29 July 2005

Marketing and Branding a War

With my recent musings on the Future of Marketing, and the Future of War, it is really no surprise that the Bush Administration has rebranded its War on... Conspiracy theorists might suggest that the "Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism," expresses the Administrations Christian agenda with respect to the world. Acronymically, this rebranded "Struggle" is G-SAVE, that some might suggest refers to America "saving" the globe, or perhaps God Saves. If it was a "journey" instead of a struggle, we would have J-SAVE, but I would never suggest such a thing. Oh no, not I!

McLuhan Lectures 2005 - Brian Cantwell Smith - Re-enchantment

In which professor and philosopher not to mention FIS Dean Brian Cantwell Smith cleverly and sometimes profoundly contemplates the dysfunctions of the end of the 20th century through the long view of post-alchemic scientific and socio-cultural history via the rhetorical if not metaphorical device of the fable thereby providing him with a perfectly legitimate escape hatch for any inaccuracies, implausible and unsupportable leaps of logic, and his steadfast refusal to consider Marshall McLuhan beyond a freshman-level literal reading of McLuhan’s most famous aphorism that implicates Cantwell Smith in his own epithet in what turns out to be a delicious irony unless it was all a satire in the first place.

And so we begin...

Cantwell Smith asks his audience to consider the rise of the religious right, and fundamentalism around the world at the dawn of this new century. He observes that those proponents of a form of totalitarian thinking provide seemingly easy answers to a complex and confusing world, and queries what “our” – that is, those who hold to a more progressive and enlightened agenda – answers might be in response to both the simplicity offered by fundamentalism, and to the challenges of the world. His position: Our answers must “build on the very best of science” or the progressive movement will lose. He claims that he will take a McLuhan-style approach in drawing from a historical context to look forward, in order to see the significance of the answers that he will propose today.

He begins his fable. Return, he suggests, to the end of the age of alchemy and the coincident rise of mechanist philosophy. Return to the age of Descartes, the age of reason. The one who coined an aphorism perhaps more famous than the medium is the message – cognito, ergo sum, I think therefore I am – Descartes was responsible for the arithmetization of geometry and development of science. Science was not possible when the mind (spirit) and the body were considered as an inseparable unit. In proposing the separation of spirit from body, the body became objectified, enabling science the means to explore, investigate, and finally understand the body as a part of the natural world in general. This dualism that Descartes introduced, according to Cantwell Smith’s fable, was intended to be a temporary and interim (350 years and counting) measure, since the mind and body cannot exist one without the other.

The benefit of this “temporary” construct was the development of our vast scientific knowledge and the birth of modernism. The cost was equally significant: a profound disenchantment of nature in the 17th century. That fateful Cartesian split involved both epistemological and ontological implications. Fundamentally, (and epistemologically) society was forced to question what was worth knowing. The shift meant that the value of knowledge shifted from the stuff of divine insight, legitimacy and authority, to the supremacy of empirical observation. Such a shift meant society could shuck the authority of the church, and adopt its own secular authority of knowledge (that later, ironically, realigned itself with the church).

From the ontological ground, we were forced to consider What was it that was being understood? The Cartesian divide meant that the physical world became devoid of meaning, understanding and spirit. The world is “ripped apart,” with spirit (and meaningfulness) banished to the realm of the church, and all the rest being free of spirit and spirituality. Empiricism was valued above all, and the common conception was that all that was worth knowing could be known in time. The end of knowledge was in sight by the end of the 19th century; science would soon have a complete, objective, rational and true account of the world that meant the end of science as a discipline.

But then, the 20th century happened, and all hell broke loose (no pun intended).

Science couldn’t explain the scientist himself, and behaviours and minds of the scientists; nor could it explain the origin of mathematics. Empiricism meant that these did not come from God. But neither did they come from the physical world, since both mind/behaviour, as well as mathematics, are abstract, with a maddening self-legitimacy that seemed to defy the pure empiricists. Could, for instance, mathematics be derived from logic? This became The Major Project of 20th century philosophy.

Bertrand Russell, Gödel, Wittgenstein, and others all identified the problems of deriving mathematics from logic, and eventually ended this pursuit. But more damage was wrought on mechanical philosophy by modernism. Relativity destroyed the mechanical model; quantum mechanics destroyed the notion of objectivity and ability to measure anything accurately. Turing showed the limitations of computers; complexity theory showed the limits of determinism. The rational world and a Eurocentric hierarchy of knowledge came apart with the end of colonialism. Even religious traditions that were based on natural philosophy found themselves losing popularity in the face of science, discovery, and pragmatism.

“People panic” in response to the loss of surety in the world, and the tools with which they make sense of the world (as in a scientifically constructed worldview based on direct observation). As the tools “break,” it is a “natural” response to begin to look at the tools themselves through which we were examining the world. Meta examination of all the disciplines began – from looking at the world to looking at the signs and symbols that signify the world. This meta-examination birthed mid-to-late 20th century post-modernism.

The attempt to derive the mind (and significance and meaning) from empirical observations of the world itself, and the examination of the tools with which these examinations were performed, refocused attention on the physical, rather than on the meaning and significance we were supposed to be thinking about in the first place. As it turns out, an examination of the tools influences and changes what the tools are supposed to be working on. (Careful, Brian. You’re dangerously close to espousing the medium is the message!)

Cantwell Smith now frames what he proposes as the “current project” for complex, contemporary times: We must retrieve the content, semantics, meaning, and significance of the world, but not in a nostalgic way that hearkens to natural philosophy or a sentimental longing for “the good ol’ days.” Rather, we must retrieve the type of humanistic engagement that was lost in the anti-contextual, post-modernist navel-gazing of the 20th century. Cantwell Smith calls for a return of subjectivity AND objectivity AND truth in order to construct a metaphysical reclamation of the world that recognizes both the humility we must feel after the scientific discoveries of the 20th century, and the humanism we must deploy after the concomitant rise of critical cultural theory.

The challenge is, how to incorporate the classical humility of science – that there is more to understand than meets the (mind’s) eye, more to the world than you think, so go and look – with the humility of social constructivism, that recognizes that one’s social location affects one’s observations and interpretations of what it is we are looking at. He frames the problem this way: How do you tell a story that seeks to approach the truth that isn’t biased from the beginning, thereby rendering it suspect? The answer is that you don’t – multiple stories aren’t mutually exclusive, despite the reality that they well may be mutually paradoxical (which, of course, provides the basis for dialectics). Multiple stories can’t be held to account for prior fundamentals, but despite that, there are aspects of common grounding that exist, and are of value. To be grounded does not mean that one must be necessarily grounded in an (ideologically privileged) untenable ground. It does mean that we must seek and identify an appropriate ground.

To accomplish this, Cantwell Smith draws our attention to the issue of materiality. If the life you lead affects your understanding of what matters, then how do we consider materiality? He points out that “matter” is both noun and verb, signifying both the stuff of existence and its significance. Hearkening back to Descartes and his temporary schism, matter-the-noun is the body, while matter-the-verb is mind; likewise material(ity) . What we must do, according to Cantwell Smith, is retrieve the sense of materiality in what matters. A material object is something that matters in people’s lives, and thus the world is once again grounded in what is important.

The vernacular conception of (capitalistic) “materialism” is actually divorced from what matters in people’s lives. The solution to the ills of the post-20th century world lie in undoing Cartesian separation. This becomes the starting point for telling a story of the world that is grounded in importance and significance. The material world divorced from what matters is an unfortunate artefact of science; likewise religion, that separates the secular from the spiritual (matter from what matters) and focuses only on the latter. Reclaiming an integral experience of the world (what McLuhan might call “involvement in depth”) can give an account of the world that explains both cultural pluralism and observed scientific reality – understanding and theory that is grounded in physical experience. We must be honest in our treatment of scientific discovery, 20th century epistemology, and cultural theory. Such honest treatment means that reactionary nostalgia and foundationalism can be transcended, thereby doing justice to both science and social constructionism, and giving voice to mattering and meaningfulness, that answers the materialism and fundamentalism upon which predatory capitalism and religious fundamentalism are “preying.”

28 July 2005

McLuhan on Intercourse in the Church. "In the Beginning Was the... Oh My Word!"

A few days ago I dashed off this bit of tongue in cheek. Imagine my surprise when I came across the following in a collection of McLuhan essays and interviews on religion in The Medium and the Light:
This is just a note about the ordination of women, which concerns "formal causality," i.e., structural form which is inseparable from "putting on" one's public. The writer's or the performer's public is the formal cause of his art or entertainment or his philosophy. The figure/ground relation between the artist and his making is an interplay, a kind of intercourse. This interplay is at its peak in all performance before the public and is characteristic of role-playing in general. There is, as it were, a sexual relation between performer and public, which relates specifically to the priest or minister. The congregation is necessarily feminine to the masculine role of the priest. (This is characeristic also in medicine, of the surgeon who is only exceptionally a woman.) It is, therefore, this inherent sexual aspect of the priesthood that makes the ordination of women impractical and unacceptable to a congregation in their feminine role.
This provides a fascinating insight into the (or, more correctly, I should say, "a") doctrinaire Catholic mind, revealing a major aspect of the psycho-social dynamics behind the rejection of women priests.

