Monday, April 9, 2018

Marshall McLuhan | Shall We Laugh or Cry

by Marshall McLuhan
TV Guide, Fall 1978

A French Canadian and an English Canadian were walking along when they carne to a fork in the road Signs indicated "Heaven" to the left, and "A Seminar on Heaven" to the right The French Canadian took the road to Heaven and the English Canadian chose the seminar.

Stories like this indicate a ground of grievance, and at the same time provide some relief from tensions. I think it is desirable to circulate a great many stories of this kind to cool off some of the grievances now current about separatism. We always like the people we laugh at, and when the jokes dry up, it is a sign of real trouble.

Today, separatism is a worldwide identity crisis that is not unrelated to our new media of communication. There are linguistic revolts in India, and there's much regrouping in the Arab world. The Scots want out of the British union, and in France there are hisa-dozen areas that wish to separate from the nation. The same separatist or schizophrenic tendencies exist in the private individual, as well as in the family. The generation gap is 2500 years wide, dating from the time when the Greeks invented civilization and the private individual.)

Around 1860, the American South, with its miraculous phonetic alphabet, wanted out of the Union. The Telegraph had been around for a generation, intensifying the oral tradition of the South. Southerners felt the alien quality of the Yankee works to the North to the same degree that Francophones are put off by the WASP world, with its devotion to the written word and the bottom line.

Then, too, the music came out of the South and the hardware came out of the North, just as with us the songs are French and the prose is English. The French have an oral tradition that has been stepped up by radio and television. In the U.S. now as in 1860, the songs and the jazz and the "rock" come out of the South, and the tanks come out of the North.

Our Global Village exists by virtue of our electric links around the world. These relate us to each other at the speed of light, eliminating time and space. They affect the regional revolutionary as much in Africa as in India, making big political groups like Russia and the US less and less popular.

Small is beautiful, as Dr. E.F. Schumacher the economist, reports. At electric speed, the trend is from hardware so software, from product to services. At the same time, work changes from job-holding to role-playing. At the speed of instant information, centralism yields to human scale even though there's still a large bureaucratic hangover. One of the features of role-playing is the prevalence of universal espionage. In the Computer Age everybody can keep an eye on everybody else, and audience research begins at home. At the speed of light, we live in echoland. Everything and everyone reverberates with all the rest, and the heart begins to rule the head, which is the case in French Canada. English Canada is asking. What does Quebec want? And Quebec is saying, "How does Quebec feel. It is the difference between quantity and quality.

At any fronter or border whether between languages or territories, there is created a vortex of power and energy. This is the fascination of Westerns. Out West at the end of "steel," is where the action begins. On much frontiers everybody is a nobody and has to prove himself day by day. The gap between French and English is such a frontier. As is the frontier between blacks and whites. One of the current jests in this area concerns a call that a future president of the United States makes to Levesque. Lévesque says, "When you call again, you must speak in French And the president replies, "Look heah, white boy…"

Violent borders occur where people are uncertain of their identities and put on the mask of power to protect their inadequacy. The Bander Meinhoff team in Germany, like the Red Brigade in Italy. was trying to define its policies by confrontation with the establishment. Hijacking takes many forms, including pornography and obscenity, vandalism and graffiti. Pornography invades the world of established norms as much as vandalism. Each of these things is a vortex of power at the meeting point of hostile interests. Conflicting interests of class, or economic power, have through the ages been allowed the outlet of carnival licence, when the entire community puts on a mask and, as it were scrambles everybody's identity.

This is also one of the functions of jokes, which elaborately endow the actors with special masks. Such is the anecdote concerning Trudeau being pushed to the Rideau Canal by a careless cyclist. Two boys playing nearby help him from the canal. Trudeau tells them. "Just name what you would like me to give you." One of the boys says, "I'd like a 10 speed bicycle." But the other one says, "Please promise me a military funeral." Trudeau asks, "Why are you thinking of a funeral at your age?" And the lad replies, "When my father hears I pulled you out of the canal he'll kill me."

There is an even more fanciful story that concerns Trudeau having a talk with Lucifer (the light bearer, patron of all engineers). It's a lengthy chat and Lucifer is most helpful, especially about matters of initiation and job shortage (work for idle hands and so on…) At the end of the conversation Trudeau inquires about the charge for the call. The operator says, That will be $175. Trudeau tells him to put it on his private Account. When Levesque hears about the call, he cannot rest until he, too gets through to Lucifer. He's reassured by Lucifer's fluent French, and they have a most satisfactory talk. At the end, Levesque asks the operator for the cost of the call and the operator says, “There is no charge." Levesque protests, "But, you charged Mr. Trudeau $175." The operator replies, "Yes, Mr. Lévesque, but his was a long distance call. Yours was only local."

One of the major features of any identity quest involves nostalgia and, for French Canadians, the reawakening of the continental dream of their ancestors in the days of the fur traders, the French gained control of large areas of America, North and South, and their sense of a continental destiny has been stirring in our time, reactivating both regional and ethnic loyalties both to language and to country. These loyalties have been submerged by the Confederation cult of a bilingual nation bolted together by a railway. It is this alien hardware component of the WASP world from which French Canadians seek delivery. They feel it as a form of centralism tied to WASP goals and leading the straight to the melting pot and to further loss of identity.

But is this the time to seek the birth of a new French-language nation that would cause such an abrasive encounter with the rest of Canada? Is not a carnival of fun and games preferable strategy against the threat of violence?

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