Interview with Roman Onufrijchuk

© Roman Onufrijchuk and Figure/Ground
Dr. Onufrijchuk was interviewed by Laureano Ralón. December 23rd, 2010.

Donations can be made to the Roman O. Undergraduate Memorial Bursary or to the For Roman and Rita, in a time of need GoGetFunding campaign.

Roman Onufrijchuk is a former senior lecturer in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University. He was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, where he spent his early youth in Yorkton, Saskatchewan, then living and working variously in Saskatoon, SK and Edmonton, AB.  Following over 10 years in print, TV and radio, he arrived in Vancouver in 1982 to attend graduate school at SFU’s School of Communication, where he began teaching in 1985.  Since then – with the exceptions of a one-year stint as a visiting professor at the University of Peter Mohyla Academy in Kiev, Ukraine, and two years as supervisor of the Communication Arts program at Dubai Women’s College in the UAE – he has taught at Simon Fraser.  Roman has been Program Director of two radio stations, as well as Director of Television Programming for British Columbia’s provincial educational broadcaster, the Knowledge.  In addition to his work in broadcasting, Dr. Onufrijchuk has been director of programming for Arts and Design with Continuing Studies at SFU and, for over ten years, Chair of the Pacific Cinémathèque’s Board of Trustees. His research focuses on media theory, history of media, social and cultural implications of new media and robotics, and the history of the field of communication studies.

How did you decide to become a professor? Was it a conscious choice?

I started out in broadcasting, this following cultural animation and articulation in a diaspora community in Canada.  The latter required moving between cultural idioms, understanding, explaining and sometimes interpreting them between cultures, individuals, social groups, governments.  Born into a family of post-WWII “DP’s” who’d found themselves torn violently from their homeland, and in the midst of a very different culture, I learned to straddle between understanding and dismay early on – home was one culture, compellingly sung and written in memory and regret; on the street and in school was another, promising in intimations of “progress,” participation and pleasures.  The older I got, the more explaining I found myself doing.  I guess teaching emerged as something of an avocation, though I was in my 30s by the time I started doing it in the classroom.

Parents had hoped I’d go law or medicine, but I went TV, then radio, and after a reasonably good start to a career, decided that the 3 minute “item” (a rendition of a matter of any complexity, often enough short-changing the audience, the reported exigence, and the reporter), was limiting and limited.  At any rate, by the time the 03:00 minute item began to drive me up a wall, I had moved into the programming side of broadcasting – usually directorships of programming for radio stations and then again, full circle, back to TV.  That sort of work – “editorial” in the press world – suited me better, and kept me in the media a while longer.  But this too became increasingly shallow.  So, I “dropped out” of that, and tuned in at university.  I’ve continued working in broadcasting and community articulation off and on and still doing bits here or there.  By the time I got to SFU to complete my undergraduate degree I was some 10 years older than the average undergrad, so, having finished that and accepted into graduate studies, the department chair offered me a sessional posting. To be sure, the media had always been a fascination, and the literature and ideas I was working with added a great deal of depth to that fascination.  In the class room, I think I must have transmitted something of the fascination and passion I felt, results were, and continue to be, positive student response.

Teaching, I discovered, straddles knowing and the state of unknowing, a kind of reverse engineering from knowledge back to ignorance in order to repeat the path while helping the interested along the trail.  Didn’t hurt I’d grown up in an expressive culture intensely rooted in residual orality, story telling, proverbs, poetry and song.   Getting in front of folks wasn’t all that scary. And, I discovered, my own efforts to understand this state of straddling cultures, and how communication shaped the cultures I inhabited, benefitted from teaching.  Crossing and re-crossing of the field, reverse reengineering understanding, rendered both enriching insights, new intellectual temptations and distractions, and a still growing ability to recognize one’s inability to follow all those tributaries, but also to be reinforced and advised by their background presence.  I still learn a lot from questions my students ask.

What attracted you to the PhD at Simon Fraser University, who were some of your mentors and what did you learn from them?

I’d done my Master’s degree at SFU under Dr. William Leiss.  On defending it, I decided that the supervision I’d received was the sort I wanted to continue working under.   More to the point, my supervisor, seemed to have no qualms about my interest in Innis and McLuhan, and was encouraging.  When I proposed to do a study of the two of them, he suggested the study would be too large to tackle at the doctoral level, so I chose McLuhan.  There was a bit of a ploy involved.  You can work on Innis and completely ignore McLuhan, or give him a cursory footnote or two.  Perhaps take a shot at his introduction to the 50’s edition of Bias of Communication (which, like much else in McLuhan’s corpus, deserves a careful re-reading now that we live in “internetworked” media eco-systems).  But, you cannot do McLuhan without having done Innis.  Oh, sure you can, mainly because there’s “so much to misunderstand” in McLuhan, to quote Northrop Frye.  But, in addition to the Trivium-inspired thinking, there’s a deep socio-historical media awareness, and that comes from Innis.  You have a question lined up around rhetoric below, so I’ll elaborate more on this in a bit.  But, the point was, I wanted not the whiz-bang, “for your information let me ask you a question” McLuhan, nor the brilliant and short lived arc of his celebrity and reincarnation as the patron saint of the digital age, but the serious and thoughtful side, and the aspect in his work that pointed to the future.  For that I would need Innis.  Leiss didn’t object, and on I plodded.

