Marshall McLuhan, W.H. Auden & Buckminster Fuller Debate the Virtues of Modern Technology & Media (1971)

45 years ago, four emi­nences took the stage at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to: Irish actor Jack Mac­Gowran, best known for his inter­pre­ta­tions of Samuel Beck­ett; Eng­lish poet and drama­tist W.H. Auden; Amer­i­can archi­tect and the­o­rist of human­i­ty’s way of life Buck­min­ster Fuller; and Cana­di­an lit­er­ary schol­ar turned media tech­nol­o­gy ora­cle Mar­shall McLuhan. Now only did all four men come from dif­fer­ent coun­tries, they came from very dif­fer­ent points on the intel­lec­tu­al and cul­tur­al map. The CBC record­ed them for broad­cast on its long-run­ning series Ideas, pref­ac­ing it with an announce­ment that “the osten­si­ble sub­ject of their dis­cus­sion is the­atre and the visu­al arts.”

Key word: osten­si­ble. “That top­ic is soon for­got­ten as two modes of per­cep­tion clash,” says the announc­er, “that of Pro­fes­sor McLuhan, who is one of the most famous inter­preters of con­tem­po­rary 20th-cen­tu­ry cul­tur­al trends, and that of W.H. Auden, who cheer­ful­ly admits to being ‘a 19th-cen­tu­ry man’ and sees no rea­son to change.” And so, though Fuller and Mac­Gowan do occa­sion­al­ly pro­vide their per­spec­tive, the pan­el turns into a rol­lick­ing debate between McLuhan and Auden, more or less from the point where the for­mer — mak­ing one of his char­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly com­pelling procla­ma­tions — declares that mod­ern media brings us to a world in which “there is no audi­ence. There are only actors.” But the lat­ter objects: “I pro­found­ly dis­ap­prove of audi­ence par­tic­i­pa­tion.”

By the ear­ly 1970s, tele­vi­sion had long since found its way into homes all across Amer­i­ca, Cana­da, and Britain, but the thinkers of the time had only just begun to grap­ple with its con­se­quences. “We’ve just seen Apol­lo 14, which has some visu­al effects going with it. It’s a new type of the­ater, obvi­ous­ly,” says McLuhan, draw­ing one of many audi­ence laughs. On the sub­ject of tele­vi­sion’s con­fla­tion of fact and fic­tion, Auden does­n’t mince words: “I think TV is a very, very wicked medi­um. That’s all I can say.” McLuhan empha­sizes that, as a pro­fes­sion­al observ­er of these phe­nom­e­na, “I have stead­fast­ly reserved moral judg­ment on all media mat­ters.” Auden: “I don’t.”

Yet the author of The Age of Anx­i­ety and the author of The Guten­berg Galaxy turn out to have more in com­mon than their con­flict might sug­gest. Both in their 60s by the time of this dis­cus­sion (“Thank God I can remem­ber the world before World War I,” says the poet) and both 1930s con­verts to Catholi­cism, they also both har­bored deep sus­pi­cions of tech­nolo­gies like tele­vi­sion. Auden, who insists he would nev­er dream of owing a TV set him­self, seems to look down on it as mere­ly low­brow, but McLuhan has dark­er sus­pi­cions: “You are miss­ing the name of the game, sir. You are actu­al­ly imag­in­ing that those lit­tle images you see on TV are TV. They are not. What is TV is that fire stream pour­ing out of that tube into your gut.”

Even while pre­dict­ing still-unheard-of advances in tele­vi­su­al tech­nol­o­gy (at one point attempt­ing to engage Mac­Gowran on “the imme­di­ate prospect of four- and five-dimen­sion­al TV”), McLuhan also fore­sees it as the poten­tial spark for such cat­a­clysms as a glob­al race war, going so far as to sug­gest that “if you want to save a fan­tas­tic blood­bath on this plan­et, which will be very trau­mat­ic, very cathar­tic, and very trag­ic — in the Greek sense — we turn off TV total­ly. For good.” Auden, of course, actu­al­ly approves of that par­tic­u­lar idea of McLuhan’s, though he evinces lit­tle opti­mism about its fea­si­bil­i­ty. “Why won’t it hap­pen?” asks McLuhan. “Because peo­ple like the damn things,” he replies.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Mar­shall McLuhan on the Stu­pid­est Debate in the His­to­ry of Debat­ing (1976)

The Vision­ary Thought of Mar­shall McLuhan, Intro­duced and Demys­ti­fied by Tom Wolfe

McLuhan Said “The Medi­um Is The Mes­sage”; Two Pieces Of Media Decode the Famous Phrase

W.H. Auden’s 1941 Lit­er­a­ture Syl­labus Asks Stu­dents to Read 32 Great Works, Cov­er­ing 6000 Pages

W.H. Auden Recites His 1937 Poem, ‘As I Walked Out One Evening’

Every­thing I Know: 42 Hours of Buck­min­ster Fuller’s Vision­ary Lec­tures Free Online (1975)

Bertrand Rus­sell & Buck­min­ster Fuller on Why We Should Work Less, and Live & Learn More

Bet­ter Liv­ing Through Buck­min­ster Fuller’s Utopi­an Designs: Revis­it the Dymax­ion Car, House, and Map

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • Nishat says:

    This is the “lev­el­ling down” of cul­ture that F.R.Leavis wor­ried about in his sem­i­nal essay ’ Mass civ­i­liza­tion and minor­i­ty cul­ture’ .And we are no where near the crest of this trough of a non lit­er­ary, averse-to ‑read­ing-think­ing phenomena.But the debates should con­tin­ue.

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