Interview with Marshall Soules
© Marshall Soules and Figure/Ground
Dr. Soules was interviewed by Laureano Ralón. December 26th, 2010.
In 2009, Dr. Marshall Soules retired from Vancouver Island University (formerly Malaspina U-C), where he taught in the English Department before founding the Media Studies program. At VIU, he was Chair of Media Studies from 1998 to 2008, and directed the Media Research Lab from 2004-2009. He developed the curriculum for two Media Studies degrees; both feature a strong emphasis on Canadian media theorists and the media ecology movement. As an honorary research associate at VIU, he continues his writing and photography projects from his home in Ladysmith, B.C. His doctoral work at Rutgers University focused on the early plays of Sam Shepard to explore the “protocols of improvisation” across the performative arts. His interest in improvisation led to a series of presentations at the Guelph Jazz Festival and to the Society for Digital Humanities. In 2007, SSHRC funding provided support to document social and political messages in the public sphere as part of the Canada/Cuba Image Dialogue project. He has exhibited his photographs of distressed posters, graffiti, and street art in a number of solo and group shows. He is currently working on a textbook for Edinburgh UP — Media, Persuasion, and Propaganda – and a book of documentary photographs and commentary on Cuban propaganda called Cuba’s Revolutionary Landscape.
How did you decide to become a university professor? Was it a conscious choice?
When I started my university education at University of Toronto in 1967, I thought I wanted to study psychology but quickly discovered I was more interested in literature than the clinical psychology being taught at the time. I had always enjoyed the study of literature and writing, and found additional inspiration from literature professors such as David Godfrey at Trinity College, then some excellent teachers at Middlebury College when I transferred there to take advantage of scholarships. Great literature provides ample opportunity to study and discuss human psychology, and my BA Honors thesis at Middlebury focused on the early work of Vladimir Nabokov, with its intense and self-reflexive exploration of human motivation.
As a graduate student at Rutgers University, I was a teaching assistant from 1970 to 1973 and discovered the challenges and satisfactions of university teaching. In those days, when raising consciousness was as much on our minds as teaching academic skills, our group of TAs met regularly to discuss how to improve our teaching, open up the practise of education, and try new things in the classroom. My instructional manual in those days was Teaching as a Subversive Activity by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner. I had also discovered Marshall McLuhan and used Understanding Media as a text in one of my first-year English courses.
As a TA, I made the conscious decision to become a university teacher. I loved the interaction with students, the politics of education, the opportunities provided by the study of literature, and the research and preparation required to offer stimulating content. Despite a tendency towards bookish introversion, I enjoyed being the centre of attention in classroom discussions.
After I left Rutgers as an ABD, I taught at University of Guelph (1973-74), Niagara College (1975-77), and then Capilano College (1977-78). At Capilano, I had a crisis of confidence as a teacher: except for summer and part-time employment, I had never worked outside a university or college and realized I was biased and ill-informed about commerce and the world of work outside the institutional setting of the university. I feared I might be a charlatan, a clever bluffer preaching my ignorance and narcissism, without adequate discipline in my approach to teaching. As I’ve joked with colleagues since then, I would argue that black was white and think the exercise was good for students.
I turned down an offer to teach a full course load at Capilano College in 1978 and started a construction company with a friend, Raincoast Construction Ltd. I had some talent as a woodworker, and enjoyed the challenge of learning a trade (carpentry) and building a successful business. My wife and I also started a company to promote the music and dance of West Africa. By 1986, however, I started to feel that carpentry and construction would not satisfy my love of learning and teaching, and did not relish the thought of moving tools and construction materials in and out of buildings for the rest of my working life. Following a tip from a colleague at Capilano, I was lucky enough to find a full-time position at Malaspina College (now Vancouver Island University) beginning in 1987.
Leaving teaching for almost ten years was probably the best thing I could have done to make me a better professor, though I felt my academic career had been “set back.” At least I had learned to be more practical, focused, motivated, and responsible as a teacher—no more black is white (unless it was a class on phenomenology!)—and I rediscovered everything I loved about university teaching.