They just can't stand the notion of "woman on top!"

The Future of Marketing - Not Mindshare, but Sharedmind

I participated in an industry roundtable this morning on the topic of marketing via wireless devices. Around the table were representatives from various advertising and marketing agencies, content producers and providers, companies that would seek to do such promotions, ISPs and aggregator companies, and me as the token academic and futurist, more or less. Most of the companies represented are household names across the technology, media, content and promotion business, both here in Canada, and many places around the world. It made for an interesting two-hour conversation.

The moderator began by asking me to frame what have been known as “cell phones.” I explained that by calling them cell phones, we are limiting our conception of the possibilities because that label induces us to ignore the true effects of mobile devices. In fact, in addition to phones, many people (and especially marketers) consider these devices as TVs, radios, cassette players, walkie-talkies, or Instamatic cameras. Contemporary mobile devices may be able to perform some, or all, of these functions, but, as we know from McLuhan, the function is not the same as the effect. What I shared with the group as the opening gamut is that mobile devices are telepathy machines – they create the effects of ESP, linking minds directly to one another in a way that enables us to share experiences. It is through this instantaneous and collective sharing of experiences that the true potential of mobile marketing can be achieved.

The problem is that most marketing executives, and particularly those who have senior positions in the advertising agencies, have a broadcast era conception of what it means to do mass marketing. Like the traditional view of mass media – media for the masses – mass marketing is traditionally viewed as one company broadcasting their marketing “message” (i.e. content) out to a mass of people, often through a number of different and distinct channels. However, under conditions of instantaneous, multi-way communications, these mass forms are accelerated to the point of reversal – mass media and mass marketing become media and marketing by the masses. The implications of this are profound: The marketing companies’ job is no longer to control the content, but rather to create an environment in which their customers can participate in collectively creating the marketing campaign.

This is an understandably frightening notion to those who have grown up under the rubric of controlling and managing a brand. Allowing an audience or one’s customers to define the brand goes against everything we learned in Marketing 101, but is entirely consistent with the reality of the Internet, and the way it enables trans-modal engagement among its users. “User as producer” in a cool environment means that it is the user that completes the experience in an environment that is set by the branding company. This means creating opportunities for instant creative collaboration, and the dynamic creation and evolution of the environmental experience itself. In a sense, the marketing campaign doesn’t exist until the audience (or users) create it.

This is not about the traditional notion of “capturing mindshare” – essentially having one’s attention hijacked –which will quickly become an anachronistic concept, actively rejected by today’s tech-socialized audiences. The coming dominant force in marketing to the pervasively proximate is to create conditions whereby the audience’s attention is willingly and freely given in active participation. Capturing mindshare can only be temporary; participatory sharedmind is forever.
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27 July 2005

War on Isolation

I had a fascinating conversation with a visiting researcher the other day. Coming (I believe) from a partially theological ground, she is investigating the relationship between the mind-body connection, the nature of identity, and in particular, what happens when that embodiment is severed, as occurs via instantaneous communication technologies. She refers to McLuhan’s observation and commentary on the subject, that can be found in his book War and Peace in the Global Village; an inventory of some of the current spastic situations that could be eliminated by more feedforward, and in some of his Letters:
On the telephone, or on the air, man is in every sense discarnate, existing as an abstract image, a figure without a body. The Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland is a kind of parallel to our state. When discarnate, man has no identity, and is not subject to natural law. In fact he has no basis for morals of any sort. As electric information moved at the speed of light, man is a nobody [“no body”]. When deprived of his identity, man becomes violent in diverse ways. Violence is the quest for identity. (Letter to Clare Boothe Luce, 5 April, 1979
Does this, she wondered, explain the rise in violence – particularly terrorist violence – and will the situation get worse as an increasing proportion of the population engages in electronic disembodiment?

One can make the relatively straight-forward connection between McLuhan’s comments on body-mind-identity-violence on the one hand, and his devout Catholic practice on the other. For example, the “talk he never gave” – because days before he was to give a talk to St. Michael’s College students in the fall of 1979 he suffered the stroke that robbed McLuhan of his speech – was to be entitled, “Discarnate Man and the Incarnate Church.” But I would suggest probing this body-mind-identity connection to see if McLuhan himself may have missed something.

If we consider medium and message in the McLuhan sense as I have interpreted them, the mind-body connection producing identity can be considered the figure of the medium, that to which we obviously pay attention. The message, on the other hand, or ground effects, are something else altogether. I would suggest, as a probe, that we consider the process of connection between mind and body as the source of identity, with identity being an emergent property of that process of interaction, rather than stemming from mind or body alone. In the former case, as the body is obsolesced under conditions of ubiquitous connectivity and pervasive proximity – the body becoming an objet d’art or recreational form – the mind is disconnected from the body as McLuhan suggests, and discarnate man loses his identity and embarks on an amoral quest for identity, leading to violence.

However, with pervasive proximity in which we are all connected to one another, the process of mind-body interaction is replaced by mind-mind interaction, from which a new form of identity can begin to emerge. While it may be significantly different than our previous notion of identity (that ties closely to "Gutenbergian" individuality), it is a form of identity nonetheless - a most exciting form about which we are only beginning to learn through its emergent culture (for example, this). Rudimentary versions of this new form of identity can be understood in terms of one’s digital persona, or in more complex fashion as the digiSelf. However, more exciting and interesting forms occur when they emerge from global, trans-modal interactions.

What this line of reasoning suggests is that it is not simply the aspect of becoming discarnate that threatens identity and engenders violence. Rather, it is isolation that does the damage. When processes of interaction are blocked, identity is lost, an violence ensues, whether it occurs in an individual or in a group.

The idea that identity is socially constructed is not new. The “self” as defined “in relation” is a foundation of contemporary feminist theory, for example. However, isolation of figure from ground that in turn precludes meaning does explain the importance of considering identity or self as socially constructed. It is the isolation that disconnects the process of engagement and interaction – be it among body(ies), mind(s) or context(s) in the world – from which violence is created. For a group, this means that isolating the group from the ground (context) of society at large, destroys that group’s identity-in-relation, and this inevitably leads to violence.

Thus, the ill-begotten “war on terror” should more rightly be restructured into a “war” on isolation. And most certainly, that one is not fought with guns, bombs, death, destruction and vengeance.

26 July 2005

25 July 2005

Experts Terrible at Predicting Future. So what else is new?

While digging up the links for the Telus post, I came across the union's humour page. The caption on this precious photo reads as follows:
Scientists from the RAND Corporation have created this model to illustrate how a "home computer" could look like in the year 2004. However the needed technology will not be economically feasible for the average home. Also the scientists readily admit that the computer will require not yet invented technology to actually work, but 50 years from now scientific progress is expected to solve these problems. With teletype interface and the Fortran language, the computer will be easy to use.
About the only thing right is the bit about the scientific progress in 50 years. Now, where did I put my old Fortran manuals?

Tel-us Another One

Telus is playing dirty with its union, and it may be the one who ultimately ends up with mud on its face. According to this, among other, reports, Telus has blocked access from its customers to the Telecommunications Workers Union's website, Voices for Change. According to their website, as of today, " TWU members have been without a contract for 1667 days and last received a general wage increase 2032 days ago." As the website tells it,
Customers who use telus.net as their Internet Service Provider are unable to access this website due to censorship by TELUS. When support was called on July 23, they claimed not to be blocking access. Numerous TV, radio and print media have picked up this story, after receiving calls from outraged TWU members. The story will become national when Global National airs a story tonight. TELUS has since admitted to blocking this site, although support was still denying the blocking after the fact.
But management does not deny the blocking. Their excuse is that there are parody photos of some members of management on the site, and "Telus vice-president of business solutions Bruce Okabe [said] yesterday. "It would be morally negligent for us to tolerate this kind of behaviour."

Of course Mr. Okabe doesn't consider the moral negligence of denying freedom of speech, or actively censoring the content that customers can access. It's in this latter aspect that the mud is kicked up. You see, all of the ISPs have vigorously argued in the courts that they are but common carriers, not responsible for the content of their users. If there is notice of an infraction of the law - posting illicit materials, for example - they are to (well, soon will be required to) notify the customer of the alleged infringement or illegality. Of course, a court order to inactivate the account would work too. But they do not have the power to unilaterally censor materials of their own accord. That's vigilanteism, and it's not legal. What's more, as Michael Geist points out, this is "dangerous for the ISPs themselves, who risk seeing this blow up in their face as part of the ongoing telecommunications policy review that is considering the appropriate regulatory framework for those same ISPs."

Telus it ain't so!

Update (3 Aug 2005): According to the OpenNet Initiative, a joint program among U of T's Citizen Lab, Harvard's Berkman Centre, and Cambridge's Advanced Network Research Group, Telus's actions also blocked 766 other sites hosted on the same server! Talk about collateral damage!


