Was it a Happening? Was it a huge practical joke staged by a bunch of mad professors? Or was it a serious tribute to the best-known, least-understood, most strikingly original mind ever spawned in Canada?
Actually, this strange exhibition, set up last January in the big, cement-floored armory at the University of British Columbia, was a bit of all three. It had overtones of dada and pop art, it puzzled, alarmed or amused most of the people who went through it, and the entire exhibition was designed to illustrate the increasingly fashionable theories of Dr. Herbert Marshall McLuhan, the University of Toronto English professor whose notions on how mass communications affect human society are becoming the object of a worldwide intellectual cult. This sensory fun house was probably the wildest, funniest tribute ever accorded a living Canadian, and here is what happened when you walked inside:
The centre of the armory was draped with big sheets of plastic, suspended from the ceiling to form a maze that people wandered through in no particular sequence. As they wandered, strange things happened. The exhibition’s designers, a group of McLuhan devotees on the UBC faculty, had placed slide projectors around the maze, and instructed their operators to use them like guns, aiming them at the ceiling, at the plastic curtains, onto the floor, or splattering the crowd itself with abstract projected images. They’d also scattered hunks of sculpture around, and they blasted the crowd with weird noises from hidden loudspeakers and ran off a long meaningless movie that showed nothing but the empty armory.
They had somebody standing on a podium hammering on a block of wood. They had bells and noisemakers hanging from the ceiling. They had dancers pirouetting through the crowd at unexpected intervals. Best of all. they’d rigged up something called a Sculptured Wall. This turned out to be a frame with stretch fabric pinned across it and a girl standing behind it, squirming up against it and — Great Hera! — you were supposed to palpate this squirming form from your side of the screen so you’d know what tactile communication was all about!
According to Abraham Rogatnick, the UBC architecture professor who staged it, the exhibition was supposed to illustrate McLuhan’s basic contention: that the various communications media have a built-in tendency to favor one or another of our senses; and that this sensory bias affects people and cultures in strange and little-understood ways. By exposing his audience to strange sounds, unexpected forms and new experiences in “touching” (like that girl behind the screen), Rogatnick was trying to reshuffle the sense patterns that his audience had acquired from a lifetime of reading books.
Anyhow, that was the general idea. Rogatnick feels it was a success; part of the audience, as he afterward expressed it, reacted with “swooning wonderment.” But what UBC’s wondrous McLuhan Festival really proved was that McLuhan the man (who was too busy to attend his own Happening) is rapidly being supplanted by McLuhanism — a holy new cult, with intellectual epopts scattered across the Western world, preaching a body of made-in-Toronto doctrine that eventually may alter much of our thinking about how to cope with the twentieth century.
McLuhan the man is a fifty-four-year-old Winnipeg native who was graduated from the University of Manitoba and from Cambridge, has taught English for the past twenty - one years at St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto and has, since 1963, been director of an academic talkshop known as the Centre For Culture And Technology. With his purposeful stride, his saucer-sized bald spot, his instinctive Oxbridge courtesy, his Roman Catholicism (he’s a convert), his wife and six children, his book-strewn office in an old house at the edge of the campus, McLuhan is a solid if highly visible citizen of the Canadian academic community.
Outside Canada, however, McLuhan has become an ism — a distinction shared by practically no other Canadian. Already, he is worldfamous — not massively famous like, say, Arnold Toynbee, but with the sort of furtive underground renown that has made his theories seem urgent to intellectual faddists and frontiersmen from Paris to Peru.
Important people, such as admen and bigname professors, have been known to fly in from such places as Zurich and San Francisco, just to lunch with McLuhan. His books (he’s published three, collaborated on a fourth, is writing two more) are reviewed as a matter of course in all the O. K. publications such as the Times Lit. Supp., and are beginning to be noticed in the mass-circulation magazines as well.
