Throwing a Snowball with a Rock in It – A Momentum Mori for Marshall McLuhan


Thanks to Bob Dobbs for finding this article, which deserves to be better known. Dr. Gerald O’Grady, as distinct from most other academics, was one of the first to understand what Marshall McLuhan was getting at and to endorse his views. Generally businessmen and artists (the “antennae of the race”) were ahead of academia in initially supporting McLuhan’s views on media. For the image of a snowball with a rock in it, I wonder if Dr. O’Grady was familar with Robertson Davies’ use of this plot device in his novel Fifth Business (1970). See .

THROWING A SNOWBALL WITH A ROCK IN IT – Momentum Mori for Marshall McLuhan – By Gerald O’Grady



Dr. Gerald O’Grady



(Marshall McLuhan, Director of the Center for Culture and Technology at the University of Toronto, died on December 31, 1980. Gerald O’Grady, who remembers him here, is President of Media Study/Buffalo.)

“Is it what’s in the jigger that makes them bigger?” – Marshall McLuhan, commenting on the Lord Calvert’s whiskey “Men of Distinction” ad.

There is not a moment to be lost in dumping another generation of readers into the drink, the stormy seas of Marshall McLuhan’s mind.

His major books created a cultural thunderstorm throughout the 1960’s.

Every literary man of distinction – Benjamin DeMott, Dwight Macdonald, George Steiner, Jonathan Miller, Harold Rosenberg, Tom Wolfe, Richard Schickel, Michael Arlen and scores of others – attempted to navigate his waters.

By the end of the decade, their various essays were gathered in three critical anthologies, all titled “McLuhan” and subtitled “Hot and Cool,” “Pro and Con” and “Sense and Nonsense.” All had got caught in his maelstrom and drowned. We have had another decade to think why that happened.

Their attention was almost entirely spent on misunderstanding McLuhan as a popular medium rather than understanding his work. They spent so much effort in falsely charging him with believing that human culture was determined by technology that they missed the human-motivated trajectory of his lifelong project. It went unnoticed that the leitmotif of his three major books was the “man” of their subtitles, and that each approached media from a different perspective.

“The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Mechanical Man” (1951) attempted to understand the NEW MYTHOLOGY created by newspapers, magazines and advertising.

“The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man” (1962) was HISTORICAL and juxtaposed a mosaic of meditations on the cultural interactions arising from the invention of the printing press.

“Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man” (1964) was FORMAL, treating the media as models and structures shaping our physical environment by extending our senses. For McLuhan, every man was a center for understanding media.

His critics seemed obsessed with deriving a theory from his writings, coming to them with the academic expectancy for the definitive treatment of a field called communications. They never grasped that his meaning was merged with his method, and that the method rested entirely and completely on metaphor, that every word, sentence and paragraph he wrote was part of a process to generate insight, not to establish classifications. He would create new words like colloidoscope by jamming together colloid and kaleidoscope. He would force new identifications in sentences like “The medium is the message” or “The user is the content.” His books worked the same way.

“The Gutenberg Galaxy” begins by considering a sixteenth century English play, “King Lear,” and then, a few pages later, thrusts it up against Kikuyu love magic ceremonies in twentieth century Africa. He loved to make things collide.

We traded definitions of the symbol. He liked the one I found by the American architect Louis Sullivan, “a snowball with a rock in it,” delighting all the more because Sullivan was unaware that the Greek word “sym-ballein” literally meant “to throw with,”. “to throw (things) together.” He was even happier when he found Marilyn Monroe’s reply to an interviewer who asked if she were a sex symbol: “You mean those things that bands bang together?” He was himself highly sensitive to such sound effects and later defined symbolism as “a kind of witty jazz.” Jazz is characterized by improvisation and by special features peculiar to the individual interpretation of a player. When he wrote that “Heidegger surf-boards along on the electronic wave as triumphantly as Descartes rode the mechanical wave,” he was clearly asking to be apprehended as a poet, but his critics would not allow it. He understood that the plowshares of the agricultural field had been beaten into the television antennas of the electronic field, but they didn’t, even though the slang term of being on someone’s “wavelength” (to understand) had already entered the language many years before. No one, for example, ever saw that “Understanding Media” was a poetic book, a magical number of prefatory chapters (seven) being followed by 26 more dealing with the social and psychic consequences of the new media, symbolically equal to the number of letters in the old alphabet. Such strategies and games were beyond his readers even though he provided a clue, subtitling his chapter on games “extensions of man,” which was also the subtitle of his book on all the media.