For a fun time-killer, you could do a lot worse. Grant Robinson's Guess-the-Google uses Google's image search to generate 20 images based on a single keyword. Your task is to guess the keyword in 20 seconds or less. Ten rounds, and if you're really quick and clever, you get to put your name on the high score list. Very cool.
(seen at IFTF's Future Now)

Intensifying IS the Message

Sandra Barron, a writer for the New York Times has a piece in today's Toronto Star in which she states, "Flirtation via text message just 2 much 2 fast :-(" She tells the story of meeting a guy in a bar, exchanging mobile numbers, and engaging in a whirlwind relationship - from initial infatuation and intrique to final dumping - within a few days. Her final reflection: "I turned off the phone, dumbfounded. How had this happened? How had we managed to speed through all the stages of an actual relationship almost solely via text message? I'd gone from butterflies to doubt to anger at his name on the screen, before we even knew each other."

Here's your answer, Sandra: It's the acceleration and intensification of communications via instantaneity. The mobile device - as well as email, weblogs and other similar electronic accelerations - intensify the sender's voice, meaning and intent. Many of us have experienced it, usually while we are still in the novice stage, "playing" with our first experiences of email. We send what we believe to be an otherwise innocuous missive, only to have it transform somehow into a missile en route to the recipient. We are surprised by the blast that ensues, usually directed back at us! Over time, we learn about intensification of both meaning and emotion, and realize that it is not (only) the sender who is sent via electronic communications, as McLuhan suggested, but the receiver who is received; that is, we receive our own contextual ground, as opposed to the one in which the message was originally created.

Now think of this applied to issues of marketing, one of the hot growth areas in the advertising and PR business. With intensification comes the risk of alienating one's potential customers and audience; what may be engaging in other media becomes enraging on a mobile device. Instantaneous communications amplifies, intensifies and accelerates. It takes what is public when delivered in other forms and makes it intimate.

I'll be participating in a round-table conversation with a number of people involved in these industries later in the week, sharing some of these, and other, thoughts. I'll let you know how it goes.

24 July 2005

Rapture Politics

Henry Giroux is a "critical pedagogue" of some repute - he considers issues of education with an awareness of the flows of power and the existence of injustice. Today, in the Toronto Star, he examines a topic on which I have written many times, that being the Reversal of America, specifically pertaining to that nation having already become a Christian theocracy.
Further evidence of an American theocracy is reflected in commentary by a host of powerful politicians, judges and religious leaders. They include Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, whose pronouncements against the separation of church and state are well known; former attorney general John Ashcroft, who held regular prayer meetings and covered up the bare-breasted statue of justice; and Tom DeLay, the House Majority leader, who once claimed that, "Our entire system is built on the Judeo-Christian ethic, but it fell apart when we started denying God. If you stand up today and acknowledge God, they will try to destroy you... My mission is to bring us back to the Constitution and to Absolute Truth that has been manipulated and destroyed by a liberal world view."
The interesting, and sometimes frightening, aspect of reversals is their seemingly paradoxical and counter-intuitive effects. Giroux quotes Barbara Ehrenreich who observes, "Policies of pre-emptive war and the upward redistribution of wealth are inversions of the Judeo-Christian ethic." Think about the effects of that observation. Truly frightening!

23 July 2005

Role* - Discovering the Passion in Your Work and Life

A number of people have been wondering about my "serious" research, given that the McLuhan stuff is actually more of a sideline for me. I actually use the McLuhan awareness techniques (that I also teach academically and in corporate coaching/facilitating sessions) to think about, theorize and develop praxis for our individual and collective engagement with our workplaces, and the future (that is, a completely new conception) of corporations.

The first major piece began with thinking about McLuhan's observation/prediction that in the electric age, jobs "flip" into roles, and involvement in depth. And I asked myself, what the heck did he mean by this? While it's true that we all play many roles throughout our day - in the workplace, at home and elsewhere - often, many of these roles feel like... well, like jobs! This paradox led me to contemplate roles as a medium, considering not the role itself, but the effects (i.e. messages) we create in our immediate environment as we enact these roles. This, in turn, enabled me to flip around the way we often conceive of roles, and develop the notion of role* (pronounced, "role star").

Here's the general context and idea:
Given the state of stress in North American society, the explosion of self-help and quick-fix approaches that pervade both bookstore shelves and television screens is hardly surprising. The rigours and demands of organizational life add to the stress for the vast majority of people who increasingly are feeling frustrated, alienated and powerless. Aside from various versions of a parent-like admonishment to “suck it up,” little is offered in the way of developing deep personal insight to understand one’s own mechanisms of motivation and deriving satisfaction from one’s occupation. In the meantime, managers, limited by their ability to increase material rewards, are forced to rely on so-called motivational speakers, pseudo-inspirational posters, and faux team-building exercises that are reminiscent of summer camp activities. These are often nothing more than temporary distractions from an environment that actively induces sagging morale.

A response to pervasive problems of morale, motivation and satisfaction arises in the newly conceived notion of role*. It expands and enhances what many usually consider as roles played in the workplace – and elsewhere. Rather than something that can be encouraged – or even imposed – by managers, role* considers motivation from the standpoint of interactions and effects that each of us create throughout our immediate environment. As individuals become aware of the interpersonal dynamics that especially energize and engage them, they can begin to align their work with their characteristic drives. Moreover, they can learn how to take more control over their reactions to situations that may be beyond their ability to change, something that is vitally important in today’s accelerated workplace. For managers who assemble collaborative teams, making personnel choices according to complementary role* dynamics will find members that invigorate and stimulate each other, thereby increasing not only productivity, but overall satisfaction and engagement for all concerned.

Based on new field research conducted at the world-famous Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, the role* approach develops a framework for guided self-discovery, drawing from several diverse, but well-grounded, investigational techniques. These are combined in an original fashion to yield an innovative and remarkably rapid process through which the person can discover the nature of interactions that are particularly motivating and engaging, and those that cause apathy and despair. Each of us can actualize our own personal discovery of role* to take control of how we feel about what we do in all aspects of life.

Discovering role* means discovering your drive, your personal “wins,” and perhaps most importantly, your passion in everything you do.
I have recently begun a private practice in conducting role* discovery conversations with people beyond those who participated in my original research. Is a role* discovery conversation for you? Are you facing an important career decision, or concerned about your career progress to date? Are you considering a new career at mid-life? Or, are you seeking a deeper understanding of what motivates and demotivates you, to figure out why you are sometimes totally engaged and passionate about what you do, and at other times, completely turned off and apathetic. If you are interested in a brand new approach to career and life coaching, please contact me. (My email address is federman-at-sympatico-dot-ca. By the way, the discovery process works equally well face-to-face or over the telephone.)
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21 July 2005

McLuhan Lectures 2005 - July 20 - Janine Marchessault - Screens

Screens are a metaphor for consciousness, embodying the material practices of consciousness, as film makers and film scholars have known for a very long time. Yesterday’s McLuhan lecturer, Janine Marchessault from York University, uses McLuhan’s work in her examination of the connections between screens and consciousness as a way of connecting the actions of the present to the context of history. For Marchessault (and many others of us), McLuhan’s methodology provides a vehicle to understand what’s (really) going on, beyond what is obvious. Thus, she situates concrete uses of contemporary screens and technology within a historical context, specifically looking at Canada’s Expo 67, and within that context, the marvel that was the Labyrinth pavilion.

It was, according to Marchessault, “the most impressive and successful of all the multi-screen exhibits at Expo 67.” Indeed, the Expo during Canada’s centennial year was a formidable showcase of audio-visual technology and experimentation. Multiple-screen exhibits were the order of the day long before today’s ubiquitous “video-walls.” Multiple split-screens, screen components that moved independent of one another, screens that provided texture and depth, 360 degree “circlevision” screens that put the audience at centre ice during a hockey game (among other illusions), and Czechoslovakia’s “Kino-automat” – interactive theatre with audience choice of plot forks with involvement of the (live) actor who is depicted on-screen, all explored the new vistas of participatory (albeit in a rudimentary fashion) cinema.

The site and pavilions of Expo 67 itself were conceived and constructed as the epitome of urban modernity – dematerialized culture, expressed in ephemeral, moveable, impermanent, relocatable structures, characterizing the flexibility of a city in motion.

The Labyrinth pavilion was specifically designed as an impermanent, architected environment that demonstrated the relationships among between architectural theory, urban theory and media theory. According to McLuhan, communications media create environments that are inherently biased, that is, they impose their own assumptions on the user, thereby transforming the user(s) and the relationships among the users. McLuhan called for the creation of anti-environments – both physical, and cognitive – to uncover these biases, or, as he called them, hidden ground effects. One way, among many, to accomplish this is to create “hybrid media” that reveal these new forms. Marchessault draws our attention to the closing paragraph from chapter 5 (“Hybrid Energy”) of Understanding Media:
The hybrid or the meeting of two media is a moment of truth and revelation from which new form is born. For the parallel between two media holds us on the frontiers between forms that snap us out of the narcissus-narcosis. The moment of the meeting of media is a moment of freedom and release from the ordinary trance and numbness imposed by them on our senses.

