Interview to David Sobelman
A cura di Monica Rossi
I read the “Director’s Notes” of “McLuhan’s Wake” written by the director Kevin McMahon. He wrote: “This particular project came to me and my partners at Primitive Entertainment from TVOntario, where it was developed by writer David Sobelman”. Exactly, which is your part in the “McLuhan’s Wake” project? You are a writer but also a director, aren’t you?
I am a writer mostly, a director and a producer, when the project requires it, and also a story editor of screenplays, films, narrative non-fiction and fiction as well as poetry and academic books. I first conceived the idea and then wrote the screenplay for “McLuhan’s Wake”. I also co-produced it. Long before Kevin, the director, came on board, I had already started developing the project. It took me four years. It was very difficult at first because it was during that period when people had forgotten a bit about McLuhan. As you say in your thesis, his fame faded in the 1980s. And I was part of the drive to bring him back, to ‘retrieve’ him, so to speak, in the language of “Laws of Media”. And it was the right time to retrieve him, the Internet had been changing the media environment for several years and a glossy commercial magazine called Wired Magazine was promoting the notion that McLuhan was the ‘Patron Saint’ of the electric age, the wired age in which you and I live. So, I decided that it was time to do a definitive film about McLuhan. In the first two years I worked with another producer from Montreal but we had a falling apart. And I ended up carrying a heavy debt, money I owed for the development. That’s very normal in the business. But now I needed to find another partner to take over the debt, and that’s how I found Kevin and his brother Michael. Kevin and Michael McMahon were the two partners who serviced my ideas.
What are the origins of your interest in McLuhan? When did your interest in McLuhan come into being for the first time?
My interest in McLuhan goes back to April, 1969 when I first read Understanding Media. About half-way into the book I knew that it was changing my life. I was on the train from Baden-Baden, Germany, to London, England, and by the time I arrived in London I had realized that this book was full of new insights and an understanding of the world around me, and that McLuhan spoke to ideas I had been trying to figure out for myself, ideas like the critically important insight that “technologies are the extension of either body, mind or psyche.” So, upon arriving in London, I decided to read the book a second time right away. […] and, so, that’s where my background in McLuhan began. Years later, after I had read most of the background texts, I also taught a course at the University of Toronto called “The Media Philosophy of Marshall McLuhan”. Because I had by then understood that McLuhan’s thoughts, his probes and explorations represent a “philosophy-in-progress”, that is, in effect, a new “philosophy of media”. One of the reasons I think he interests people who are studying media is because he is right at the beginning of media studies…he’s one of its founding fathers. Elena Lamberti’s new book McLuhan’s Mosaic: Probing the Literary Origins of Media Studies, for example, has a perfect, revealing subtitle, as it unveils the source of media studies in the study of literature. I think the philosophy of literature and poetics, and the history of new ideas, are integral to media studies because they were brilliantly incorported into McLuhan’s critical work while he was starting out as an English professor.
Going back to the “McLuhan’s Wake” project, when did your involvement with this project start?
The film was made in 2002, but my conceptual and production involvement with this particular project begins in 1998 when I wrote another treatment called “A State of Light”. It was an original idea of mine about the electric age and how the electric age is changing us by a creating a new state of mind. I could not raise the funding for it, but in “A State of Light” there are five pages about McLuhan. And those five pages were about “Laws of Media”. A commissioning editor at TVOntario (TVO) very much liked those five pages and said to me “You know what… I can’t give you money for ‘A State of Light’ but I’ll give you money to develop those five pages into a film about McLuhan”. And then, as I told you, I worked on the development for two years with another producer but then we had a falling apart and I ended up with Kevin, because he could raise the money as the director. I wasn’t totally happy in the beginning because it was important to me that the project would have a literary pedigree, that is, that it would be true to the literary origins of McLuhan, and that McLuhan’s application of literature to media would come through in the film. Well, in the end, after many rewrites and arguments with the director, it worked out all right. But sometimes people forget that you can’t understand the true purpose of grammarians unless you understand where the trivium, grammar, logic and rhetoric came from. And of course they came from the Greek culture and the sophisticated notion of education that is called paedeia.
