Media analyst/cultural theorist Marshall McLuhan believed that artists need to integrate, analyze and utilize rapid changes in technology, in order to truly have a mass impact on people in the modern age.
Now, Bob Dobbs, McLuhan’s archivist who chronologized and sorted McLuhan’s writings after his death, is scheduled to give a talk and discussion about McLuhan’s theories on art and media, at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, February 9th, at Bergamot Books, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica. Admission is free.
Dobbs will focus on recent releases by Gingko Press of McLuhan’s Understanding Media and Through the Vanishing Point.
“McLuhan thought of a better way to deal with art in the relation to its commodification.” says Dobbs.
“In Renaissance times, it was the scientist versus the humanist. The scientist would invent and the humanist or artist would write or create, dealing with the side effects of the invention.”
McLuhan felt that, for the most part, traditional art was no longer serving this purpose.
“McLuhan believed that electronic environments were molding people on a scale that was greater than any artwork, and that, therefore, artists should embrace the technologies of the future,” says Dobbs.
McLuhan’s oft-cited example of his theory in practice was James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, a book Dobbs says mirrors the media environment of radio, which was dominant in the 1930s. The book was finished in 1939.
McLuhan’s theory on media was divided between old “analog media” (newspapers, radio, TV) and forms of digital media that were in early stages of development in the 1960s and 1970s, and now are common in the home computer age.
McLuhan, understanding information overload and short attention spans, would often express his philosophy in catch phrases and sound bite quotes.
His catch phrase for old media was that the “medium is the message.”
“By this, he meant that in mass media environments, people are molded not only by the content but by a sensory bias specific to the medium,” says Dobbs.
For digital media, he adopted a different adage, that the “user is the content.”
“Once VCRs, and eventually computers, became readily available, it gave more control to the user,” says Dobbs. “Now you can control the time that information is fed to you.
“With PCs and workstations and the internet, people are able to interact and have more of a choice. The user can mold and manipulate the content.”
“Generation X is still somewhat in the clutches of old media. Generation Y, the younger generation, however, laughs at the old mass media. That’s why Jon Stewart (host of the Daily Show, a news spoof television program) is more powerful than Dan Rather,” says Dobbs.
“Now the flip side is that sometimes with digital media the user tends to think he’s in control, when he’s really being fed information in the same form of old media.”
In November and December 1981, after McLuhan’s death, Dobbs sifted through decades of McLuhan’s letters, essays, manuscripts and notes, making chronological sense out of the materials.
“I had known McLuhan for years,” says Dobbs. “His family knew I knew him. “I knew the history of his work. So I was asked to organize McLuhan’s ‘garbage’, so to speak — all of the filing cabinets and boxes that were in his house.”
The results of Dobbs’ work now rest with the National Archives in Ottawa, as McLuhan was Canadian.
McLuhan’s heyday of popularity was in the 1960s, starting with the release of Understanding Media in 1964, and reaching its peak in the late 1960s.
“His ideas were kind of a youth culture fad at that point,” says Dobbs. “He also went through a period in the 1970s where it was not cool to like him.”
Dobbs considers McLuhan’s best protÈgÈs to be futurist authors Charles Reich, Alvin Toffler and John Naisbitt.
But Dobbs suggests that perhaps today’s information age is not ripe for theorists like McLuhan to be viewed as leaders or idolized in popular culture.
“These days there seems to be no need for gurus speaking for society,” says Dobbs. “Society is so fragmented by digital media and full of micro-gurus, all reaching their small enclaves.”
“The closest equivalent that I can think of to the sort of gurus with mass reach that there used to be would be Wired magazine, where the magazine itself has become the guru,” says Dobbs.
Information, (310) 306-7330.