Marshall McLuhan and Tom Wolfe: both writers, both astute observers of modern humanity, and both public figures whose work has, over the years, enjoyed high fashionability and endured high unfashionability. You might think the connection between them ends there. But when the 100th anniversary of McLuhan’s birth and the centennial-celebrating site Marshall McLuhan Speaks came about, whose eloquent introduction to the thinker (who famously declared the world a “global village” where “the medium is the message”) got used there? Why, the man in white’s.
In the 20-minute video above, Wolfe lays out not just a précis of the insights that made McLuhan “the first seer of cyberspace,” but gets into his biography as well: his humbly respectable origins in Edmonton, his background as a literary scholar, his conversion to Catholicism, the beginnings of his teaching career in Cambridge and Wisconsin, his “extracurricular gatherings devoted to the folklore of industrial man,” his struggle to reconcile his interest in the writings of philosopher-paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin with his own religious convictions, and the considerable fame he accrued making pronouncements on the media in the media.
“No doubt the internet would have delighted him,” says Wolfe. “He would have seen it as a fulfillment of prophecies he had made thirty years before it was born, as an instrument for the realization of his dream of the mystical unity of all mankind. [Watch him predict the world would be knitted into a global village by digital technology in some vintage video.] Here, in a specific, physical, electronic form, was the seamless web of which he had so often spoken. Today thousands of young internet apostles are familiar with Marshall McLuhan, and are convinced his light shines round about them. From the editors of Wired magazine to the most miserable dot-com lizards of the chat room, they have made him their patron saint.”
To get an even deeper sense of how much Wolfe has thought about McLuhan, have a look at his first annual Marshall McLuhan Lecture, delivered at Fordham University in 1999. And unlike many intellectuals who only turned back to re-examine McLuhan after the age of the internet had retroactively validated even some of his wildest-sounding speculations, Wolfe has been tuned in to McLuhan’s frequency since way back. In 1970, the two even got together for a televised chat in McLuhan’s back yard (a clip of which you can watch just above), which revealed that, for all the fascination Wolfe had with McLuhan, the interest was mutual.
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture as well as the video series The City in Cinema and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.
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Marshall McLuhan, from the William McElcheran sculpture located outside the Kelly Library at St. Michael’s College (Photo by Kelly Rankin)
Scope and Content Of The Collection
- Works by McLuhan: Monographs (39 items)
- Works by McLuhan: Articles and Other Works by McLuhan (201 items)
- Works about McLuhan: Monographs (15 items)
- Works about McLuhan: Other (151 items)
- Interviews with Marshall McLuhan (13 items)
- Works Related to Marshall McLuhan (29 items)
- Works Related to Buckminster Fuller (33 items)
ABOUT THE COLLECTION
The Marshall McLuhan Collection was created in 2010 from material within the John M. Kelly Library to mark the centenary of McLuhan’s birth as well as to celebrate McLuhan’s tenure with the University of St. Michael’s College from 1946-1980. The bulk of the collection was formerly part of the University of St. Michael’s College Publications Collection (a collection of publications by individuals who have been members of the faculty, staff, or student body of the University of St. Michael’s College). The remainder of material comes from the estate of James Feeley, a former .phpstant [?] to McLuhan. Feeley, a librarian, was working on a bibliography of McLuhan’s work. His extensive collection of material by and about McLuhan was donated to the Library in 2008. A small collection of Richard Buckminster “Bucky” Fuller an American engineer, author, designer, inventor, futurist and McLuhan collaborator was also donated by Feeley and is included in the McLuhan Collection.
Highlights of the Collection include rare collector’s items such as a complete set of the newsletter the McLuhan Dewline, as well as inscribed first editions, variant copies and dust jackets.
The Collection will continue to grow through purchases and donations. It does not include the Marshall McLuhan Papers, which were donated to Library and Archives Canada in 1984 by McLuhan’s widow, Corinne McLuhan.
BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH OF MARSHALL MCLUHAN
Text compiled from:
1911: Born in Edmonton, Alberta on July 21
1929-1934: Attends University of Manitoba, receiving a Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts in English literature
1942: Receives doctorate in English literature from Cambridge University (dissertation title: The Place of Thomas Nashe in the Learning of His Time)
1937: Enters the Roman Catholic Church
1946: Joins the faculty of St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto
1953-1959: Teaches seminar on culture and communications, sponsored by the Ford Foundation, from 1953-1955; co-edits with anthropologist Edmund Carpenter, Explorations from 1953 to 1959
1963: Becomes Director of the Centre for Culture and Technology, University of Toronto
1970: Becomes companion of the Order of Canada
1980: Dies on December 31st
SELECTIVE TITLES BY MARSHALL MCLUHAN
Text compiled from:
The Mechanical Bride: The Folklore of Industrial Man (1951)
Explorations in Communications (1960), co-edited, with Edmund Carpenter
The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (1962), winner of the Governor General’s prize for critical prose
Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964)
Selected Poetry of Tennyson (1965)
The Medium is the Massage (1967), co-authored with Quentin Fiore
War and Peace in the Global Village (1968), co-authored with Quentin Fiore
Through the Vanishing Point: Space in Poetry and Painting (1968), co-authored with Harley Parker
Counterblast (1969), co-authored with Harley Parker;
The Interior Landscape: Selected Literary Criticism, edited by Eugene McNamara.
Culture is Our Business (1970)
From Clich to Archetype (1970), co-authored with Wilfred Watson;
The Executive as Dropout (1972), co-authored with Barrington Nevitt
The City as Classroom (1977) co-authored by McLuhan, Eric McLuhan, and Kathryn Hutchon.
FINDING MATERIAL IN THE MCLUHAN COLLECTION
For books: Books in the Marshall McLuhan Collection are fully searchable in the University of Toronto Libraries Catalogue.
For articles: Articles in the library’s Marshall McLuhan Collection are listed in this finding guide. Scroll down to page 2 of this guide and click on the re
Marshall McLuhan (right) at St. Mike’s; next to him is Donald Theall (left), his first PhD student in English
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The McLuhan Retrieval Reviewed
Understanding Me: Lectures and Interviews. Boston: MIT Press, 2003.
The Book of Probes. NY: Ginko Press, 2003.
McLuhan for Managers: New Tools for New Thinking. Ontario, Canada: Viking, 2003.
The Virtual Marshall McLuhan. NY: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001.
McLuhan in Space: A Cultural Geography. Ontario, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 2003.
Despite the fact that trying to teach composition as an adjunct to first-year students at the University of Wisconsin in 1936 changed the trajectory of Marshall McLuhan’s career and spun him out of the cycle of formalist literary criticism and into rhetorical and cultural criticism, the field of rhetoric and composition has drawn very little from McLuhan’s 30+ years of publishing, and by-and-large has not participated in the McLuhan revival (or what he himself would call “retrieval”) of the last 15 years.
“In 1936, when I arrived at Wisconsin, I confronted classes of freshmen and I suddenly realized that I was incapable of understanding them. I felt an urgent need to study their popular culture: advertising, games, movies […] to meet them on their own grounds was my strategy in pedagogy: the world of pop culture”. (The Letters of Marshall McLuhan 173)
The retrieval is often dated from the Wired issue of 1996 in which McLuhan was on the cover, hailed as “Saint Marshall, the Holy Fool of the digital revolution,” but it can be traced back to the posthumous publication of The Laws of Media (1988, with Eric McLuhan) andThe Global Village: Transformations in World Life and Media in the 21st Century (1989, with Bruce Powers). These works were followed by two biographies, a collection of his letters, and scholarly reassessments coming out of communications, history, cultural studies, literary studies, and comparative literature.
This essay reviews five recent books from the past three years that contribute to the McLuhan revival in ways ranging from making available previously unpublished McLuhan speeches and interviews to locating McLuhan in the intellectual/artistic tradition of space-time studies. None of these books are by compositionists or rhetoricians, but this review emphasizes ways in which each book might appeal to or challenge the readers of Kairos, whether interested in intellectual history, classroom activities, or both.
- Understanding Me: Lectures and Interviews (2003), edited by Stephanie McLuhan and David Staines, is a collection of previously unpublished lectures and transcripts from interviews that provide a chronological set of snapshots of McLuhan’s thinking from 1959-79. Despite the title, this book will be most accessible to those already familiar with McLuhan. [Read more.]