Marshall McLuhan was fascinated by James Joyce. The title of the documentary plays with Joyce’s work Finnegan’s Wake. With regard to McLuhan’s interest in Joyce, McMahon wrote “Joyce’s Wake is the original catalogue of technology’s effects on the Western world. What Joyce (and McLuhan) believed was being awoken by electrical technology was the dark tribal spirit of humanity as represented by Finn, an old Celtic figure”. What is the relationship between the title of the documentary and Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake? What does Finn represent?
First of all, we start with Finn. The song of Finn is an old Irish song […]. And it is about the tribal culture of Ireland. So Finn represents the archetype, an archetype of a tribal culture – that’s important. Finnegan’s Wake is a pun: ‘Finn wakes again’. Finn becomes awake again… Finnegan’s Wake. The important thing here is, if you go to the film and look at the black and white clip where McLuhan actually says this himself… somebody asks him: “what his work is about?” And McLuhan answers, “well… it is all about “Finn again awakes, Finnegan’s Wake”. To McLuhan, and to many who think that it is right, literacy, the phenomena of the alphabet, created the literate-human being and that literate human being could no longer be tribal because one of the effects of print and of literacy is that it creates a singular, particular, individual who thinks for him or herself, that is, by the laws of media, through literacy, the solitary reader and writer becomes an individuated person. In Understanding Media, McLuhan tells wonderful stories about the differences between tribal man and typographic man. Typographic man has certain qualities, like linear thinking and sequentiality; tribal man prefers the non-linear and finds linear logic hard to follow. McLuhan realized that James Joyce, in Finnegan’s Wake, was in effect playing with this idea of the return of the tribal man. Finnegan’s Wake reads like a kind of dream book about a collective-unconscious phenomena. And it is an extremely sophisticated play of words and their potential, their portmanteau potential, of describing our being-in-the-world, because, besides the literal, our being is also constantly dependent on puns and other kinds of portmanteau expressions…
…What is the difference between a ‘probe’ and a ‘portmanteau’?
Portmanteau is a word that can carry many meanings. A crane, for example, can be a bird or a tool used on construction sites. Its meaning in the sentence depends on its context, but it also shows you that meaning is not static but in process. A probe is an exploratory tool, like sending a satellite to another world… when I do this [here Mr. Sobelman pinches me], I probe the outer limits of your body. Probing is a human way of exploring the unknown. To probe means to explore and to find out what is happening in the environment. McLuhan was very good at that; he was a probing genius. He had a way of probing that was often ahead of his time. Because now we know that what McLuhan said then, in the 60s, is coming true. […] So when he read James Joyce, or Ezra Pound or Wyndham Lewis, McLuhan found probes in their literary works that he applied to the future. And he made those probes his own; for example, he said: “Every thing that I predict about the future has already happened”. And he applied those probes to the electric age; for example, when he said in 1964: “In the electric age we wear all of mankind as our skin”. And in so doing, he began what I would later call his media philosophy-in-progress. It is important to me to identify McLuhan’s thought experiments as “a philosophy in progress” because it is not a conventional philosophy that has, like Kant’s philosophy or Heidegger’s philosophy, a thesis of first principles. It is a philosophy that comes out of his observations of the environment; it is not a philosophy of “method,” but of “aphorisms and paradoxes”. And in this way, it is a philosophy in search of understanding; a philosophy that states: “this is the effect I want to understand”. It is also a philosophy that says: “I’m going to study and understand this effect, and in order to understand it, I’m going to explore this, and this, and that, and then see how it affects my understanding of what is happening in the world”. That’s why it’s a philosophy in progress, because it constantly encourages explorations of the environment and, as you know, our media environment is constantly changing and as it changes it affects the ratio between our five senses. Reading, for example, focuses the eye over the other four senses and it creates visual space. Electronic media focuses the ear. We live in a 360 degree surround—media comes at us now from all directions, constantly and all-at-once and that, according to McLuhan, retribalizes us, that’s why he refused to define his media philosophy by a method, but through aphorisms, and rhetoric, and through grammar, and a deep understanding of the role of the grammarian—first in literary society and then in an electric society. And that’s in short, how both Joyce and McLuhan used the medium of literacy to illustrate the relationship between tribal man and typographic or literate man; that’s what probes are about.
