A 1995 Interview with Neil Postman on His Memories of Marshall McLuhan

Neil Postman

This is another one of the interviews resurrected or rather, in Tetrad terms, Retrieved from the Understanding McLuhan interactive CD-ROM from Voyager Interactive (1996) [see  https://archive.org/details/mcluhan_201904] which can no longer be watched and read on the PCs of today by Clinton Ignatov, a self-described computer “geek”. He used a Windows 3.1 Virtual Machine to accomplish this, adding to the Derrick de Kerckhove interview published earlier on this blog. And Clinton promises to post more of the other interviews on that CD-ROM. Thanks, Clinton!…

After Marshall McLuhan’s passing in 1980, educator and lifetime New Yorker Neil Postman became the central figure in the field which has come to be known as Media Ecology.

Q: Could you tell us about your first encounter with Marshall McLuhan?

A: I was a graduate student at Teachers College [at Columbia University] and the course was being conducted by Louis Forsdale. He’s retired now but he was a friend of McLuhan. McLuhan was an obscure English professor at the University of Toronto, but Forsdale was well aware of some of McLuhan’s ideas and brought him down from Toronto to give a lecture. McLuhan, in those days, still smoked cigars, although he mostly had them unlit as far as I could see, and he gave his talk with an unlit cigar in his mouth. And he talked in that style that we later came to call McLuhanesque: a series of dramatic propositions and generalizations. He didn’t pause to defend any of them, or even to explain them that much. Charlie Weingartner, my friend—he went to graduate school with me—we loved it. We just thought he was onto something, and we especially liked his style. Of course many of the other students didn’t; some were befuddled, but afterwards Forsdale, McLuhan, Charlie and I went for a drink and I think The Mechanical Bride had been published, and either on that occasion or a later occasion when he came back to speak, we carried about 500 copies of this book which you couldn’t give away at that point, and stored them in Forsdale’s apartment. But that was my first encounter with McLuhan and I was enormously impressed with the range of his knowledge and also with the intellectual daring that he displayed.

Q: Did you have a chance to work with him or hear him speak on other occasions?

A: Oh yes, on many occasions. One of the most memorable was a meeting in Cincinnati of the National Council of Teachers of English, and I remember that Charlie Weingartner, McLuhan and I shared a room together, which was great fun because Charlie and I had a chance to listen to McLuhan invent ideas and do his probes deep into the night. On that occasion his cigar was lit and the lights were off and it was two or three in the morning, and we finally had to ask him if he could stop and let us all get some sleep. But I would say from roughly 1956 until he died, I took every opportunity I could find to listen to him speak and to have conversations with him. Although the word conversation here has to be explained: I don’t think I ever really did have a conversation with McLuhan and I don’t recall being present when anyone else actually had a conversation. Mostly you listened, let him play this tape out that he had in his mind. And of course, it was always fascinating. Even when you asked him questions you had the feeling that though he always seemed to be answering your question, he was just going on with the tape. No one I knew ever really resented that; we considered it a privilege to be present so we could listen and watch the tape unwind itself.

Q: What probe or idea stands out the most for you?

A: Of course, there were many. I recall once he came to New York, I think to make an appearance on the Today Show. Frequently he would call me when he came to New York, and we would try to have lunch together. I remember this one, because he called to say he was in town and if I could hop down to the Hilton where we could have lunch, but while he was talking about that, he just inserted the idea that the invention of photography made a certain kind of representation of the rich impossible. That conspicuous consumption became impossible as soon as the photograph became invented. Now I don’t know that that’s such an astounding insight, although it’s interesting to think about, it’s just that it came in the middle of his saying did I have time to come to lunch. So I guess that was on “the tape” and he felt that he had to get it out.

Q: How do you think he has influenced your work?

