Evidently written in 1963, a year before McLuhan was to publish The Medium is the Message, this important article brings together in one place a number of the ideas that would appear in his most important book a year later: technology as human extensions, the Narcissus myth, psychic numbness that derives from our extensions, our unawareness of the effects on us of our media extensions,  new electric media as new languages with distinct, grammars, and others. We have to thank Eric McLuhan for publishing this otherwise little-known article in 1996 in McLuhan Studies, Issue 2. (see https://goo.gl/bw5TGc).

NOTE: this article takes its title from the old English phrase, “agenbite of inwit” which meant “remorse of conscience.” McLuhan was attracted to its pungency and to the various levels of implication and pun that it offered. Agenbite is a strange word, one that suggests ague and ache, and pain and biting. Inwit, a term for conscience, suggests the inner senses and interior sensibility, which accords nicely with the current state of the senses under the regime of electric technologies. Here, he has reversed the title, and flipped it in the direction of the outer sense or visual stress. The strain thus produced reverberates nicely with direct and indirect implications. – Eric McLuhan [The phrase was used by James Joyce in the Telemachus section of Ulysses (1922), which is where McLuhan might have picked it up], see https://goo.gl/zedNF9.]

The Agenbite of Outwit (1963)

With the telegraph Western man began a process of putting his nerves outside his body. Previous technologies had been extensions of physical organs: the wheel is a putting-outside-ourselves of the feet; the city wall is a collective outering of the skin. But electronic media are, instead, extensions of the central nervous system, an inclusive and simultaneous field. Since the telegraph we have extended the brains and nerves of man around the globe. As a result, the electronic age endures a total uneasiness, as of a man wearing his skull inside and his brain outside. We have become peculiarly vulnerable. The year of the establishment of the commercial telegraph in America, 1844, was also the year Kierkegaard published The Concept of Dread.

A special property of all social extensions of the body is that they return to plague the inventors in a kind of agenbite of outwit. As Narcissus fell in love with an outering (projection, extension) of himself, man seems invariably to fall in love with the newest gadget or gimmick that is merely an extension of his own body. Driving a car or watching television, we tend to forget that what we have to do with is simply a part of ourselves stuck out there. Thus disposed, we become servo-mechanisms of our contrivances, responding to them in the immediate, mechanical way that they demand of us. The point of the Narcissus myth is not that people are prone to fall in love with their own images but that people fall in love with extensions of themselves which they are convinced are not extensions of themselves. This provides, I think, a fairly good image of all of our technologies, and it directs us towards a basic issue, the idolatry of technology as involving a psychic numbness.

Every generation poised on the edge of a massive change seems, to later observers, to have been oblivious of the issues and the imminent event. But it is necessary to understand the power of technologies to isolate the senses and thus to hypnotize society. The formula for hypnosis is “one sense at a time.” Our private senses are not closed systems but are endlessly translated into one another in the synesthetic experience we call consciousness. Our extended senses, tools, or technologies, have been closed systems incapable of interplay. Every new technology diminishes sense interplay and awareness for precisely the area ministered to by that technology: a kind of identification of viewer and object occurs. This conforming of the beholder to the new form or structure renders those most deeply immersed in a revolution the least aware of its dynamic. At such times it is felt that the future will be a larger or greatly improved version of the immediate past.

The new electronic technology, however, is not a closed system. As an extension of the central nervous system, it deals precisely in awareness, interplay and dialogue. In the electronic age, the very instantaneous nature of the co-existence among our technological instruments has created a crisis quite new in human history. Our extended faculties and senses now constitute a single field of experience which demands that they become collectively conscious, like the central nervous system itself. Fragmentation and specialization, features of mechanism, are absent.

To the extent that we are unaware of the nature of the new electronic forms, we are manipulated by them. Let me offer, as an example of the way in which a new technology can transform institutions and modes of procedure, a bit of testimony by Albert Speer, German armaments minister in 1942, at the Nuremberg trials:

The telephone, the teleprinter and the wireless made it possible for orders from the highest levels to be given directly to the lowest levels, where, on account of the absolute authority behind them, they were carried out uncrtitically; or brought it about that numerous offices and command centers were directly connected with the supreme leadership from which they received their sinister orders without any intermediary; or resulted in the widespread surveillance of the citizen; or in a high degree of secrecy surrounding criminal happenings. To the outside observer this governmental apparatus may have resembled the apparently chaotic confusion of lines at a telephone exchange, but like the latter it could be controlled and operated from one central source. Former dictatorships needed collaborators of high quality even in the lower levels of leadership, men who could think and act independently. In the era of modern technique an authoritarian system can do without this. The means of communication alone permit it to mechanize the work of subordinate leadership. As a consequence a new type develops: the uncritical recipient of orders.