Marchessault connects the iconic 1960s architecture of Buckminster Fuller to the development of expanded cinema in that era. The notion of a non-linear universe courtesy of Einstein was entering the common consciousness. Fuller reflected this expansion of thinking in his design and construction of non-linear spaces, Expo’s famous geodesic dome being exemplary. Expanded cinema likewise creates a new sense of space, consciousness and simultaneity as visualized on screen. Both of these observations are completely consistent with McLuhan’s writings on the non-linear “allatonceness” of acoustic space. Indeed, Expo 67 was the first world exposition to transcend the industrial age strictures of iron, steam and automobile (that characterized three previous Expos) to feature the “new media” of multi-modal tactile imagery as new ways of experiencing the world, reflecting an expanding conception of reality. Synaesthetic cinema relates directly to the characteristically 1960s experience of psychedelia and the expansion of mind and awareness.

“Television is the software of the earth, obsolescing cinema as documentary art,” observes Marchessault. As enacted at Expo 67, screens in their myriad experimental forms become architecture, reflecting the new medium of television that (at that time, at least) is reflexive and ubiquitous, part of an imploding picture of the earth enabled by the uncontrollable simultaneity of satellite connection.

When considered as environmental, cinema becomes less “theatrical” and more realistic, and therefore complex. This shift in perception of the nature of cinema was exemplified by Canada’s National Film Board, shifting their focus from showing their films in theatres to television. As “the medium is the message,” this shift affected the nature of what was shown – namely Canada and Canadians – shifting from a theatrical portrayal to a realistic one. At the time, television brought the (real) outside world into our living rooms.

The Labyrinth project was the NFB’s innovation at Expo, featuring large screen projection, simultaneous multi-screen recording and projection, and the introduction of “vertical editing,” that is, images that connected across multiple, horizontally and vertically stacked screens. Greater participation was demanded from the viewing audience in making the requisite connections among the screens, increasing the cognitive mobility of the audience, and reflecting the mobility of reality itself. The concept originated from Colin Lowe’s idea of environmental cinema. His original conception had the audience looking down through a glass floor to see an aerial view of Montreal from above. The idea was that the audience would have the effect of moving through space. As it was actually built, Labyrinth was comprised of three chambers.

Chamber 1 was designed with balconies overlooking two screens, one on the floor and the other vertical on one wall. The audience had to lean over to see screen on floor below. Often there were two images that had to be connected to complete the scene, such as a child on the vertical screen feeding a goldfish below. Chamber 2 was comprised of a maze of mirrored glass with lights and sounds that respond to people moving through the zig-zag path. The sounds combined human, animal and technology sounds, in order to create chaos, confusion and sense of losing oneself. The third chamber was a regular theatre with the seating in balconies. There were five screens in crucifix form (i.e. one in the centre, and one connected to the centre’s top, bottom, left and right) showing various images comprising life rituals and experiences, and found stories from a variety of cultures. The film was edited both vertically and horizontally, thereby creating complex composite images that necessitated audience participation to complete the total image, in true cool media fashion.

Labyrinth’s synaesthetic cinema created a sensory training ground for the global city and global citizen, demonstrating an expanded consciousness of the global cultural plurality that was consistent with multi-cultural focus of Canada in 1967. The relationships and clashes among the five screens of the third chamber became a metaphor (in McLuhan sense of a transformational agent) for the experience of the global village’s chaos, emergent experiences, and allatonceness, and presaged the culture of the internet. As we are now discovering, the global village is a space of experiences.

Carolyn Guertin’s response began by observing that transformative architecture may have been new to cinema in 1967, but was indeed an old concept in tradition and literature, pointing to Lewis Carroll’s classic, Alice in Wonderland, as a labyrinth that created an immersive space. She related the depth created by labyrinthine walls on what was once an open surface to the depth experience that hyperlinked new media attempts to create via internet technologies in cyberspace. Where depth of field in cinema involved the convergence of lines of light, depth of field for the online screen environment can be related to the depth of search, depth of time, or the depth of hyperlink tracking, as de Kerckhove observes.

Guertin observes that Labyrinth in 1967 had viewers, not interactors, in the sense of today’s contemporary interactive media. In fact, she makes the claim that Labyrinth was experimental, but ultimately its own dead end, since there were no follow-ons. The reason, she says, is that Labyrinth was not interactive.

While I understand Guertin’s claim, particularly from the ground of her work, I don’t necessarily agree that it is a completely useful claim to make. Considering Labyrinth from the ground of media temperature, it was a very cool experience for the audience relative to their active participation and completion. In this way, it was cinema (at the time, a hot medium) attempting to cool itself to become television-like (at the time, a cool medium). The audience connecting and completing the images to create a narrative environment is seen today in gaming environments that, I would suggest, has some of its multi-modal roots in experiments that began at Expo 67.

Guertin continues with an interesting observation: Synaesthesia is to the body what metaphor is to the mind – a way of transforming one thing (concept or sense) into another. Synaesthesia is thus used by the environmental creator (cinematographer, cyberspace designer) to confuse the mind, thereby creating a sense of immersion in acoustic space. Analogue immersive environments are psychologically transformational, as is art. The idea behind both art and immersive environments is to create a space that attempts to transcend dimensions, times, and spaces, and to link various experiences of the world in ways that transcend physicality. Simultaneity in the analogue world shifts to instantaneity in the digital.

The second responder, Dominique Scheffel-Dunand queries the metaphor of screen and cinema as ways of understanding the metaphors – that is, transformations – of our experience. Screens, she says, expand the collective memory and collective consciousness. In the past, theatrical cinema created common cultural experiences. She now asks, what are the effects of private (computer or game) screens and media? What effects do audience involvement, creative additions, and “tampering” with the original artefact engender in the audience itself as they remix, remake, and these pre-constructed (or should I say, partially constructed) environments? What are the constraints (if any) on these changes that will still allow us to afford collective remembrance, and a collective consciousness that is enabled by today’s instantaneity?

These, I think, are important and significant questions, as collective cultural touchstones become at once tribalized within apparently fragmented subcultures, but paradoxically, enacted as collective cultural experiences in the act of remaking and remixing the artefacts. In other words, the cultural commonality no longer inheres in the artefacts, but in the act of making (and remaking). This, of course, once again opens conversations about intellectual property, consumer becoming producer, participatory culture, and (he chuckles to himself) the role of museums and artefacts in contemporary culture and society.

Grand Theft Auto - What is Really Being Revealed?

Without a celebrity-trial-of-the-week, the hulabaloo emanating from south of the border concerns a hack to a popular video game, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, that reveals explicit sex scenes. The presence of these scenes has triggered presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton (who presumably knows a thing or two about the effects of illicit sex scenes) to call for Congressional hearings into the matter, and the Entertainment Ratings Software Board to slap an Adults Only rating on the game, effectively removing it from the shelves at retailers like Best Buy and Wal-Mart.

The simple answer to what this reveals is that gratuitous violence is acceptable in the U.S., but gratuitous sex is not - it's a shame that murder and mayhem aren't considered original sins. (In point of fact, a careful reading of Genesis reveals that indeed, among the original sins were murder and mayhem - think of Cain and Abel; the first commandment given to man and woman was "go forth and multiply," and God wasn't talking about the times tables! But I digress...)

A more subtle examination of the effects - or messages - of the medium, "hulabaloo over GTA:SA," is more instructive of the environmental conditions of the culture in question. Today's wars are often fought via a "video game" style interface. Bush-the-elder's Iraq war was indeed the "video game war," with its iconic video image of the smart bomb going down the chimney. Footage of Bush-the-younger's Iraq war is often in "first-person-shooter" style, with the images as seen through night vision goggles casting a cyber-realistic hue to the battlefields. In fact, the U.S. military currently uses war simulation video games as a regular part of their training for contemporary soldiers.

Thus, the carnage of Grand Theft Auto provides perfect conditioning for America's youth in preparation for becoming a soldier. After becoming inured to on-screen violence in cyber-experience, it is a small leap to on-screen violence that is enacted in the battlefield. On the other hand, (consensual) sex is life-affirming; it is the antithesis of war, death and destruction. The vicarious experience of bombs and bloodshed are good preparation for a war zone. A vicarious blowjob, apparently, is not.

There are many indications that the first decade of the 21st century is retrieving the 1960s (and earlier). In the mid-60s, the slogan of a nascent anti-war movement was "make love, not war." This, of course, is the last thing that the current U.S. administration wants people to hear.

20 July 2005

The Return of Frank

U.S. politics has Jon, and soon, Canadian politics will once again have Frank. According to a report in today's Globe and Mail, Frank magazine is to return on-line. Frank was the satirical tabloid that skewered Canadian politicians using (Menippean) satire to reveal the hidden ground that contextualized the machinations of federal and provincial politics. It ran aground after an ownership change, amidst rising costs, severe cutbacks in the editorial staff (and editorial quality) and being scooped by the major mainstream media. But the original owner is back, and so too are the original writers and editors.

