I came across this last night: a fantastic talk about our education systems which manages to be enlightening, very funny, and moving. Brilliant!
McLuhan’s Wake is the new DVD release of a 2002 film by Canadian documentary director Kevin McMahon. It doesn’t have a straightforward linear narrative, but has three main themes that cycle round each other: firstly, McLuhan’s use of Poe’s Descent Into The Maelstrom as a metaphor for our current situation in relation to the “vortex” of technological change; secondly, McLuhan’s Laws of Media; and thirdly, a biographical strand reconstructed mostly from stills and TV clips. Laurie Anderson provides the main narration, with added commentary from the usual suspects: Eric McLuhan, Corrine McLuhan, Neil Postman, Phillip Marchand, Frank Zingrone, et al.
I’ve watched it twice now and I’d have to say it’s not a great film. For me, there are two main problems with it: one, the visual images don’t always tie in with the ideas that they’re supposed to be expressing. A lot of the footage is quite generic and could be about almost anything given the context, although I suspect much of this may be down to financial limitations (it being an independent production). Two, the soundtrack is mixed quite badly. The interviews are really the backbone of the film and they’ve often chosen to fade them in and out, which means you lose the end of sentences. Frustrating! Also, the mix leaves something to be desired. The voices don’t always sit at the same level and the music is generally too loud.
Having said all that, it’s wonderful to have. There are loads of extras: a couple of hours of footage from the original interviews, hours and hours of audio (including two lengthy examples of McLuhan himself talking), and “hundreds of pages” of documents that include the Director’s notes, McLuhan biog, shooting script, and—joy of joys—a study guide. There’s a full set of subtitles, the navigation is well organized, and it’s Region 0 encoded. Not bad for a tenner!
So there we have it. It’s not really a critical evaluation of McLuhan’s work, but a serious and ambitious attempt to get McLuhan’s complex ideas over to a non-specialist audience. If you’ve never read any of his books and want to know why Wired magazine named a middle-aged conservative and Catholic the “patron saint of the Internet”, this is a good a place to start. It would also make an ideal introduction and resource for an undergraduate course teaching McLuhan.
One of my main interests these days is narrative: specifically, I am half way through a PhD entitled Narrative Structures In e-Learning, and I teach narrative as part of a Contextual Studies module on the BA (Hons) Interactive Digital Media course at Swansea Metropolitan University.
The problem with studying narrative is that it is an “overloaded” concept (Dettori & Giannetti 2006). Since the so-called “narrative turn” of the early 1980s there has been an explosion of interest in narrative, and untold books and papers have been published in disciplines as diverse as Management and Organizational Studies, Anthropology, Gender Studies, Medicine, History, Psychoanalysis, Art, Multimedia (particularly Virtual Reality environments), Museum Studies, Sociology, Literary Theory, Law, Cultural Studies, Education, and New Media Theory. It is an important topic in both Discourse Analysis and Semiotics.
The problem is that the different disciplines often define narrative in different ways, even when using the same basic terminology. What’s more, these definitions often defy everyday usage: most people use the terms ‘story’ and ‘narrative’ interchangeably, for example, whereas to a narrative theorist the distinction between the two is vital. Even in cases where a basic functional model of narrative can be agreed upon, terminology varies: ‘story’ becomes fabula or histoire, the ‘narrative discourse’ becomes sjuzet or récit or discours, and even a seemingly straightforward and widely-used term such as ‘plot’ becomes problematic.
Another huge issue is that much of the literature on narrative is reflexive, that is, concerned with narratives in literature (and particularly the novel). It is only since the publication of pioneering work by Labov & Waletzky on oral narratives that attention has turned to its role in everyday speech. This is kind of strange, because it seems obvious that thought and speech necessarily predate writing. As Ong puts it, oral expression is our primary modeling system, written or otherwise textualized expression our secondary modeling system. Consequently, a lot of my own research has been focused on looking at narrative as a function of the brain, as a mode of thought, as the primary means of human expression, and therefore as a cultural artefact crucial in the formation of both personality and culture in general.
Of course, it is precisely because it is so fundamental to human thought and expression that this multi-disciplinary research into narrative is going on in the first place: narrative is what Herman has called a “domain-general” cognitive tool. It’s everywhere, everyday, for everyone. As Brooks says, we’re immersed in it.