2. The Book of Probes (2003) by Marshall McLuhan and David Carson, edited by Eric McLuhan and William Kuhns, treats McLuhan’s writing as found poetry, and in the hands of Carson, the most celebrated graphic designer of the last 20 years, pushes the visual/verbal style of McLuhan’s The Medium is the Massage to its limits. This book exemplifies what McLuhan would call the “cool” style – it explores rather than explains, it requires participation and engagement, and it will only frustrate or annoy those who approach it as detached observers wanting evidence and facts to support the many claims. [Read more.]
3. McLuhan for Managers: New Tools for New Thinking (2003) by Mark Federman and Derrick de Kerckhove, is an explication and application of some of McLuhan’s often misunderstood heuristics and aphorisms, like “figure/ground,” the role of clichés, and the laws of media. While the identified audience is “managers,” the clarity of definitions and applications serves as an excellent introduction to McLuhan’s analytical and predictive tools, more so than an introduction to or re-assessment of the scholar. In addressing managers, it could be of particular value to Writing Program Administrators or other members of the academic managerial class. [Read more.]
4. The Virtual Marshall McLuhan (2001) by Donald F. Theall, is a book by McLuhan’s first graduate student that combines personal reflection and scholarly, historical assessment of McLuhan’s work. Theall’s book is the best comprehensive introduction to McLuhan’s thinking, methods, and his roller-coaster career. [Read more.]
5. McLuhan in Space: A Cultural Geography (2002) by Richard Cavell, is a scholarly re-assessment of the importance of “space” as the master trope in McLuhan’s work. Although McLuhan is clearly positioned as the central figure in this book, Cavell is generally interested in explicating “space studies” as the domain of 21st century (post) humanists, a concept gaining significant attention in rhetoric and composition. [Read more.]
McLuhan’s body of work is much wider and deeper than the two texts that typically receive obligatory citations in rhetoric and composition – The Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media – and for those who wish to orient their work in an historical tradition, McLuhan’s texts and methods can provide a rich starting point. Jeff Rice concludes a recent article in Computers and Composition by acknowledging that McLuhan had already anticipated his pedagogy and sketched it out in the City as Classroom, a McLuhan collaborative project from 1977. In retrieving McLuhan, we are likely to find ideas, instincts, and percepts that are familiar, rather than strange; we might find a guide, a touchstone, a jumping off point for recognizing that our perceptions of the changing spaces of communication are not new or radical or unfounded, but have been visible from the start of the electric age.
Bolter, Jay David, and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1999.
Carson, David. Fotografiks: An Equilibrium Between Photography and Design Through Graphic Expression That Evolves From Content. Corte Madera, CA: Gingko P, 1999.
Clark, Gregory. “Writing as Travel, or Rhetoric on the Road.” College Composition and Communication 49 (1998): 9-23.
Covino, William A. Magic, Rhetoric, and Literacy: An Eccentric History of the Composing Imagination. New York: State U of New York P, 1994.
Haynes, Cynthia. “Writing Offshore: The Disappearing Coastline of Composition Theory.” JAC: A Journal of Composition Theory. 23.4 (2003): 667-724.
McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. Northampton, MA : Kitchen Sink P, 1993.
McLuhan, Marshall. Letters of Marshall McLuhan. Selected and ed. by Matie Molinaro, Corinne McLuhan, and William Toye. Toronto: Oxford UP, 1987.
McLuhan, Marshall, and Quentin Fiore. The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects. 1967. Produced by Jerome Agel. Corte Madera, CA: Ginko P, 2001.
Rice, Jeff. “Writing About Cool: Teaching Hypertext as Juxtaposition.” Computers and Composition 20 (2003): 221-36.
Reynolds, Nedra. “‘Who’s Going to Cross this Border?’ Travel Metaphors, Material Conditions, and Contested Places.” JAC: A Journal of Composition Theory 20 (2000): 541-64.
Sirc, Geoffrey. English Composition as a Happening. Logan UT: Utah State UP, 2002.