The tabloid Frank was a biweekly publication which today is of relatively little use. The new eFrank should be sufficiently nimble to keep the temperature up on Martin, Harper, Layton, Duceppe and the rest of the gang. Satire, after all, focuses a bright light on an active medium, still able to do its damage, opening our eyes (if not our minds) to the active effects thereof.

7 Words You Can't Say in Kindergarten

At least in the U.S. of A. 7 Words You Can't Say in Kindergarten. Just make sure you haven't got anything in your mouth when you watch this, or it will end up all over your screen.
(Seen at apophenia)

19 July 2005

New Business Models are... well... Magic!

I'm not a fan of Harry Potter, nor are my kids, but I do like magic. And one of the fastest "presto change-os" I've seen lately is the way the recently (over-hyped if you ask me) release of the 6th Harry Potter book has magically changed from a locked-down physical artefact into both text and audio online entities.

Why yes, it is piracy, thanks for asking.

But interestingly, the discourse around these postings seem to suggest that they are related to author JK Rowlings's decision not to make Potter and his prince, half-blood as he may be, available in (legal and licensable) e-book, and podcast formats. The suggestion is that, were the newest addition to the Hogwarts collection available to be bought in other formats than merely a hardcover book, they would have sold, and likely sold big time.

Cory Doctorow and Lawrence Lessig (check out Free Culture and Code V.2), among others know this to be true. A hotly anticipated title, made available in electronic format, even for free download, still becomes a bestseller. Indeed, making titles available electronically can be used for promotion, as extra revenue channels, or as a courtesy to loyal, paying customers who recognize that the same content as different media have different messages, or effects.

One other observation: We are increasingly learning that, with the changes resulting from ubiquitous connectivity and pervasive proximity, the most sustainable sources of revenue will become increasingly indirect - with sometimes two or three levels of indirection from the nominal product or service. That's a bit of magic that will take our industrial-age-borne corporate mentalities a while to understand.
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Sorry, Dave, But I Can't Let You See That Content

I hear the voice of HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey, refusing to obey the astronaut's command. Science fiction, right? Well, think about 2007 (or so): An Operating System Odyssey, brought to you by Microsoft, and duplicitous hardware manufacturers. According to this article at Engadget, the next version of Windows, codenamed "Longhorn," will contain a feature that checks the digital rights compatibility of the screen to decide whether or not it will permit content to be displayed. So, for example, if the content provider of a video that you have purchased wants to limit you to 3 viewings before you have to re-license the content, that can be arranged. On attempt 4 you get a blank screen, or a purchase message. Want to secure that "smoking gun" memo? Microsoft Office 200x will do the trick. Say the content vendor needs a quick hit of cash. One online connection to download the "new" licensing arrangement turns your purchased DVD with the licensed content into a coaster. Control over what can be displayed on your computer goes to the content provider.

This capability "fixes" the so-called analogue loophole of digital technology: All output eventually has to be converted to analogue form for us to see or hear it. With this innovation, the output itself can be controlled by third parties, or as a "compromise," become so degraded that it is effectively useless. The implications of this can be best understood by reading Richard Stallman's classic parable, The Right to Read.

And, if you believe that this "no you didn't purchase it, you licensed it" mentality exists only in the digital world, just have a look at this nonsense.

18 July 2005

McLuhan Lectures 2005 - July 13 – Tony Hushion and Brian Porter

“Digital Imperative – New media is the message”

Tony Hushion and Brian Porter led a “virtual” (note the big quotation marks around that highly problematic adjective) tour of ROM’s new Digital Gallery, and more importantly, it’s raison d’etre. Here’s the bottom line of their presentation: the bottom line. Their presentation is yet another strong indication that the venerable museum is first a business, and only incidentally, a custodian of culture, history and context.

The details of their presentation are fairly straight-forward. What they call the ROM’s Digital Gallery is essentially a movie theatre outfitted with touch-screen workstations at each seat. While a high-production-values video of one of the curators plays, telling the “story” of a particular gallery – the only one produced so far is the highly in demand Egypt gallery – visitors can “manipulate” various artefacts from the corresponding collection on-screen. In this case, “manipulate” means “spin a 3D image of the artefact around on the screen to see it from various angles.” The thinking, such as it is, behind this is that (1) objects under glass with labels aren’t cool; (2) curators are scarce resources but videos of curators are but a push of a play button away; (3) existing “content” can be “repurposed.” For those not familiar with corporate-speak, allow me to translate point three: “We’ve got a lot of old junk in our collection, and we can charge money for people to view their images, (since we own the copyright on the images.)” Cultural artefacts, often collected under dubious circumstances over the last century and a bit, are thus converted into “digital assets” with the intent to “develop these assets to create new opportunities for access, education and revenue.” It is important to note that the revenue theme was featured prominently and pervasively throughout the talk.

The idea is to charge schools, researchers, and the general public, to partake of this multi-modal cinema experience – the museum as theme park. While volunteers can be tour guides in the physical museum, there is only one Egyptology curator, who now can be available to all through the magic of cinema. The ultra-wide screen tour, using the latest in digital video composition, is complemented by visitors interacting with the (video representation of the) artefacts. A museum for the gamer generation, paid for by the gamers themselves. What’s not to like?

Regular readers – particularly those who are following my write-ups of the Speakers Series – may have detected a certain... oh I don’t know... cynicism shall we say?... about this particular talk. I am, in fact, disturbed (but not surprised) by the direction the ROM is taking, for several reasons. First, this initiative suggests that ROM management has little understanding about the effects of these sorts of technology. Second, it also suggests that ROM management has little understanding about the role of the institution of museum in a society that is undergoing the types of reversals we are currently experiencing.

The proposed Digital Gallery, rather than being an interactive experience, is interpassive in the extreme. Just as I have said that mass media is no longer media for the masses but media by the masses, interactive media and technologies are those in which people actively participate in creating the environment in which they are participating. It is characteristically a cool medium, that is, one that is actively completed by the users relative to the environmental ground or cultural context in which that completion occurs. It is this last proviso that removes the term “interactive” from being an absolute descriptor, to one that is environmentally and contextually defined.

Television in Marshall McLuhan’s day was, arguably, an interactive medium, as its users had to complete the fuzzy picture, and actively participated in the completion of the viewing experience with friends and family. My iconic memory of this active participation was my grandmother arguing with Walter Cronkite during the CBS Evening News. Television today has “hotted up” – couch potato syndrome being the clear evidence.

Computer applications in which users activate certain pre-programmed sequences by actuating control points (I’m generalizing the concept of clicking an on-screen button with a mouse) was interactive compared to watching television, but has become interpassive compared to, say, participation in dynamic, massively multi-user narrative, typified by some of the online role playing games.

In the case of ROM’s Digital Gallery, they have created a (hot) cinematic experience, with (hot) interpassive control of (hot) images of artefacts. The primary sense that is engaged is sight (rousing soundtrack notwithstanding). The mere fact that interpassive screens are employed does not, in my view, engage the tactile (a point of semantic disagreement between Derrick de Kerckhove and I).

The story being told by the on-screen curator is THE story. Period. Now that Egypt is done, next in line is a Canadian heritage story (since that is the choice of the donors), to be followed by Medieval (the choice of the paying marketplace). But once a given story is told, it will play, if not forever, then for a very long time, since these things are (understandably) expensive to produce. And there are a lot of galleries to monetize, I mean, digitize. More problematic is the fact that this one story is one point of view, one construction of knowledge. What is valued as knowledge, in this instance, is what is valued according to a measure of financial viability. There is very limited opportunity for a critical examination of the cultural context – or more particularly, our contemporary cultural context – as informed by an examination and consideration of the artefacts in their original ground. A fixed story precludes active engagement as a way of experiencing and understanding the many complex dimensions of cultural history. This, I believe, is a vitally important role for museums to be playing today. Rather than creating “mini-Egyptologists” from the school children who visit the museum-as-video-arcade, the museum’s objective might otherwise be to create “mini ancient Egyptians,” early Canadians, medieval feudal lords or serfs, and other actors in a total participatory environment.

So what does this Digital Gallery retrieve from the past? Highly visual. One point of view. Focus on money and assets. Little wonder the new branding is Renaissance ROM. I suppose we’ll have to wait a very long time for Gutenberg ROM, and finally, Electricity ROM, to truly bring the museum up to date.

By the way, for anyone who’s interested in what a museum could be doing in creating dynamic, participatory environments for collecting, curating, and contextualizing culture, and presenting it online, check out the Victoria and Albert Museum Online, and in particular, their contemporary collection. VaM may not be as flashy as the ROM’s Digital Gallery, but then again, the institution hasn’t just built itself a shiny new storefront, albeit one with... ahem... corrugated aluminum siding.

McLuhan Lectures 2005 - July 6 – Monique Tschofen – Cannibals

“Agents of Aggressive Order”: Letters, hands, teeth and conspicuous consumption in the early Canadian torture narrative.

