Open Mind Surgery

Now 'living at the speed of light' [the title of an earlier talk in 1974], there is no foreseeable future. You are there literally" (p. 293). One entire talk, delivered at Columbia University in 1973, "Art as Survival in the Electric Age," is devoted to demonstrating how in the instantaneous post-electric world the artist alone can provide the insight and knowledge to survive while living at the speed of the computerized world.

In this talk McLuhan reiterates his total commitment, clear from the time of The Mechanical Bride onwards, that it is the artists, musicians, and poets and later the major artists of the popular arts, who are his guides and the only guides who are 50 years ahead of their time, who can provide guidance and the requisite vision. The tradition of those artists, says McLuhan, we now know occupied a major role in the prehistory of contemporary digiculture, beginning with Poe and Baudelaire, involving Rimbaud and Picasso, and continuing in the work of Yeats, Pound, and Eliot. McLuhan concludes by noting "that the job of the artist is to upset all the senses, and to provide new vision and new powers of adjusting and relating to new situations" (p. 223). In almost all of these talks artists appear as guides to understanding media - such as Marcel Duchamp, Wyndham Lewis, and James Joyce. It is clear the one with whom McLuhan felt the closest affinity was Wyndham Lewis, as he indicates in a talk on "Technology, Media and Culture" (1960) when he suggests that Lewis' uniqueness and thoroughness as historian and critic of the period means he is the most complete guide to the arts and letters of his age, providing the crucial critique of the avant-garde's flight from visual values and their embracing of popular culture as illustrated from Duchamp to Joyce (p. 16).

For the vision that McLuhan feels is essential to "surviving at the speed of light," Joyce is the critical figure in a talk on "Open Mind Surgery" (1967). McLuhan notes that Joyce "called TV as X-Ray 'the charge of the light barricade' which is just one of a multitude of insights that makes Finnegans Wake . . . the greatest guide to the media ever devised on this planet, and . . . a tremendous study of the action of all media upon the human psyche and sensorium" (p. 152). Thus McLuhan's talks are largely a kind of aphoristic prose-poetry advancing artistic insights into the tremendous transformation of human perception through the emergence first of TV and then of computerization and worldwide electronic communication from the 1940s, when he wrote The Mechanical Bride, until 1979, when he delivered his last recorded talk.