In the French little magazines, the kind that run scholarly reviews on old American gangster movies, you’ll often find knowing references to mcluhanisme. His slogans (“global village,” “the medium is the message”) are beginning to enjoy the same popular currency as the Freudian jargon of half a century ago. UBC has run an extension course on understanding McLuhan. His disciples are beginning to infiltrate ad agencies, curriculum committees and newspaper offices across the country.
He is the recipient of many of the conventional baubles of scholarly recognition (Ford Foundation grants, a Governor - General’s Award). But his real importance stems from the fact that, all over the Western world, it is becoming mandatory for people who consider themselves avant - garde to know about McLuhan. Senior members of New York's pop establishment, such as artist Larry Rivers or electronic composer John Cage, are earnest devotees. Time has a girl in New York who docs nothing but write memos for the magazine’s editors on coming trends. And it is known that — recognition! — she did McLuhan several months ago. “I’m convinced,” says Alan Thomas, director of the Canadian Association For Adult Education, “that he’s one of the few really great imaginations in the world today.”
An increasing number of intellectuals — to say nothing of the flintyeyed businessmen from Bell Telephone or General Electric who pay him to lecture at advanced management seminars — think so, too. Indeed, McLuhanism shows signs of becoming the hottest intellectual fad since Zen Buddhism. Some of his admirers go even further: McLuhanism, they say, might turn out to be one of the big ideas, on the order of Marxism, Freudianism or Existentialism, that could reshape our view of the contemporary world.
Although his sloganizing, his jargon, the very boldness of his ideas, have given him a reputation for being practically incomprehensible, McLuhan’s basic notion is quite simple: that the means by which we communicate determine how we think and feel.
In primitive society, man communicates verbally. Nearly everything he knows about his world he learns by listening. This dependence on the ear, this “sensory bias,” is the most basic characteristic of primitive man.
With the invention of the phonetic alphabet, everything changes. For the first time, information can be communicated by translating sounds into visual symbols. Suddenly, the eye becomes more important than the ear. This new sensory bias transforms human society and the human psyche. For the first time, thought and action become separated. Man's alienation — his feeling of isolation from his environment — becomes part of the human condition. Specialization becomes possible, because information can now be stored and categorized.
Then comes an explosion: the invention of printing which, more than ever before, imposes a sequential, one-thing-at-a-time order on human thought. Primitive man’s total involvement with his ear-oriented world is replaced by something new: a detached, private viewpoint. In this eye-oriented culture, man stands apart from his world. He is no longer a single cell in the social organism. He becomes an individual; and all our notions of democracy, nationality, privacy. and personal freedom stem from this notion of individuality.
Even man’s perception of space is affected by this print-dominated view of the world. It is no accident, McLuhan believes, that painters discovered perspective around the time that book culture became dominant. This painterly convention the buildings receding into the distance and so on — was simply a reflection of man's new print-induced tendency to see himself at the centre of, but an entity separate from, his environment.
This change (McLuhan calls it the Gutenberg revolution) began with the Renaissance. Today, he believes, print culture is being superseded by another revolution—the increasing dominance of electronic media such as television, telephones and computers. And how is this electronic revolution affecting us? According to McLuhan, it is restoring our reliance on the ear. It is reordering our sense priorities into new patterns — patterns that closely resemble those of primitive man. More rapidly than we can imagine, we are changing from a society of private individuals into a vast tribal community — which McLuhan calls the “global village.”
Our old patterns of linear, one-ata-time perception are breaking down against the electronic onslaught. Television, for instance, does not give us information in an orderly linear pattern. It swarms all over us, floods us with images, demands a level of involvement and participation which the detached medium of print does not require. In this respect, McLuhan believes, we are experiencing TV much as primitive man experienced his natural environment — simultaneously, using all his senses at once, and as a participant rather than as a spectator.
Viewed in this light, contemporary culture becomes more comprehensible and much less frightening. The McLuhanist can observe with equanimity the galloping tribalism of a teenage dance party on TV; he knows that he’s watching the first truly electronic generation. How they behave today may foreshadow how we’ll all behave tomorrow.