Monique Tschofen begins her examination of the “early Canadian torture narrative” by focusing on McLuhan’s fascination with the break boundary – the point of reversal effected by the action of a new medium (in the general case) on an old environment. It is the so-called point of no return when the entire socio-psychological system of human interaction suddenly changes into another characteristic form, thereby creating massive disruption and dislocation in the status quo. Break boundaries typically possess several common characteristics. They are productive, in that an entirely new environment is created that (obviously) changes the context in which all prior technologies, media and conceptions exist, and therefore (not so obviously) changes their meanings in society. Thus, they are also transformative, even though those who come through the break boundary have a great deal of difficulty perceiving the transformation, while those who are “born” on the other side of the break boundary have a great deal of difficulty conceiving of the world prior to the transformation. Break boundaries are also “explosive,” meaning that the juxtaposition of old and new in the same time and place results not merely in change, but in radical, sometimes cataclysmic, change. Finally, it is at the break boundary that our environment becomes visible, that is, obviously perceptible. As a society, we can see the dynamics of the interactions enabled by the various things we conceive and create. We see them (and the total environment that they create) for what they are: structuring mechanisms that have changed out lives throughout the time that they were acting imperceptibly, except to a few who possessed the perceptual tools to see them.

Tschofen reads McLuhan work on perception and sensory balance as a treatise on human agency – as we become aware of the physical and psychic dangers that are properties of the technologies we create, we can choose how, and where, to engage them, and emerge stronger as a society and culture. [I refer to this vitally important aspect of understanding McLuhan in terms of “McLuhan as a political project.”]

She goes on to examine McLuhan’s repeated reference to the ancient myth of King Cadmus, in which the founding of Thebes was accomplished by warriors that sprung from the sowing of dragon’s teeth. McLuhan related the lineality of teeth, and the intimate relationship between mouth, teeth and language to reference the aggressive order, precision, power and violence that arises from language. In particular, it is the relationship among oral (teeth in the mouth), and written (language separated from the mouth and “sown” in lineal rows) language, and empires (warriors) that leads to McLuhan’s examination of history through the lens of The Gutenberg Galaxy. She also does a great job of explaining “the medium is the message,” as follows:
I think McLuhan is calling for a most complex hermeneutic... He’s inviting us to listen between the lines, or to see into the sounds, and to find there something important about the history of our media, and of the epistemes and cognitive styles they engender. To put this simply, he’s inviting us to ask: “What does this text let us understand about itself as a technology – about the production and reproduction and dissemination as well as the multiple effects and influences this kind of technology might yield? Can we see within it the traces of a history of our media?” In asking these questions, he’s inviting us to break the containers of our own thinking, knowing that these disruptions can be dangerous but ultimately lead us to new freedoms, because media can configure not only our situations but also our intellectual operations. Finally, through his own writing style, he’s modelling this kind of double-operation he invites us to undertake. By leaving these symptoms and traces of previous media environments, McLuhan makes secondary arguments about the history of media without needing to state them directly, showing or performing, rather than telling.

Tschofen then goes on to examine an aspect of early Canadian history, namely the early (violent) interactions of the British and French explorers with the first nations peoples as an exemplar of the collision between manuscript/early print culture and oral culture at a break boundary. For example, a Huron woman observed that the “Black Robes” chant incantations and spells, and subsequently a village of otherwise healthy people mysteriously die – making a connection between European prayer and European diseases. Other examples abound in the chronicles of the time that use a trope of apophasis – the narrator lament the difficulty of conveying the horror of a scene, and then proceed to do precisely that in gory, gothic detail. It is more a promise than a warning: “The program you are about to see contains scenes of violence, course language and nudity. Viewer discretion is advised.” In other words, “now that I’ve got your attention...”

Reports back from the New World were liberally peppered with tales of violence, torture and cannibalism, that Tschofen maintains comprise a “torture narrative” designed to evoke horror at the transformations imposed on the literate, mediated European body at the break boundary with a “primitive” oral society. The purpose of such gruesome tales were to provide the justification for colonization. Here were these cannibals and terror mongers who are clearly in need of the civilizing influence of European belief and education. Domination and imposition of what would be a foreign culture is justified because of the extreme and obvious need for a civilizing influence. However, using a McLuhan discourse, we find another structuring dynamic at work. Here, the torture and cannibalism depicted in written transmissions back to Europe make plain the violence at the break boundary between oral and literate societies, and the “changing epistemologies induced by media technologies.” In the rather graphic examples shared by Tschofen, the intrinsic nature of oral vs. literate societies is captured. The literate Jesuits, tortured at the hands of the indigenous peoples, connected the book (written account) to the body. The book (e.g. Bible) is one with the material body. In contrast, for the primary oral people, language is always an embodied experience; “speech-acts are always physical acts that are grounded in and return to the physical body... They cannot say anything without doing it.”

McLuhan Lectures 2005 - June 29 – Deanne Bogdan – Music

Last evening we were treated to a wonderful lecture and multiple performances, comprising live and recorded piano, operatic, technological and satirical performances. Deanne Bogdan conducted a keenly receptive audience on an exploration that originated in her personal conflict with regard to the literate, as compared with the experiential, nature of music. The resolution of this tension arises from the use of modality as the conceptual link connecting music with the perceptual frame of Marshall McLuhan.

Bogdan begins with Leonard Meyer’s query from his essay, “On rehearing music” – do repeated hearings of music contribute to an increase or decrease in musical enjoyment? Music, according to Meyer, is a meaningful communication; he draws on information theory to demonstrate how the communicative experience of music becomes transformed to information in the mind of the listener. Thus, the information gleaned from repeated listenings reaches a limit. But this dry analysis negates the “music” of music. By reframing music as information to be communicated according to the ground of, say, the (increasingly useless) Shannon-Weaver model, one is evaluating not the enjoyment of music, but rather the “enjoyment” of an information communication technology. There is an inherent profundity of music that goes beyond linear analysis: Northrop Frye maintained that anticipation of the climax of the piece and a deeper understanding of the structure never fails to heighten the appreciation of the piece.

This consideration set the tone and theme for the rest of the evening that engaged the audience in a participatory experiment consisting of multi-modal experience of (nominally) the same, or similar, music. It also became a tacit demonstration of the comparative effects of McLuhan’s most difficult concepts of hot and cool media.
A digression: “The medium is the message” suggests that we know the nature and characteristics of any medium by virtue of its effects. This applies equally when considering the relative media temperature of any medium, that is, anything we conceive or create. To say that a given medium, say television or a pizza, are hot or cool in absolute terms is neither useful nor likely correct. (Most people get it backward, anyway.) First, media temperature is always relative to the ground, or the cultural and societal context within which the medium acquires meaning. Second, the media temperature can only be judged according to the effects, or messages, that our interaction with the medium induces in us. Here are some characteristic effects of hot and cool media:

Hot Medium:
  • Extends a single sense in High Definition with lots of information. This is not to say that other senses have no information, but rather that one sense’s stimulation is overpowering compared to the rest.

  • Little completion or active participation to be done; less “filling in” to be done by the audience. Everything is explicit.

  • Tends to exclude by virtue of its isolating properties. In the case of senses, for instance, one sense is isolated and separated from the rest; there is no balance.

  • Therefore, it engenders specialisation and fragmentation. For example, with highly specialized departments and very specific job descriptions, a bureaucracy tends to be a Hot Medium.

  • Normal reaction is to numb overall awareness to mitigate the Hot effects, even as one sense is heightened. An intense reaction to a very Hot Medium is a state of hypnosis or trance. We are not asleep, but we are not aware. We are also highly suggestible.

  • Often characterised by short, intense experiences. Motivational speakers rely on Hot Media effects.

  • Tends to capture or hijack attention.

Cool Medium — the complementary opposite effects.
  • Engages multiple senses with Low Definition; less information for each.

  • High in participation and active completion; audience must “fill in the blanks” — originally meant as sensory involvement only, but the description becomes very useful when it is applied to intellectual participation and engagement as well.

  • Tends to include.

  • Engenders generalization and consolidation.

  • Natural reaction is to engage awareness and heighten perception.

  • Often associated with longer term, sustained experiences.

  • Tends to attract “actively aware” attention, freely given.

Cultural critic Edward Said distinguishes musical performance as an “extreme occasion,” which, according to Said reviewer, Dan Miller, is “an irreproducible event, divorced from normal life, highly ritualized and specialized, devoted to almost superhuman virtuosity. It is at once social and solitary: both performer and listeners are, when the performance succeeds, alone with the music, yet all are alone together, by virtue of the social institutions that make performance possible.” contrasting with the worldly – that integrates societies, cultures, and most importantly, embodied experience.

When considered as extreme occasion, each listener brings her or his unique ground to the performance, creating a unique (and isolating, fragmentary) experience that exists as the constructed connection directly between the listener and the performer. Factors that comprise the ground, and hence the context within which meaning is individual made include: the listener’s individual background and musical experience; their awareness of the genre, the ability to understand the nature and complexity of performance itself; their understanding of the historical/biographical context of the work, and other musicological information that provides the musical context, both of the composer and his/her times, as well as the setting of the form of the piece in the context of the times in which it was composed; the technical tonal/syntactic information, comprising musical structure, progressions, harmony, counterpoint, essentially the technical construction of the piece; and the interpretive information added by the performer at the moment of performance, interpretations being syntactic in nature, relating to the skill of the performer, perhaps relative to the performer’s history and prior performances.

