Marshall McLuhan

Quote of the Month

The background to the organized sound of Gregorian chant, in a mediaeval monastic community, was not random noise. Silence—the silence of nature itself, in which the random noises of culture were swallowed up—was one of the facts of mediaeval life, outside the cloister as inside it. Against the quietness that enveloped the ear, and the tracts of unaltered nature—wood, bramble, heath, swamp—that made up its solid equivalent, any designed structure of sound or stone acquired a corresponding rarity and singularity. In an ill-articulated world, a place not yet crammed with signs, images, and designed objects, the impact of a choir heard in the vast petrified forest of a Gothic cathedral might well have exceeded anything we take for “normal” cultural experience today. Now we see the same cathedral through a vast filter that includes our eclectic knowledge of all other cathedrals (visited or seen in photographs), all other styles of buildings from primitive nuraghi to the World Trade Centre, the ads in the street outside it, the desanctification of the building, its conversion into one more museum-to-itself, the secular essence of our culture, the memory of “mediaeval” sideshows at Disney World, and so and so forth; while similar transpositions have happened to the matrix in which we hear music. The choir competes, in our unconscious, with jack-hammers, car brakes, and passing 747s, not merely the rattle of a cart or the lowing of cattle. Nor does the chant necessarily seem unique, for one can go home and listen to something very like it on the stereo. Because nothing could be retrieved or reproduced, the pre-technological ear listened to—as the pre-technological eye was obliged to scrutinize—one thing at a time. Objects and images could not, except at the cost of great labour, be reproduced or multiplied. There was no print, no film, no cathode-ray tube. Each object, singular; each act of seeing transitive. The idea that we would live immersed in a haze of almost undifferentiated images, that the social function of this image-haze would be to erode distinctions rather than multiply the possible discriminations about reality, would have been unthinkable to our great-grandparents—let alone our remote ancestors.

Robert Hughes

We live in a world in which change is primarily driven by emergent technology. We live in a world in which, I suspect, technology trumps ideology, every time.


Our reaction to these things is amazingly similar to the reaction of the Victorians to technologies like the railroad and the gramophone. If you go back to first-person accounts—diary entries of individuals encountering those things—it wasn’t like, “Wow, that’s wonderful!” They were scared shitless. They were reeling with the shock of the new. They didn’t know where anything was headed, and it made them sort of angry, often as not. I think it’s the way we react to these things.

The surprising thing about it – I almost said the insidious thing, but I’m trying to be anthropological—the surprising thing, to me, is that once we have our gramophone, or iPad, or locomotive, we become that which has the gramophone, the iPad, or the locomotive, and thereby, are instantly incapable of recognizing what just happened to us, as I believe we’re incapable of understanding what broadcast television, or the radio, or telephony did to us.

I strongly suspect that prior to those things we were something else. In that regard, our predecessors are in a sense unknowable. Imagine a world without recorded music: I always come to the conclusion that it’s impossible for me to imagine that, because I have become that which lives with recorded music.

William Gibson

Minimalism in music is the avante-garde sound of absolute frequency. Listening to pulsed minimal music, hearing every repetition, is like having the experience not of one consumer, but of all consumers at once. You are the mass market, and you feel the entire pressure of the mass media’s power to construct desire—in other words, in a consumer society, the irresistible power to construct subjectivity itself—directly on your consciousness. The impossible attempt to represent that pressure directly gives the music its teleology, its content—and ultimately its shock and awe. It is not necessarily an unpleasant sensation; it can be quite literally entrancing, as the shoppers floating down the aisles of the local supermarket right now could tell you. In minimal music, the message is the (direct perception of the power of the) media. Or, more pithily, after McLuhan:

In minimal music, the media (sublime) is the message.

Robert Fink


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Lichtenstein at the Tate Modern

Posted by PH on May 04, 2013
Marshall McLuhan, Painting, Visual Culture / No Comments

Last weekend I went up to London to see my long-time friend Julian, who had very kindly offered to take me to see the Roy Lichtenstein exhibition at the Tate Modern (as he’s now a member).

I very much enjoyed the show. Lichtenstein’s work has been worn very thin through over-exposure, but the dead hand of cliché was put firmly in its place by confrontation with the real thing. The first room was dedicated to a number of his “brushstroke” paintings and their impact was immediate and profound: simply being exposed directly to these iconic images at full-scale transforms the experience into something emotionally engaging and intellectually stimulating.


Close-up the paintings come alive: one can’t help but be affected by the colour, the craftsmanship of the outlines, the interplay of the textures, and the painterly eye realized in the coherence and artistry of the overall image.


With Spray (1962) for example, I spent a long time looking at that thumb: the elegance of those curves, the simplicity of the nail-varnish effect, the quality of that red. And at this scale one can’t see it, but at this relatively early stage in his career those Benday dots are hand-painted.



