Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Village Garden: McLuhan's Utopia

“The electronic age...angelizes man, disembodies him. Turns him into software.” ~ M.M.
One key for unlocking Understanding Media's central thesis is to grasp Marshall McLuhan’s idea of utopia. As he notes, “The computer, in short, promises by technology a Pentecostal condition of universal understanding and unity." For McLuhan, utopia is the unified consciousness of the awakened individual. This sense of wholeness, Donald Theall suggests, “is justified and reconciled with his Catholic orientation as a sacramentalizing of the material world, not an etherealizing of it through some movement into a transcendent spirituality.”

The contrast between hot and cool mediums is intrinsic to McLuhan’s pursuit of utopia. We can see how they have played out in relation to Twitter and Facebook via the Arab Spring, or more recently with the Kony 2012 viral video. Electricity, through the “cool” Internet, invigorates with the power of a Christian Pentecost. However, unlike radio with its ability to incite “hot” passions, cool media promotes a more measured “all depth experience."

Totalitarian or authoritarian governments, such as in Egypt, which literally switched off the Internet in January 2011, or in China where the government controls the Internet via its Great Firewall, rely on closed systems to maintain control and enforce a conventional status quo. As McLuhan writes: “Such is the plight of the representatives of ‘conventional wisdom’…innovation is for them not novelty but annihilation."

One of the defining skills of this optimal awareness is recognition that consciousness depends on its environment. As with Wyndham Lewis’s Vorticist paintings or Sheila Watson’s concept of “figures in a ground,” consciousness is at one with its environment, not above or below, but within and perpetually engaged in an intersubjective relationship. For McLuhan, this has the potential to be translated into a unified consciousness that is at one with its field – the medium and the message. The way to this condition is through a proper awareness of what the environment is doing and saying. How, not only what, is the question.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

My New Book: Bono

"The right to appear ridiculous is something I hold dear."
Good news! My new book, Bono, will be published next month. Now I can afford some cream for my coffee, maybe even a little peanut butter on my bread...and the rent.

From my publisher, ABC-CLIO:
Bono is a passionate, articulate celebrity who has transcended his role as international rock star and become an effective political activist. This book provides insights into his life story and contributions to both popular culture and politics.

Bono is the highly recognizable, articulate, and well-known frontman of the band U2, one of the most successful, prolific, and widely respected bands in rock music. Bono has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and has won numerous awards for his political activism—highly unusual for a pop star. What makes Bono such a standout?

Bono: A Biography takes a broad look at the pop star's life from his birth until the present day while also examining in depth the major events throughout his life. It covers Bono's accomplishments as part of U2 and also provides great detail about this complex celebrity figure's achievements outside of his involvement with his band—for example, his activities as a major spokesperson on issues of debt relief and poverty.

This book will be appreciated by general readers as well as high school students with an interest in pop culture and politics. Authored by a writer who has been a fan of U2 and Bono since his youth, this book cites a variety of sources to present an engaging and comprehensive portrait of this passionate musician's contributions to popular music and his ongoing commitment to issues of social justice.

• Contains many direct quotes from Bono's speeches and interviews that address his activism and his life with U2
• Presents a chronology of Bono's life from his birth onwards
• Includes a bibliography of works cited and other books worth reading

• Provides a rich, detailed chronology of Bono's life
• Covers the significant milestones in his life
• Presents his struggles with celebrity vs. personal life
• Details Bono's political activism, explains his commitment to U2, and examines his Christian faith

Author Info:

David Kootnikoff is an award-winning writer. His published works include U2: A Musical Biography and Getting Both Feet Wet: Experiences Inside The Jet Program, winner of the Japan Festival Award for contributing to understanding between cultures. He is currently working on his doctoral degree in English at the University of Alberta, Canada.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Iran: Ancient Bam

A few years ago Yuko and I visited the ancient city of Bam, 200 kms south of Kerman in the south of Iran. The surrounding desert is the same ochre colour as Mars and on the morning we arrived rust colored mountains towered in the distance like corrugated sentinels against a glistening azure sky.

