O Marshall, Where Art Thou?

I recently discovered that my Aunt Jill was, in her own words, "a lowly Philosophy/Anthropology student" who "had the good fortune to be at St. Mike's when McLuhan taught in the English Dept. there. He cast a very long shadow and we all benefited greatly from his imagination, vision and eccentricity."

I asked her what he was like, and what she thought good old Mr. McLuhan would have made of YouTube, and she responded first:

Um... er... he was a pontificating old fart. I say that with the utmost respect, I want you to know haha. He was deep into his "Catholic years" so everything was about his faith-- which is why he was at St. Michael's rather than a more "accessible" college at the University of Toronto. He refused to teach at any institution that wasn't Catholic. I was there because they accepted me. Oh well.

He was about a hundred and eight at the time-- a venerable teacher still, but he wasn't all that "with it" any more.

That said, he was a remarkable teacher, had the most amazing mind. U of T was just full of forward-thinking creative-thinking types at the time and McLuhan was Yoda so everything was electric from a thought perspective. And absolutely ever-y-thing was processed through the McLuhan filter.

Youtube? Well, I bet he'd say: "Toldya so..." or "The plan progresses as expected" or something like that. He warned us.

And then, a couple of days later, followed herself up in three posts:

Hi, well I've been thinking about my flip "old fart" comment re: McLuhan & feeling kind of crappy because he was amazing. By the time I got to U of T he was pretty disillusioned. He felt disrespected by his colleagues and felt that nobody was paying attention. It was at that time that he talked a lot about the "unconsciousness" of the public.

He hadn't exactly given up but was certainly not as enthusiastic as he'd been. I think the brain tumour thingy must have changed him substantially as well.

I have come to understand that most of my perception about communication and social progress has been shaped by McLuhan, however. Not that I don't have my own ideas, but I really see now that I was a Marshall Sponge.

***

I also wanted to address your question about Youtube because it actually is a serious question. I think he would have been horrified on one level. I remember he said that when you're on TV you're no longer a real person-- you become, in effect, a disembodied image. He asked this question: how is one to establish identity when one is a disembodied image"?

McLuhan saw a huge spiritual disconnect that was fostered by consumerism & technology dependence. Two things he said: "You start out a consumer & you end up consumed" and (in the context of machines being tools) "How will your tool reverse on you when it's pushed to its outer limit?"

***

Okay, final post (you got me started on one of my favourite subjects-- communication): The thing for McLuhan was degree. He believed that we have never really controlled technology-- that it has always controlled/driven/directed us.

He said: "A pervasive medium is always beyond reception". He felt that electronic media actually prevent the absorption of information. I think he might have liked (& possibly agreed with) "The Matrix" as a poetic representation of current reality.

He believed that all things are connected & that that is the "evil" inherent in pervasive technology-- once we plug in to it we become disconnected.

I think he might have found Youtube yet another means to distract us from actually exercising liberty by providing the illusion of it. We are not awake, we merely think we are (and are soooo encouraged to believe that).

I thought this all bore redistributing to all of you net-native folks, in no small part because I really, really want to talk about this stuff. These issues are pretty well the deep existential questions of our day. Is a friend on the internet a friend in a real, meaningful, human sense? People you have on IM? Blog commenters? People you watch on YouTube? Where's the overlap between real, human community and internet community... and where isn't there an overlap? Does the internet encourage shallow, untethered interactions? Does it encourage investment in distant/nonthreatening/idealized relationships as a method of escape from geopresent stresses? ...Is all of that good or bad?

What does it mean to be human anymore, anyway? Does anyone besides me get the idea that we're in the process of reinventing ourselves as a species?

But here's the thing that makes me shake my head and wonder if any of us knows what the heck we're talking about. My Aunt Jill is an amazing, warm person, she's brilliant, and I'm absolutely thrilled to have her in my life. But my uncle (the guy who makes Aunt Jill related to me) passed away when I was small, we've never lived in the same place, never spent holidays together, and have in general been strangers to one another -- until fairly recently, when we became friends on FaceBook. This entire deep, thinky topic came into existence there, on my wall, on FaceBook. There's a great personal connection and a meaningful conversation that likely would never have come about any other way. So is McLuhan wrong?

And at the same time, I've been taking up Internet shabbats on the weekends. Why? To feel more connected to my immediate life and family, because my attention and my connections have become so very diffuse. And I hate that. So... McLuhan is right then... right?

Damn. I remember studying McLuhan in my Journalism courses in college; I think I wasn't ready for him yet.

One more thing; when I asked if I could repost this stuff (naturally including attribution), my aunt very modestly insisted, "The ideas are all pure McLuhan." Then she directed me to a source she got a couple of these quotes from: "a 2002 National Film Board of Canada documentary called McLuhan's Wake that has so much incredible archival film footage it's mind-boggling! All the stuff I grew up with-- local Toronto TV talk shows & interviews, which really do reflect what I remember of his talks & lectures. He was a typically single-minded genius guru."

So, yeah, if you're looking for me, you know where to find me.


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