Marshall McLuhan & Buckminster Fuller’s First Meeting on an Intellectual Cruise Around the Greek Islands

26Jul16

Buckminster Fuller and McLuhan

Buckminster Fuller & Marshall McLuhan in front of René Cera’s painting Pied Pipers All (Image: Dick Darrell/Getstock) See http://tinyurl.com/3vyboez

The following is an excerpt from an essay titled “Network Fever” by Mark Wigley, which makes the essential point that “contemporary discourse about networks seems to ignore the heritage that stretches back to Graham Bell through Marshall McLuhan, Buckminster Fuller, the Metabolists, and others in the fifties and sixties. “Network Fever” does hugely important work because, without pointing fingers, it exposes a problem of theorizing networks and building technical substrates — we often ignore the ideological components of building technologies”. http://goo.gl/oc1kbL )

 Constantinos Doxiadis

Buckminster Fuller and Marshall McLuhan met for the first time after boarding the New Hellas in Athens for an eight-day boat trip around the Greek Islands. The two gurus of the electronic age had been invited on the trip, along with thirty-two other leading intellectuals from fourteen countries, by Constantinos Doxiadis, a Greek architect and urban planner (see http://goo.gl/iifDIC ). The idea was to have a symposion,” a radical mixing of intellectual activity and sensual pleasure as the boat traveled from island to island. Each morning, the group would have informal but intense discussions onboard about “the evolution of human settlements.” In the afternoon and evening, they would leave the boat to go swimming, visit famous historic sites, eat in restaurants, see performances, go dancing, and shop. High-level theoretical discourse was well lubricated with retsina and ouzo.

McLuhan and Fuller admired each other’s eccentricity. McLuhan liked to speak in aphoristic punch lines thrown as grenades into the morning discussions. A pun was as likely as a formal statement. Fuller surprised the group by seeming uncomfortable with the rapid exchanges. Having difficulty following the conversation because of his bad hearing, he preferred to give speeches. He would talk for hours on end, continuing his line of thought during meals, while drinking, and while changing in the cabin—enthralling yet ultimately exhausting everyone.2 He moved wildly when speaking but said McLuhan’s moves were more extreme:After dinner on the Doxiadis ship we used to dance and Marshall would dance with his wife all over the place, so much so that he took up the whole dance floor. He thought we had all stopped to marvel at his and his wife’s performance, but that wasn’t it; the way he was dancing there wasn’t room for the rest of us and we had to leave the floor”. 3

Even if the others on the boat regarded McLuhan as “outlandish,” as he later wrote to a friend, his arguments had a marked effect. The group
included some prominent architects and planners, but most came from outside the traditional limits of architectural discourse. Led by superstars like Margaret Mead and Barbara Ward, there were representatives of psychiatry, engineering, economics, sociology, anthropology, political science, language, law, metallurgy, animal genetics, meteorology, biotechnology, aesthetics, physics, history, philosophy, literature, agricultural science, and geography. Each field was seen to have an important contribution to make to architectural discourse. When Doxiadis sent his letter of invitation to McLuhan just seven weeks before the event, for example, he said that he had just read The Gutenberg Galaxy of the year before and saw ideas in it that are “essential” to a reconsideration of human settlements.4 McLuhan had no problem seeing his work in that light. He wrote an unsuccessful fund-raising letter to another Canadian who had been invited to the event, citing the letter of Doxiadis and explaining that he was currently completing a book “which includes matters of immediate concern in housing and town planning.” Since the extension of the human nervous system in an electric age “confuses the problems of living space,” his own participation in the event “could be of very real importance to the study of changing problems of our national housing.”5

Once onboard, McLuhan used the event to explore the architectural implications of his work. The boat became an ampliŽer for his argument that electronics is actually biological, an organic system with particular effects. The evolution of technology is the evolution of the human body. Networks of communication, like any technology, are prosthetic extensions of the body. They are new body parts and constitute a new organism, a new spatial system, a new architecture. This image of prosthetics — which McLuhan had first presented a year earlier in The Gutenberg Galaxy and was busy elaborating for Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, which would launch him to superstardom when it came out a year later—was now reframed as an architectural image. McLuhan only waited until the second morning of the boat trip to get up and present his work as a question of urban planning, insisting, in a paradoxical twist, that the latest technologies have expanded the body so far that they have shrunk the planet to the size of a village, creating a “tremendous opportunity” for planners.6

 First edition (publ. Lippincott)

This was all too familiar to Fuller, who had been describing technology as an extension of the body ever since his first, but not well known, book, Nine Chains to the Moon of 1938, and had been insisting that traditional architecture had to give way to a “world wide dwelling services network” modeled on the telephone network. Indeed, Fuller had visualized global electronic networks long before they arrived. Unsurprisingly, he felt that his ideas, including the concept of the global village with which McLuhan would soon become famous, had been taken without acknowledgment. Yet a strong friendship was immediately established. This was greatly assisted by the fact that, as Fuller recalls it, McLuhan was carrying copies of his Nine Chains to the Moon (which had just been republished) and No More Second Hand God when they first met on the boat, declaring, “I am your disciple. . . . I have joined your conspiracy.”7 McLuhan, who had denied getting the idea of prosthetic extension from anyone until he met Fuller, later told his friends that Fuller was too much a “linear” thinker.8 Fuller told his friends that McLuhan never had original ideas, nor claimed to.9 He simply remixed available material in an original way. Yet a firm bond was established, and from then on they defended each other’s work, seeking out any opportunity to be together and pursuing the global implications of prosthetics and networks to the limit. (Access a PDF of the full Network Fever article, including the Reference notes at http://goo.gl/CjulE5 ).

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One Response to “Marshall McLuhan & Buckminster Fuller’s First Meeting on an Intellectual Cruise Around the Greek Islands”


  1. 1 Marshall McLuhan & Buckminster Fuller’s First Meeting on an Intellectual Cruise Around the Greek Islands | McLuhan Galaxy | User Is Content

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