The lost Marshall McLuhan tapes

A recently discovered interview shows media guru McLuhan is still topical, even prescient
Peter C. Newman
The lost McLuhan tapes
Yousuf Karsh

Back in 1972, when Peter C. Newman switched from being editor-in-chief of the Toronto Star to the same slot at Maclean’s, he found an unexpected ally by his side. Marshall McLuhan, the luminous University of Toronto guru, then near the top of his form, was willing to contribute his ideas to improve the publication. At occasional lunches, he would impart advice that was always compelling, and never limited to the magazine. His intuitive probes illuminated fresh dimensions of reality and revealed his sense of mischief. “Diaper backwards spells repaid; think about it,” was one of his exit lines. Rummaging through his files, Newman recently discovered the lost tape of one of their luncheon conversations. “McLuhan was then in his 60s and had written most of his seminal studies of communication and the media, including The Medium is the Massage and The Gutenberg Galaxy,” Newman recalls. “This really was a conversation over lunch rather than a formal interview. Although he had brought international renown to the University of Toronto, in 1979 McLuhan was ordered to vacate his office, which was really an otherwise unused, slightly renovated garage. I was one of the leaders of the ensuing protest that succeeded. McLuhan’s work remains his monument.”

Newman: Canada’s most pervasive political reality is Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. How do you rate him as a communicator?

McLuhan: He is an actor, both emperor and clown. The clown is really the emperor’s PR man, who keeps him in touch with the world that the emperor cannot reach. The clown interprets the emperor to his court or the public and indicates their mood. He tests the emperor’s mood by teasing him, and in turn interpreting the whims of the crowd to the emperor. I’ve never heard of a politician who could fill both roles. Trudeau is unique.

Newman: Isn’t that a tall order? How can he live with himself? Does he remember who he is?

McLuhan: Trudeau is aware of more than himself; he’s not just trying to project an image. He is interpreting a whole process that he’s involved in. So that when he slides down a banister or hops off a camel, it’s not really a way of expressing what it feels like to be Trudeau; it’s trying to express what sort of a hell of a hang-up he’s in. He’ll do anything to snap the tension.

Newman: What is the outlook for politicians in a McLuhan world?

McLuhan: Canadian politicians are faced with a serious “drop-out” problem. They’re still talking, but fewer people are bothering to listen. The successor to politics will be propaganda, not in the sense of a message or ideology, but the impact of the whole technology of the times. So politics will eventually be replaced by imagery. The politician will be only too happy to abdicate in favour of his image, because the image will be so much more powerful than he could ever be.

Newman: Your most recent book got a pretty rough ride from the reviewers. How did you deal with that?

McLuhan: Well, it’s a normal pattern. Anybody can have a career as a promising young man, but the moment any signs of accomplishments occurs, bitterness sets in. Exile, physical or psychic, seems to be a necessary feature of the writer’s existence. My interest in popular culture as an art form arouses uneasiness in many quarters.

Newman: How do your students feel about having their celebrity prof savaged?

McLuhan: It’s a nuisance having my books criticized. It’s like being caught with your fly open. It confuses my students. But I don’t think I’ve ever had more than half-a-dozen students who read anything I’ve written. They’re not interested in my stuff and they know very well that if they use it anywhere in their essays it’s going to be held against them. I warn them never to quote me. Some of my fellow academics are very hostile, but I sympathize with them. They’ve been asleep for 500 years and they don’t like anybody who comes along and stirs them up.

Newman: The most disturbing reality in political Canada today is the future of Quebec. How can we stay united?

McLuhan: Quebec is being pushed out of Canada by their simple knowledge of what’s going on. The more they know about the decision-making processes, the less they want to stay in Canada. Secession has already occurred. Physically it may or may not happen, but psychically, secession has already taken place. They’re dropouts, absolutely. You can’t put them back in by legalisms, there’s no technology to enforce it.

Newman: It has become a frightening world. We seem to be constantly under surveillance. How can we deal with this menace?

