Trump’s 2016 Victory: No surprise for McLuhanites

It is tempting to lament the fact that Marshall McLuhan is not alive today to witness and decipher for us the rise of Donald J. Trump.. 

Actually, McLuhan has already said a great deal about the Trump phenomenon. For one, he foresaw and described the electric environment of instant, simultaneous, global communication that has come to envelop us in our day. Without this media environment  Donald Trump would never have been able to shock the world en route to becoming President of the United States. 

Trump’s victory would have been no shock to McLuhan. Nor would anyone who has studied McLuhan to the point of understanding be shocked either. It basically followed the script. Not only has Trump fulfilled much of McLuhan’s formulae for media success, but he has done so in a media environment that McLuhan described in great detail – even though the internet, and the smartphone that came after it, arrived long after McLuhan died. 

Trump entered the race as a laughable underdog. Anyone who has forgotten,  need only watch Michael Moore’s anti-Trump documentary 11/9  to remember how the night before the election, and even on the morning of it, all of America’s mainstream media was unanimously predicting a Hillary rout.  … the New York Times, on its front page, told America that Hillary was favored at 85%, to Trump’s meagre 15. Somehow The New York Times remains the most trusted news source in America.  

Name any credible news source on earth, even Fox News if you will – yes, all were informing America in advance that Hillary Clinton would be their next President. Women were crying advance tears of joy. Trump calls all this stuff fake news. He claims they report more interpretation than truth. In the case of the US 2016 election, it’s hard to argue with him. 

Trump’s win over Hillary Clinton has almost unanimously been described as a shift to the right among voters in the United States. For McLuhan, and McLuhanites, this would not necessarily be the case, nor would it be relevant to any true understanding of  either Trump’s rise, or the general way electronic media is influencing its users.  

Those who feel that Trump’s narrow victory in 2016 constitutes a shift to the right among American voters, are also probably more likely to blame Russian interference for Trump’s rise, or believe that George Orwell is the sort of writer who can clarify the state of the world these days. All of the above represent quick, surface explanations that offer no useful insight into the true forces at work in today’s media environment. Perhaps not coincidentally, these explanations also exhibit total obliviousness to McLuhan’s approach. 

“One of the peculiar things about the effects of media on politics is that parties and policies become very unimportant,” McLuhan said in 1977. Later, in that same year, McLuhan, speaking about politics in the age of electronic media, wrote: 

The main verb in all of this is the speed of light, which also alters the role of politician from a party representative to a charismatic image. This image obsolesces parties and policies alike.”

It still comes as a shock to political purists and to those who want a little more substance in their politics, but policy no longer wins elections. It is barely even relevant in elections.

One of the reasons Trump beat Hillary where it counted, is that Trump understood this key McLuhan realization much more than Hillary. He seized control of the media Spectacle. When it came to policy he did one of two things. He filled the media agenda with outlandish pipe-dream policies he had no intention of fulfilling, or just didn’t bother with policy at all. 

The death of the political party shines from the screens of America today. As Trump proved, the political party has become more of a Trojan Horse for the ambitions of individuals and interest groups than any living reflection of how denizens of the Global Village wish to be governed. 

It would be hard to find anyone, Republican or Democrat, who believes that Trump, a former Democrat, is actually a Republican, and as we observed in the deathbed fumings of John McCain, many fundamentalist Republicans loathe Trump with a fervor that no Democrat could ever conjure.

As for policy, love him or hate his ideas, Kanye West is young and a force of sorts on the public stage. 

Of his seemingly anomalous, anti-statistical, support for Donald Trump,  Kanye West recently told a Saturday Night Live audience: “If someone inspires me and I connect with them, I don’t have to believe in all of their policies.”

It seems like yet another McLuhan prophecy that a) has come true, and; b) is somehow proven, or at least personified, by the existence of Donald Trump. No one who lived thru the TV era would now dispute that, these days, entirely other forces are at work.

In election cycles, politicians who base their campaigns upon policy over media prowess no longer have a chance. Trump realized this and didn’t bother with policies. Hillary, not so much. 
In one of the few articles that actually mentions McLuhan’s foresight the ​Toronto Star​ says:

“While politicians like Jeb Bush and Hilary Clinton play the boxing game – i.e. offering arguments concerning policy positions – Trump, “lays the smack down,” with a tweet about Meghan Kelly, or Hamilton, or God knows what. They are playing the older game, which, as McLuhan noted, belongs to the print-based world. Trump, on the other hand, is the perfect representative of the electronic age. Here, it is all about radical involvement, frenetic energy, and passionate feeling. It doesn’t matter what one feels or cares about, so long as it’s intense.”

 McLuhan’s most famous observation, “the medium is the message” can be a chamber of mirrors with enough refractions and reflections to drive anyone mad who seriously looks into it.   But If we treat Donald J. Trump not as a person, but as a sort of hologram inflicted upon the screen of our minds via electric media, then gaze into this hologram, we can begin to discern the many angles of what McLuhan was saying.  

Toronto Star

Even during McLuhan’s lifetime the phrase ‘changed’ meaning, at least, according to McLuhan. At first, “the medium is the message” meant “the medium is the message” which in itself means many things. A few years later, McLuhan introduced a hyphen. –  the phrase became: “the medium is the mess-age”. A few years later, McLuhan wrote another book, entitled “The Medium is the Massage”; which he later, “clarified”by adding another hyphen – the phrase now meant: “The medium is the mass-age”. Welcome to the crackling brain of Marshall McLuhan, never still, always considering and reconsidering.

Protean, was McLuhan; protean was his most famous slogan, and Protean is Donald Trump. If anything, the above is more an indication of McLuhan’s love of punning and wordplay, than any alteration of the substance of “the medium is the message” from when McLuhan first outered it.  (McLuhan used to say that an ‘uttering’ was actually an ‘outering’)

Regardless of where you sit on the left/right spectrum of ‘caring about the world’, if you want to learn how to control this world politically, you would be wise to seriously Investigate McLuhan. Even if you are a journalist writing stories suggesting that ‘Russian Hackers’ actually influenced the last US election, you would be wise to investigate McLuhan. Rather than focussing upon bizarre Facebook pages set up by Russian hackers, or obsessing about James Comey’s impact on the way Americans voted, it is infinitely more valuable to explore even just one  phrase of McLuhan. Never mind its infinite refractions, let us look into McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” on a deeper level, and apply what we discover to today’s politics.  

As the saying relates to politics, McLuhan is very clear: a change in medium almost always brings about a change in governance. Control the medium and you control the country. 

If you’re going to control the dominant medium of communication, though, you have to first know what it is. This sounds almost asininely obvious, but, one big reason Hillary lost, is that her team failed to see that television is no longer the most powerful medium. They invested squillions in television and print, the two living dinosaurs of a bygone era.To one who understands ‘the medium is he message’, the conclusions from his act were forgone. 

This oversight (or myopia) probably had more to do with Trump winning the election than than all the work of all the Russian hackers in the world, combined.  

 “Clinton’s convention was made for TV; Trump’s was made for Twitter,” 

The New York Times

This was a pre-ballot headline in the New York Times that really nails down the point that the battle between  Clinton and Trump also came down to a battle of mediums. Or, as the Toronto Star put it:​ “we may look at this distinction as one candidate sticking with old media and the other tacking to the prevailing media winds.”

In Canada’s last election, Justin Trudeau sent conservative leader Stephen Harper packing with a resounding defeat.  It might be tempting to cite this as evidence of the opposite putative trend in America – that Canadians, politically,  have shifted to the left’.

But again, if we compare Justin Trudeau’s aplomb in ‘medium control” to that of Harper or Tom Mulcair – who sits even further to the left of Trudeau’s Liberals, and who was the favourite in the polls until about a week before the ballot –  we find further validation of McLuhan’s conviction that understanding and outmatching your opponent in the dominant medium of communication is the paramount factor in winning elections – not party affiliation, not policy. 

McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” axiom, though essential in understanding the revolution that has occurred in media and politics today, is merely the tip of an iceberg – an iceberg that can sink, and has sunk, the political hopes of any candidate who does not perceive the depths of its meaning.  

 If it’s true that the losers of the last two North American federal elections overlooked the medium (the smartphone) that they should have focused on, or merely didn’t understand how to use it, it’s also true that a cursory understanding of “the medium is the message” is not sufficient to gage the importance or the accuracy of the phrase today.  

For this, we must attempt a feat that is rarely undertaken: we must delve deeper into McLuhan, explore the percepts of this great explorer; probe his probes, figure out, so to speak, his ground.  

 For most people, this will involve a massive dis-location. Unless you (and your thinking) have remained impervious to the influence that print and print technology have clamped upon humanity since the 16th century, it’s probably going to take a significant re-adjustment before McLuhan begins to seem sane, let alone insightful. 

Since this is a book and you are reading it, it’s pretty much a guarantee that you have not remained at least 100% impervious to the influence of print and print technology. The writer of this book, certainly has not either, and neither had McLuhan. 

In McLuhan’s case, his understanding of print heightened his awareness of media impact. In order to understand Joyce, for example (James, not  Carrol Oates) the reader has to ‘dislocate’ his or her linear vision and perceive and interpret the arrival information in a non-sequential, alinear fashion. This is exactly what a user of new media must do. James Joyce was far-and-away McLuhan’s favourite writer, and most constant obsession. 

Fortunately, in 2018 and beyond we have the advantage of living in an age that  McLuhan said would come. Back in the 60s, 70s and 80s it was a lot easier to dismiss McLuhan – he was so far ahead of his time that much of what he said sounded like mad ramblings.   As University of Toronto physicist Dr Robert Logan puts it: 

“When McLuhan first came out with the idea of a global village in 1964, many of us did not live in a global village … The genius of McLuhan is that he saw the global village before anyone else…These ideas are no longer theory. They are things that we live day by day. We saw the speed with which developments were taking place. We lived the information revolution and began to realize that McLuhan’s ideas meant something.”  

Dr Robert Logan

In 2018 and beyond, we no longer have to debate or assess whether McLuhan might have been right; instead we can shift our focus towards understanding how he was right – a far more valuable enterprise to be sure. But also a much more arduous one.  

To accomplish this, it’s essential to first look back at the powerful, polarizing, paradoxical figure that McLuhan was. 

THINGS THAT MAKE YOU SAY ‘HMM …’

 There could not be a more fitting set of initials for HERBERT MARSHALL McLUHAN, a thinker who still makes us think 40 years after his death. Over the course of Philip Marchand’s biography, for example, people describe McLuhan as “startling” “insane” “interesting” “a charlatan” “a genius” “ruthless” “careless” “inaccurate” “profound” “mad” “incomprehensible” “correct.” Page 146 of this excellent book refers to the “sheer bafflement on the part of the audience” after a talk McLuhan gave to a US education board in 1960. Indeed, to claim that McLuhan made people say “hmm …” can be a hilarious understatement. If the acronym ‘wtf’ had been in currency during McLuhan’s time, many people would have found these three letters a more appropriate selection of alphabet to describe the McLuhan effect. 

One big reason why McLuhan confused people is that he meant to confuse people. Befuddling his audience was an art form he cultivated and frequently deployed as a “technique of involvement” – a way to get and keep people’s attention. Consider the following prediction McLuhan made in the 1960s: 

We see colour with the cone of our eye, black and white with the edges, and colour is more in demand in a primitive society. So are spiced dishes. I predict a return of hot sauces to American cuisine. With colour TV, the entire sensory life will take on a whole new set of dimensions.

Marshall McLuhan

This example is classic McLuhan. An outlandish and essentially untenable deduction based upon premises that are a mix of cultural speculation and pseudo-scientific fact.  ‘wtf!’ is a valid response to this peculiar amoeba of a syllogism. But the other side of the coin, of course, is that it came to pass. 

At least, since McLuhan first made the prediction 50 years ago, hot sauces have surged to popularity in American cuisine. But even in 2018 when we know McLuhan’s prediction has borne fruit, it remains hard not to laugh at his four ludicrous sentences that connect the eye with the tongue, the electric age with the primitive one, while suggesting that the day’s newest item of technology will change the way Americans want to eat.  It might be laughable to hear him verbalize his thoughts on the way the disparate phenomena of the universe interconnect, but if we take the time to get on his wavelength we see that he wasn’t kidding. In fact, the interplay between senses, and the tendency of the latest technology to return us to primitive times are cornerstones of McLuhan’s belief. 

Donald Theall has called McLuhan “the seriocomic trickster as poet – a contemporary shaman – participating in one aspect of an age-old tradition of learned, carnivalesque satire, by which he plays on and plays with his readers” (p. 61). 

Ted Carpenter (?) a former colleague and equally mischievous pal of McLuhan’s  puts it a different way: 

“I generally tell students that I think about half McLuhan is pure genius and the other half is pure bullshit, and that I’m never quite sure which is which.”  During McLuhan’s life, many in the world of academia strove to lay the focus upon the BS aspect of this equation. An MIT doctoral thesis investigating McLuhan concluded:

 “At the University of Toronto in particular, the reaction to McLuhan’s celebrity was most intense. It got to the point that McLuhan warned his graduate students to erase any trace of his work in their theses and dissertations for fear of reprisals by their review committees.[12] According to Eric McLuhan, “there were at least two concerted efforts (quiet ones, of course) to collect enough signatures to have his tenure revoked.”[13]


When Genosko mentions the breed of scholar among whom, “McLuhan and Baudrillard are the key thinkers to whom postmodernists turn to situate their deviations from them” he is no doubt referring to Debord. Debord goes as far as calling McLuhan a “convinced imbecile” in his “Notes on the Society of the Spectacle”, published 1990. But as imbecilic as Debord thought McLuhan might be, it is important to note that he actually devoted an entire chapter in the aforementioned tome to McLuhan. The Chapter entitled “The Spectacle’s first apologist,” attacks the ‘imbecile,’ but later Debord refers to him as the “sage of Toronto,” and later still, perhaps somewhat describes himself when he says that the current (1990s) academic community of  Toronto is rife with McLuhan contemporaries and hairs-breadth predecessors who are trying to make a name for themselves by making pople forget McLuhan. 

McLuhan never bothered to defend himself or engage in counter-warfare with his colleagues.  He’d merely push on with his probes and observations and boundless exploratory enthusiasm until whoever hoped to challenge him was lost in a barrage of words: quotes, puns, full-length repeated jokes, references to 18th century French economists, contemporary town planners, obscure philosophers, comic strip anti-heros, streetcar advertisements, the physical structures of the nervous system, Greek, Roman, Norse, Balinese mores and myths, etc …  As Theall correctly attests, McLuhan was playing – he was playing ‘on and with’ his colleagues, which baffled and enraged them even more.

“You don’t like my ideas? I got others.” or I don’t necessarily agree with everything I say,” or  “if I made a cautious, measured statement, one might mistake me for a stable character” he would remark to his challengers, and continue  expounding upon whatever epiphany he felt he was scratching at at the time: “He would fumble and vaporize and go on to something else. It was more the fault of the questioners than anything else – they didn’t know how to take what he was saying. They wanted a kind of laboratory plot or plan for McLuhan’s insights.”

Even Ezra Pound, the paterfamilias of crazy geniuses,  inscribed “NUTS!” upon a letter McLuhan wrote  him. Pound corresponded with McLuhan from his cell in an insane asylum long before McLuhan got famous, and the letters between the two are every bit as riveting as those that passed between McLuhan and Pierre Trudeau. 

In the case of Pierre Trudeau, however, we have an example of how fruitful it can be to try to make sense of McLuhan. It would be both anachronistic and anglocentric, to suggest  that Trudeau uttered the now-ubiquitous ‘wtf!’ when he first encountered McLuhan, but the French equivalent of this sentiment surely passed through his brain when he and McLuhan first struck up their correspondence.  Trudeau enlisted Jim Davey, a close advisor, physicist, futurist and multi-faceted thinker to help interpret McLuhan, but “sometimes even Davey admitted he had no idea what McLuhan meant.” (p. 17) 

Unlike Pound, Trudeau really did try to get to the essence of McLuhan. Trudeau kept McLuhan’s letters; McLuhan kept Trudeau’s. The hard copies of their correspondence show that Trudeau read McLuhan scrupulously, underlining or circling passages, writing notes in the margins, writing letters back to McLuhan, requesting elaboration. A credit to Trudeau is that he really tried to learn. Early in his prime ministership, Trudeau would drop in unannounced, approximately once a month, at McLuhan’s Toronto home for strategy sessions, the content of which alas has escaped the public record. 

Pierre Trudeau and Marshall McLuhan were almost soul-mates. These two great Canadians of shimmering intellect developed a friendship that seemed touched by Destiny. In hindsight it most certainly was. Both were devout Roman Catholics, formidable debaters, lovers of literature, iconoclasts to the core – it is easy to see why they connected. We will get to a part in this book, that looks closely at how they connected. 

This lovely lens we now have at our dispoal – the filter we can label as  ‘Hindsight’ – shows us the powerful foresight the McLuhan/Trudeau connection contained. 

But before we reach that far backwards into our rear-view mirrors, we will first look at the present.  Pierre Trudeau has been dead for more than 15 years. Even the ‘television era’ in which Trudeaumania was able to flourish is now a thing of the past. But the connections between McLuhan and Trump, The McTrump Monster if you will, is alive and thriving in this very age.

Strangely, if we were  to choose one current world leader who would best elucidate McLuhan’s viewpoints, who, as though by magic, made McLuhan’s abstruse notions seem straightforward, it would be Donald Trump. 

If we want to dig deeper into McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” phrase there is no better to place to start than with Donald Trump. In Trump, the words of McLuhan have become flesh – a great mass of flabby, somewhat orange flesh, perhaps …  but flesh nevertheless. 

As with the famous dictum itself, here are at least two angles from which to view McLuhan via the figure of Trump. 

