McLuhan to Skornia 1/25/59 (Cassirer)

The second part of McLuhan’s 1/25/59 letter to Harry Skornia discusses points raised in a letter to Skornia from Henry Cassirer.1 Skornia had asked Cassirer to comment on the first (December 1958) draft of the NAEB funding proposal for its Understanding Media project with McLuhan. Cassirer did so in a typed 2-page letter to Skornia dated 1/20/59.

Here is McLuhan’s discussion of Cassirer’s letter:

Now, about Cassirer’s letter. On his second page under “Project Title”, he makes what strikes me as an excellent statement of our project plan and strategy.

Cassirer’s statement:

Project Title: The nature of audio-visual media. To develop through theoretical analysis and practical experimentation a clear notion of the peculiar style, structure and impact of the principal audio-visual media (Radio, Film, Television, Photography) which are changing a civilization based primarily on the printed word, profoundly influencing the mind of young people, and offering new challenges to educational methodology. The objective of obtaining a fresh understanding of these media is to contribute to their better utilization in the educational process and to the critical training of student audiences so they may experience them profitably while avoiding their many pitfalls.

McLuhan then considers in some detail the 5 points (a-e) raised by Cassirer about the project proposal and the project itself:

  • (a) His doubt about our ability to isolate the electronic media2 [aside from media in general] points to [the] need for a bit of further clarification in our statement. We appear to be, willy-nilly, drafters of a new educational constitution suited to the oligarchic rule of the new media which have taken over power formerly exercised by the monarchy of print. I take it we do not wish to isolate electronic media [from other media] but to focus relevant attention on their unique properties and powers in shaping the learning and teaching procedures and also in giving special configuration to information and data used in these procedures. So great is the shift here that our educational establishment, the entire context of culture, of judiciary and legislative [functioning], as well, are in danger of dissolution. This danger is not apparent to the merely print-minded who are naturally impervious to the awareness of the degree to which the medium is the message. [Similarly, but inversely]3 the young do not get the message of the old media save as translated and transformed via the new media.  
  • Cassirer’s insistence on the global dimension of media is valid precisely for the electronic media. Can we satisfy his UNESCO [global] stress while moving toward a [particularized] school program? (…) Let us consider that our text can easily take account of the global impact of old media today, as well as of new media on both developed and undeveloped countries.
  • the widely different effect of telegraph on news stories, and press format, as well as on diplomacy, investment banking, and the structure of decision-making in management, offers the method of revealing the nature of the medium via its effects, which is central in our project. Because this stress [on method] leads to prediction and control of our destinies as social beings. It is because of the telescoping of effects, and also the speed-up of the means of noting effects simultaneously in scattered times and places, which confers on media study a primacy today which they could not have won for themselves before.
  • It seems to me, Harry, that we can overcome the problem of electronic vs older media simply by stressing the fact of the co-existence of all media today, old and new, and therefore the fact that they are in process of modifying one another even now. Film is being changed by TV, but so is print and the book. New powers and roles for all media constantly emerge as a result of their inter-action. This basic principle can surely be made to satisfy the [NAEB research] committee about the need for studying the new media in closest relation to the old.4
  • (b) Cassirer’s second point I thought we had made fairly clear.5 Not only is the teacher to be trained while teaching the student these matters, but the student in conversation as with the teacher will be as much teacher and student. Where the essential data are possessed as much by class as by teacher, teaching ceases to be a one-way flow of potted Information. But this is true in the highest degree of poetry and language as has been realized finally by the teaching revolution of the “new criticism”. For twenty- five years I have been active in the ”new criticism”, and it is from this area of discovery that I derive my interest in the media as art forms. But don’t bring up the “new criticism” among people who cannot be expected to be familiar with it. It itself derives from Coleridge, Baudelaire, Eliot, etc, and those concerned with learning as itself part of the creative process. There is nothing specialized about this “new criticism” except that it is, accidentally, known mostly to specialists.
  • Print produced specialist categories. Electronics knocks out these older walls.
  • (c) Cassirer’s third point also good.6 But apart from such acquaintance as I have with the interest taken by other cultures in the new media (and it goes back over 20 years), it seemed unnecessary to stress such global savvy in our brief. Certainly it would be most important to use this kind of lore in the text [to be produced by the project]; eg, [as] says [Rudolf] Arnheim in Film as Art, the Americans stress ”shot”; the Russians stress montage. ”Shot” or statics is easy for [the] print cultured; montage is easy for an oral culture. Same goes for differences between our nuclear physics and the Russians’. So let us stress the UNESCO help we could rally here, if you think fit.
  • (d) Note how Cassirer assumes here in his fourth point7 that the “use of these media for the purposes of education” would leave these purposes much as they now are. The sense in which the media transform the purposes and goals he ignores, but it is our concern to ascertain.
  • (e) As for his last point,8 I shall try me hand at another sample or two that may strengthen the image of procedure. I shall sketch these in a way that can leave you a free hand, Harry, in adapting them as you see fit to a text for any level of education that you think we ought to stress. I can’t see from here just why to press harder at one level than another for the purpose of a preliminary text. After such [a] text is achieved, it can be up-graded or down-graded at will.

At the end of his letter McLuhan added:

At this late stage of briefing, you [= Skornia] must feel entirely free to include or omit what you wish or to commit me to any program of action that will get this project rolling.
Am enclosing an uncorrected galley of an essay [‘Myth and Mass Media‘]I read at Harvard last spring and which is to appear in their Daedalus in the next few weeks. Re-reading it, I realize that the particularized example is the only procedure. Talk about is no good.
One impression I should like to avoid giving is that I’m setting out to produce a text [through the NAEB project] that encapsulates what I know already. Everyday I learn more about these media. So that if I were to spend 2 years of closer study I should come up with a mass of new insight. But the more insight, the easier to communicate, the easier to teach.9

  1. Henry R Cassirer (1911-2004) was a naturalized American (originally German) journalist and diplomat who worked for CBS news in the 1940s and then became a longtime official with UNESCO.
  2. Cassirer: “I doubt that it is practicable to isolate the ‘electronic’ media for study and to contrast them with print. This leaves out film, photography and to a certain extent graphics. It is significant that much of your bibliography refers to film. I think that one must take these “new” media globally and then analyse them separately in greater detail; but that any study which leaves out film, in particular, will fail to build on acquired knowledge and be arbitrarily partial.”
  3. Instead of “Similarly, but inversely” McLuhan has “So that”.
  4. McLuhan runs together here two matters which are distinct. “The need for studying the new media in closest relation to the old” may be taken as a conceptual point, namely, that the definition of media must of course apply to all of them. But this “need for studying the new media in closest relation to the old” also arises in the investigation in the phenomenology of media — in the ways media express themselves and in doing do interact with one another. Running these together distorts both.
  5. Cassirer: “study of these media is essential from an educational point of view not merely to teach the student to appreciate them, but to teach the teacher how to use them. In other words, the project should have two objectives: proper media utilization and proper media appreciation.”
  6. Cassirer: “Any study of this kind should take note of considerable thought and experience on this subject in other countries.”
  7. Cassirer: “A distinction should be made in the use of these media for the purposes of education, their utilization as tools of the learning process and the appreciation (…) of these media when used for general communication (entertainment, information, advertising etc).”
  8. Cassirer: “I would have welcomed a very concrete passage under a separate section entitled: Method. There are references to this under Procedure and Facilities, and elsewhere, but method is neither one nor the other, and the project is liable to be judged to a considerable degree on the convincing explanation of the practical work it implies.”