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.

Visual thinking

Amazing isn’t it?

Marshall McLuhan (1970, age 59).  Skilled sniffers!    

“Many native societies rely on the services of skilled sniffers to arrange marriages between the boys and the debs.”

 

Me (March, 2011, age 58).  What are we to make of this tidbit of anthropological lore?

Marshall says we can understand our culture better by looking at it in contrast to other cultures.  Notice I said “look”.  Marshall would have thought this “revealing” of my visual bias.  Visual cultures, he says, try to reduce the influence of smell, for example, by using deodorants.  And this bias affects our behavior.  Consider this clip in which you can see what happens to the way people behave when the influence of sound and smell are increased.  And see too how you are affected.    

 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vzSXt5O-QWI

 

Cordially, Marshall and Me

 

Reading: 

Marshall McLuhan, Culture Is Our Business, 1970, p. 188.

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Michael Hinton Thursday, March 17th, 2011
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Movies and anthropology

Marshall McLuhan (1970, age 59).  Did you know?

Natives do not experience visual space; i.e., space that is uniform, continuous and connected.  When given movie cameras to record their rituals and crafts, the results are quite upsetting to visually oriented anthropologists.”

Me (February, 2011, age 58).  Or perhaps they need training?

Here’s an examination of how things can work out with cameras and kids.  Kids McLuhan believed behaved with cameras in the same way as “natives” did – that is non-visually.

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading:

Marshall McLuhan, Culture Is Our Business, 1970, p. 150.

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Michael Hinton Friday, February 25th, 2011
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So you think you’re creative?

Marshall McLuhan (August 24, 1964, age 53).  Education as we know it is obsolete.

Naturally we must experiment with alternatives to book-based, classroom instruction.  Here are a few of the questions – which I mentioned to a reporter for the Toronto Star – that I am wrestling with now which may well bring about a breakthrough:

  • How well could you learn economics in a rowboat in an alligator-infested swamp?
  • Or in a bamboo hut in a tropical forest?
  • Or in a triangular-shaped pink room in downtown Toronto?

Me (January, 2011, age 58).  Takes your breath away, doesn’t it?

How did he come up with such incredibly odd but brilliant ideas?  Here’s one answer:

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading:

David Thompson, “How to learn economics in a rowboat,” Toronto Daily Star, August 24, 1964.

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Michael Hinton Friday, January 28th, 2011
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What is learning today?

Marshall McLuhan (1970, age 59).  Pattern recognition!

“Today, again, after a period of classified consumption, learning in a comprehensive world is becoming play, pattern recognition, discovery.”

Me (December, 2010, age 58.)  For example …

Something beautiful for this wintery eve [see especially comments at minute 2]:

Cordially,  Marshall and Me

Reading:

Marshall McLuhan, Culture is Our Business, 1970, p. 118.

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Michael Hinton Friday, December 24th, 2010
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There are two types of people in the world.

Me (November, 2010, age 58). Literates and non-literates

According to Marshall McLuhan the fundamental difference between literates and non-literates is their approach to cause and effect.  Literates, the children of print, (left brain in the language he adopted in the 70s) see the world as sequential.  Non-literates, (right brain) view the world as bound together in more tangled and mysterious ways than rough and ready efficient first cause and then effect.  Which are you?  In what camp are the kids you meet?  How about teachers and artists?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3wOgYm3YBZk

Marshall McLuhan (1964, age 52).  Of course …

“Nonliterate people register very little interest in … ‘efficient’ cause and effect, but are fascinated by hidden forms that produce magical results.  Inner, rather than outer, causes interest the non-literate and non-visual cultures.”

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading

Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media, 1964, p. 287.

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Michael Hinton Friday, November 5th, 2010
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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

Reading

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

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Michael Hinton Saturday, August 28th, 2010
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What would Marshall say? (continued)

Me (August, 2010, age 58). McLuhan in conversation (continued)

Yesterday we left Marshall in conversation with journalist Herb Caen at a topless restaurant in San Francisco in August 1965.  Readers will recall that McLuhan had called attention to the visual bias of Caen’s language.  Let’s take one more look – sorry, I apologize for my visual orientation – at that exchange.  Here, to refresh your memory is their conversation from yesterday:

[Caen]  Being President of the Leg Men of America, I never felt a primal urge to lunch among the topless ladies, but in such distinguished company who could resist?  ‘Strip steak sandwich,’ I said to waitress Marilyn, who was wearing blue sequin pasties and not much else.  As she walked away, I commented ‘A good-looking girl.

[McLuhan]  Interesting choice of words.  Good-LOOKING girl.  The remark of a man who is visually oriented, not tactually.  And I further noticed that you could not bring yourself to look at her breasts as she took your order.  You examined her only after she walked away – another example of the visual: the further she walked away, the more attractive she became.

Question:  What do you think Caen said next:

(a)    “If you say so Marshall.”

(b)   “Fascinating, I never noticed – look I’ve done it again – my visual orientation.”

(c)    “What?”

(d)   “Actually, I’m rather inhibited.”

Marshall McLuhan (August 1965, age 54)  The answer is …

Of course (d) – which, if memory serves me, I followed up with:

Another interesting word.  Inhibited is the opposite of exhibited, and what is exhibited causes you to be inhibited.

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading

Herb Caen, “Rainy Day Session,” San Francisco Chronicle, August 12, 1965, p. 25.

