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Going Underground with Marshall McLuhan | Ken Hill

Tuesday, March 30, 2021 @ 10:45 AM | By Ken Hill

Ken Hill %>
Ken Hill
One of the perks of having been born at the right time is that when I got to university in the early 1970s, the winds of the counterculture had blown away the concept of majoring and minoring in set subjects. We boomers were free to choose our courses “cafeteria style” as they called it. That suited me just fine because I had no idea what kind of career to shoot for, so I could simply sign up for whatever courses struck my fancy.

That freedom appears to have paid off because interest in a variety of subjects led to good enough marks to get me into the faculty of law. I had been fortunate to have some excellent and even “cool” professors and one of the coolest was the world-renowned media guru, Marshall McLuhan.

The undergraduate course he taught at St. Michael’s College was titled Modern Poetry, but to me it seemed to be a course in whatever was on Marshall’s mind. The college had set him up in his own little building, the Coach House, where we, a small group of students sat on chairs or at the actual feet of the professor. 

There were sometimes visitors there, such as visual artists or writers, and a video camera that Sony had sent for him to try out (and probably so he would give them a quote they could use to promote the cutting-edge technology). It was the first video camera I ever saw — on a tripod and about the size of the Oxford English Dictionary.

By then McLuhan was a world famous, but only vaguely understood, media expert, working out the implications of examining technology as the extensions of our senses. Attending his lectures didn’t really clarify his theories much for me, in part because he was deliberately obscure in his pronouncements, explaining that a teacher should perform the function of a clown in the classic sense, stimulating the students to think for themselves. I’m still scratching my head over hot and cool media. I wonder whether he was putting us on when he claimed that when he read a novel, he would only read the right-hand pages, stating that his mind could fill in what was on the opposite pages.

Another teacher might have given me more of an in-depth understanding of modern poetry, but I can say that I learned a few things from McLuhan that have stayed with me for over 50 years. For instance, he pointed out that Bob Dylan sang with a “put-on” accent, sounding like he came from Arkansas rather than Minnesota. He also expounded what seemed like a crackpot theory that the left and right side of the brain performed different functions. As a left-hander, I was much later intrigued to find out that he was right! By the way, have you noticed how many lawyers and judges are left-handed?

He also referred to artists as the antennae of the culture. They are the ones who see what everyone else misses and bring it to our attention. Although he did discuss various poets, one had the impression that he was freestyling and bringing into the discussion whatever he was thinking about or working on at the time. That is not a criticism, by the way. It was as interesting as it was confusing at times. In fairness, he once said: “Anyone who tries to make a distinction between education and entertainment doesn’t know the first thing about either.”

One perk of the course was that Marshall invited a handful of students at a time to come over to his home for an evening to watch TV.  When we arrived he invited us to sit in the kitchen while he got us tea or coffee. Seated next to the kitchen bulletin board I couldn’t help but notice (all right, I was snooping) a card handwritten by PM Pierre Trudeau addressed to “Dear Marshall.” We took our refreshments down to his unfinished basement where he turned on a black and white television and we all sat down to watch Jude the Obscure on Masterpiece Theatre. Part way through the show I noticed that our host was dozing peacefully — which  by the way, fit his theory that television, being a cool medium (requiring effort on the part of the brain to connect the dots into an image) is tiring to watch. Maybe so, or was the production soporific? I guess we’ll never know.

During that visit, the professor introduced us to his cat and commented that it was the only cat they had had which had not been run over by a car, a fact he characteristically chalked up to a sensory peculiarity. You see, the cat was deaf and therefore, according to Marshall, it had to rely on vision to avoid the traffic, which was apparently more effective for that purpose than the auditory sense. 

A few years later, in a theatre watching the movie Annie Hall, I was pleasantly surprised to see Marshall in a cameo, wearing the same slightly ill-fitting camel hair jacket he wore so often in our lectures. That was our professor, a never pretentious celebrity who enjoyed a joke, particularly one playing with his theories. 

One parting McLuhan quip: “I don’t pretend to understand my stuff.  After all, my writing is very difficult.”

Ken Hill is happily retired from just about 40 years of litigation practice in Newmarket, Ont.

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