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.

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.

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

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