So, you are talking about the way in which McLuhan finds in Joyce probes that he applies to the electric age, making them his own. But how does McLuhan use Joyce’s tools in his own works?
It is not that McLuhan used Joyce’s tools. It’s that both Joyce and McLuhan used the same tool. And that tool is the alphabet. Both understood that the history of the alphabet, from 500 B.C, from the Socratic age, took 2500 years to develop. First it developed the trivium, then the quadrivium, then it led to the Gutenberg Age, and to the Renaissance, and to the literary individual. What began to change in 1850 was that electricity entered the evnironment and began to change our social ecology. Joyce and McLuhan both understood that this spread of electricity, that is, electrification, and the electric environment, were changing 2500 years of literary history, and were now creating the digital age. And this change is far, far bigger and far more influential than we have yet understood. Once computer voice activation becomes widespread, its formal effect will change our whole view of writing itself… So to give a simple answer to your complex question… McLuhan used Joyce’s literature, because it dealt with subjects that he was interested in, but they both used the same tools, the alphabet, the trivium, literacy and the effects of the alphabet on our five senses, on our way of being in the world, as opposed to the effects of orality and speech. As McLuhan often said, tribal folk are mystified by space and literary persons are mystified by time, think about it for a minute and you’ll realize that it is an ontological veracity, which McLuhan captured in his aphorism, the medium is the message.
According to McMahon’s “Director’s Notes”, the aim of the documentary is to awake the grammarian, the literary man, the humanist, and awaken viewers to a McLuhanesque way of looking at their world. How and why did you decide to awake this part of McLuhan? Also, I read that the documentary is divided into four parts and each part corresponds to a question of Laws of Media. Maybe it is also interesting to know ‘why’ you decided to use Laws of Media.
I structured the movie in four chapters and each chapter represents one aspect of “Laws of Media,” that is – Enhancement, Reversal, Obsolesence, and Retrieval. That’s the way I wrote my script, because I wanted each chapter to represent one aspect of the pattern created by each new technology or human invention, and it was integral to my idea of retrieving McLuhan, long before Kevin came on board. Why? Because I felt… first of all, I felt that it was very important to retrieve McLuhan’s approach to media in a style that was true to him and his work in media. But also because I think that McLuhan’s mosaic approach to media is the best way to make sense of how media mediates the relationship between representation of any form in reality or what philosophy calls the material Being. In the Heideggerian sense, media mediate the relationship between representation and being-in-time-and-space. And we are totally dependent on that reality, that’s why the laws of media are such good probes; they allow us to think about the unintended effects of any new technology on our being… all we have to do is ask those four simple questions: what does the new invention enhace? What does it reverse? What does it obsolesce, and what does it retrieve? Answer those four questions and you get a mental snapshot of the potential effect of the new on the old. If you now look at Twitter and Facebook, you see, for example, that everybody is enhancing or extending or networking an extra social part of themselves, a virtual part of themselves, and that it reverses into a virtual community, a second-communal life, if you will. But it also obsolesces aspects of our old communal life, like newspapers, and at the same time it retrieves the tribal drum, which is a way of drumming the lastest news around the world, 24 hours, seven days a week, and it’s a huge and influential retrieval of a new tribal-social network on a global scale. In other words, it’s important to understand that McLuhan’s Wake is structured around the four laws of media because it’s the only way to retrieve McLuhan’s literary mode of thinking and at the same time retrieve the grammarian that he was through his own laws of media,. You see, I wanted the documentary to remind people that grammarians are not only about grammar but also about interpreting the world. In effect, one can say that Freud is as much of a grammarian as McLuhan was. Because all grammarians develop a view of the world, a holistic view of the world and make no mistake about it, McLuhan had his view of the world and he called it “integral awareness.”
It is now quite clear how and why you decided to awaken the grammarian. “Laws of Media” allows you to retrieve McLuhan’s mosaic approach to media that is important in order to understand the grammarian. […] Before talking about Cronenberg, do you want to add something about the documentary?