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March 4th, 2015 – In a word: yes. But then, everything we do has always changed us, thanks to the property of the brain we now call “plasticity.” This we learn from the video,“Rewiring the Brain” (second video below), which, balancing its heartening neuroscientific evidence with the proverbial old dog’s ability to learn new tricks, also tells of the “attention disorders, screen addictions, and poor social skills” that may have already begun plaguing the younger generation.
Marshall McLuhan, of course, could have foreseen all this. Hence his appearance in “The Medium is the Message” (top), a title taken from the University of Toronto English professor turned communication-theory guru’s famous dictum. The video actually spells out McLuhan’s own explanation of that much-quoted line: “What has been communicated has been less important than the particular medium through which people communicate.” Whether you buy that notion or not, the whole range of proclamations McLuhan had on the subject will certainly get you thinking — in his own words, “You don’t like these ideas? I got others.”
The other two videos in this series, despite their short length, get into other intriguing related concepts: “The Fourth Revolution” that comes as a result of life in a “mass age of information and data,” and the workings of “The Antikythera Mechanism,” the first computer ever built. Our personal technology has certainly come a long way, but we shouldn’t fall into complacency about it, lest, as Anderson says in this series, it all wrecks our attention spans and “education will all have to be delivered in two-minute animations.”
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The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man (1st Ed.: The Vanguard Press, NY, 1951) is a pioneering study of popular culture by Herbert Marshall McLuhan, treating newspapers, comics, and advertisements as poetic texts.McLuhan’s interest in the critical study of popular culture was influenced by the 1933 book Culture and Environment by F.R. Leavis and Denys Thompson, and the title The Mechanical Bride is derived from a piece by the Dadaist artist,Marcel Duchamp.
Like his later 1962 book The Gutenberg Galaxy, The Mechanical Bride is unique and composed of a number of short essays that can be read in any order – what he styled the “mosaic approach” to writing a book. Each essay begins with a newspaper or magazine article or an advertisement, followed by McLuhan’s analysis thereof. The analyses bear on aesthetic considerations as well as on the implications behind the imagery and text. McLuhan chose the ads and articles included in his book not only to draw attention to their symbolism and their implications for the corporate entities that created and disseminated them, but also to mull over what such advertising implies about the wider society at which it is aimed.
McLuhan is concerned by the size and the intentions of the North American culture industry. “Ours is the first age in which many thousands of the best-trained individual minds have made it a full-time business to get inside the collective public mind,” McLuhan writes in his preface to the book. He believes everyone is kept in a “helpless state engendered by prolonged mental rutting is the effect of many ads and much entertainment alike.” McLuhan hopes Bride can reverse this process.
By using artifacts of popular culture as a means to enlighten the public, McLuhan hopes the public can consciously observe the effects of popular culture on them.
McLuhan compares his method to the sailor in Edgar Allan Poe‘s short-story “A Descent into the Maelstrom.” The sailor, McLuhan writes, saves himself by studying the whirlpool and by co-operating with it. Likewise, the book is not interested in attacking the strong currents of advertising, radio, and the press.
The book argues anger and outrage are not the proper responses to the culture industry. “The time for anger…is in the early stages of a new process,” McLuhan says, “the present stage is extremely advanced.” Amusement is the proper strategy. This is why McLuhan uses punning questions that border on silly or absurd after each visual example.
Origin: Marshall McLuhan’s interest in the critical study of popular culture was influenced by the 1933 book Culture and Environment by F. R. Leavis (with Denys Thompson) and Wyndham Lewis‘ 1932 book The Death of Youth, which uses similar exhibits.
During the 1940s, McLuhan regularly held lectures with slides of advertisements analysing them. He first referred to the present era as the Age of the Mechanical Bride in 1945, during a series of lectures in Windsor, Ontario. McLuhan had planned publishing these lectures and slides since before 1945.
During the thirties and forties, many “exposé” books critiquing the advertising industry were published but McLuhan’s book was different. While critical, the tone of the essays was admirable at times, impressed with the skills of advertisers. In June 1948, McLuhan received an advance of $250 for the publication of The Folklore of Industrial Man from Vanguard Press. The tentative title would later become the subtitle.