Television and radio are immense extension of ourselves which enable us to participate in one another’s lives, much as a language does. But the modes of participation are already built into the technology; these new languages have their own grammars.

The ways of thinking implanted by electronic culture are very different from those fostered by print culture. Since the Renaissance most methods and procedures have strongly tended towards stress on the visual organization and application of knowledge. The assumptions latent in typographic segmentation manifest themselves in the fragmentation of crafts and the specializing of social tasks. Literacy stresses lineality, a one-thing-at-a-time awareness and mode of procedure. From it derive the assembly line and the order of battle, the managerial hierarchy and the departmentalizations of scholarly decorum. Gutenberg gave us analysis and explosion. By fragmenting the field of perception and information into static bits, we have accomplished wonders.

But electronic media proceed differently. Television, radio and the newspaper (at the point where it was linked with the telegraph) deal in auditory space, by which I mean that sphere of simultaneous relations created by the act of hearing. We hear from all directions at once; this creates a unique, unvisualizable space. The all-at-once-ness of auditory space is the exact opposite of lineality, of taking one thing at a time. It is very confusing to learn that the mosaic of a newspaper page is “auditory” in basic structure. This, however, is only to say that any pattern in which the components co-exist without direct, lineal hook-up or connection, creating a field of simultaneous relations, is auditory, even though some of its aspects can be seen. The items of news and advertising that exist under a newspaper dateline are interrelated only by that dateline. They have no interconnection of logic or statement. Yet they form a mosaic of corporate image whose parts are interpenetrating. Such is also the kind of order that tends to exist in a city or a culture. It is a kind of orchestral, resonating unity, not the unity of logical discourse.

The tribalizing power of the new electronic media, the way in which they return us to the unified fields of the old oral cultures, to tribal cohesion and pre-individualist patterns of thought, is little understood. Tribalism is the sense of the deep bond of family, the closed society as the norm of community. Literacy, the visual technology, dissolved the tribal magic by means of its stress on fragmentation and specialization, and created the individual. The electronic media, however, are group forms. Post-literate man’s electronic media contract the world to a tribe or village where everything happens to everyone at the same time: everyone knows about, and therefore participates in, everything that is happening the moment it happens. Because we do not understand these things, because of the numbing power of the technology itself, we are helpless while undergoing a revolution in our North American sense-lives, via the television image. It is a change comparable to that experienced by Europeans in the twenties and thirties, when the new radio image reconstituted overnight the tribal character long absent from European life. Our extremely visual world had immunity from the radio image, but not from the scanning finger of the TV mosaic.

It would be hard to imagine a state of confusion greater than our own. Literacy gave us an eye for an ear and succeeded in detribalizing that portion of mankind that we refer to as the Western world. We are now engaged in an accelerated program of detribalization of all backward parts of the world by introducing there our own ancient print technology at the same time that we are engaged in retribalizing ourselves by means of the new electronic technology. It is like becoming conscious of the unconscious, and of consciously promoting unconscious values by an ever clearer consciousness.

When we pout our central nervous system outside us we returned to the primal nomadic state. We have become like the most primitive paleolithic man, once more global wanderers, but information gatherers rather than food gatherers. From now on the source of food, wealth and life itself will be information. The transforming of this information into products is now a problem for the automation experts, no longer a matter for the utmost division of human labour and skill. Automation, as we all know, dispenses with personnel. This terrifies mechanical man because he does not know what to do about the transition, but it simply means that work is finished, over and done with. The concept of work is closely allied to that of specialization, of special functions and non-involvement; before specialization there was no work. Man in the future will not work, automation will work for him, but he may be totally involved as a painter is, or as a thinker is, or as a poet is. Man works when he is partially involved. When he is totally involved, he is at play or at leisure.

Man in the electronic age has no possible environment except the globe and no possible occupation except information-gathering. By simply moving information and brushing information against information, any medium whatever creates vast wealth. The richest corporation in the world — Atlantic Telephone and Telegraph–has only one function: moving information about. Simply by talking to one another, we create wealth. Any child watching a TV show should be paid because he or she is creating wealth for the community. But this wealth is not money. Money is obsolete because it stores work (and work, and jobs, are themselves obsolete, as we see daily). In a workless, non-specialist society, money is useless. What we need is a credit card, which is information.

