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‘… a massive Bauhaus program of haptic innovation’

February 16, 2011

Inscripto 10

The following is a transcription of a speech which Marshall McLuhan delivered to the Learned Societies Canada conference in Montreal  in June, 1961.

I was only going to type out a few bits and pieces, but have decided that to just pull a few quotes would be to damage the whole. Even though parts are decidedly out-dated and probably won’t make much sense outside of 1961, as with a lot of Marshall’s writing there is much that is still completely relevant and perhaps surprisingly so.

By publishing a complete text like this, I am going outside my stated objective of providing just a glimpse however I am not going to let that limit me, this time anyway. I am also encouraging a critic to say that I write too much per post. My apologies.

In the following, as in a lot of Marshall’s work, one can see how important his library – rather, other authors – were to Marshall.

“When President Kennedy was newly elected, the editor of the Christian Science Monitor said to Philip Deane, “We now have our first beatnik President.” I am sure that when I was chosen as guest speaker for this occasion many felt inspired to observe that “We now have our first beatnik guest speaker.” McLuhan will not only show the relation between electronics and the Humanities, but between the small car and Bridget Bardot. He will take off in all directions at once, proving that since the disappearance of seams from nylons there is no value in lineality. The disappearance of the line in hosiery he will make to appear to be related to the disappearance of the chorus line, the receiving line, the stag line, and the party-line. He may point to the dread omen that no child would roll the hula hoop. He will probably suggest that skin-diving and TV-viewing are the same thing. That the teaching machines perfect the procedure of archetypal criticism. That the wrap-around space of the small car and the wrap-around audience of the new platform stage are not only the same form, but that North America is undergoing a massive Bauhaus program of haptic innovation which causes the leering teenager to spring up where before had grown the docile adolescent.
But even if I avoid all these fascinating themes there remains a great deal to be said about new rôles and new procedures for the Humanities in the electronic age. It was Peter Drucker, former professor of philosophy and now Dean of the School of Management in New York University, which said in effect at the outset of his Landmarks of Tomorrow

For the first time in human history higher education is not a privilege, a frill or a luxury. It is a necessity of production.

That is not to say that higher education is being supplanted by commerce, but rather that the age-old gap between them is harder to find. In a recent book, Classrooms in the Factories, Clark and Sloan report that the annual budget for classroom teaching in industry is more than four times the annual budget for primary, secondary, and higher education. And that estimate takes no account of the extensive training programs for military personnel. The G. E. management centre for executive training at Crotonville on the Hudson has four classes of forty executives each year. The budget if 46 million. Never did he know the true meaning of liberal education, says Peter Drucker in the book already mentioned, until he entered the field of management consulting, He refers to the immediate relevance of encyclopedic liberal knowledge in the conduct of current corporation design and action. Indeed, the corporations are much more aware of their need for new high-level liberal education then are the universities. The Ciceronian ideal of the doctus orator is current again. In The Liberal Hour, Kenneth Galbraith has a chapter on “Economics and Art,” in which he both ridicules the old commercial notion of art as frivolity and urges the relevance of art as a navigational guide in all business today. The supremacy of design in creating and marketing is one factor. The other factor is that the artist’s designs provide the advance models future development. Careful study of new artistic models gives any firm ten or twenty years breathing spell in planning and development. The old-fashioned business man who played it off the cuff and read only the current signs is now doomed by the speed of the new technology. So the artist moves from the ivory tower to the control tower in modern industry.
With regard to the new needs of industry in the electronic age a recent spokesman insisted that one out of every ten elementary school children must proceed to a Ph.D. if the American situation is to be maintained. No matter what the area of study be, so it be done in depth, that is the vision of American business in education today, for good or ill.
On all hands today it is plain that actualities are much in advance of our thought and theory. When everything changes at once because everything has become interdependent, we can expect from the very heart of change a plangent cry for permanence and stability. A second-grade teacher, just after Sputnik, asked her class to write poems about the event. She was quite amazed at the results and showed them to me. One of them I wrote down. It went:

The stars are so big
The moon is so small
Stay as you are.