By 1994, I completed my long-delayed PhD (in English/Performance Studies at Rutgers) and set about to build a new department of Media Studies from my base in the English Department. Still a fan of McLuhan and media ecology, I was able to establish an independent department by 1998, finally with a BA Major degree by 2008. In 2009, after 22 years at VIU, I took early retirement to pursue my own writing and photographic art.
Joshua Meyrowitz’ thesis in No Sense of Place is that when media change, situations and roles change. In your experience, how did the role of university professor evolve since you were an undergraduate student?
In addition to the internal changes I describe above—professor as medium!—the most obvious and pronounced change in my teaching experience came with the internet, especially after 1994 and the emergence of the graphical user interface and worldwide web. I had been using computers as a much-improved typewriter for years, and was a relatively early adopter of the internet when I returned to teaching in the late 1980s. In 1995, I participated in a pilot project that delivered course material on the web and through video conferencing (using switch-56 technology). I routinely used the internet to offer fully online courses or to supplement traditional classroom instruction until my retirement in 2009.
At educational technology conferences throughout the 1990s, a cliché summed up how we thought about the transformational impact of the internet on education: “The sage on the stage becomes the guide by the side.” This ideal was buttressed by the vogue of constructivist pedagogy; briefly, students are supported to take a more active role in the direction of their own education. Luckily for me, the emerging technologies and attendant philosophy of constructivism suited my temperament and I took a leadership role in promoting both in a series of conference papers and in the curriculum I developed for VIU’s BA Major in Digital Media Studies. For this degree, we combined media and communications theory with courses in digital media technology (digital film, digital audio, web design, interactivity etc). Our idea was to integrate media theory and praxis, while crossing as many disciplinary boundaries as possible.
The internet is a powerful tool for learning: as a means of delivery, it supplements the traditional classroom, and opens up new patterns of interaction; as an encyclopaedic resource, it transforms how we research; it is a powerful publishing medium for students and professors; it builds social networks useful in education; and it is a fascinating subject of study for a student of the media. I hazard the generalizations that the internet contributes to a levelling of hierarchies found in universities, and contributes to a welcome erosion of disciplinary boundaries.
More specifically, I used the internet to publish student writing in my courses and argued that this practise could transform the teaching of writing: students no longer wrote for one person (the professor) but for an audience of their peers. Student writing is often more engaging, thoughtful, and careful when they know their work will read by their classmates. For fully online courses, their writing is the only means to communicate with the rest of the class.
In my work developing curriculum for two separate degrees, applying for research funding, running a department and a media research centre, and organizing a number of conferences, the internet was invaluable, but likely contributed to the feeling of being overworked and spread too thin.
While not specifically related to the introduction of a new medium, university teaching during my time became increasingly concerned with what faculty and students alike called “political correctness.” While accommodating differences is critical in the university setting, the fear of being politically incorrect had a chilling effect on open and honest dialogue. In the university context, hearing the expression of bias and prejudice can be immensely instructive, an opportunity for meaningful discussion if managed appropriately. Greater tolerance for unpopular opinions should be the hallmark of universities, and professors should be in the vanguard to encourage wide latitude of expression. How to do this requires technique worth learning.
What makes a good teacher today?
There are many styles of “good” teaching, and different teachers can make different styles work effectively. That said, I think a good teacher is a person who loves to learn, and continues to learn. This person is curious, listens well, and asks open questions to draw a motivated response from the learner(s). A good teacher has the ability to frame concepts and information to encourage critical thinking and curiosity. In the end, these good teachers get out of the way of their students’ learning, providing guidance and support as required. Because they love to learn themselves, their knowledge is deep and broad, and they communicate their learning with authority and authenticity.
Hierarchies can be useful for a university professor—for credibility, classroom discipline and management, and for institutional interactions—but should be called on judiciously. The de facto imposition of hierarchies is anathema to true education. While they are often hired for being knowledgeable and confident, good teachers are humble with their knowledge, share it freely, and admit when they are wrong. They should be “professionally paranoid” about their own learning, and recognize that their role as expert makes them susceptible to dogmatism and propaganda.