A: I can’t think of a book that I’ve written that I could have written if not for McLuhan. Which is not to say of course that he approved of any he might have read, or would approve of others that he never did read, but so far as I’m concerned, I always have felt that the question that he asked which is I think his main contribution, is embedded in every idea that formed a book for me – whether I was writing about media in Amusing Ourselves to Death or writing about language in Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk, or writing about education in Teaching As A Subversive Activity—that the question that McLuhan posed is at the heart of it. And the question is something like: “Does the form of any medium of communication affect our social relations, our political ideas, or psychic habits, and of course, as he always emphasized, our sensorium?”

So that once you have a question like that you can look at almost any social institution and put that question at the center of it. And I think I’ve done that in every book I’ve written. Certainly, it was right from the first, because the first book I wrote was for the National Council of Teachers of English, and it was about television—it was called Television and the Teaching of English. And I know I couldn’t have written that book if I hadn’t known about McLuhan. So far as I’m concerned, my career as a writer and teacher and social critic, has been dependent on McLuhan, what I call McLuhan’s question. Now I should add that it’s not that others, let’s say Louis Mumford for example, didn’t ask this question before McLuhan did. But McLuhan asked it in a way that called it to everyone’s attention, and that I think is an enormous contribution that he’s made to scholarship, and especially to me. And I’d add that there probably is not a communications department in any college or university in America that does not reflect in some way, McLuhan’s question.

McLuhan’s answers, which you’ll find all over the place in Understanding Media, are sometimes interesting, sometimes I think they may be irresponsible, and sometimes just wrong, but that never bothered me and I don’t think it should bother students who read McLuhan. And he himself said many times, these were probes and that one should not take his answers too literally. He wanted to focus people’s attention on the question, and would have agreed that there would be other people, especially young people raised in the electronic environment, that would be able to come up with a lot better answers than he did.

Q: Where do you think he was wrong, or irresponsible?

A: Well I think the whole idea of hot medium and cool medium didn’t really work. I think in the end I believe Marshall gave it up after awhile. But it was interesting as almost everything he said was interesting. He was trying to construct a new kind of taxonomy for perceiving media—and that is a taxonomy that has to deal with how any particular medium massages or affects your sensorium. But when he tried to explain this idea by categorizing media as hot and cool and then giving definitions, the foundation of the definitions was confused because sometimes he seemed to be concentrating on the mechanical reproduction, the process of a medium; sometimes he seemed to be focused on something else that was not entirely clear. Moreover, if you tried to use his own system: something like print, which he thought was a hot medium, could just as easily have been a cool medium, because that, of all media, seemed to give you the least information. That was one of the characteristics of a cool medium, that it didn’t supply you hotly with lots of information so that there had to be greater participation on the part of the audience to fill in. Well, it always puzzled me that he’d call print a hot medium and as I remember, I think he also called radio a hot medium, which seemed to me to fulfill the conditions of what he meant by cool medium. So that was kind of confusing, and it was too bad because when he became almost a cult figure and a guru of the electronic age, many people focused on this hot and cool medium distinction, and they couldn’t always take it very far because they were confused. But I don’t think he was disturbed about that.

If I had said to him what I just said to you, he would have said, “Well, okay, if it’s not straight, make up a better one.” But he would have given the lead as to what to look at, and we’ve had students here at New York University, that have tried to invent better ones. They would have a value in their work they would have to attribute to McLuhan’s inspiration.

Q: To what extent has he influenced the media ecology programme?

A: A great deal. Well, first of all I should tell you that he is directly, in a way, responsible for the media ecology programme because he and I had a conversation once and he said that he didn’t think he had the temperament or the desire to form a graduate programme with all of the bureaucratic elements that would entail, at the University of Toronto, but he thought I should do it. So he suggested that we try to develop a grad programme at NYU that would explore these probes, he even suggested the term media ecology. He used that phrase in a letter he wrote to Claire Booth Luce saying something to the effect that the media ecology of cultures probably need to be managed in a systematic way—and the term struck me as very useful, since ecology was used to mean the study of environments and how environments can be healthy and become toxic and so on. I thought that his putting the term media in front of ecology suggested in a forceful way that people studying media were not just studying machines and how they work, but the interaction between the structure and form of machines and the human sensorium. This gave a special kind of meaning to the phrase symbolic environment because we live in at least two kinds of environments: the natural, and the symbolic. I thought it would be helpful to call the programme Media Ecology.

