Interview

Marshall McLuhan March 7 1977

Interview

Marshall McLuhan March 7 1977

Interview

With Professor Marshall McLuhan

He is a rangy, craggy man in tweeds who somehow contrives to look like most of the things he is—a 65-year-old onetime engineering student turned English professor, a Westerner who has lived most of his life in eastern Canada, a Baptist turned Roman Catholic. What Herbert Marshall McLuhan does not really resemble is the popular conception of a pop guru, the oracle of electronic media, the celebrated interpreter of the global village. McLuhan’s reputation was a long time in building. In 1951 his analysis of the techniques and impact of advertising in The Mechanical Bride resulted in stacks of unsold copies. Today, the original editions are collectors’ items. More than a decade later The Gutenberg Galaxy won academic acclaim and McLuhan’s books (nearly a dozen) since then have made him one of his era's most celebrated— and, at times, most misunderstood—intellectuals. When Toronto free-lance journalist Casey Baldwin interviewed him in McLuhan’s large and comfortable house in midtown Toronto, his host was seated at his dining-room table surrounded by galley proofs of his forthcoming volume, The City As Classroom. The new book reflects the interpretative tool that is McLuhan’s principal preoccupation these days: research into brain operations that focus on the differing functions of the right and left brain hemispheres. In McLuhan’s view, the Western world has historically been dominated by the left hemisphere, which is verbal, sequential, intellectual, analytic. Now, today’s television generation is far more influenced by the right hemisphere—spatial, emotional and intuitive.

Maclean’s: You say our world is logical, lineal, left hemisphere and the emerging Third World is basically tribal, one of right hemispheres trying to go left. What then is Quebec?

McLuhan: The effect of information is not to pull people together. It makes people feel independent when information is available everywhere. Everybody feels that they are able to make it alone. This is maybe an illusion but it happens at the speed of light, which is electric speed. Every place in the world is pulling away from every other place. I think there’s an article in Horizon explaining there are 99 separatist movements in Europe. The French are not getting closer to Canada because the world is now a small place. Maclean’s: But we call this nationalism, which is a very old concept.

McLuhan: Nationalism is very old hardware, based on the printed word. Because when people began to see their own tongue in print, visually, it gave them a tremendous boost, egotistically. Nationalism was a huge ego trip for groups, seeing their language in print for the first time, in the 16th century.

Maclean’s: When their identity became separate from themselves.

McLuhan: And very strong, intense. Nationalism belongs to the left hemisphere entirely. Whereas regionalism and separatism belong to right hemisphere, which is the electric world.

Maclean’s: So, René Lévesque is of the right hemisphere?

McLuhan: Probably most of his thinking is left hemisphere but his political reality, the separatist thing, is right hemisphere. Most of these people don’t have a clue as to what they’re in the middle of. That’s why the French [Canadians] are scared today. They didn’t know what they might do in that election, so they’re scared. They say they really can’t afford to be separate. They’re now saying this open ly: “We can’tqifford it, our standard of living would go down in a shot if we separated.” and so they’re hav-

CLARK COULD NOT SIT IN TRUDEAU’S CHAIR AND RUN BOTH FRENCH AND ENGLISH CANADA

ing big second thoughts right now about everything. There will be no separatism. That is in the hardware sense; they will not pull out. Psychologically, they’re separate already. They have been for a long time. Maclean’s: Are Trudeau and Lévesque very similar?

McLuhan: I really don’t know enough about them. I would say that Trudeau by comparison to Lévesque is a Roman senator, a stern figure. Whereas Lévesque is very agile, very flexible. But Trudeau is relatively stern and sombre. Lévesque is a chameleon.

Maclean’s: I would have thought that Trudeau was a chameleon in a way too. McLuhan: Well, only compared to the WASP. You have to be a split person to run the country because it doesn’t matter what Trudeau says, whatever he says that we can hear sounds exactly opposite to the French. Because if it satisfies us. it’s obviously no good for them, that’s all. And they can use our satisfaction as their dissatisfaction. On the other hand, only an exceedingly bilingual-bicultural man could sit where Trudeau is sitting. I mean, Joe Clark is not going to sit in Trudeau’s chair and run both French Canada and English Canada. There’s no way that he could do it. Maclean’s: When Pierre Elliott Trudeau came to you in 1967, as he was running for the leadership . . .

