In which the author massages the medium
I was still in high school when my father predicted I would write my PhD thesis on John Lennon. Theoretically, it’s still possible. I ain’t got no PhD. Though it seems implausible now, my Lennon Studies was advanced significantly when I found in my high school library The Playboy Interviews with John Lennon & Yoko Ono, interviews by David Sheff (1981) and Come Together: John Lennon in His Time by Jon Wiener (1984).
The Wiener book analyzes Lennon’s radical politics from a leftist perspective, presenting him as a political figure more than a musician (“A working class hero is something to be”: Lennon, 1970). The Playboy Interviews were conducted in 1980, as Lennon prepared to re-introduce himself to the world following five years of isolation.
PLAYBOY: What have you been doing?
LENNON: I’ve been baking bread.
LENNON: And looking after the baby.
PLAYBOY: With what secret projects going on in the basement?
LENNON: Are you kidding? There are no secret projects going on in the basement. Because bread and babies, as every housewife knows, is a full-time job. There ain’t no space for other projects.
PLAYBOY: Why did you become a househusband?
LENNON: It was a case of heal thyself.
Later (1987, I believe, because I had started university), Q107 broadcast the Playboy Interviews in a weekly show, and I recorded a great many of them. So, you see my father was on to something. Around the same time, in the window of a shop on Bloor Street, I saw a limited-edition print of a John Lennon sketch: him at the piano, singing, joyful. I bought it, and it has had a prominent place in my home(s) ever since, sparking conversation. My father-in-law, from Liverpool, wasn’t a fan. Liverpool named its airport after Lennon.
“He was a drug addict, not really someone who should be celebrated, was he?”
“He wrote, ‘Imagine,’” I said. “That’s enough.”
The film Above Us Only Sky (2018) shows, though, Yoko Ono’s influence hung heavily over the song. As Wikipedia notes: “Shortly before his death, Lennon said that much of the song's lyrics and content came from his wife.” So maybe it should be the John Lennon Yoko Ono Airport?
In my teen years, there was so much about Lennon that interested me, and he is still one of my foundation stones, though I don’t engage with Lennon as trope much anymore, and I can understand why there is unease about him, though not because he was a drug addict. Phoebe Bridgers, for example, on her album, Punisher (2020), has a lyric on the song “Moon Song”:
And we fought about John Lennon
Until I cried
And then went to bed upset
Yeah, well. Lennon inspires polarizing opinions. He is certainly someone with a complicated history that’s still shaking out. It’s possible to take any position regarding Lennon and find evidence to back it up. Considered in total? It’s a complex legacy.
What I dug about him was his transparency, his (apparent) authenticity, his questing, his art school background, and his Teddy Boy attitude. Also, his wit and his literary sensibility. Literary? Yes, he published two books, even as The Beatles were topping the charts. In 1985, when my family visited England for six weeks, one of my missions was to acquire copies of these books: In His Own Write (1964) and A Spaniard in the Works (1965). The mission was successful. They are books of verse and drawings, evoking a brand of British silliness that was familiar in my growing up house from my father’s records of The Goon Show.
In the 2021 long new print of the Let it Be documentary (The Beatles: Get Back), there is a scene where Lennon makes a remark and someone says, “That’s clever.” He replies, “Literary Beatle, you know.”
In my piece on my history of concert going, I noted that Lennon was the gateway drug to Dylan, as he was the gateway drug to the Sixties generally. Here, I’m going to say that Lennon was the gateway drug to McLuhan. When I was in grade 12, I found in my high school library a copy of Marshall McLuhan’s Counterblast (1969). I remember having that book in my physics class on my desk beside my Bunsen burner and the teacher, Mr. (Art) Geddis, making a remark: “Are you reading that?”
He was a great physics teacher, a great teacher, overall, and he later went to the University of Western Ontario to teach teachers. But I was more interested in reading than questions about whether light was a wave or a particle. I remember we had slinkies in the hall, making waves and pulses. In grade 13, I made a fake documentary video about the destruction of the school for media studies class, and I had him in a scene acting as a mad scientist. He was great, marking up all over the board and then landing a conclusion that something strange was happening. I made this short film, I guess we would call it today, with my pal, RP, and the tone was based on a made-for-TV fake documentary, The Canadian Conspiracy (1985), available for viewing on YouTube.
Later, I found a copy of Counterblast in a used bookstore and happily snatched it up. Later still, one of McLuhan’s granddaughters was in my wife’s book club, and we exchanged pleasantries.