There are two things that I would add quickly about the documentary. One is, it was very difficult to raise the seven hundred thousand dollars that this documentary cost. It is rare and it would be very difficult now for anyone to do anything like it. One of the aspects, I think I articulated very well is the way I combined McLuhan’s Laws of Media with his biography. It is cleverly done in the documentary, but very few people have understood it. It is this combination of idea and biography that makes it a creative documentary that stands the test of time. You see, at the same time as I am telling you about Laws of Media, I am also rendering his biography. It is a careful intertwining or braiding of these two narrative strings, and it was done to show you the whole man, and in that sense McLuhan’s Wake is successful and I’m quite proud of the work. Because to show you the whole man, we show you pieces of his mosaic, bits of his persona composed of little pieces that add up to the whole picture of a man who was much more coherent and cohesive than most people have understood. And that’s very important to me because it is the reason that this documentary is still screened in media schools across the world. […] People who have seen McLuhan’s Wake and then see my other McLuhan projects —I made two other movies Marshall McLuhan’s ABC and 17 short films called The McLuhan’s Probes—begin to understand that what is important about the retrieval of McLuhan is his thinking process, that is, his way of thinking about our world. And it tells us that there is nothing inevitable about the effects of media as long as we are willing to discuss it. The other comment I wish to make is that I was lucky to get to know Mrs. Corinne McLuhan during the making of my three projects; she was an old woman in her 90s at the time, but still vibrant in mind and spirit and as sharp as a pin. As you see in McLuhan’s ABC, she helped me to understand the man Marshall McLuhan in ways that only a wife could, and for that I am eternally grateful to her.
During the 60s and the 70s McLuhan was a public figure and a media star. He was on TV every day and labeled as pop philosopher, prophet, oracle of the electric age. But during the 80s his star slowly faded and Cronenberg’s “Videodrome” is a 1983 movie. McLuhan is often credited as an influence on Cronenberg’s ideas for “Videodrome”. What is the representation of McLuhan in this film? What does O’Blivion represent? What is the role of McLuhan in Cronenberg’s art?
First of all, you must understand that Cronenberg’s film, “Videodrome,” is a parody of McLuhan. I enjoy seeing it a lot and try to see it once a year because is a radical and witty film, but a parody of McLuhan’s thought nevertheless. Second, in his movie, Cronenberg satirizes the whole idea of media and its effects, and the implication that McLuhan could have been a media guru, like Brian O’Blivion. (The name itself strikes me as a delicious pun, and could be read as brain of oblivion.) That is very much in line with McLuhan’s thinking because he himself was a great satirist. In effect, if you look up Mennipean satire you realize that McLuhan is very much in the tradition of that kind of satire. In Europe, Mennipean satire is the kind of satire that you often see in many university students’ cabaret, when they take the latest news and make fun of it. McLuhan was not only a good but a great satirist. So, for that reason I think that “Videodrome” is a very important film, but it is also a classic film for another reason. Cronenberg took the idea of man-machine interface, one of McLuhan’s most important ideas, and extended it to its logical conclusion. Man-machine interface is an idea that McLuhan learned from NASA, and the Space Exploration Program, and in fact man-machine interface is the only way to truly deal with the electric environment. But it has consequences, as we see when we marry electronic circuitry and biological organisms…and thus create “cyborgs.” Cronenberg explores in “Videodrome” important aspects of what could happen, as does James Cameron’s “Avatar,” but neither movies change the idea behind interface, an idea that is at the center of how the electric environment changes us. We interface with the electric environment and then, in the process, it changes us.
In the documentary the narrator says “the environment shapes you, and you shape your environment”…
…Or vice-a-versa, you shape the environment and then the environment shapes you or we shape our tools and then our tools shape us. The formation goes both ways. All aphorisms go both ways. What was important about “Videodrome”, I think, is that it dealt with the paradox and the negative outcome of man-machine interface where the body itself becomes a cyber-organism. A lot of young kids who play videogames really like the idea of being a cyborg but I personally don’t. I want my body to be my body, my being to be my being, my philosophy to be mine, existentially and metaphysically. I think that one of the greatest virtues of McLuhan is that he was an English professor who made it his mission to teach his students to think for themselves. This is the most important thing that I can say about McLuhan. He wasn’t interested in teaching students to think as he thought. Remember, in the 1960s most professors wanted to teach students what they knew. McLuhan, however, didn’t teach students onlly what he knew, but he also taught them how to get out of the classroom, and how to see the world as a classroom without borders. And he was always open to new ideas and wanted his students to be original and find their own way of telling him what they thought. In the 1960s that kind of probing became the beginning of interdisciplinary studies, and McLuhan’s interdisciplinary media studies were at the time the most pioneering, critical work in the humanities.