Good teachers do not feel overly constrained by disciplinary boundaries and are willing to search outside their discipline for new answers to old questions. I would go further–following the influence of Innis, McLuhan, Grant, Carpenter and other media ecologists—in suggesting that good teachers question the efficacy of the very institutions that employ them. In my experience, many university teachers defend the status quo, deny their reactionary support of government by elites, and do not adequately contribute to the progressive reforms required of their respective societies. It took me too long to recognize these biases in my teaching, and I thank former students for pointing them out.
A recurring theme in department meetings and gatherings of professional associations is the purported “decline of literacy.” I dispute this assumption and suggest that new media of communication require new skills. While there may be a demonstrable decline in print literacy in some cultures, perhaps there is a concomitant increase in visual or auditory receptivity. Good teachers, in my view, do not need to bemoan the inadequacies of their students based on outmoded measures of achievement, but engage students in their own time and with respect to their own terms.
While it is a commonplace among university teachers, the use of fear to motivate students should be used with caution, and strategically. Learning motivated by fear can stifle motivation and compromise the desired outcome. Good teachers assume that students want to learn what they need to know, and help them find ways to do so without the heavy hand of authority, but rather as a co-creator in the learning process.
Another thing I learned from personal experience: one can be an introvert and still feel at home in the university setting. Teaching is both a subversive activity and a performance. If you’re an introvert, you might have greater challenges performing as a teacher, but you also have insights to offer that extroverts may not have at hand.
As a performer, learn how to abandon your prepared script–extemporize and improvise. Do not give yourself permission to be boring, and expect the same commitment from your students. Teaching is performance. Learn to be a pro.
At the beginning of a course or program of studies, many teachers make assumptions about what their students know or should know. I advise teachers to ask students what they know about a given subject before launching into lectures or discussions based on untested assumptions.
Personally, I love humour and playfulness in university instruction, and am a big fan of story-telling in the communication of ideas—something Malcolm Gladwell, Oliver Sachs, Douglas Coupland among others practise with aplomb as writers. On a related and final note, I love teachers who establish rapport with their audiences rather than lecture to them from prepared notes.
What advice would you give to young graduate students and aspiring university professors?
I have hired both experienced and inexperienced university teachers, and know the profession does not suit everyone. It takes some experience in the university classroom to discover if the profession will suit you. (I am grateful for the opportunity I was given as a teaching assistant while in graduate school.)
Aspiring university professors should ask what it is that attracts them to the profession and do a realistic assessment of the workload and lifestyle. Ask as many of your professors as you can what they do. For example, I was always changing my readings and this involved more work than for a person who teaches the same material over and over again. Vancouver Island University was known as a “teaching institution,” and we all had heavy instructional loads. For those of us engaged in research, we had to find that time, as we said, “off the sides of our desks.” The workload for the conscientious researcher/instructor can be heavy and hectic, and may require those long summer holidays to accomplish with satisfaction.
As noted above, I believe university professors should be humble about their knowledge, willing to share it freely, and be enthusiastic to learn more. Ask yourself if you are likely to be a “lifelong learner”—this is the primary responsibility of the university professor as a model for students to emulate.
If you don’t like people, or if you think humanity is by-and-large stupid, please don’t become a university teacher. You will do more harm than good. Arrogance in a university professor is a sure sign of insecurity, something I learned from personal experience.
Universities are institutions: though often incredibly dynamic and stimulating, they can also be hierarchical, claustrophobic, reactionary, and bureaucratic. University politics are not trivial, and often require significant diplomatic skills. This is especially true if you want to develop new curriculum for senate approval.
If you have issues with the abuse of authority, as I do, be prepared to do a lot of emotional management during your university tenure. Even though you may feel vulnerable for speaking your mind about academic affairs, your colleagues will value your courage and commitment if your comments and questions are on point.
While they are institutions, universities are also communities. If you want to work in a university, be prepared to work in a network of relations and contribute to it in meaningful ways. This community contributes to your strength, and any self-imposed isolation from that community will compromise your effectiveness as a teacher and colleague. If you want to be a maverick, go into business for yourself. I tried it, and returned to the university community with a renewed sense of appreciation.
