Thuistezien 243 — 22.04.2021

Marshall McLuhan Symposium

In this discussion, Michael Darroch, Janine Marchessault and Graham Larkin talk about the influence of ‘Explorations: Studies in Culture and Communication’ (1953-1959), the journal founded by Marshall McLuhan and edited by anthropologist Edmund Carpenter. Together with the initiative of the journal/think tank project, they organised a radical trans-disciplinary research group seminar, both of which contributed reflexively to each medium.

The interdisciplinary and dialogical approach was very purposefully orchestrated and intended to mirror the developments of media at that time. Thinking about those projects also echoes the tensions and potential present between societal disciplines and technological developments today.

The discussion starts on the question of McLuhan’s engagement with mass media culture and advertisements. His idea for teaching literature equated to bringing in advertisements to analyse. He thought education needed to engage with what is going on at the current moment. To what extent was McLuhan performing a critique, rather than an endorsement of a capitalistic project? Larkin explores how the fact that it made people nervous already reached the artistic or political role. The critique, while being playful, becomes self-reflexive and flips back on itself in terms of identifying with its performance on the one hand, and a site of irony on the other. As part of a Fluxus line of artists, McLuhan played with ‘over-identification’, where, comparingly to Andy Warhol, he bought into mass culture in a way which is beyond mere irony and where it is hard to pinpoint a stance. Perhaps this is the ultimate form of critique, because it doesn’t fit into an acceptable level of critique that is part of the dominant culture.

Contrary to Larkin’s response on the debatable irony in McLuhan’s work, Marchessault does not view McLuhan’s handlings of mass culture as a display of irony. According to her interpretation, McLuhan was not at all concerned with dialectics of society, where actions are dealt with through continuous polarities. Rather, what he was doing was an act of masquerading and disguise. His engagement with academia was like inhabiting the role of a professor, whilst continually improvising as one goes along. This is a different kind of performative practice or strategy, where in that time (and now) there was an urgency to come up with ways to relate to the new media, including in terms of collaboration. Along these lines, there is a kind of ephemerality to McLuhan’s ideas, where emphasis lies on probing the current moment in order to stimulate a dialogical encounter, as an impetus for further ‘explorations’. Marchessault specifies it is not the same as a feedback loop: rather than expecting an answer, the probe does not land anywhere and is only launched to stir new ideas, but also works of art. Hence, the meanings to McLuhan's works (or art in general can be viewed in this way) change as the landscape and world changes. The ephemerality, then, is generative.

Whether McLuhan intended ‘Explorations’ to crystallise as a Warholian cultural phenomenon or rather to dissipate, never meant to be kept or archived, Darroch responds that as a conventional journal, it was an experiment of communication nonetheless. Its interdisciplinary content, extended seminar-format and even use (one could apparently take the journal apart and read it in any order) embody the transitions of media and propose a relevant method for contemporary dialogues.

Graham Larkin is trained as an historian of art and architecture (PhD Harvard, 2003). He taught the histories of landscape, books, maps, and art collecting at universities in the US and Canada, as well as classes in data visualization, and the ‘media practice’ of Marshall McLuhan. He has also worked as a curator, including six years running the Department of European & American Art at the National Gallery of Canada.

Michael Darroch is Associate Dean, Academic and Associate Professor of Cinema and Media Arts in the School of the Arts, Media, Performance and Design at York University. He has published on aspects of technology, theatre, language and sound in city life, and is co-editing, with Janine Marchessault, the volume Urban Mediations: Art, Ethnography, and Material Culture.

Janine Marchessault is a professor in Cinema and Media Arts and holds a York Research Chair in Media Art and Social Engagement. Her research has engaged with four areas: the history of large screen media; diverse models of public art, festivals, and site specific curation; 21st century moving-image archives and notions of collective memory/history.

The discussion is moderated by dr. phil. Baruch Gottlieb. Trained as a filmmaker at Concordia University Montreal, he has a doctorate in digital aesthetics from the University of Arts Berlin. He is curator of the touring exhibition series ‘Feedback #1: Marshall McLuhan and the Arts’ which has been presented at West Den Haag and 34th Chaos Communication Congress Leipzig, and is travelling to Karlsruhe, Berlin, Paris, and Toronto.

Text: Yael Keijzer