John Cabot University Welcomes Eric and Andrew McLuhan

On September 7, 2016, the Guarini Institute for Public Affairs and the Department of Communications welcomed Dr. Eric McLuhan, an internationally-known and award-winning lecturer on communication and media and son of the late Marshall McLuhan, and Andrew McLuhan, his son and assistant.

Dr. Eric McLuhan began by speaking of his father’s private side. Marshall McLuhan, he said, was very reserved and always kept his public and private lives separate. Therefore, whenever someone sees an interview with Marshall McLuhan, or listens to a radio program, one will only experience the persona McLuhan had for the specific medium.

“Since he was an English professor, the tools my father used to study media are in many ways the same tools used in literary analysis,” Eric McLuhan continued. “From the very beginning, he asked: ‘Who’s talking? Who’s listening? What is the listener supposed to know in advance? What effect will the communication have on the listener?'” This tight relationship between literary analysis and media analysis can also be observed in the work Understanding Media (1964). In fact, Eric McLuhan continued, one of the most influential books for his father was the well known college textbook Understanding Poetry, whose structure Marshall McLuhan used as a framework in his approach to media studies.

Eric McLuhan also clarified what his father meant by using the word “medium,” a concept largely misunderstood. A medium, he said, is not a single entity, but rather “an environment in which things happen.” Because of the way the word “medium” is somewhat restrictive, he prefers the French word “milieu” to identify a medium. He then explained why the choice of a particular medium is so relevant. “When you’re choosing a medium to work on, you’re choosing a style, which translates to a range of effects depending on the sensibilities of the audience of that particular medium,” he said.

Eric McLuhan then moved on to explain the idea behind hot and cool media. The division, he said, is a way to relatively assess media. Hot media do not require much participation (meaning information to be filled in by the audience), whereas cool media require more. However, hot and cool are relative terms, not absolute. For instance, film is “hot” compared to the telephone. However, a film is “cool” compared to a computer. Therefore, he continued, it is wrong to try and separate media into hot and cool as strict categories.

Andrew McLuhan spoke next, shedding some light on how Marshall McLuhan worked. As he read, Andrew said, Marshall McLuhan would write annotations on the side of the page, or between the lines. Moreover, if a work particularly interested him, he would go back to it, even years later, and write new notes. Thanks to this, and considering his handwriting changed over the years, it is possible to do a sort of intellectual biography of Marshall McLuhan, and to see what interested him at different times of his life. For instance, “his favorite book was Finnegans Wake by James Joyce. He wrote so many annotations on it that he had to buy four copies, as in the first three there was no more space to write anything. On the sides, between the lines, annotations were everywhere,” Andrew McLuhan said.

Eric McLuhan concluded by highlighting a change in the dynamics between different media. Whereas in the past when a new medium emerged it would use the old medium as its content, as it is in the case of books and manuscripts, now an old medium like TV is using a new medium, the Internet, as its content, and vice versa. This development is particularly significant, Eric McLuhan said, as it is the first time in history that this has happened.