Tuesday, November 15, 2005

McLuhan's Ghost

Author's Note: This story was written to introduce a workshop on story telling.

Marshall McLuhan has haunted me for 41 years. Ever since reading Understanding Media in 1964 and Culture is Our Business in 1970, McLuhan's insights and diabolic turns of phrase have lain dormant in my brain, occasionally surfacing to interrupt a train of thought. Like a virus whose genetic structure takes over it's host's, McLuhan's memes have infected my brain, flitting around like ghosts, multiplying and modifying the way I perceive and think.

"The medium is the message."

"Media are the extensions of man."

"Hot and Cool media."

I think I am possessed.

My infection was dormant. Why now has it developed into a full-fledged haunting?

The short answer is that I was called.

The Wizard of Ads sent the first call. No, really, he's an honest to goodness wizard who practices his wizardry on a hill between Austin and Buda in his castle. He pretends to be a normal human who goes by the name of Roy Williams, but he is a wizard never-the-less.

His wizard-o-gram arrived mysteriously on my computer on November 22, 2004. Its title was "Marketing Without Media", an insightful piece about the declining effectiveness of mass media advertising. McLuhan's ghost started to stir.

The second call came from a guru, friend of mind. He asked me to call the Wizard of Ads. Nick G., also a friend and colleague of the Wizard, had spoken to the Wizard about me and the Wizard would like to talk with me.

In our telephone conversation, the Wizard mentioned an e-mail that he had gotten from someone who had also read his wizard-o-gram and commented that McLuhan had predicted that media technology always reverses itself. The Wizard asked if I knew what that meant. I said no. The challenge was given. The haunting started.

The last call came from a most unexpected source. A Wiccan brought me an article written by Norman Mailer published in, of all places, Parade, in January 2005. Donna P. knew that I was on this quest, and thought I should read it. Mailer's article, "One Idea", outlined his concern about the impact of television, and the increase of advertising, on the attention span of children and their declining ability to read. All the forty-year-old McLuhan memes were activated. This didn't sound right to me and I wrote back to Mailer telling him so. I was committed.

And, I was possessed.

I read and reread all of the books by McLuhan that are still in print. I began to write and talk about what I was learning. I am now beginning to understand what I knew 40 years ago. And, I still have a lot more to integrate and understand.

If this sounds like a mythological quest, it is. I'm not a hero, but this true story, follows all of the major elements of Campbell's "Heroes Journey" in The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

When called on a quest, the hero has many choices. The mythological quest is really a journey into the self, the subconscious. Having accepted the call, and acting upon that call, if you reach the true understanding, your choice is whether to stay there (and become a shaman) or to travel back (and become a teacher) and teach others what you have learned. My quest is the latter.

McLuhan began to warn us over fifty year's ago in his first book, The Mechanical Bride: The Folklore of Industrial Man, that we were transitioning from the literate to the post-literate age. He called the post-literate age "acoustic" as he struggled to explain what he was perceiving.

As the Wizard of Ads has been saying, "A picture is not worth a thousand words. A word is worth a thousand pictures."

The post literate age has many similarities with the pre-literate age, including the power of the spoken word, and mimesis. Like the preliterate age that was filled with mystery and things that went bump in the night, our world is incomprehensible, and equally frightening. And, as pre-literate peoples gathered around a fire* in the dark of night and told stories that explained life's mysteries, so do we now gather. We live in a mosaic world of events for which there is no apparent cause and no apparent meaning. Stories provide the meaning.

* Author's note: This was not planned. Unknown to me, the facilitators arranged the workshop in a semicircle around a large candle.

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