Politics offers yesterday’s answers to today’s questions.


In the 1960s Herbert Marshall McLuhan formed many of the enduring ideas and theories that to this day serve to contextualise how we see and use electronic media. For McLuhan, the light bulb marks the shift towards binary systems, code and the modern age. Extending the effects of the light bulb on ‘man’, we can extrapolate our whole ’24/7′ culture, its systems and aids. As we celebrate the 100th anniversary of McLuhan’s birth, it is an appropriate time to revisit his ideas, aphorisms and life. His seminal text Understanding Media continues to hold value and provides a useful discourse on the technological age; where binary systems become ordinary, fetishised and pervasive all at the same time.

McLuhan to this day is still disliked among academics, largely arising from his unorthodox approach to media theory. In his heyday, at the University of Toronto, McLuhan took a singular path comprised of word play, pithy and provocative commentary and exposition on all manner of subjects. In this respect he is more easily compared with figures such as Joyce, Duchamp and Cage. Furthermore, McLuhan has inspired several generations of artists and his work retains value for the whole of visual culture.

The phrase ‘Global Village’ is perhaps most strongly associated with McLuhan, often misinterpreted as a utopian view of the effects of technology, as opposed to the intended meaning of disturbance and re-tribalisation through electronic extension. In our time, the effects of social media are often sold to us a key feature of electronic devices, yet many of these media have unintended consequences. Twitter has created a means of spontaneous protest, self-publishing and unrestricted expression; often mocking forms of censorship, libel and authenticity of information. Police forces worldwide are being forced to engage in ‘messaging’ their response to unfolding live events, in order to maintain public order. The medium in this case is the message.

In June I visited Toronto and interviewed a number of people connected with McLuhan. The resulting interviews have formed a part of this programme and shed light on his work. While interviewing my collaborator and friend Ihor Holubizky in the grounds of St Michael’s College at the University of Toronto, he abruptly stood up and shouted ‘Dan’. Before us was a man of the clergy with a serene smile.

Father Dan Donovan, politely refused to give an interview but talked effusively about McLuhan’s antics at the college. In hushed tones he said, “You know, he was both a genius and a charlatan.” This has been echoed throughout the interviews that we have conducted, including an insightful hour spent at the apartment of the eminent Canadian writer and broadcaster, Robert Fulford.

The programme at Watershed comprises of a website, one-day seminar and film screenings. In many ways it is one of the easiest things that anyone could wish to curate. We could take in the the Mayan people, Egypt, printing presses, typewriters and even Playboy Magazine. One of McLuhan’s best interviews can be read here.

In this Playboy interview McLuhan effortlessly riffs off:

“This problem is doubly acute today because man must, as a simple survival strategy, become aware of what is happening to him, despite the attendant pain of such comprehension. The fact that he has not done so in this age of electronics is what has made this also the age of anxiety, which in turn has been transformed into its Doppelgänger – the therapeutically reactive age of anomie and apathy. But despite our self-protective escape mechanisms, the total-field awareness engendered by electronic media is enabling us – indeed, compelling us – to grope toward a consciousness of the unconscious, toward a realization that technology is an extension of our own bodies.”

This idea of extension forms one of the main thrusts of the programme and seminar, along with the ‘rearview mirror effect’. Our objective is to revisit these ideas but also to problematise them at the same time. Certainly we are more emotionally extended through technology but as McLuhan says we are also more disembodied and anxious as a result of it. The rearview mirror effect proposes that we interpret all new technologies through their predecessors, but we might now add that one unintended result of the corporatisation of intellectual property has been the acquisition of patents to prevent innovation.

McLuhan borrowed and stole ideas from all around him and seemed unconcerned with the modern age’s obsession with originality. In this way his work aligns with concepts and practical notions of remix. We might therefore say that the prevailing body of knowledge is there for all to take and use as components for whatever you happen to be making, be it music, clothing, art or films.

The panel of invited guest speakers is deliberately diverse, reflecting McLuhan’s multi-modal form of engagement. They include Rachel Coldicutt, Iain Grant, Paul Morley, Clare Reddington, Ihor Holubizky, Stacey Spiegel, Matt Locke, Sy Taffell and Jon Dovey. The three panel events will cover ‘the Walled Garden’, ‘Extension’ and ‘Understanding New Media’, combining McLuhan with contemporary thoughts on what we now call ‘new media’ (a term McLuhan would no doubt have had fun with). Alongside this will be a performance of ‘Genius Loci’, a new set of compositions by composer Bernhard Living and a new piece of writing by Bronac Ferran. To add more value to the programme Mark Cosgrove and I have put together a set of films inspired by, or even including, Marshall McLuhan. We will also be showing a rare film featuring McLuhan entitled ‘Picnic in Space’ (by courtesy of Ihor Holubizky’s storage locker in Australia).

As a final word, please do get in contact with us and join in the debate.

Simon Poulter, September 2011