McLuhan’s critics persisted until his death. Last week, American television networks called him “the philosopher of pop” and the New York Times “the prophet of grooviness.” They entirely missed the point that McLuhan was a cultural conservative and that, to the extent that his vision of contemporary culture was existential, it was shaped by his conversion and deep commitment to Roman Catholicism. While British culture knew how to understand the work of a Graham Greene and French culture the writings of a Gabriel Marcel, American critics were either ignorant of or embarrassed by this aspect of McLuhan. It has taken time to see that this Canadian presented us with a European foreignness which was not quite comprehensible. The worst joke was his being called “the apostle of advertising.” He did say: “The ads are by far the best parts of any magazine or newspaper. Ads are news. What is wrong with them is that they are always good news.” But he was aware that “good news” meant “gospel” and that contemporary mechanical and electronic media, just because they were financed in this country by advertising, placed a tremendous emphasis on the acquisition of material goods. In fact, his strategy was to conVERT us from our adVERTising-induced VERTigo by reading his prose VERse. He knew the turns of meaning of all of these words (verto – turn).

He made this clear in his introduction to “The Mechanical Bride.” He wrote: “In ‘A Descent into the Maelstrom,’ Poe’s sailor saved himself by studying the action of the whirlpool and by cooperating with it.

The present book likewise makes few attempts to attack the very considerable currents and pressures set up around us today by the mechanical agencies of the press, radio, movies and advertising. It was this amusement born of his rational detachment as a spectator of his own situation that gave him a thread which led him out of the labyrinth. And it is in the same spirit that this book is offered as an amusement.”

McLuhan’s critics were not amused. They never saw the importance of the enjoyment and fun in his work and because they never took his metaphoric method seriously, they were unable to apprehend that his style was the result of a careful deliberation, and that he was nothing if not serious. I remember going with him once to visit Buckminster Fuller at his World Resources Inventory office above a women’s beauty salon in Carbondale, Illinois, and our retreating around the corner to a Dunkin’ Donut shop with Fuller’s colleague, the late John McHale. McLuhan told us a joke about a bartender’s false eye dropping, unnoticed, into the cocktail of a customer. Later he became constipated and went to a proctologist who, upon examining him, eyeball to eyeball, said: “What’s the matter, don’t you trust me?”

This story turned out to be a parable (Greek PARA-BALLEIN, “to throw side by side,” related to our parabola) for the constipation of our visual sense, one of McLuhan’s basic ideas being that “the interiorization of the technology of the phonetic alphabet translates man from the magic world of the ear to the neutral world of the eye.”

He felt that a culture tuned to the voice and the ear was more involving and participative, while one centered on the eye was individuating and alienating.

He once told me, in the course of a telephone call, that “conversation was the ‘depthiest’ medium.” And I can now recognize that it, too, was rooted in a TURNING back and forth, a give and take, a dialogic of oral form. His own awareness of the pressures which the new media were placing on language did not mean that he failed to note that “language was the first mass medium.” He meant of course, that everyone had access to speaking it (the literal meaning of “infant,” by the way, is “unable to speak”). He was ironically aware that his own message was given great resonance and amplification on broadcast television through “talk shows” in which everyone had access only to listening.

When he appeared at Rice University in 1965, he gave a lecture which few were attentive enough to understand. He was consciously developing a new kind of lecture performance in which the audience would overhear him talking to and with himself. If the audience wished to swing and “turn” with him, it had to engage and involve itself, an effort which he explained in terms of a popular version of a Robert Browning verse:

“A man’s reach should exceed his grasp or what’s a metaphor.”

