The recent passing of Mary Travers—who, with Peter and Paul, was years ago always intoning that the answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind—brought back some quaint memories of kumbaya moments, and the consoling thought that at least Mary Travers lived long enough to see her political vision fulfilled in the person of Barack Obama. The recent revival of the “musical” Hair also took me back, or to be more precise, I was taken aback by it. Who would want to see now what was entirely vacuous the first time around? I avoided it then, but I couldn’t have avoided the 60’s altogether, now could I? I tried, but I wasn’t at that time ready for the physical extinction that would seem to have been required. Maybe I should have had more nerve—maybe there are some who wish I had—but however that may be, long hair and nudity seemed to be something less than an achievement then, and still seem so today. The 60’s were a mess from which we have never recovered, and I doubt we ever will. The bizarre principle of the ubiquity of loud, ugly music has been accepted for decades, and the related principles that political thought is defined by identity groups, and that sweaty passion is the hallmark of authenticity, are with us today in full force. Violence, drugs, and even riots took strange forms then, and they still do.
When did the 60’s begin? The precipitant and propelling elements went way back in American history and culture—I didn’t recognize the pre-60’s elements of the 50’s until later on. To me, the 60’s began with the assassination of JFK on November 22, 1963. I was at my desk at college when a roommate rushed in, announced the facts, and quickly said, “It must have been one of those Southern racists!” To which I instantly replied, “Sounds more like a communist to me.”
I would point out that the anomaly of the assassination was followed hard upon, only a few months later, by the incursion of the Beatles; and I would also point out that the word assassination is derived from the word hashish. The prevalence of drugs, the sexual revolution, pop music, pop art, and all the rest of it, seemed to be all of a piece. Norman Mailer was soon writing about the Age of Aquarius, Truman Capote was writing about bloody murder, and Tom Wolfe made a name for himself in the scramble. We heard about Andy Warhol and Antonioni and the Rolling Stones and Twiggy and all the rest of it, not neglecting the late and commanding figure of the decade, Charles Willis Manson. This seems to be the place to say that Helter Skelter (1974) by Vincent Bugliosi is a book that will be read when so many others are forgotten—a book that Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville would have recognized as related, in its documented truth, to their own visionary and obsessed work.
So of course there was a lot I didn’t like about the 60’s. I didn’t like Pauline Kael and was repelled then by Blowup, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and The Graduate—and still am. I liked Andrew Sarris a lot and enjoyed the debut of El Dorado on 42nd Street, as the only white in an audience of hundreds. I spent a lot of time in the Thalia on 95th Street learning about real movies, and a lot of time in the Columbia library learning about real books. I enjoyed some popular music and even more a connection with the blues, and even more still the chance to get nearer to music-making itself. I talked with Leopold Stokowski in the cheap seats at Carnegie Hall; he asked me (!) about the quality of the concert by “his” orchestra. (The program included “La Peri” of Dukas, conducted by Paul Paray.) I told that elegant gentleman that everything was just fine.
I hung out in the Village sometimes. I remember relishing particularly James Cotton—he could really play the blues harp—and Mike Bloomfield, perhaps the greatest of slide guitarists, and too bad about that heroin problem. But there was a lot of trash as well as flash. Al Kooper seemed to me to be a fraud, and there were other frauds in other arts, such as the sale by some hirsute entrepreneur of revolving squares of masonite upon which one was supposed to squirt acrylic paints, thereby creating contemporary art. This was for the Jersey kids on the weekends, mind you. The resulting absurdities looked a lot like the trash exhibited at the Whitney. Of course music and art of quality are not hard to find in New York City, and that was the reason to be there, in spite of all the shameless hucksterism about Living Theater and Street Theater and “happenings,” and all the rest of it. I preferred the New York where in 1960 I heard Mischa Elman and Benno Moiseiwitsch and Michael Rabin (soon to collapse) and, later, Vladimir Horowitz (soon to return) and Earl Wild (still with us).