When new technologies impose themselves on societies long habituated to older technologies, anxieties of all kinds result. Our electronic world now calls for a unified field of global awareness; the kind of private consciousness appropriate to literate man can be viewed as an unbearable kink in the collective consciousness demanded by electronic information movement. In this impasse, suspension of all automatic reflexes would seem to be in order. I believe that artists, in all media, respond soonest to the challenges of new pressures. I would like to suggest that they also show us ways of living with new technology without destroying earlier forms and achievements. The new media, too, are not toys; they should not be in the hands of Mother Goose and Peter Pan executives. They can be entrusted only to new artists.
(Source: McLuhan Studies, Issue 2, https://goo.gl/imeodQ)

Addendum: I had thought that The Agenbite of Outwit was a posthumously-published article in McLuhan Studies 2, however, Bob Dobbs pointed out that it was first published in Spring 1963. “The Agenbite of Outwit.” Location magazine, Vol. 1, No. 1 (New York: The Longview Foundation, Inc.), pp. 41-44. And Andrew McLuhan added that it was included in the box of materials forming part of John Cage’s Rolywholyover A Circus (New York: Rizzoli, n.d., ca. 1992). (Rolywholyover—Cage’s last major work—is a silver metal box containing a number of unpaginated texts, many on transparent paper: it accompanied the “museum performance” of the same name.) and later in Michel A. Moos, ed., Media Research: Technology, Art, Communication – Essays by Marshall McLuhan (Amsterdam: Overseas Publishers Association, 1997), pp.121-125. Then again in “Rimorso di incoscienza”, in Lettera internazionale 98 (2008), translated to Italian by Laura Talarico, pp.29-30.


 Junichi Miyazawa

I had heard of Junichi Miyazawa, a Japanese academic who had written a book about Marshall McLuhan, several years ago but didn’t have any detailed information. This past September I had the good fortune of unexpectedly meeting him at the Many McLuhans Symposium at the Fisher Library in the University of Toronto. I learned that he is a visiting scholar for a year at the University of Toronto and in residence as a Senior Fellow at Massey College, my former college. He is also a Visiting Professor at the Robarts Centre for Canadian Studies, York University, where he is cross-appointed. His scholarly accomplishments are impressive and we are fortunate at the University of Toronto to have him in our community.

There is an online account of Junichi’s extensive cultural interests and accomplishments in literature, music, film and the arts in general which can be found here  https://goo.gl/9a78Ba). The following segments are selectively extracted from that account.

Overview

Junichi Miyazawa, a professor at Aoyama Gakuin University (School of Cultural and Creative Studies), Tokyo, is an accomplished researcher and writer in the areas of literature, arts and media, with a special interest in Canadian studies. He has developed a reputation as one of the world’s leading Glenn Gould scholars. Having started with an academic background in Russian literature, Junichi Miyazawa has written numerous papers and articles on various aspects of music and literature. He has also lectured extensively around the world at various events, including international symposia and conferences. Junichi Miyazawa is also a prolific translator in several languages. Most notably he has translated from English, Russian and French more than 10 published books on music, film and literature. With his unique profile and exceptional talent, Junichi Miyazawa is regarded as one of the most remarkable interdisciplinarians in Japan or anywhere. Junichi Miyazawa holds a Ph.D. from the University of Tokyo (2007).

Breadth of Interests

He is recognized as one of the world’s leading Glenn Gould scholars. His Guren Gurudo ron (Glenn Gould: A Perspective, Tokyo, 2004) was awarded the Yoshida-Hidekazu-Sho, Japan’s highest prize for music writing. Along with academic papers, Miyazawa has contributed numerous notes to Japanese releases of Glenn Gould’s CDs and DVDs, including two compilation albums of Ryuichi Sakamoto Selections. Miyazawa is also a prolific translator: he has translated into Japanese fifteen books from English and Russian, including literature by or about Glenn Gould, the materials of Andrey Tarkovsky’s film The Mirror, and Timothy Findley’s novel The Wars. Another book he authored is Makuruhan no Kokei (McLuhan in-Sight, Tokyo, 2007). (Source https://goo.gl/2au5AB)

Dr. Miyazawa sent the following comments to me about his McLuhan book: “My McLuhan’s book might be interesting. It is a three-lecture style to introduce McLuhan’s idea to Japanese high school students, starting with a perusal of “The Agenbite of Outwit”(1963). I particularly chose “Agenbite” because it is the very article John Cage repeatedly praised. So in the 3rd “lecture” in the book, I discussed the idea of the global village, and clarified the reason why John Cage loved the text. I also have 15 translations, including Glenn Gould literature and Terence Gordon’s “McLuhan for Beginners”. Readers unfamiliar with McLuhan’s “The Agenbite of Outwit” can read the text here: https://goo.gl/H4D8gb.