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Michael Hinton Saturday, August 21st, 2010
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What would Marshall say?

Me (August, 2010, age 58). McLuhan in conversation.

Forty-five years ago, in August 1965, McLuhan was in San Francisco to take part in the Marshall McLuhan Festival organized by the PR team of Howard Gossage and Gerald Feigen, who had organized the event to build McLuhan as a public figure.   One day they took McLuhan for lunch at a topless restaurant  along with journalists Tom Wolfe and Herb Caen.  In the article Caen wrote about the outing he reports this exchange between himself and McLuhan:

Being President of the Leg Men of America, I never felt a primal urge to lunch among the topless ladies, but in such distinguished company who could resist?  ‘Strip steak sandwich,’ I said to waitress Marilyn, who was wearing blue sequin pasties and not much else.  As she walked away, I commented ‘A good-looking girl.’

Question:  What do you think McLuhan said next?

(a)    “She certainly is.”

(b)   “I hear you Herb.”

(c)    “Excuse me, Marilyn, I’ll have the strip steak too.”

(d)   “Interesting choice of words.  Good-LOOKING girl.  The remark of a man who is visually oriented, not tactually.”

Marshall McLuhan (August 1965, age 54).  The answer is …

Of course (d) – I have little in the way of small talk.   And, if memory serves me, after I said that I said this:

And I further noticed that you could not bring yourself to look at her breasts as she took your order.  You examined her only after she walked away – another example of the visual: the further she walked away, the more attractive she became.

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading

Herb Caen, “Rainy Day Session,” San Francisco Chronicle, August 12, 1965, p. 25.

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Michael Hinton Friday, August 20th, 2010
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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.

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Michael Hinton Wednesday, June 30th, 2010
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Douglas Coupland’s Marshall McLuhan [cont’d]

Marshall McLuhan (March 20, age 98).  I failed!

Corinne went out shopping – heaven’s not what I thought it was going to be – which gave me the opportunity to take that test in Douglas Coupland’s book about me.  For the record my score was 21, which is a delightful result, particularly because it is divisible by three.

Me (March 2010, age 57).  So did I!

As I promised to do yesterday, I took the test, too.  My score was 19, which, sadly, is not divisible by three, but is a prime!

The test as Coupland explains in Marshall McLuhan was devised by psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen and his colleagues at Cambridge.  It is called the Autism-Spectrum Quotient, or AQ, and is ‘a measure of the extent of autistic traits in adults.’  According to Coupland ‘in the first major trial using the test, the average score of the control group was 16.4.  Eighty percent of those diagnosed with autism or a related disorder scored 32 or higher.’

Coupland suggests that to understand Marshall McLuhan it is helpful to view him as autistic.  What does that mean?  It does not mean, as Coupland says, that McLuhan couldn’t function in the world.   He clearly did and so do many people who are autistic.  It means in living his life he displayed particular traits.  According to the test, someone with autism is more likely to prefer to do things on their own, do things the same way over and over again, and when imagining something, find it hard to create a picture in their mind.  People without autism are just the opposite.  Moreover the autistic tend to notice small sounds when others do not, are fascinated by numbers, and don’t particularly enjoy reading fiction.

But looking through this list I find it hard to see Marshall McLuhan as ‘autistic’.  For example:  He was fascinated by some kinds of numbers (numbers divisible by three – he was superstitious) but not all numbers (he thought of himself as a word man not a number man); and reading fiction was both his passion and his profession as a teacher of English literature at the University of Toronto.  Admittedly, however, he did love his routines and often claimed to dislike change of any kind.  The question is does the profile of someone with autism give us a quick and dirty way to profile Marshall McLuhan?  Douglas Coupland says it does.  I say no.  I never met Marshall McLuhan.  My understanding of him is based on my reading (including 4 biographies, his letters and books, and papers held at the National archives) and interviews with some people who knew him (including Professor Abraham Rotstein – who was part of McLuhan’s discussion group on media and technology at Toronto in the 1960s -and Dr. Michael Easterbrook – who is the son of McLuhan’s closest and oldest friend – Tom Easterbrook.

To profile Marshall McLuhan as ‘autistic’ makes for good tabloid reading.  McLuhan did have some of the characteristics of autism.  His hearing – like Coupland’s, apparently – was preternaturally acute.  But many of the traits of autism seem to me to be wrong or smudgy ways to understand him.  For example, the autistic, it is said, are often the last to understand the point of a joke.  Marshall McLuhan was an irrepressible punning wise guy.

At bottom, my view is that to profile him as autistic is wrong on two levels.  First, and most basically, it is wrong because the traits of autism mislead as much as they help in understanding McLuhan.  And second, more fundamentally, it is wrong because it suggests, falsely, that McLuhan can be understood in one simple step.  The messy reality of McLuhan is that he was an eccentrically unique complex individual who can and cannot be understood simply.  A man of extraordinary gifts – creative genius, a photographic memory, the ability to make profound associations between people and events that at first sight would seem to be unrelated – he was a brilliant and unstoppable talker and a horrendous listener, oblivious social niceties and the needs of others.  To label him as ‘autistic’ is not to know him better but to know him less.

Did you pass the test?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Douglas Coupland, Marshall McLuhan, 2009

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Michael Hinton Saturday, March 20th, 2010
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