Be prepared to challenge the sacred cows of your discipline and to look for answers beyond its bounds. One of the perennial deficiencies of universities is their over-reliance on knowledge specialization. Yes, we need to specialize to become experts in our field, but we won’t become true experts until we explore beyond the bounds of its conventional wisdom.
Let’s talk about your research interests, both past and present. I know one of your areas of expertise is Canadian Communication Studies. What attracted you to the works of Innis, McLuhan et al?
As I noted previously, I discovered McLuhan—The Mechanical Bride, Gutenberg Galaxy, Understanding Media, and The Medium is the Massage—in the late 1960s when McLuhan was still being promoted as a media guru. As I recall, the route to McLuhan was through Edward Hall’s work on time (The Silent Language, 1959) and space/proxemics (The Hidden Dimension, 1966) as media of communication. It was Hall’s insight, adopted by McLuhan, that tools are extensions of the body. McLuhan’s notion that electronic media extend the human nervous system remains for me an intriguing and rich vein of exploration, and forms one of the core tenets of media ecology.
I was aware that McLuhan had collaborated with Edmund Carpenter at the University of Toronto in the 1950s and when I first read Eskimo Realities (1973), I was impressed by the intersection of anthropology and the study of communication. Insights from that book—especially about Inuit mapmaking and sculpture—continue to inspire me. I remain an enthusiastic fan of Ted Carpenter’s work, especially They Became What They Beheld (1970), Oh, What a Blow that Phantom Gave Me! (1972), and his largely unknown but monumental collaboration with Carl Schuster on Patterns that Connect (1986-88, 1998). Carpenter’s unorthodox anthropology seemed to complement McLuhan’s inspired humanities approach to create a fertile mental environment for thinking about the impact of media on culture.
The communications writings of Harold Adams Innis— Empire and Communications (1950) and The Bias of Communication (1951)—are difficult in style, but absolutely essential in establishing the political economy of communications studies. Innis’ suspicion of colonial influence, his pacifism, and his notion that change comes from the margins of empire contributed to a unique approach to communications studies that continues to resonate deeply with me. When we add the philosopher George Grant to this mix—as Arthur Kroker does in Technology and the Canadian Mind (1984) – we see an approach to communications variously informed by political economy, arts and humanities, anthropology, sociology, and philosophy. The inter-disciplinarity of this approach and its insistence on the interdependence of humanity with its lived environment is perennially provocative.
For me, Canadian communications theory is a machine to think with. As a brief illustration: Innis did not experience the internet, but his notions of media bias and empire building provide useful insights for assessing the impact of this technology on global affairs. While it may be a nationalist conceit, I still think Canadians communicate from the margins of empire and we have something unique to contribute to global dialogue as a result.
My doctoral work at Rutgers in the 1990s explored what I call the “protocols of improvisation,” how writers, actors, artists, and musicians improvise in their chosen medium. Ultimately, I was (am) interested in the notion of the improvised character, and I detect a strain of improvisation in the work of these Canadian media theorists.
Canadian Communication studies, Media Ecology, The Toronto School of Communication – do these labels signify the same thing?
I don’t think so. The Toronto School—Havelock, Innis, McLuhan, Carpenter, Frye, then de Kerckhove, Logan, and Wellman—was situated in a specific time and place, and certainly exerted tremendous influence on Canadian communication studies and the media ecology movement. But Canadian communications studies should also recognize George Grant and the Krokers (associated with McMaster), and the foundational writers indentified by Robert Babe in Canadian Communication Thought, those not generally associated with the Toronto School: Graham Sprye, John Grierson, Dallas Smythe, Gertrude Robinson and others.
The media ecology movement has its core representation of Canadians –namely Innis and McLuhan—and those influenced by them–Carpenter, Ong, Postman, Schwartz and others—but also includes many who were either not Canadians or did not attend the University of Toronto. A visit to the Media Ecology Association website will clearly show that the Toronto School is a small, but influential subset of that association. Canadians might be able to claim some inspiration for the movement, but the promotion of the media ecology brand has fallen to others such as Lance Strate, a New Yorker.