Research on Marshall McLuhan

The focus of Junichi Miyazawa’s research in the Exchange Program (Canada-Japan Peace and Friendship Exchange Program, 1999) was Glenn Gould’s cultural influences, and in particular the influence of his contemporary, Canadian media thinker Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980). In the course of his research in Canada, including access to McLuhan’s personal papers at the National Archive of Canada, Junichi Miyazawa found McLuhan to be a fertile topic of study in his own right. The author of The Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media was not so much a sociologist as a literary scholar, who observed all the “media” (i.e. any extension of human beings) as metaphors. In Japan, McLuhan’s works have not been widely studied and appreciated from this literary perspective. Junichi Miyazawa, therefore, decided to incorporate McLuhan into his work and retrieve the media thinker’s fertile imagination into the world of human science. His recent book is entitled Makuruhan no kokei (McLuhan in-Sight), a book on his consideration of the media guru, starting with a meticulous analysis of “Agenbite of Outwit”(1963).

The first McLuhanian effort by Junichi Miyazawa is the Japanese edition of W. Terrence Gordon’s McLuhan for Beginners, with a chronology and extended bibliography by Junichi Miyazawa  (2001).  Further works on McLuhan will appear in papers, lectures and translations.

Junichi Miyazawa’s Makuruhan no kokei (McLuhan in-Sight) (photo by Paolo Granata)

On January 30, 2019, Jody Berland, Canadian professor in the Department of Humanities at the University of Toronto, delivers this year’s McLuhan Lecture at the Embassy of Canada in Berlin, entitled Extending McLuhan’s Posthumanism: Feeling The Techno-Animal Embrace. In this lecture, she is placing McLuhan’s definition of media technologies as prostheses that extend our limbs and nervous systems in the context of contemporary posthumanism. Considering that animals (just as media in McLuhan’s thesis) influence the sensory balance and experience of the human body, Berland opens a mediology of the animal through stories and images in order to illuminate essential links between our colonial past and our Anthropocene present.

 Jody Berland

Jody Berland is an award-winning scholar whose research and teaching provide interdisciplinary explorations of how nature, technology and representation interact in visual and sonic culture. Her forthcoming book, ‘Virtual Menageries in Network Cultures’ addresses the widespread appearance of animals in contemporary visual and digital culture. She is Editor Emerita of TOPIA: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies and has supervised many theses and dissertations. She is Visiting Professor, Centre for Human Animal Studies, Edge Hill University, UK, and Research Fellow, Media and Communications, Goldsmiths, University of London.

**********

Additionally, Canadian artist Serena Lee will present and perform her work Kinds of Caves and Wholes and Parts (2017), connecting to the thematics of Berland’s lecture through voice and a collage landscape of carpeted cat trees, office spaces, and a pensive feline inhabitant. Dead matter and living beings both seem to figure as potential feelings still pending between dream and reality.

The transmediale Marshall McLuhan Program is a cooperation between transmediale and the Embassy of Canada in Berlin.

In English; free admission upon pre-registration. Please register here.
Please present a valid photo-ID at the door and allow sufficient time for Embassy security.

transmediale Marshall McLuhan Program
30 January 2019, 19:30, Doors open 19:00
Embassy of Canada, Leipziger Platz 17, 10117 Berlin


Click on the image for an expanded view.

To be published by NeoPoiesis Press early in 2019…

Prose Percepts, Lyric Responses by B.W. Powe, in collaboration with Marshall Soules, on NEW MEDIA, EMPATHY, IDENTITY, REFUGEES, NATIONALISM, THE DONALD TRUMP PHENOMENON, JUSTIN TRUDEAU, A-LITERACY, THE WILD INTERNET, PARANOIA, POETRY AND INTIMACY, BOB DYLAN, PATTI SMITH…

Street Art Photos by Marshall Soules

An early shorter version of this work was published on the McLuhan Galaxy blog on May 28, 2017. The following two paragraphs are reproduced from that preliminary version.

We´re experiencing the charge in the global membrane… By this I mean immersion in our electrified technological environment. All the puns in charge implied. Marshall McLuhan was one of the first to recognize we´re wired up, transformed, wholly inside borderless, transnational, instantaneous, entangling, speeding, here-there-everywhere-now states, in an always intensifying mutable milieu.

The global village became the global theatre: the theatre has become the global membrane. This phrase adapts what Teilhard de Chardin called “the noosphere,” the subliminal layering of externalized thought and emotions around our planet, in our era of apogees and abysses. The charge is the recognition of the second creation, the second Big Bang: the experience of technological expansion through electrification and the resulting accelerating streams and pulses of data-energy.

ADVANCE REVIEW COMMENTS – 

“If Marshall McLuhan were to rejoin us today, he would be stunned at how much has changed so quickly. Powe’s Membrane text does the update exactly as McLuhan would. The art work by Marshall Soules is nothing short of amazing. He’s a sort of Wyndham Lewis, Marc Chagall, and Picasso rolled into one.” 
– W. Terrence Gordon, author of Marshall McLuhan: Escape into Understanding, dramatist and essayist

“The overlapping of inner and outer landscapes in Powe’s new work transcends the paper membrane and turns the act of reading into an empowering visionary experience. Soules’s images beautifully respond to such a witty form. Together, words and imageries shape a much-needed performative storytelling that fosters transnational civic awareness at a time of dramatic global challenges.” 
– Elena Lamberti, author of Marshall McLuhan’s Mosaic: Probing the Literary Origins of Media Studies, University of Bologna.