In addition to William Leiss, I studied under two of your previous interviewees – Ian Angus and Paul Heyer.  I think the most important thing I learned from them was not to be afraid of working in a field that was both viewed with some suspicion by many of the other schools and faculties, and was a field that on any seasoned reflection also seemed to be impossible.  That said, the more I read, the more the communication and media/mediation began to appear everywhere I turned.  Can there be an anthropology, a philosophy, a quantum mechanics or biology without communication?  Can there be a history or literature without some kind of media use, without extrasomatic memory resources, access, and capacity to use them?  Without media and communication, can anyone stand on the shoulders of giants to see greater perspectives?  The School of Communication provided an environment where I could struggle with these larger questions through the prism of working on McLuhan’s thought.  Mind you, some of the faculty advised me against working on McLuhan – “dead end” – they said.  No one would want to read anything else about “the Sage of Wychwood Park.”  ‘Course that was said as the two “posthumous” books were about to appear, then the two excellent biographies, followed by a whole raft of re-workings and re-readings, and well before, as if almost out of spite, WIRED went and named McLuhan the “patron saint” of the Net (another demonstration par excellence of how much there is to misunderstand in McLuhan’s writings and the attitudes and values behind them).

What got me to SFU?  Well, when I decided to return to studies I wanted to “get serious” about the communication field.  I wanted to read this guy Innis and to really get into what McLuhan had actually said and meant.  There were few schools in Canada in those days where I could do so – most of them out East.  Then there was SFU in the West.  I’d heard of the school, and knew something of its history – a university on a mountain top.  Hell, that sounded way better than any ivory tower, this was a mountain top!

What are some of your areas of research interest and what courses do you normally teach at Simon Fraser University?

Research is focused on the histories of communication and media, and their study.  I normally teach an introductory communication course, the introductory history of communication, as well as courses on design, affective communication, new media, and material culture as media.

I’m mainly interested in the evolution of the study of communication and media, and the ways we’ve understood the affective and effective aspects of media ecosystems we inhabit and share with, perhaps suffer or impose on, others.  From my POV, the human condition is deeply intermeshed in relational ecologies, enabled by media eco-systems – the media aggregates accessible to individuals and groups and used at any given point in any given social formation – I cannot imagine any instance of single media use.  This involves questions of access as much as issues involving barriers, boundaries, restrictions, monopolization, negotiation and resistance.  Communication is ontogenic,ontophanicontomorphic and ontotropic, creating, revealing, structuring and changing human realities.  So, how do media enable these processes of reality making, and how are they used in communication practices and processes?  I suppose, there’s a sense in which I think of myself as an historian of ideas, in this case what we’ve thought by terms such as communication and media, and how we’ve used these to create and inhabit our personal and social realities.  This is theoretical inquiry, but it has a praxis dimension, as was the case of the work of both Innis and McLuhan.

What makes a good teacher these days? How do you manage to command attention in the classroom in an “age of interruption” characterized by fractured attention and information overload?

There’s an innate problem with the question, eh?  The word “teacher.”  I wonder what sort of teacher we’re talking about.  There are “professional teachers,” you know, the sort we all had (and sometimes had to survive) through K-12, and/or, colleges.  At the K-12 level these folks are usually stuck in roles not unlike those of wardens in some well appointed lock-up.  Then there are “gurus,” and the teachers one stumbles onto in life, people who know something that’s valuable, and willing to share.  And, then, there’s us in the universities.  The university is an odd sort of teaching-learning beast.  Deep down, it thinks itself more a craft guild than a school. The craft is research, of course.  The undergrads are a relatively tedious pool of future apprentices, with the capable/promising going on to make up the graduate community.

While “education is emancipation,” it’s also a performance art.  That doesn’t mean bells and whistles, presentation software and sophisticated audio-visual aids, gesticulation, pyrotechnics or theatrics.  Most times that stuff is better left to those with much thinner content than ours.  I find many faculty members do not understand the media they try to implement in classes,  PowerPoint being a fine example.  We’re trained in discursive reading and writing.  So anything with text is a “page.”  This does not obtain with posters which should be intelligible in five seconds.  If you’re going to wrote out your entire lecture on slides and read it off from them, why bother doing the lecture?  The lecture hall is rarely dark enough to hide you, so you might as well e-mail the slides to the class and be done with it.  In our case, performance is tied to content and our individual particular relationship to, and with, it.  Oratory doesn’t hurt, but not everyone is an orator, but anyone who feels the material, and has a genuine interest in explaining and helping others think about it, everyone one of us is able to do that. If you care, it shows.   Otherwise, why be in the academe? Business pays better, as does plumbing.

I saw a sign on campus recently reading “I do Facebook on my mobile phone in class to keep awake.”  Who, for example, in the academe has ever been taught how to teach? And, more to the point, who could teach us?  So, in come the platitudes – and, as George Grant suggested – just because they’re platitudes, doesn’t mean they’re any less true.  Passion for the subject matter, a willingness, perhaps a burning desire to share knowledge, a respect and dare I say some fondness for young minds.  Teaching is a lot like being a port (in the old nautical sense of that word).  Students like ships come in, they stay a while, and then leave for other ports, and we’re left with our own research work and reflection – renewed by these, I’d think, for the next flotilla to arrive.  While not every animator is a teacher, every good teacher is an animator.  The task?  To animate minds, to encourage and foster “mobility of thought.”