It was interesting to me that McLuhan taught at the University of Toronto, specifically he had been an English professor, and he was trying to articulate something important: the change. The advent of a mass media world. Of course, from the perspective of 2022, the mass media world of the 1950s and 60s seems positively quaint, but it’s not for no reason that Wired Magazine named McLuhan its Patron Saint, sometimes called the Patron Saint of the Internet. McLuhan argued that the printing press had changed humanity’s relationship to the world, and electronic media introduced a similar transformative break.
Passages like this I took to heart, even as I struggled to understand it. Indeed, who can understand it? Does it even make sense? Later, I would get two English degrees and no professor ever assigned McLuhan, though from time to time I tried to find a way to insert his thought into my essays.
Let’s unpack this a bit. “Any highway eatery with its TV set, newspaper and magazine is as cosmopolitan as New York or Paris.” This phrase—which I’ve recalled since first encountering—illustrates one of McLuhan’s popular ideas: the Global Village. Electronic media shrinks, even erases, space, removes barriers to access to information. The internet, of course, accelerated that many times over. If you had told me in the 1980s that I could access The New York Times multiple times a day from my living room, seeing updates published repeatedly, it would have amazed me. Also, I would have said: McLuhan was right. We are becoming a Global Village. But contradictions in the information universe have multiplied. The barriers to information have eroded, but is every highway eatery as cosmopolitan as New York or Paris? Not on your life. Instead, the idea of the cosmopolitan has been eroded, as the lack of information barriers have allowed the old anti-Semitic tropes to grow like nuclear powered yeast. Increased access to information has not led to a new Renaissance; it has empowered Fascism.
Social media has made things immeasurably worse. Facebook was a McLuhanesque idea, but by gamifying information it (and Twitter) has increased social polarization, to say the least.
So what is Twitter built to do? It’s built to gamify conversation. As C. Thi Nguyen, a philosopher at the University of Utah, has written, it does that “by offering immediate, vivid and quantified evaluations of one’s conversational success. Twitter offers us points for discourse; it scores our communication. And these gamelike features are responsible for much of Twitter’s psychological wallop. Twitter is addictive, in part, because it feels so good to watch those numbers go up and up” (NY Times, April 27, 2022)
And I’m sure McLuhan didn’t predict NFT poetry. A lot of things are going on now that I would have been really curious about in the 1980s. I have never been a video gamer, but video game theory is one of the children of literature and McLuhan. In 1998, I participated in the Canadian Film Centre’s New Media Program and read Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyber Space (1998) by Janet H. Murray. Video games were increasingly involving the “user” in the story, interactively, “immersively.” The form would continue to evolve, Murray argued, until the emergence of a work of art equivalent to Hamlet would be produced, and then it would have … really proven something? Except, wouldn’t McLuhan say the medium is the message, and a video game cannot be a play. The experience is simply different. The medium is the thing, form determines content.
Decades ago, the Canadian media analyst Marshall McLuhan thought about the ascent of modern media technology. He liked to use the story by Edgar Allen Poe, “A Descent into the Maelström,” to illustrate the condition that we are in.
“Poe imagines the situation in which a sailor, who has gone out on a fishing expedition, finds himself caught in a huge maelstrom or whirlpool. He sees that his boat will be sucked down into this thing,” recounted McLuhan, paraphrasing Poe’s story.
In order to survive, the sailor looks around and studies the action of the storm. He observes patterns and recognizes them for what they are. Sometimes things appear. Sometimes things disappear. By carefully noting the reality of certain recurring patterns, he is able to infer what is needed for his survival.
He grabs hold of what does not disappear. He hangs on to what he reasonably thinks can carry him out of the storm. He trusts a proven pattern of salvation that he was able to observe. And eventually he is saved.
I remember another McLuhan quote about pattern recognition, where he said there was no need to read an entire book to understand it. He suggested reading every other page; the mind fills in the rest. I engaged a strategy something like that to get me through all the reading for my MA!
Meanwhile, back in the 1980s I followed up my interest in media studies in books like Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (1985), and in the 1991-92 school year I wrote a weekly column for Imprint, the University of Waterloo student newspaper, called “Media Surfing.” The purpose of that column was to provide an analysis of media that would reveal the structures behind the surface images/text. Actually, I don’t think I ever found my footing, or perhaps ever said anything interesting, but it was fun and a challenge to write 400-500 words each week, riffing skeptically on a topic of current interest.
In grade 12, it seemed unlikely that I would ever be doing any such thing, like getting a degree in English: Rhetoric and Professional Writing. On my mid-year English exam, I achieved a mark of 30%, failing miserably. When I graduated my BA in 1992, I took my parents to a small party hosted by one of the professors for graduates. My father told the professor I’d come a long way: “In grade 12 Michael’s English mark was 30%.” True, but just one exam. What happened next is what’s more important. I went to my teacher and asked how I could make it up. Could I write a special one-off essay? She said I could.
