RADIO / Marshalling thoughts on McLuhan: Robert Hanks on Marshall McLuhan, LSD and Eastern religion, and Britain's last living hangman

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The Independent Culture
HERE'S the late Marshall McLuhan in his own words, as heard last Thursday in The Message (Radio 3):

'When we invent a new technology, we become cannibals. We eat ourselves. We eat ourselves live, since these technologies are merely extensions of ourselves. The new environment shaped by electric technology is a cannibalistic one: it eats people.'

Got it? That quotation seems to raise two important questions about McLuhan. The first is, did his writing have any real content - did slogans like 'The medium is the message' and 'The Global Village' mean anything at all? And the second is, would he have been any good on Just a Minute? On the one hand, the fragmented, fast-moving structure and the free interplay of association and ideas would have suited him nicely; and he never hesitated to say what he was thinking. Then again, his distaste for 'linear thinking' meant that he deviated as a matter of principle; and on his showing here, he wasn't going to get through 60 seconds without being savagely buzzed for repetition.

Tessa Watt's programme for the 1968 season (sub-titled, naturally, 'The Medium Is the Message'), didn't shed much light on the second question, but offered several angles on the first. (That would have pleased McLuhan, who felt that Western thought had been handicapped for too long by the 'single point of view', as seen in paintings from the Renaissance onwards, and needed to adopt the multiple perspectives of Cubism.)

There were supporters like Neil Postman, author of the anti-television tract Amusing Ourselves to Death, who felt that McLuhan was the first person to understand how thoroughly electronic technology would transform our culture - breaking down rigid patterns of thought, stressing 'the flowing, the unified and the fused'. There were more equivocal types, who believed that his originality was marred by huge blind-spots - he regarded technology as an impartial driving-force, never treating ownership of the means of communication as an important matter. But the most attractive answer - because of its sheer virulence - came from Jonathan Miller, who characterised McLuhan's aphoristic style as 'shorthand for something that was scarcely a thought'.

To be fair, McLuhan wasn't alone in his leaning towards the snappy but meaningless. Listening to the first two programmes of The Message, on drug-culture (last Monday) and the invasion of Eastern religion (Tuesday), you realised that the Sixties was a time of short concentration-spans and cheap utopianism. McLuhan's rejection of linear argument, replacing it with provocative snippets ('probes'), had a lot in common with William Burroughs' drug-influenced experiments with 'cut-up' - randomly snipping up sentences, on paper or tape, and pasting the bits together to create a new, open-ended literary form that started nowhere, led nowhere and involved some startling connections. As the presenter Quentin Cooper put it, 'free the mind to make making connections thought tape-recorders and reassembling his writings cut-up he used disparate being cramped chasm-spanning leaps technique'.

There were other common factors: LSD and Eastern religion both offered the kind of all-embracing world- view that McLuhan felt was being promised by television (he spoke of television 'orientalising' Western thought). And both provided short, easily memorable slogans for the lazy student: 'Turn on, turn in, drop out', for instance. And 'Om'.

One topic 'The Medium Is the Message' didn't tackle was McLuhan's attitude to radio. In his view, the spoken word was a richer channel of communication than the written - 'hot', in McLuhanese - so that listening was, on the whole, superior to reading. But radio can be a very cold medium indeed - witness The Prospect of Hanging (Radio 4, Sunday), in which an interview with Syd Dernley, Britain's last living hangman, was framed by Martyn Wiley's self-consciously literary reminiscences of his own South Yorkshire boyhood.

There was a mildly macabre interest in Mr Dernley's description of how he came to be Albert Pierrepoint's assistant, and the mundane details of a hanging - the black silk hood folded in Albert's top pocket, how the knot was tied. And Wiley's sardonic remarks on the recurring hanging debate - one of the only things the British get het up about - struck a chord. What spoiled the programme were his attempts to claim Dernley's story as his own, with tales of a playground fascination with hanging, and the way he tried to turn a determinedly earthbound interview into a drama. Print leaves you with room for interpretation. Radio freezes the word, though: once it's spoken and taped, there's nowhere it can go.