Of course, one must ask (at least while participating in the McLuhan realm) what is the message, or the effect, of considering music as extreme occasion in this context? Relative to media temperature, it can be demonstrated (he says, satirizing professorial pomp,) that such analysis serves to heat up the musical medium, creating separation and distance among the listener, the performer, the composer and the piece. This is not surprising: consider the hot environment of the formal concert hall with its ceremony, ritual and protocol, and compare it, for example, with (hot) Renaissance perspective art that separates the viewer from the viewed. In “hotting up” a medium, it is often the case that technical appreciation replaces aesthetic experience.

Deanne Bogdan related this concept to Aristotle’s four causes: formal (the “essence” or nature of the thing), material (its substance), efficient (relating to what brings it into being, closest to the conventional, if misguided, notion of cause-and-effect) and final (its ultimate reason for being). The musical performance itself is the material cause; the information content describe above would comprise aspects of its efficient cause. However, the musical experience in totality, embodied in the listener, is its formal cause, which, according to McLuhan, is the message of the musical medium. To lessen the “extreme occasion” nature of a performance, according to Bogdan, the listener must become immersed, or totally involved in depth, with the performance, experiencing its message, actively participating in the creation of the musical experience, and essentially effecting a cool medium.

The effects of a listener’s knowledge on her/his musical enjoyment changes to a question of the effects of involvement with the experience on the engagement of the audience; how enabled is the audience to engage with the “experience of the music, not the conscious integration of the cognitive with the affective , but as an embodied sensory realm.” This notion is reciprocal: How involved the audience is with the performer intimately relates to how involved the performer is with the audience.

Thus, watching a video of a piano virtuoso, the camera attuned to every keystroke, produces a hot effect in the audience, creating the fragmentary extreme performance. On the other hand, a video of musical genius Glenn Gould shows his facial expression, his body moving with the music, his free hand conducting the playing hand – everything, in fact, except the actual pressing of the keys. That, in a very cool fashion, is for the audience to fill in.

Gould, reciprocally influenced by, and influencing, Marshall McLuhan, understood the difference between hot extreme occasion and cool intimacy and involvement in depth, and retreated from the concert stage in the mid-1960s. He created the paradoxical “double depth engagement” – an inner attunement towards the ecstasy of perfected performance combined with an outward engagement and connection with the social context of audience experience.

While Gould “put the concert audience into the junkyard,” it was not a rejection of the audience, but the rejection of the cliché of audience. The junkyard becomes the “rag and bone shop of the heart” of W.B. Yates to which McLuhan frequently refers, from which the audience will be retrieved [as archetype; see From Cliché to Archetype by McLuhan and Watson] in a new form, achieving an advancement of culture itself. The issue becomes one of creating not only sound, but sonic environments in which both the external sound and the internal process of awareness of the nature of sound can be simultaneously experienced.

Gould is thus a media environmentalist, simultaneously engaging in hot and cool experiences. Through his use of technology in the final chapter of his life, Gould makes the (re)creation of cultural ground visible. Technology reintegrates performer, composer and listener in a new way. He says, “I think our whole notion of what music is has forever merged with all the sounds that around us, everything that the environment makes available.” Listener thus becomes artist, completing the piece that exists not as extreme occasion, but as intimately embodied experience.

McLuhan Lectures 2005 - June 22 – Space – David Moos

Last evening we were treated to an exploration of Space courtesy of David Moos, curator of (among other things) the current Shape of Colour: Excursions in Colour Field Art exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Moos introduced his talk with a poem by free jazz artist Sun Ra, connecting abstract music with abstract art, and the “pivoting planes” on which words cannot be written, nor images drawn. Without naming it, Moos clearly referenced Marshall McLuhan’s notion of a cool medium that necessitates involvement and completion by the audience. Indeed, referring to McLuhan’s From Cliché to Archetype, Moos brings in the notion of aural (not “oral”) space, and with it, the space of relationships that is the subtext of his talk, and about which I’ll have more to say later.

Abstract art creates a non-objective pictorial reality, in which the relationships between the images created by the artist, and her/his audience, have no connection to the audience’s everyday relationships with the visual world. Even cubism, which is itself a representational mode – merely flattening what was a 3-dimensional object into two dimensions – is strongly connected to the visual world. Abstract art obsolesces the visual (which, as you may recall, is the dominant sense of the Gutenberg era), and introduces both the tactile and audile, both dominant sensorial modes of relationship. Abstract art, therefore, creates a space of “intellect and pure concept” in the words of Malovich.

The current AGO exhibit asks, “What is the shape of colour?” and explores the range of spatial experience created by the so-called colour field artists of the late 1950s and 1960s. Moos begins with the work of Dan Flavin, who paints with light rather than pigment. Flavin’s work changes the audience’s experience of space as the light “occupies” the space, and therefore defines it in a new way. This is characteristic of the colour field artists who set out to create a new environment through the use of large fields of colour on massive canvases or architectural structures. Colour field artists also explored the paradoxical depth of flatness, which was the logical conclusion of 100 years of art history, during which the depth of the picture plane progressively decreased.

At the time of Renaissance art, with its distant perspective vanishing point, the viewer was kept at a distance from what he was viewing. In The Medium is the Massage, McLuhan writes, “The viewer of Renaissance art is systematically placed outside the frame of experience... The instantaneous world of electric informational media involves all of us, all at once. No detachment or frame is possible.” This involvement in depth – one of McLuhan’s most pervasive themes for the electric age – is clearly evident in the explorations of the colour field artists.

They directly introduce the experience of tactility in art, by eschewing the usual canvas priming with gesso. This allows the texture of the canvas to become a feature of the painting itself, creating a new tactile and depth experience in a 2-dimensional form. While Renaissance (perspective) art can be appreciated at a distance – and creating distance between the masses and the holy was the intention at the time – the subtle tactility of the unprimed canvas can only be appreciated at an intimate distance, the viewer being involved in depth with what is viewed, the eye becoming a surrogate for the finger.

The relationship among the artist, the art and the viewer that creates the paradox of depth in flatness can be seen in the work of Jules Olitski. Such a paradox is quite at home in McLuhan’s world. Indeed, the 1960s was a time when people from many disciplines were attempting to explore the paradoxes created by the explosion of electric technologies that recreated what was a linear world of objectivity. In literature, art, science, sociology and other fields, avant garde thinkers were expressing their attempts at gaining understanding in the face of the myriad challenges created by the reversals of electric communication technologies, and the secondary and tertiary effects. The art of Fred Sandback perhaps demonstrates this paradox best. Sandback creates sculptural space with lengths of acrylic yarn that both occupy and define space, at once creating, and negating, the notion of inside as distinct from outside. Sandback’s paradoxical works exemplify McLuhan’s idea of integral involvement in depth, characteristic of our electric times.

McLuhan is well-known for popularizing the notion of acoustic space, that he derived from University of Toronto behavioural psychologist, E.A. Bott’s “auditory space.” The idea is derived from the observation that sound comes from all around us. (This idea was, in turn, borrowed from the Pythagoreans, and later Pascal, who described nature as having its centre everywhere and its boundaries nowhere.) McLuhan writes,
The ear favours no particular point of view. We are enveloped by sound. It forms a seamless web around us. We say, “Music shall fill the air.” We never say, “Music shall fill a particular segment of the air.” We hear sounds from everywhere, without ever having to focus. Sounds come from “above,” from “below,” from in “front” of us, from “behind” us, from our “right,” from our “left.” We can’t shut out sound automatically. We simply are not equipped with earlids. Where a visual space is an organized continuum of a uniformed connected kind, the ear world is a world of simultaneous relationships.
For McLuhan, acoustic space is a percept that extends the 3-dimensional notion of space to include time. We are in the centre of a sphere of space-time in which, as I like to say, everywhere is here, and everywhen is now.

The visual dominance of the Gutenberg era, and of Renaissance art, that define external spaces through the creation of distance and separation, gives way to interior spaces of total involvement via tactility and audility. In an analogous fashion to the separation of the integral word of a primary-oral society into sight and meaning on the one hand, and sound on the other (as meaning is coded into otherwise meaningless symbols called the alphabet), so too is integral touch separated into tactility and tangibility. In the electric age, when we are “on the air,” we are literally no-bodies, “discarnate man” in McLuhan’s words. There is no materiality – tangibility – in the cyber world, but there certainly is tactility. We touch and are touched by those with whom we form relationship in the age of instantaneous communication, regardless of where, or when, they are. And it is only through involvement in depth that we create the sort of relationship that creates this discarnate tactility.