1)The techniques they both used to manipulate the media are almost identical. Both McLuhan and Trump became masters of what McLuhan called “techniques of involvement” – ways to keep people interested in them and focused on them over all their competitors for he spotlight to the myriad of others who compete for the spotlight. 

2) On a theoretical level the emergence of Donald Trump fulfills so much of what McLuhan said would occur.  McLuhan has been called a prophet by many. Some amongst the Catholics are murrmuring that he ought to be considered for Sainthood. Well, if saints need to perform a miracle and prophets need to be able to predict something that would occur, Donald Trump’s existence might confirm McLuhan’s spot among both the prophets and the saints. 

McTRUMP

It is hard to imagine two more different beings than Donald Trump and Marshall McLuhan.  McLuhan was an almost ridiculously erudite Cambridge alumnus who was faithful to his wife, anchored his being upon literature, prayer and the Roman Catholic Church. Trump is  “ a divorced adulterer who ran a gambling empire.”  As for literature, when asked about his reading habits, the US President told Fox news: “I read passages, I read areas, chapters, I don’t have the time.”

Their success in achieving fame via media is perhaps the most obvious piece of common ground that unites them. Not just the fact that they got famous, but that both intentionally sought fame as a means of achieving their personal goals. Both succeeded to an extent massively disproportionate to any reasonable expectation. 

. Yes, Trump was a rich white kid – but America is full of rich white kids who want to be President. Many, like Trump, try.  Trump won the game. He became president, officially. That alone is proof of victory 

About one full generation before Trump, Marshall McLuhan used the techniques Trump would later use, to, like Trump, become famous to a proportion no one could have predicted. When McLuhan came back to Canada, after Cambridge, he knew that one great experiment he would have to conduct, to test if his burgeoning ideas had any merit, would be to try to become famous himself. 

If an English professor, born in Edmonton, raised in Winnipeg, could become famous on the global stage, then anything was now possible via the electric media.

As the legendary Canadian establishment journalist Robert Fulford has explained it:

“Marshall was a publicity hound; he was the professor as self-promoter. At the beginning of his career he imagined that he would make a lot of money selling his ideas to businesses and industry, perhaps governments. He imagined that he was such an idea man that his ideas would flow out and people would buy them. And in order to do that, he had to be famous; he wanted to be famous. Fame was not thrust upon him, he sought it and sought it with great care”. 

That McLuhan got famous in the first place, is about as unlikely as Trump becoming president.   McLuhan was an English professor, and one in Canada at that!  In McLuhan’s time, as in this one, anyone who accepts a job as English professor in a Canadian university is signing up for media obscurity. McLuhan’s big challenge was to get the media aware of him, and interested, to begin with. He found it pretty easy.  His methods for doing so – as he himself revealed – were not so far different from Trump’s media tactics during the 2016 Presidential campaign. 

Stephen Hawking, a fellow Cambridge fellow,  is the only academic in recent history to have achieved a level of fame comparable to McLuhan’s.  Hawking became world-famous by putting forward ideas no one understood, which is exactly what McLuhan did in the 60s and early 70s. McLuhan, however,  was able to do so without the aid of the mouth-controlled wheelchair or robotic voice simulator that Hawking used to speak through his trachea. Ordinarily, these latter ‘extensions of man’ might not seem so advantageous; however, in the perverse world of media spectacle, they equipped Hawking with added gimmick-power, and transformed the Lou Gerhig’s disease sufferer into a mythical creature – a highly meme-able living metaphor for the power of mind over body.

Observe McLuhan’s answer to a clever question from an Australian journalist:

Q: “Professor McLuhan … If the world had not discovered your great thinking and your writing how would you go about creating a demand for it; what would be your advertising campaign, what would be the gist of it?”

MM: I’d put people on. I put them on. Putting people on means teasing them, challenging them, upsetting them, befuddling them. Any comic puts on his audience by hurting them … a put on is a sort of situation that I study a great deal. (McLuhan, 1977) 

One would have to ‘Youtube it’ to appreciate the deadpan mask McLuhan wears as he blinks stoically and explains to the very serious panel of intellectuals and advertisers in attendance that he is actually putting them on, that he puts people on habitually, as matter of course.  

McLuhan’s answer also serves as a succinct description of Donald Trump’s media technique – a total put-on, a technique that has consisted almost entirely of hurting its audience since the day Trump entered the race for the Republican nomination- a race in which he began as a total underdog and proceeded to destroy everyone in his path. In his Fahrenheit 11/9 documentary Michael Moore contends that even Trump’s initial press conference declaring his intent to run for President was a put-on – a publicity stunt aimed at coercing NBC to pay him at least as much as Gwen Stefani, of all people! 

Trump’s put-ons are a trap, an advertising strategy, intended to catch an audience.  From the perspective of McLuhan, the mainstream media’s focus on the content of Trump’s behaviour is completely missing the point. Whether we are enraged or delighted by the continuous supply of tabloid level pseudo-scandal that Trump continues to feed the media machine, by continuing to react to it we prevent ourselves from the broader perspective necessary to truly perceive the forces of influence at play in the age of electronic media. 

Trump’s propensity to tease, challenge, upset, befuddle and hurt his audience remains on display well into his presidency. That Trump continues to intentionally to raise the ire of America’s mainstream media seems rather counterintuitive.  Although, since the mainstream media – the big newspapers and television networks – no longer comprise the dominant media of communication, it is now possible to win elections even when these once-indomitable forces have turned against you and are conspiring to bring you down.

Eighteen years later,  Trump reported in the autobiography that he paid someone else to write, that negative media coverage could be immensely valuable. What McLuhan had said in that 1969 Playboy issue, Trump was now able to confirm first-hand. 

‘One thing I’ve learned about the press is that they’re always hungry for a good story, the more sensational the better… The point is that if you are a little different, or outrageous, or if you do things that are bold or controversial, the press is going to write about you… The funny thing is that even a critical story, which may be hurtful personally, can be very valuable to your business.’ (p. 56)

Even, evidently, the business of getting elected president. 

Trump doesn’t attempt to explain this “funny thing” that a critical story can be valuable to the person it purports to hurt. Like Poe’s sailor in ‘Descent into the Malestrom’ Trump has merely seized upon an element of natural law that he himself experienced. And though he first made the discovery prior to 1987,  30 years later, Trump is still in the business of cashing in on what good old straightforward, linear logic would suggest should be a disadvantage – negative media coverage. In a society that has ceased to think linearly, however, linear logic no longer always applies. 

Of course, the algorithm for success is obviously more complex than merely generating negative media coverage. If ignominy were all it took, Anthony Weiner might still be a member of congress, and Harvey Weinstein might still be running Hollywood.  Weiner, through his irrepressible sexting to women and girls who were not his beleaguered wife, misused the same technology Trump uses – only Weiner powered up enough negative reverberations to ruin his political hopes forever, and maybe earn some jail time in the process.  Weinstein merely failed to grasp the way the new media would diminish the elite’s control of information, and though he kept his behaviour away from all forms of media, the media crept into his private life, and he could do little but hide and deny as his empire crumbled.

A big distinction between Trump and both Weiner and Weinstein is that Trump is intentionally seeking some sort of backlash. Trump is putting us on, whereas Weiner and Weinstein were  putting no one on, except perhaps themselves if they truly believed their behaviour would remain under the radar forever. Using McLuhan’s notion of the put-on, and Trump’s incessant application of it, we can begin to see the difference between the negativity Trump intentionally generates, and the negativity Weiner so haplessly attracted to himself.  Unlike Trump, Weiner and Weinstein were putting no one on. They were sunk by their own sincerity. 

Let my detractors be my promoters!” McLuhan once said, quoting Joyce, at a time when McLuhan’s own outlandish ideas and global fame had raised the ire and envy of his academia peers, especially in Toronto. Like Trump, once McLuhan realized that a movement had begun against him, he only escalated his provocations and put-ons. 

In the mainstream media, Trump has found a pack of eager detractors, who, unbeknownst to them, have become his best promoters. Trump generates his brand of negativity because it aides him in the difficult but essential art of ‘holding an audience’.  By creating the controversy Trump gets to control it. Trump puts on this outrageousness, the media decries it, then Trump fades back and shifts the focus to something else. Here, the media momentum snowballs, and the quasi-crisis Trump that has planted in the public sphere becomes so dizzying that no one can really conclude anything about it. Since no borderline misdemeanor can stick around on the media agenda for more than a week in the Electric Age, Trump moves on to his next put-on, stirs up the cycle again and the cycle repeats.  Using this technique Trump is able to hold an audience like no politician of his time. 

Trump’s unpresidential outrageousness is, for the most part, portrayed by the big media, as evidence of a serious and fundamental character flaw, if not of outright insanity.  When Trump tells the wife of the French prime minister that she is in exceptional physical shape, or (arguably) mimics a disabled reporter, or describes a female reporter as so angry she had “blood coming out of her whatever… ” when these these quasi-scandals occur, the mainstream media immediately reacts to the figure/content of Trump’s actions. He is called sexist or childish, crude or downright cruel. He’s regularly said to be mentally unfit for office.  

In all of the above examples, Trump is rude and crude, for sure. And  though he might be crazy he still has the common sense to add a dash of ambiguity to his controversial conduct. In one sense, complementing the French first lady’s physical condition could be seen as sincere praise removed from objectification. The motion of Trump’s right hand in his alleged mimicry of the disabled journalist was restrained enough that it wasn’t totally clear he was mocking a physical handicap, and his remark that Fox anchor Megyn Kelly’s blood was spewing from “her whatever” was imprecise enough for Trump to rebuff claims that he was referring to Kelly’s vagina. 

In every case just enough ambiguity has been there for Trump to have a little wiggle room to get out of the situation. Then,  as the formula goes, he uses this ambiguity as evidence of his repeated claim that the media are biased against him. It’s a cycle that whorls thru social media to this day, again and again and again. And though the mainstream media pretend to hate it, they perpetuate it when they fail to simply call Trump on the fact that he is putting them on, and attempting to stir up inflammable but ultimately benign controversies, just to keep the spotlight turned his way. 

 It’s like a dance,  

Step One:  Borderline scandalous remark or gesture; 

Step Two:  Widespread media denouncement of Trump’s behaviour. 

Step Three:  Trump’s counter accusation that the media is biased against him. 

The controversy differs on each occasion, but on each occasion Trump’s message that the media is biased against him is repeated. So far, it is a cycle that has served Trump well. 

***

It does seem to go without saying that Trump never studied McLuhan, and therefore would never have formulated any of his moves through life after things McLuhan said. 

Based on what we know about the President, however, one credible instance exists where  Trump probably did encounter the words of McLuhan – and at a highly formative stage of his life, at that.   You can call it an astonishing coincidence, and nothing more, but the words of Marshall McLuhan, captured by a publication that Donald Trump almost certainly had in his hands at the time,  consist of the exact media method Trump used to become president OTUS. 

If there is one publication Donald Trump reveres, one that he has subscribed to and one that he seems incapable of saying a bad word about, it is the same publication that, in 1969, released what may well stand as McLuhan’s clearest exposition about the state of the media then and now, one that gives ample evidence of his insight, his prophecy, his genius … 

What publication could we possibly be talking about? Well, it’s the one publication that even the multitudes who refuse to admit Trump has read anything, might concede Trump probably did read: Playboy.  

Yes, Playboy. McLuhan, of course, did not pose nude in Playboy at any stage of his life.  He did, however, lay bare his ideas there in a 1969 edition that hit the shelves when Trump was 23 years old. If it’s 100% unlikely that Trump ever scholastically investigated McLuhan, it may well be equally as likely that Trump had a copy of this issue of Playboy in his hands at the time it came out. 

In March 1969, McLuhan was interviewed thoroughly and extensively by Playboy magazine. 75 pages worth, to be precise. That incredible number gives you an indication of just how famous McLuhan was back then.. But even more significant than this measure is that the interview is one of McLuhan’s clearest expositions of his own observations of the electronic media’s impact on society, politics, and “the future” which has become our present.. 

In it this Playboy interview,  McLuhan talks of a world  “in which space and time are overcome by television, jets and computers — a simultaneous, “all-at-once” world in which everything resonates with everything else as in a total electrical field

It is curious to imagine Trump encountering this McLuhan interview way back then. It’s impossible to say when Trump first got it into his mind that he wanted to become President of the USA, but we know he had big ambition from an early age. From his own admissions in his ‘autobiography’ we know that he has alway been itching to make it big. 

Imagine a young, determined Trump, recently graduated from Wharton, puzzling over some way to get the inside edge on his ambitions. He’s flipping distractedly through this issue and comes across, say, this remark by McLuhan:

“It’s vital to adopt a posture of arrogant superiority; instead of scurrying into a corner and wailing about what media are doing to us, one should charge straight ahead and kick them in the electrodes. They respond beautifully to such resolute treatment and soon become servants rather than masters.”

Or this McLuhan gem:

“I don’t want to sound uncharitable about my critics. Indeed, I appreciate their attention. After all, a man’s detractors work for him tirelessly and for free. It’s as good as being banned in Boston.”

 HMM.

Or, what if Trump saw McLuhan’s answer to this question:

 “PLAYBOY: How is television reshaping our political institutions?

McLUHAN: TV is revolutionizing every political system in the Western world. For one thing, it’s creating a totally new type of national leader, a man who is much more of a tribal chieftain than a politician. 

Castro is a good example of the new tribal chieftain who rules his country by a mass-participational TV dialog and feedback; he governs his country on camera, by giving the Cuban people the experience of being directly and intimately involved in the process of collective decision making.”

Or, when it came to the value of truth-telling as it relates to political power, what if  Trump randomly flipped to this McLuhan comment.

The people wouldn’t have cared if John Kennedy lied to them on TV, but they couldn’t stomach L.B.J. even when he told the truth. The credibility gap was really a communications gap. The political candidate who understands TV — whatever his party, goals or beliefs — can gain power unknown in history. 

It really is quite peculiar – the wording of McLuhan in this interview. The replication of it in Trump that we are now all facing is at least worthy of consideration. 

***

The first principle of evidence,” McLuhan wrote in 1971, “is that things have to be approached on their own terms if any understanding is to be attained. Edgar Allan Poe was the first to stress the need to begin with the effects and work backwards, in poetry and in detective fiction alike.” 

a strange circumstance attending all discovery and all investigation is this: the effects come before the causes. Without any exception, in every human development, in every discovery, all the effects come before the cause or the discovery itself” 

McLuhan in his lovely, confusing paradoxical form is basically saying that by observing the ‘effect’ of a cause, we can work backwards to discover the true nature of the cause. If we don’t see the effect, we won’t look for the cause. It’s actually quite an obvious supposition, but when McLuhan says it, he does so in a way that makes it sound absurd. All part of his tricksterism.

Take Trump. If we were behaviourist psychologists observing Donald Trump’s behaviour since this edition of Playboy came out, we might seriously begin to wonder if Marshall McLuhan was a bigger influence on Trump’s life than anyone realizes. His behaviour indicates that he read this article.

The thing that you see is ‘figure,’ the thing that affects you is ‘ground’; and that’s what I mean by ‘the medium is the message.‘”

One of McLuhan’s greatest gifts was his ability to see the unseen. McLuhan believed that the greatest influences on our thought, behaviour and habits are always the ones that we are least aware of and he developed a knack for seeing through the ostensible causes of any effect and discerning the true forces that existed much less obviously in behind.   

How did he do so? One clue McLuhan left us is his repeated insistence that he studied “percepts not concepts”.  In focussing upon the fundamental process of human perception, McLuhan discerned patterns that informed his overall vision and led to his famous, and famously misunderstood, catchphrase “the medium is the message”.  Indeed both the catchphrase, and McLuhan in general, become much easier to understand if we take McLuhan at his word and approach him first via the doors of perception – the senses through which all humans discern reality.

*

The terms ‘figure’ and ‘ground’, which were never far from McLuhan’s lips, come from the Gestalt school of psychology, whose influence upon McLuhan cannot be overstated. Gestalt’s primary concern was with percepts: 

“How [do] we organize the bewildering jumble of stimulation from the environment so that coherent perceptions result. …

How do we organize what we see?

How does context affect our perception? ” (Psychology an Introduction p, 466.)

Consider these central questions of Gestalt psychology while examining the below diagrams. These curious chiaroscuros are used in Gestalt to show that our perceptions are governed by hidden elements, that the meaning of a situation can be dramatically altered by our focus, which is itself a fluid, shapeshifting force inside our being – albeit one over which we have some control. 

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To study the effects of media with a focus only on its content  is akin to studying any of the above diagrams under the premise that the meaning is contained exclusively in, either  the black or white area inside the frame. 

In fact, both the black and the white spaces carry independent meanings – and even more importantly, the meanings of the blacks and the whites are created by the interplay, or resonance, between the two. Take either black or white out of the situation and all meaning disappears – all effect, totally nullified. 

McLuhan was the first to realize that this interplay of seen and “unseen” also applies to the influence media has upon its audience. The perceptual revelations of these paintings convinced McLuhan that if we wanted to understand the true effects of media we had to consider both media figure and media ground, especially the way the ground determines and delivers the figure whilst remaining unseen:   “the environment is invincibly persuasive when ignored”  

The ‘figure’ of media is its most obvious attribute, its content. What Trump tweets, where Trudeau stands on immigration, what costume he wears or with whom he stands in his selfies are all ‘figures’ of media. It is obvious that if we want to study the effects of media we have to study content.  But McLuhan believed that it is delusion to study content while ignoring the ground from which the content arises. 