A city of 73,000, Bam was devastated in December 2003 when a 6.6 earthquake destroyed over 70% of homes. Many were still in ruins. Crumbling buildings sat alongside rows of metal shipping containers once used for relief aid. They looked empty until I noticed a young girl peering out from one and realized they were actually shelters for families, barbers shops and vegetable stalls.

Bam’s magnificent Arg, or citadel, was once the world’s largest adobe structure, but it was completely flattened during the quake. Built before 500 BC, the government has said it’s committed to its reconstruction, but like the rest of the city it will take years, perhaps decades to complete. Official numbers say the quake claimed 27,000 lives, but locals believe the real number to be much higher. Climbing over the ruins, we looked out over the surrounding desert flushed green in parts with vegetation from the oasis that has sustained Bam for thousands of years. The views are breathtaking. A man approached and identified himself as a security guard. After exchanging a few words, he explained that he had lost his niece in the quake.

When we returned to the car, Sai, our driver, popped in a CD of local singer Iraj Bastami who died in the quake. With Bam receding behind us, his keening voice rose and fell in mournful exultation. We settled in for the long journey north across the Dasht-e Lut (salt desert) to the city of Yazd.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Marshall McLuhan: The Canuck Savant

"I don't necessarily agree with everything I say" ~ M.M.
Marshall McLuhan has been making a comeback of sorts in recent years, thanks in part to fans like Douglas Coupland. In his book, Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work, Coupland refers to the great "Canuck Savant" as a prophet & guru who saw "the future of the future." Apart from the Montreal comedy troupe Radio Free Vestibule, who wrote "The Ballad of Marshall McLuhan", the "fuddy-duddy fiftysomething English lit professor from Toronto," as Coupland dubs him, was largely being willfully forgotten.

I'm currently reading The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) and Understanding Media: Extensions of Man (1964). McLuhan’s tone is often urgent. He has the evangelical conviction of a fresh convert and resembles Coleridge’s Mariner possessed with a story he must tell in order to validate his own existence.

One duality that animates McLuhan’s discourse is “retribalization” and “detribalization.” These are processes that have occurred throughout history with varying degrees of intensity. McLuhan felt that our electric age was particularly unique because of its capacity to accelerate sensory perception. This speed leads to a simultaneous apprehension of reality involving all the senses all of the time. The retribalization of contemporary life can be a traumatic event exposing the individual to the blasting forces of the new environment. The only way to survive is to either shut oneself off or engage in the fluid currents of each moment. To do the former is to become numb; to do the latter requires abandoning the fixed, linear modes of cognition for the flux of the present manifestation of simultaneity. One aspect of McLuhan's character that is too often overlooked is his sense of humour. I found a fascinating and at times hilarious conversation on YouTube between Norman Mailer and McLuhan from 1968:

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Robert Kroetsch: The Sad Phoenician

"Any resemblance
to persons living or dead
is coincidental,
believe me."
~ Robert Kroetsch, Preface to The Sad Phoenician
Tomorrow night is a celebration in Edmonton of the great Canadian writer, Robert Kroetsch. Hosted by Douglas Barbour, it's billed as "an evening of readings and remembrances" featuring:

George Bowering
Jenna Butler
Jeff Carpenter
Nicole Markotic
Roy Miki
Fred Wah
Thomas Wharton

Kroetsch, who died in a car accident last year, was born in Heisler, Alberta. He went on to win the Governor General's Award for fiction in 1969 for The Studhorse Man and received the Order of Canada in 2004. Known more for his poetry, he authored one of my favourite collections, "The Seed Catalogue," which inspired me to work on my long poem. The month after he passed, we moved to Edmonton from Hong Kong. As I was walking along Whyte Avenue, I ducked into Howell Books and picked up a vintage copy of the The Sad Phoenician. It helped me adjust to my old/new home.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Sushi Shokunin: A Living Treasure

Next time I'm in Tokyo I'll be sure to visit Sukiyabashi Jiro in Ginza for some of the world's greatest sushi made by a certified national treasure of Japan (人間国宝). Jiro Ono is an artisan, the type of expert the Japanese refer to as a "Shokunin," or master craftsman of the trade.