He is also confident that art, from the cave paintings of Lascaux to the pop billboards of Robert Rauschenberg, is mainly a reflection of the development of communications. He is less concerned with the actual content of press, radio and TV than with the mere fact of their exposure. And, if he can follow the master’s imaginative leaps, the McLuhanist can visualize the human race some day communicating through computers the size of hearing aids, thus creating a new level of global consciousness. This is a new format for the vision of human perfectibility that has obsessed artists from William Blake to Henry Miller.
Such speculation is extremely rarified, but McLuhan also applies his theories to more mundane situations. He sees the cold war, for instance, largely as a conflict between cultures where different sense priorities prevail. We're eye-oriented. The Russians, with their limited tradition of literacy, are ear-oriented. This, he says, is why the Russians reacted so violently to the visual espionage of the American U-2 spy flights, and why the eyeoriented Americans reacted equally violently to electronic eavesdropping in their Moscow embassy. “Each regards the other’s method as an atrocious violation of privacy,” he says. “And we’ll go right on banging our heads into a wall unless we realize that these basic differences in approach exist.”
McLuhan’s own method of inquiry is a reflection of the new, electronic modes of perception that he’s theorizing about. Instead of taking things one at a time and, in the traditional academic manner, proving one step before proceeding to the next, McLuhan attacks problems from all sides at once. He calls this the “mosaic” approach. He is not obsessively concerned with facts, or even with conclusions. Thinking about a problem, kicking it around, seems more important than solving it. One former colleague explains the McLuhan method this way: “Marshall claims he’s a scientist. I’ve never agreed with that. I think he's a poet. You can’t argue with him, just as you can't argue with Tennyson or Browning. All you can do is allow yourself to be drawn into the world which they’ve created.”
For many of his followers, this is one of McLuhanism’s great attractions. It is as much a way of thinking as a body of thought. And to enter McLuhan’s world can be a very comforting experience.
For one thing, McLuhanism can be used to interpret anything, from the Beatles to Plato, from Cézanne to the Chinese bomb. For another, McLuhan draws much of his subject matter from the artifacts of pop culture — and nothing could possibly be more endearing to your 1965 intellectual than a newly minted theory that makes Batman, Andy Warhol and the Rolling Stones all seem meaningful. Finally, McLuhanism is a hopeful creed. Instead of despairing at man’s fate in a machine-dominated world, McLuhan sees electronic technology as Western man’s salvation — the means by which he will regain his psychic unity.
If these attractions explain why McLuhan is this year’s O.K. philosopher, they also help to explain why he encounters so much hostility, especially at home. McLuhanists — including Herr Doktor himself — have an infuriating tendency to dismiss their critics as pre-electronic reactionaries. After a typical display of McLuhan’s pin-wheel logic at a Hart House lecture in 1958, one student pointed out that he’d baldly contradicted himself about twenty-eight times in the past half-hour. It was an able rebuttal, but McLuhan was imperturbable. “You see,” he said coolly, “you’re still thinking lineally.”
Many academics, encountering this mosaic approach for the first time, have ascribed it to plain arrogance. Lister Sinclair, who is heavily committed to literacy, dismissed McLuhan’s latest book, Understanding Media, as an elaborate intellectual con game: “He writes like a mad jackdaw. He has become a writer and he can’t write. He has become an authority on communication and he can’t communicate.” (That last phrase, by the way, has already become a thundering anti-McLuhan cliché.)
Other critics simply regard his insights as dim mysterious glimpses into the obvious; and they resent the reputation he’s acquired as a result. Said one Oxford man, after seeing him holding court in the rooftop lounge of the Park Plaza Hotel before an adoring circle of visiting Americans, “It was rather unpleasant to watch. All that uncritical adulation. He was so hypnotic that their eyes were glazing over. The man is dangerous, for the same reason that Hitler was dangerous.”