McLuhan: He never came to me at any time. That’s a pure myth. Though we have met and we have corresponded. And he does read my stuff.

Maclean’s: Is he just one of those natural television people?

McLuhan: You see, TV will not take a face, it has to have a mask. That’s why the Jimmy Carters and the John F. Kennedys were good people for TV because they didn’t have a face, they had a mask. That applies to Trudeau as well. Trudeau has the mask of an American Indian and it’s a potent mask. The American Indian does not have a private face. He has the face of his tribe, his clan. Now, that’s good TV. It’s called charisma.

Maclean’s: Carter has just been successful with what you call a tribal mask but Trudeau is in trouble.

McLuhan: Yes, but after all he’s governing two countries at once. Who can run two widely different countries at the same time? It’s like riding two horses and they’re not going in the same direction. The ordinary guy today, whether he is married or working, is riding two horses going opposite ways. The whole job structure is based on the left hemisphere, but the new atmosphere that is influencing decisions is all right hemisphere, electric. So, between the old hardware and the new software there is a violent divergence.The two things are incompatible. So, what is happening with the ordinary executive is that instead of being a job holder he has to become a role player. Maclean’s: Why did Jimmy Carter, after his inauguration, choose to walk rather than drive down Pennsylvania A venue? McLuhan: Grass Roots on the pavement— it’s as close to grass roots as you can get walking. Carter, though, in a much larger pattern is nostalgic because he is the first person from the deep south to ever be in the White House. He belongs to that Baptist world of jazz, old Satchmo and rock and roll. He comes right out of that rock and roll world, which appeals to the blacks and to the kids, so it’s very nostalgic. But his culture is too. That is, the deep south is an ear culture by definition and the southern accent is a group. You see, the northern accent is a private speech, so that’s why they’re amused at southern vowels. Notice that when you’re saying “you all,” you’re talking about a group. You’re not talking as a private person. It’s not private and so as a result it’s alien to the Yankee world of individualism.

Maclean’s: Back in 1951, you attempted to expose the manipulative processes of selling in The Mechanical Bride. What do you feel about advertising?

McLuhan: Well, it’s all aggression. The developers are aggression. All forms of program change tend to be aggression and of course the draft, the military draft is an extreme aggression. A force against people. But Madison Avenue is a very powerful aggression against private consciousness. A demand that you yield your private consciousness to public manipulation. Maclean’s: But if you were to take that further and make the manipulation that advertising uses conscious, it would no longer be effective.

McLuhan: Yes, that’s what I’m trying to do with the media, that’s what I call understanding the media. All the media have these subliminal effects on the public. Understanding the media enables you to surface those effects. Most people resent having the subliminal part of their world surface. This happens even in a lab where they are able to show you that on the periphery of the eye you are watching a great number of things that you could deliberately keep out of the centre of your focus. And they found that when they bring the peripheral material into centre focus, people get quite angry. They don’t want to see what’s out there. So. there’s a strange resistance on the part of people to the subliminal message as something that becomes conscious.

Maclean’s: Isn 7 it a waste to have left hemisphere businessmen programming a right hemisphere resource, i.e. television? McLuhan: Well, the effect of television is certainly to turn off the left hemisphere, and insofar as it is being used by mainly left hemisphere people that is sort of against the grain, TV itself cries out for right hemisphere programming, and you say that it has been programmed by left hemisphered people. That's probably true because we have a left hemisphere establishment. They are the people in control of bureaucracy; bureaucracy is all left hemisphere. The day when bureaucracy becomes, or finds a way of becoming, right hemisphere that will be Utopia. But bureaucracy as such is left hemisphere and so, you say they are the people who program our media, especially television. Well, insofar as they are single-minded in their pursuit of gain, they’re going to discover sooner or later that they can make more money from good programming than bad programming. In other words, right hemisphered programming would pay better. Gone With The Wind was real right hemisphere programming. [Novelist Arthur] Haley’s shows are documentaries showing a large syndrome, vortices of energy exerted by big groups of people. Maclean’s: What about Airport and Earthquake?

ORWELL’S‘1984’ ISN’T A PREDICTION AT ALL. IT’S NOSTALGIA FROM 1934 AND THE TWENTIES

McLuhan: And even The Moneychangers. You see those are big corporate processes in the community and they are good TV, because they concern processes. Right hemisphere is strong on process, weak on story line.

