PROFESSOR Marshall Mc Luhan was a bit like Andy Warhol. Neither of them said much that was memorable or important, but the two of them nevertheless made it into every dictionary of quotations ever published. That was because they had a strange gift for coining sentences that rattle around the back of the public mind like the chorus of a bad song.
Warhol’s was the prediction that, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” This supposedly featured in the catalogue when he exhibited some of his work in the late 1960s in Stockholm. Another guy has tried to pull the rug out from under this one by claiming that what Warhol actually said was “In the future, everyone will be world-famous,” and the other guy, sensibly and presciently, said “Yeah. For about 15 minutes.”
Warhol himself claimed, a decade or so after he was supposed to have said it, that he didn’t say it. It wasn’t that it was getting him into trouble, like the words of Donald Trump are getting him into trouble a couple of decades after he said them in the presence of an open microphone. It was just that he hadn’t said it and wasn’t up for taking credit for it. Doesn’t matter. If it doesn’t sound like it came from Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain or any of those quotation-skewers, who’re you going to call on for attribution other than Warhol and what harm does it do him, seen as how he’s good and dead anyway?
It makes him sound smart and prophetic, like that other quote-spewer, Marshall McLuhan. Every counter-cultural baby-boomer who went to university or just read a lot in the nineteen sixties has yellowing paperbacks of Marshall McLuhan’s work on their bookshelves, right beside those of Ivan Illich and separated from JD Salinger only because the orangey Penguin paperback of The Catcher in the Rye has to be kept in the fiction department for some reason that, with passing time, has faded.
McLuhan was the one who wrote an impenetrable volume called Understanding Media, which was about as easy to understand as Ullyses. The advantage it had over Joyce’s work was that it was shorter. Impenetrable but brief is a whole lot better than impenetrable and interminable.
McLuhan did tend to scatter the odd quotable quote throughout his otherwise porridge-like work. Like “The Medium is the Message”, which allowed scholarly adolescents to do hash-fuelled nocturnal personal interpretations to each other the way they also, in the 1960s, did boozed-up personal interpretations of The Catcher in the Rye to each other. Those who talk, these days, of the pressures students are under have no notion the self-restraint required, back in the day, not to brain McLuhan and Salinger interpreters. Especially as the night wore on and a candle-grease coated empty Chianti bottle was just begging to be used for braining purposes.
McLuhan has been proven weirdly correct in recent times when social media took hold like a bad case of toe fungus. Once we began to hear the phrase “Twitter went mad”, as if Twitter were the new embodiment of the madwoman in the attic of Jane Eyre’s boyfriend’s house, we realised McLuhan had nailed it. The message had become one with and subordinate to, its conduit.
The latest thing Twitter has gone mad about is clowns. Clowns are this quarter’s equivalent of the ice-bucket challenge. Just drier and not for charity. Real clowns are weeping into their greasepaint as a social-media-spun clown-craze sweeps the world and brings professional clowns into disrepute to such an extent, some of them maintain, that it is threatening their capacity to earn an honest living by wearing grotesque costumes, shoes that are impossible to walk in and heavy make up. What they need is to enveigle the Kardashians, who do all three, to support them in their hour of need.
They can’t call on that great — and strangely slender — calorie pusher and singularly repellent clown, Ronald McDonald. Ronald has effectively been withdrawn to barracks, to try to keep him out of a craze which has seen children allegedly lured into a forest in South Carolina by bad lads dressed as clowns, clown-apparelled folk leaping from hidden spaces in British cities in order to scare the bejasus out of passersby, and imitation clowns turning up in schools elsewhere wielding machetes. When social media has re-booted the whole clown thing and brought it into disrepute, no hamburger peddler is going to hang their public relations around a red-headed one of them. Which, in a small way, is bad for jobs.
You might not have seen Ronald McDonald as offering career starts to young people, but he has been precisely that in the relatively recent past. A friend of mine who is a household name on TV once, in his youthfully poor days, spent a few months serving as a Ronald McDonald, and according to him, the selection and training process was impressively rigorous. Proving himself to be pure as the driven snow wasn’t nearly enough. When he was doing an event, he’d be pulled aside every half hour by a helper who shot his mouth full of breath freshener, lest any of the kids get a bad smell from his mouth. Talk about attention to detail.
The only clown I ever loved was the one in a movie from 1990 called Quickchange, where Bill Murray plays a burned out crook who decides to effect a bank robbery dressed in full circus regalia. The robbery is planned for the last few opening minutes of the business day. He gets stopped at the entrance by a bank bouncer who bars his path, saying, contemptuously, “Closing time, Bozo.” Murray’s response is to pull out a sub-nosed automatic pistol, wave the guy aside and state “That’s Mr Bozo to you.”
The great myth has always been that children adore clowns. No, they don’t. No, they never have. As I reported in a book that I wrote about fear, “A study conducted by the University of Sheffield found that children did not like clown decor in hospital or doctor’s office settings. Loud and clear, the children surveyed made it clear; forget clowns. No clowns, thank you very much.” Many of them, like many adults, suffer from coulrophobia, an active terror of the red-nosed horrors.
And this has to do with McLuhan why?
Because McLuhan’s other memorable line was that mass media was going to turn the world into a global village. The weird experience of the last couple of weeks with clowns suggests he was right. The clown frenzy has, like the Zika virus, crossed continents and reshape itself into a category-killing controversy, with social media stoking the desire of morons to dress up in silly costumes in order to annoy other people.
The reality is that mass media gave us a global village. Now that social media has been added into the mix, what we have is an amplified version of the McLuhan statement. A global village, disproportionately populated by village idiots.