Unless explicitly pointed out to us, the ground of any situation is nearly impossible to detect. To the fish, the ground is water. For human life in general the ground is both the literal terra firma and the earth’s atmosphere. To the modern citizen with a smartphone, the ground has become electricity. Technology has outstripped and enveloped the Earth.  “For the first time in history, Nature is a Man made environment.” (McLuhan.) No moji on earth can adequately express the power of this new predicament. LIke the subliminal impact of an ad –  rather, like the subliminal impact of all the ads in history, combined, the ground of media is most powerful when we are unaware of it.

“McLuhan’s point was that most people are trained not to look for the ground in any situation,” says Philip Marchand.  “They focus on one part and ignore the rest. If people consider the motorcar, for example, they focus on the car itself, rarely perceiving the network of gas stations, highways, neon signs, parking lots and all the altered habits and perceptions that arise out of the existence of the car – the ground, in other words, of the automobile. True perception, according to McLuhan, is the ability to hold both figure and ground in one’s attention, in a dynamic and resonating relationship.” (Marchand p. 48) (Italics mine) 

Transfer Marchand’s metaphor of the ‘motorcar’ to that of the smartphone … What is the hidden ground of media in the era of the smartphone? What are the effects that have nothing to do with the content of the screens? For example, the sheer volume of Trump’s tweets, gives him a constant and instant presence on the screens and in the minds of millions  – a presence that is not dependent upon any mainstream media outlet to deliver. 

By shifting our focus to ground, we see how  the impact of electric media extends far beyond the content of the screens. The death of Blockbuster Video and the encroaching extinction of the print newspaper format have alone caused unquantifiable changes to society. Same with the renewed interest from the stockmarket in companies that mine lithium or cobalt, because these are what smartphone and electric car batteries are made of. Conversely, the decline in production and sales of wristwatches, because people now consult their smartphones when they want to know the time.   

Google, Amazon, Facebook, Netflix, Apple, and all the money made by the people working for them, and all the money handed over to them by those who are not. Satellites, self-driving cars, cell phone towers, Twitter, Pokemon Go, selfies, selfie-sticks, drones – and the industries that have arisen to support them, as well as the laws that have arisen to regulate them – are just some examples of the enormity of the new ground that the electric age has created upon our world.  

If we want to understand what gives electronic communication more power over human behaviour than any previous form of media, we can isolate at least three main variables. 

1) The speed of the new media is instant, ideas and responses can be exchanged at the speed of light. 

2) The presence of new media is constant. In the older, electric days, television might have been able to deliver messages at the speed of light, but such transmissions were usually relegated to one’s living room or bedroom at certain hours of the day.  People did not and could not carry their television sets around with them, as they do with their smartphones.  

3) The interactivity of new media is at a level that television and radio never came close to approaching. The transmissions on televesion and radio were also “one-way” – that is, the tv broadcasted and the audience received. With exception of the “call in show” audiences could not interact with the broadcaster or, as can easily be done now, become a broadcaster themselves. Such factors prevented the electronic media (in the days of television) from becoming a constant presence in a person’s life, mitigating its influence dramatically.   

Aside from a constant presence and a speed of light capability that encompass the globe, the new media has become a social force that allows for something the older forms of electronic media were not designed to accomplish: input. 

Thanks to the evolution of ‘social’ media, which, for better or for worse, has become the most dominant force in the new age, the ‘consumer’ of the media must also, to some extent, become a  producer. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat have become the four horsemen of influence in the world today. . Each one of these new superpowers delivers content that is produced by its consumers. Photos, quotes, videos, links to news articles (both real and fake), likes, loves, shares ….  If fact if the consumers of the content on these sites did not also produce the content, none of these sites would have anything to broadcast. It’s now much easier to see what McLuhan meant in 1964, when he called the media “extensions of man”.

Take a step back from the planet and it is undeniable that people are behaving differently than before they began carrying around these little electrical appendages and tapping them constantly, constantly staring into them. Will human posture and eyesight slowly de-evolve and worsen as a result of the interminable hunch in front of a screen?  None of these media effects have anything to do with the content of the messages passing back and forth from one screen to another, yet the impacts they reference are profound and planet-altering. 

The ground of media can be so many subtle, subliminal things. All those altered habits and perceptions that arise when our civilization arranges itself to best facilitate the technology it has invented to serve it. “We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.”  

But how? How do our tools shape us? Let’s get a bit more specific than this. Let’s look at electronic technology in the age of the smartphone. How has this shaped us? Oh boy. If McLuhan is correct in his reportage of this discovery, then no Western reader is going to appreciate the following section of this book. In 1975, McLuhand told Pierre Trudeau:

“One of the strange things I have discovered about my own work is that Westerners in general resent having the effects of any technology brought to their attention. That print, or the telephone, or TV should have any effect on them at all, is taken to mean that they have been manipulated and degraded. The person who is blamed for this is the person who points it out to them.”  

Over time the dominant media necessarily creates within us a perceptual and thus a rational bias, that, until we become aware of it, will colour and sculpt (aka. ‘distort) even our most basic cognitive processes.  This is especially important to be aware of in this transitional epoch where the old media of print, radio and television are giving way to the electric all-encompassing medium of the smartphone. 

To tackle McLuhan we must first tackle the biases that these old media have imprinted upon our psyches. Our left brains must veer sharply right; our visually oriented selves must relent and allow the other senses to contribute equally to our understanding of the way things are. Wherever possible we must relinquish the political and moral axes we incline to grind and the selfsame frames we place around the phenomena of the universe. None of this is easy, but McLuhan did it, and in doing so gained a perspective that literally discerned the unfolding of the universe beyond his time and well into our own.  Probably beyond. 

 In fact, it was print that opened up McLuhan’s entire imagination, print that gave him the tools to see into it and through it, print that helped him see the end of print.  Back when McLuhan was alive, technology had not nearly advanced to the state that it has now. It was easy for those who wanted to mock or discredit him to make a good case for their case. 

One of McLuhan’s fundamental refrains was that 

artists are the control tower in the electric society.   Whenever anyone asked how he came to his conclusions about the effects of electric media, McLuhan always pointed to either poetry or literature. As he once explained to Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands: 

Without a knowledge of all the poets and painters and artists from Baudelaire to Joyce, it is futile to attempt any appraisal of the formal or efficient causes initiated by the evolutionary extensions of our bodies which we call technology”

Yes, it is the printed word that, oddly enough, helped McLuhan see through the illusions and limitations of the print-based world all the way to the demise of the dominion of the book.  Like Alice, McLuhan passed thru the looking glass,from the Visual to the Acoustic World, long before his contemporaries. Like Alice, too, McLuhan could not have done it without literature. 

Poe, Eliot, Pound, Wyndham Lewis, Mallarme, Cervantes,  de Chardin, Baudelaire, and many, many others, including, of course, Lewis Carroll, all unlocked some gate of revelation within McLUhan. But of all the great men and women of literature’s canon, James Joyce was “the sage of Toronto’s” chief oracle. 

McLuhan “often declared that all his media investigations were nothing more than “applied Joyce’. Indeed, an understanding of Joyce and his work goes a long way towards understanding McLuhan.Through his lifelong adoration, reading and re-reading of Joyce, McLuhan honed his perceptivity of the effects of media in the digital age.

Traceable to Joyce is McLuhan’s observation that the content of the newest communication medium is always that of previous mediums – an observation that is exemplified with astonishing exactitude in this electric era of the smartphone, whose content consists of basically all of the media that came before. The smartphone is capable of serving as a wristwatch or clock, a camera, a radio, a television, a (very tiny) movie screen, a newspaper, a photo album. It also, of course, can even occasionally function as a telephone. The smartphone can broadcast, record, send and receive information – it is a new medium that, thanks to electricity, enables a simultaneous involvement with all previous media. A user can become both producer and consumer of content, even – in the case of, say, a live gaming broadcast, both at once. 

One of the great achievements of Joyce is that on the printed page he found a way to transcend the limits and linearity of the print medium. Reading Ulysses (and to a much more baffling extent, Finnegan’s Wake) the reader is confronted with an ‘acoustic’ environment, containing, aside from human beings, all the communications media of Joyce’s age. 

 Even though the action is chronological, and the words run across the page in a linear fashion, the narrative consists of a mosaic of disconnected snippets of information, conversations overheard, songs sung in pubs, advertisements, scents, sights, random thoughts, lusts, distractions confront the reader in the manner that they confront the protagonists Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus as they stroll the streets of Dublin – with no apparent rational connection or sequence. 

This narrative presentation, which can confront an untrained reader as total chaos, has turned out to be a foreshadowing and/or exact model of the manner that information arrives to the carrier of a smartphone in the electric age. This is one of the primary reasons why McLuhan’s deep involvement with Joyce prepared him to foresee and decode the effects of media in the Electric age: 

“James Joyce used the stream-of-consciousness technique to mime and make explicit the effects on the human psyche of the nascent electronic technologies of his era. These technologies, McLuhan said, bombarded the human psyche with huge amounts of information that had no underlying rationale, just like the stream of consciousness of Joyce’s characters” (Marchand p. 168). 

‘Huge amounts of information with no underlying rationale’ is a wonderfully concise way to describe the sum output of any active smartphone in 2018 and beyond. Via the smartphone information arrives and is sent without introduction or connection – disparate texts, tweets, stories, phone calls, face times, alarms, news items, ads, letters, tags, selfies, even all of the above, all at once, can arrive from anywhere on earth  (or, in the case of, say, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, even from outer space) and reach anywhere at the speed of light. 

Such limitless speed and simultaneity of information work to erode the linearity that centuries of print-based, visual dependency have brought to Western civilization. It has created what many call the ‘post-literate’ era. Smartphone users cannot focus on all this information at once, yet it it still befalls them to make some sense of the non-sequential chaosmos of information that emanates from and draws them  

into their devices, constantly.  

INTO THE MALESTROM 

Next to James Joyce, the artist McLuhan credited most as a guide to his intellect would probably be Edgar Allan Poe.   McLuhan was especially fond of pointing to the short story “Descent into the Malestrom” by Poe.  In ‘Descent’ a sailor avoids being sucked down a whirlpool by observing the objects that resist the pull of the water. Eventually, the sailor dives off of his sinking ship in order to cling to a cask that has repeatedly popped back out of the whirlpool’s thirsty, swirling maw. For whatever reason, this cask unlike all the other objects that come within reach of the deadly vortex, continues to resist destruction. 

In ‘Descent’ the sailor is in a situation where all his theories, all his past learning, can do him no good. In order to come out of his predicament alive, he can do little more than observe the phenomena within the whirlpool – hoping to set upon some clue that will point the way to survival – and trust his observations without having to understand them. 

For McLuhan, the story was an allegory that served a dual purpose. 

  1. The story very much described McLuhan’s unorthodox methology as a member of academia. McLuhan resisted the formation of theories. He preferred to approach the phenomenon of the universe with a completely open mind, not seeking to test one particular theory over the next. It was this openness in the story, that enabled the sailor to observe the cask’s resillience in the face of doom and to literally cling to it. 

Speaking of this story to an audience at Johns Hopkins University McLuhan said: “ This is the allegory that Poe presents to the world of the function of art in society, the function of pattern recognition, and the function of anticipating effects with causes” 

2) The vortex in the story very closely resembles the actual vortex of information in the electrical age. This “total surround” of which McLuhan frequently spoke.

In the same speech, McLuhan directly relates Poe’s fictional vortex to the predicament electric media is fast swirling around the globe. In doing so, McLuhan hints at the big value involved in seeing past the obvious or assumed effects of media and accurate perceiving what’s truly going on.  

The huge vortices of energy created by our media present us with possibilities of evasion of consequences of destruction. By studying the pattern of the effects of this huge vortex of energy in which we are involved, it may be possible to program a strategy of evasion of survival.” MM,

McLuhan envisioned himself as a kind of sailor, navigating the uncharted seas of the electrical media environment. Just as the sailor survived by first observing an ‘effect’ of Natural Law that ‘caused’ the cask to remain buoyant, McLuhan watched the electrical media swarm in order to detect manifestations of its laws that might give the human being/civilization trapped inside it something to cling to. 

Lifelong McLuhan scholar Gary Genosko, has put it another way:

“The lesson McLuhan learned from Poe is well known: if one struggles against the current of a whirlpool, one will drown; if, on the contrary, one observes and rides the current, waiting for an opportune moment to save oneself by breaking out of it, then one is likely to survive.” (Genosko, 1999. p 27.)

Yet another metaphorical application of this story, of course, can relate to one who wants to resist oblivion as a public figure. McLuhan and Trump both discovered ways to remain afloat amid the swirling currents of the media of their day. 

To understand the ‘why’ or the ‘how’ behind all this, a good place to start is with McLuhan’s notion of the put-on. It’s a three-pronged concept that leads from the obvious to the mind-boggling.

The put-on: past and present

The  “put-on” is a technique that McLuhan references a lot. It’s very likely that he first became acquainted with it thru Wyndham Lewis, a writer and painter McLuhan once called “one of the greatest men of the century, both in painting and in prose”  

If ever a trickster of the artistic world existed, it was Lewis. Long before either Trump or McLuhan’s shenanigans, Lewis exacted the same technique over and over again to the point that no one knew where he stood on any issue. One of Lewis’ most astounding put-ons can be found in the form of his 1938 jawdropper of a book entitled: The Jews: Are they Human? 

Reading the title in this post-Holocaust world hits like a smack in the face, but even when Lewis wrote it in the years before WWII it seemed horrific. The irony, and the ruse inside the work is that Lewis’ book is a panegyric towards the Jewish people. It has been described as an act of  love towards the Jews, answering the question its title asks with a resounding ‘Yes! Jews are a wonderful component of humanity.” To this day, however, webpages exist that list Lewis among the anti-Semites, citing this book as part of their case.

What Lewis truly felt about any issue is probably irrelevant. He once described his own politics this way: “I am part Communist and part Fascist with a healthy dose of Monarchism in my Marxism, but at bottom an Anarchist with a passion for order.”  (http://www.othercinema.com/otherzine/may-attract-other-coyotes-or-putting-on-put-ons-the-artist-as-trickster/#comment-173653

The point is, Lewis – also credited as the inventor of the prank call – was more concerned with stirring the pot and hurting whatever audience he happened to hold. If you thought ‘right’ Lewis would hit you with some ‘left’, and vice-versa.  Though Lewis was truly talented, the approach of hurting his audience, gave him the added advantage of being talked about in places and times where the competition among good artists to be noticed has never been stronger, namely Paris in the 1920s.

Lewis spent his whole career putting on – usually via ‘hurting’ – his audiences. His 1930 novel Apes of God unkindly mocked the inner circles of the  London literary scene, which happened to make up a good chunk of his most interested readership. He did the same thing in Paris in the 1920s, pissing off the brilliant artists who surrounded him to the point that Ernest Hemingway in his recollection of those Paris days, A Moveable Feast,  describes Lewis as having the “sad eyes of an unsuccessful rapist.”  

Hemingway’s report reinforces Trump’s belief that even hurtful stories can be valuable to one’s business. Whatever Wyndham Lewis did to Hemingway will not be known, but if you are a writer who hopes to remain among the immortals of your time, having Ernest Hemingway write hurtful things about you is certainly better than having Ernest Hemingway write nothing about you at all.

Believe it or not. Trump knows his boundaries, and has an innate understanding of media symbolism. A great example of this can be found in the major media event of John McCain’s funeral. McCain forbid Trump’s presence there, though he personally called other former presidents and asked them to speak at his farewell. Trump’s daughter, Ivanka and son in law Jared Kushner were in attendance so somehow they – like the three previous Presidents of America – Bill Clinton, George W Bush, and Barak Obama -must have been invited. But still, symbolically, McCain’s posthumous message was very clear. 

The final speech of the affair went to McCain’s sobbing daughter Meghan McCain, who, in the least subtle Trump reference of the funeral, said:

“America does not need to be made great again. America has always been great.”

Even Obama, albeit more subtly, offered words that turned the mind to Trump. McLuhan said that the Electric Age would eliminate the role of party in politics, and though this has not fully come to pass, we are seeing the tendrils of it.  Remember, both McCain and Trump are, at least officially, Republicans. McCain’s funeral accomplished a strange blurring of the line between Democrats and Republicans, which means that it has served Trump well by splitting the vote a little further in the next US Election. Even though McCain designed his own funeral to be a spanner in the works of Trumpism, it may well have advanced Trump’s cause. In any case, it has kept Trump current

This example with Lewis, is evidence of McLuhan’s lifelong tendency to use the work of artists who were masters of other, older mediums to discover truths about the new media. 

DEMOCRACY RETRABILIZED

For years McLuhan was saying to anyone who would listen, that the electric media would re-tribalize humanity. He gave specific reasons for it. It was all very clear. No one paid attention to this extreme claim.In 2016, Donald Trump became President of the United States using methods McLuhan insisted would work in the Electric Age. He’s using them with increasing frequency, and he is winning more people over. We can all point the finger at Trump, but his Presidency means something much more vital than his culpable corporeality. That Trump won the election is proof of one dire fact: Just as McLuhan said would happen, we have been re-trialized. 

It sounds like a condemnation. The conclusion that modern civilization has been re-tribalized, can easily be taken to mean that things have regressed so substantially that we are no more savvy or sophisticated than the apes from whence we came. McLuhan didn’t mean it this way, and this is important to keep in mind from the outset.

“I’m not using tribal here in a journalistic, pejorative, condescending sense. I’m using it technically. People who live by ear are tribal. I’m not using the word tribal in any kind of condescending sense at all.. People who live by ear are tribal. All children are  tribal because they live by ear”

Which gives us about as good a time to  as any bring up McLuhan’s essential axis of Visual and Acoustic space .Knowledge of this unified division is essential as we venture into the clarity, that can at first seem like murk, of Marshall McLuhan.

One of the big flips that’s taking place in our time is the changeover from the eye to the ear. Most of us, having grown up in the visual world, are now suddenly confronted with the problems of living in an acoustic world which is, in effect, a world of simultaneous information. The visual world has very peculiar properties, and the acoustic world has quite different properties. 