A medium has meaning only in relationship to its ground, or context, that may be another medium, or the environment of dynamic processes created by a multitude of interacting media. In today’s world, the environment is continually being re-created through relationships of involvement in depth [and you can read that last phrase two ways]. The colour field artists of the 1960s attempted to demonstrate the effects of involvement in the depth created on a flat picture plane, creating for us a very tangible example of the paradoxical times in which we now live.

McLuhan Lectures 2005 - June 15 – Donald Carveth – Psychoanalysis

This week, we were treated to a rather bleak polemic on the Medium of Psychoanalysis and the Message of Pain, Suffering, Bleeding and Death. And, when you think about it, good ol’ Sigmund Freud wasn’t all sweetness and light.

Challenging McLuhan’s assertion that language is a medium, and hence, an extension of our self, Carveth suggested that language cannot be regarded as an extension of self, but rather a constitutive of self, that is, that which defines and shapes the self. All distinctions that enable one to recognize self from not-self (I am me; I am not my chair, desk or computer) are distinctions created by, and of, the mind. Hence, language – whether it be verbal of non-verbal – is the means whereby the mind creates the self as a distinct entity.

Realizing that Carveth is, admittedly, not a McLuhan scholar, he is, of course, left with the literal, early-McLuhan reading of the medium is the message, and the notion that medium is an extension, as separate from a constitutive. Regular readers will undoubtedly know that as Carveth described the relationship between language and the self, language is very definitely a medium (in the late-McLuhan, Laws of Media, sense), since it, in no uncertain terms, shapes us even as we shape it.

Psychoanalysis, according to Carveth, is a dialectic process that helps us discover the self as a distinct entity from all that we experience, including, as he puts it, the “pre-verbal self.” It is interesting to observe that this specific characterization – the non-integral, distinct separation of self from the world, and the fragmentation – are all characteristic effects of a hot medium. This should not be surprising, since the discipline of psychoanalysis was invented at the height of the dominance of the Gutenberg era (i.e. just before it began to head into reversal under electric conditions), characterized by industrialization and mechanization that exploded what was integral into fragmented, distinct bits. Carveth used allusions to the separation of the knower from the known, and words being used to distinguish among objects and an objectified self, somehow apart from our experience of self. Of course, to more modern and (I would prejudicially say, enlightened) thinkers, this conception is hugely problematic, and entirely characteristic of a chauvinistic, Eurocentric worldview. Little wonder, then, that Carveth’s remarks headed, from this point, towards oblivion and, well, obsolescence.

Carveth’s riff followed the path of Steiner, noting that we are “language animals,” and as such, able to create both the context of our life (the conceived world), as well as the context and conception of our own demise. Language allows us to transcend our animal nature to sociality, to become human. Through our language, we celebrate death “at the right time,” while death through “psychotic explosion” – violence and whatnot – is the reversal to animality.

Anyone with any knowledge of the social life of “animals” (not to mention their communicative abilities – viz. elephants, dolphins, primates, birds) would know that this line of reasoning is, quite simply, a crock of animal dung.

But Carveth persists: Psychoanalysis emphasizes the “wounds” (the gaps in our language-conceived self) from which emotion arises and flows, that Carveth likens to bleeding. The psychoanalytic process of dis-identification – a form of meditation that negates or sublimates the self – is necessary to understand these flows. He asks, can psychoanalysis and language be compatible? Psychoanalysis requires non-symbolic discourse (hence a variety of therapies have emerged) to break through our language-constructed self. What emerges – the “desymbolized” material – is converted to speech, and thence to self-realization, thereby reconstructing the self, now healed. Psychoanalysis must allow the wounds in the psyche to bleed and not to close, in order to permit the inevitable nihilism of psychosis to move from “death in life” to a life that learns to bear the “death-creating” functions of what is inevitably a slow process of assimilating negative emotions in the inexorable death march of our existence.

Psychoanalysis therefore teaches us how to live and how to die, and how to prepare for it, to bear our wounds (and our “crosses,” with many allusions to the relationship between the Judeo-Christian tradition of imposed and assumed guilt and the psychoanalytic process), and to ultimately accept suffering and death. To truly live, one must truly suffer.

No wonder psychoanalysts all see shrinks...

McLuhan Lectures 2005 - June 8 – Alexandra Palmer – Fashion

If the medium is the message, what message is fashion? As regular readers of either this blog or McLuhan know, “the side effects are the real effects.” In this context, the question that must be asked is, when we look beyond the clothes themselves, what hidden ground does fashion, and particularly haute couture, reveal?

Fashion exhibits in art museums allow designers to remake their histories. This, of course, is one of the messages of museum-as-medium. As the ground belongs jointly to the curator, and the public and community in whose context both the museum and the particular exhibit exists, the museum exhibit of fashion becomes a meta-probe into the changes of society. The fashion itself in its own time reveals much about the society of the day; fashion recast by curator in the context of a museum sets up a time relationship between the earlier, and present, days. In this way, even fashion of a time becomes “Ahistorical.”

Dr. Palmer frames the question like this: What do museum exhibits tell us about fashion? Because of the limitation in display formats, and the facts that the exhibit is static, (whereas the fashion in its day was not), and the original materials are not stable, fashion exhibits at once tell old histories, while producing new ones. In this way, fashion in the context of a museum recreate society’s understandings of both past and present.

After World War I, museum visitors have knowledge of modernity. Their opinions of what they see in the exhibits are reflexive, meaning that meaning is always measured relative to one’s own experience. For many visitors, the fashion exhibit retrieves the shopping experience, with visitors vicariously “trying on” and “wearing” the various pieces on display. The task of the curator, then, becomes on of reframing exhibits to interpret the objects in the context of a deliberately chosen cultural framework that then conveys a new meaning. This new meaning is one that is relevant to the public, becoming the statement of the curator. As McLuhan tells us, the artist begins with the desired effects and then creates the cause; this is no different than the process of the curator who, in the process of reinterpreting the earlier culture, creates meaning and message (that is, effect) for the current culture.

Dr. Palmer showed a magazine spread in which double-page spreads of fashion displays cited 18th century paintings, with movie actors playing the major parts in the paintings, and the models wearing couture from various design houses. In a marvellously McLuhanesque montage, the fashion magazine photo-spreads retrieve the old masters from museum displays’ reconstructions of the paintings, using contemporary celebrities of both the silver screen (reversal of the painting) and the runway. The paintings come to life as they are embodied in the models and the fashion, then frozen in display and photo, once again becoming art among the glossy pages of the fashion magazine.

The fashion designer, now displaying couture away from the runways, becomes artist, and with that, comes the drive to probe the cultural ground in which fashion – and particularly couture, normally exists.

Belgian designer, Martin Margiela, is a prime example. He uses unorthodox venues, such as poor neighbourhoods, for his shows and photo-spreads, and materials derived from worn clothes and Salvation Army cast-offs, to challenge (probe) the fashion industry. In doing so, he probes conventional notions of beauty, fit, and size, challenging the mantra of, “you can never be too rich or too thin.” In another example, the process of creating fashion is interrogated, with fused-seam prêt-a-porter on giant rolls of fabric, requiring only to be draped over the model and cut, or not, to suit the designer. The exhibit is reminiscent of artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude, with long ribbons of brightly coloured fabric, terminating in a live model. Or, in a most daring probe of the inherent process of disintegration and decay to which all fashion is vulnerable, Margiela impregnated clothing with bacteria and yeasts so that the physical decay of fashion becomes the figure, rather than the ground, of the museum exhibit, bringing in aspects of reversal. Indeed, the displays were outside the museum, viewed by visitors through windows.

Fashion designers are uniquely attuned to the zeitgeist, and therefore fulfil an important probative, and predictive, value for society. Because they are required to develop new creations that are presumably never-before seen every six months, and because they must address, at some point, real purchasers, fashion designers are among the epitome of McLuhan’s description of artist: “The artist is always engaged in writing a detailed history of the future because he is the only person aware of the nature of the present.”

During the SARS crisis, the anonymity created by the then-ubiquitous surgical mask fuelled the fear that anyone could be a disease carrier, thereby adding to the mass hysteria. Fashion designers effected a reversal that recreated the individual in the face of the crisis through the SARS “fashion mask.”

Perhaps more telling was the dominant fashion trend of the first part of 2001, in which camouflage and military themes and materials became pervasive among couture houses and runways throughout the world. “Terrorist chic,” as it was known at the time seemed to reflect a militaristic zeitgeist, leading up to the tragic events of September of that year. After the attack on the World Trade Center, fashion’s response was patriotic, showing motifs based on the U.S. flag. Designers who were the toast-of-the-town prior to September, 2001, showing couture based on traditional Muslim garb were instantly shunned afterwards. Noting that “terrorists can also wear business suits,” fashion once again highlights that the American public is well-conditioned to focus on figure – what is obviously noticed – as opposed to ground. As a footnote to these observations, it is interesting to recall that precisely the same U.S. flag motif that became a patriotic response in 2001 was worn in the Vietnam era as a protest against U.S. militaristic intentions in Indo-China.

When fashion becomes art, the clothing themselves become less important, taking on the more interesting role as probe into our times.