McLuhan in UT President’s Report 1972

The central theme of the seminars this year was “Critique of Satisfactions, Private and Corporate, Individual and Social.” Relating to our study of media and society and politics, there was a timely visit from Mr. Joseph Foyle of Dublin who has opened a Centre for Understanding Media in Dublin. He has asked for, and been granted, the right of association with the Centre for Culture and Technology here at the University of Toronto. (Similar association has been asked for by other groups, notably in Denver, Colorado, and in Paris, France.) Mr. Foyle, having studied the work of Harold Innis and the work of the Centre for Culture and Technology, had proceeded with some surveys of politics and media in Ireland, North and South. He is planning to expand this greatly and has already published some papers on the subject.

A major project which has been one of the underlying themes of Centre seminars for the past four years has finally been completed. This consists of the book Take Today: The Executive as Dropout (Marshall McLuhan and Barrington Nevitt, published by Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, Inc., N.Y.). This book was made possible by teamwork with Barrington Nevitt, engineering and management consultant for the Ontario Government. Mr. Nevitt is an electrical engineer whose contributions to the work of the Centre have been very great indeed. Many people come regularly to the seminars to hear him and to chat with him about many of the current problems in telecommunications. Since he has been a life-long specialist in precisely this field, he has added a great and important dimension to the activities of the Centre by his enthusiastic work with everybody associated with the Centre. A great linguist, with an extensive background in many countries of the world, he is also a humanist with an avid interest in contemporary art and poetry and literature. In a word, his encyclopedism constitutes a sort of ideal for any contemporary person.

A good deal of discussion during the year related to the problems encountered in the exercise of power and the dissatisfactions relating to the possession of great wealth. The Howard Hughes case came pat to the topic and the discussions on the problem of privacy and identity in a world in which mobility has destroyed community. Directly bearing on these problems came the Clifford Irving affair which brought into prominence the entire question of media coverage as constitutive rather than as reportorial. Clifford Irving brought out the fact that the media have more power to make than to report news. Coverage itself has become the new reality, and fact and fiction merge.

Phil Pendry, a CBC cameraman, visited the seminar and presented films to illustrate a strange development in political news coverage. In the North of Ireland the participants in violence carefully timed their public actions to synchronize with the TV and news cameras. They then adjourned indoors to watch themselves on TV and to hear themselves on radio. Until the cameras were in position, all was quiet in the streets.

The factor of massive public participation in on-going events presents a special problem with regard to public trials, whether in the Eichmann affair, or the Lieutenant Calley affair, or Angela Davis, or the Manson-Tate affair. As the defendants’ lives and motives are deployed, the public identifies more and more with the defendants simply by virtue of the coverage. There always seems to be the point at which the public suddenly feels that it has become the defendant itself, and at this moment the initial defendants flip into the role of public heroes, with the public saying: “I would have done the same thing myself under these conditions.” We studied violence as both the loss of identity and the means of regaining identity, whether private or corporate. This process raises that aspect of the social organism whereby its need for pervasive encounters in order to maintain identity and momentum is now fed by its consumption of its own image in the mirror of the mass media.

The decision to limit the graduate enrolment to fifteen students has worked out very well. It had become impossible to direct or to follow the projects of thirty or more students. Monday evening sessions from 8:00 to 10:00 were also held all year. Unexpectedly, this proved an ideal way of providing a platform for the fifteen graduate students on which to meet a wide range of faculty and community representatives. These representatives were always eager to initiate dialogue on many issues relating to the entire community. So natural and pervasive did the ensuing dialogue become that it was merely enriched by unexpected visitors, of whom there were many. This, in turn, prompted the idea of an “Airport University” to be conducted as an on-going seminar at major airports. This seminar could be a sponsored show on network or cable TV. Any major airport contains numerous key figures from almost all fields of social action and administration. These people sit for varying periods awaiting transport to their ultimate destinations. Many of them would welcome the opportunity to gather around a table to share food and drink and dialogue with their fellows.

Perhaps the highlight of the Monday evening seminars was one in the spring when Dean Safarian, Dr. Doug Wright and Father John Kelly, President of St. Michael’s College, shared their interests and problems with the other participants of the seminar. By its very nature, the Centre for Culture and Technology attracts a great many visitors from East and West throughout the entire year.1


  1. McLuhan reporting as Director of the Centre for Culture and Technology, President’s Report for the Year Ended June 1972, 126-128.