The visual world which belongs to the old nineteenth century, and which had been around for quite a while, say from the sixteenth century anyway, has the properties of being continuous and connected and homogeneous, all parts more or less alike. Things stayed put. If you had a point of view, that stayed put.


The acoustic world, which is the electric world of simultaneity, has no continuity, no homogeneity, no connections, and no stasis. Everything is changing. To move from one of those worlds to the other is a very big shift. It’s the same shift that Alice in Wonderland made when she went through the looking glass. She moved out of the visual world and into the acoustic world when she went through the looking glass.

In 1960, when McLuhan spoke of this shift from Visual to what he called ‘Acoustic Space’ that would accompany the electric age of mass communication, it confused people who were still marvelling at the advent of colour television. Now, in the electric age, we are living what McLuhan meant when he talked of the non-linear arrival of information from many directions, and are much better positioned to differentiate between the visual space of the print-based world, and the acoustic space of the electric one – the latter being the essence of the retribalization of which McLuhan spoke.

An important distinction must be made here, lest – in true McLuhan form – his ‘visual’ and ‘acoustic’ divide become more confusing than  clarifying. When McLuhan speaks of visual vs acoustic, he is referring to the arrival and flow of information, not necessarily the senses involved in the perception of it. For example, a speech delivered over the radio, though completely perceived by the ear, would actually, under McLuhan’s designation, qualify as a belonging to the visual world. Why? Because such a stream of information is received in an orderly, sequential linear fashion that has a beginning and end and a clear point of view. By the same token, McLuhan would categorize a newspaper page as belonging to the world of acoustic space. Though perceived with our ‘visual’ faculties, a news paper page consists of unrelated stories and advertisements that confront the reader simultaneously underneath a single dateline. Though each individual story would be an element of visual space, written with linear properties, moving in an orderly fashion from beginning to end, the entirety of the page itself consists of ‘acoustic’ properties without sequence, connection or logical relationship to one another.  

*

McLuhan’s roots in literature are often cited as anomalous or at least peculiar qualities for one who rose to fame predicting the demise of the book, while understanding with prodigious clarity the age of electric media. In fact, McLuhan’s bookish foundations are what gave him the clarity to understand the effects of smartphone era technology on civilization and on the politics that govern it. 

At least, once McLuhan underwent one particular epiphany his deep acquaintanceship with literature was able to elucidate certain connections and consequences that a great portion of society still does not even suspect have arisen with the advent of the electric age. This epiphany had nothing to do with the spiritual one that led him to convert to Catholicism in 1937. The big breakthrough  McLuhan experienced that put him on the path to media sagehood was his involvement with Harold Adams Innis during McLuhan’s early days on the U of T Campus. 

Innis was a political economy professor who had written books on such unglamorous topics as the Canadian fur trade and the cod fisheries. To these industries Innis brought a “poetic sensitivity and a historical imagination that enabled him to perceive how the pursuit of even these humble commodities had transformed a society.” McLuhan was enamoured he described Innis’ work as forging a path “from the external trade routes of the world to the internal trade routes of the mind”.  

Deepening McLuhan’s interest was a discovery Innis made via his study of another of Canada’s staple commodities: pulp and paper. By connecting the pulp and paper industry to its raison d’etre – the production of newsprint and the circulation of information and opinion – Innis realized that “the greatest staple of all were the various media of communications.” When Innis spoke of the characteristics of press and radio, apart from what they print or broadcast,  McLuhan was transfixed. Innis final book The Bias of Communication examined throughout the history of western civilization “the implications of the media of communications for the character of knowledge.”  Here Innis concluded that some media (like papyrus) were conducive to the extension of a society in space, while others (like stone tablets) were, due to their durability and difficulty to transport  more conducive to the continuity of a society over time. “A civilization employing clay tablets and cuneiform … was apt to be more limited in area and preocupied with religious and moral themes that by their nature remain relatively unchanged over centuries. Papyrus, on the other hand, encouraged the growth of empires of vast extent”.

One can almost hear McLuhan’s wheels turning as he considered Innis’ insights. And it is easy to see how Innis’ work on the media of communication led McLuhan along the path to his belief that “the medium is the message.” If nothing else, Innis taught McLuhan to study the effects of media by looking beyond the content of the messages the media conveyed. 

McLuhan realized  that the most important effects of electric communications technology was that this technology was doing to literate societies the very thing that print had undone. Print had lifted humanity out of feudalism and tribalism, the electric media was reversing this, and, with subtle differences, retribalizing societies who depended upon it as the dominant means of communication. 

Once McLuhan understood this, his understanding of the poetic and dramatic art forms of the pre-literate (aka tribal) era kicked in. The man who knew epic poetry, Shakespeare, Chaucer and other masters of the oral tradition better than 99% of the people on earth was the only one in the position to see that tribal times would call for tribal measures. This is where his book learning helped him yet again.  his understanding of media to the point where it was leaps and bounds ahead of other scholars who did not share his literary background.

In some areas, McLUhan’s formulae for successful media techniques in the Electric age are as simple as a rehashing and reapplication of the tried-and-true literary devices of Shakespeare and Homer and others greats of the age before print took over entirely. 

Assessing the rise of Donald J Trump through this lens can feel like an epiphany in itself, because Trump, the politician, is nothing if not an actor/storyteller/poet of the oral tradition. Such a lofty definition will make the skin of many crawl. But forget about policy or character for a moment, and regard his technique. 

If you match the ‘electric’ techniques of McLuhan and Trump to the techniques of the oral tradition, you will find astonishing parallels. If you then match these parallels to McLuhan’s claim that electric technology is ultimately retribalizing humanity, you may undergo something of an epiphany regarding McLuhan’s perspective, it’s accuracy, and what it means for the world at large. 

McLuhan and Trump are the oddest bedfellows to be sure. But it’s wild how, on one hand, understanding McLuhan helps us understand Trump’s jarring but unquestionable success. On the other hand, it’s astonishing, how with Trump we have a model that helps us demystify  much of what McLuhan was saying throughout the last 30 years of his life.  

Trump’s pre-literacy or some would suggest illiteracy, has turned out to be a perfect fit for today’s post-literate, re-tribalized electorate. A look at his media techniques re

The funny thing

McLuhan first encountered Lewis’s work at Cambridge in the early 1930s. He read Apes of God, and many other works, and instantly began to regard Lewis among the greatest of the greats of literature, on the same level as Joyce, Shakespeare and Pound.

Not only did McLuhan nick his “Global Village” phrase from Lewis (though the concept differed), he also delighted in passing on stories of Lewis’ own defiant outrageousness.  In one anecdote about Lewis’ relationship to the authorities at boarding school we can see the blueprint for Trump’s approach towards the mainstream media. According to McLuhan: 

“[Lewis} was exceedingly proud of having been the rare recipient of “the sixth licking”, i.e., in one day he received six separate lickings. He said that having received the fifth, he suddenly realized he was near immortality and hastened around to the prefect’s door and proceeded to smash his tennis ball against it until he qualified for the sixth licking.” (519)

In 1940, when Lewis moved to Canada, information did not travel around quite so quickly as it does here in the Electric Age. So when Lewis took a position teaching in Windsor, Ontario, McLuhan did not learn about it until 1943 when his mother went to a talk Lewis gave in Detrioit and discovered at that the famous painter and writer now lived  in North America. 

McLuhan, 32-years-old, had just taken a junior teaching position in St Louis. He immediately wrote Lewis. The letter was a one paragraph, three-sentence affair – extremely unusual for the chronically long-winded McLuhan. After the first line of greeting, the next two sentences read. 

When our summer school winds up here in two days, I have to go to Detroit. If you are not too busy or exhausted by our heat, there’s nothing I should enjoy more than a chat with you.” 

This letter is a great way to introduce the second sort of  “put-on” that relates to Trump – the case where an actor puts on a role.  So far, the discussion has been relegated to one form of the ‘put-on’ – the act of pulling the audience’s leg. As with most topics dear to McLuhan, however, the put-on has multiple meanings –  least three of which are vital aspects of the Trump playbook.

In this tiny letter to the controversial Lewis, McLuhan is himself putting on a role – that of protegee. As the rest of his letters attest, McLuhan’s brevity here is extremely uncharacteristic.  In this case, the truncated word count is a gesture of humility, respect and suboordination – feelings McLuhan truly held toward Lewis, which would have made it even more difficult for McLuhan to restrain his verbosity as he donned the role of timid student hoping to win an audience with a master.  The diminutive body and tone of the letter combine to form a trope that abounds throughout the history of letters and was in particular fashion during the artistic epoch anchored by Paris in the 1920s – that of the appeal from a hopeful protegee to a potential mentor. 

Such a reverential appeal would likely have touched Lewis, who, in the cultural wasteland of Windsor, Ontario in the 1940s would have encountered few who appreciated, knew, or cared about his eminence as an artist. 

In any case, and so to speak,  McLuhan’s put-on played it’s role: Lewis contacted him promptly and McLuhan set out to meet him. McLuhan offered this version of events in a letter to the head of the Wyndham Lewis Society, after Lewis had died:  

“after having checked that he was the Wyndham Lewis, the ogre of Bloomsbury, I got on a train with my friend, Felix Giovanelli … We found Lewis in a basement apartment in the heart of Windsor, and he told us how lucky he had been to find it. .. Lewis accepted us at once, with no kind of formality and we gradually formed the project to bring him to St Louis to find him some painting commissions and some lectures.” (p 519 Letters)  

This letter offers an incidental, if telling and rather beautiful, connection between Lewis, McLuhan and Ernest Hemingway – the man who has left such an unkind description of Lewis’ eyes. 

When McLuhan first met Lewis, Hemingway was married to Martha Gelhorn and living in Cuba, and coincidentally, Gelhorn’s mother was McLuhan’s next-door-neighbour in St Louis.  In McLuhan’s his quest to win Lewis a painting commission, he approached his next-door neighbour. “When speaking to Mrs Gelhorn, I proposed Lewis as a worthy painter to do the Erlanger portrait and she at once phoned Hemingway in Cuba and asked him directly about whether she should commission Lewis for the job. Hemingway promptly said “yes” and gave Lewis an enthusiastic build -up, with the result that Lewis did the painting for $1,500). : (519 – 20).

In this case, though Lewis might have irked Hemingway, Hemingway was unable to dennounce the calibre of Lewis, the artist. The calibre of McLuhan, the salesman is also on fine display.

If McLuhan was to give anyone credit for his appreciation for the magic of role-playing (defined here as  Put-on #2) it would no doubt go to his mother Elsie McLuhan. 

Elsie McLuhan was a professional impersonator and impresario, who toured North America putting on plays. As McLuhan told Nina Sutton in 1975: 

“My mother, by the way, was a one woman theater. She travelled from coast to coast from year to year putting on plays and acts. Single. Yes, she put on whole plays single.  Played all the parts, yes.”  (McLuhan interview with Nina Sutton, 1975, cited by Gordon, 357n10.)

The role one must play to achieve one’s objectives in the real world will differ, obviously, according to the objectives. In communications, the actor must choose which role will work best in which situation Had McLuhan approached Lewis the way he approached most of his correspondents, including Pierre Trudeau, playing the role of chief pontificator, Lewis the renowned artist might not even have responded to the as-yet unfamous teaching associate. 

 In politics the required roles are different. The big role everyone wanted to see the candidates play, in the lead-up to the US 2016 election was that, of course, of President. Who seemed more presidential?  Before the debates the big media put great stock in which candidate, Hillary or Donald, would appear more ‘Presidential’. The candidate who could not play the role of The President of the United States of America could not win. 

This is extremely obvious, and both Hillary and Donald sought, in their way, to appear presidential. 

But as McLuhan pointed out to Trudeau in 1968, in an electric age “no fixed position” is the only position one can afford to have. The attention span is fragmented, the personality is fragmented, and a candidate cannot afford to merely assume one role. A big mistake of Hillary all the way through is that she sought to be only “Presidential”. Somehow, Trump knew what McLuhan knew,  that for maximum reach in an electric age, the political performer has to assume multiple, often even contradictory roles. 

  A leader must know how to play the part of ‘Emperor’, to be sure, but it is just as important for one to know how to put on the role of ‘Clown’.   In 1972, McLuhan was asked how he rated Trudeau as a communicator:

He is an actor, both emperor and clown. The clown is really the emperor’s PR man, who keeps him in touch with the world that the emperor cannot reach. The clown interprets the emperor to his court or the public and indicates their mood. He tests the emperor’s mood by teasing him, and in turn interpreting the whims of the crowd to the emperor. I’ve never heard of a politician who could fill both roles. Trudeau is unique.”

Newman: Isn’t that a tall order? How can he live with himself? Does he remember who he is?

McLuhan: Trudeau is aware of more than himself; he’s not just trying to project an image. He is interpreting a whole process that he’s involved in. So that when he slides down a banister or hops off a camel, it’s not really a way of expressing what it feels like to be Trudeau; it’s trying to express what sort of a hell of a hang-up he’s in. He’ll do anything to snap the tension.

(http://www.macleans.ca/society/life/the-lost-mcluhan-tapes-2/)

This is an interpretation rarely afforded to Trump. If Trump slid down a bannister today, the internet might break with demands that he be institutionalized. Only by inspecting the intentionality of Trump’s put-on – put on of the role of clown, can we begin to see method in the madness. 

Put-On #3. 

McLuhan’s third notion of the put-on is definitely the least typical, least straigtfoward and therefore most McLuhanesque of the three. In this sense, rather than putting on a role, per se, the performer puts on the audience by wearing it. 

The stripper puts on her audience by taking off her clothes, and the poet puts on his public by stripping or dislocating the familiar rhythms and habits of expression. The poet lets us look at the world through the mask of his poem while wearing us as his mask: ‘hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frere,’ said Baudelaire to his reader.”

(https://mcluhangalaxy.wordpress.com/2016/08/30/media-ad-vice-marshall-mcluhans-introduction-to-subliminal-seduction-ad-medias-manipulation-of-a-not-so-innocent-america-1972/

When Trump entered the race to become the Republican nominee, he began stripping and disclocating the familiar rhythms and habits of political expression. He broke every rule. When talking about decorated US War veteran Senator John McCain, who was shot down as a pilot and held as prisoner of war during the American invasion of Vietnam, Trump said a very unpolitical thing: “He’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured? I like people who weren’t captured.”

This was a total disruption to rhythm and ritual of American political expression at the time. At the time it was unthinkable for either Democrat or Republican to question the heroics of a decorated war hero. Headlines across the planet accused Trump of having hit a “new low”. One Facebook user described Trump “ as though the comments section has grown skin, turned human, or, if not human, become Donald Trump.” Trump was as crass as anything you’d find in the comments section of a thread. And though he lied at a rate that no fact checker could keep up with, when he disrupted the “familiar rythms and habits” of political dialogue by questioning the merit of  McCain’s heroics, there was an unguarded honesty to his comments that resonated with people. 

It is an exaggeration to suggest that comments sections of the internet actually grew flesh and became Donald Trump. It might not be such an exaggeration, however, to suggest that Donald Trump, in his quest to win the Presidency did try to become the comments section of all the dominant social media threads on the internet today.

Trump became the audience he wanted to reach. This was a put-on in all three senses McLuhan described. It was a put on in the sense that he was pulling everyone’s leg. It was a put on in the sense that he was playing a role – but the role Trump was trying to play, was the role of the people whose votes he wanted. He was a not politician, he was an American who was sick of politicians and sick of Mexicans; he was sick of Obama, sick of the Chinese making/selling everything so cheap, taking our jobs, our exports. Trump was fed up and John McCain be damned, who wasn’t!?

By shattering the holy grail of public political standards time and time again, Trump allowed the voter sick of politics to wear him, to stand in his place, He convinced enough people that he was not a politician. In fact, the difference in that election could well be that Trump convinced more people he was not a politician than Hillary could convince that she was. 

Poetry, or pop-music – especially, pop music – often strike chords with their audience by expressing what their audience is feeling. The reader of a poem, the listener to a pop song, emotionally connect with the artist, because the artist is wearing them, putting them on by articulating and expressing the feelings that is latent inside them –  be it the appreciation of a sunrise, the gasp of physical passion, the torment of a break-up, the fed-upness with the bullshit of politics. The ‘art’ of this deal is to express via word or sound something that the reader or listener poignantly already feels, therefore therefore wearing the audience like clothing. You put them on by allowing them to put on you. 

As almost all the top 100 pop songs of the past 70 years can attest, a great way to do this is, is via nostalgia. As McLuhan repeatedly stressed  the appeal to nostalgia is a “technique of involvement” that allows the artist to get inside the skin of the reader and connect with the soul.  

Nostalgia: 

“ was an area of particular interest for [McLuhan], who said that one result of the electronic age would be a loss of private identity owing to the discarnate being that one becomes when broadcast electronically. Lacking a physical body in the electronic sphere, one’s relationship to the world around them changes.

“One of the big marks of the loss of identity is nostalgia, revivals of clothing, dances, music and shows,” he said. “We live by the revival, it tells us who we are, or were.”

(https://mcluhangalaxy.wordpress.com/2011/02/25/loss-of-identity-violence-nostalgia/)_

Trump did it by disrupting the rythyms,  true. But he also pulled it of via one broad and very catchy phrase: 

MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN

Trump has

It is tempting to lament the fact that Marshall McLuhan is not alive today to witness and decipher for us the rise of Donald J. Trump.. 

Actually, McLuhan has already said a great deal about the Trump phenomenon. For one, he foresaw and described the electric environment of instant, simultaneous, global communication that has come to envelop us in our day. Without this media environment  Donald Trump would never have been able to shock the world en route to becoming President of the United States. 