McLuhan: The new human occupation of the electronic age has become surveillance. CIA-style espionage is now the total human activity. Whether you call it audience rating, consumer surveys and so on—all men are now engaged as hunters of espionage. So women are completely free to take over the dominant role in our society. Women’s liberation represents demands for absolute mobility, not just physical and political freedom to change roles, jobs and attitudes—but total mobility.

Newman: What’s ahead? What is the most surprising trend we can expect?

McLuhan: The biggest job in the world will be espionage. Around the world, people are spending more and more of their time watching the other guy. Espionage at the speed of light will become the biggest business in the world. But the CIA and the FBI are really old hat using old hardware by comparison to what’s coming, in which everybody earns pocket money by watching his own mom and dad or his brothers and sisters.

Newman: Isn’t that also the traditional pattern of Communism? Everyone watching everyone.

McLuhan: Yes, at the speed of light. The possibilities of espionage are unlimited. On the other hand, the needs of espionage become also intense. When anybody can rip off a few million by pressing a couple of buttons on a computer, the need for being watched gets bigger and bigger.

Newman: How about hijacking an economy through computers?

McLuhan: Yes, you can take over anybody’s currency. You could borrow the currency of a whole country for three seconds and make a trillion bucks. The time factor becomes all important.

Newman: I did a study of the wealthy and powerful in Canada and found most of their conversations and most of their concerns were about security. Their wealth seemed to bring them little happiness.

McLuhan: You remember the old phrase, “Poor little rich girl”? That meant the gal had no chance of climbing from rags to riches because she started off with riches. Therefore the American way of life was denied to her. What are the satisfactions of great wealth? When you can buy a ticket to Hong Kong or to any part of the world, and use the same plane, at the same time, as the richest guy in the world?

Newman: Their satisfactions have to come from the arts . . .

McLuhan: Sure, you develop an image of yourself in showbiz. This was what Margaret Trudeau did. Margaret did a violent shift into the world of the arts that included some friends [the Rolling Stones] in the world of rock and roll. That’s role playing and social terrorism. That fits her pretty well, Maggie Trudeau as a social terrorist. She hijacked a whole country. She kept one foot in show business.

Newman: But in that context what are the satisfactions of power in a corporate world in which the private individual is obsolescent?

McLuhan: I spent a whole year investigating the satisfactions of big power, and came up with just about no answers at all. It’s very difficult to find the satisfactions of power in a world in which everybody is powerless.

Newman: That was also my conclusion in my studies of the Canadian Establishment: that power and money were only a way of keeping score. There was little satisfaction except that you outscored your competitors.

McLuhan: They are used to measuring achievement, eh? Wealth is your first million, a sort of benchmark. It’s a game. That’s the only satisfaction in terms of power quite apart from wealth, apart from ownership or possessions—there’s no community in which to enjoy power.

Newman: What they enjoyed was accessibility to celebrities . . . that was their constant obsession.They would boast, “I can get the Ontario premier on the phone anytime.” Their entire lives were summed up in that one sentence.

McLuhan: But the satisfactions of great power suggest an inflated ego, somebody who has a massive glut or need for power and I don’t think there are any such people any more. Power is not something that can exist in isolation. It needs a huge environment of services to make it meaningful. So it’s increasingly a figure without a ground; an isolated image. In terms of Canada, of course, we have lots of new tycoons popping up in Calgary or Edmonton. Conrad Black? Who’s he? Is there any possibility that the Canadian identity might suddenly leap into high definition?

Newman: Through the arts?

McLuhan: There’s a very peculiar factor that surfaced at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. That one of the gripes of the Winnipeg audience was that the [company] was too well-known outside the country. Canadians have a peculiar habit of downgrading people who are known outside Canada. As soon as you’re recognized outside, you are considered to have opted out of the country. So in a sense, you don’t count. It’s a psychic problem, something to do with our scope and our size. Too few people in too big a country.

Newman: Surely energy is part of that phenomenon? We should be one of the few countries that is self-sufficient.