We should also, I suspect, engage the resources made available to us today by the Internet.  It’s made my teaching-life easier.  There are wonderful lectures to be had off YouTube, to mention only one of many, many sources.  These, or excerpts, can either be screened for a class or assigned as “homework.”  Some of it, of course, is shallow and mistaken, but then I take it to be our job to catch that and identify it for students even though we still choose to use it in teaching practice.  I encourage students to use Wikipedia, search engines, video resources and the lot.  I caution them as well.  But, to be frank, I’d rather have a student look up something in Wikipedia than gloss over it on a book page and carry on with no clue as to what the author had in mind.  Outside of the many peer reviewed articles now available through the Net, I discourage use of such sources in citations or bibliographies – we’re still people of the book, eh!  But, that also makes people of the printed word, and there’s a profusion of that available on the screen.  True, the book is still very much with us, so on the surface regard of the statement “end of the book,” McLuhan appears to have been wrong.  Yet we know that more books are being published today than were say a generation ago.  There’s a discipline, and convenience to books the Net will never reproduce.  For one thing, as an artist friend of mine used to say, “you don’t have to plug in books or switch them on.”

I read your doctoral dissertation as an MA student. I thought it was a courageous move on your part to write about McLuhan at a time when he was just beginning to be rediscovered in light of globalization and the Internet revolution. What did you try to show in your doctoral thesis, and why do you think McLuhan never got the respect he deserved in academic circles?

I think Philip Marchand, McLuhan’s first biographer, answered this quite well.  Most of the response was a mixture of sour grapes over and envy of McLuhan’s celebrity.  I suspect that part of the rejection of McLuhan in North America had to do with his politics and religious convictions.  He was, after all, an adult convert to Roman Catholicism and not just a bit conservative in his views.  In many ways a “Red Tory,” McLuhan nonetheless thought the Protestant Reformation was a major historical catastrophe.  This kind of thinking makes you few friends among the progressively minded for whom the Reformation is an initial step toward an emancipation from superstition, oppressive and obscure ritual, an inching toward the bracingly fresh air of scientism, historical materialism, realism and all the rest of it.

There was a buffoon quality to McLuhan, a flippancy, cavalierness much loved and avidly reported by Media – but his humour was meant to bite.  Remarks like, “a specialist is someone who makes no small mistakes on the way to making a big one,” were aspects McLuhan’s Menippean humour, something rarely funny to its target, and target the academe McLuhan did.   For all that he was a celebrity for a while, and notorious, he fell from Media grace very quickly.  One of his colleagues opined that the media celebrity and notoriety seriously harmed him as a published thinker – he often spoke without working all the connections out, and then got into published tussles with usually misunderstanding critics.  Too much energy went into that for him to really polish up his ideas and insights and get it all straight.  That notoriety spawned jealousies as well as serious criticism; some of his stuff was hairy, un-thought through, and downright kooky.  And, he was aggressive, ambitious, and while very well read, he wasn’t an encyclopaedia.  There were gaps in his persona that could be attacked and were – for those who chose “to dignify” him with response and critique.  Others dismissed him.  He is by no means easy to teach, which is why there are few serious courses on his writings.  The Laws of Media stuff sort of saved him (as did WIRED), so now anyone can go on about tetrads, but to really get into the material, you reallyhave to work.

Two things come to mind about McLuhan’s style.  The first is his observation that if one writes difficult texts one is more assured of having longevity, and his texts are not easy, often repetitive, nearly all of them dictated rather than actually written (the only exceptions being War and Peace in the Global Village, and perhaps the still much ignored Mechanical Bride, which predated Barthes’Mythologies by six years).  And, that leads to the second one – the style of his writings!  Gnomic, to be sure, sometimes obscure,  No tables of contents, indexes, no effort to make it easier for the reader, much less the student.  Like many writers having the good fortune of getting an excellent education, his writing is sprinkled with allusions, oblique references, unexplained connections.  Why explain what everyone knows? Well, more correctly, not many know anymore, and not that many did back in the 60s & 70s.  For the ones who did not, he seemed profound but obscure, for the ones who did know (and were more thoughtful and perhaps generous), he appeared to be a man who had much to say but for some obscure reason chose to “pass himself off as a charlatan,” as one commentator put it.

That said, it’s interesting to watch the academic world to see how many of his ideas still come up, sometimes with no reference to him or his writings.  Among those aware of his contributions, I think of the late Leonard Shlain’s work on alphabetization, the recent debates about the technological origins of the development of the human brain and language sparked by archaeologist Timothy Taylor’s work, neurophysiologist and philosopher Merlin Donald’s account of the evolution of the modern mind in the context of the history of human consciousness, Benedict Anderson’s account of the nature and spread of nationalisms, Mark Smith’s study of the historicity of the senses, among others.   But there was a weirdness to some of McLuhan’s thinking.  Marchand, his biographer, notes that at one point McLuhan thought the space program was flawed from the get-go because it tried to overcome gravity.  McLuhan felt that science should be focused on turning gravity off rather than punching through it.  Who knows, maybe he was right?