These Seascapesfrom 1964 and 1965 are gorgeous.


Hopeless 1963. 33 years between this one and:


Landscape with Philosopher 1996.

I thought it significant that the last room of the exhibition had been made-over into a Lichtenstein-only shop (in addition to the substantial one on the ground floor), just in case we forgot why we were really there…


Afterward we had a whistle-stop tour of some of the other standing exhibits. I spent a quarter of an hour sitting in a room of full-on Rothko’s but, I’m afraid, no good: I just don’t get Rothko at all. Here are a few random snaps:


Choucair sculpture room. Derivative painting, but everything else very impressive.


Marshall McLuhan has presumably been into this Cy Twombly room: “Art is anything you can get away with”. He would have had plenty to say about this too, no doubt:



Finally up to the member’s lounge for a cup of tea. Stunning view. Shame about the freezing cold weather and massive hailstone deluge…



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Marshall McLuhan: The Logo (2)

Posted by PH on February 04, 2012
Marshall McLuhan, Visual Culture / No Comments

Referring back to an earlier post on the same subject, I have to say I much prefer this one:


[Via Procurement Insights]


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Marshall McLuhan: The Logo

Posted by PH on January 14, 2012
Marshall McLuhan, Visual Culture / 1 Comment


By Milton Glaser of all people: a designer who I like more as a person than for their work. This is no exception.


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The 50p Birthday Present

Posted by PH on November 20, 2011
Marshall McLuhan / 1 Comment

Earlier this year a friend of mine gave me a second-hand book for my birthday. My friend admitted it only cost him 50p and he hadn’t even bothered to wrap it. I already had a copy of the book.

Nonetheless, I was thrilled to receive it, as you can see from the image below, a scan of the inside front cover:

mcluhan_sigThe book in question is a a 1968 Bantam paperback copy of War and Peace in the Global Village by Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore.

[The dedication is from Kurt Vonnegut’s 1963 novel Cat’s Cradle, the Book of Bokonon the primary text of a religion founded by one of its characters. Try this. Who is “sweet Lucy” I wonder?]

Thanks Paul! Brilliant…


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The Future of Books?

Craig Mod has just published a thoughtful, insightful, and beautifully-presented essay on the future of books in the digital era, using the emergence of devices like the Kindle and the iPad as his focus:

In printed books, the two-page spread was our canvas. It’s easy to think similarly about the iPad. Let’s not. The canvas of the iPad must be considered in a way that acknowledge the physical boundaries of the device, while also embracing the effective limitlessness of space just beyond those edges.

We’re going to see new forms of storytelling emerge from this canvas. This is an opportunity to redefine modes of conversation between reader and content. And that’s one hell of an opportunity if making content is your thing.


This essay could usefully be cross-referenced with Part 2 of Scott McCloud‘s Reinventing Comics from 2000. In other words, some of what’s on offer here is not that new. However, the distinction between Formless and Definite Content is new (to me, at least) and provides a convincing armature around which the essay revolves. And if you need convincing about the inevitability of the move away from printed matter, here it is.

An excellent piece of work, highly recommended. The page must die!

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Soul Trapper

Posted by PH on December 10, 2008
Marshall McLuhan, Narrative / No Comments

Soul Trapper is a very well-produced application for the iPhone that developers Realtime call an ‘audio adventure’: you experience it as if you were listening to a radio play, but at certain points you have to interact with it, giving it a game-like dimension as well.

The story, set in modern-day Los Angeles, plays out as a cross between the 1940s detective novels of Raymond Chandler and, say, Ghostbusters. This rather unlikely combination actually works rather well and after an initial acclimatization period I truly found myself getting involved with the characters and their Hellish plights. It’s more pulp than Chandler ever was, but the dialogue is littered with Marlowe-esque wisecracks and mannerisms and the locations are classic Chandler: missionary churches, surf-spattered coastlines, Cahuenga Boulevard, horseshoe-boothed bars. It’s a world where tough guys don’t drink their whisky, they inhale it.

There’s not much going on graphically. Each of the 23 chapters is simply represented by a single stark image. You’re listening. In fact, you find yourself listening really hard because many of the cues are quite subtle. In order to support this need for detailed listening the quality of the audio is very high throughout, and you’re best off with a decent set of headphones: many of the tasks would simply be unplayable over the iPhone’s speaker.

There are some great audio set pieces later in the game. Whilst in Hell (!) you play the hero swordfighting with a demon and you have to parry his strokes by listening to which side they’re coming from, and then very quickly parry them using onscreen buttons: very Luke Skywalker. Later, whilst recovering from this ordeal, you have to ‘centre your chakras’ by remixing synth tones in real-time. Brilliant, intuitive, fun.

