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McLuhan, the Message and the Global Village

Pattern Recognition. Probes and Ideas

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube videoMcLuhan on Pattern RecognitionProbes, aphorisms and ideas for the call for papers "Education Overload: from Total Surround to Pattern Recognition". One interesting contribute is a CBC video with Norman Mailer and Marshall McLuhan debating on violence, alienation and the electronic envelope. The clash of two great minds. (1968)

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Thoughts after McLuhan

Eric McLuhanThis year, 2011, marks the centenary of Marshall McLuhan’s birth in Edmonton, Alberta, on July 21. The year has seen a great number of lectures and conferences devoted to discussing and assessing his work, which still, more than thirty years after his death, has the power to upset conventional minds and challenge conventional explanations of what new technologies and their media do to the users and their cultures. A centenary also affords, among other things, a timely occasion for taking stock of his contributions to our understanding of media and society. After all, McLuhan established, virtually single-handed, the fields of media study and of media ecology.


Apocalypse and Alchemy

Bruce W. PoweApocalypse and Alchemy: Visions of Marshall McLuhan and Northrop Frye. McLuhan and Frye were colleagues at the University of Toronto. Their work was well-known to the other. While Frye was initially the more renowned of the two – he had published two major works of criticism by 1957, McLuhan’s The Mechanical Bride (original title: ‘Guide to Chaos’) was published to some critical recognition and almost no sales in 1951 – McLuhan’s later celebrity was global and factious in ways that mark him today. They were conscious of the other’s presence on campus, in the English Department for which they both taught, in the collegial conversations of university gather- ings, in classrooms where they often shared students, in the public domain of review and reputation. But there is more to the phenomenon of their physical proximity. They were dramatically aware of the other’s writings and ideas; their notebooks, letters, books, public pronouncements and essays are often charged with pointed exchanges. Although they never debated one another in person, they conducted conversations and arguments in their texts and articles.


Tradition into Text

Twyla G. GibsonTradition into Text: Plato’s Dialogues, the Literate Revolution, and the Foundations of Media Theory. Marshall McLuhan began his Prologue to The Gutenberg Galaxy by stressing that his ‘field and mosaic approach’ to media was ‘complementary’ to the work of Milman Parry and Albert Lord on the emergence of literate culture out of orality. ‘The enterprise which Milman Parry undertook with reference to the contrasted forms of oral and written poetry is here extended to the forms of thought and the organization of experience in society and politics’ (McLuhan, 1962/2002: iv; 1). McLuhan’s approach brought together the Parry/Lord scholarship on Homer, the comparative historical method of Harold Innis, and the theses of E. A. Havelock and Walter J. Ong concerning Plato. Referencing the scholarship of these colleagues, McLuhan compared the oral-formulaic style of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey with the language and style of Plato’s philosophical prose dialogues. Finding no sign in Plato of the circular formulaic patterns of organization that characterize Homer’s verse, McLuhan concluded that oral-formulaic composition is ‘imitative’ or mimetic: ‘the entire message is traced and retraced, again and again, on the rounds of a concentric spiral’. By contrast, literate composition is straightforward and ‘linear’ (McLuhan, 1994: 26). According to McLuhan, ‘the content of a medium is always another medium’ (McLuhan, 1994: 8). A ‘new technology tends to take as its content the old technology… as indeed Plato did with the dialogue. It was the old oral culture’ (McLuhan, 2003: 125). Between the formulaic style and highly developed literate expression is a zone of ‘merging’ and ‘interaction’ (McLuhan, 1962/2002) with Plato as the fulcrum of this convergence. Hence ‘Plato lived in a double world … he straddled the written and oral traditions [and] translated the tribal encyclopedia of the preceding culture into the written, classified form’ (McLuhan, 2003: 125). Thus the contrast between the circular formulaic patterns in Homer’s epic poetry and the linear prose style in Plato’s dialogues served as evidence of a basic division between oral and written, and represented the way that messages are conveyed through the form of the medium and not solely through the content as well as how the content of a new medium is made up of prior media.

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Setting the Record Straight

Robert K. LoganMcLuhan Misunderstood: Setting the Record Straight. Marshall McLuhan was one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century and probably the most misunderstood scholar of his time. He has his many fans, who credit him along with Harold Innis of having created the entirely new field or discipline of media ecology as it is called in North America and medium theory, the name it goes by in many parts of Europe. In addition to his fans, admirers and scholars like myself who have tried to extend his work there are still a number of detractors, critics and naysayers. Despite his enormous contribution to our under- standing of media, communication, technology and their impact on the human psyche, social interactions, the arts, literature, education, work, commerce, governance and social organization there are those who question his scholarship and suggest that his writing was largely hype and whimsy and at best merely poetry. Some even go so far as to suggest that he was a charlatan. On the other hand, according to the scholar and Fordham University professor, Father John Culkin (1967), McLuhan can be regarded as ‘the oracle of the electric age’ and ‘the most provocative and controversial writer of his generation’.


Marshall McLuhan and Sholem Aleichem

Paul LevinsonJoseph Dorman’s 2011 documentary, Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness, offers powerful footage and sage commentary about the man born Sholem Rabinovich in Russia in 1859, who died world-renown under his pen name Sholem Aleichem in New York City in 1916. This was four years after Marshall McLuhan was born in Edmonton in 1911.
Sholem Aleichem was known as the Yiddish Mark Twain. Yiddish is an international Jewish language, at least a millennium old, that combines High German with elements of Hebrew, Aramaic, and bits of Slavic and Romance tongues. Although a hand-written Yiddish manuscript dates from 1272 AD, and a printed Yiddish book from 1541, the language enjoyed a primarily oral life, and still does.