I’ve been so kind as to type out and add a transcript to this quite lengthy interview with McKenzie Wark about the life, persona and ideas of Marshall McLuhan. Look at the video or quickly browse through the text. You’ll see that there are several things in there that relate to a lot of things that I have add to my blog.
McKenzie Wark, good morning! Welcome to Radio National Breakfast.
- Good Morning.
One of Marshall McLuhan’s most famous sayings ‘the medium is the message’. What did he mean by that?
- What he was trying to do is to get you not to pay attention the to content, but the form of media. But before you even start to talk about what someone says or what’s in a program, or
anything like that, to think about how something like radio or television has effects just as a form in its own.
Why did he think that was important?
- He thought that particular media had particular ways of shaping our awareness and our ability to know the world. So he thought that (..) print media shaped a certain kind of sensibility and awareness, a certain kind of understanding of how the world could be put together and how it worked. And he thought that there had been a shift from print to what he called electric media. So he is sort of a the cusp of the (..) not the beginning of broadcasting but of the generalization of broadcasting. And he thought that really that was not only going to change consciousness, but our ability to understand and interact with the world.
So it’s the sixties, TV enormously popular. It had been vetted down and had exploded in terms of its (..) widespread use. Newspapers where still there, as they had been for more than a century. A dominant purveyor of information, but as you put it - as he put it - a sort of turning point is. Is that they era he lived in?
- Well, he went to Cambridge in the nineteen thirties. You know, he was born in nineteen eleven, so it’s the centenary of his birth. He dies in ninetheen eigthy, no longer with us. So he’s not really a sixties guy. By the time the sixties happened he’d already published several books. He was established as a professor of English. But that’s when there’s if you like the McLuhan Boom. Is about (..) ninetheen sixty-seven, sixty-eight. And he sort of intersects with a certain self-awareness about media and he was someone who, you know, who wasn’t a, you know, sort of twenty year old hippy, but seemed to be speaking about the world that that moment addressed.
And what was his theory about media, about mass communication?
- Well, of course it’s in the famous phrase (..) the medium is the message, which he later turned to media is the massage. And both of those sense of it have particular resonances. So the first thing is to pay attention to form: how does the actual form of a media work and what does it do to you? That’s medium is the message. Medium is the massage, this little pun on it, is to do with (..) for him everything is tactile, that he really wants to understand the relationship with the body to media before you start to sort of intellectualise it and think about content and all that stuff.
Well, he spoke exactly on that topic in a (..) play that disembodiment of television, in one sense it’s incredibly precient, ahead of his time, and on another level you could almost unkindly say he’s a little bit unhinged. But that’s what he would have to say whilst he was being broadcasted live on television.
By the way, at this moment, right, we are on the air and on the air we do not have any physical body. When you’re on the telephone or on radio or on TV, you don’t have a physical body. You’re just an image on the air. When you don’t have a physical body, you’re in a dis-kind of being. You have a very different relation to the world around you. And this, I think, has been one of the big effects of the electric age. It has deprived people really of their private identity. (…) Everybody tends to merge his identity with other people at the speed of light. It’s called being masked man. By the way, one of the big marks of the loss of identity is nostalgia. And so revivals on all hands, in every phase of live today. Revivals of clothing, of dances, of music, of shows, of everything. We live by the revival. It tells us who we are, or were.
Or were. We all know about revival and nostalgia, but not all of us would ascribed it back to mass media or mass communications. What’s the link he’s referring to then?
- Well, the first thing about McLuhan is: he wants to talk about media as environment. And for him environment means the part of what’s around you that you can’t actually see, that you sort
of forget is there. So he’s saying that media is environment and you forget you’re interacting with that environment until it kind of hits you in the head. So that’s kind of the first bit.
What do you mean? We don’t know we’re watching television, or.. ?
- I think most of the time ‘NO, we don’t know what television is when we’re watching it’. So, we know we’re watching a show called such-and-such and it’s funny or it’s a drama or whatever.