So, I did, but it wasn’t an English essay per se. It was a persuasive essay about free speech, or something like that. It was about the new trend to put warning labels on music, led by U.S. Senator Al Gore’s wife, Tipper, and opposed by, among others, Frank Zappa.
I can’t remember exactly what I argued, though probably that warning labels on music was a dumb idea. What I do remember is I asked for help from Ms. Vibert, my grade 11 law teacher, because of all the teachers I had in high school I trusted her the most. She seemed to see me clearly, which isn’t something I experienced from other teachers. I asked her if she would review my essay before I handed it in and give me interim feedback. She said she would, and she did, and I got a mark much better than 30%, and more importantly, I got a better sense of what “real writing” was. It saved my educational career. I don’t think that’s an exaggeration.
How is it that I know her first name? Dale. I’ve remembered that all these years. A year later, when I was one of the photo editors for my grade 13 yearbook, I took her photograph, and it turned out great. In grade 11, her law class was the most organized class I had ever experienced. I could see that she came prepared, wasn’t “winging it,” had clear educational goals and clear examination measurements. I trusted her and I respected her, and she made other teachers look bad, frankly. She was, truth be told, probably not much older than I was, if she’d recently graduated teacher’s college. She was keen and impressive. My major project for my law class was a presentation about Osgoode Hall. I went to the building at University Avenue and Queen Street, only two blocks away from where I now go to the office for work, wandered around taking a roll of slide film, and, with a fellow student, presented the slides to the class with a narrative about the history of the place. Afterwards, Ms. Vibert said she knew I did more work on the project than my colleague did, and she would give me more marks, but I said it didn’t matter. She could mark us both the same. I also remember that she wrote in my yearbook that Waterloo was a party school. Have fun! But party, party was not my personality. I think she knew that, too, and was teasing.
I didn’t expect to do my PhD thesis on John Lennon, but I did expect to have more of an academic engagement with the work of Marshall McLuhan, because I thought he was on to something and surely in the academy they would, too. In the early 80s, a cultural transformation appeared to be happening that confirmed McLuhan’s intuitions. And Toronto was central to it, as Toronto had been central to producing McLuhan, whose intuitions sprang, oddly enough, from earlier Canadian work on communications theory and history, such as The Fur Trade in Canada (1930) by Harold Innis. Also, McLuhan’s deep engagement with High Modernism and colleagues like The Pound Era (1971) writer, Hugh Kenner. Counterblast is a reference to BLAST, a 1914 publication put together by Wyndham Lewis for the Rebel Art Center, London, UK.
The 1980s saw the emergence of music television, MTV in the US, MuchMusic in Canada. But before there was MuchMusic, there were the antics of CityTV, such as the after-school show, “Toronto Rocks” with J.D. Roberts, now John Roberts of Fox News. City also had a show, “The New Music,” with Daniel Richler and Laurie Brown. There was also an all-night music video show with Christopher Waters, which was replayed on the cable channel the next day. It was the true precursor to MuchMusic, and we would sit watching it for hours, the silliness, the weird videos, the wild experimental nature of the whole thing, which was new and in the process of being born. Moses Znamier, CityTV founder and guru, later presented his McLuhanesque TV thesis: “Ten Commandments of Television.” Surely, the spirit of McLuhan was alive, well, and worthy of engagement.
But there was something else going on, which I was slow to pick up. Computers.
When I was in junior high (1980-83), one day the school had a movie in the cafeteria for the students. This was unusual in and of itself. The subject of the movie, though, was odder. It was about computers. What I remember are the lines and lines of 0s and 1s. 010101010101010. Plus, big banks of mainframes. Paper “computer cards.” The message here was, what? It didn’t interest me. But in retrospect, I think the school was trying to say, “Here is the future,” because it certainly was. Some math nerds got it, or it found them. There was a computer club at the junior high, and I joined because it gave us access to the Commodore computers in the back room in the library, where we could go after school to play Space Invaders. Some of the kids there knew how to program; some of us knew where to find fun.
The first computer we had at home was a Commodore 64. The computer used the BASIC language. My father went to a presentation at the school, and he came home having learned that BASIC was a language, not an adjective. I wrote some basic programs on the 64, using BASIC, as I later wrote some programming for the mandatory computer science classes I took at UWaterloo, but it all seemed dull to me. I wrote a program that mimicked a stockbroker game we played, developing a logic loop of IF/THEN statements and numbers randomly generated. The computer was a tool to achieve an end. Strange, that, because I saw the television as McLuhan saw it, as a medium that was transforming consciousness. I didn’t get that insight regarding computers until I saw my first web browser. Oh, I thought. It’s TV, but interactive. THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING. That was 1994.