So from the beginning, the spectre of Marshall McLuhan was all over this department. Of course since then, so many people, the heirs of McLuhan’s legacy, have written on the subject from a McLuhanesque point of view, that he is by no means even the best person to read on the subject these days. That wouldn’t bother him either. All of our students are required to read McLuhan, but we no longer place his work at the centre of their studies. I try to get them to understand what his role was in the formation of communication departments and research about media, and most of our students I think do, but they go on to all sorts of other people. Some who are explicitly McLuhanites, like Walter Ong, Mumford of course, who didn’t like McLuhan one bit, but many other people, Weisenbaum and Rojac and Jacques Ellul, and I could go on, who wouldn’t want to think of themselves as McLuhanites, but actually have a point of view that’s very close to his.

Q: Have his questions outlived his own personal legacy?

A: Yes, but I think that’s the way things are supposed to go, that if we looked at Marx’s question, or Freud’s question, we have to pay due respect to those people who either formed those questions or brought them to our attention. But I don’t think we need to be fixated on that person himself or herself, and we have to move on.

Q: Would you say he was a great thinker?

A: I would say great thinker, and then add the following: that there are many rooms in the house of the intellect. And different kinds of thinkers occupy different kinds of rooms. Now if there’s a room for those thinkers who see something quite differently from everyone else, and form a question that people in the other rooms hadn’t thought about, in that sense we could say he was a great thinker. I don’t think we would call him a great scholar, because I don’t think he really had the patience to work through some of the implications of what he was saying, even in a book like The Gutenberg Galaxy. Basically these are quotes and allusions to the role that the printing press and movable type played in shaping people’s psychic habits. But it didn’t go into things so deeply. It also has to be added, other people have said this frequently, that there was more than a touch of the poet in him, as everyone who knew him will tell you, he loved playing with language and making puns. Some of his ideas have almost a poetic import to them, as distinct from a researchable, definable context. So I have no hesitation using the term “great thinker” for McLuhan, provided people understand that there are different kinds of great thinkers.

Q: If you had to have the last word on McLuhan, what would it be?

A: How about if I put it this way: if I could speak to McLuhan in some heavenly situation, and I only had a minute to see him again, after I asked him how things are going of course, I think I would tell him that what he did when he was here was extremely significant, that it opened up new pathways to thinking about media, and that there are thousands of young people now, in both the academic world, and in the communications industry, who think differently about what they’re doing because he lived. So I’d say, “Thanks Marshall, go back to heaven.”

Q: If you had two minutes and were able to ask him one question about 1995, what would you ask?

A: Well, I wouldn’t want to depress him, but I would ask him this question: it seemed to me that toward the end of his life, and I’m not referring especially to after he had the operation on his brain tumor, that he had become more pessimistic about the liberalizing that he thought electronic media would lead to. An opening up of the sensorium, that we would not be quite as inhibited and rigid as the printed word had made us, and he thought there were all sorts of inspiring and freeing ways, or opportunities that electronic media would open up. But as I say, toward the end he was skeptical about whether or not what he prophesized would happen. And I would ask him if he’s been paying attention since he left us, to what’s been going on, and is he still optimistic, or has he become more pessimistic. For example, he did think, as Walter Ong thinks as well, that there would be a restoration of the oral tradition—Ong calls it secondary orality—and I look for that all the time and don’t really see it. So I’d ask him if he sees it and what am I missing? Is there something that he’s noticed that I haven’t—probably there would be—and just when he was about to tell me, time would be up, which would be just fine with him and me because, in a way it would mean he was saying to me, “No, you have to look for it and come to your own conclusion.”
(Source: http://www.clintonthegeek.com/))

2 Responses to “A 1995 Interview with Neil Postman on His Memories of Marshall McLuhan”

  1. 1 Interview 1740 – Declare Your Independence From The Media Matrix – RealReset
  2. 2 Interview 1740 - Declare Your Independence From The Media Matrix - United Push Back

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