Centre and Margin 2

At the turn of a year, McLuhan reviewed questions which were important to him and often attempted to think them through in correspondence. On January 4, 1961 McLuhan wrote such a letter to Claude Bissell (1916–2000), then the president of UT and formerly McLuhan’s English department colleague. Like McLuhan, Bissell had joined the department in 1946. Since their personal and professional relationship went back 15 years in this way, McLuhan’s closing to the letter, “regards as ever”, was not merely perfunctory.

McLuhan used the letter to rehearse the presentation Bissell had asked him to give to a university advisory committee on “patterns of educational change”:

. . . what our technology has done electrically, and will do with ever-increasing intensity, is to increase the flow of information in all directions and at all levels. What is needed therefore is an understanding of what happens to existing center-margin relationships as the interplay between center and margin is affected by ever-higher levels of information.  Classroom and curriculum as centers for community margins can undergo some strange reversals of roles, as well as considerable subdivision of roles, when the same levels of information are equally available at margin and center. It is this in a word which has caused the restructuring of management. But there is nothing in any management structure, so far as the response to such information change is concerned, which differs from an educational structure, a biological structure or an art structure. Any field of perception is a structure of center-marginal interplay, and when the center usurps margin, the patient is in an hypnotic trance; or alternatively,  mad. The same problems are faced now by town planners, for whom changes in center-margin roles and interplay have become sheer nightmare. We at least in education have available possible structures of moving transparencies, or montage patterns of multi-level kind, in which by means of dialogue centers and margins can change positions at high speed. (…) The traditional role of city is that of center or consensus for rustic margin. Now that our technologies are no longer positional but interplanetary, an urban consensus will not serve. The university itself would seem to become the only possible model of such consensus, inviting the concept of a university of being and experience, rather than of subjects. Such a concept of university could supersede the concept of urban center in an age of electronic information movement, and need not be locational, or geographic. (Letters, 279-280, italics added)

McLuhan closed the letter by mentioning that he had “had a most delightful afternoon and evening with Peter Drucker and his family recently”.  Drucker (1909-2005) was a renowned, if somewhat controversial, management consultant and theorist whom McLuhan doubtless first got to know through his best friend, Bernard Muller-Thym. Muller-Thym was a PhD graduate of UT and the Mediaeval Institute, McLuhan’s colleague at St Louis University from 1938 to 1943 (but in the Philosophy department, not English), the best man at McLuhan’s wedding in 1939, the godfather of McLuhan’s first child, Eric, and now a successful management consultant in New York.  Muller-Thym also taught management theory, at first at Columbia and then for many years at MIT. McLuhan stayed with Muller-Thym and his large family (eight children) whenever he visited New York.

As a favorite student of Etienne Gilson (after whom Muller-Thym named one of his sons), Muller-Thym became McLuhan’s conduit not only to business theorists like Drucker, but also to Gilson and Aquinas. (Note may be made of the strange parallels between McLuhan’s relationships with Muller-Thym and Tom Easterbrook, his best friend from an earlier era. Like Muller-Thym and Gilson, Easterbrook was a favorite student and colleague of Harold Innis, and became McLuhan’s conduit to Innis and to the history of economics and communications research pursued by him. Coincidentally, both Muller-Thym and Easterbrook obtained their PhDs from UT in the same year, 1938, and both had the unusual honor of having their dissertations immediately published, in 1939 and 1938 respectively, through the efforts of their thesis advisers and fatherly friends, Gilson and Innis.)

When McLuhan writes in his letter to Bissell of “the concept of a university of being” he is quoting from the title of Muller-Thym’s UT PhD thesis (for which Gilson wrote a complimentary preface in the published version): On the University of Being in Meister Eckhart of Hochheim.

Almost a year before his new year’s letter to Bissell, McLuhan had rehearsed some of the same thoughts in a letter to Muller-Thym:

the increasing volume of information flow substitutes for products in the sense of becoming the major product. In terms of the university as an area of subjects, the tendency of awareness of process is certainly to make one subject substitutable for another. And so by a commodious vicus of recirculation (note the chiasmic form here) we come back to Bernard, Eckhart, and the University of Being. (MM to Muller-Thym, May 5, 1960, Letters, 271-272)

As noted elsewhere (RVM or through the looking glass?) “management structure” is not (or is not only) a commercial term for McLuhan. It applies, as he specifically notes in his letter to Bissell, to “any field of perception”. So ‘McLuhan for Managers’ can be misleading in the same way as ‘chemistry for metallurgists’ might be. Of course chemistry has enormous application in metallurgy. But since chemistry is much broader than metallurgy, its application there depends upon first mastering the wider field. So with McLuhan and business management. His work was directed to the wider field of media research from which applications to organizational management, for instance, might be derived. But reading his work as business theory, even though he often cited people like Drucker and Muller-Thym, and even though he considered developments in business highly important, and even though he wondered if his thinking might better be communicated to business executives than to academics, is a category mistake.

The letter to Bissell has many important theoretical implications for McLuhan’s overall project. These will be analyzed in Centre and Margin 3…





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