You anticipated that by the end of this interview, you would like to add something concerning my thesis (“Marshall McLuhan between cinema and communication”), especially on the first chapter “McLuhan and the theories of cinema”. Would you like to talk about that now?
Okay, first, “cinema” is a critical term; it doesn’t mean just watching movies, it also means thinking and writing critically about the art of film making. Jean-Luc Godard, for example, makes films that are both narrative and critical of their narratives at the same time. To speak about McLuhan and representation in cinema, we have to first establish that the content of any new medium is an older medium. The content of films was the novel and its linear sequentiality. Film, as a medium, took the novel and adapted it to its form. Its formal effect, to speak in Aristotelian terms, as it has become clear to cinephiles, moved us away from the novelistic world of linear connections and sequences into the world of creative configurations and structure. So the short answer I want to leave with you is that when it comes to McLuhan’s view of cinema we must look at his representation of it in the written medium. I also think that to understand McLuhan’s view of cinema it is important to note that he was a devoted Catholic. […] He went to mass every day at lunch; he believed in the after-life and in the resurrection of the human soul. It is very important to understand, because it affects his view of media and especially movies. One of McLuhan’s probes is about how, when we are represented in media, we become discarnate; that is, we appear to be who we are but without our actual bodies. On the phone the sender is sent minus the body, as McLuhan used to say. On radio, the speaker is sent minus the body, and in the cinema, our image is transmitted minus our actual body. That’s again the short answer, because, as you can see, what is mediated by media in general is without the actual body or Being. And, in effect, after he died, McLuhan himself became a discarnate presence. What McLuhan understood from this new “mediated media” phenomenon is, first of all, that whenever a new technology comes along, it takes an old technology as its content. And that means that old technologies don’t fade away but become an art form supporting new technologies. Second, he understood from this that all media deal with the “real”, with objects, but they are not necessarily reality. And as you know, I think, that’s why the name by which we call a new thing is so important. For example, it’s not an accident that we call the mediated representation in media a “virtual reality.” […] What is interesting to me, beside the phenomenological issue of representation and virtuality, or the creation of simulacra, is that after McLuhan died, he himself became a discarnate human being. In effect, there are people, like you, getting to know him and studying him now because there are so many “media” forms in which you see or hear him and come to know him, from radio, from television, from books, from web sites. You will never meet McLuhan in person, only through his biographical representations, and yet you, too, can know him critically by being a “cinephile”, by watching, thinking and writing about his extension in various media, while he talks about understanding media. And that’s to me a kind of wonderful “angelic” presence that comes to you though all media, including McLuhan’s Wake, my feature documentary, or the many McLuhan radio archives, or websites devoted to him on the Internet. You can get to know him in ways that people couldn’t know a person let’s say a hundred years ago. And that is the beauty of being represented as a discarnate being in media. A hundered years ago, you could have studied a painting or book, and that was all, and now you can have the “being” represented in full, in every sense of the word, but touch. So, perhaps you can understand from this why for McLuhan, as Catholic, being discarnate had a special meaning. Because he believed that there are angelic presences in this world. And of course to believe that, you have to also believe in the resurrection of the human soul, and to believe in the resurrrection you also have to believe in the efficacious gift of grace that some persons receive from God. In short, that helps us understand why I think that Wired Magazine was right, that McLuhan is indeed the uncontested true ‘Patron Saint’ of the electric age.
Monica Rossi ha conseguito la laurea specialistica con lode presso la Facoltà di Lingue e Letterature Straniere dell’Università di Bologna con una tesi su Marshall McLuhan e il cinema. Si è specializzata in letteratura canadese e inglese, in particolare sulle produzioni del Novecento. Collabora alla cura del sito: www.canadausa.net. Scrive e si interessa di cinema, letteratura, comunicazione e traduzione.