For those wishing to investigate this fascinating topic a little further, here’s my Introduction To Narrative (96k .pdf file).
Brooks, P. (1984) Reading For The Plot. Cambridge, London: Harvard University Press.
Dettori, G. & Giannetti, T. (2006) A Concise Introduction to Narrative Learning Environments. Course material, VDS Workshop on Narrative Learning Enviroments. From http://nle.noe-kaleidoscope.org/
Herman, D. (2003) Stories as a Tool for Thinking, in Herman, D. (Ed) Narrative Theory and the Cognitive Sciences. Stanford: CSLI Publications.
Labov, W. & Waletzky, J. (1967, 1997) ‘Narrative Analysis: Oral Version of Personal Experience’ in Journal of Narrative and Life History, 7 (1-4), 3-38. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Ong, Walter J. (1982) Orality and Literacy. London: Methuen & Co
What can I say? I’m a BIG fan of Marshall McLuhan. I first came across him sometime around 1992 and I’d just completed my Post-Graduate Diploma in Music Information Technology. Just as I was finishing my dissertation (on synthesizer interface design) my research somehow led me to Understanding Media and it completely blew me away. Since then I’ve read most of his major works, his published letters, a biography, and several other books about him and his work. I’m the very proud owner of a First Edition of The Mechanical Bride.
His writing remains unique, especially for an academic. Most obviously, he deliberately and self-consciously avoids the expositional logico-scientific structures of the academic paper, preferring instead a kind of mosaic – or what he would probably call a ‘field’ – of fragments, references, allusions, metaphors, puns, and killer one-liners. These spiral around the subject under discussion like a swarm of determined and very clever bees.
For example: chapter 2 in Understanding Media is entitled ‘Media Hot and Cold’. The second paragraph begins with some basic definitions and is quite easy to read and understand:
There is a basic principle that distinguishes a hot medium like radio from a cool one like the telephone, or a hot medium like the movie from a cool one like TV. A hot medium is one that extends one single sense in “high definition.” High definition is the state of being well filled with data. A photograph is, visually, “high definition.” A cartoon is “low definition,” simply because very little visual information is provided.
Straightforward enough, no? But then over the next 10 pages he develops this simple idea, taking in along the way hieroglyphic vs ideogrammic writing, ballet, Freud, steel axes and the Australian Aborigine, Newton, Blake, Frank Lloyd Wright, anxiety, boredom, jazz, Margaret Mead, W.H. Auden and Shakespeare, a rationale for the great period in Athenian culture, Calvin Coolidge, traffic calming, Glenn Gould and Stravinsky, dark glasses, James Joyce, Constance Rourke, and Dr. Johnson. Phew!
Like all intertextuality, understanding and evaluation is only possible if you know the sources, and his range of references is extremely broad. It can make for exhausting reading, but at the end of the day there is no-one like him. No matter whether you love him or loathe him, agree or disagree, his work is challenging and visionary and more relevant now than it was when he wrote it (Understanding Media came out in 1964). He reminds me a bit of Freud, in the sense that – although many of his ideas may have been misguided, off target, or just plain wrong – his work has completely changed the way we think about the world (and ourselves).
Here’s a little snippet of him in action. It’s short, but it really does give the true flavour of his dense, aphoristic style:
As you can probably tell from the giveaway title for this post, I plan to write more on McLuhan. I hope that over time these might mount up to something substantial. But to round off today’s introductory sermon, I thought I’d end with one of my favourite quotes of his – McLuhan’s definition of politics:
Yesterday’s solutions to today’s problems.
Welcome. This is a new blog that will be about things I’m particularly interested in i.e. narrative, interactivity, medium theory, music technology, design, new media literacy, etc.. Hopefully it’ll be pretty eclectic: it’s all grist to the mill, right?
OK, that’s enough of that: let’s get on with it.
I love this little video: it just makes so many things about sound and vibrating objects so clear. And because it’s video it’s not only showing process, but it’s doing it in a multisensory way: information received by eye and ears is assimilated and compared. Books, static text, are good for some things, but this is what multimedia are good for…
BTW: the normally invisible patterns in the vibrating object are called Chladni patterns.