The first issue of Wired magazine was March/April 1993, when I was in Saskatoon. In 1994, I returned to Waterloo for a part-time job at the Mennonite Reporter. My brother was still on campus, though, and I remember dropping into the computer lab and “surfing” the web for the first time. Interesting verb, hey? “Surfing.” Same verb I used for my media criticism column in 1991-92: Media Surfing.
I’m going to confess now that I didn’t read much when I was in high school. I read a lot as a child and into junior high, but in high school my attention went to other media, in the McLuhan sense. I taped a bunch of my uncle David’s records. I bought my own records. I went out regularly to all of Toronto repertory theatres, watching old movies and filling in blanks in my cultural education. I hung out with my buddies, and we played a lot of sports: baseball in summer, football in fall, hockey in winter. My best classes were art and media studies, which was basically photography. In my graduating year, the school was half demolished. Built in the 1920s, the school had once been surrounded by farm fields. Newer wings were added in the 1960s, and the school in my time had over 2,000 students. It was easy to go unnoticed, and that was my strategy most of the time. Drift and observe. I was able to move between groups, never being claimed by any, also not being rejected by any. I thought everything was relative, reality a fabrication, perspective malleable, truth the property of art.
In grade nine, I thought my life would be about visual art, but my mother came home from a parent-teacher interview to inform me that my art teacher had said pursing art as a career was a hardship. I never really recovered from that. Art was all I really cared about. It was all I was good at, it seemed to me. My grandfather had been an artist, a designer, surely, I could, too. I hung around the Ontario College of Art, trying it out for size. I thought about doing Radio & Television Arts, but I was not interested in broadcasting or audio production. So, when it came time to apply for post-secondary programs, I turned away from art and decided to go to university instead—for English—because it was the most “creative” of the academic subjects. And the program I applied to—Rhetorical and Professional Writing—wasn’t just a lit program; it was “writing,” too.
In grade 13 (1986-87), I took two English classes: Writer’s Craft and the other one. Literature? I had recovered from my 30% exam debacle and my mid-year exam this time earned me 96%. I decided I would start reading outside of what I was assigned in class for the first time in years, and I picked up D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love (1920). The English moderns were what I considered “good writing.” I had no sense of literary history, tradition, trends, or post-modernism, even though I had absorbed a good lot of it and could articulate it, even without the formal knowledge of it. For a lot of my high school English classes, I had hated the pedagogy, the “search for symbols” that it seemed to involve; it seemed a false game, not grounded in meaning making but in puzzle solving.
For Writer’s Craft my major project was what I called a play, but it was really a dialogue. There were only two voices, and its title was borrowed from John Lennon: Instant Karma. Its theme was the malleability of reality, or as Nabokov says, “reality” (Nabokov famously said reality is the only word that should always appear in scare quotes). Interestingly, when I looked up my old Media Surfing gig in the Imprint Archives, the first one that came up was from March 20, 1992, and it concerned the nature of reality.
Reality, paradoxically, is a slippery concept. Constructed out of words, it can be blown apart in a critical maelstrom, deconstructed as it were. Insofar as fiction is a construction of reality—an illumination of experience, a reflection of insight—reality exists as a subjective function, different for every person in every moment of time and space. And therein lies the danger of accepting the truth of any particular news report.
The piece begins with a long quotation from Ronald Sukenick’s The Death of the Novel (1969), though I took that quote from a volume of essays about Kurt Vonnegut.
All I can say is that the nature of reality remained a preoccupation from my grade 13 project to my final months as a Bachelor of Arts student, straight through to today. The title of my first book was Thirteen Shades of Black and White (1999), after all, and though many of those stories were Carveresque, sure, they also queried the process of storytelling, too. They are anxious about what can be said, how it can be said, how people can connect when so much seems uncertain.
Then there’s this whole Art/Life framing. Consistent much?
While writing this piece, I remembered a Facebook post I wrote following my 50th birthday. I wrote a small series of posts, remembering different events in my life. This one was about my grade 13 creative writing project from Kofsky’s class. I searched it up, and here it is.
Nov 3, 2018
Reflection #7 on Turning 50
In grade 13, I wrote a drama called "Instant Karma (We All Shine On)". Yes, that's the title of a John Lennon song. I just went right out and stole it. It was 1987.