Maclean’s: Which hemisphere is dominant in Marshall McLuhan?

McLuhan: My whole natural bent is right hemisphere but my academic training was all left hemisphere, and so was yours. Anybody who’s been to school is a left hemisphere person; on the other hand, if they have an artistic bent, that means they’re in head-on clash all the time with everything they’re learning, which is normal. But now we are living in a right hemisphere environment. The environment of the older world had been left hemisphere because it was lineal, everything was connected. At the speed of light, at the speed of the telegraph and the telephone and TV, the simultaneous world takes over and you go right hemisphere.

Maclean’s: How are children being altered now that they’re growing up totally exposed to television?

McLuhan: It isn’t only TV, you see; they now live in an environment of electric services which are all simultaneous. We take that for granted. It’s a whole culture— the whole right hemisphere gets pushed up into dominance and the left hemisphere, which had been dominant for 2,400 years, is pushed down. Between the parents brought up on the left hemisphere dominance and the children brought up on the sudden right hemisphere dominance, there’s a sudden 2,400-year gap. Maclean’s: Is this exemplified by the young people growing up in the Sixties? McLuhan: They were the first TV generation. They were 20 years old. The first moment of network TV was in ’49. By the Sixties they were 19 or 20 years old. That was the first TV generation. Now they’ve flipped but they're straightening out again, at least temporarily. Now the whole culture is flipping.

Maclean’s: That’s interesting. In the Sixties you had the first right hemisphere people; have they temporarily lapsed? McLuhan: No, they’re just trying to recover their relation to the old world behind them. That is the jobs and the work in the world are still left hemisphere. The whole establishment is still left hemisphere. So, they’ve had time now to take stock and decide that they will make a few concessions to that old situation because they want a job. So they’ll learn to read and write a little bit, but not too much. They steer around the books and read notes, use other people's notes, but they don’t read books. Maclean’s: What about the current craze for nostalgia?

McLuhan: Well, when things change at very high speeds, a need for continuity develops. You see, you’re in such a complete discontinuity at high speed. Everything you’re looking at now is gone in a second and our demands are to hang on to older things. So the antique stores and the love of taking the varnish off of old tables, revealing their original state, and that sort of thing is a passion today. In order to think, you have to forget most of what you are experiencing in order to relate it to earlier things that you knew, otherwise you can’t infer anything from what you are seeing. So, at the speed of light, which is now the normal speed of most information, on TV, radio, telephone and so on—at that speed the need to forget has become a form of nostalgia.

Maclean’s: Then in essence George Orwell’s 1984 is a kind of permanent nostalgia. McLuhan: Yes, I think so; it [1984] was not a prediction at all. It’s nostalgia from 1934. All Utopias are rearview mirrors. They’re always one century back. Yes, Orwell’s 1984 is a replay of 1934 and the 1920s. All those things that happened then. He made them surface. “New Speak,” for heavens sake, was Time magazine. He made all those things push up a bit into a tension and called it the future.

Maclean’s: What about current North American society which Tom Wolfe has described as the generation of self-indulgent individuals all screaming to get back in touch with each other?

McLuhan: When things come at you very fast, naturally you lose touch with yourself. Anybody moving into a new world loses identity. If you go to China, and you’ve never been there before, you’re a nobody. You can’t relate to anything there. So, loss of identity is something that happens in rapid change. But everybody at the speed of light tends to become a nobody. This is what’s called the “Masked-Man” by the way. The masked man has no identity. He is so deeply involved in other people that he doesn’t have any personal identity. Maclean’s: And this is why people have to go to group encounter classes in order to learn how to touch?

McLuhan: It’s why they have to kill in order to find out whether they’re real. This is where the violence comes from. This meaningless slaying around our streets is the work of people who have lost all identity, and who have to kill in order to know if they’re real or if the other guy’s real. I suppose that one could even produce a theory of war to say that when a certain amount of technological changes happen very quickly to a whole community, they are so lost about who they are that they want a basic war to find out. It’s another way of crashing through to find one’s identity. Violence as a form of quest for identity is something the people who have been ripped off feel the need of. He’s going to show who he is, what his credentials are, that he’s tough. So anybody on a psychic frontier tends to get tough or violent and it’s happening to us on a mass scale today. Maclean’s: How is it that you out of all the people in the world happen to be the high priest of electronic insight?

