Frank Zingrone Derek Alger One on One

portrait Frank Zingrone

interviewed by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 52 ~ September, 2001

Frank Zingrone, a respected Canadian communications scholar, explores
the paralyzing power of new communication technologies, while offering
a way out of an age of computerized chaos in his most recent book,
The Media Symplex: At the Edge of Meaning in the Age of Chaos.

Zingrone, a founding member of the department of communications at
York University in Toronto, where he is a senior scholar and fellow of
Vanier College, has also taught at M.I.T., SUNY (Buffalo), and the
University of Toronto where he was a colleague and friend of Marshall

He served as the editor of Who Was Marshall McLuhan?, and was
also co-editor with McLuhan’s son Eric, of Essential McLuhan.
Zingrone’s work has appeared in The James Joyce Quarterly,
Modern Poetry Studies, The Canadian Journal of Communication, The
Canadian Forum
, University of Toronto Quarterly, and McLuhan

In addition to his specialty in communications, Zingrone has a
comprehensive background in 20th Century Literature, and is also an
accomplished poet. He has published two collections of poetry,
which appeared in 1980, and Strange Attraction,
published last year by Colombo & Company of Toronto.

Derek Alger: You dedicate your recent book The Media
Symplex: At the Edge of Meaning in the Age of Chaos
to Marshall
McLuhan, as your teacher, mentor, colleague and friend. Obviously he
had a significant influence on you.

Frank Zingrone: I first met Marshall McLuhan on a tout, really.
I simply walked into a guest lecture he was giving at St. Michael’s
College, University of Toronto. I wasn’t expecting much because, up to
that point – I had recently returned to university to study
literature and linguistics – I hadn’t been excited intellectually at

DA: But McLuhan changed that?

FZ: The experience of that lecture by McLuhan was so remarkable
that I found I had cold sweat trickling down my sides. I can hardly
explain how overwhelming it was to have the twentieth century
explained and dropped on my plate like a code for the meaning of the
modern age, broken and all its secrets revealed in an almost arcane
fashion involving electronic media, subliminal perception, French
symbolism, the poetry of T.S. Eliot and Joyce’s Finnegan’s
, to name just a few of the crucial elements of understanding
contemporary communication theory. At the end of that lecture I can
remember having this feeling of exalted completion in having acquired
some real and useful knowledge.

DA: How did your relationship with McLuhan developed from that
first encounter?

FZ: My relationship with McLuhan developed quickly, less along
student/teacher lines and more like a collegial bonding. He saw
quickly that I was on his wavelength. He liked my work even in its
hesitant, early form and honored me by including a few of my
observations, verbatim, in The Gutenberg Galaxy. That meant a
lot to me then, as it still does.

DA: So McLuhan had an influence on you from the beginning?

FZ: He and my committee chair, Donald Theall, thought I should
go to SUNY-Buffalo to work with the original manuscripts of Joyce’s
Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake, which I did, and soon my
relationship with McLuhan became quite collegial and I was involved in
getting Marshall as the keynote speaker at the 1965 Buffalo Spring
Festival of the Arts. He was a big hit and sent people like Leslie
Fielder and Charles Olson reeling back to their studies.

DA: Sounds like you two were a good match.

FZ: McLuhan’s strong endorsement got me hired at MIT so I
didn’t see him or correspond with him for several years while I was
living in Boston. Later, when I returned to Toronto, we lunched
occasionally, not often, and we gadded about town a little. He would
call me always late at night, eleven or later, to discuss new
perceptions. Toward the end of a long and faithful relationship I
tried to help him save the Centre (The Centre for Culture and
Technology) at the University of Toronto from being closed by thrift
obsessed morons in the university’s hierarchy. In 1994, fourteen years
after his death, I was asked by Barrington Nevitt to help him get out
Who Was Marshall McLuhan? We did that and along with a good
biography and Wired magazine taking McLuhan up as a patron
saint on their masthead, the prescience of the man gave him a second
coming. The Essential McLuhan I put together in 1995 to further
make his work available to a whole new younger audience and because
much of his work was out of print by then.

DA: If you met someone in a bar or on the street how would you
succinctly describe who McLuhan was?

FZ: Marshall was often more interested in the guy off the
street or in the bar than his academic colleagues whom he regarded as
hopelessly obsolescent specialists in a comprehensive world. His whole
approach to knowledge began by accepting the transformative effects of
mass culture and its major media, even the comics, which he took quite
seriously. And he was a good guy to find in a bar. He loved jokes,
though he regarded them as evidence of hidden grievance – his famous
figure/ground distinction. And even if you found him in a bar there’s
no guarantee that he wouldn’t pull out Finnegan’s Wake and
start reading to you.

DA: McLuhan is famous for the idea that “the medium is the
message.” You note that the medium today is never the whole message.
Can you explain that?

FZ: Until McLuhan came along to alert us to the deep effects of
the medium in shaping the message, we were taught to take the message,
the content alone, as whole. The difference between reality and its
record as history was not a disparity that bothered us much. McLuhan
showed us how the historical view is no longer possible. History has
simply devolved to the trivial contents of the History Channel, which
shows us how limited our historical vision is. Trying to put the
Humpty Dumpty of history back together again now involves us in a
panoply of information operations – secrets, lies, propaganda and
mixed media arrays – which aim to manage public consciousness.
Something is always missing in our reconstructions.