Understanding McLuhan was possible only if one were open to continual transpositions of language. He called slang “language on the hoof” and wrote: “Slang is based not on theories but on immediate experience.”

When I first tried to make students aware of the pattern of his work, it was in the context of a “free university” course offered to graduate and undergraduate students at Rice University, the University of St. Thomas and the University of Houston in that city, and it was found that the only time they could all arrange their schedules to meet was at 10 o’clock on Sunday morning. The course was playfully referred to as “10 o’clock Mass Culture,’ and then “10 o’clock Mascom” on the analogy to the title of John McHale’s review of “The Gutenberg Galaxy” which was entitled “The Man from Mascom” (Progressive Architecture, 1967), and finally, by a student who had the kind of perception, earthiness, honesty and comic sense that McLuhan himself would have appreciated “10 o’clock come.” It was in his March, 1969 interview in Playboy (how and where else!) that McLuhan revealed that his puns and hyperboles (Greek HYPER-BALLEIN, “to throw high” – to exaggerate) were strategies for drawing attention to his new insights.

In another interview, he said: “My books are not packages, but part of a dialogue, part of a conversation.” Never did a person give so many clues as to how to understand his work.

My own conversation with Marshall McLuhan had begun as an undergraduate when I read his Cambridge University graduate dissertation on “The Place of Thomas Nashe in the Culture of His Time” (unpublished, 1942). My interest was in the rhetorical strategies of late medieval prose and Nashe was an early Renaissance prose writer. McLuhan’s treatment was linear and sequential and clear, just what his later critics would have admired. They were mystified when McLuhan quoted a passage from Nashe in “The Gutenberg Galaxy,” a description of Hero’s first seeing Leander’s drowned body tossed up on a shore after a storm at sea, and remarked: “Read aloud by a trained rhetorician from the new grammar schools, the passage takes on the brash variety of a Louis Armstrong trumpet solo.” McLuhan was writing about the same century, but now the whole style, not just this allusion, was jazz. In the same way, my reading of a straightforward and diagram-laden 1960 “Report on Project in Understanding New Media” prepared me for the jazz version best-seller, “Understanding Media:

The Extensions of Man,” which was not released until 1964. The style of these later books, in each case, was conversational and dialogic, and they were calculated to be experienced heuristically, that is, to engender as many insights by the reader as by the writer. Critic after critic made the standard observation that the difficulty with McLuhan was that he was trying to use an old medium (print) to explain about new ones (movies, television), but exactly the opposite was true. He had retreated to a deliberate mimesis of the oral form (language) which was centered on memory in order to talk about the new recorded forms (print, film, etc.) which brought us a new form of stored or canned wisdom. Martin Williams’ comment on phonograph records in “The Jazz Tradition” is apposite to an understanding of McLuhan’s books:

“Thus phonograph records are in a sense a contradiction of the meaning of music. That is, they tend to make permanent and absolute, music that is created for the moment. On the other hand, records attest that what is made up for the moment can survive the moment aesthetically.”

As the sponsors of his research in the new media might indicate, Marshall McLuhan was a teacher. He wanted to release us from the ad world, to switch from Calvert, as it were, and he offered us a stylistic highball (without eyeball) so potent that anyone taking a drink had to run the risk of drowning. He was not the oracle of Madison Avenue but a magician of media who, like Shakespeare’s Prospero, was willing to say “I’ll drown my book,” once he had saved us from shipwreck and worked his “end upon our senses.” When asked if he himself understood what he wrote, he joked: “I don’t pretend to understand it. After all, my stuff is very difficult.” He took his definition of education, “how kids learn stuff,” from the mouth of a seven-year old, and Elizabethan explorer that he was, fully realized that his great global village itself was an “unsubstantial pageant” and that “We are such stuff/As dreams are made on, and our little life/ Is rounded with a sleep (The Tempest. IV, i. 156-158).

– “Throwing a Snowball with a Rock in It – A Momentum Mori for Marshall McLuhan,” Media Study/Buffalo (January-March, 1981); reprinted in The Buffalo News (Sunday, January 11, 1981).

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