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.


The secret is to avoid eye contact

Marshall McLuhan (1964, age 52).  Isn’t it obvious?

“The name of a man is a numbing blow from which he never recovers.”

Me (August, 2010, age 58).  Really?

What did McLuhan mean by this?  Read Douglas Coupland’s recent biography of McLuhan and you will find this quotation separated from its context and put up as meaning that a man’s name has a subliminal effect.  If your last name is Rich, for example, people won’t think you’re poor.  A somewhat kooky idea that McLuhan adopted in his analysis of the difficulties of Richard Nixon. (See this blog – The Power of Names – in which I must admit I did not see this distinction as clearly as I do now.)

Take a look at what McLuhan is actually trying to say with this line in Understanding Media (p. 49).  He starts with the observation that “in a highly visual and highly literate culture” – read Canada, Britain or America – most people can’t quite catch the name of a person they’re being introduced to for the first time.  Why?  Because McLuhan says you’re so caught up in looking at the person that you don’t hear the name.  It’s as if the sound is blocked out or dimmed.  To get the name you then ask “How do you spell your name?”  (How much more visual can you get?)  This wouldn’t happen, he says, in a highly auditory ear culture.  In such a culture – to reach the quotation at last – “the sound of a man’s name … is a numbing blow from which he never recovers.”

If you lived in an ear culture rather than an eye culture, McLuhan says, you’d hear the name.  But we don’t do we?  Even today after half a century of television and now the internet we still seem to be a highly visual culture.  We still have trouble hearing names for the first time.  What do we do to help people hear names at large business meetings and social events?  We ask them to wear name tags. (How much more visual can you get?)

Cordially, Marshall and Me


Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media, 1964, pp. 49.

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Michael Hinton Saturday, August 28th, 2010
Permalink 1950s and 60s, Communication, Culture, Technology, Vol. 1 No Comments