As for my work in the dissertation, that was informed by Leiss’ work on advertising and McLuhan’s on the rhetorical properties of media.  Leiss, in collaboration with Steve Kline and Sut Jhally, had shown how advertising was meant to inject meaning into new arrays of goods and experiences being made available by the expanding consumer markets in North America.  They’d also shown how the messages of advertising media had developed in conjunction to social mores and attitudes through the 20th century.  At that stage, I wanted to know if there had been parallel kinds of thinking and practice in the realm of industrial design in the which the composition of products was imagined and articulated.

The questions I worked on in the dissertation, came from wondering why we in communication pay so little attention to the material culture that makes up our lifeworlds – the “stuff” of daily life as a medium/media of communication?  To get at the question I had to differentiate between two kinds of media – although the distinction was heuristic.  On the one hand there were explicit media – forms we think of as having no value in and of themselves other than to carry information: newspapers, TVs, radios, telephones, pictures and the like.  And on the other, in some sense as a ground for these, a whole domain of implicit media, things we think of as useful and available to tactility, sight, sometimes olfaction and taste, and having a concrete presence which obtrudes into the physical realities of life.  An exploration of Heidegger, of whom my supervisor little approved, aided the thinking about “stuff”–to-hand as did Albert Borgmann’s distinction between focal goods and devices.

Nearly all explicit media content originates in writing.  With explicit media, the things we make, that we understand to be “media,” are mainly conveyors of linguistic, verbal or audio-visual information.  One or two senses at work in this case.  What about touch, smell and taste?  For that you need tactility – the sense of touch; embodied perception of thermal conditions, comfort or discomfort; food stuffs; the smell of fresh oil on a highway or of electrical connections frying and the like.  What makes us human, in addition to the things we say to one another, is the way we encrust ourselves and articulate who we are or want to be through the stuff we make, and surround ourselves with.  The experience of the Ringstrasse in Vienna is affectively very different from Broadway Avenue in Yorkton, Saskatchewan; macaroni and cheese are very different experience from pasta with a Vongole or Bolognaise sauce.   So, my question became “In which ways is material culture a medium of communication?”  McLuhan had alluded to this throughout his media writings, but never really grappled with it, not in the sense of its psychodynamics as had Ong with orality and literacy.  I laid out the groundwork for such a project in the dissertation by drawing on the theories, anthropology and archaeology of stuff.

Media is central to this thinking, no doubt, but the definition of media is neither parsimonious nor easy to pin down.  In fact, in a sense, the field is impossible.  If everything we do, make, choose, set up and apart, if all these are all expressions of some inner impulse and a relation to some aspect of human reality (always social), then what isn’t a medium?  We might even say that a medium is anything whatsoever that affords a certain conductivity of attention and consciousness.  You know, there’s an interesting debate in the field about whether or not any gesture has to be consciously directed to communicate in order to be considered a medium in a communication process.  How dumb is that?  If that was the case then wouldn’t being observant be for naught?   What would be the point of studying body language?  A “mere” human presence, as Sartre had observed, is enough to kick off associative and cognitive chains, “a haemorrhage of consciousness.”

I walk into a room, and see you sitting there.  I say “Gee, Laureano, you look tired, are you OK?”  Now, it’s possible, you have no intention of “giving off” any information about your state, but you behaviour and appearance “speak” or “signify” on your behalf (even if that be treasonously).  Your inner state is expressed by your “thingly” aspect, your body, the detailing of your face, the state of your hair, posture, colouration, expression, demeanour.  Now, you can’t ask something the same thing, you need mechanics or technicians for that.  But we still do see things, things associated with others and ourselves, things we’ve made or obtained, some that we cherish, and some we abhor or experience as irritations.  A great deal of what goes on in the market and daily life is tied in with the stuff, and when seen in the context of consumer societies, in a sense it is on the cutting edge of where our species is going – and I’m thinking here of environmental degradation as well as advances in the health sciences and improvements in education, care for the young, and living conditions.  And, what is more, in a sotto voce, staged whisper, as anthropologist Grant McCracken puts it, it transmits all sorts of information to and about ourselves – values, commitments, priorities, repudiations, resolve, creativity. In the larger environmental setting it transmits information about what community and citizenship mean or not as the case may be; it says “We.”  That can include, and it can exclude – for example high curbs at cross walks that say “don’t try it” to anyone on a wheel chair or not fully bipedal.

I don’t know about courageous.  It just made sense to pursue these questions through McLuhan’s work.  On a personal level, here was a guy who grew up in my home town (not that you’d see any indication of this in either Winnipeg or University of Manitoba where he completed his first degree), who spent his life trying to understand what turned my crank too – how our actuation and articulation of relation shaped us and the realities we co-created and cohabited.  His Mechanical Bride was every bit as resonant as Barthes’ Mythologies (which, in a humourless and un-annotated translation, was hammered into all of us back in the 80s).  He was influential in Europe (on Baudrillard, for example), and we in Canadian schools weren’t reading or teaching him – if anything, we seemed to have forgotten he had even existed (and I’m sure that was a happy thing for many).  By the time I made my decision to tackle material culture as media through McLuhan’s work, both Marchand’s biography and the “posthumous” Laws of Media were both in print, as were a number of reappraisals in journal articles.  Arthur Kroker’s Technology and the Canadian Mind was also available.  So, I wasn’t out there all by myself.  I could see this had the makings of a reincarnation; thought I’d attend.