McLuhan: I’m not sure what role self-containment or self-subsistence would play in this pattern. There’s also the problem of lost identity—a huge nostalgia occurs in all the arts, in all patterns of fashion and entertainment. So the real jeans of the 1960s were grandaddy’s work pants—his overalls were put up on the pedestal. It’s happening in music now, too.

Newman: Have we become what the sociologists call a “lonely crowd”?

McLuhan: Americans go outside to be alone. They don’t know this and when they are confronted with people in situations where they want to be alone, they’re very unhappy. You see the American distrusts public transit because he has to be social with other people. However, we have so many Europeans in our own cities now that this will soften the blow.

Newman: How can the dynamism of a city be improved?

McLuhan: Jet speeds make conferences a norm and whether you have to go for 24 hours or 24,000 miles doesn’t make any difference. The nature of the city as a service is no longer restricted to its population. On the other hand, the factor of community has become a crisis in our world. As we increase our mobility and especially the speed of mobility, we destroy the possibility of community.

Newman: What’s ahead for post-graduate education? Are classrooms obsolete?

McLuhan: At jet speed we will mount a whole series of conferences around the world, which will represent a continual learning process at a higher level. The future of conferences is related somewhat to jets. There have been no big committees on our campus. In fact, there were no committees at all until quite recently, but the big committee doesn’t make decisions. It makes recommendations. The big committee is powerless. Also bureaucracy has no possibility of performing leadership. A bureaucrat can never be a leader. He would have to step right out of his ballpark to become a leader.

Newman: But aren’t politicians becoming bureaucrats or is it the other way around?

McLuhan: People tend to acquire multiple jobs. And with the computer at home, the cottage economy returns via the computer terminal at home. The idea of going out to work becomes obsolete. And therefore the car will tend to be used only as an entertainment medium. The public becomes the content of TV by extreme study of audience response. With increased espionage, the more you know about the public, the more they take over the show. How about [Charles] Dickens, he was an example of that. He put the Cockneys and the lower classes on. He was the first guy to put them really up top on the bill. Oliver Twist and so on. That raises another question about Charlie Chaplin’s great gripes against Americans. He found himself isolated and he became the lonely little tramp. His gripe against America was that it was so American. He never took his camera inside an American home, not once. Because when Americans go home they change from one hemisphere to the other. They cease to be extroverts. They become introvert and ordinary, but the moment they step outside their homes they go out to fight, fight, fight. They drop the Puritan work ethic the moment they are indoors. They become hospitable and social. The Europeans go home to be private; we go home to be social.

Newman: The background to that is television as a leisure experience. It’s increasingly also being used in schools. Has it switched students over to the right hemisphere of the brain?

McLuhan: You cannot communicate our curriculum or our criticism through television. That problem did not arise with the movie period when prohibition was the big social bugaboo. In the movie period it was drug addiction. But during the movie period you never heard anything about dyslexia. Dyslexia came in with TV. And reading difficulties. And attention spans being very much shattered.

Newman: How about Richard Nixon? How could a society as creative as the U.S. throw up such a tinpot leader?

McLuhan: If Nixon had a beard or some bit of trimming—anything except that face, he would still be in the White House, if he wanted to be. But with that mug, he had no charisma. He only looked like one guy, himself—instead of looking like a lot of other guys, which was a defect. Even if he had a limp, or, like Roosevelt, a wheelchair, he would have had a better chance. Some defects can have a tremendous advantage.

Newman: How about education? What fundamental reforms do you visualize?

McLuhan: The classroom is becoming obsolete. The education thing is completely up for grabs. Compulsory education will disappear. It’s meaningless. Why should people be compelled to become educated? The right-hemisphere kid, who is a classroom problem, tends to know more about the media than his teachers. But literacy has become a sort of privilege for cranks and elites. The first people who learned to write and to read were the workmen who carved the inscriptions on monuments. Literacy came at the workman level before it came at the reading level.