I have also argued in a conference presentation in 2006 at Ryerson University that there is a “new wave” of Canadian media theorists who carry on the pioneering work of the Toronto School and might well be considered media ecologists. Foremost among these media theorists are B.W. Powe, Paul Rutherford, the Krokers, Heather Menzies, Ursula Franklin, Murray Schafer, Barry Truax, David Rokeby, Paul Heyer and others. I also included the anthropologist Wilson Duff in that list, but his inclusion might be considered idiosyncratic in some circles.
While the conflation of Canadian communication studies, media ecology, and the Toronto School is too imprecise to be helpful, one could argue that all share considerable common ground on the broad study of media’s impact on culture. However much they may share mutual influences and concerns, these theorists have many differences worth exploring by the new wave.
Speaking of mutual influences and concerns, your work on the “protocols of improvisation” sounds fascinating. I wonder if you found the insights of Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty – with their emphases on the non-rational aspects of existence, skilful coping, and the pre-reflective, playfully absorptive engagement with the world – of any use during your research. I am interested in the connection between McLuhan’s general media theory and existential phenomenology…
I feel somewhat sheepish to admit that both Heidegger’s and Merleau-Ponty’s work did not resonate with me, even though I knew it should at the time. I found both to be overly abstract and removed from questions of embodied performance. The work that did influence me included Jacques Copeau, Victor Turner, Richard Schechner, Louis Henry Gates, Joseph Chaikin, Keith Johnstone, Antonin Artaud, Marvin Carlson, Robert Farris Thompson, John Miller Chernoff, Augusto Boal—mainly people who explored improvisation as it is practised in the arts.
It would seem useful to examine McLuhan’s theories of the media through the lens of existential phenomenology: if media extend the senses, if electronic media extend the nervous system, then the individual’s subjective apprehension of the world will also be extended and perhaps amplified. The condition of narcissus narcosis could be intensified because the extended senses return more self-reflective data, with the attendant danger of sensory overload and loss of sensory equilibrium. Judgment will be compromised.
McLuhan’s brilliant use of Poe’s “Descent into the Maelstrom” as an analogy for surviving in the whirlpool of electronic media encapsulates the phenomenological dilemma: we need something buoyant to keep us afloat, and we need the right attitude to keep us calm enough to recognize the solution. I fancy that McLuhan’s buoyant container in the maelstrom is filled with his insights about media, especially the four laws of media. Poe’s hapless mariner is forced to improvise with the tools at hand, and must also overcome fear and incapacity to act.
I suspect this doesn’t do justice to Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, or phenomenology. You’ve given me some reading to do!
I guess the beauty of eclecticism is that it leaves ample room for multiple interpretations. In fact, McLuhan’s oeuvre demands a high level of engagement on the part of an active reader who is responsible for closing the circuit; he was after all a “cool” thinker whose work has been characterized as providing a “Do-It-Yourself-Creativity-Kit” requiring a “U-Think approach to moving ideas.” In a sense, it is quite possible that McLuhan will never be fully understood – if by understanding we mean reducing his work to a mere accumulation of mummified knowledge. Perhaps he should be thought of as somebody to think with rather thanabout. I think there is something contradictory yet magical about the fact that over the years McLuhan has been classified as an instrumentalist, a determinist, a critical theorist, and so on, but in the end many of these lables didn’t quite hold. This is very phenomenological, in a way: the fact that McLuhan resists clear-cut categorizations; that his multifaceted oeuvre appears inexhaustible, and that he is simultaneously all and none of the above (it seems there is a McLuhan for everyone!) gives him a sense of transcendence which is partly responsible for a legacy that lives on decades after his death. What do you make of all of this and where would you place your own McLuhan?
Your observation that McLuhan is “somebody to think with rather than about” is an excellent insight for both the best and worst of McLuhan criticism. McLuhan himself, though writing about Innis in his introduction to The Bias of Communication provides one of the more helpful observations for approaching the work of both theorists. McLuhan praises Innis for his “pattern recognition”—a phrase William Gibson may have borrowed for one of his novels—and describes a method of building up a mosaic of insights organized by interface: “[Innis] changed his procedure from working with a ‘point of view’ to that of generating insights by the method of ‘interface,’ as it is named in chemistry. ‘Interface’ refers to the interaction of substances in a kind of mutual irritation.” McLuhan observes how juxtaposition without connectives is the method of symbolism in art and poetry, and more characteristic of dialogue than of writing. The “interplay of aspects” found in dialogue can “generate insights or discovery.” Good reading directions, I think, for both Innis and McLuhan with their shared bias towards orality as being more inclusive than print.