Do you consider yourself a Innisian or a McLuhanite?

Neither, or both.  Culturally, I always felt a chasm between my experience, background and theirs; the more I read them and about them, the wider the chasm became.  It’s not about the persons – although they are certainly “there” in the texts – but about what they saw and understood.  Reading McLuhan, especially his stuff on acoustic space and orality, sparked my interest in communication and got me into the Media; a late-70s CBC Radio Ideas series on Harold Innis got me out.  I’d recorded that series and listened to it over and over again, realizing slowly there was an impossible but profoundly compelling account of human history here, and the scope of that historical dimension appealed to me immensely.  Innis showed me the continuing relevance of history and the dangers of what he’d called “present mindedness,” and my suspicion of inability to think outside of one culture or agenda.  Here was a discourse simultaneously systematic and “global,” full of what seemed like contradictions and leaps in time, space and logic, that in a fundamental way made absolute sense.  There was such a common sensical point to it all – a new kind of “golden rule”:  Gold gives you power over the means of communication, and means of communication enable you to establish your take on reality more firmly than the next guy’s.  Relations of power were central, but so were the concrete andaffective properties of media – the spoken and then written word, and their management as key means to social organizations and relations of dominance and submission.  And, the real beauty of Innisian thought was that it taught that monopolies can’t and don’t last, and new forms of media and technique, developed usually at the social margins, can shake up the apple cart, change those relations, and the conditions they’d spawned.  True, not always for the better, nor always for everyone, but they did mean change, and change brought new opportunities for re-inventing a world and the social realities it afforded its inhabitants/architects.

Is there a difference between Media Ecology and Canadian Communication Studies in your view?

Canadian thought has a distinctive flavour to it; I think Robert Babe’s already argued that very effectively.  The Canadian Paradigm, as I’ve dubbed it, is a messy thing, “fuzzy” as they say nowadays.  But that’s why it’s distinct and interesting. Babe’s study of communication thought in Canada assimilated a number of names to it that Arthur Kroker’s pioneering study in the late 80s hadn’t.  Kroker had added George Grant to Innis and McLuhan; Babe added Northrop Frye and Grierson, among others.  There are more people we could now assimilate to this paradigm, and that’s waiting for further explorations along these lines.  That noted, it’s also the case that books on McLuhan’s work continue to appear, nor are they all repeats and rehashings.  Some very fine new scholarly work has been done over the last 20 years or so, and there very fine work appearing still.  And, the Media still keep misquoting and happily misunderstanding:  “the Global Village is/will be a niftie place”; the exact opposite of that assertion being what McLuhan had in mind!

As I understand our southern neighbours, you come to the USA to be an American.  That “sacred” flag of theirs is the totem that replaces the past, old languages, homelands, traditions, and the rest.  This doesn’t work this way in Canada.  In the 21st century, we still have a queen, to whom all new Canadians swear allegiance.  Gads!  But, we’re also a multicultural society from before when it became fashionable world-wide to admit that societies are multicultural (even though the Germans recently backed out of the fashionable discourse of late – very sobering, that!). Here, we’re a population made up of English and French, and the rest of us – native peoples, European, Asian, African, South and Central American, even American, immigrants, and generations descended from all these.  We, all of us, arrived with our cultural baggage, without jettisoning all of it on arrival, and many of us – sometimes by accident or for commemoration – still root around in that baggage finding occasional treasures challenging mainstream discursive realities.  But challenges are burdens.  The contradictions between the worlds whence we came and the capitalist, semi-royalist, post-colonial, neo-imperial world we now share, and memories of world’s other, elsewhen, elsewise make no contribution to ataraxia – peace of mind.

History – as memory – is always a burden; “love’s protest,” as Barthes once put it.  Easy to fall into phantasmatic traps of “my people’s (tribe’s, gender’s, class’) history;” the romances, not realities.  Patriarchy, exploitation of the young, stupidity, greed, cruelty of class relations, atrocities, wars, neighbourly vendettas, ancestors one would rather not meet, the whole range of possibilities blessing and cursing the human predicament – these are all part of the architecture of the past, just as much as labours of heroism, self sacrifice, goodness, emancipation from oppression, and all the enriching arts, cuisine and culture of “my/your people.”  We are all members of separate and often very significant to us consociate “tribes,” knowing we are only some amongst many others who, in some ways, are like us in this very sense, and yet different.  To be sure, not irreducibly different.  Mass culture is a great leveller, but by no means a perfect one.  Cultural fads and fashions come and go, cultures intermarry, can be assembled and reassembled from bits into new syntheses.  That being as it may, there is no “One” here, no single all encompassing identity of/with.  If anything, this political reality called Canada is a work in progress.  Without technology, transportation, education, and communication, there could never be one (nor could any other larger polity).  Back in the 80s, philosopher Leslie Armour wrote of a country made up of communities, and senate reform to turn that into the House of Communities.  So the trouble with tradition is that it unites and separates us, but leaves the question of its value open; prevents the “rigidification” or thought, as Innis would have said. Doesn’t let the myopia of “present-mindedness,” monopolization of social meaning, and will to hegemony take complete command.

