March 19, 2008

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They don't get much cooler: Why Obama is the perfect McLuhan proxy (Robert Fulford, 3/18/08, National Post)

[Marshall McLuhan] divided players in the public arena into two categories, hot and cool. Hot personalities are single-minded, obsessive, devoted to their policies. They have hard-edged, sharply defined public styles. Those characteristics, McLuhan argued, make them wrong for TV, which favours the cool.

TV flatters a personal style that's open-ended, loose, unpredictable, perhaps slightly inscrutable -- like Obama. Television makes people want to participate, so the wise politician avoids excessive detail and leaves blank spaces for viewers to fill in. Pierre Trudeau, who always retained a certain mystery and was elected by a country that had no idea what he believed, was the ideal McLuhanesque politician, though he might have occasionally gone too far.

McLuhan freely offered advice to his friend Trudeau. The last time was in 1979, when he was briefly opposition leader. After he appeared in Parliament wearing a beard, McLuhan wrote to say it "cooled your image many degrees!" It made Trudeau more mysterious and surprising. But McLuhan suggested that this might not be what Trudeau needed at that particular moment. For whatever reason, Trudeau shaved off the beard.

In the current American campaign there's no doubt where McLuhan would put Hillary Clinton: In his terms she's hot, much too hot. She puts people off by her certainty and her insistence on experience. Her body language screams stiffness, defensiveness, emotional coldness. She fills all the space with data and shuts out the audience. Even her language ("traditional Democratic value") seems old-fashioned. When she appears with Obama, she looks out of place. (She's better on the political blogs because bloggers are usually wonks who love policy details. Obama doesn't do as well among them as he does on TV.)

McLuhan said, "Politics offers yesterday's answers to today's questions." That's more or less the basis of Obama's campaign. He knows politicians bore and exasperate voters and that he needs to separate himself from standard politicians and their irksome bickering. Clinton seems to think voters are unreasonable if they react with annoyance to her intelligent, well-intentioned platform. Perhaps they are unfair but that's not Obama's problem.

His self-chosen job is to project a public persona that people can enthusiastically embrace -- as opposed to the grudging, limited acceptance Clinton's supporters give her.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 19, 2008 7:04 PM
Comments

Vindication!

As a freshman journalism student in 1975 in a midwestern university, I had McLuhan rammed down my throat at every turn (or so it seemed). Try as I might, I could never make sense of the hot/cool, "medium is the message" thing. I could always find exceptions to everything in the theory... so many that it seemed rather flimsy.

And, even if I could make some sense (by ignoring what I observed), when all was said and done, it seemed like an utterly worthless way of analyzing media.

This snippet from the National Post (figures a Canadian would be the only one digging up MM's corpse 30 years on!) proves to me that it remains worthless.

Posted by: Brian McKim at March 20, 2008 9:24 AM
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