My so-called play was about the nature of reality. It was a couple of characters talking about what was real, and what wasn't, and how you might be able to tell the difference between one state and the other. My teacher hated it. He read a draft and then suggested I watch the movie version of Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"
I did watch it. I didn't change anything in my so-called play as a result. My teacher said, "I guess that didn't work." I wasn't sure what he wanted me to get out of it. Maybe ... more conflict? My drama was a conversation, more along the lines of a Platonic dialogue, though I hadn't read any of those at that time. I think the so-called play might be in a box I have around here somewhere, and I'm kind of curious to read it now.
Years later, I saw "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" in the west end in London, staring Kathleen Turner. I had bought a single ticket and sat close to the stage. Holy! What a play! What a character! (I didn't remember it being so smouldering....)
What were Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor thinking when they agreed to shoot that movie? Was that part of marriage #1 for them, between marriages, or part of marriage #2?
I think I know what my teacher wanted me to do with my so-called play now, but I also still think he missed the point.
Instant karma is going to get you. We all shine on.
My teacher for that class was Mr. Kofsky. About a decade later, when I was back living in my parents’ basement and had finished an MA and was busy being underemployed in the 90s, I had “too many books,” so I packed a bunch in a box and took them to the high school, thinking I would donate them to the library. I took them to the office and one of the school secretaries asked if I would like to say hello to any of the teachers.
“If Mr. Kofsky is around, I’ll say hi to him,” I said.
Kofsky came to the office and said he had no idea who I was. Didn’t remember me at all. He asked me who else was in my class. I named someone, a girl with a big personality.
“I remember her,” he said, giving me a second look.
“That was my class. You don’t remember me at all.”
Speaking of reality, I was obviously not part of Kofsky’s, but he has remained part of mine.
In another post, I noted one reading assignment from Kofsky’s class recently, a short story by a fellow teacher in that school, Terence M. Green. My brother took one of Mr. Green’s classes, but I didn’t. I remembered that short story, “Barking Dogs,” from 1987 until I read it again recently, having downloaded the full collection, The Woman Who Is The Midnight Wind (1987), to my Kindle. Another reading assignment was an excerpt from David Foster Wallace’s Broom of the System (1987), which I recognized years later when I read that book in full. “This is that thing from Kofsky’s class.” In my other English class, we had an anthology of recent Canadian short fiction as a textbook, and we read a Carol Shields story that stuck with me, and I referenced it in an essay I wrote for Canadian Notes & Queries, Number 80 (Summer/Fall 2010), on the Short Stories of Carol Shields. So, some good came of all of that.
Margaret Laurence died, January 5, 1987, and everyone thought Margaret Atwood had died, because no one could tell the difference between the two Margarets. No 18-year-olds in East York, anyway. I had no idea who Margaret Lawrence was, but I had heard of Margaret Atwood. She’d gone to Leaside High School, the main local competitor high school to my own, the “preppy” school, which in my eyes taints her work. LOL.
As I prepared to leave for the University of Waterloo in September 1987, I saw a story on the news about the writer and professor Eric McCormack. He’d published a book of short fiction, Inspecting the Vaults (1987). As Wikipedia says, McCormack is known for “works blending absurdism, existentialism, crime fiction, gothic horror and the search for identity and personal meaning.” The news story showed him surrounded by students, his evident charisma shining. My father said, “Maybe you’ll have him as a professor.” Strangely, it never happened, but McCormack was well positioned to help me integrate my interest in McLuhan and the implications of communications theory with my impulsive interest in literature and desire to write. He wrote his PhD on Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), which influenced his creative writing, but he also taught contemporary literature and post-modern perspectives. I once snuck into this class to get the McCormack experience. I can’t remember what he was lecturing on, but he made a comparison to Henry James.
“You read James and you get pages and pages of description, and you’re wondering if anything is going to happen, and then one character turns to the other and asks, ‘Would you like a cup of tea?’”
Later, I shared some of my fiction with him and spoke to him a little. I noted once that one of the promotional blurbs on Inspecting the Vaults said: “Makes murder seem like an everyday event.”
“But it is an everyday event,” I said.
“Exactly. You see that, don’t you? Good for you.”
You have to imagine that in a Scottish brogue. Tally ho, Eric! Sláinte!
ADDENDUM: After I posted this, I discovered there is a new take on Understanding Media about to be published. Re-Understanding Media: Feminist Extensions of Marshall McLuhan (May 2022), by Sarah Sharma (Editor), Rianka Singh (Editor). Glad to know the response, engagement, and challenges to and with McLuhan’s legacy continue.