In many respects McLuhan was successful in turning his audience into the workforce, something he claimed for television, a cool medium with low intensity of data saturation in a single sense. Reading and thinking about McLuhan requires our full participation, and willy nilly engages our subjectivity; as you phrase it, “very phenomenological.”
This mosaic / interface technique of presentation makes demands on the reader who is asked to fill in the gaps in productive ways. Unfortunately, some of McLuhan’s critics seem to believe that providing their own idiosyncratic connections is sufficient to the task of understanding McLuhan’s take on the media. I’ve done this myself, and have seen students and critics do it.
As a person reading McLuhan since the late 60s, I’ve seen my reading of him mature to the point where I am enthusiastic about some of his insights and cool towards others. The “medium is the message” is a good insight despite the hyperbole of the phrase (and which confuses many people). “Narcissus narcosis” and a medium’s effect on the equilibrium of the senses are important insights worth further research. (If electronic media extend the central nervous system, what effect does that have on human health? Do electronic media—in delivering the shocks of the global village to their audience–contribute to stress and heart disease?) The laws of media are an excellent starting point for evaluating the impact of a new medium on culture, though many of the examples cited by the McLuhans are unconvincing to me. For example, radio was not made obsolete by television any more than computers replaced paper. Again, the tendency toward hyperbole has caused misunderstanding. Some probes hit the mark, others don’t. The reader’s labour discovers the difference.
Despite the potential pitfalls of reading McLuhan (and Innis), the insights they generate with their interface method are worth the effort, and are improved by years of experience with the media. I’m still working on my own private McLuhan and recommend the journey to those who can tolerate large dollops of paradox and ambiguity in their thinking. I think of McLuhan as a charter member of the association of tricksters, founded to challenge the status quo and reinvigorate culture by creating, in Barbara Babcock’s phrase, “a tolerated margin of mess.” Tricksters, straddling the boundaries of culture, act as mediators between what we think we know, and what we need to know to survive as a culture. McLuhan provides that function, still.
I personally enjoy the fact that many of McLuhan’s insights are encapsulated in catchy phrases – granular knowledge, as it were. This is very convenient, isn’t it? These aphorisms provide a good point of entry into the complexity of his thought and can even be said to function as “cool” structures that encourage the reader to think with McLuhan, if notthrough him. However, I also find it alarming that twenty-eight years have elapsed since McLuhan’s death and what remains most alive about his extensive oeuvre – especially in mainstream discourse – is a simplified take on some of his probes and aphorisms. To this day people continue to encounter McLuhan through these and other metaphors without fully understanding the significance of his entire system. To advance McLuhan, I think it is necessary to think McLuhanistically. This, I believe, requires dealing with McLuhan on its own terms by approaching his eclectic oeuvre from a different standpoint – that is, a playfully absorptive stance which accepts his work as being in “constant flux” rather than an accumulation of mummified theoretical insights disguised as clichés. In a word, focusing on the most obvious clichés, the area of attention, may bar us from making discoveries at the level of the ground, the area of inattention. The points of contact between McLuhan and phenomenology, for example, are well at the periphery of his oeuvre – but they are very much there; and the same applies to the connection with critical theory, which was brilliantly articulated by Grosswiler et al. My question to you is: what is your suggested approach for engaging McLuhan without just uncritically worshipping him, and how do we move beyond McLuhan without abandoning him?
Most commentary on McLuhan focuses on Understanding Media (especially the first seven chapters), The Medium is the Massage (fun, quick, provocative), possibly with some acknowledgement of the laws of media, and ideas expressed in the Playboy interview–what you call the area of attention. The main area of inattention is The Gutenberg Galaxy and The Mechanical Bride. In The Mechanical Bride, one can see McLuhan fully engaging with popular culture in the form of advertising, and honing his characteristically playful, ironic, punning, and referential writing style. Many critics consider The Gutenberg Galaxy one of his best works, and I agree. Taken together with his introduction to The Bias of Communication, we discover McLuhan under the profound influence of Harold Innis and, as Ted Carpenter observes in “That Not-So-Silent Sea,” of Dorothy Lee.