DA: I love that scene in Annie Hall when the man waiting
in line to see a movie is pontificating about Marshall McLuhan’s
theories and McLuhan makes a cameo in that Woody Allen film by
suddenly appearing and saying, “You know nothing of my work.” Did
McLuhan every mention anything about that to you?

FZ: Two things about the Annie Hall scene. First, notice
how nervous McLuhan seems to be. In fact, he had to do twelve takes on
that scene and was somewhat confused and humbled by the experience.
Actually the several takes were necessary because extras kept bursting
into laughter when McLuhan repeatedly uttered the line “You mean my
fallacy is all wrong” instead of using the word “focus” which Woody
wanted. By the way, it is interesting to note that Annie Hall (Diane
Keaton’s real name) was Marshall’s grandmother’s name.

DA: In your book, The Media Symplex, you say that we
like to believe that our values can resist technological change but
actually the opposite is true. Can you elaborate?

FZ: All our values are becoming virtualized, that is, our
values are merging with technological change that greatly complexifies
the human condition. Take, for example, stem cell research. Right to
life advocates now face the intensified dilemma of trying to valuate
all the “failed” embryos kicking around the lab after every in vitro
fertilization attempt to create a pregnancy. Without the IVF
technology a much desired life is lost to humanity but that life
depends on the loss of as many as a dozen imperfect embryos which are
disposed of as medical waste except that now the embryos are a rich
source of stem cells which can be used to treat everything from
Parkinson’s to spinal nerve regeneration, thus saving many lives that
would be lost prematurely.

DA: So, technology changes our perception of reality?

FZ: Perhaps a simpler example is the distortion of the
perception of nature that results from the training of the senses to
create a filmic understanding of the environment. In nature, actually,
there isn’t much going on that the amateur eye can see. Certainly
nature does not have the rhythm and pace of a Disney naturalogue which
depicts, frame to frame action of critters in crisis. Our children,
trained by Disney and Hollywood in general, to see filmic nature have
a lot of unlearning to do before they can become effective

DA: Your volume of poems, Strange Attraction, has been
described as “metaphysical experiments in meaning.”

FZ: One of the effects of electric process is that it changes
our perception of meaning and reestablishes our ancient interests in
ambiguity and paradox. Poetry epitomizes that metaphysical view and
brings back our awareness that, for example, that something can be
both true and not true at the same time. That is that two mutually
exclusive meanings can co-exist in a complementarity – just as light
can physically be both a wave motion and a particle spritz
simultaneously. Poetry, as Ezra Pound, put it, “is language charged to
the utmost possible degree of meaning.”

DA: Language is the key, but with your specialty in
communications and media, do you find it unusual that you are also so
well versed in your knowledge of 20th century literature, not to
mention the fact that you are an accomplished poet?

FZ: The basic question about language always remains the same:
what changes are forced upon language as its roles are usurped by new
media? Some over zealous cybernauts are even beating the drum of
wordless communication, expecting that we will be wired for the
efficient and wordless communication that presently only accompanies
mescaline addiction and deep intuition. We shall see.

DA: Do you foresee a change in the use of language as we know

FZ: Language used to do all the work of recording experience.
Many of its functions have been altered or eliminated by mass media.
W. O. Mitchell, a sort of Canadian Mark Twain, agreed to sell the
rights to his classic Who Has Seen the Wind, a story of life on
the prairie, to a movie company. I asked him one day if he had seen
the film which had recently been finished. He flew into a rage and
said that he would never see “the damn thing.” He was angry because he
had gone early on to see some of the rushes and discovered that four
pages of the most moving descriptions of the prairie landscape had
been eliminated by one sweeping pan shot.

DA: But language is still essential.

FZ: Language is always reeling from media shocks, whether from
print or telephone or e-mail. But language survives and becomes
stronger in the process. Language forms are concomitant and produce
interesting hybrids like talk radio, e-mail, voiced graphics and the
like, all aspects of virtual reality.

DA: What about your own work?

FZ: My own work? My own work is an attempt to refine, update
and extend McLuhan. The transformative effects of virtuality and chaos
(complexity) have entered communication and changed the very nature of

DA: How so?

FZ: Electric process has merged the simple and the complex in
such a way as to encourage inaction and depersonalization in the face
of the too-muchness of the informational environment. It is the
simultaneous awareness of the simple merged with the complex that I
find most critical to understanding all contemporary events and
relationships. We survive by simplifying complexity. We are also much
given to complexifying the simple. Electric media both simplify and
complexify simultaneously, as in the Gulf War reportage or the O.J.
Simpson trail. Mass media simplify experience and thereby complexify
reality, making it hard to know how to act.

DA: Information overload.

FZ: So much information has been generated for public
consumption in every area of human concern that it is very difficult
to positively affect the outcomes of problems. Stress, for example, is
a problem that has pharmaceutical, organic, environmental,
psychological and/or social implications.