But what does it mean to be watching television? What does it mean to be listening to the radio? What does it mean to be having a cellphone converstation while walking down the street
and you’re talking to somebody else who’s waling in a different street who’s also on a cellphone? We’ve kind of forgotten that that’s an environment and he’s saying there that one of the things about that is the disembodiment. Your voice is elsewhere. You’re talking to an elsewhere. And if it’s a cellphone, elsewhere is talking back to you. So there’s, if you like, a completely separate environment with voices and minds interacting that’s completely different to where those bodies are, as bodies could be somewhere else, you know, completely unrelated to that. So how do we dwell in those two spheres at once? And he then wants to say there’s a disconnect there, it makes it hard to have a consistent and coherent identity. You know, I was at a baseball game once and I was sitting behind this guy who took a cellphone call and was obviously flat out lying to his boss about where he was. And the voice had obviously said something like isn’t there a ball game going on. He said it was on television. He claimed to be watching it on TV while he was working or something. This is what I could understand. Also firstly it’s weird that I can overhear this conversation. Secondly, isn’t it kind of weird that someone’s making up this story. There’s someone (..) he’s someone else, he’s someone else as the disembodied voice to who he is as the embodied person sitting there with a giant beer and a hotdog watching the yankees game.
One disembodied voice, talking about another disembodied experience with another third party - disembodied, listening in.
- Right. And that’s a fairly (..) We might not have done that, but we might have done things like it, you know. And we forget to sort of stop and think about what are of these environments we’ve entered. And then the last link is that (..) he thinks there’s something unsettling about that and maybe it’s why we go looking for (..) the ghosts of identities, of past identities. Of trying to sort of hang on to something that would make sense of this.
And this is what he says about identity in the digital world. Remember, this is nineteen sixty-eight, decades before computers became widespread. In a way he’s almost forecasting Facebook. Let’s have a listen.
In the new electric world, where everybody is involved in everybody, where everbody is involved in complex processes that are going on in the total environment, the old identity cards that used to constitute private identity, the old means of finding out ‘who am I?’, right (..) will not work. People (..) now have to encounter themselves in the inner world (..) Kierkengard or the existential style, in order to know who they are. The old methods of merely external (..) identity by marks of occupation, national origine, age grouping and so on, these will not serve any longer as means of distinguishing private identity.
Precient on one level, although national identity is still a big part of our lives.
- The thing about McLuhan is that he’s really an orator. He’s in a sense a modern artist whose medium is the spoken word, who is ?? towards eloqution for example. But he’s mistaken for being an oracle, which is a slightly different thing. It’s actually nearly (..) not quite what he’s doing. No, he’s an orator, he’s creating these preformances that make you think. So what’s striking is that he seems to be talking about our world, but are probably people in nineteen sixty-eight who thought he was talking about that world. Like (..) in a sense, that’s the beauty of what he does. It’s that you sort of go: ‘ah, I can think with that!’ You know what, that’s slightly strange but I can think with that, I can do something with it. So in this case, does he not seem to be talking about Facebook, Twitter, you know, this whole world. Although, you notice that’s actually not usually an oral world, that writing has come back into play in a way that he didn’t really anticipated at all. We’ve kind of reinvented (..) a kind of scriptural world (..) that he didn’t anticipate at all.
Texting and that sort of thing.
- Yeah, like Facebook is mostly writing with pictures. Yes. So he was (..) he speaks to different times.
He spoke there in that grab to the sixties and was a major media celebrity during the sixties. Magazines, television, they loved him. In the seventies his influence, at least insofar as his appearances in newspapers and television wind. Why was that?
- Yeah, it is interesting that he didn’t come to a Australia until nineteen seventy-seven. You know, this is when the big touring acts, they wouldn’t come here until they could no longer fill stadiums in the united states and so on. He didn’t really survive the seventies. It think there was a (..) there’s a few reason for that. His popularity with the advertising industry and media executives was all based on a misunderstanding. You know, he really wasn’t there to help them, you know, sell products or sell show or anything like that. It was just he was the only person who is really interested in them and didn’t want to moralize about them, you know. They had someone they could talk to, who is wipsmart, but who wasn’t really going to help them do what they wanted to do. And I think the second thing about McLuhan is that, you know, he comes out of Cambridge University in the nineteen thirties, out of what is called the New Criticism. So there was a quite conservative side to that, there’s a quite.. even reactionary side to McLuhan. And he really did not quite, sort of, get or survive the kind of political transformations that really come home to roost in the nineteen seventies.
