All of the critic Marshall McLuhan's work is about communication, so taking stock of his rhetorical inventory in his letters is dizzying work. He appears to have an easy facility with faking the truth — it is a means to an end, like any editorial workaround, or smash cut. He was capable of expressing himself facily in a variety of situations, but he often worked hard to obscure the point. His casual correspondence comprises a complete theoretical gesture on behalf of a person you're never sure exists. In letters to Hubert Humphrey, Tom Wolfe, John Cage, Buckminster Fuller, and Woody Allen among others, he demonstrates a panacea for the disconnected.
Ashley Montagu was a British-American anthropologist born Israel Ehrenberg.
August 10th, 1964
to ASHLEY MONTAGU
Good of you to ask me to contribute to your volume. Perhaps if you had a look at my Understanding Media: the Extensions of Man you would have some ideas of what you would like me to do.
One thing that comes to mind that is not in that volume concerns the habit of new media in swallowing older media, transforming them strangely. Perhaps the latest example is the swallowing of film by TV. The press had swallowed the book, and film had swallowed the press earlier. This had gone on since the origin of script, as is magnificently illustrated by Eric Havelock in his Preface to Plato. When swallowed, the older media tend to become high-class art forms. The new medium is never considered an art form, but only a degradation of the older form. This piece could be called "Inside the Whale."
September 17th, 1964
to BUCKMINSTER FULLER
I was not at all happy about missing the seminar this summer. There was too much on the plate here.
Have a good deal of luck in analyzing various problems lately. I enclose a note on one of these. If one says that any new technology creates a new environment, that is better than saying the medium is the message. The content of the new environment is always the old one. The content is greatly transformed by the new technology.
Supersonic flight will create a new environment which makes our present cities somewhat useless. In fact, if they are to be approached within any convenient distance at all, they will have to be "roofed over." Supersonic take-off and landing alike blow the glass out of a city, so your Dymaxion Dome becomes a necessity, just as much as the road is a necessity for the wheel. One environment creates another.
Would appreciate your suggestions about readings in the matter of technology as creator of environment. Today the environment itself becomes the artefact. The consequences for learning are quite extraordinary. The prepared environment separates the old curriculum.
Tom Wolfe had written a profile of McLuhan that appeared in New York magazine, entitled, "What If He's Right?"
November 22nd, 1965
to TOM WOLFE
I am very happy about your portrait of me. Sitters are not supposed to enjoy their portraits. So when I say I am pleased with your portrait of me, I mean that I can recognize its power and fidelity, but like hearing one's own voice for the first time, or seeing one's self for the first time on video, or film, there is a considerable mood of disillusionment that is both deserved and salutary.
Corinne, by the way, is convinced that we should send you a sample of my neckties. It was a clip-tie that I was wearing in San Francisco. She feels that you implied that there was some mysterious plastic band that went all the way around the neck! Rhetorically, I understand full well the usefulness of that ploy. Your success in elucidating my approaches to various problems is really considerable. The only serious disadvantage of your article may develop in the internal revenue quarter. They may begin to demand a bank statement!
Corinne is only now getting into your Tangerine book. She is finding it quite exhilarating.
Please advise the circulation department to send a dozen copies of your article, and to bill me for the same. I am sure we will need more copies than that before long. It is sure to prove a major asset to McLuhan Inc.
Lots of new developments here. When our sensory threshold study is completed, it may be possible for you to do a story on it. It is really quite a unique and exciting study that is developing.
February 9th, 1967
to HUBERT HUMPHREY
Dear Mr. Vice-President:
I did much appreciate your sending me that splendid photograph of us both.
When seated with you I had jokingly explained the advantages of living in a backward country like Canada. Now I am to have an opportunity to expand that theme in a series of lectures here that are given annually on a Foundation basis.
One other theme that had risen at that same dinner concerned the difficulty of covering a hot war like Viet on a cool medium like television. Viet is our first TV war. TV creates an audience involvement in depth that automatically creates alienation of the public. The same news covered by the old hot media like press has a very different effect.
While we are Westernizing the East by our old technology, we are Easternizing ourselves by the new technology. TV is an orientalizing force, taking us all on an "inner trip" that blurs the old idea of private identity altogether.
Again, thanks, and very best wishes.
January 15th, 1969
to JAMES TAYLOR
Dear Mr. Taylor:
I find myself unable to fill in the questionnaire simply because it calls for much more meditation than I can provide at present. I can say that I do not think of God as a concept, but as an immediate and ever-present fact — an occasion for continuous dialogue.
Yours in Xto,
Jonathan Miller's slam of McLuhan in his McLuhan led to this letter addressed to the editor of the series, the legendary critic Frank Kermode. McLuhan was harshly criticized by people who purported to be his friends and he was very upset by it.