Not only by cultures are we different among differences, but also by regions.  We are spread far apart – the Maritime provinces, Central Canada, then the enormity of forest and lake called the Shield, the agricultural and mineral rich prairies, the Rocky Mountains and their hospitable long deep valleys, the West Coast, and the Great White North.  Yet nearly three quarters of all of us live in the Saint Lawrence River area – a continent away from us here on the Pacific coast.  Communication, media access, transportation were and remain the very essence of what brings these regions, ethnicities, tribes, subcultures, and just plain folks into a polity.  So we have a straddling between that which makes us Canadian, and all memory this empowers, effaces, and/or enforces.  Regions, history and traditions flowing out of it, are anti-environments, to use McLuhan’s formulation.

An anti-environment is what makes the artifice, the constructedness and habituations of “normal” inhabited environment visible.  Media ecology, seems to me, is less interested in questions of tradition and anti-environmental effects than in structuration of relational ecologies by the rules, roles, and  resources imposed on/by, or enabled by, media arrangements.  I think that the Canadian Paradigm, a founding instance of media ecology, emerges from the straddling between community, the greater polity, and then it in relation to traditions and empires.  What I’ve called straddling was actually an invitation to nimbleness for Innis and McLuhan.  What’s distinctive in the Canadian tradition is the trouble with tradition.  In some sense, we’re a nation made up of losers; well, beautiful losers, but losers nonetheless.  Children of remittance men, servants, those vanquished in shooting and economic wars, the disposed, displaced, disappointed with point of origin, adventurers.  Who in the name of whatever, would want to live in Winnipeg in January?  The country is beautiful, and bounteous, but it can be bleak, biting insect infested, and of a scale that boggles the imagination.  Second largest nation state in the world after the Russian Federation, even if the USA looks bigger on most maps.  To live here – across such spaces under such climates — and participate, effective media are essential.  They are so essential that they beg the question.  Innis and McLuhan rose to the occasion.

J.F. Striegel’s sadly neglected doctoral dissertation, “McLuhan on Media” (1978) was the piece that radically changed my views about McLuhan: it became evident there and then that the charges of technological determinism were simplistic and unfounded. But I guess we kind of knew this all along, didn’t we? We’ve had more than one conversation you and me about the affinity between media ecology and phenomenology, and the points of contact between McLuhan, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty. Do you think this connection is worth exploring further?

Striegel, seems to me, effectively mined the phenomenological connection that was apparent in McLuhan’s teaching.  For one thing, McLuhan’s emphasis on embodiment, his “incarnation,” as it were — the concern with perception and the sensorium runs as a theme through the corpus.  This kind of awareness cannot be “conceptual” or Cartesian.  The percept is the basis of McLuhan’s thought, and the senses the royal road thereto.  If anything, precepts are experiential, constituted by perceptions and interpreted through emotion and mind, to be sure, but experiential as a point of departure.   Since media shape perceptions, some sort of sensory cleansing is in order if one is to check on the validity of the precept.  Phenomenologically informed methodology can serve this purpose – attending to experience, variations, and then reflection.  Then there’s McLuhan’s adoption of figure/ground distinctions, borrowed from the Danish phenomenologist of art Edgar Ruben.  In his journals McLuhan was dismissive of Heidegger, trashing him for obscurantism.  This, coming from the gnomic McLuhan, is pretty funny, but there it is.   McLuhan also felt a stronger affinity to the Structrualist movement than to the Phenomenological or Existential.  Yet, the use of figure/ground distinctions and the percept suggest that he was toggling between the two – seeing the value of attending to experience while simultaneously concerned with the larger implications of changes of dominant media forms on society.  He may have never got there, had it not been for his debt to Innis.

As for technological determinism.  Well, if anyone actually read McLuhan, and not even all that carefully, his insistence that “all this is inevitable so long as everyone is asleep” must have jumped out at them.  If his work, and that of Innis, is technologically deterministic, it is only so in a therapeutic sense.  Anthony Wilden used to say that “reality is what trips you up when you’re not paying attention.”  Although Wilden was no fan of McLuhan’s, the sensibility was exactly the same.  Much like a doctor telling an alcoholic that booze will kill them, so Innis and McLuhan were saying if you let these things happen and pay no attention they’ll mess up your world.  That’s what all the talk of “present mindedness,” Narcissus narcosis,” and “rear view mirrorism,” was all about.  Both were saying: “Wake up!”

Both Robert Babe’s analysis of the dialectic in McLuhan’s method, and Watson’s magisterial biography of Innis, suggest that both were deeply aware of a process wherein media shaped us socially, politically, philosophically, and in McLuhan’s case, biologically.  “We change our tools and then our tools change us,” said McLuhan,  What most folks miss here is that this is a partial phrase, which has no ending, as it is a dialectical relationship between us and our media – our technologies, if writ large.  His observation that it is invention that breeds necessity and not the other way around, can be understood as describing the driver, but by no means a determinant.  At least, not as long as someone remained “awake,” or “maladjusted,” perhaps a beautiful loser.