The publisher’s listing: http://www.neopoiesispress.com/

 Antenna Head, Havana, 2016


How books irrevocably changed culture, according to media philosopher Marshall McLuhan

Explore McLuhan’s theory on print culture and its influential hold over civilization.

  • Marshall McLuhan said the advent of printed books gave way to print culture, of which he believed went on to shape and mold Western culture’s psyche.
  • McLuhan is well known for his coined phrases, such as “the medium is the message” and the “Global Village.”
  • Misunderstood by many at his time, his prescient prediction of the internet and other implications of electronic culture are issues we still need to address and explore today.

For a brief period of time during the ’60s and ’70s, Marshall McLuhan was a household name. He had an incredible sway and extraordinary influence on American culture. McLuhan was also highly influential in many psychedelic and counterculture circles.Much of his influence in any major intellectual sphere died out in the early ’70s, however.

As we’ve settled into digital culture we know today, McLuhan’s theories and ideas tend to pop up — decades since they were first uttered — for renewed debate and exploration. Some of them are more relevant than ever.

Weaned off the prose of James Joyce, McLuhan was a Joycean scholar, literary critic and, in a greater sense, a medievalist scholar before taking the world stage as a media savant. One of McLuhan’s main theories was that the creation of the printing press led to the Industrial Revolution, and subsequent print media would be the ethereal cultural catalyst and guiding force that brought upon the fragmented and alienated world humans exist in today.

McLuhan had believed that the Age of Print Culture was giving way to a new electronic culture. Many years ahead of his time, and well-read to the umpteenth power, McLuhan’s words take a lot of effort to understand.

Gutenberg’s Galaxy & print culture

Running throughout much of McLuhan’s philosophy was a certain kind of technological determinism. This is the idea that certain media technologies can be more important in framing how the public thinks than the content or context they hold.

Media theorist Neil Postman elucidated this concept quite clearly when he stated,

The printing press, the computer, and television are not therefore simply machines which convey information. They are metaphors through which we conceptualize reality in one way or another. They will classify the world for us, sequence it, frame it, enlarge it, reduce it, argue a case for what it is like. Through these media metaphors, we do not see the world as it is. We see it as our coding systems are. Such is the power of the form of information.

McLuhan’s famed “the medium is the message,” encompasses this ideal when he explained that the printing press, since its inception by Johannes Gutenberg in 1440, immensely shaped and influenced culture, particularly with the advent of books.

When asked about the impact of the invention of the printing press in an interview, McLuhan gave a number of examples of the unexpected consequence of this technology. Of them, was the rise of readerships — audiences.

It created — almost overnight it created — what we call a nationalism, what in effect was a public. The old manuscript forms were not sufficiently powerful instruments of technology to create publics in the sense that print was able to do — unified, homogeneous, reading publics.

Understanding McLuhan’s work has become more important than ever in the dawn of an electronic and interconnected global culture. Through his words we can better acknowledge the influence much older and ancient mediums — in this case, printable type and subsequently books — have had on local and global culture. By this, we can better understand where we are right now. Perhaps even in regard to fake news and widespread misinformation… (Read the rest at https://goo.gl/96M2Rs)

 McLuhan in 1963


 Iain Baxter& (b. 1936)

Iain Baxter& &Information – That famous aphorism ‘the medium is the message’ was spouted by Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian professor, philosopher and public intellectual back 1964, when his book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, set the stage for my current train journey where I overhear the students discussing their A levels. ‘What are you doing?’ ‘Media Studies.’ ‘Oh, that’s useful.’ Some days I think he has changed everything about the world, one of the few truly influential academics and polemics of the twentieth century.

Also Canadian, and a younger contemporary (by 25 years) of McLuhan, the artist BAXTER& took his writings to heart and reapplied the thought to his field of vision, to his fundamental approach to making. Everything he does, it seems to me, thinks about the approach of McLuhan. The puns. The connections. The world of word and speed and time. He does not believe, as a traditional artist does, regarding representation or symbolism but is unhealthily concerned the medium itself. He reflects the space it creates around itself, together with its social effect. This obsession is what marks him out as a conceptual artist. In his visual art, the medium is thick and opaque, always visible. This approach kills art and long live art.

IAIN BAXTER& &Information Hales London

Art is the new lightbulb. It is electricity, purified by this self-analytical gaze. There’s something religious about this self-reflexion. You must never take your eyes of your medium for a moment. If you do, you become unaware, naive. You must consciously keep your eyes on what you are doing, never be fooled by the illusion of painting, of television, of novels. Keep your eyes on the frame of your own self-portrait.