So there it was, waiting to be “wrapped,” as writers and critics attempted to do, or I should say, more than attempted. There was a battle of the Zeitgeist, as it were, as to who was going to wrap the 60’s, to own it, to be it. I suppose that Norman Mailer did the most in that regard, and he had a critical or even conservative streak that lent him more strength than you might suppose. But if there is one figure who seemed for a while to be more memorable and defining, that man was Marshall McLuhan, if only for the 15 minutes he had apportioned to everyone—a thought to be annexed by Andy Warhol.
Looking back on the McLuhan phenomenon today, we might wonder what all the fuss was about. We must realize that there was always a gap between McLuhan the thinker, the critic, the expositor, on the one hand, and McLuhan the celebrity, on the other. McLuhan the celebrity became a name or handle or shorthand for vague ideas such as “the Global Village,” the notion the television is a “cool,” “tactile” medium, and so on. The mere recital of the McLuhan name was an incantation conjuring all sorts of indefinable gnosis: It was the mark of the in-crowd, but not for long.
We have to remember that Marshall McLuhan hardly received much critical support in his own context—even a former student and continuing friend such as Hugh Kenner was not ready to sign off on his high-handed and arbitrary formulations. The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (1962); Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964); The Medium Is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects (1967); War and Peace in the Global Village: An Inventory of Some Current Spastic Situations That Could Be Eliminated by More Feedforward (1968)—these “books” received rough treatment from the likes of John Simon, Frank Kermode, Dwight Macdonald, and Christopher Ricks. But that didn’t matter, for in the 60’s, not much did. (Maybe it was all the marijuana.) What did matter was getting your name mentioned on Laugh-In—“What are you doin’, Marshall McLuhan?” That one was hard to beat, but the scene in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977—the moment had long passed, but what a moment) in which Marshall McLuhan played himself refereeing a dispute in a line at the movie house to the confirmation of the fantasy of the protagonist was the ultimate triumph of the innerleckshul (as Flannery O’Connor put it) in the popular arts. Even so, a more telling bumper sticker made a subtler point, some years earlier: Marshall McLuhan Reads Books.
Disregarding McLuhan’s erudition and his personal life (he was a Christian gentleman and a man of great appeal), his contribution must strike us today as problematical. We would have to notice first that his “myth” has been revealingly compared to both Marxism and Freudianism, as biblically modeled “falls” into division (the print-enforced division between head and heart, expelling us from Eden, childhood innocence, etc., which split will be overcome by the dictatorship of the proletariat or the Global Village). There are various problems not only with his methods and their reckless expression, but even with his facts and sense of causal relations. Above all, as with Marx, there is a problem with his predictions.
The Global Village has not materialized in any McLuhanite sense, not even with all the effects of digitalization, the steamrolling of the global tweet culture, and the affected Kenyan sensibility of the President of the United States. The merger of television with satellite service and other communications devices has put paid to McLuhan’s definition of “cool” and “tactile.” If he ever meant anything more than “fuzzy,” then high-definition TV has obliterated any distinction with film, which now has become downloadable for the home. Such a transformation is radical, all right, but it isn’t a change of medium. If war has become a television show, so has everything else, so what’s the difference? How was the primitive bliss of “cool” to be distinguished from Warholian alienation? And how could a medium unite the people, if it was constructed on the segmentation of the market? You watch your fantasy, and I’ll watch mine.
McLuhan had no sense of what was coming—it’s easy to say, because his future is now our past. The Global Village was supposed to be an interconnected world that shared a mental set, a commonality of feeling, and that’s exactly what we don’t have. The world-historical transformation of the distribution of the peoples of the world has no name; perhaps it will be called the Great Melting, or the Affirmation of Diversity, or whatever you like—but not the Global Village. After all, a tribe is not—cannot be, by definition—“diverse.”