March 4th, 1971
to FRANK KERMODE
My colleague, Barry Nevitt, concurs with me in wishing that the enclosed letter get to somebody who has reviewed Miller's McLuhan. Perhaps it should be the editor of The Listener, or the Times Literary Supplement. Please feel free to copy this for trial distribution. I don't know what your attitude toward my work is, nor do I know what your thought about Miller's book is.
Miller is debating at a juvenile level. He is not inquiring nor discussing along the lines I have opened up. He assumes that our sensory order is not violatable by new technologies. This is a universal assumption of our entire Establishments, humanist and scientific alike.
Merely to challenge it creates panic, for it means that we have polluted not just the physical but the psychic and perceptual order of our societies without questioning our procedures. To argue whether there is any quantitative proof of this, is part of the panic. Nobody wants any proof. Most people desperately don't want it.
Herbert Krugman, of General Electric Research Laboratories, recently provided ample proof of the validity of the hypothesis, using encephalographic and head camera means of testing the responses to various media. Being an ordinary run-of-the-mill psychologist, he was flabbergasted to discover that there was no brain-wave response to the content of these media, but a very large and diversified response to the diverse media themselves. The last thing in the world that anybody wants is proof of anything I am saying. The evidence is plentiful for those who are interested. The poetry of the Symbolists, from Baudelaire until now, is massive and explicit testimony to sensory change.
As you know from many sources (e.g. Linus Pauling's The Nature of the Chemical Bond), there are no connections in matter, only resonant intervals. Such is the nature of touch. It is like the space between the wheel and the axle. The very scientists who hold to this quantum theory of matter refuse to admit its relevance in the handling of evidence. In discussing these things, they are themselves completely non-tactile people. The scientific establishment is literate in the sense of being unconscious of the effects of a visual culture in imposing visual standards of evidence — Othello's "ocular" proof. Having established the resonant discontinuity of the material world, they still cling to the old pattern of continuous and connected or logical processing.
Speaking of processing, it is impossible to have a point of view while following or discerning a process. It would be like trying to have a point of view while swimming. Yet, most people still try to achieve static positions and concept patterns as a basis for study. Naturally, this method dictates what shall be studied. If I have a point of view about the human condition as a result of investigating the effects of media, it is simply that people are somnambulist. They seem to be happily hypnotized by their own extensions of themselves. I suppose the traditional word for this is idolatry: "They became what they beheld and bowed the knee to themselves."
Kermode would argue back that Miller "underwent a sort of conversion in the process of reading for the book, and the outcome was something that neither he nor I expected. Why he doesn't want to tell you about this himself I can't say."
The feud played out in the pages of The Listener.
August 11th, 1971
To THE LISTENER
For those interested in exploration and discovery rather than in debating and classifying, the study of media technologies begins with their effects. Jonathan Miller charges me with "the peculiar notion that television, in spite of its name is not a visual medium at all but what he calls an audio-tactile medium." Miller's confusion begins with his assumption that I have "notions" and theories, concepts rather than percepts. His difficulties with media study are entirely conventional hang-ups of the average person imbued with a nineteenth century outlook and attitude.
It is not possible to modify such a huge cultural back-log by the mere introduction of new percepts arising from new environmental structures.
However, in the interest of those who may be less burdened and overlaid by the middenheap of our immediate sensory past, I recently undertook to read Miller's McLuhan in which he peers at me uneasily as an undercover agent for Rome. At the very beginning of his squib he reads me backwards: "McLuhan also claims that the channel of hearing itself is intrinsically richer, or as he puts it 'hotter', than that of sight, say." Not a very promising or helpful start.
Let me apologise for Miller's obtuseness at once. If he does not dig "hot" and "cool", there is an historical excuse for Miller in that the first age of radio regarded itself as "hot." The 20's were the period of hot jazz, hot mommas, hot lips and hot tips. The "cool" age came with TV. But that which was called "hot" in the 20's was called "cool" in the fifties. Today "hot pants" are real cool and "far out." "Hot" meant involved in the 20's as "cool" did in the fifties. What had been called a "cool head" before radio, meant detached and disinterested and uninvolved. That is, in 1900 "cool" meant what would now be regarded "hot", in the sense of permitting specialized and fragmentary awareness to the individual. When one is "with it" one is "cool", sharing a corporate awareness. The private point of view is "hot" because it is detached and non-corporate. The great variety of paradoxical patterns of "hot" and "cool" point to a complex new process that resists mere classification. Understanding is not a point of view.
Any of our senses can be projected in modes that are either "hot" or "cool", involving or non-involving. Since "hot" and "cool" are not classifications but processes, not concepts but percepts, it may be possible to explore the matter of media a bit further by noting the effect of the deprivation of sight on the other senses.