- Reissued by Gingko Press, 2002 ISBN 1-58423-050-9
- “McLuhan, Marshall (1911-80)” from Routledge Encyclopedia of Post-Colonial Literatures in English, Second Edition. Benson, Eugene; Conolly, L.W. (eds). London: Routledge, 2005.
- “Preface to the original edition” by Marshall McLuhan. The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man. Herbert Marshall McLuhan. 1951. Ginko Press, 2002. pp. v
- Marchand (1989), p. 107
- Walter Ong says “As long as I knew McLuhan he had been talking about publishing The Mechanical Bride” (Marchand (1989), p. 107).
- Marchand (1989), p. 108.
- Marchand says $250 dollars was not “outrageously low for a highbrow book.” (Marchand (1989), p. 108)
Advertisements Analyzed in The Mechanical Bride
Freedom – American Style
The Utopia of the picnic inherited from the aristocratic pastoral convention?
Did Whitman give America the poetry of the open road?
What happens when the ad makers take over all the popular myths and poetry?
Are ads themselves the main form of industrial culture?
Click on each image to expand:-
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St. John’s College, Cambridge University has announced the passing of Sir Jack Goody, whose studies of literacy and communication have influenced media ecologists such as Harold Innis, Eric Havelock, Marshall McLuhan, Walter Ong, and Elizabeth Eisenstein, as they focused on the development of writing systems, and later, printing; in this aspect of his scholarship at least, Professor Goody can be considered a media ecologist in his own right.
Professor Goody had been a member of St John’s since his student days, and a Fellow since 1961. His outstanding academic career earned him an international reputation in the field of anthropology, which he also taught at the College for many years.
His research was, among other things, credited with enhancing our understanding of how literacy emerges in different societies. Alongside numerous awards and honours, he received a knighthood in 2005, in recognition of his services to social anthropology.
John “Jack” Goody was born on 27 July 1919 and educated at St Albans School. He first came up to St John’s to read English as a student in 1938, but his studies were cut short in the first instance by the outbreak of the Second World War. He served in North Africa until he was captured by the Germans at Tobruk, then spent three years in prisoner of war camps in the Middle East, Italy and Germany. While a prisoner, he escaped and was recaptured several times, at one stage spending several months living undercover in Italy.
After the war, Professor Goody returned to St John’s to complete his BA in 1946, before undertaking a Diploma in Anthropology in 1947. After a short spell in educational administration and at Balliol College, Oxford, he returned to St John’s to study for a PhD in Anthropology, which he received in 1954.
This marked the beginning of a long academic career at the University of Cambridge, during which time he worked as an Assistant Lecturer, Lecturer in Archaeology and Anthropology, Director of the African Studies Centre, Smuts Reader in Commonwealth Studies, and finally as the William Wyse Professor of Social Anthropology – a post which he subsequently continued to hold in Emeritus.
At St John’s itself, he taught generations of students, initially as a Supervisor in Anthropology, and then in both Archaeology and Anthropology. In 1961, he became a Fellow of the College. For many years he also fulfilled the duties of College Lecturer in Archaeology and Anthropology, and Director of Studies in Social and Political Studies. Building on the platform of anthropological fieldwork conducted in Ghana, Professor Goody’s research interests included West African anthropology; kinship and family; modes of communication and production; and representations and iconoclasm. His work touched on themes as diverse as cooking, the family, feminism, and the contrast between eastern and western cultures.
From the mid-1950s onwards, he published extensively on anthropology, making numerous contributions to scholarly journals, and publishing more than 30 books. He continued to write, study and lecture well into his retirement, and his last book, Metals, Culture and Capitalism, came out as recently as 2012. Some of his most acclaimed works included Death, Property and the Ancestors (1962), The Myth of the Bagre (1972), and The Domestication of the Savage Mind (1977).
Professor Goody’s many awards and honours included a Fellowship of the British Academy (1976), and of the National Academy of Sciences (2004). He was also recognised at each grade of l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres: Chavalier in 1996, Officier in 2001, and Commander in 2006.
