© Bob Dobbs and Figure/Ground Communication
Dobbs was interviewed by Laureano Ralon on June 22th, 2012
A man calling himself “Bob Dobbs” claims to have been born in Paris in 1922, and ensures us that in World War II he worked with international intelligence agencies for many decades. In the early 1970s, he claims to have begun working with Marshall McLuhan as his official archivist. Dobbs tells us that he surfaced in 1987 on CKLN-FM in Toronto to begin whistle-blowing on his former colleagues, what he refers to as a secret organization supposedly called the “Council of Ten.” In 1992 Time Again Productions produced two CDs compiled from his numerous radio broadcasts, Bob’s Media Ecology and Bob’s Media Ecology Squared.
I must say I found your auto-biography quite eccentric, to say the least, and your ideas quite difficult to understand. Do you mean anything literally?
Every word I wrote to you I meant to be taken literally. And every word I will speak here I intend to be read literally. It’s when these words encounter other media, including the viewers of those words, that they tend to be taken as “symbolic” or metaphorical.
Who were some of your mentors as a student and what were some of the most important lessons you learned from them?
I never had a formal education, including when I was a boy. I wasn’t even “homeschooled” in Paris since I grew up as a butler’s son on the estate of an EXTREMELY wealthy English-speaking family (think of the TV series, “Downton Abbey” – that’s my servile youth). A few people here and there among my father’s friends taught me to read and write by the time I was eight years old. However, the lifestyle of my family’s employer exposed me to information and practical affairs that would be considered eye-opening and unusual by the “usual” citizen. By the time I was fifteen I could be quite precocious compared to my “educated” peers. But overall, people would be accurate if they called me an autodidact as far as “book-learning” goes.
However, over the years, I eventually had the opportunity to meet and engage all the overachievers in any field, you name it. For example, I have read and met every person who had an award named after them in the MEA organization, except Mary Shelley and Harold Innis. My father knew Walter Benjamin and I met him in my teens. Of course, I was too young to understand his intellectual worth at the time. But these encounters do rub off in beguiling ways, and I’m sure it encouraged my apparent mild-mannered presumptuosity.
Later, when I worked in the international intelligence milieu in the late Forties and early Fifties, I did have professional mentors. Three stand out – Reinhard Gehlen, André Malraux, and Licio Gelli – because their legacies are extremely controversial, to say the least. They were proto-“media ecologists” for the Information Age known as the Fifties, and were the ones who pointed to the value of Marshall McLuhan’s Explorations journal. The writings by the many authors in the nine issues of the Fifties’ version of Explorations led to many new understandings, for me at least, of the methodologies of my employers as they carried out their bureaucratic agendas in their “world” of programming the Information Society. I actively sought out many of them.
In your experience, how did the role of university professor evolve over the years?
I never was a university student formally but I have sat in on (or audited) a lot of university courses over the last 50 years. I made many friends among these professors and often discussed their professional problems with them. Seven who loom memorable are John A. Wheeler (Princeton U., Princeton, New Jersey), Edgar Z. Friedenberg (Dalhousie U., Halifax, Nova Scotia), Harry Whittier (Dalhousie U., Halifax, Nova Scotia), Peter Drucker (Claremont Graduate School, Claremont, California), Hugh Kenner (Johns Hopkins U., Baltimore, Maryland), Donald Theall (McGill University, Montreal, and later president of Trent U., Peterborough, Ontario), and the community of heroin (sic) users.
Thinking back, I suspect Don Theall hit the nail on the head when he once said to me, “Bob, it was an exciting time to be a university professor after World War 2 up until the Eighties, but I certainly wouldn’t choose that career if I was starting out today.”
I’d go so far as to say that today there is no GROUND for the university professor. Universities are there for the students to work out their identities on their terms and the professor is not to be taken seriously during that enterprise. The undergraduate is an entrepreneur in the university and the professor the welfare recipient; in other words, the student pretends to learn and the professor pretends to teach.
How did this not necessarily forlorn predicament come to be? McLuhan defined the situation in late 1964:
“The bomb is of higher learning all compact, the extension division of the university. The university has become a global environment. The university now contains the commercial world, as well as the military and government establishments. To reprogram the cultures of the globe becomes as natural an undertaking as curriculum revision in a university. Since new media are new environments that reprocess psyche and society in successive ways, why not bypass instruction in fragmented subjects meant for fragmented sections of the society and reprogram the environment itself? Such is [William] Burroughs’ vision.”
By the late Fifties, speech in a speed-of-light society became archetypalized (anything spoken had the effect of the archetype). This is why McLuhan was correct in advocating that classroom content be turned over to “bullshit sessions”. This would be the only chance for the university professor to eek out a role for herself as the old bricks-and-mortar university became the new “software City.”
By the Eighties, we were experiencing a speed-of-thought society and non-verbal mental gesture, or “ESP”, ruled the day. The University as City suffered budget cuts (replaying what the old “hardware cities” like New York suffered in the mid-Seventies) and fell by the wayside and teachers were reduced to mere thugs of speech.