It isn’t perfect: some of the voice acting is a bit cheesy; certain sections of the dialogue are merely functional; and in places the interaction isn’t all that meaningful or productive. But, overall, Soul Trapper is well worth the admission price and good value-for-money at £3.99.

So why am I reviewing Soul Trapper exactly? Well, here’s a couple of reasons:

Firstly, I am intrigued and fascinated by the idea of telling a story using only audio. In our Internet-driven world the default communications strategy privileges images and, in particular, moving images. It is a relief, therefore, to come across a developer willing to attempt something different.

As Marshall McLuhan has pointed out, media exist on a continuum between hot and cool (where by ‘hot’ he means high resolution, narrow bandwidth, requiring total concentration from the user, total involvement). By focusing on audio to tell their story, Realtime have exploited these characteristics of a hot medium to excellent effect.

Secondly, I am also intrigued and fascinated by the interactive narrative elements. The plot itself is not open to manipulation by the user: about the most you can do is effect the order conversations play out, or the way in which the protagonist moves around the limited maps. However, to make up for this, the story fair motors along, and you’re recompensed by some unusual interactive game-like elements (as mentioned above) that crop up in most chapters.

It really is quite an interesting and cost-effective solution to the problems presented by any type of interactive narrative. I shall be interested to see how Realtime develop these ideas in future releases.

To sum up: an excellent release for the iPhone. Highly entertaining and very interesting.

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McLuhan 6: The Medium Is The Massage LP

Posted by PH on February 01, 2008
Marshall McLuhan / 2 Comments

Last June I discussed the print version of Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium Is The Massage. However, along with the print publication of it in 1967, there was also a “long-playing record” of the same name released by CBS.

L > R: Jerome Agel, Quentin Fiore, McLuhan, and John Simon of CBS.

The whole thing is presented as an audio collage focused around McLuhan’s own voice reading parts of the book. There are other “character” voices—’the old man’, ‘the Hippie chick’, ‘the Irishman’, ‘Mom’, ‘the little girl’, etc.—who utter McLuhanisms, snatches from Pop culture, and excerpts from Finnegans Wake and The Iliad. Weaving amongst these is a very 1960s selection of jazz, classical, and psychedelic pop musics. This is all topped off with incursions from the recording engineer, backwards tape effects, sped-up and slowed-down voices, ambient recordings, and a whole jungle of other Foley and sound FX. Crazy, man!

Perhaps the worst part of it are the character voices: some of them really are quite bad. Why is that when producers want ‘an old man’ they don’t just get a real old man; it’s not like they’re in short supply. But, no: rather than use an old man to read these parts, we’ll get someone to imitate an old man! Sheesh. Why bother? As my old man used to say: “If you’re going to do a job, do it properly.”

So there we have it. I’m not sure what these recordings add to the McLuhan ouvre, other than to highlight this one point: McLuhan works very well as speech. His public speaking was an important facet of his professional life, and his capacity for talk was legendary. Most of his books were dictated. He’s a very oral person.

Anyway, judge for yourself:

The Medium Is The Massage, Side 1 (26.6MB MP3)
The Medium Is The Massage, Side 2 (31.7MB MP3)

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Preface To Plato

Posted by PH on January 11, 2008
Marshall McLuhan, Narrative / 1 Comment

Eric Havelock’s Preface To Plato is a book I’d come across often: McLuhan frequently cites it, as does Walter Ong in Orality & Literacy. Well just before Xmas I got round to reading it, and I’ve just re-read it this week. I have been deeply impressed by the book because of its wealth of ideas, its deep sense of scholarship, and because it is so well written: for a book on such a relatively obscure and ancient subject it is a surprisingly good read. Despite being an overtly academic text it manages to provoke a deep sense of wonder about ancient Greek culture, and offers a tantalizing glimpse of the unfathomable alien-ness of their ways of thinking.

The book begins by asking why Plato makes such a sustained and vehement attack on poetry in The Republic. Havelock suggests it is because ‘poetry’ for the Greeks at that time—around 360 BC—bears almost no relation to the rather ephemeral art form we now know, but was an “encyclopedic” repository for the culture’s storehouse of knowledge. It was central to the preservation of the culture’s history, traditions, belief systems, social mores, and technology. It was as important didactically as it was for entertainment.

Because this culture was primarily an oral culture, memorization was achieved through repetition. This is because sound is an ephemeral medium where each utterance disappears the moment it has ceased, and it is only through ritualistic and incessant repetition that information can be maintained in the group consciousness. This creates a hypnotic, trance-like, mental state that Havelock likens to indoctrination, where “the task of education could be described as putting the whole community into a formulaic state of mind”. It was this that Plato was railing against.