Alec Leighton observes "to the blind all things are sudden." There is not the same degree of continuity or connectedness in touch or hearing as in sight. Jacques Lusseyran's classic, And There Was Light, records the alteration of his total sensibility resulting from his sudden blindness. He confronts the prevalent Miller attitudes to sense and experience, and laughs at those locked into the conventional attitudes of the bureaucratic Establishment:
When I came upon the myth of objectivity in certain modern thinkers, it made me angry. So there was only one world for these people, the same for everyone. And all the other worlds were to be counted as illusions left over from the past. Or why not call them by their name — hallucinations? I had learned to my cost how wrong they were.
From my own experience I knew very well that it was enough to take from a man a memory here, an association there, to deprive him of hearing or sight, for the world to undergo immediate transformation, and for another world, entirely different but entirely coherent, to be born. Another world? Not really. The same world rather, but seen from another angle, and counted in entirely new measures. When this happened, all the hierarchies they called objective were turned upside down, scattered to the four winds, not even theories but like whims.
What Lusseyran ascribes to the physical fate of sudden blindness, has in the electric age of instant information and new man-made environments, become a universal experience of sudden re-orientations and lost goals and identities.
In effect it matters little whether Miller gets with "hot" or "cool", since he cannot but project me through his nineteenth century mechanism of sensibility. If the medium is the message, the user is the content. That is the sense of Baudelaire's "Hypocrite lecteur." The reader puts on the mask of the poem, the book, the language, the medium, and imbues them with the "sobsconscious inklings" of his own inadequacies. Media piggy-back on other media, so that when TV uses the film, the content is TV, not film.
When Miller puts on or uses McLuhan, the content is the user, i.e. pure Miller. Projected through his bureaucratic categories, McLuhan is transmogrified into a nineteenth century bundle of exploded pretensions. Naturally, the electric surround exasperates Miller's sensibilities. Grievance is the ever-fruitful matrix of the comic which is one of Miller's more successful manifestations.
Apropos Mr. Miller's hang-up on the properties of the TV image, he has the conventional stereotypical problem of the 19th century sensibility. The avant garde of the 19th century arts were the pre-Raphaelites with their stress on synaesthesia, and Pater's "the arts aspire to the condition of music." The pre-Raphaelite concern with medieval crafts and total human involvement in work sustained the ideals of Carlyle, and Ruskin, and William Morris, carrying over into the Omega workshops of Roger Fry. As with the work of Maria Montessori, the pre-Raphaelite stress on the multi-sensuous was opposed to the merely visual culture of the bureaucracies, whether in education or politics or commerce. In 1893 Adolf Hildebrand's Problem of Form in Painting and Sculpture summed up the pre-Raphaelite enterprise, as it were. As a sculptor, Hildebrand was very conscious of the "two functions of the eye":
The artist's activity consists, then, in further developing such of his faculties as provide him with spatial perception, namely his faculties of sight and touch. These two different means of perceiving the same phenomenon not only have separate existence in our faculties for sight and touch, but are united in the eye.
The TV image, with its light through, in the manner of a stained glass window, a Roualt painting, were adumbrated by Seurat in the technique of pointillisme. It a technique which Stockhausen later claimed as descriptive of his own work in music. Quantum mechanics has shown us in this century that touch, like the chemical bond itself, is characterized by the resonant interval. Hildebrand's insistence upon touch as essential in visual life anticipated the spatial character quantum mechanics and of electric phenomena.
The TV image is not a photograph; nor does it, any more than Seurat, offer a visually connected space. Linus Pauling's Nature of the Chemical Bond provides a sufficient introduction to the theme of discontinuity in physical structures for those less interested in debating an in elucidation.
In the same way that Lusseyran observed the effect of loss of sight on the transformation of his other senses, the media student will study the effects of media on one another, as well as on the changing patterns of our sensory references. That is why the changes in all the arts, and sciences can illuminate the effects of new media. To specialize attention in any one medium or sensory ode is to fall into the habit of matching, classifying and quantifying that are posed by the dominant visual faculty. E.H. Gombrich's Art and Illusion studies the peculiar habits of matching and "realistic" correspondence that arise in a culture visually dominated. A handy demonstration of the power of sight to affect hearing and the other senses can be illustrated by reading aloud the following words:
Un petit d'un petit
S'etonne aux Hailes
Un petit d'un petit
Ah! degres te fallent
Indolent qui ne sort cesse
Indolent qui ne se mene
Qu'importe un petit d'un petit
Tout Gai de Reguennes.