Trump’s victory would have been no shock to McLuhan. Nor would anyone who has studied McLuhan to the point of understanding be shocked either. It basically followed the script. Not only has Trump fulfilled much of McLuhan’s formulae for media success, but he has done so in a media environment that McLuhan described in great detail – even though the internet, and the smartphone that came after it, arrived long after McLuhan died. 

Trump entered the race as a laughable underdog. Anyone who has forgotten,  need only watch Michael Moore’s anti-Trump documentary 11/9  tol remember how the night before the election, and even on the morning of it, all of America’s mainstream media was unanimously predicting a Hillary rout.  … the New York Times, on its front page, told America that Hillary was favored at 85%, to Trump’s meagre 15. The New York Times remains the most trusted news source in America.   name any credible news source on earth, even Fox News if you will – yes, all were informing America in advance that Hillary Clinton would be their next President. Women were crying advance tears of joy. Trump calls all this stuff fake news. He claims they report more interpretation than truth. In the case of the US 2016 election, it’s hard to argue with him. 

Trump’s win over Hillary Clinton has almost unanimously been described as a shift to the right among voters in the United States. For McLuhan, and McLuhanites, this would not necessarily be the case, nor would it be relevant to any true understanding of  either Trump’s rise, or the general way electronic media is influencing its users.  

Those who feel that Trump’s narrow victory in 2016 constitutes a shift to the right among American voters, are also probably more likely to blame Russian interference for Trump’s rise, or believe that George Orwell is the sort of writer who can clarify the state of the world these days. All of the above represent quick, surface explanations that offer no useful insight into the true forces at work in today’s media environment. Perhaps not coincidentally, these explanations also exhibit total obliviousness to McLuhan’s approach. 

Before we get into the heart and bones of this book, we must ask the reader to undertake a kind of questionaire:

Which party are you for? 

If you actually want 

“One of the peculiar things about the effects of media on politics is that parties and policies become very unimportant,” McLuhan said in 1977. Later, in that same year, McLuhan, speaking about politics in the age of electronic media, wrote: 

The main verb in all of this is the speed of light, which also alters the role of politician from a party representative to a charismatic image. This image obsolesces parties and policies alike.”

It still comes as a shock to political purists and to those who want a little more substance in their politics, but policy no longer wins elections. It is barely even relevant in elections. One of the reasons Trump beat Hillary where it counted, is that Trump understood this key McLuhan realization much more than Hillary. He seized control of the media Spectacle. When it came to policy he did one of two things. He filled the media agenda with outlandish pipe-dream policies he had no intention of fulfilling, or just didn’t bother with policy at all. 

The death of the political party shines from the screens of America today. As Trump proved, the political party has become more of a Trojan Horse for the ambitions of individuals and interest groups than any living reflection of how denizens of the Global Village wish to be governed. 

It would be hard to find anyone, Republican or Democrat, who believes that Trump, a former Democrat, is actually a Republican, and as we observed in the deathbed fumings of John McCain, many fundamentalist Republicans loathe Trump with a fervor that no Democrat could ever conjure.

As for policy, love him or hate his ideas, Kanye West is young and a force of sorts on the public stage. 

Of his seemingly anomalous, anti-statistical, support for Donald Trump,  Kanye West recently told a Saturday Night Live audience: “If someone inspires me and I connect with them, I don’t have to believe in all of their policies.”

It seems like yet another McLuhan prophecy that a) has come true, and; b) is somehow proven, or at least personified, by the existence of Donald Trump. No one who lived thru the TV era would now dispute that, these days, entirely other forces are at work. In election cycles, politicians who base their campaigns upon policy over media prowess no longer have a chance. Trump realized this and didn’t bother with policies. Hillary, not so much. 

In one of the few articles that actually mentions McLuhan’s foresight the ​Toronto Star​ says:

“While politicians like Jeb Bush and Hilary Clinton play the boxing game – i.e. offering arguments concerning policy positions – Trump, “lays the smack down,” with a tweet about Meghan Kelly, or Hamilton, or God knows what. They are playing the older game, which, as McLuhan noted, belongs to the print-based world. Trump, on the other hand, is the perfect representative of the electronic age. Here, it is all about radical involvement, frenetic energy, and passionate feeling. It doesn’t matter what one feels or cares about, so long as it’s intense.”

‘The medium is the message’ is a chamber of mirrors

 McLuhan’s most famous observation, “the medium is the message” can be a chamber of mirrors with enough refractions and reflections to drive anyone mad who seriously looks into it.   But If we treat Donald J. Trump not as a person, but as a sort of hologram inflicted upon the screen of our minds via electric media, then gaze into this hologram, we can begin to discern the many angles of what McLuhan was saying.  

Even during McLuhan’s lifetime the phrase ‘changed’ meaning, at least, according to McLuhan. At first, “the medium is the message” meant “the medium is the message” which in itself means many things. A few years later, McLuhan introduced a hyphen. –  the phrase became: “the medium is the mess-age”. A few years later, McLuhan wrote another book, entitled “The Medium is the Massage”; which he later, “clarified”by adding another hyphen – the phrase now meant: “The medium is the mass-age”. Welcome to the crackling brain of Marshall McLuhan, never still, always considering and reconsidering.

Protean, was McLuhan; protean was his most famous slogan, and Protean is Donald Trump. If anything, the above is more an indication of McLuhan’s love of punning and wordplay, than any alteration of the substance of “the medium is the message” from when McLuhan first outered it.  (McLuhan used to say that an ‘uttering’ was actually an ‘outering’)

Regardless of where you sit on the left/right spectrum of ‘caring about the world’, if you want to learn how to control this world politically, you would be wise to seriously Investigate McLuhan. Even if you are a journalist writing stories suggesting that ‘Russian Hackers’ actually influenced the last US election, you would be wise to investigate McLuhan. Rather than focussing upon bizarre Facebook pages set up by Russian hackers, or obsessing about James Comey’s impact on the way Americans voted, it is infinitely more valuable to explore even just one  phrase of McLuhan. Never mind its infinite refractions, let us look into McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” on a deeper level, and apply what we discover to today’s politics.  

As the saying relates to politics, McLuhan is very clear: a change in medium almost always brings about a change in governance. Control the medium and you control the country. 

If you’re going to control the dominant medium of communication, though, you have to first know what it is. This sounds almost asininely obvious, but, one big reason Hillary lost, is that her team failed to see that television is no longer the most powerful medium. They invested squillions in television and print, the two living dinosaurs of a bygone era.To one who understands ‘the medium is he message’, the conclusions from his act were forgone. 

This oversight (or myopia) probably had more to do with Trump winning the election than than all the work of all the Russian hackers in the world, combined.  

 “Clinton’s convention was made for TV; 

Trump’s was made for Twitter,” 

This was a pre-ballot headline in the New York Times that really nails down the point that the battle between  Clinton and Trump also came down to a battle of mediums. Or, as the Toronto Star put it:​ “we may look at this distinction as one candidate sticking with old media and the other tacking to the prevailing media winds.”

In Canada’s last election, Justin Trudeau sent conservative leader Stephen Harper packing with a resounding defeat.  It might be tempting to cite this as evidence of the opposite putative trend in America – that Canadians, politically,  have shifted to the left’. But again, if we compare Justin Trudeau’s aplomb in ‘medium control” to that of Harper or Tom Mulcair – who sits even further to the left of Trudeau’s Liberals, and who was the favourite in the polls until about a week before the ballot –  we find further validation of McLuhan’s conviction that understanding and outmatching your opponent in the dominant medium of communication is the paramount factor in winning elections – not party affiliation, not policy. 

McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” axiom, though essential in understanding the revolution that has occurred in media and politics today, is merely the tip of an iceberg – an iceberg that can sink, and has sunk, the political hopes of any candidate who does not perceive the depths of its meaning.  

 If it’s true that the losers of the last two North American federal elections overlooked the medium (the smartphone) that they should have focused on, or merely didn’t understand how to use it, it’s also true that a cursory understanding of “the medium is the message” is not sufficient to gage the importance or the accuracy of the phrase today.  

For this, we must attempt a feat that is rarely undertaken: we must delve deeper into McLuhan, explore the percepts of this great explorer; probe his probes, figure out, so to speak, his ground.  

 For most people, this will involve a massive dis-location. Unless you (and your thinking) have remained impervious to the influence that print and print technology have clamped upon humanity since the 16th century, it’s probably going to take a significant re-adjustment before McLuhan begins to seem sane, let alone insightful. 

Since this is a book and you are reading it, it’s pretty much a guarantee that you have not remained at least 100% impervious to the influence of print and print technology. The writer of this book, certainly has not either, and neither had McLuhan. 

In McLuhan’s case, his understanding of print heightened his awareness of media impact. In order to understand Joyce, for example (James, not  Carrol Oates) the reader has to ‘dislocate’ his or her linear vision and perceive and interpret the arrival information in a non-sequential, alinear fashion. This is exactly what a user of new media must do. James Joyce was far-and-away McLuhan’s favourite writer, and most constant obsession. 

Fortunately, in 2018 and beyond we have the advantage of living in an age that  McLuhan said would come. Back in the 60s, 70s and 80s it was a lot easier to dismiss McLuhan – he was so far ahead of his time that much of what he said sounded like mad ramblings.   As University of Toronto physicist Dr Robert Logan puts it: 

“When McLuhan first came out with the idea of a global village in 1964, many of us did not live in a global village … The genius of McLuhan is that he saw the global village before anyone else…These ideas are no longer theory. They are things that we live day by day. We saw the speed with which developments were taking place. We lived the information revolution and began to realize that McLuhan’s ideas meant something.” (p. 62 On McLuhan). 

In 2018 and beyond, we no longer have to debate or assess whether McLuhan might have been right; instead we can shift our focus towards understanding how he was right – a far more valuable enterprise to be sure. But also a much more arduous one.  

To accomplish this, it’s essential to first look back at the powerful, polarizing, paradoxical figure that McLuhan was. 

THINGS THAT MAKE YOU SAY ‘HMM …’

 There could not be a more fitting set of initials for HERBERT MARSHALL McLUHAN, a thinker who still makes us think 40 years after his death. Over the course of Philip Marchand’s biography, for example, people describe McLuhan as “startling” “insane” “interesting” “a charlatan” “a genius” “ruthless” “careless” “inaccurate” “profound” “mad” “incomprehensible” “correct.” Page 146 of this excellent book refers to the “sheer bafflement on the part of the audience” after a talk McLuhan gave to a US education board in 1960. Indeed, to claim that McLuhan made people say “hmm …” can be a hilarious understatement. If the acronym ‘wtf’ had been in currency during McLuhan’s time, many people would have found these three letters a more appropriate selection of alphabet to describe the McLuhan effect. 

One big reason why McLuhan confused people is that he meant to confuse people. Befuddling his audience was an art form he cultivated and frequently deployed as a “technique of involvement” – a way to get and keep people’s attention. Consider the following prediction McLuhan made in the 1960s: 

We see colour with the cone of our eye, black and white with the edges, and colour is more in demand in a primitive society. So are spiced dishes. I predict a return of hot sauces to American cuisine. With colour TV, the entire sensory life will take on a whole new set of dimensions.

HMM.

This example is classic McLuhan. An outlandish and essentially untenable deduction based upon premises that are a mix of cultural speculation and pseudo-scientific fact.  ‘wtf!’ is a valid response to this peculiar amoeba of a syllogism. But the other side of the coin, of course, is that it came to pass. 

At least, since McLuhan first made the prediction 50 years ago, hot sauces have surged to popularity in American cuisine. But even in 2018 when we know McLuhan’s prediction has borne fruit, it remains hard not to laugh at his four ludicrous sentences that connect the eye with the tongue, the electric age with the primitive one, while suggesting that the day’s newest item of technology will change the way Americans want to eat.  It might be laughable to hear him verbalize his thoughts on the way the disparate phenomena of the universe interconnect, but if we take the time to get on his wavelength we see that he wasn’t kidding. In fact, the interplay between senses, and the tendency of the latest technology to return us to primitive times are cornerstones of McLuhan’s belief. 

Donald Theall has called McLuhan “the seriocomic trickster as poet – a contemporary shaman – participating in one aspect of an age-old tradition of learned, carnivalesque satire, by which he plays on and plays with his readers” (p. 61). 

Ted Carpenter (?) a former colleague and equally mischievous pal of McLuhan’s  puts it a different way: 

“I generally tell students that I think about half McLuhan is pure genius and the other half is pure bullshit, and that I’m never quite sure which is which.”  During McLuhan’s life, many in the world of academia strove to lay the focus upon the BS aspect of this equation. An MIT doctoral thesis investigating McLuhan concluded:

 “At the University of Toronto in particular, the reaction to McLuhan’s celebrity was most intense. It got to the point that McLuhan warned his graduate students to erase any trace of his work in their theses and dissertations for fear of reprisals by their review committees.[12] According to Eric McLuhan, “there were at least two concerted efforts (quiet ones, of course) to collect enough signatures to have his tenure revoked.”[13]


When Genosko mentions the breed of scholar among whom, “McLuhan and Baudrillard are the key thinkers to whom postmodernists turn to situate their deviations from them” he is no doubt referring to Debord. Debord goes as far as calling McLuhan a “convinced imbecile” in his “Notes on the Society of the Spectacle”, published 1990. But as imbecilic as Debord thought McLuhan might be, it is important to note that he actually devoted an entire chapter in the aforementioned tome to McLuhan. The Chapter entitled “The Spectacle’s first apologist,” attacks the ‘imbecile,’ but later Debord refers to him as the “sage of Toronto,” and later still, perhaps somewhat describes himself when he says that the current (1990s) academic community of  Toronto is rife with McLuhan contemporaries and hairs-breadth predecessors who are trying to make a name for themselves by making pople forget McLuhan. 

McLuhan never bothered to defend himself or engage in counter-warfare with his colleagues.  He’d merely push on with his probes and observations and boundless exploratory enthusiasm until whoever hoped to challenge him was lost in a barrage of words: quotes, puns, full-length repeated jokes, references to 18th century French economists, contemporary town planners, obscure philosophers, comic strip anti-heros, streetcar advertisements, the physical structures of the nervous system, Greek, Roman, Norse, Balinese mores and myths, etc …  As Theall correctly attests, McLuhan was playing – he was playing ‘on and with’ his colleagues, which baffled and enraged them even more.

“You don’t like my ideas? I got others.” or I don’t necessarily agree with everything I say,” or  “if I made a cautious, measured statement, one might mistake me for a stable character” he would remark to his challengers, and continue  expounding upon whatever epiphany he felt he was scratching at at the time: “He would fumble and vaporize and go on to something else. It was more the fault of the questioners than anything else – they didn’t know how to take what he was saying. They wanted a kind of laboratory plot or plan for McLuhan’s insights.”

Even Ezra Pound, the paterfamilias of crazy geniuses,  inscribed “NUTS!” upon a letter McLuhan wrote  him. Pound corresponded with McLuhan from his cell in an insane asylum long before McLuhan got famous, and the letters between the two are every bit as riveting as those that passed between McLuhan and Pierre Trudeau. 

In the case of Pierre Trudeau, however, we have an example of how fruitful it can be to try to make sense of McLuhan. It would be both anachronistic and anglocentric, to suggest  that Trudeau uttered the now-ubiquitous ‘wtf!’ when he first encountered McLuhan, but the French equivalent of this sentiment surely passed through his brain when he and McLuhan first struck up their correspondence.  Trudeau enlisted Jim Davey, a close advisor, physicist, futurist and multi-faceted thinker to help interpret McLuhan, but “sometimes even Davey admitted he had no idea what McLuhan meant.” (p. 17) 

Unlike Pound, Trudeau really did try to get to the essence of McLuhan. Trudeau kept McLuhan’s letters; McLuhan kept Trudeau’s. The hard copies of their correspondence show that Trudeau read McLuhan scrupulously, underlining or circling passages, writing notes in the margins, writing letters back to McLuhan, requesting elaboration. A credit to Trudeau is that he really tried to learn. Early in his prime ministership, Trudeau would drop in unannounced, approximately once a month, at McLuhan’s Toronto home for strategy sessions, the content of which alas has escaped the public record. 

Pierre Trudeau and Marshall McLuhan were almost soul-mates. These two great Canadians of shimmering intellect developed a friendship that seemed touched by Destiny. In hindsight it most certainly was. Both were devout Roman Catholics, formidable debaters, lovers of literature, iconoclasts to the core – it is easy to see why they connected. We will get to a part in this book, that looks closely at how they connected. 

This lovely lens we now have at our dispoal – the filter we can label as  ‘Hindsight’ – shows us the powerful foresight the McLuhan/Trudeau connection contained. 

But before we reach that far backwards into our rear-view mirrors, we will first look at the present.  Pierre Trudeau has been dead for more than 15 years. Even the ‘television era’ in which Trudeaumania was able to flourish is now a thing of the past. But the connections between McLuhan and Trump, The McTrump Monster if you will, is alive and thriving in this very age.

Strangely, if we were  to choose one current world leader who would best elucidate McLuhan’s viewpoints, who, as though by magic, made McLuhan’s abstruse notions seem straightforward, it would be Donald Trump. 

If we want to dig deeper into McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” phrase there is no better to place to start than with Donald Trump. In Trump, the words of McLuhan have become flesh – a great mass of flabby, somewhat orange flesh, perhaps …  but flesh nevertheless. 

As with the famous dictum itself, here are at least two angles from which to view McLuhan via the figure of Trump. 

1)The techniques they both used to manipulate the media are almost identical. Both McLuhan and Trump became masters of what McLuhan called “techniques of involvement” – ways to keep people interested in them and focused on them over all their competitors for he spotlight to the myriad of others who compete for the spotlight. 