Havelock’s argument is that Plato represented a new type of man: the literate man. Literacy allowed information to be stored externally. This “preserved knowledge” broke the spell over the hypnotized oral culture and allowed new means of expression, categorization, abstract thought, and the creation of ‘subject’ and ‘object’. That is, rationalism, and the “supreme music” of philosophy. Havelock goes on to say that Plato, and later Aristotle:

… created ‘knowledge’ as an object and as the proper content of an educational system, divided into the areas of ethics, politics, psychology, physics, and metaphysics. Man’s experience of his society, of himself and of his environment was now given separate organised existence in the abstract word.

This then is the conceptual core of Preface To Plato. It’s a marvelous book. Along the way there’s lots of good stuff about narrative, performance, the relation of performers to their audience, and plenty of interesting textual analysis of The Iliad.

However, although I do basically agree with Havelock’s position, I think he has overstated the influence and importance of epic poetry as an oral culture’s means of storing knowledge (which in this particular context means overstating the importance of Homer). There are certainly other ways of remembering things without writing—images, song, ritual, plays, sculpture, and story, for example. This criticism is borne out by critics such as Halverson.

Nonetheless, wholeheartedly recommended.

Halverson, J. (1992) ‘Havelock on Greek Orality and Literacy’ in the Journal of The History of Ideas.
Havelock, E. (1963) Preface To Plato. Cambridge, London: Belknap Press.
Ong, W. (2002) Orality and Literacy. London: Routledge.

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D&AD Xchange 07

Posted by PH on September 07, 2007
Marshall McLuhan, Resonant Interval / No Comments

Earlier this week my colleague John Hill and I attended this year’s D&AD Xchange 07 conference at the London College of Fashion. It was very well organized, very interesting, and we met a lot of nice people. Here’s my notes from the event:

Carlos Segura is a designer with his roots firmly embedded in old-school typography. He has an enviable track record of graphic design, a portfolio of which can be found at Segura Inc. This also includes links to his typography site T.26 and designer blank media site 5″ (amongst others). For me the highlight of his presentation was his work for stock photo company Corbis, especially the Crop series: rather than just present examples from their library in standard thumbnail format, he created large-scale diptychs printed on various high-quality papers where each pair of images tells a little story:

The juxtaposition of images was humorous, provocative, and sometimes outright shocking. I love this sort of thing, where meaning resides somehow in the space between the images, or as McLuhan would say, in the resonant interval. Best quote:

By doing what others do, you become invisible…

I also found Segura’s presentation interesting because of his use of background music. Normally I would advise students not to use music in this way at all, and I did find it intrusive (despite it all being chilled-out electronica). But in places it was successful: he started off the presentation with a couple of amusing anecdotal stories and these worked with the music, quickly establishing a very strong mood. Never say never.

Ulrich Proeschel of TBWA presented a case study of their marketing of Adidas during the 2006 World Cup Finals. He explained how the whole thing was based around a single idea, +10, and how this was extended out in a deliberate attempt to involve everyone in Germany (especially as the team was playing so badly before the tournament). The highlights of their campaign were a massive Oliver Kahn bridge over the autobahn leading away from Cologne airport:

And, rather than a billboard campaign, just a single huge image on the ceiling of a railway terminus based on the Sistine Chapel:

Needless to say, there was much discussion amongst the delegates about the worldview that sees branding and advertising as culture, a point which was driven home by Ulrich’s classic quote:

The World Cup was really a battle between Adidas and Nike, not 32 football teams.

Paul Priestman gave a presentation which showed off Priestman Goode’s fascinating work on large projects such as the interiors of luxury aircraft, cruise liners, and airport terminals.

Wayne Hemingway came across as a likable, intelligent, humorous, and very down-to-earth guy. However, he’s very much a one-off, and it was very difficult to take anything away that would be more generally useful: you had to be there. Best quote:

It’s all about being a human being that thinks!

Of particular interest was his discussion of our physical environment and the effect it has on behaviour, and his observation that most modern housing developments are simply the “slums of the future.” Hemingway’s design studio is here, and it includes links to his various other enterprises including the delightfully-named retro design resource, Land Of Lost Content.

Andy Hobsbawm and Ben Felton from gave a presentation on their work for Ikea. As with Ulrich Proesel above it offered a fascinating insight into the advertising industry, but in this case it was all online stuff. Andy Hobsbawm kicked off with a run through Ikea’s ‘8 core ideas’ about their company identity, and he came across very well, talking intelligently and fluently about a range of new media issues. Best quote (which he acknowledged was from someone at Xerox Parc):

Technology is only technology for people who were born before it was invented.

Ben Felton then showed off some of their work, which to be honest I found a little dull, and a colleague found the “Brussels Sprout slider” on one of their Flash micro-sites quite hilarious. They also came in for a fair bit of stick from the delegates during the Q&A session for their unquestioning attitude to new media dogma. True believers.

There we have it. There were some other very good speakers, and I’ll be doing a couple of follow-up pieces on them individually. Ciao!

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