McLuhan: Well, you see, I know so many people like [the Canadian historian] Harold Innis, who showed me most of what I know. Harold Innis is the real freak. How did that hick Baptist ever come up with this amazing method of studying the effects of technology? His colleagues, by the way, have never followed in his tracks. They always take their hats off to Harold Innis and they have never read his work because it is partially right hemisphere and they are utterly left. They can’t read it. He’s one of the first people in the history of the Western world that made the right hemisphere study of very important things. As an econ-

omist Innis spent an enormous amount of his attention on what we call staples in economics, that means, lumber, paper, metal, Tir trade and so on. He also began to study ordinary media and the communications field as a part of his study of the pulp and paper industry.

Maclean’s: You say most people don’t see the social effects of environment but in a way it’s becoming the new bad guy.

McLuhan: It’s King Kong, you see—when the environment gets so big that the ordinary dweller therein feels crushed. That’s King Kong. The environment itself becomes the villain. That’s the meaning of pollution. The environment is villain. That is the new thing and Jaws, Inferno are all telling us how people feel living in these damned environments. They were not given to us by nature, that’s why we feel so helpless. We did this to ourselves. You see, for centuries we were able to pollute and pollute and pollute with impunity. But suddenly the man-made environment outclasses nature. It’s bigger and when the man-made environment becomes bigger— and of course nature is not there to purify anything anymore—then it’s King Kong just stepping on you.

TOGETHER PEOPLE' DON’T NEED ALCOHOL TO BE SOCIABLE. THE ‘WASP’ NEEDS A LOT

Maclean’s: One thing young and old seem to agree on is the great need for ecology and conservation.

McLuhan: Now the left hemisphere man does this like the Club of Rome, by quantifying and saying we’re running out of potatoes, we’re running out of oil, we’re running out of minerals, we’re running out of air, we’re running out. That’s left hemisphere. That’s quantity of life. The quality of life people simply say okay, you don’t have to run out of any of these things. You just have to be able to be more sensible about the way you live. The left hemisphere guy would never dream of any program of self-government or self-control. Maclean’s: How much TV is advisable for children?

McLuhan: Oh well, I think the safe way is to ration it almost to nothing. It’s just like exposure to radioactivity. It’s a quantitative matter, I think in that extent. The TV thing itself is very, very polluting. It goes right into the nervous system. The problem is how literate is your society, your family circle, your immediate circle. Y our child is coming out in an intensely literate world, so he can take a fair amount of TV without too much harm. But to the ordinary kid without a lot of literacy, TV will just turn off any possibility of left hemisphere. It’s like, for example, booze. Nonliterate societies cannot touch it. They just go berserk. Only a literate man can drink alcohol; only the Western world is able to drink it.

Maclean’s: What about marijuana and hallucinogenic drugs then?

McLuhan: Well that’s getting very close to television. That is to say it is an inner trip; alcohol is not inner trip, you see. It’s just another way of getting together socially, outside—an outer trip.

Maclean’s: So then it’s artificial right hemisphere.

McLuhan: Well, yeah, up to a point. You see literate people are so far away, so nontogether that they need quite a lot of alcohol just to be social, whereas the highly together people don’t need alcohol to be sociable. The WASP needs quite a lot of alcohol to be sociable but the non-WASP world doesn't need it and so they tend to drink soft liquor, they drink wines and so on but they would never touch hard stuff. And the fact is that they are very illequipped to put up with it, you see. Because they’re not visual people anymore. They’re right hemisphere people and they’re together. They’re very social and they’re very groovy and all that. Maclean’s: We have a whole new generation of North Americans who are objecting to the left hemisphere and their literacy and striving for the right, but they don’t seem to have really reached that either. They seem to be in a sort of no-man ’s-land.

McLuhan: I agree, I agree. I think so. But it’s a way of saying that we really haven’t got our categories straightened out yet. It’s a horrible scramble. All the conventions have been so scrambled by rapid change that we haven’t sorted anything out. We don’t have any more guidelines socially. You see, that’s why the families fall apart and the kids are all shacking up. The kids would be more at home in an old-fashioned world. You know, that’s why they want to go back to old-fashioned situations. They are Third World kids pushed into a First World environment. It’s very tough. None of the old classifications, none of the old patterns make sense to them.^