2) On a theoretical level the emergence of Donald Trump fulfills so much of what McLuhan said would occur.  McLuhan has been called a prophet by many. Some amongst the Catholics are murrmuring that he ought to be considered for Sainthood. Well, if saints need to perform a miracle and prophets need to be able to predict something that would occur, Donald Trump’s existence might confirm McLuhan’s spot among both the prophets and the saints. 

McTRUMP

It is hard to imagine two more different beings than Donald Trump and Marshall McLuhan.  McLuhan was an almost ridiculously erudite Cambridge alumnus who was faithful to his wife, anchored his being upon literature, prayer and the Roman Catholic Church. Trump is  “ a divorced adulterer who ran a gambling empire.”  As for literature, when asked about his reading habits, the US President told Fox news: “I read passages, I read areas, chapters, I don’t have the time.”

Their success in achieving fame via media is perhaps the most obvious piece of common ground that unites them. Not just the fact that they got famous, but that both intentionally sought fame as a means of achieving their personal goals. Both succeeded to an extent massively disproportionate to any reasonable expectation. 

. Yes, Trump was a rich white kid – but America is full of rich white kids who want to be President. Many, like Trump, try.  Trump won the game. He became president, officially. That alone is proof of victory 

About one full generation before Trump, Marshall McLuhan used the techniques Trump would later use, to, like Trump, become famous to a proportion no one could have predicted. When McLuhan came back to Canada, after Cambridge, he knew that one great experiment he would have to conduct, to test if his burgeoning ideas had any merit, would be to try to become famous himself. 

If an English professor, born in Edmonton, raised in Winnipeg, could become famous on the global stage, then anything was now possible via the electric media.

As the legendary Canadian establishment journalist Robert Fulford has explained it:

“Marshall was a publicity hound; he was the professor as self-promoter. At the beginning of his career he imagined that he would make a lot of money selling his ideas to businesses and industry, perhaps governments. He imagined that he was such an idea man that his ideas would flow out and people would buy them. And in order to do that, he had to be famous; he wanted to be famous. Fame was not thrust upon him, he sought it and sought it with great care”. 

That McLuhan got famous in the first place, is about as unlikely as Trump becoming president.   McLuhan was an English professor, and one in Canada at that!  In McLuhan’s time, as in this one, anyone who accepts a job as English professor in a Canadian university is signing up for media obscurity. McLuhan’s big challenge was to get the media aware of him, and interested, to begin with. He found it pretty easy.  His methods for doing so – as he himself revealed – were not so far different from Trump’s media tactics during the 2016 Presidential campaign. 

Stephen Hawking, a fellow Cambridge fellow,  is the only academic in recent history to have achieved a level of fame comparable to McLuhan’s.  Hawking became world-famous by putting forward ideas no one understood, which is exactly what McLuhan did in the 60s and early 70s. McLuhan, however,  was able to do so without the aid of the mouth-controlled wheelchair or robotic voice simulator that Hawking used to speak through his trachea. Ordinarily, these latter ‘extensions of man’ might not seem so advantageous; however, in the perverse world of media spectacle, they equipped Hawking with added gimmick-power, and transformed the Lou Gerhig’s disease sufferer into a mythical creature – a highly meme-able living metaphor for the power of mind over body.

Observe McLuhan’s answer to a clever question from an Australian journalist:

Q: “Professor McLuhan … If the world had not discovered your great thinking and your writing how would you go about creating a demand for it; what would be your advertising campaign, what would be the gist of it?”

MM: I’d put people on. I put them on. Putting people on means teasing them, challenging them, upsetting them, befuddling them. Any comic puts on his audience by hurting them … a put on is a sort of situation that I study a great deal. (McLuhan, 1977) 

One would have to ‘Youtube it’ to appreciate the deadpan mask McLuhan wears as he blinks stoically and explains to the very serious panel of intellectuals and advertisers in attendance that he is actually putting them on, that he puts people on habitually, as matter of course.  

McLuhan’s answer also serves as a succinct description of Donald Trump’s media technique – a total put-on, a technique that has consisted almost entirely of hurting its audience since the day Trump entered the race for the Republican nomination- a race in which he began as a total underdog and proceeded to destroy everyone in his path. In his Fahrenheit 11/9 documentary Michael Moore contends that even Trump’s initial press conference declaring his intent to run for President was a put-on – a publicity stunt aimed at coercing NBC to pay him at least as much as Gwen Stefani, of all people! 

Trump’s put-ons are a trap, an advertising strategy, intended to catch an audience.  From the perspective of McLuhan, the mainstream media’s focus on the content of Trump’s behaviour is completely missing the point. Whether we are enraged or delighted by the continuous supply of tabloid level pseudo-scandal that Trump continues to feed the media machine, by continuing to react to it we prevent ourselves from the broader perspective necessary to truly perceive the forces of influence at play in the age of electronic media. 

Trump’s propensity to tease, challenge, upset, befuddle and hurt his audience remains on display well into his presidency. That Trump continues to intentionally to raise the ire of America’s mainstream media seems rather counterintuitive.  Although, since the mainstream media – the big newspapers and television networks – no longer comprise the dominant media of communication, it is now possible to win elections even when these once-indomitable forces have turned against you and are conspiring to bring you down.

Eighteen years later,  Trump reported in the autobiography that he paid someone else to write, that negative media coverage could be immensely valuable. What McLuhan had said in that 1969 Playboy issue, Trump was now able to confirm first-hand. 

‘One thing I’ve learned about the press is that they’re always hungry for a good story, the more sensational the better… The point is that if you are a little different, or outrageous, or if you do things that are bold or controversial, the press is going to write about you… The funny thing is that even a critical story, which may be hurtful personally, can be very valuable to your business.’ (p. 56)

Even, evidently, the business of getting elected president. 

Trump doesn’t attempt to explain this “funny thing” that a critical story can be valuable to the person it purports to hurt. Like Poe’s sailor in ‘Descent into the Malestrom’ Trump has merely seized upon an element of natural law that he himself experienced. And though he first made the discovery prior to 1987,  30 years later, Trump is still in the business of cashing in on what good old straightforward, linear logic would suggest should be a disadvantage – negative media coverage. In a society that has ceased to think linearly, however, linear logic no longer always applies. 

Of course, the algorithm for success is obviously more complex than merely generating negative media coverage. If ignominy were all it took, Anthony Weiner might still be a member of congress, and Harvey Weinstein might still be running Hollywood.  Weiner, through his irrepressible sexting to women and girls who were not his beleaguered wife, misused the same technology Trump uses – only Weiner powered up enough negative reverberations to ruin his political hopes forever, and maybe earn some jail time in the process.  Weinstein merely failed to grasp the way the new media would diminish the elite’s control of information, and though he kept his behaviour away from all forms of media, the media crept into his private life, and he could do little but hide and deny as his empire crumbled.

A big distinction between Trump and both Weiner and Weinstein is that Trump is intentionally seeking some sort of backlash. Trump is putting us on, whereas Weiner and Weinstein were  putting no one on, except perhaps themselves if they truly believed their behaviour would remain under the radar forever. Using McLuhan’s notion of the put-on, and Trump’s incessant application of it, we can begin to see the difference between the negativity Trump intentionally generates, and the negativity Weiner so haplessly attracted to himself.  Unlike Trump, Weiner and Weinstein were putting no one on. They were sunk by their own sincerity. 

Let my detractors be my promoters!” McLuhan once said, quoting Joyce, at a time when McLuhan’s own outlandish ideas and global fame had raised the ire and envy of his academia peers, especially in Toronto. Like Trump, once McLuhan realized that a movement had begun against him, he only escalated his provocations and put-ons. 

In the mainstream media, Trump has found a pack of eager detractors, who, unbeknownst to them, have become his best promoters. Trump generates his brand of negativity because it aides him in the difficult but essential art of ‘holding an audience’.  By creating the controversy Trump gets to control it. Trump puts on this outrageousness, the media decries it, then Trump fades back and shifts the focus to something else. Here, the media momentum snowballs, and the quasi-crisis Trump that has planted in the public sphere becomes so dizzying that no one can really conclude anything about it. Since no borderline misdemeanor can stick around on the media agenda for more than a week in the Electric Age, Trump moves on to his next put-on, stirs up the cycle again and the cycle repeats.  Using this technique Trump is able to hold an audience like no politician of his time. 

Trump’s unpresidential outrageousness is, for the most part, portrayed by the big media, as evidence of a serious and fundamental character flaw, if not of outright insanity.  When Trump tells the wife of the French prime minister that she is in exceptional physical shape, or (arguably) mimics a disabled reporter, or describes a female reporter as so angry she had “blood coming out of her whatever… ” when these these quasi-scandals occur, the mainstream media immediately reacts to the figure/content of Trump’s actions. He is called sexist or childish, crude or downright cruel. He’s regularly said to be mentally unfit for office.  

In all of the above examples, Trump is rude and crude, for sure. And  though he might be crazy he still has the common sense to add a dash of ambiguity to his controversial conduct. In one sense, complementing the French first lady’s physical condition could be seen as sincere praise removed from objectification. The motion of Trump’s right hand in his alleged mimicry of the disabled journalist was restrained enough that it wasn’t totally clear he was mocking a physical handicap, and his remark that Fox anchor Megyn Kelly’s blood was spewing from “her whatever” was imprecise enough for Trump to rebuff claims that he was referring to Kelly’s vagina. 

In every case just enough ambiguity has been there for Trump to have a little wiggle room to get out of the situation. Then,  as the formula goes, he uses this ambiguity as evidence of his repeated claim that the media are biased against him. It’s a cycle that whorls thru social media to this day, again and again and again. And though the mainstream media pretend to hate it, they perpetuate it when they fail to simply call Trump on the fact that he is putting them on, and attempting to stir up inflammable but ultimately benign controversies, just to keep the spotlight turned his way. 

 It’s like a dance,  

Step One:  Borderline scandalous remark or gesture; 

Step Two:  Widespread media denouncement of Trump’s behaviour. 

Step Three:  Trump’s counter accusation that the media is biased against him. 

The controversy differs on each occasion, but on each occasion Trump’s message that the media is biased against him is repeated. So far, it is a cycle that has served Trump well. 

***

It does seem to go without saying that Trump never studied McLuhan, and therefore would never have formulated any of his moves through life after things McLuhan said. 

Based on what we know about the President, however, one credible instance exists where  Trump probably did encounter the words of McLuhan – and at a highly formative stage of his life, at that.   You can call it an astonishing coincidence, and nothing more, but the words of Marshall McLuhan, captured by a publication that Donald Trump almost certainly had in his hands at the time,  consist of the exact media method Trump used to become president OTUS. 

If there is one publication Donald Trump reveres, one that he has subscribed to and one that he seems incapable of saying a bad word about, it is the same publication that, in 1969, released what may well stand as McLuhan’s clearest exposition about the state of the media then and now, one that gives ample evidence of his insight, his prophecy, his genius … 

What publication could we possibly be talking about? Well, it’s the one publication that even the multitudes who refuse to admit Trump has read anything, might concede Trump probably did read: Playboy.  

Yes, Playboy. McLuhan, of course, did not pose nude in Playboy at any stage of his life.  He did, however, lay bare his ideas there in a 1969 edition that hit the shelves when Trump was 23 years old. If it’s 100% unlikely that Trump ever scholastically investigated McLuhan, it may well be equally as likely that Trump had a copy of this issue of Playboy in his hands at the time it came out. 

In March 1969, McLuhan was interviewed thoroughly and extensively by Playboy magazine. 75 pages worth, to be precise. That incredible number gives you an indication of just how famous McLuhan was back then.. But even more significant than this measure is that the interview is one of McLuhan’s clearest expositions of his own observations of the electronic media’s impact on society, politics, and “the future” which has become our present.. 

In it this Playboy interview,  McLuhan talks of a world  “in which space and time are overcome by television, jets and computers — a simultaneous, “all-at-once” world in which everything resonates with everything else as in a total electrical field

It is curious to imagine Trump encountering this McLuhan interview way back then. It’s impossible to say when Trump first got it into his mind that he wanted to become President of the USA, but we know he had big ambition from an early age. From his own admissions in his ‘autobiography’ we know that he has alway been itching to make it big. 

Imagine a young, determined Trump, recently graduated from Wharton, puzzling over some way to get the inside edge on his ambitions. He’s flipping distractedly through this issue and comes across, say, this remark by McLuhan:

“It’s vital to adopt a posture of arrogant superiority; instead of scurrying into a corner and wailing about what media are doing to us, one should charge straight ahead and kick them in the electrodes. They respond beautifully to such resolute treatment and soon become servants rather than masters.”

Or this McLuhan gem:

“I don’t want to sound uncharitable about my critics. Indeed, I appreciate their attention. After all, a man’s detractors work for him tirelessly and for free. It’s as good as being banned in Boston.”

 HMM.

Or, what if Trump saw McLuhan’s answer to this question:

 “PLAYBOY: How is television reshaping our political institutions?

McLUHAN: TV is revolutionizing every political system in the Western world. For one thing, it’s creating a totally new type of national leader, a man who is much more of a tribal chieftain than a politician. 

Castro is a good example of the new tribal chieftain who rules his country by a mass-participational TV dialog and feedback; he governs his country on camera, by giving the Cuban people the experience of being directly and intimately involved in the process of collective decision making.”

Or, when it came to the value of truth-telling as it relates to political power, what if  Trump randomly flipped to this McLuhan comment.

The people wouldn’t have cared if John Kennedy lied to them on TV, but they couldn’t stomach L.B.J. even when he told the truth. The credibility gap was really a communications gap. The political candidate who understands TV — whatever his party, goals or beliefs — can gain power unknown in history. 

It really is quite peculiar – the wording of McLuhan in this interview. The replication of it in Trump that we are now all facing is at least worthy of consideration. 

***

The first principle of evidence,” McLuhan wrote in 1971, “is that things have to be approached on their own terms if any understanding is to be attained. Edgar Allan Poe was the first to stress the need to begin with the effects and work backwards, in poetry and in detective fiction alike.” 

a strange circumstance attending all discovery and all investigation is this: the effects come before the causes. Without any exception, in every human development, in every discovery, all the effects come before the cause or the discovery itself” 

McLuhan in his lovely, confusing paradoxical form is basically saying that by observing the ‘effect’ of a cause, we can work backwards to discover the true nature of the cause. If we don’t see the effect, we won’t look for the cause. It’s actually quite an obvious supposition, but when McLuhan says it, he does so in a way that makes it sound absurd. All part of his tricksterism.

Take Trump. If we were behaviourist psychologists observing Donald Trump’s behaviour since this edition of Playboy came out, we might seriously begin to wonder if Marshall McLuhan was a bigger influence on Trump’s life than anyone realizes. His behaviour indicates that he read this article.

The thing that you see is ‘figure,’ the thing that affects you is ‘ground’; and that’s what I mean by ‘the medium is the message.‘”

One of McLuhan’s greatest gifts was his ability to see the unseen. McLuhan believed that the greatest influences on our thought, behaviour and habits are always the ones that we are least aware of and he developed a knack for seeing through the ostensible causes of any effect and discerning the true forces that existed much less obviously in behind.   

How did he do so? One clue McLuhan left us is his repeated insistence that he studied “percepts not concepts”.  In focussing upon the fundamental process of human perception, McLuhan discerned patterns that informed his overall vision and led to his famous, and famously misunderstood, catchphrase “the medium is the message”.  Indeed both the catchphrase, and McLuhan in general, become much easier to understand if we take McLuhan at his word and approach him first via the doors of perception – the senses through which all humans discern reality.

*

The terms ‘figure’ and ‘ground’, which were never far from McLuhan’s lips, come from the Gestalt school of psychology, whose influence upon McLuhan cannot be overstated. Gestalt’s primary concern was with percepts: 

“How [do] we organize the bewildering jumble of stimulation from the environment so that coherent perceptions result. …

How do we organize what we see?

How does context affect our perception? ” (Psychology an Introduction p, 466.)

Consider these central questions of Gestalt psychology while examining the below diagrams. These curious chiaroscuros are used in Gestalt to show that our perceptions are governed by hidden elements, that the meaning of a situation can be dramatically altered by our focus, which is itself a fluid, shapeshifting force inside our being – albeit one over which we have some control. 

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To study the effects of media with a focus only on its content  is akin to studying any of the above diagrams under the premise that the meaning is contained exclusively in, either  the black or white area inside the frame. 

In fact, both the black and the white spaces carry independent meanings – and even more importantly, the meanings of the blacks and the whites are created by the interplay, or resonance, between the two. Take either black or white out of the situation and all meaning disappears – all effect, totally nullified. 

McLuhan was the first to realize that this interplay of seen and “unseen” also applies to the influence media has upon its audience. The perceptual revelations of these paintings convinced McLuhan that if we wanted to understand the true effects of media we had to consider both media figure and media ground, especially the way the ground determines and delivers the figure whilst remaining unseen:   “the environment is invincibly persuasive when ignored”  

The ‘figure’ of media is its most obvious attribute, its content. What Trump tweets, where Trudeau stands on immigration, what costume he wears or with whom he stands in his selfies are all ‘figures’ of media. It is obvious that if we want to study the effects of media we have to study content.  But McLuhan believed that it is delusion to study content while ignoring the ground from which the content arises. 

Unless explicitly pointed out to us, the ground of any situation is nearly impossible to detect. To the fish, the ground is water. For human life in general the ground is both the literal terra firma and the earth’s atmosphere. To the modern citizen with a smartphone, the ground has become electricity. Technology has outstripped and enveloped the Earth.  “For the first time in history, Nature is a Man made environment.” (McLuhan.) No moji on earth can adequately express the power of this new predicament. LIke the subliminal impact of an ad –  rather, like the subliminal impact of all the ads in history, combined, the ground of media is most powerful when we are unaware of it.

