Marshall McLuhan: Canada as Counter-Environment to the United States

01Jul15

With Canada Day occurring today, July 1, and America’s Independence Day being celebrated three days later on July 4, it might be useful to consider Marshall McLuhan’s sense of the relationship between the two neighboring countries, which took different political, social and cultural paths after 1776 and 1812. Marshall McLuhan was of course born in Canada and spent most of his life there, but he was well-informed about the USA from living and teaching there for almost a decade: 1936-37 at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, 1937-44 at Saint Louis University, and the academic year 1967-68 at Fordham University in New York. He also made frequent visits to the USA to attend conferences, give guest lectures, do occasional consulting work and, like most Canadians, for occasional holidays and pleasure trips. So his sense of the differences between the two countries is based on lived experience, plus the fact that he married an American.

 McLuhan’s views of the United States are complex and a thorough understanding would require a much longer analysis and study. This short piece focuses only on his idea of Canada as a “counter-environment” to the USA. Influenced by Edward T. Hall, McLuhan held that the “ground rules, the pervasive structure, the overall pattern eludes perception” by those living in it,“eludes perception except in so far as there is an anti-environment or counter-situation constructed to provide a means of direct attention” (The Relation of Environment to Anti-environment, 1966). In other words, those living in an environment are oblivious to it, or “the one thing you can never see is the element in which you move,” a metaphor for which is his comment that “we don’t know who discovered water, but we’re pretty sure it wasn’t a fish” (both quotes are from McLuhan’s Marfleet Lectures, 1967, see reference below).

In his 2-part Marfleet Lectures, the first of which is titled Canada, the Borderline Case, delivered in Convocation Hall at the University of Toronto on March 16, 1967, Marshall McLuhan described Canada’s role as a counter-environment to the USA thus:-

“Nature and history seem to have agreed to designate us in Canada for a corporate, artistic role. As the U.S.A. becomes a world environment through its resources, technology, and enterprises, Canada takes on the function of making that world environment perceptible to those who occupy it. Any environment tends to be imperceptible to its users and occupants except to the degree that counter-environments are created by the artist.” – McLuhan, M. (1967). Canada, The Borderline Case, Marfleet Lectures, available in McLuhan, S., & Staines, D. (2003). Understanding Me: Lectures and Interviews. Toronto: McClellend & Stewart Ltd., pp. 103 – 138.

And in a letter to Claude Bissell, the President of the University of Toronto, March 4, 1965, McLuhan wrote:-

“The U.S.A. is socially and informationally the environment of Canada. Canada is, by way of being anti-environment, a prepared situation that permits perception of the environment … Canada as anti-environment to the U.S.A. is able to perceive many of the ground rules and operational effects of the American environment that are quite imperceptible to the U.S.A. If the U.S.A. has built its distant-early-warning system in Canada for military use, let us observe that we can be of far greater use to the U.S.A. as an early warning system in the social and political spheres generally”.  Letters of Marshall McLuhan, (1987), p. 319.

Arguably, that has been the case, especially in aspects of social and economic policy, where Canada has been more progressive in such areas as an inclusive not-for-profit health care system, multicultural policies rather than a social melting pot, same-sex marriage, gun control, lower incarceration rates for criminals and especially drug users, freedom of choice in childbirth, plus the fact that Canada stayed out of American wars that it perceived to be misguided, as in Vietnam, the Gulf War and Iraq, whereas it was ahead of the USA in entering those wars that it considered necessary, notably World Wars I and II. But as columnist Margaret Wente just noted in a Toronto Globe & Mail editorial titled America’s transformational moment, things are changing in the USA:

Americans have been turning more Canadian. Put another way, they’ve been catching up with the rest of the developed democracies, where the values of individual autonomy and expressiveness have swamped the old notions of tradition, patriarchy and social order. Today, even Christian evangelicals are struggling to come to terms with marriage equality. When Bruce Jenner came out as a woman, most people responded with mild curiosity and a collective shrug. As one person put it, “I don’t get it, but whatever.” (See http://tinyurl.com/oj475x6 )

If that continues, how long will Canada continue to be a counter-environment to the USA?


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