I miss Japan. Yes, Edmonton may have delicious cupcakes thanks to Fuss on Whyte, but whither sushi? So I've written a poem to console myself in its absence:

All the colours of a chef's palette
drift through the floating world
of a sushi bar

and beige

The smooth flesh
of each raw mineral
flows through your lips
like a cool deception


They begin to melt
watery and marbled
until a bright dot of wasabi
suddenly sabotages
your freshly painted palate
in a riot of white fire

Here's the trailer for the recent film, "Jiro Dreams Of Sushi," a must see.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Bread And Roses: We Battle Too For Men

March 8th is International Women's Day. Who would have thought that in 2012 a woman's right to choose would be subjected to such nefarious attacks as the law passed today in the U.S. state of Virginia requiring women to have an ultrasound before an abortion? And that was considered a compromise. What Republican Governor Bob McDonnell and his merry band of cohorts initially proposed included a controversial requirement for a more invasive vaginal probe.

Then there's the debate around contraception and the abusive assault on Sandra Fluke by meatheaded misogynist Rush Limbaugh. But at least he's re-apologizing...and not allowing "phony stuff like race, creed, sex, or religion to get in the way of any racist, xenophobic, sexist, anti-Parkinsonian observations about political figures, celebrities, First Daughters, even certain individuals who like to call themselves 'the president.'"

These are issues that concern men as well as women. Sure, there's a bit of self-interest involved. As the poem/song "Bread and Roses" goes, "The rising of the women means the rising of the race." Issues of violence against women - not just physical violence - need to be addressed by men. As the backlash against women's rights and the assault on their dignity continue, vigilance now more than ever is required. These are our mothers, sisters, daughters and wives. The sooner we join them in the struggle, the better off we'll all be.
Bread And Roses

As we go marching, marching, in the beauty of the day,
A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill lofts gray,
Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses,
For the people hear us singing: Bread and Roses! Bread and Roses!

As we go marching, marching, we battle too for men,
For they are women's children, and we mother them again.
Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;
Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses.

As we go marching, marching, unnumbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient call for bread.
Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew.
Yes, it is bread we fight for, but we fight for roses too.

As we go marching, marching, we bring the greater days,
The rising of the women means the rising of the race.
No more the drudge and idler, ten that toil where one reposes,
But a sharing of life's glories: Bread and roses, bread and roses.

Friday, March 02, 2012

University Of Alberta: Corporate Pandering

Despite local and international outrage, the University of Alberta, led by president Indira Samarasekera, conferred an honorary degree yesterday on current Nestlé executive Peter Brabeck-Letmathe. Why honor someone who has so explicitly pursued an agenda that is diametrically opposed to the public good? Brabeck-Letmathe has been consistent in his priorities; he has said it's an “extreme” view to call water a human right while advocating it be privatized as a marketable commodity.

According to the recent documentary, Bottled Life: Nestlé's Business with Water, Nestlé generates US $10 billion dollars a year with bottled water. As Kirsten Goa of the Breastfeeding Action Committee of Edmonton says, “Nestlé is trying to normalize turning water into a commodity the same way it normalized the use of artificial baby formula.”

U of A Chancellor Linda Hughes confers an honorary degree on Nestlé chairman Brabeck-Letmathe (via Edmonton Journal).
In his speech at the U of A, Brabeck-Letmathe lamented "our somewhat innate tendency to follow emotions more easily than facts" and said "no dogmatic or ideological approach will suffice to find solutions." Except, of course, the ideological dogma of so-called free markets and globalization.

We live in precarious times. Since returning to Canada from Hong Kong six months ago I've noticed an increasing collusion of government and corporate interests. Hannah Arendt, perhaps the greatest chronicler of totalitarianism's creeping influence, wrote eloquently about the dangers of the corporate state as a prerequisite to fascism. The University of Alberta has now committed to a dangerous liaison. Citizens of conscience must be vigilant and speak out relentlessly against these "dignifying" abominations. If they fall away the failure belongs not to the proactive usurpers, but to the silent enablers.