“McLuhan’s point was that most people are trained not to look for the ground in any situation,” says Philip Marchand.  “They focus on one part and ignore the rest. If people consider the motorcar, for example, they focus on the car itself, rarely perceiving the network of gas stations, highways, neon signs, parking lots and all the altered habits and perceptions that arise out of the existence of the car – the ground, in other words, of the automobile. True perception, according to McLuhan, is the ability to hold both figure and ground in one’s attention, in a dynamic and resonating relationship.” (Marchand p. 48) (Italics mine) 

Transfer Marchand’s metaphor of the ‘motorcar’ to that of the smartphone … What is the hidden ground of media in the era of the smartphone? What are the effects that have nothing to do with the content of the screens? For example, the sheer volume of Trump’s tweets, gives him a constant and instant presence on the screens and in the minds of millions  – a presence that is not dependent upon any mainstream media outlet to deliver. 

By shifting our focus to ground, we see how  the impact of electric media extends far beyond the content of the screens. The death of Blockbuster Video and the encroaching extinction of the print newspaper format have alone caused unquantifiable changes to society. Same with the renewed interest from the stockmarket in companies that mine lithium or cobalt, because these are what smartphone and electric car batteries are made of. Conversely, the decline in production and sales of wristwatches, because people now consult their smartphones when they want to know the time.   

Google, Amazon, Facebook, Netflix, Apple, and all the money made by the people working for them, and all the money handed over to them by those who are not. Satellites, self-driving cars, cell phone towers, Twitter, Pokemon Go, selfies, selfie-sticks, drones – and the industries that have arisen to support them, as well as the laws that have arisen to regulate them – are just some examples of the enormity of the new ground that the electric age has created upon our world.  

If we want to understand what gives electronic communication more power over human behaviour than any previous form of media, we can isolate at least three main variables. 

1) The speed of the new media is instant, ideas and responses can be exchanged at the speed of light. 

2) The presence of new media is constant. In the older, electric days, television might have been able to deliver messages at the speed of light, but such transmissions were usually relegated to one’s living room or bedroom at certain hours of the day.  People did not and could not carry their television sets around with them, as they do with their smartphones.  

3) The interactivity of new media is at a level that television and radio never came close to approaching. The transmissions on televesion and radio were also “one-way” – that is, the tv broadcasted and the audience received. With exception of the “call in show” audiences could not interact with the broadcaster or, as can easily be done now, become a broadcaster themselves. Such factors prevented the electronic media (in the days of television) from becoming a constant presence in a person’s life, mitigating its influence dramatically.   

Aside from a constant presence and a speed of light capability that encompass the globe, the new media has become a social force that allows for something the older forms of electronic media were not designed to accomplish: input. 

Thanks to the evolution of ‘social’ media, which, for better or for worse, has become the most dominant force in the new age, the ‘consumer’ of the media must also, to some extent, become a  producer. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat have become the four horsemen of influence in the world today. . Each one of these new superpowers delivers content that is produced by its consumers. Photos, quotes, videos, links to news articles (both real and fake), likes, loves, shares ….  If fact if the consumers of the content on these sites did not also produce the content, none of these sites would have anything to broadcast. It’s now much easier to see what McLuhan meant in 1964, when he called the media “extensions of man”.

Take a step back from the planet and it is undeniable that people are behaving differently than before they began carrying around these little electrical appendages and tapping them constantly, constantly staring into them. Will human posture and eyesight slowly de-evolve and worsen as a result of the interminable hunch in front of a screen?  None of these media effects have anything to do with the content of the messages passing back and forth from one screen to another, yet the impacts they reference are profound and planet-altering. 

The ground of media can be so many subtle, subliminal things. All those altered habits and perceptions that arise when our civilization arranges itself to best facilitate the technology it has invented to serve it. “We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.”  

But how? How do our tools shape us? Let’s get a bit more specific than this. Let’s look at electronic technology in the age of the smartphone. How has this shaped us? Oh boy. If McLuhan is correct in his reportage of this discovery, then no Western reader is going to appreciate the following section of this book. In 1975, McLuhand told Pierre Trudeau:

“One of the strange things I have discovered about my own work is that Westerners in general resent having the effects of any technology brought to their attention. That print, or the telephone, or TV should have any effect on them at all, is taken to mean that they have been manipulated and degraded. The person who is blamed for this is the person who points it out to them.”  

Over time the dominant media necessarily creates within us a perceptual and thus a rational bias, that, until we become aware of it, will colour and sculpt (aka. ‘distort) even our most basic cognitive processes.  This is especially important to be aware of in this transitional epoch where the old media of print, radio and television are giving way to the electric all-encompassing medium of the smartphone. 

To tackle McLuhan we must first tackle the biases that these old media have imprinted upon our psyches. Our left brains must veer sharply right; our visually oriented selves must relent and allow the other senses to contribute equally to our understanding of the way things are. Wherever possible we must relinquish the political and moral axes we incline to grind and the selfsame frames we place around the phenomena of the universe. None of this is easy, but McLuhan did it, and in doing so gained a perspective that literally discerned the unfolding of the universe beyond his time and well into our own.  Probably beyond. 

 In fact, it was print that opened up McLuhan’s entire imagination, print that gave him the tools to see into it and through it, print that helped him see the end of print.  Back when McLuhan was alive, technology had not nearly advanced to the state that it has now. It was easy for those who wanted to mock or discredit him to make a good case for their case. 

One of McLuhan’s fundamental refrains was that 

artists are the control tower in the electric society.   Whenever anyone asked how he came to his conclusions about the effects of electric media, McLuhan always pointed to either poetry or literature. As he once explained to Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands: 

Without a knowledge of all the poets and painters and artists from Baudelaire to Joyce, it is futile to attempt any appraisal of the formal or efficient causes initiated by the evolutionary extensions of our bodies which we call technology”

Yes, it is the printed word that, oddly enough, helped McLuhan see through the illusions and limitations of the print-based world all the way to the demise of the dominion of the book.  Like Alice, McLuhan passed thru the looking glass,from the Visual to the Acoustic World, long before his contemporaries. Like Alice, too, McLuhan could not have done it without literature. 

Poe, Eliot, Pound, Wyndham Lewis, Mallarme, Cervantes,  de Chardin, Baudelaire, and many, many others, including, of course, Lewis Carroll, all unlocked some gate of revelation within McLUhan. But of all the great men and women of literature’s canon, James Joyce was “the sage of Toronto’s” chief oracle. 

McLuhan “often declared that all his media investigations were nothing more than “applied Joyce’. Indeed, an understanding of Joyce and his work goes a long way towards understanding McLuhan.Through his lifelong adoration, reading and re-reading of Joyce, McLuhan honed his perceptivity of the effects of media in the digital age.

Traceable to Joyce is McLuhan’s observation that the content of the newest communication medium is always that of previous mediums – an observation that is exemplified with astonishing exactitude in this electric era of the smartphone, whose content consists of basically all of the media that came before. The smartphone is capable of serving as a wristwatch or clock, a camera, a radio, a television, a (very tiny) movie screen, a newspaper, a photo album. It also, of course, can even occasionally function as a telephone. The smartphone can broadcast, record, send and receive information – it is a new medium that, thanks to electricity, enables a simultaneous involvement with all previous media. A user can become both producer and consumer of content, even – in the case of, say, a live gaming broadcast, both at once. 

One of the great achievements of Joyce is that on the printed page he found a way to transcend the limits and linearity of the print medium. Reading Ulysses (and to a much more baffling extent, Finnegan’s Wake) the reader is confronted with an ‘acoustic’ environment, containing, aside from human beings, all the communications media of Joyce’s age. 

 Even though the action is chronological, and the words run across the page in a linear fashion, the narrative consists of a mosaic of disconnected snippets of information, conversations overheard, songs sung in pubs, advertisements, scents, sights, random thoughts, lusts, distractions confront the reader in the manner that they confront the protagonists Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus as they stroll the streets of Dublin – with no apparent rational connection or sequence. 

This narrative presentation, which can confront an untrained reader as total chaos, has turned out to be a foreshadowing and/or exact model of the manner that information arrives to the carrier of a smartphone in the electric age. This is one of the primary reasons why McLuhan’s deep involvement with Joyce prepared him to foresee and decode the effects of media in the Electric age: 

“James Joyce used the stream-of-consciousness technique to mime and make explicit the effects on the human psyche of the nascent electronic technologies of his era. These technologies, McLuhan said, bombarded the human psyche with huge amounts of information that had no underlying rationale, just like the stream of consciousness of Joyce’s characters” (Marchand p. 168). 

‘Huge amounts of information with no underlying rationale’ is a wonderfully concise way to describe the sum output of any active smartphone in 2018 and beyond. Via the smartphone information arrives and is sent without introduction or connection – disparate texts, tweets, stories, phone calls, face times, alarms, news items, ads, letters, tags, selfies, even all of the above, all at once, can arrive from anywhere on earth  (or, in the case of, say, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, even from outer space) and reach anywhere at the speed of light. 

Such limitless speed and simultaneity of information work to erode the linearity that centuries of print-based, visual dependency have brought to Western civilization. It has created what many call the ‘post-literate’ era. Smartphone users cannot focus on all this information at once, yet it it still befalls them to make some sense of the non-sequential chaosmos of information that emanates from and draws them 

INTO THE MALESTROM 

Next to James Joyce, the artist McLuhan credited most as a guide to his intellect would probably be Edgar Allan Poe.   McLuhan was especially fond of pointing to the short story “Descent into the Malestrom” by Poe.  In ‘Descent’ a sailor avoids being sucked down a whirlpool by observing the objects that resist the pull of the water. Eventually, the sailor dives off of his sinking ship in order to cling to a cask that has repeatedly popped back out of the whirlpool’s thirsty, swirling maw. For whatever reason, this cask unlike all the other objects that come within reach of the deadly vortex, continues to resist destruction. 

In ‘Descent’ the sailor is in a situation where all his theories, all his past learning, can do him no good. In order to come out of his predicament alive, he can do little more than observe the phenomena within the whirlpool – hoping to set upon some clue that will point the way to survival – and trust his observations without having to understand them. 

For McLuhan, the story was an allegory that served a dual purpose. 

  1. The story very much described McLuhan’s unorthodox methology as a member of academia. McLuhan resisted the formation of theories. He preferred to approach the phenomenon of the universe with a completely open mind, not seeking to test one particular theory over the next. It was this openness in the story, that enabled the sailor to observe the cask’s resillience in the face of doom and to literally cling to it. 

Speaking of this story to an audience at Johns Hopkins University McLuhan said: “ This is the allegory that Poe presents to the world of the function of art in society, the function of pattern recognition, and the function of anticipating effects with causes” 

2) The vortex in the story very closely resembles the actual vortex of information in the electrical age. This “total surround” of which McLuhan frequently spoke.

In the same speech, McLuhan directly relates Poe’s fictional vortex to the predicament electric media is fast swirling around the globe. In doing so, McLuhan hints at the big value involved in seeing past the obvious or assumed effects of media and accurate perceiving what’s truly going on.  

The huge vortices of energy created by our media present us with possibilities of evasion of consequences of destruction. By studying the pattern of the effects of this huge vortex of energy in which we are involved, it may be possible to program a strategy of evasion of survival.” MM,

McLuhan envisioned himself as a kind of sailor, navigating the uncharted seas of the electrical media environment. Just as the sailor survived by first observing an ‘effect’ of Natural Law that ‘caused’ the cask to remain buoyant, McLuhan watched the electrical media swarm in order to detect manifestations of its laws that might give the human being/civilization trapped inside it something to cling to. 

Lifelong McLuhan scholar Gary Genosko, has put it another way:

“The lesson McLuhan learned from Poe is well known: if one struggles against the current of a whirlpool, one will drown; if, on the contrary, one observes and rides the current, waiting for an opportune moment to save oneself by breaking out of it, then one is likely to survive.” (Genosko, 1999. p 27.)

Yet another metaphorical application of this story, of course, can relate to one who wants to resist oblivion as a public figure. McLuhan and Trump both discovered ways to remain afloat amid the swirling currents of the media of their day. 

To understand the ‘why’ or the ‘how’ behind all this, a good place to start is with McLuhan’s notion of the put-on. It’s a three-pronged concept that leads from the obvious to the mind-boggling.

The put-on: past and present

The  “put-on” is a technique that McLuhan references a lot. It’s very likely that he first became acquainted with it thru Wyndham Lewis, a writer and painter McLuhan once called “one of the greatest men of the century, both in painting and in prose”  

If ever a trickster of the artistic world existed, it was Lewis. Long before either Trump or McLuhan’s shenanigans, Lewis exacted the same technique over and over again to the point that no one knew where he stood on any issue. One of Lewis’ most astounding put-ons can be found in the form of his 1938 jawdropper of a book entitled: The Jews: Are they Human? 

Reading the title in this post-Holocaust world hits like a smack in the face, but even when Lewis wrote it in the years before WWII it seemed horrific. The irony, and the ruse inside the work is that Lewis’ book is a panegyric towards the Jewish people. It has been described as an act of  love towards the Jews, answering the question its title asks with a resounding ‘Yes! Jews are a wonderful component of humanity.” To this day, however, webpages exist that list Lewis among the anti-Semites, citing this book as part of their case.

What Lewis truly felt about any issue is probably irrelevant. He once described his own politics this way: “I am part Communist and part Fascist with a healthy dose of Monarchism in my Marxism, but at bottom an Anarchist with a passion for order.”  (http://www.othercinema.com/otherzine/may-attract-other-coyotes-or-putting-on-put-ons-the-artist-as-trickster/#comment-173653

The point is, Lewis – also credited as the inventor of the prank call – was more concerned with stirring the pot and hurting whatever audience he happened to hold. If you thought ‘right’ Lewis would hit you with some ‘left’, and vice-versa.  Though Lewis was truly talented, the approach of hurting his audience, gave him the added advantage of being talked about in places and times where the competition among good artists to be noticed has never been stronger, namely Paris in the 1920s.

Lewis spent his whole career putting on – usually via ‘hurting’ – his audiences. His 1930 novel Apes of God unkindly mocked the inner circles of the  London literary scene, which happened to make up a good chunk of his most interested readership. He did the same thing in Paris in the 1920s, pissing off the brilliant artists who surrounded him to the point that Ernest Hemingway in his recollection of those Paris days, A Moveable Feast,  describes Lewis as having the “sad eyes of an unsuccessful rapist.”  

Hemingway’s report reinforces Trump’s belief that even hurtful stories can be valuable to one’s business. Whatever Wyndham Lewis did to Hemingway will not be known, but if you are a writer who hopes to remain among the immortals of your time, having Ernest Hemingway write hurtful things about you is certainly better than having Ernest Hemingway write nothing about you at all.

Believe it or not. Trump knows his boundaries, and has an innate understanding of media symbolism. A great example of this can be found in the major media event of John McCain’s funeral. McCain forbid Trump’s presence there, though he personally called other former presidents and asked them to speak at his farewell. Trump’s daughter, Ivanka and son in law Jared Kushner were in attendance so somehow they – like the three previous Presidents of America – Bill Clinton, George W Bush, and Barak Obama -must have been invited. But still, symbolically, McCain’s posthumous message was very clear. 

The final speech of the affair went to McCain’s sobbing daughter Meghan McCain, who, in the least subtle Trump reference of the funeral, said:

“America does not need to be made great again. America has always been great.”

Even Obama, albeit more subtly, offered words that turned the mind to Trump. McLuhan said that the Electric Age would eliminate the role of party in politics, and though this has not fully come to pass, we are seeing the tendrils of it.  Remember, both McCain and Trump are, at least officially, Republicans. McCain’s funeral accomplished a strange blurring of the line between Democrats and Republicans, which means that it has served Trump well by splitting the vote a little further in the next US Election. Even though McCain designed his own funeral to be a spanner in the works of Trumpism, it may well have advanced Trump’s cause. In any case, it has kept Trump current.

This example with Lewis, is evidence of McLuhan’s lifelong tendency to use the work of artists who were masters of other, older mediums to discover truths about the new media. 

DEMOCRACY RETRABILIZED

For years McLuhan was saying to anyone who would listen, that the electric media would re-tribalize humanity. He gave specific reasons for it. It was all very clear. No one paid attention to this extreme claim.In 2016, Donald Trump became President of the United States using methods McLuhan insisted would work in the Electric Age. He’s using them with increasing frequency, and he is winning more people over. We can all point the finger at Trump, but his Presidency means something much more vital than his culpable corporeality. That Trump won the election is proof of one dire fact: Just as McLuhan said would happen, we have been re-trialized. 

It sounds like a condemnation. The conclusion that modern civilization has been re-tribalized, can easily be taken to mean that things have regressed so substantially that we are no more savvy or sophisticated than the apes from whence we came. McLuhan didn’t mean it this way, and this is important to keep in mind from the outset.

“I’m not using tribal here in a journalistic, pejorative, condescending sense. I’m using it technically. People who live by ear are tribal. I’m not using the word tribal in any kind of condescending sense at all.. People who live by ear are tribal. All children are  tribal because they live by ear”

Which gives us about as good a time to  as any bring up McLuhan’s essential axis of Visual and Acoustic space .Knowledge of this unified division is essential as we venture into the clarity, that can at first seem like murk, of Marshall McLuhan.

One of the big flips that’s taking place in our time is the changeover from the eye to the ear. Most of us, having grown up in the visual world, are now suddenly confronted with the problems of living in an acoustic world which is, in effect, a world of simultaneous information. The visual world has very peculiar properties, and the acoustic world has quite different properties. 

The visual world which belongs to the old nineteenth century, and which had been around for quite a while, say from the sixteenth century anyway, has the properties of being continuous and connected and homogeneous, all parts more or less alike. Things stayed put. If you had a point of view, that stayed put.