That, whether verbalized or not, is the message and the logic, not of the mechanical age, but of the electronic age in which we stand as the primitives of an undeveloped and unknown culture. Those of us who have had special regard for the ancient disciplines that passed out of our schools years ago will see them return and flourish as never before.The generations immediately ahead of us will scorn the recent decades and even centuries as periods of triviality, frivolity, and of planned obsolescence. We shall see all communities, as well, as all commodities and dwellings, assume a stubborn, depth character of organic persistence, as if built by Frank Lloyd Wright. Survey programs will disappear from the curricula of studies as the panic for permanence drives us into ever greater depth understanding of all kinds of knowledge and action.
I say this without enthusiasm. It is not exhilarating to foresee the inexorable discovery of one’s own childish ways of thought. Many a teenager today in his passionate pursuit of a crash program in adulthood looks on parent and teacher alike as superficial and banal in their modes of routinized living. The situation is the same on the non-personal level. We are all familiar with the computation based on a survey of present-day scientific development: that of all the greatest scientists who have ever lived, 95% are living right now. Does this mean that there is more human intelligence now than before? Not at all. But it does mean that we have hit upon some means of activating intelligence that is new. A. N. Whitehead pointed to the discovery of the nineteenth century as the discovery of the technique of invention. Bertrand Russell pointed to the great achievement of the twentieth century as the technique of suspended judgement. That is, the discovery of the process of insight itself, the technique of avoiding the automatic closure or involuntary fixing of attitudes that so easily results from any given cultural situation – The technique of open field perception. Both the discovery of the method of invention and the discovery of the technique of insight not only concern scientists but humanists, and have been freely used by both of what C. P. Snow calls the two cultures. So much so, indeed, that the resonant statistic of about 95% of the greatest scientists of human history now being alive may apply equally to poets, painters and philosophers. Perhaps we in this group ought really to ask ourselves why we tend instinctively to reject the idea that we might be living in the greatest of all intellectual and artistic periods, even though we may endorse the ebullient scientific estimate of our time. At any period of the past, humanists have been distinguished by a love of ruins and by a gloomy sense that change and decay invest the scene. Perhaps Lord Macaulay hit upon a new strategy. Convinced that he did live in the greatest of all human centuries, he compensated for his non-humanist buoyancy by giving us the memorable image of the New Zealander who would one day arrive to sit upon a fragment of London Bridge in order to sketch the ruins of St. Paul’s. Petrarch in a famous passage which has often been misread as a glorious prophecy of the great Renaissance so near to him, actually stood amidst the ruins of Rome and stated that just as surely as there had been uninterrupted decline from Augustan days to his own time, so in the years that lay ahead there would be continuous decay of such classical treasures and skills as still remained. Gibbon was faithful to the same perspective when he tells in his Autobiography how

I was in Rome, on the fifteenth of October, 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted friars were singing Vespers in the temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to my mind.

May I suggest a face-saving device in this humanist obsession with ruins and decay? The humanist is a Luddite, as C. P. Snow calls him, because he gets a thrill of unimagined potential from the fragmentary and tends to find the complete structure to offer no mode of creative empathy or participation. Thus the humanist is fascinated by the incomplete Hyperion of Keats more than by the complete Prelude of Wordsworth.
It has been said that had Milton broken off his Paradise Lost at the end of the fourth book, his reputation would stand above any poet of antiquity. The fragment we possess of the Faerie Queene, perhaps, spurs more speculation that would a completed 24-book structure.
Let me return a moment to the observation of A. N. Whitehead’s, that the gret discovery of the 19th century was the discovery of the technique of discovery. At least in Science and the Modern World, where he makes this statement, Whitehead does not explain his point. Edgar Allen Poe, whom Baudelaire and Valéry regarded as the nineteenth-century Leonardo da Vinci, did explain the point in his “Philosophy of Composition.” The technique of invention is to begin with the effect one wishes to achieve and then to go backward to the point from which to begin to produce that effect, and only that effect. In a sense this technique of starting with the effect before seeking the causes and means for the effect, is the perfection of assembly-line method. It is a method of organized ignorance. Because, whether one wishes to make a car or a poem, a guided missile or a detective story, it is necessary to begin with the solution of effect. Dickens found that writing for serial publication compelled him to plan ahead. And assembly-line methods imply complete analysis and total reconstruction backwards from the end-product. The power of advance by segmental analysis of each phase of a complex operation was bequeathed to us by Gutenberg and his moveable types. It is a technique made obsolete by electrically-recorded tapes. The assembly line yields not to galaxy clusters of simultaneous operations which are made possible by the exact synchronization of the information on tapes. The humanist will observe, however, that no matter what period or technology is in question, the artist has always solved the new problem both for the engineer and for the human community, by his new advance models for sensibility and awareness. The exact models of coming forms provided by artistic intuition are like “the providence that’s in a watchful state,” which as Ulysses says to Achilles in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida,

Knows almost every grain of Plutus’ gold,
Finds bottom in the uncomprehensive deeps,
Keeps place with thought, and almost like the gods
Does thoughts unveil in their dumb cradles.