BAXTER& literally made sure he made himself the message in 2005 when he changed his name to from Ian Baxter to Iain BAXTER& by deed poll. It’s a big statement which turns himself into a self-conscious brand. Call it pretension itself. No, there is no point using pretentious as an insult on someone who can never be embarrassed by this idea. So let himself call himself The &Man, creating images of the ampersand. Is it time to stop cringing yet?

BAXTER& claims that the ampersand symbolises the continued collaboration with the viewer, always aware of the social space around the medium (himself). The viewer must join in the new religion and keep the frame of the art within his viewpoint. Don’t forget to look at the frame! Readers, remember this is an article! We are not only talking to each other about BAXTER& and his art but also about the rest of art, about technology, ideology and social organisation!

This exhibition &Information is BAXTER& doing what BAXTER& does. Exploring art as information. Coining words that express his inclusive, expansive idea (do we really need these ideas and words?). BAXTER& is never without a camera, but that doesn’t sound so strange these days as we have all become camera carriers with our magic, multipurpose phones. He has documented and documented going about his daily artist business. Photographs, he has said, primarily act as a memory device and a means to understand the world, predicting the age when they lead to validation on social media… (Read the rest of this article at https://goo.gl/kPWqir).

Biographical Information about Iain Baxter& https://goo.gl/y9KCV3

The Hales Gallery, London, UK https://goo.gl/kWLs38

Also, see McLuhan-Inspired Iain Baxter& honoured with exhibition at AGO on this blog https://goo.gl/GLiKC1


The Hudson’s Bay Company crest includes four beavers and the Latin Pro Pelle Cutem, which translates to “skin for leather.”

By Virginia Heffernan  a WIRED contributor

HAVING GNAWED THEIR way across the Bering Land Bridge with their iron-glazed teeth, beavers by the tens of millions straight-up built North America. They worked like rodent Romans, subjugating the deciduous forests with formidable infrastructure: canals, lodges, dams that can last centuries, and deep still-water pools used to float building materials. By clear-cutting trees and blocking streams, the nocturnal, semiaquatic creatures also damaged the environment in some of the same ways humans do. Much later, beavers unexpectedly became the toast of a rarefied academic circle at the University of Toronto, where they inspired, of all things, media theory.

In The Fur Trade in Canada, Harold Innis, a political economist known for originality and intellectual derring-do, chronicled a fierce four-way battle for domination of Canada from the 17th to the 20th centuries. The combatants were beavers, indigenous trappers, European colonizers, and the merciless environment. These observations led to Innis’ later books, Empire and Communications and The Bias of Communications, both about how certain media (paper, radio, television) contain implicit jingoistic values.

The beavers inspired a media theory that oral, print, and digital media are always biased.

Innis discovered a dynamic tension between enduring media (artifacts like inscribed stone meant to memorialize traditions) and imperial media (artifacts like pamphlets meant to monopolize trade). He identified a bias, toward time or space, implicit in the materials a group used. Hard, heavy stuff could be passed down through generations, where light, ephemeral stuff was best used for far and wide proselytizing.

Because the parties to the fur trade mimicked, and pushed, one another forward—beavers imitated the damming styles of humans, humans dressed as beavers, animal and human cultures fought and fused—their ways of communicating evolved rapidly.

Innis’ germinal work inspired the so-called Toronto School, which helped shape the McLuhan Centre for Culture and Technology, named for Innis’ most famous protégé, Marshall McLuhan. The school then developed a media theory with these tenets: 1. Oral, print, and digital media are always biased. (“The medium is the message.”) 2. Psychological and social states are created primarily by media. 3. New media technologies thoroughly change societies and institutions.

As once they bent the waterways of Canada to their will and left humans scrambling to keep up, now the rodents have a fresh ambition: to establish dominion over still colder latitudes…  (Read the rest of this article here: https://goo.gl/b9PUxk)


Brennan Hall, St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto

CALL FOR PAPERS – Deadline for submission: extended to JAN 15, 2019

The Media Ecology Association invites paper and panel proposals for presentation at its 20th Annual Convention, taking place on 27-30 June 2019 in Toronto.

We welcome submissions that encompass the broad array of disciplines focusing on the study of media as environments, technology and techniques, modes of information, and symbolic codes of communication that constitute media ecology.

We also invite submissions exploring this year’s theme:Media Ethics. Human Ecology in a Connected World”.

In our current hyper-connected era, information and communication technologies are increasingly forming the infrastructure of a new digital human ecosystem which is larger and quicker to evolve than any prior.
This continually transforming and evolving planetary habitat connects all of humanity into, what Marshall McLuhan’s prescient mind termed, a “Global Village”.

