Speakers: Marshall McLuhan, W.H. Auden, Buckminster Fuller and Jack MacGowran
Moderator: Norman Jeffares
Topic: Theatre and the Visual Arts
Location: Fourth Annual Seminar in Irish Studies held in 1971 at the University of Toronto;
Recording found in Hornbake Library of the University of Maryland, College Park.
Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Message
Born on July 21, 1911, in Edmonton, Alberta, Marshall McLuhan’s early life saw a move to Winnipeg, Manitoba in 1916. It was here he would commence his academic pursuits, obtaining both BA and MA degrees from the University of Manitoba. An insatiable hunger for knowledge led him to further his education in Cambridge, England, where he achieved another set of BA and MA credentials.
McLuhan’s time at Cambridge saw the blossoming of his unique “aesthetic approach”, rooted deeply in the New Criticism developed there in the 1930s. Influenced by F.R. Leavis and I.A. Richards, McLuhan honed an appreciation for the formal facets of literature — this would later shape his perspective on technological forms. The foundational belief of the New Criticism was that literary meaning emerged from the interplay of words in context, rather than the author’s intent. A piece of literature’s structural and formal elements played pivotal roles in the messaging it conveyed. It’s from this perspective that McLuhan coined his famous axiom, “The medium is the message.”
His early works were both profound and influential. “The Mechanical Bride” (1951) critiqued the societal effects of advertising, and in the 1950s, he worked with Edmund Carpenter on the journal, “Explorations”. Together with Innis and Eric Havelock, this group was termed the Toronto School of Communication, committed to exploring the influence of communication technologies on society’s evolution.
During this period, McLuhan penned significant works including “The Gutenberg Galaxy” (1962), “Understanding Media” (1964), and “The Medium is the Massage” (1967), solidifying his reputation in the communications field. With increased recognition came offers from various institutions. To retain him, the University of Toronto established the Centre for Culture and Technology in 1963. McLuhan’s responsibilities, including supporting a large family, saw him delve into consultancy and commercials, even working with giants like IBM and AT&T. Post the 1964 publication of “Understanding Media”, McLuhan’s fame skyrocketed, leading to numerous media appearances, including a cameo in Woody Allen’s 1977 film, “Annie Hall”.
W.H. Auden: The Poet of the Age
Wystan Hugh Auden, born on 21 February 1907, was an English poet who later adopted American citizenship. Auden’s poetry spans a vast range, from the intimate whispers of “Funeral Blues” to the political overtones of “September 1, 1939”. Born in York and raised near Birmingham, he was a product of England’s independent school system, eventually studying English at Christ Church, Oxford.
The early years of his career, post his time in Berlin during 1928–29, saw him teaching in English public schools. His travels to Iceland and China not only enriched him personally but also inspired books about these expeditions. 1939 marked a pivotal turn in his life when he relocated to the U.S., acquiring citizenship by 1946. He was deeply engaged in the American academic scene, with stints in universities during the early 1940s and occasional visiting professorships in the following decade. Auden’s latter years were spent transitioning between New York and Europe, with winters in New York and summers alternating between Ischia, Italy and Kirchstetten, Austria.
Both McLuhan and Auden were giants in their respective fields, with legacies that continue to shape our understanding of media and poetry. Watch the accompanying video for a deeper dive into their remarkable lives.
Buckminster Fuller: Visionary of the Geodesic Age
Richard Buckminster “Bucky” Fuller, born on July 12, 1895, was a true Renaissance man of the 20th century — an architect, designer, systems theorist, author, and inventor. While he might be best known for the invention of the geodesic dome, his contributions spanned far beyond, touching the very way we think about sustainable living and technological innovation.
Fuller’s early life was characterized by a series of challenges, including expulsion from Harvard University twice and a personal crisis brought on by the death of his daughter, which made him contemplate suicide. However, this dark period birthed a profound epiphany. Fuller realized that he could contribute more to humanity by devoting himself to finding solutions to global problems rather than focusing on personal dilemmas.
His commitment to ‘doing more with less’ saw him explore innovative architectural and design solutions that were both efficient and environmentally responsible. The geodesic dome, lightweight yet stable, became a symbol of Fuller’s philosophy. It embodied maximum efficiency in terms of materials and energy, a reflection of his broader vision of a world where technological advancement would allow humanity to achieve more using fewer resources.
Fuller’s conceptual framework was termed “Spaceship Earth,” viewing the planet as a singular ship voyaging through space, relying on its finite resources. This idea prompted societies worldwide to consider sustainability, emphasizing the importance of global collaboration and resource management.
Beyond architecture, Fuller was also a dedicated educator. His tenures at institutions like Black Mountain College and Southern Illinois University saw him instill his revolutionary ideas in young minds, cultivating a new generation of thinkers who’d go on to challenge traditional norms in various fields.
With Fuller, as with McLuhan and Auden, we see the impact of visionary thinkers, individuals whose insights and innovations have sculpted the landscapes of their fields. Dive deeper into Fuller’s world in the accompanying video, exploring the intricacies of his life and the lasting imprint of his genius.