The following question was drafted by Professor Ian Angus: “How do you reconcile media theory with your emphasis on rhetoric in communication studies? Isn’t rhetoric content-oriented rather than oriented to media form?

Rhetoric has always been about the most effective way to arrange content relative to intention, exigence and audience.  Now, in antiquity, the medium was the spoken word, and then the written word.  Of course, there was more – tone of voice, posture and gestures, emphasis and so forth.  I don’t see much of a leap from this to questions of broadcasting, media ownership and access, media selection, formatting, production, and the rest.  My understanding of rhetoric is informed by its relationship to design.  No surprise that when the teaching of rhetoric fell out of favour, the art remerged under the rubric “composition.”  One of my issues with the whole of semiotics is the claim that the sign is the smallest unit of meaning; I sooner follow Ricoeur’s insistence that it’s the sentence that is the smallest unit of meaning.  And when you say sentence, you imply not only grammar, but also composition.  I think the point here is that composition is for naught without content – all you get is composition’s self-exposure.  But beyond that, you get no meaning effect.  The two, then, form (rhetoric, if you will, or composition) and content (meaning effect, what you’ve associated with rhetoric above) are always interconnected.  In the question, you say content=rhetoric, yes; but, content needs a vehicle for transmission, and that’s assembled in the sentence through composition – composed – paced in relation to one another.  Here too is rhetoric.  So, I cannot accept the distinction between form and content as the basis for differentiating rhetoric from  . . . from what?  From tone of sentence, from use of the right word in the right place at the right time?  An isolated abstracted word or sign may not transfer meaning, but it sure can and does in the context of other words and signs.  Composition requires rules, signs, tropes, topics; rhetoric requires much the same, if under different rubrics, perhaps.

Rhetoric has the odd privilege of being both a science and an art.  As a science it is a long tradition of rules, taxonomies of figures if speech, and a large body of theoretical writing from the most hand-on how-to right across to some of the great minds of the previous century.  There’s lots to know – covering verbal expression in living performance and written forms.  And, simultaneously, like management and leadership or any kind of community animation, it’s an art, and ability often learned through the human mimetic ability.  It helps if you have no fear of speaking in public, but there are arts of memory and for overcoming the fear of crowds, and they are all grounded in our ability to imitate each other, to imagine something elsewise, to rehearse, then do, and review the act in imagination.  To imitate, and appropriate something of that neurophysiological process in and for ourselves.  That link to imagination, to being able to imagine one’s audience’s involvement in what’s spoken, the imagination to compose something that enlightens, exhorts or exalts, a case or point or insight that’s relevant, and conduct attention to consciousness through it, that is imaginative, an art.

Now, each medium is a trade-off of some kind.  My interactions with textual material on my laptop and on my Smartphone, and on paper are completely different.  A relationship break-up communication is very different in person, face to face, than sending or receiving an e-mail to the effect that “it’s all over between us/was fun/ see ya!.”  A film on a big screen is a different perceptual event than an old tube TV or contemporary plasma screens.  Architecture programming on TV was always a bummer, the image was too small, now with larger screen that’s changing.  The dying art of handwritten letters gave off more than just the meaning of the words in the text.  There was also the imprint and mood, ability and personality of the hand that wrote, perhaps perfume, perhaps a coffee stain.  The paper spoke as well: a sheet ripped out of a notebook, printed letterhead, some cheap or perhaps imported stationery set?  Even on the way out – a plain box made of planks or an ornate bronze coffin with angelic fittings?  This is all rhetoric of media – electronic, screen, paper, typing, chirographic – with each affording amplification of some aspects of human interaction while constraining others.  I can’t smell your breath when we’re on the phone, but I can phone almost instantaneously almost anywhere, anytime, in the world.  Like a word in the right place, or a gesture that emphasizes a point, each medium is a means for shaping messages.

We can recall Aristotle’s formula for the pisteis – the “artistic proofs,” elements of discourse or demonstration that are capable of instilling judgment or belief in an audience; logosethos, and pathos, reasoning, credibility, and feeling.  Of course, in classical rhetoric, these refer to points raised or arguments enunciated; all verbal.  But has it ever been “all verbal?”  If we have an orator in mind, then bearing gesture, and appearance, the urgency of exigence, time of day and location, audience mood, would also have to be factored in.  Now, if we move to the written word or the graphical and electronic media eco-systems, the rhetoric of media form plays as much a role as appearance, demeanour, gesture and the rest.  In TV you have lighting, the set, the talent, the camera angles and movement, quality and nature of sound, the produced head and tail introducing and closing off the show, the direction and switching of angles and shots.  All these elements provide the “infrastructure” supporting the verbal content and can express and support, or decline and subvert, the intended messages.  Imagine a network prime-time news hour anchored and hosted out of a gardening shed or porn parlour.  All the elements are rhetorical devices and strategies to induce a certain response from an audience – hence the pristine, often hi-tech sets and groomed anchors on news shows; punchy, urgent fast-tempo introductory sound tracks at heads and tails; three minute items, and pacing of news broadcasts.  Another rhetorical layer supplements the anchors’ reading, the reports and video clips “from the field”; these may contain fewer elements than the news show itself, but often involve interviews (who was chosen, why, what do they look and sound like?), location shots (why these and in these camera angles?), and an announcer or journalist setting up the “B” roll illustrating, demonstrating and either supporting or subverting the script being delivered.  These are all rhetorical elements, they may not be linguistic, but each of them has the capacity to afford or condition a certain conductivity of attention and consciousness, each contributing to pistis, the state of mind that judges or believes.