Technology and new media’s impact on this ecosystem has a profound effect on every aspect of the human ethos – self-expression, education, values, beliefs, needs, livelihood, enjoyment – and society at large.

Over the past few years, these emerging technologies and unforeseen digital media practices have also given rise to ethical issues, political and societal questions of critical importance to our evolving future.

The countless unintended implications – current or potential – of today’s rapid technological developments have largely come from socio-technical systems and emerging digital, robotic, artificially intelligent, or biomedical technologies. These advances have led to an unprecedented need for new ethical perspectives and frameworks to underpin the building blocks of our new digital ecosystem.

General areas of interest related to this year’s theme include, but are not limited to, the following topics:

  • Artificial intelligence and machine learning
  • Internet of things
  • Robotics and automation
  • Bioengineering
  • Virtual/augmented reality
  • Data ethics, privacy, surveillance, cybersecurity, and data protection
  • Big data and cloud computing
  • Social media algorithms
  • Internet policy
  • Misinformation on social media
  • Propaganda, censorship, and free speech
  • Net Neutrality, openness, and digital inclusion
  • Media integrity in journalism, advertising, public relations
  • Digital citizenship, social and political engagement
  • Entertainment media, digital and media arts
  • Digital literacy and media pedagogy
  • Civil discourse, human dignity, diversity, and individual expression in the media ecosystem
  • Wellbeing sustainability and prosperity in the media environment
  • Innovative interpretations and new ethical perspectives emanating from the Media Ecology intellectual tradition
For further information including Guidelines for Submission, MEA award submissions, Registration Information, the Format of Presentations, Venues and Special Events, Important Dates, and contact information for further information download full CFP information by clicking on Download Call-for-Papers
Call for Art
We also invite proposals for art, in partnership with Media(s)cene, a project inspired by Marshall Mcluhan’s landmark book, The Medium is the Massage, and what Mcluhan called “probes”. selected proposals will be invited for the ”Media(s)cene” art exhibit in Toronto.
Information: https://medium.com/mediascene
Media ecology association website https://www.media-ecology.org/
Convention website http://www.mediaethics.ca
Portion of a bas-relief plaque in front of the Kelly Library at St Mike’s that includes the images of James Joyce, Marshall McLuhan, Étienne Gilson and other notable faculty who taught at St. Mike’s.

R.H. Thompson as Marshall McLuhan in The Message, at the Tarragon Theatre, Toronto (Photo by Cylla Von Teidemann) Click on the image for an expanded view.
  • Title: The Message
  • Written by: Jason Sherman
  • Genre: Comedy-Drama
  • Director: Richard Rose
  • Actors: R.H. Thomson, Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster, Sarah Orenstein, Peter Hutt, Patrick McManus
  • Company: Tarragon Theatre
  • Venue: Tarragon Theatre Mainspace
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: Runs until Dec. 16

Review by Simon Houpt

A little over halfway through The Message, playwright Jason Sherman’s dense and searching head trip into the manic mind of Marshall McLuhan, a slick San Francisco ad man named Gerry Feigen who had helped make the Canadian communications guru a household name pays him a mournful visit. McLuhan has suffered a stroke that has left him ailing and mute, and Feigen, formerly bawdy and brazen when they worked together in the mid-1960s, is now regretful. He wonders if he had overpromised the deliverance McLuhan could offer those souls who had grown disenchanted by the rapid changes in society. “We made you out to be The One,” he says. “But you never said you had the answer, Mac. All you ever said you had was the question.”

There may be a similar burden of expectation hovering over The Message, which marks Sherman’s return to playwriting after years in the mines of TV and other electronic media. It has been 15 years, after all, since the threat of a lawsuit by the McLuhan family halted the play’s production mere months before its scheduled world premiere. If it had something to tell us in 2003 – that is, before the iPhone and Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and YouTube were born and then proceeded to swallow us like Jonah’s whale – then surely the message of The Message has grown ever more urgent. By returning to a man who foresaw the pains of our transitional moment, could we claw our way out of this fix?

So: Enter cautiously. Because, sure, McLuhan famously said “time has ceased … we now live in a global village … a simultaneous happening.” But while The Message is chronologically fractured, do not expect specific references to our own era, or social media, or even the existence of the internet. Its focus remains on McLuhan’s life, which ended on Dec. 31, 1980, at age 69.

We open 15 months earlier, in the hours after McLuhan’s stroke in September, 1979. In an extended blackout scene, a woman calling herself Mary explains that “Father” is angry with McLuhan – who converted to Catholicism at age 26 – for failing to deliver a message to the world. “That’s why he’s done this, Professor – taken your words.” She adds: “Father says you can’t come unless you deliver the message.”