This is a fairly ornate assessment, but it points up an important thing about McLuhan: he is a man of prodigious energy and of unnerving persuasive powers. If it weren’t for his charm, his Hush Poppies, his shaggy suits (which one student describes as “looking like a Normandy hedge”) and his general air of winsome humanity, you might suppose he was an elaborate piece of circuitry that was fashioned on the planet Krypton, buried in a time capsule for several centuries and hatched, with its theories fully formed, on the soccer field next to Hart House.
For he practically never stops talking about McLuhanism. “Fve never seen a mind work so incessantly,” says W. T. Easterbrook. chairman of U. of T’s political-science department and a close friend since their college days in Manitoba. “He's a twenty-four-hour-a-day man. He's got total involvement."
McLuhan’s tireless involvement with his own ideas made him a standout at the University of Manitoba where, says Easterbrook, “it was always difficult to tell who was running the seminars — the professor or McLuhan." It whisked him through Cambridge, where his studies of the French symbolist poets gave him his first glimmerings of the effect of communications on the senses — a hunch that grew relentlessly into the full-blown theory he preaches today. And. after teaching stints in Wisconsin and Missouri. McLuhan’s involvement earned him an early reputation as a large-bore thinker at the University of Toronto, where his chief influence was the late Harold Innis. (Innis, among other things, explored the effects of the phonetic alphabet on early civilization; McLuhan describes one of his own books, The Gutenberg Galaxy, as “a footnote of explanation to Innis's work.”)
The McLuhan involvement also led to his appointment as director of the Centre For Culture And Technology. At present, the centre consists of a group of professors and graduate students who meet Monday nights in a converted bookstore building on the U. of T. campus to discuss everything from colonialism to physical education, with McLuhan presiding as moderator.
One purpose of the centre is to provide what academics like to call “an interdisciplinary dialogue” between thinkers in the sciences and the humanities. But a secondary purpose of the centre — and this may be a more significant tribute than UBC’s sensory fun house — is to submit McLuhan’s ideas to rigorous scientific examination. The glaring weakness of many of his claims is that, bluntly, nobody knows whether they're true. Even his closest associates at the centre are frankly dubious about much of McLuhan’s message. Says centre member Dr. Arthur Porter, who built one of the world's first analog computers in the 1930s, “McLuhanists talk glibly about these levels of perception, but I’m not sure they can be measured. It’s going to be fantastically difficult, but we’re going to give it a try.”
To do so, the centre's spokesmen have proposed an intriguing variety of experiments. One idea is to test the sensory preferences of a cross section of the Canadian population in much the same way that Dr. Gallup samples opinions. According to Harley Parker, chief designer at the Royal Ontario Museum and one of McLuhan’s most devoted acolytes, this might involve sending out “sensory kits” to thousands of people, to find out whether they prefer, say, the feel of velvet to the feel of corduroy, or prefer the tape-recorded whine of a buzzsaw to the drone of an outboard motor.
There's also been talk of sending a research team to Athens to study the sensory effects of the introduction of television.
And next October. Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum is opening a new gallery, designed by Harley Parker, which will be a sort of permanent, floating McLuhan festival. The gallery is a display for invertebrate paleontology and it's like no other museum display on earth. Parker, who says it wouldn't have been possible to build without McLuhan’s insights, has included a whole bag of sensory gimmicks — the smell of the sea, the tape-recorded wash of the waves, colored lights to simulate undersea conditions. “I regard this,” says Parker, “as a gallery of total sensory involvement — not just a gallery of data. The visual, tactile and kinetic are going to work to give a total experience. It's pure McLuhanism.”
All sorts of people are beginning to talk like this. With Parker's eighteen-thousand-dollar gallery at the ROM, and with the undisclosed sum of money that an undisclosed corporation has sunk into the Centre For Culture And Technology, McLuhanism has reached some kind of pragmatic plateau. People are actually investing money in his ideas. One wonders where it will all end.