The ever new models of the artist are for the correction of the perceptual bias inflicted upon any human activity by ever new technology. In the past century, indeed, we have we have come to rely almost wholly on art for the nutrition of fresh impulse and the alerting of hypnotized senses. No previous society ever regarded art in this way. But no previous society ever underwent the successive brain-washings and hypnotic trances that ours has done from a succession of new technologies.
Now to come to the Bertrand Russell point – that the great discovery of the twentieth century concerns the technique of the suspended judgement. The technique of insight itself is a natural phase to succeed the nineteenth-century discovery of the technique of invention, because it is the means of abstracting oneself from the bias and consequence of one’s own culture. If a merely negative criterion were needed it would be easy to infer from the dismay and incomprehension which the later work of Harold Innis has caused in the minds of his admirers that he had finally hit upon a discovery of a very considerable and a very exacting nature.
Innis’ concern in the Bias of Communication, and later, is with the technique of the suspended judgement. That means, not the willingness to admit other points of view, but the technique of how not to have a point of view. This is identical with the problem facing physicists in correcting the bias of the instruments of research, and it draws attention to the fact that the historian, the poet, the critic, and the philosopher, now as always, face exactly the same situations as the scientist. The is easy to see in the larger historical retrospect. Failure to see it in the present may be the result of what Galbraith calls “vested interests in acquired knowledge” of involvement or anxiety or stupefaction or fatigue. But there are now some quite new factors in the overall situation which need to be specified. Whatever may prove to be the weakness of Teilard De Chardin’s work, he will always have the credit of having correctly defined the major change of our age. In the Phenomenon of Man he observes:

It has been stated over and over again. Through the discovery yesterday of the railway, the motor car, and the aeroplane, the physical influence of each man, formerly restricted to a few miles, now extends to hundreds of leagues or more. Better still, thanks to the prodigious biological even represented by the discovery of electro-magnetic waves, each individual finds himself henceforth (actively and passively) simultaneously resent, over land and sea, in every corner of the earth.

The end of mechanism, the extension of organic interdependence to every phase of experience and human association is what happened to us. Behind us are 25 or more centuries during which the Western world perfected the means of moving the products of human discourse and human ingenuity to every corner of the earth. This was done mainly by the alphabet and print and their derivatives in transport and industry. By abstracting sight and sound, by arresting the movements of speech and thought in a visual code, we extended the techniques of mechanical analysis and packaging to the whole of human discourse and learning.”

End of Part One.

>> On second thought, I’m only going to publish part of the speech now. I’ll type out the second half for a later post – it’s just too time-consuming to do the whole thing in one go, and this first half is a lot to read anyhow. Or maybe I’ll leave it up to readers: if you really want the other half, leave a comment to that effect.

Thanks for reading,


10 Comments leave one →
  1. February 22, 2011 12:47 pm

    I do hope you’ll transcribe the rest of this, Andrew. You’re doing a great service.

  2. Joyce James permalink
    February 23, 2011 9:02 am

    please don’t stop now … it’s wonderful !

    Joyce James

  3. Louis Wyndham permalink
    March 15, 2011 6:50 pm

    typo :
    simultaneously resent,

    simultaneously present,

    thanks for posting !

    Louis Wyndham

    • March 16, 2011 8:16 am

      Thanks for reading (apologies for the typos, everyone… when you have yourself for an editor, you have errors in your work?)

  4. Jim Scott permalink
    May 24, 2011 4:29 pm

    Wow, Andrew, great work on the blog. I think you’re doing your grandfather, and his reputation, a great service. I was taken by his interaction with Woody Allen, himself a much more thoughtful person and much more serious artist than some people realize. I still remember the great evening we had when you brought “Exit through the Gift Shop” to the local theatre. It was a piece that almost combined the spirit of Woody Allen and Marshall McLuhan. I hope you are still practicing your own form of street art.


  5. October 7, 2018 4:19 pm

    “Does this mean that there is more human intelligence now than before? Not at all. But it does mean that we have hit upon some means of activating intelligence that is new. A. N. Whitehead pointed to the discovery of the nineteenth century as the discovery of the technique of invention. Bertrand Russell pointed to the great achievement of the twentieth century as the technique of suspended judgement. That is, the discovery of the process of insight itself, the technique of avoiding the automatic closure or involuntary fixing of attitudes that so easily results from any given cultural situation – The technique of open field perception. ”

    Wow, I haven’t read that summation put so clearly or poignantly before: “avoiding the automatic closure or involuntary fixing of attitudes that so easily results from any given cultural situation.” It speaks to the open-mindedness of people in the heavily-mediated post-modern condition, yet the term “involuntary” suggests that people could, after much generation of insight through perception of the open field might voluntarily choose principles, standards to live by. That’s much different then the helplessness of being lost without value judgements as some permanent state of being.

    Do you still have the text to transcribe part two?

    • October 8, 2018 10:29 am

      Hi Clinton – thanks for drawing my attention back here. I will dig around and see if I have it (probably do).

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