Professor Sir Jack Goody died peacefully in Cambridge on 16 July 2015. His funeral will be held on a date to be announced. Source: http://tinyurl.com/ngu27vk
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“It’s time for a recovery and reassessment of North American thinkers. Marshall McLuhan, Leslie Fiedler & Norman O. Brown are the linked triad I would substitute for Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida & Michel Foucault, whose work belongs to ravaged postwar Europe & whose ideas transfer poorly into the Anglo-American tradition”. – Camille Paglia
The North American intellectual tradition
To hell with European philosophers: The breakthroughs of non-European thinkers are the 1960s’ greatest legacy.
A war still rages over the legacy of the 1960s. For many conservatives that decade spawned the worst aspects of contemporary culture, from sexual promiscuity and epidemic divorce to drug abuse and educational decline.
It’s time for a recovery and reassessment of North American thinkers. Marshall McLuhan, Leslie Fiedler and Norman O. Brown are the linked triad I would substitute for Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, whose work belongs to ravaged postwar Europe and whose ideas transfer poorly into the Anglo-American tradition. McLuhan, Fiedler and Brown were steeped in literature, classical to modern. They understood the creative imagination, and they extended their insights into speculation about history and society. Their influence was positive and fruitful: They did not impose their system on acolytes but liberated a whole generation of students to think freely and to discover their own voices.
I feel fortunate indeed that McLuhan published his central work, “Understanding Media,” in the very year — 1964 — that I entered college. Fiedler’s “Love and Death in the American Novel” and Brown’s “Life Against Death” had appeared just five years before.
McLuhan’s pioneering examination of the revolution wrought by electronic media in Gutenberg’s print culture demonstrated how history could be reinterpreted with terms bridging high and popular culture. He had a breathtaking sweep of vision and a charming aptitude for the startling example. McLuhan’s irreverent, aphoristic wit was perfectly attuned to the brash spirit of my generation, with its absurdist “happenings” and its taste for zinging one-liners — in the satiric style of Lenny Bruce or the gnomic manner of Zen sages and Hindu gurus.
“Understanding Media,” which had a tremendous impact on me at a pivotal moment in my development, is a landmark of cultural analysis. It contains an epic panorama of Western culture: Greek myth, Shakespeare, William Blake, James Joyce, Pablo Picasso and Margaret Mead mingle with the Marx Brothers amid an “Alice in Wonderland” swirl of clocks, comic books, alphabets, telephones and typewriters. In its picaresque form and carnivalesque tone, “Understanding Media” resembles Petronius Arbiter’s “Satyricon,” with its vivid picture of Nero’s Rome. McLuhan finds the key to our overloaded cultural environment, and his swift rhythms, playful tone and deft touch make academic semiotics look ponderous, pretentious and pointlessly abstract. (Read the rest of this outstanding Salon essay at: http://www.salon.com/2000/03/04/inteltrad/
Norman O. Brown at left & Leslie Fiedler
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With the Pan American Games currently on in Toronto and surrounding areas, we remember that Marshall McLuhan was both a sailing enthusiast, as well as a rower. Here he is in his Cambridge University Rowing jacket:
Marshall McLuhan, 1973. Photograph: Mohan Juneja
Tuesday, July 21 will be the 104th anniversary of Marshall McLuhan’s birth. To mark the occasion we are organizing at St. Michael’s College a luncheon just like the one last year. It will be nothing fancy, just an excuse to get together and talk about the McLuhan Legacy among the members of the McLuhan community. Lunch can be purchased in the Canada Room, the student cafeteria, and will cost you less than $10. The food is reasonable and I have eaten it many times, as they serve the same meals in the St Mike’s faculty lunch room. The room will be fairly noisy, as the kids from St. Mike’s summer camp eat there as well, but we will eat our lunch in the Senior Common Room , easily accessed from the Canada Room. It is a quiet place where we can eat in peace and have a good conversation.