The acoustic world, which is the electric world of simultaneity, has no continuity, no homogeneity, no connections, and no stasis. Everything is changing. To move from one of those worlds to the other is a very big shift. It’s the same shift that Alice in Wonderland made when she went through the looking glass. She moved out of the visual world and into the acoustic world when she went through the looking glass.

In 1960, when McLuhan spoke of this shift from Visual to what he called ‘Acoustic Space’ that would accompany the electric age of mass communication, it confused people who were still marvelling at the advent of colour television. Now, in the electric age, we are living what McLuhan meant when he talked of the non-linear arrival of information from many directions, and are much better positioned to differentiate between the visual space of the print-based world, and the acoustic space of the electric one – the latter being the essence of the retribalization of which McLuhan spoke.

An important distinction must be made here, lest – in true McLuhan form – his ‘visual’ and ‘acoustic’ divide become more confusing than  clarifying. When McLuhan speaks of visual vs acoustic, he is referring to the arrival and flow of information, not necessarily the senses involved in the perception of it. For example, a speech delivered over the radio, though completely perceived by the ear, would actually, under McLuhan’s designation, qualify as a belonging to the visual world. Why? Because such a stream of information is received in an orderly, sequential linear fashion that has a beginning and end and a clear point of view. By the same token, McLuhan would categorize a newspaper page as belonging to the world of acoustic space. Though perceived with our ‘visual’ faculties, a news paper page consists of unrelated stories and advertisements that confront the reader simultaneously underneath a single dateline. Though each individual story would be an element of visual space, written with linear properties, moving in an orderly fashion from beginning to end, the entirety of the page itself consists of ‘acoustic’ properties without sequence, connection or logical relationship to one another.  

*

McLuhan’s roots in literature are often cited as anomalous or at least peculiar qualities for one who rose to fame predicting the demise of the book, while understanding with prodigious clarity the age of electric media. In fact, McLuhan’s bookish foundations are what gave him the clarity to understand the effects of smartphone era technology on civilization and on the politics that govern it. 

At least, once McLuhan underwent one particular epiphany his deep acquaintanceship with literature was able to elucidate certain connections and consequences that a great portion of society still does not even suspect have arisen with the advent of the electric age. This epiphany had nothing to do with the spiritual one that led him to convert to Catholicism in 1937. The big breakthrough  McLuhan experienced that put him on the path to media sagehood was his involvement with Harold Adams Innis during McLuhan’s early days on the U of T Campus. 

Innis was a political economy professor who had written books on such unglamorous topics as the Canadian fur trade and the cod fisheries. To these industries Innis brought a “poetic sensitivity and a historical imagination that enabled him to perceive how the pursuit of even these humble commodities had transformed a society.” McLuhan was enamoured he described Innis’ work as forging a path “from the external trade routes of the world to the internal trade routes of the mind”.  

Deepening McLuhan’s interest was a discovery Innis made via his study of another of Canada’s staple commodities: pulp and paper. By connecting the pulp and paper industry to its raison d’etre – the production of newsprint and the circulation of information and opinion – Innis realized that “the greatest staple of all were the various media of communications.” When Innis spoke of the characteristics of press and radio, apart from what they print or broadcast,  McLuhan was transfixed. Innis final book The Bias of Communication examined throughout the history of western civilization “the implications of the media of communications for the character of knowledge.”  Here Innis concluded that some media (like papyrus) were conducive to the extension of a society in space, while others (like stone tablets) were, due to their durability and difficulty to transport  more conducive to the continuity of a society over time. “A civilization employing clay tablets and cuneiform … was apt to be more limited in area and preocupied with religious and moral themes that by their nature remain relatively unchanged over centuries. Papyrus, on the other hand, encouraged the growth of empires of vast extent”.

One can almost hear McLuhan’s wheels turning as he considered Innis’ insights. And it is easy to see how Innis’ work on the media of communication led McLuhan along the path to his belief that “the medium is the message.” If nothing else, Innis taught McLuhan to study the effects of media by looking beyond the content of the messages the media conveyed. 

McLuhan realized  that the most important effects of electric communications technology was that this technology was doing to literate societies the very thing that print had undone. Print had lifted humanity out of feudalism and tribalism, the electric media was reversing this, and, with subtle differences, retribalizing societies who depended upon it as the dominant means of communication. 

Once McLuhan understood this, his understanding of the poetic and dramatic art forms of the pre-literate (aka tribal) era kicked in. The man who knew epic poetry, Shakespeare, Chaucer and other masters of the oral tradition better than 99% of the people on earth was the only one in the position to see that tribal times would call for tribal measures. This is where his book learning helped him yet again.  his understanding of media to the point where it was leaps and bounds ahead of other scholars who did not share his literary background.

In some areas, McLUhan’s formulae for successful media techniques in the Electric age are as simple as a rehashing and reapplication of the tried-and-true literary devices of Shakespeare and Homer and others greats of the age before print took over entirely. 

Assessing the rise of Donald J Trump through this lens can feel like an epiphany in itself, because Trump, the politician, is nothing if not an actor/storyteller/poet of the oral tradition. Such a lofty definition will make the skin of many crawl. But forget about policy or character for a moment, and regard his technique. 

If you match the ‘electric’ techniques of McLuhan and Trump to the techniques of the oral tradition, you will find astonishing parallels. If you then match these parallels to McLuhan’s claim that electric technology is ultimately retribalizing humanity, you may undergo something of an epiphany regarding McLuhan’s perspective, it’s accuracy, and what it means for the world at large. 

McLuhan and Trump are the oddest bedfellows to be sure. But it’s wild how, on one hand, understanding McLuhan helps us understand Trump’s jarring but unquestionable success. On the other hand, it’s astonishing, how with Trump we have a model that helps us demystify  much of what McLuhan was saying throughout the last 30 years of his life.  

Trump’s pre-literacy or some would suggest illiteracy, has turned out to be a perfect fit for today’s post-literate, re-tribalized electorate. A look at his media techniques re

McLuhan first encountered Lewis’s work at Cambridge in the early 1930s. He read Apes of God, and many other works, and instantly began to regard Lewis among the greatest of the greats of literature, on the same level as Joyce, Shakespeare and Pound.

Not only did McLuhan nick his “Global Village” phrase from Lewis (though the concept differed), he also delighted in passing on stories of Lewis’ own defiant outrageousness.  In one anecdote about Lewis’ relationship to the authorities at boarding school we can see the blueprint for Trump’s approach towards the mainstream media. According to McLuhan: 

“[Lewis} was exceedingly proud of having been the rare recipient of “the sixth licking”, i.e., in one day he received six separate lickings. He said that having received the fifth, he suddenly realized he was near immortality and hastened around to the prefect’s door and proceeded to smash his tennis ball against it until he qualified for the sixth licking.” (519)

In 1940, when Lewis moved to Canada, information did not travel around quite so quickly as it does here in the Electric Age. So when Lewis took a position teaching in Windsor, Ontario, McLuhan did not learn about it until 1943 when his mother went to a talk Lewis gave in Detrioit and discovered at that the famous painter and writer now lived  in North America. 

McLuhan, 32-years-old, had just taken a junior teaching position in St Louis. He immediately wrote Lewis. The letter was a one paragraph, three-sentence affair – extremely unusual for the chronically long-winded McLuhan. After the first line of greeting, the next two sentences read. 

When our summer school winds up here in two days, I have to go to Detroit. If you are not too busy or exhausted by our heat, there’s nothing I should enjoy more than a chat with you.” 

This letter is a great way to introduce the second sort of  “put-on” that relates to Trump – the case where an actor puts on a role.  So far, the discussion has been relegated to one form of the ‘put-on’ – the act of pulling the audience’s leg. As with most topics dear to McLuhan, however, the put-on has multiple meanings –  least three of which are vital aspects of the Trump playbook.

In this tiny letter to the controversial Lewis, McLuhan is himself putting on a role – that of protegee. As the rest of his letters attest, McLuhan’s brevity here is extremely uncharacteristic.  In this case, the truncated word count is a gesture of humility, respect and suboordination – feelings McLuhan truly held toward Lewis, which would have made it even more difficult for McLuhan to restrain his verbosity as he donned the role of timid student hoping to win an audience with a master.  The diminutive body and tone of the letter combine to form a trope that abounds throughout the history of letters and was in particular fashion during the artistic epoch anchored by Paris in the 1920s – that of the appeal from a hopeful protegee to a potential mentor. 

Such a reverential appeal would likely have touched Lewis, who, in the cultural wasteland of Windsor, Ontario in the 1940s would have encountered few who appreciated, knew, or cared about his eminence as an artist. 

In any case, and so to speak,  McLuhan’s put-on played it’s role: Lewis contacted him promptly and McLuhan set out to meet him. McLuhan offered this version of events in a letter to the head of the Wyndham Lewis Society, after Lewis had died:  

“after having checked that he was the Wyndham Lewis, the ogre of Bloomsbury, I got on a train with my friend, Felix Giovanelli … We found Lewis in a basement apartment in the heart of Windsor, and he told us how lucky he had been to find it. .. Lewis accepted us at once, with no kind of formality and we gradually formed the project to bring him to St Louis to find him some painting commissions and some lectures.” (p 519 Letters)  

This letter offers an incidental, if telling and rather beautiful, connection between Lewis, McLuhan and Ernest Hemingway – the man who has left such an unkind description of Lewis’ eyes. 

When McLuhan first met Lewis, Hemingway was married to Martha Gelhorn and living in Cuba, and coincidentally, Gelhorn’s mother was McLuhan’s next-door-neighbour in St Louis.  In McLuhan’s his quest to win Lewis a painting commission, he approached his next-door neighbour. “When speaking to Mrs Gelhorn, I proposed Lewis as a worthy painter to do the Erlanger portrait and she at once phoned Hemingway in Cuba and asked him directly about whether she should commission Lewis for the job. Hemingway promptly said “yes” and gave Lewis an enthusiastic build -up, with the result that Lewis did the painting for $1,500). : (519 – 20).

In this case, though Lewis might have irked Hemingway, Hemingway was unable to dennounce the calibre of Lewis, the artist. The calibre of McLuhan, the salesman is also on fine display.

If McLuhan was to give anyone credit for his appreciation for the magic of role-playing (defined here as  Put-on #2) it would no doubt go to his mother Elsie McLuhan. 

Elsie McLuhan was a professional impersonator and impresario, who toured North America putting on plays. As McLuhan told Nina Sutton in 1975: 

“My mother, by the way, was a one woman theater. She travelled from coast to coast from year to year putting on plays and acts. Single. Yes, she put on whole plays single.  Played all the parts, yes.”  (McLuhan interview with Nina Sutton, 1975, cited by Gordon, 357n10.)

The role one must play to achieve one’s objectives in the real world will differ, obviously, according to the objectives. In communications, the actor must choose which role will work best in which situation Had McLuhan approached Lewis the way he approached most of his correspondents, including Pierre Trudeau, playing the role of chief pontificator, Lewis the renowned artist might not even have responded to the as-yet unfamous teaching associate. 

 In politics the required roles are different. The big role everyone wanted to see the candidates play, in the lead-up to the US 2016 election was that, of course, of President. Who seemed more presidential?  Before the debates the big media put great stock in which candidate, Hillary or Donald, would appear more ‘Presidential’. The candidate who could not play the role of The President of the United States of America could not win. 

This is extremely obvious, and both Hillary and Donald sought, in their way, to appear presidential. 

But as McLuhan pointed out to Trudeau in 1968, in an electric age “no fixed position” is the only position one can afford to have. The attention span is fragmented, the personality is fragmented, and a candidate cannot afford to merely assume one role. A big mistake of Hillary all the way through is that she sought to be only “Presidential”. Somehow, Trump knew what McLuhan knew,  that for maximum reach in an electric age, the political performer has to assume multiple, often even contradictory roles. 

  A leader must know how to play the part of ‘Emperor’, to be sure, but it is just as important for one to know how to put on the role of ‘Clown’.   In 1972, McLuhan was asked how he rated Trudeau as a communicator:

He is an actor, both emperor and clown. The clown is really the emperor’s PR man, who keeps him in touch with the world that the emperor cannot reach. The clown interprets the emperor to his court or the public and indicates their mood. He tests the emperor’s mood by teasing him, and in turn interpreting the whims of the crowd to the emperor. I’ve never heard of a politician who could fill both roles. Trudeau is unique.”

Newman: Isn’t that a tall order? How can he live with himself? Does he remember who he is?

McLuhan: Trudeau is aware of more than himself; he’s not just trying to project an image. He is interpreting a whole process that he’s involved in. So that when he slides down a banister or hops off a camel, it’s not really a way of expressing what it feels like to be Trudeau; it’s trying to express what sort of a hell of a hang-up he’s in. He’ll do anything to snap the tension.

(http://www.macleans.ca/society/life/the-lost-mcluhan-tapes-2/)

This is an interpretation rarely afforded to Trump. If Trump slid down a bannister today, the internet might break with demands that he be institutionalized. Only by inspecting the intentionality of Trump’s put-on – put on of the role of clown, can we begin to see method in the madness. 

Put-On #3. 

McLuhan’s third notion of the put-on is definitely the least typical, least straigtfoward and therefore most McLuhanesque of the three. In this sense, rather than putting on a role, per se, the performer puts on the audience by wearing it. 

The stripper puts on her audience by taking off her clothes, and the poet puts on his public by stripping or dislocating the familiar rhythms and habits of expression. The poet lets us look at the world through the mask of his poem while wearing us as his mask: ‘hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frere,’ said Baudelaire to his reader.”

(https://mcluhangalaxy.wordpress.com/2016/08/30/media-ad-vice-marshall-mcluhans-introduction-to-subliminal-seduction-ad-medias-manipulation-of-a-not-so-innocent-america-1972/

When Trump entered the race to become the Republican nominee, he began stripping and disclocating the familiar rhythms and habits of political expression. He broke every rule. When talking about decorated US War veteran Senator John McCain, who was shot down as a pilot and held as prisoner of war during the American invasion of Vietnam, Trump said a very unpolitical thing: “He’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured? I like people who weren’t captured.”

This was a total disruption to rhythm and ritual of American political expression at the time. At the time it was unthinkable for either Democrat or Republican to question the heroics of a decorated war hero. Headlines across the planet accused Trump of having hit a “new low”. One Facebook user described Trump “ as though the comments section has grown skin, turned human, or, if not human, become Donald Trump.” Trump was as crass as anything you’d find in the comments section of a thread. And though he lied at a rate that no fact checker could keep up with, when he disrupted the “familiar rythms and habits” of political dialogue by questioning the merit of  McCain’s heroics, there was an unguarded honesty to his comments that resonated with people. 

It is an exaggeration to suggest that comments sections of the internet actually grew flesh and became Donald Trump. It might not be such an exaggeration, however, to suggest that Donald Trump, in his quest to win the Presidency did try to become the comments section of all the dominant social media threads on the internet today.

Trump became the audience he wanted to reach. This was a put-on in all three senses McLuhan described. It was a put on in the sense that he was pulling everyone’s leg. It was a put on in the sense that he was playing a role – but the role Trump was trying to play, was the role of the people whose votes he wanted. He was a not politician, he was an American who was sick of politicians and sick of Mexicans; he was sick of Obama, sick of the Chinese making/selling everything so cheap, taking our jobs, our exports. Trump was fed up and John McCain be damned, who wasn’t!?

By shattering the holy grail of public political standards time and time again, Trump allowed the voter sick of politics to wear him, to stand in his place, He convinced enough people that he was not a politician. In fact, the difference in that election could well be that Trump convinced more people he was not a politician than Hillary could convince that she was. 

Poetry, or pop-music – especially, pop music – often strike chords with their audience by expressing what their audience is feeling. The reader of a poem, the listener to a pop song, emotionally connect with the artist, because the artist is wearing them, putting them on by articulating and expressing the feelings that is latent inside them –  be it the appreciation of a sunrise, the gasp of physical passion, the torment of a break-up, the fed-upness with the bullshit of politics. The ‘art’ of this deal is to express via word or sound something that the reader or listener poignantly already feels, therefore therefore wearing the audience like clothing. You put them on by allowing them to put on you. 

As almost all the top 100 pop songs of the past 70 years can attest, a great way to do this is, is via nostalgia. As McLuhan repeatedly stressed  the appeal to nostalgia is a “technique of involvement” that allows the artist to get inside the skin of the reader and connect with the soul.  

Nostalgia: 

“ was an area of particular interest for [McLuhan], who said that one result of the electronic age would be a loss of private identity owing to the discarnate being that one becomes when broadcast electronically. Lacking a physical body in the electronic sphere, one’s relationship to the world around them changes.

“One of the big marks of the loss of identity is nostalgia, revivals of clothing, dances, music and shows,” he said. “We live by the revival, it tells us who we are, or were.”

(https://mcluhangalaxy.wordpress.com/2011/02/25/loss-of-identity-violence-nostalgia/)_

Trump did it by disrupting the rythyms,  true. But he also pulled it of via one broad and very catchy phrase: 

MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN

Trump has discovered one thing.   The contradictory sides of your nature will show and show and show, and soon, by posting constantly, because Trump, too – how could he be otherwise – is a human being, you can prove to the masses that you are human. Attempts do demonize you, no matter how consistent, will become diluted for any human being with the energy to publish more of him or herself. The dehumanizing tendency of mainstream media loses clout in the electric age. and he understood what an individual with political aspirations must do to navigate the instant/contsant vortex of connectivity that has evolved.


discovered one thing.   The contradictory sides of your nature will show and show and show, and soon, by posting constantly, because Trump, too – how could he be otherwise – is a human being, you can prove to the masses that you are human. Attempts do demonize you, no matter how consistent, will become diluted for any human being with the energy to publish more of him or herself. The dehumanizing tendency of mainstream media loses clout in the electric age. and he understood what an individual with political aspirations must do to navigate the instant/contsant vortex of connectivity that has evolved.


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