Let Miller take two groups of people and show them the same movie, but let one group see it by front projection and one see it by rear projection through a silk screen. Each group will be unaware that the other has seen the movie at all. Then let each group write an essay on the experience. The resulting essays will show wide divergence in approach to the experience. One group will describe a "hot" experience, and one a "cool" experience.
Not even ad agencies "believe" that the same program of images seen by front and rear projection provides two totally different experiences. Movie and TV vary much more widely than mere front and rear projection of the same movie. (This experiment has been performed several times by my students in different countries.)
The study of media begins with the observation of their effects. Effects cannot be observed by concepts nor hypotheses as in conventional quantitative testing, for media are environments and inclusive processes, not products and packages. If the hot radio medium were turned off for a month in the oral cultures of the Near-East, there would be an instant cooling of the political climate. You cannot gnash your teeth on TV. If TV could be substituted, a mass revulsion for their "hot" attitudes would occur. The TV generation feels a revulsion for all centralist bureaucratic organization whether in education or politics, or in urban life.
September 13th, 1972
to JOHN CAGE
It was good to have even a brief visit with you, but we didn't have a chance to talk about the matter I am going to mention now. During the past year or so, I have been trying to work out the relation between jazz and rock in the English language. For various reasons, which we can discuss at length sometime, it is impossible to have a music that is not based on the rhythms of a particular tongue or speech. Speech is the "hidden" ground for the music as figure in any culture whatever. There are specific and complex reasons why the oral tradition of American Southern speech constitute the only possible ground for jazz and rock. Some of these reasons include the fact that English is almost the only language in the world that has actual feet and not mere syllables.
Equally basic is the relation of English to the metropolitan patterns of industrial sound. New technological sounds and patterns are processed through the speech in order to become "music". To people who do not understand this complex of speech technology factors, it must seem very mysterious that Chinese and Norwegian alike are compelled to sing Rock in English rather than in their own tongues.
I have been doing a good deal of work on this subject, and hope to do a great deal more. That is why I am asking for any help or suggestions you can offer. For example, in your own music, have you employed speech rhythms and intervals, consciously or unconsciously? Do you know anybody who has ever worked on these lines?
The fact of "feet" in English relates to the power of English to incorporate complex dance rhythms which are excluded by the languages that have only syllables. The fact that only English has prosody among modern languages, whereas all the rest have only separate syllables, was mentioned to me by a Professor of Italian here when I asked him what was Dante's prosody. He said at once: "There is no prosody in Italian."
Since then, I have checked this out. It is absolutely staggering to realize that one has been a Professor of English for decades without knowing this unique fact about the English language. It is even more appalling to realize that everybody else appears to be as ignorant as I am. I feel that you and Merce Cunningham might have discovered some things in this area, and I am most eager to learn about them.
Most cordial good wishes,
In reply to the following letter, Margaret Atwood wrote to McLuhan that "One wonders about the Eskimos especially in mid-winter but I suppose they do not go outside to be alone but rather to hunt which is quite different."
November 22th, 1972
To Margaret Atwood
Dear Miss Atwood:
It is good to know that you are on the University of Toronto campus as our resident writer this year. Lately, I have had the luck to read Survival where I found at once the answer to a question which I have been asking for some years:
"Why do North Americans, unlike all other people on this planet, go outside to be alone and inside to be with people?" I knew that the answer would be massive, since if it were anything else, it would be easy to spot. You provide the answer in Survival when you indicate the North American crash program for conquering nature. Surely no other continent was ever ripped off so quickly or completely, but then Renaissance man, and afterwards, had unsurpassed technology for doing just that. Less well-equipped cultures were inclined to make a truce with nature quite early. Perhaps Western man was not prepared for the sudden capitulation of nature with Sputnik in 1957. When the planet went inside a man-made environment, nature had to yield to art and ecology.
Sometime I hope we can chat about the ways in which going outside to be alone and inside to be folksy have shaped North American genre. Meantime, congratulations on Survival.
August 25, 1976
to WOODY ALLEN
It was fun getting into the new (for me) medium. You made me aware of the phenomenal amount of work and skill that is involved in making a film. Naturally it was delightful meeting you and working with you.
The preliminary precaution concerning mention of my being in one of your films just didn't register adequately with me. Of course, I did not mention the matter to any publication source. One's friends pass the word quickly among themselves, so that I cannot imagine it remaining a secret. Of course, I would never dream of having an interview about it, or making a statement at any time, so that the most that could possibly come out would be a passing gossip reference. Most probably, however, this will not occur.
With heartiest good wishes for the future of this film.
"Plainclothes" - Cymbals Eat Guitars (mp3)
"Keep Me Waiting" - Cymbals Eat Guitars (mp3)
"Shore Points" - Cymbals Eat Guitars (mp3)