Fortunately, that was 30 years ago. Now, the students engage their educational “bullshit sessions” and ESP on the Internet and through Web 2.0 >>> 3.0. The university classroom serves for rest and relaxation from the stresses and strains of digital life which I call the “Chip Body.” The classroom is the new “Club Fed” or, at least, the Halfway House for the Chemical Body’s reflective and daydreaming capacities.
I’m not being facetious or naive here since my professor friends have informed me on the backlash that’s arrived over the past few years. The administrations – the “working class” – of University City are “not going to take it anymore” – they’re having an identity crisis themselves which naturally leads to “violence”, vengeance-seeking, and rebellion; in this case, the “violence” is expressed in the renewed emphasis on extremely paranoid and inflexible standards of performance and output in the classroom and in academic journals, i.e., the Gutenberg Ghetto (GG). This “agon” is confined, of course, to those aspiring to a role in the GG and does not affect the transient aristocratic class – the students – who have many other crusades to play with, including pretending to acquire a huge debt load, like any old-time “blueblood”. The student-employers have retrieved the ancient meaning of “scholia” – leisure.
What makes a good teacher today in your opinion? How does one manage to command attention in an age of interruption characterized by fractured attention and information overload?
One cannot be a “good teacher” today. Like the book two hundred years ago, the teacher arrives too late. The teacher “today” is in the same position as the homeless on the street corner meekly offering some trinkets in exchange for “food scraps” and “coinage”. Studies have shown that those suffering hardship often are forced to engage in behaviour upon which it is not useful to impose the values, preferences, and judgements of the “civilized and well-adjusted literate life”. However, one can get attention by being obscure and “difficult”… or having a public-access TV show… what do they call it in show biz? – having a “crossover hit”? Terrence Gordon runs seminars on the role of ethics in the real-estate profession. Arthur Kroker formed a punk-rock band. Marshall McLuhan became a cartoonist.
In 1964, Marshall McLuhan declared, in reference to the university environment that, “departmental sovereignties have melted away as rapidly as national sovereignties under conditions of electric speed.” This claim can be viewed as an endorsement of interdisciplinary studies, but it could also be regarded as a statement about the changing nature of academia. Do you think the university as an institution is in crisis or at least under threat in this age of information and digital interactive media?
Self-entertainment has been the new Yoga for many decades. However, this Yoga must be applied to not just one “self” anymore but to many bodies. Let me spell them out for you:
What once were large corporate vestments now are small enough to be considered as organs, like lungs, that are new additions to our archetypal Chemical and Astral Bodies.
The Chemical Body is what most people consider to be their “physical body.” The dominant model for this is the product of Western science since the telegraph. The Astral Body is what pervades all cultures – the belief there is more to our makeup than the Chemical Body. It is a huge storehouse of religious and spiritual energy. The third organ is the TV Body – the repository of historical one-way broadcasting. The fourth is the Chip Body – the mutating warehouse of digital omni-directional media. The fifth is the Mystery Body – what we’re still excavating and whose lineaments we cannot fully assess yet, if ever. We now know it’s made up of the previous four bodies but we don’t know what more we will discover about its constituents, affects, and effects.
The Android Meme is the resultant of the interplay, violent and ecstatic, of the first four bodies. I claim this five-body paradigm is a lot more useful or comprehensive when applied to our post-9/11 scene than Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” probe.
Offering para-sensory perspective in assisting the orchestration of these five Bodies is the only arena wherein opportunity lurks for the seriously dedicated teacher. All other conceptual avenues have been closed, especially the authoring of books. If one publishes a book – or more accurately, throws a book into the garbage apocalypse – one has no claim to the title/role of a serious “media ecologist”. Releasing books is equal to aiding and abetting Baudrillard’s “perfect crime”. McLuhan spent his whole educational and Gutenbergian career wrestling with this challenge invoked by “Finnegans Wake”, and still failed to mobilize a solution. Although he, at least, was righteous enough to admit it. We should be so wise!
I suggest we assist the para-modern parent, especially the immigrant fresh off the airplane, in grasping the fact that the honourable enterprise of saving money and making many sacrifices to be able to send their children to university, will inevitably go awry for all concerned, and will continue to do so until the quadradictions (sic) are understood. The first steps for any parent who insists on having her children become sophisticated citizens and “media literates” is to force their youngsters to read and discuss one or 2 books from just 2 authors – namely, James Ellroy and Thomas Pynchon. This is all that’s required. Try “Blood’s A Rover” and “Inherent Vice”. If this “curriculum” is moderately successful, then the young adult should be rewarded with the comic book, “Finnegans Wake”, and they’ll be off to the races. Oh but, then again, every student should be given the opportunity to engage some archaeology. Wyndham Lewis fits the bill here as a remote artifact to dig into. I suggest “The Art of Being Ruled” and one of his novels. To have lived in the Western World and not know the media-probes of the world’s first cyberpunk borders on a social injustice.