Finally, if we need patrimony here, Innis thought of himself as a social scientist, McLuhan as a literary scholar.  For Innis it was the concrete properties of media and their affordances that shaped social organization, knowledge transmission and implementation, and relations of power.  McLuhan took this idea and wed it to the rhetorical tradition.  If one could study the relation between concrete properties of language use and the production of meaning, why not the material outerances/utterances also produced by people to activate and articulate relations and knowledge?  McLuhan also thought of himself as a grammarian, not a rhetorician, but it was his studies in rhetoric that grounded his media thinking.

What are you reading these days and what are you currently working on?

History of communication, techniques and technologies, media and the like.  I try to keep abreast of recent developments in archaeology and cognitive science.  When there’s a free moment, novels by Iain M. Banks, particularly his “culture” series.  I’m fascinated, if no small amount sobered, by the recent acceleration of the human impulse to animate the inanimate.  I also avidly follow developments in robotics, tele-presence and digital technologies, as I think that’s where the next “action” will be.  We may be getting close to having figured out the Internet – social media, instantaneousness, ubiquity, interactivity, granularity, immensity of extrasomatic memory, blogs, walled gardens and all the rest of it.  Well my friend, information alone can’t change your diapers on the way in or out of this world.  For that you need hands, and the intelligence not to bruise, fold, spindle or mutilate the changee.  We abhor the idea of slavery, and few want to be in service though such is the fate of more and more, but always at a cost – gotta be paid.  So, if there was some way to get the benefit without the cost or peskiness of unhappy humans, why not machines?  I think this is where we’re going next.  Servomechanisms, indeed!

From smartphones to smartstuff.  Paint changing colours on demand, doors recognizing and automatically opening for owners only, refrigerators sending orders to be filled by grocers, lavatories reporting on the user’s states of health immediately after the business is done, rooms reading occupants’ moods and adjusting temperature and lighting accordingly, domestic robots enabling tele-presence and care-giving.  A world of ease and convenience – our very deeply seated social addictions.  Sobering too: military and putative uses in surveillance on populations, war-making, reductions in users’ casualty rates while increasing those of the enemy.  As we move more of our intelligence into the inanimate world, we’re also transferring some of our demons, weaknesses and paranoias, as well as willing to power.  This may sound like science fiction, but then so did Jules Verne (and McLuhan, occasionally).  There’s a widespread global push in these directions with expensive, sometimes silly, and often scary prototypes quietly begin to colonize the lifeworld.  Generalization of smart stuff will have enormous effects on our societies, perhaps the history of the entire species.  Married to developments in evolutionary psychology and cognitive science, these new-new media may have far deeper implications than we can begin to imagine today.  Science fiction writers have made an industry of such imaginings, but they get dismissed, ‘cause it’s fiction.  Robotics nor the Internet are fictions – drones kill and we have a couple of remote controlled very sophisticated almost-dinky toys getting intimate with rocks on Mars.  Perhaps most sobering is the involvement of military establishments in this push.  The Japanese, we’re told, are trying very hard to develop technologies capable of elderly care; the Americans lead the way in battlefield and theatre of conflict technologies – both remote-controllable and “autonomous” surveillance and killing machines.

In light of McLuhan’s comment on the origin of necessity, his wry suggestions that we are the sex organs of our machines, and the sheer fact of the acceleration of technological development over the past three generations, we have to wonder whether or not this kind of development is sustainable.  Do we have the wisdom to manage the raft of new-new media, applications, technologies that leap out at us month by month?  What effects on consciousness, desire and expectation, perhaps neurophysiology, will living through avatars in virtual worlds, the increasing time-urgency prompted by being always on and watched, telepresence – being in more than one place at a time, multitasking, and interactions with/through anthropomorphic, bipedal, animate, autonomous, chiromatic technologies – robots?

I don’t think this is a Terminator scenario, nor do I think it’ll be without a whole lot of trauma.  The superpowers and most if their allies and clients survived the Cold War and the potential nuclear holocaust it implied, although not the folks who fought their proxy wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan.  The nuclear holocaust still remains a possibility, though its apparent urgency has attenuated a bit.  I find myself wondering how survivable an animate material culture will be?  For whom?  In whose interest and at whose expense?  And, what will the ratio look like between benefits and costs?

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© Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Roman Onufrijchuk
and Figure/Ground with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Suggested citation:

Ralon, L. (2010). “Interview with Roman Onufrijchuk,” Figure/Ground. December 23rd.
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Questions? Contact Laureano Ralón at

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