My first suggestion for engaging McLuhan with some critical distance and appreciation of his influences would be to read the early work (The Mechanical Bride, The Gutenberg Galaxy, the “Introduction” to Bias of Communication), take a look at the essays in Explorations in Communications, and read Carpenter’s useful essay. Understanding Media and the books that follow can then be perceived as figures against the ground of McLuhan’s perennial interest—the rhetorics of media. (The publication in 2006 of McLuhan’s PhD thesis, The Classical Trivium: The Place of Thomas Nashe in the Learning of His Time, reinforces the sense that he was dedicated to compiling a kind of rhetoric of media effects.)
While the Laws of Media is far from satisfying as a book, the student of McLuhan should work with the tetrad of laws, using them as a machine for thinking about media. For example, try running social networking through the tetrad.
Many of McLuhan’s insights were based on his eclectic reading and his intuitions about how media function. For a person who stressed that the medium is the message, some of his observations about the mechanics of a given medium could be truly baffling, and others would surely benefit from further research. Recent developments in the cognitive sciences, in conjunction with magnetic resonance imaging and brainwave monitors could be used to test the impact of a medium on the human sensorium. To what extent does a medium alter sensory equilibrium? This kind of empirical testing is not trivial since isolating the stimuli would be difficult and tend to decontextualize the effect(s). (Analogously, Jacques Ellul argues that propaganda cannot be analysed in isolation because it functions within a network of influences.)
Let’s take McLuhan’s ideas about hot and cool media, sensory equilibrium, extension of the senses, electro-acoustic space, the tribal echoland, Narcissus narcosis, reversal of the over-heated medium and test them, if possible, with some degree of rigour. Reading McLuhan is stimulating, and he often seems to stimulate a desire in his critics—me included–to free-form, probe, and prognosticate.
If we study McLuhan in the company of Innis and Carpenter, we will see the continuing need to further our study of the political economy and anthropology of media. In this fashion, we would retrieve the best of McLuhan and make genuine contributions to his pioneering approach to media analysis.
Finally, McLuhan considered artists to be the early warning systems of their respective cultures, and we should look to artists like David Rokeby, B.W. Powe, Edward Burtynsky and many others to see how his ideas are flourishing.
Finally, what are you currently working on and when is your next book/article coming out?
In the coming year (2011), I’ll be writing a textbook for Edinburgh University Press, in their Media Topics series edited by Valerie Alia, called Media, Persuasion, and Propaganda. This text will review oral, written, and visual rhetorics of persuasion for an undergraduate audience, with an additional emphasis on the performance of propaganda. It is scheduled for publication in March 2012.
My book called Cuba’s Revolutionary Landscape is almost complete and I’ll be trying to find a publisher while writing the propaganda textbook. This project features my photographs of Cuban visual propaganda taken from 2005 to 2009 (partially funded by SSHRC), and provides commentary on the billboards (murales) and social murals arrayed across the Cuban landscape to further the goals of the socialist revolution. The most interesting of the murales challenge the on-going attempts of the U.S. government to isolate Cuba behind an economic embargo, and U.S support of anti-Cuban terrorists such as Luis Posada Carriles and Orlando Bosch. I’m hoping this project will see publication in 2012 as well.
Next on the agenda is a book on street art—collaged and distressed posters, graffiti, and stencils. The commentary will present these images as a collective improvisation demonstrating a class war between those with limited financial means and those with the resources to saturate the urban environment with images promoting consumption and prosperity. I have completed extensive research on municipal legislation, the legal issues associated with management and control of the urban visual landscape, and social attitudes towards the proliferation of unauthorized images in the public sphere. The agents of property—both public and private–are at war with vandals and nomads, the folk devils of our time. Again, a heavily-illustrated book that will be a challenge to publish; perhaps this and the Cuba project will be illustrated articles instead of books.
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