Read the rest of this review at https://goo.gl/vFQmtK.


R.H. Thomson performs the role of Marshall McLuhan during his time of decline & aphasia

I attended a pre-opening performance of The Message last week. I was not impressed by either the play or production I witnessed, indeed I was disappointed. I know R.H. Thomson to be a highly regarded and skilled actor, but he could only work with the script that he was presented with by playwright, Jason Sherman. I found his depiction to be sadly lacking in that his play showed McLuhan during only two stages of his life, shifting back and forth between these two phases: first, there was the period after 1967-68 when he had been on sabbatical at Fordham University in New York, during which time he was afflicted by a benign but large brain tumor that required an overnight many-hour operation (see https://goo.gl/Mjs8pg); second, we are also presented McLuhan in an aphasic state during his final year, at which time his most common verbalization was “Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy”. In other words, we never see a depiction of the brilliant genius who was foundational for the new academic field of media studies, was hailed as “Canada’s intellectual comet” by Richard Schickel of Harper’s Magazine (1965), and who author Tom Wolfe compared to Newton, Darwin, Freud and Einstein. Therefore, uninformed theatre audiences without knowledge of McLuhan might be left with the impression that even before the major stroke that left him speechless, McLuhan was little more than an absent-minded professor who even his secretary, Margaret Stewart couldn’t understand. That is utterly misleading and an unfortunate misrepresentation. No wonder Corinne McLuhan, McLuhan’s wife and the McLuhan Estate, objected to the play in the first place. I could say much more but, maybe I will write a full separate review of this disappointing play and production. – Alex Kuskis

By Brad Wheeler, Toronto Globe & Mail – November 12, 20018

How big was Marshall McLuhan in the late 1960s? The San Francisco Chronicle dubbed the University of Toronto professor “the hottest academic property around,” and the line “Marshall McLuhan, whatcha doin’?” was featured on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, delivered by a giggling Goldie Hawn.

Here’s the thing about McLuhan that nobody likes to talk about, though: In 1967, at age 56, he underwent surgery for the removal of a benign growth in his head. The operation – described by McLuhan biographer Douglas Coupland as a “gross insult to the brain” – extended his life, but may have cost him some of his genius.

Recently I came across a story about the time McLuhan met John Lennon and Yoko Ono in Canada in 1969. For an interview organized by the CBC, the eccentric communications theorist talked to the rock-star couple about their “War is Over” media campaign. He was intrigued not by the duo’s peace message but the medium that carried it: Billboards.

McLuhan seemed a bit off his game. “I just sort of wonder how the ‘War is Over,’ the wording, the whole thinking,” McLuhan began the interview, stumbling from the get-go. “What happened?” Lennon answered that the basic idea was Ono’s, and that they had an idea for Christmas that was a “bit too vast,” but that something would happen, “maybe,” in the following year.

And so it went – a real egghead fandango. McLuhan, the darling of the elbow-patch-and-turtleneck set, wasn’t going to get to the bottom of the ideas held by Lennon and Ono. In his absent-minded state, he sometimes had a tough enough time getting to the bottom of his own. “I don’t necessarily agree with everything that I say,” McLuhan once said. He was, jokes a character in a curious new play by Jason Sherman, “a man of a thousand ideas, three of them completed.”

The Message – the title is taken from McLuhan’s oft-quoted maxim, “the medium is the message” – opens on Nov. 14 at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre. The play has a long and controversial history. Fifteen years ago, The Message was scheduled to kick off Tarragon’s 2003-04 season. But after reading a draft of the play, McLuhan’s eldest son Eric and the estate’s literary agent, Matie Molinaro, objected to some of the content and threatened to sue Sherman.

As a result, The Message was put on the shelf. Sherman, a Governor-General’s Literary Award winner, busied himself with other projects. For the last decade, he’s concentrated on writing for radio and television. But, earlier this year, out of the blue, it was announced that Sherman had returned to Tarragon as its playwright-in-residence and that The Message was being dusted off for its long-awaited world premiere. Questions abounded: What took so long? Why now? What about the lawsuit? In short, whatcha doin’, Jason Sherman?

Initially, Sherman wasn’t interested in giving answers. The Message had undergone significant alterations since its contentious beginnings 15 years earlier, I was told by Tarragon Theatre, and Sherman didn’t want to talk about the play just yet. Fair enough. I interviewed him for a short feature about his return to writing for the stage with the understanding that we’d talk about The Message closer to its premiere.

A couple of weeks before The Message was set to open, however, I was informed by Tarragon that Sherman was game to talk about the play… (Read the rest of this article here https://goo.gl/QS1ZFP)

Read the previous announcement of this production on this blog here – Play about Marshall McLuhan to premiere after long and controversial history – https://goo.gl/3emM6k

 Jason Sherman, playwright