In 2009, Francis Fukuyama wrote a controversial article for the Washington Post entitled “What are your arguments for or against tenure track?” In it, Fukuyama argues that the tenure system has turned the academy into one of the most conservative and costly institutions in the country, making younger untenured professors fearful of taking intellectual risks and causing them to write in jargon aimed only at those in their narrow sub-discipline. In short, Fukuyama believes the freedom guaranteed by tenure is precious, but thinks it’s time to abolish this institution before it becomes too costly, both financially and intellectually. Since then, there has been a considerable amount of debate about this sensitive issue, both inside and outside the university. Do you agree with the author? What are your arguments for or against academic tenure?
Tenure reinforces the specialist tendency, and that is an untenable position for the present educator. Employment is now one of the facets of self-entertainment, and engagement in any form of work or profession mandates the adoption of an adjustable set of multiple skills for any occupant of our Global Membrane. And the university teaching roles may be the most taxed by these new requirements. And, yet, these academic role-players have no right to expect respect if they fail to be an exemplar of how to live with these new omni-directional pressures. It cannot be mentally (or physically?) healthy to provide one puny form of information service for more than a couple of “years” when we now live 2000 years per annum. We only have to be reminded of the fate of those creators who seek tenure as show-biz celebrities to get our appropriate bearings on this matter.
What advice would you give to graduate students and aspiring university professors, and who are the thinkers today that you believe young scholars should be reading?
I would advise graduate students to avoid the university profession. Instead, seek out the new laboratories, experimental enclaves, and strange human beings (and one never knows who that would be, so one must be circumspect). I don’t recommend “reading” a thinker. After initial exposure and interest by whatever medium, one should engage a thinker in person. At least, audit their environments. Read more of her later.
How did you meet Marshall McLuhan?
I was sent by Reinhard Gehlen, a friend of my employer’s brother, from Paris to investigate this writer whom Mr. Gehlen found compelling. I had read very little by Marshall McLuhan when I first met him.
Off the record, you made the following highly controversial statement: “The media ecologists (with book-bias) that you interview don’t know how to tackle our post-literate situation.” Why do you say such a thing?
As I touched on in an earlier answer, the fundamentalism of North America is its almost fetish-like obsession with the printed book as the arbiter of high value-creation. That’s really what North Americans are adamant about – the sacred trust of literacy. Unfortunately, literacy creates habits that are anathema to the apprehension of the varieties of tactility that permeate all contemporary phenomena, and subsequently, to every profession’s attempt to define and exploit that tactility. This also explains the huge popularity of literacy’s nemesis – the free porn sites wherein you would not find it difficult to discover someone you know pressing their wares. So, the Western post-industrial societies will never discard reading. It’s an activity that needs no encouragement or bailouts. But the habits acquired via literacy will prove as obstreperous and dim as those fostered by our venerable religious institutions. Personal and social poise will come from other forms of consumption and ritual. The awareness of para-media’s curriculum for our Five Bodies may be the only avenue of resuscitation for media-ecology careerists.
You also claimed that, just before dying, Donald Theall named you the new Marshall McLuhan. Isn’t that a little pretentious?
Michael Edmunds informed me back in 2007 that Don Theall made that statement to him around that time. And I do not demur when that suggestion is broached. I’m a one-man university and quite knowledgeable about forms of knowing and poise that are esoteric now but will be increasingly demanded by human beings around the world. Sounds like the trajectory of Marshall McLuhan to me. However, pray that I don’t suffer the same fate.
What is a para-media ecologist?
It is a way of living that privileges the legacy of not only the modern and the postmodern, but that which runs before, beside, above, below, and after those habits of observation. It is musical, of course, and is intuited by T.S. Eliot’s famous definition of the “auditory imagination”. I mentioned the Mystery Landscape earlier. The para-modern attracts the frequencies of the anomalous in what’s become – not a post-information milieu – but a Pre-Information Environs.
You have characterized your fivebodied.com website as the most important website in terms of understanding the synchronicity of the internet. Why is that?
You misunderstood me. For years I have been discussing – not synchronicity – but “xenochrony”, a term coined by Frank Zappa that I have adopted to describe the result of attempting to be an anti-environment to an environmental surround of hyper-synchronicity. When people engage fivebodied.com, they usually experience eventually some type of “synchronicity”. At least, that’s what they like to call it. And it can be a very disorienting experience. I wouldn’t call it “synchronicity” because I think something else is going on. In the course of this fallout, I almost had to develop the patience for patients. Then again, perhaps I have, since I spend 20 hours a day providing “tach”-support as the spectre of xenochrony protrudes. In brief, synchronicity happens between people, animals, and objects whereas xenochrony happens between and among the machinic phyla.
What are you currently working on?
Besides the ongoing “tach”-support, I am presently running a “factory” that may be classed as the most profoundly productive laboratory on the planet. No kidding. What my colleagues and I are creating seems to not only turn all “known” principles in Physics, Chemistry, Biology, and Medicine upside-down, but portends shifting their managers into a vast tableau of embarrassment throughout many of the knowledge industries. This may explain the slight tone of arrogance some may have perceived in my comments above. I prefer to blame the tone on confidence.
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