good and bad interferes with one’s ability to view the world objectively, to see the world as it is, rather than as you would like it to be or not to be.  This is an idea worth pursuing even if Mailer did not want to pursue it.  (More on the Mailer-McLuhan unmeeting of minds tomorrow.)

On what aspects of the world do you find yourself most quickly leaping to judgement?  Politics? Religion? Sex? Money?  If you’ve already made up your mind why bother looking?   Isn’t it far more comfortable to praise or condemn rather than have to change your life if you discover the world is not how you thought it was?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

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Michael Hinton Tuesday, December 15th, 2009
Permalink 1950s and 60s, Communication, Vol. 1 No Comments

Machinery is all around us

Marshall (June, 1951, age 39).  Machinery is all around us

I was writing to Pound about this, too.  Machinery is all around us because we are inside the machine.  And the machine is inside us.  The two joined in an unholy duality.  We have become machines. 

Me (October 2009, age 57).  Machinery is all around us still

What’s wrong with being a machine?  McLuhan explains in the preface to the Mechanical Bride, which was his first book and is about advertising.  In the HBO TV series “Mad Men” Don Draper says advertising is about happiness.  McLuhan says the purpose of the happiness advertising offers is to get past your mental gatekeeper, to get inside your mind “in order to manipulate, exploit, [and] control.”

Take a look at the ads in Vanity Fair, Vogue or The New Yorker.  What is the happiness they are offering?  What social myths do they use to get inside us?  Why is it easy to see this happening in yesterday’s ads?  (More Doctors smoke Luckies than any other cigarette, that’s why we say they’re Doctor recommended.) Why is it harder to see this happening in today’s ads?  (Natural American Spirit is the only brand that features both cigarettes made with 100% certified organic tobacco as well as cigarettes made with 100% additive-free, natural tobacco.)  (Perhaps this one is not that hard to understand.)       

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

The Letters of Marshall McLuhan.  Selected and edited by Matie Molinaro, Corinne McLuhan, and William Toye. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1987, p. 227.

Marshall McLuhan. The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man. Gingko Press, 1951; 2002, pp. v-vii.

Natural American Spirit ad. Vanity Fair, September, 2009, pp. 253-254.

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Michael Hinton Tuesday, October 13th, 2009
Permalink 1950s and 60s, Business, Communication, Culture, Vol. 1 No Comments