Marshall McLuhan (on the right) at St, Michael’s College
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This presentation by Dr. Corey Anton took place at the recent 16th Annual Convention of the Media Ecology Association (MEA), hosted by Metropolitan State University of Denver on Saturday, June 13, 2015. It is based on a paper accepted for publication in the forthcoming issue of Explorations in Media Ecology (EME), Vol 13, Numbers 3-4, the journal of the MEA. See http://tinyurl.com/px55df2 . Corey Anton takes issue with the critics of McLuhan who entirely dismiss Marshall McLuhan’s polarity of hot versus cool media. The first two paragraphs of Corey’s provide an introduction to his presentation below. I recommend this as one of the most cogent explanations of McLuhan’s hot/cool polarity that I have come across……..Alex
Of all the distinctions that Marshall McLuhan advances, “hot and cool” is perhaps the most controversial, least coherent, and most confusing. Regarding this pair of terms, some scholars have suggested that McLuhan contradicts himself. Others have claimed that McLuhan rightfully abandoned them, while others still simply try to teach around or ignore that chapter of Understanding Media (2003). Many find the ideas not worth the effort. At a minimum, pretty much everyone agrees that the distinction, even if playful in some regards, remains problematic. Its ambiguity easily leads to confusion.
For my own part, I wish to defend the distinction and argue for the value of the terms despite their convoluted, confusing, contestable and maybe even contradictory claims. I personally do not care if McLuhan abandoned them. If, in articulating what I take to be the general thrust of McLuhan’s argument, I stand accused of committing acts of hermeneutical violence, my only defense will come by way of demonstrating the value of this reconsideration and re-appraisal.
Corey provided the following notes to accompany his presentation in a handout:
Key Point #1: McLuhan mostly employs the hot/cool distinction comparatively, for example, suggesting that radio is hotter than a telephone call, or that comics are cooler than photographs, or that alphabetic text is hotter than hieroglyphs. This means that the expressions “hotter than” or “cooler than” are much more in spirit with McLuhan’s distinction than a simple statement of “hot’ or “cool.” Furthermore, the expressions “heat up” and “cool down” are more useful and directive, as they stress how any environment or medium is experienced as “hot” or “cool” depending upon prior media exposure, and they also suggest how “temperature changes” occur.
Example #1: (Comparative Terms): Radio, McLuhan argues, does not affect literates as it does oral peoples because literate peoples have been exposed to even hotter media forms and can thus take radio as mere entertainment. But television, in contrast to the print word, weakens immunity to radio. Hence, although McLuhan generally equates hot media with specialist, mechanical technologies that detribalize, he also claims that radio, which leads to a re-tribalizing frenzy, is a hot medium. Radio thus remains cooler than text: we cannot have live-time interruptions within a book. Radio also includes a wide range of sounds that cannot be placed meaningfully on the written page. Whereas radio re-tribalizes by creating a shared public echo chamber of cultural values and memories, the book individuates and relies upon a single person’s point of view.
Key Point #2: Any media form or environment can be heated up by: decreasing the number of senses involved, increasing the definition of its content, and completing its overall package for a single individual. Inversely, any media form or environment can be cooled down by: increasing the number of senses, reducing the definition of its content and opening processes to increased, live-time multiple person participations.
Example #2: (Heating Up and Cooling Down, old media): Television, commonly cast as cool, can be made even cooler with the addition of a remote control, but we heat it up just a little as soon as we increase the definition or detach it from live-time information. We can heat it up even more by creating a home theatre, installing row seating, always dimming the lights, allowing no one to talk, accessing only movies, and playing the movie from beginning to end without break. Service providers such as Netflix or Hulu also heat up television shows in this regard. They discharge shows from their cultural rhythms and condense many (or all) episodes into an already completed package that can be watched, in entirety, in a determinable span.
Example #3: (Heating Up and Cooling Down, new media): The telephone is cooler than radio, just as skype, sometimes a multisensory group affair on both ends, is cooler than a private telephone call. Cell phones now accompany people anywhere they go, and because they allow for texting, web access, GPS, social networking applications, and countless other “smart apps,” including Skype or iChat, they have become quite a cool telephone indeed. This also implies that de-tethering a computer from its Internet access returns it to its hotter, earlier, more specialized stage. On the other hand, once Internet access is reestablished, the computer cools back down and becomes more versatile and open to live-time social participations. Still, many computer applications open to a single-sense, operate in high-definition, and are rather isolating and individuating, meaning, “fairly hot.”
About Dr. Corey Anton: http://www4.gvsu.edu/ANTONC/
Finally, here is Marshall McLuhan explaining to an interviewer in 1965 what he means by hot versus cool as applied to media:
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