I would add that the digitalization of information and communication, altogether unforeseen by McLuhan, has had a deceptive impact on that human sensorium to which MM so often referred, that effect being the reason for universalizing the digitalization. Derived from military systems that incorporated surveillance, the internet is a snare that can be used to advantage, but with hidden costs. The “democratic” illusion of free speech destroys all authority except the governmental and corporate, as individual thought is reduced to the level of subliterate ranting. MM (and you know which MM I’m thinking of) declared to his credit, in a 1967 interview, that the practice implied by his theory was repellent: “I want observations, not agreement. And my own observations of our almost overwhelming cultural gradient toward the primitive or involvement of all the senses—is attended by complete personal distaste and dissatisfaction. I have no liking for it.” Well, yes. But when the crowds in the Paris streets celebrated a World Cup win by singing a British rock song in English, something of the Global Village was demonstrated in all its spurious and empty ritualism: “We Are the Champions” is not much consolation when you don’t have a country, a culture, or, apparently, a language. Only Sir Elton John was missing, to bless the miracle in his patented, bloated, and incompetent fashion.
To me the best treatment of the ideas of Marshall McLuhan remains David Cronenberg’s 1983 horror flick, Videodrome. Yes, it is as dated by events as only a VHS portal can make it, but if ever there was a representation of the power of the medium, Videodrome is it. I don’t think that there is any such fiction built from the ideas of Alvin Toffler, unless we consider that all science fiction or dystopian vision is related, from Frankenstein and 1984 to Minority Report.
Born in 1928, Alvin Toffler is considerably younger than MM was, and he is still active as a futurologist and consultant. MM was co-opted by corporations, of course, and he provoked the foundation of the discipline of “media ecology.” Toffler has turned his talents toward the exploration of the military future, and is, I suppose, perhaps the first and probably the leading “futurologist” in the world. Future Shock (1970) laid out a vision that was similar to the schema of MM, in that it depended on a mythic world history to give it a framework. The Third Wave (1980) forecast the digital age, the knowledge industry, and much that we have experienced of what the Global Village turned into. Toffler has gone on to become a guru of such notables as Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, and Ted Turner, as well as a distinguished adjunct at the National Defense University. What interests me most about Toffler is his creative if not corrupt waffle between the role of academic analyst and that of the hustling promoter who lately has been coauthoring books about the way to wealth, like some latter-day Defoe or Franklin.
Toffler has no doubt been a better prophet than MM was, but he has also had a hand in reifying his own ideas, perhaps particularly in China, where he is acknowledged as a creator of the “new China.” About China I am reluctant to comment, though I would say that the nation of China seems to be pursuing a course antagonistic to the interests of the country in which Toffler resides. But I will say that various brainstorms of Clinton, Gingrich, and Turner seem to show very much the influence of “futurology,” which has the effect of detaching elected leaders (in the first two cases) from any sense of service or obligation and then releasing them to engage in narcissistic and tyrannical fantasy, like Chaplin’s Great Dictator kicking his global balloon.
Perhaps we can comprehend why Toffler must be discreet in what he reveals of the global program everyone is supposed to get with. Writing books of ideological advocacy disguised as prophecy, while consulting with various governments and authorities engaged in planning the future, must be a stressful business. “Writing” a work such as Revolutionary Wealth would be a moneymaker and a relief from the cloak-and-dagger aspects of futurology. Toffler has recently been writing about the wealth to be developed in outer space, but I think his consulting fees are still earthbound. And since he has been so astute and so in touch with the emerging trends he both scripted and predicted, I have paid particular attention to his treatment of cloning. If I know anything by reading the telltale signs, cloning is near, and it is going to be big. I think that if we could just accept the blasphemy of cloning, then perhaps we could work a deal about some cloning cutouts—some specific no-no’s. That’s about the best to hope for, if you have traveled as I have, from a village to Greenwich Village to the Global Village to Future Shlock.