So as he was a devout catholic. And did that influence his work?
- McLuhan was a catholic convert, interestingly. And it’s not overt in his work. He very very rarely touches on overt political issues. His whole style was a sort of not judge, it’s just to try to find a way of creating this sort of word probes that help you think about things. But, yeah he was a catholic convert, he went to mass every day to be in communication with the eternal. They would come back to his centre and think about, you know, electric media and all that sort of stuff. And I think those things are related. I think faith was enabling for McLuhan. It’s part of the world view, it enables him to see our world in a quite specific way. The other thing about McLuhan is that (..) you know he sought out Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis after the war in exile in North-America and these were deeply reactionary, if not proto-fascist intellectuals at that particular stage. He understood the genius of their poetry, but he was kind of quite comfortable with the reactionary side of modernism. And he tries not to be overt about that. He sort of steers away from any overtly political statements.
Because he knew it would be impolitic? (..) Hard to say perhaps.
- The whole thing about who McLuhan works is to not say the obvious. Like that’s why he’s interesting, is that people would always ask him these questions and you notice he’ll never actually answers the questions. He always goes of somewhere else. But he does it in a way that works. You sort of go ‘what?’,’you know, I had these whole preconceptions about what mattered about media or a technology or about identity, oh but you’ve gone over there..’ and then you have to sort of start to grope in your own mind for a way through that. So I think he just avoided things that weren’t interesting to talk about publicly, but I think in his private life this is a quite conservative figure. He’s not your classic sixties figure in that sense.
Certainly! Not your classic any figure! Does the description you’ve just made, does that mean he wasn’t a great scholar? He was a great orator, but not a great scholar? Or is that unfair?
- It depends on what you expect a scholar to do.
To build the existing corpus of knowledge.
- I think universities need charismatic outsiders from time to time to shake things up and show how it can be done otherwise. Like it’s one of the functions of the accumulation of knowledge. But it’s not the regular, routine stuff, which is adding sort of brick by brick our understanding of one thing related to another. There’s a sort of impersonality about scholarship. But now and then it needs this other figure. (..) As soon as he had a (..) stroke and they just shut down his centre at the University of Toronto. But the Canadians like to claim him as the great Canadian, but at the time the just sort of him out as soon as they could, you know. But it’s partly rightly that he performed a function for the accumulation of knowledge. But you wouldn’t want to craft the whole school of people who tried to sort of imitate that and be, you know, a thousand Marshall McLuhans would drive you crazy. And it would drive him crazy, because that would turn it into cliché.
Which he would have hated.
- Yeah, cliché and act-out, this is another later book that he does.
What would he make of the world today, were he alive?
- Who knows what McLuhan would think of, you know, the hundredth anniversary of .. it just is, we don’t know what to make of him yet, you know. It’s like, I don’t think he would know what to make of us. But he’d be curious about it. That’s the other thing about McLuhan, his ability to be curious about things (..) that we kind of take for granted. I think the return to literacy in digital media would have struck him as kind of curious and counter-intuitive. He thought electric media was about (..) orality and the visual and things like that and that we’ve got, if you like , a secondary textuality in texting and Twitter and Facebook that’s built on top of all of these audiovisual media. That, I think, he would find really quite striking and predicted, but if you think about it a logical development.
Is there anyone who reminds you of Marshall McLuhan alive today?
- It’s sort of the whole point that no one does, although I’ve had the kind of awful thought that McLuhan was the theory, Rupert Murdoch’s the practice. That (..) and you know, McLuhan would say he’s interested in us nosses, not noses, not in counting nose or leading by the nose or antyhing like that. He wanted knowledge. But, you could sort of pass it for, you know, if you’re a very kind of creative mind (..) for ways to build media empires. And obviously, I have no idea whether Rupert Murdoch every read a line of McLuhan in his entire life, but (..) love him or hate him you got to admit he had this extraordinary intuitive grasp of create power out of media.