© Richard J. Osicki and Figure/Ground Communications
Professor Osicki was interviewed via Skype by Laureano Ralon on April 8th, 2011
Richard J. Osicki lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. He was born in Nottingham, England, brought up in Montreal, and worked much of his adult life in Toronto. He is a writer, media producer, and educator. He has worked as a journalist and executive producer at CBC Radio and Television, and several other radio and television stations, newspapers, and magazines across North America. In Manitoba, he established the Communications and Media program at Providence College and taught at Canadian Mennonite University and St. Paul’s College, University of Manitoba. He has also taught at Concordia University and several other colleges and universities in Montreal and Toronto. As a consultant, working on three continents, his clients have been as diverse as the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, Nortel Networks, the Catholic Church, Apple Canada, Nichols Project Engineers of London, and the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment. He has a degree in Political Science and Philosophy from the University of Montreal (Loyola College), and a Master’s in Theology (ecclesiology and communications) from the University of Dayton. He is currently Director of The Marshall McLuhan Initiative at St. Paul’s College, University of Manitoba. He is married to Dionisia Roman-Osicki and has one son, Tobiasz.
How did you decide to become a university professor? Was it a conscious choice?
I did not decide to take up teaching. Rather, I was drawn to it, along with the other two paths I have travelled throughout my career: communications and religion.
Communications may have come first. In Montreal, where I grew up in a poor immigrant family, I attended a good, middle-class school, St. Ignatius. My grade six teacher, Mrs. Sabino, also the child of immigrants, encouraged me to compete in a public speaking contest. I did and I won. I also won the next year, and twice in high school. Having discovered a talent for speaking, I spoke whenever I had a chance: at youth rallies, meetings, and so on. Casimir Stanczykowski, the father of Canadian multilingual broadcasting, asked me to deliver one of my speeches on radio. That went well so he offered me a weekly spot and then a full weekly program. I was 15 at the time. So by the time I finished college, I already had plenty of radio experience and began working for CBC Radio, then CBC Television, Screen Gems International, the now-defunct Nortel, and so on.
On the other hand, maybe religion came first, because the first school I attended was Catholic, as were all the others I attended, including the University of Dayton where I received a Master’s degree in theology. My main interest there was how a religious communion, a Church, does or does not communicate. As a child, my first film, using an 8-mm camera, was a silent walk through Montreal cemeteries on a Good Friday. I also remember vividly the day of my First Communion, even the very place where I stood, as if it were yesterday.
Regardless of what came first, teaching was obviously an important part of my calling. Maybe its value was first shown to me by Mrs. Sabino and the other teachers at St Ignatius, then the Christian Brothers who taught me so well in high school, then the Jesuit priests and their colleagues at Loyola College (now part of Concordia University). In any event, I started post-secondary teaching almost since the beginning of my adulthood, at Concordia and then York Universities, at Centennial and Sheridan colleges in Toronto, and at Providence College and Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg, where I now live.
Over the past several years these three paths have merged and become one. At St. Paul’s College and elsewhere I have been blessed to be able to explore with others why and how people communicate their faith to others. For me, that is the underlying question we are addressing through the Religion and Technology Seminars under The Marshall McLuhan Initiative at St. Paul’s.
In your experience, how did the role of university professor evolve since you were an undergraduate student?
I would be inclined to reverse the thesis on which you base your question. The media of communications change when situations and roles change.
Being to a large degree a McLuhanite, I do not believe that the media shape society but rather that society shapes media. During the Reformation, for instance, it was seen as necessary in some parts of Europe that common people read the Bible, so the printing press was developed and commercialized. I agree with McLuhan that technology, including communications technology, is an extension of human capability. Hence, nothing created by humans is ever new; it is always an evolution or a reversal of something that came before it.
That also applies to teaching. The essentials of the art of teaching have not changed in Western society since the time of Aristotle. Teaching is always a matter of posing interesting questions, in a lucid manner, and engaging students in a joint effort to explore the questions. The result, if the teaching is effective, is even more questions and, thus, learning becomes an endless journey.
Of course, superficially, the role of the teacher has changed since Aristotle’s time, and even since my own university days. When I was an undergraduate, we were happy to find an unbroken chair to sit on and a professor who spoke loud enough so we could hear him. These days, for a variety of social and psychological reasons, students demand more: they want to be not only educated but also entertained. They will not sit and listen through a lecture unless they see a direct relevance to their own lives and experience. Also significantly, today students see university education as utilitarian, as a means to an end, as a way to find a job and establish a career. Learning for its own sake, as John Henry Cardinal Newman would have it, is no longer valued.
The result is that today’s professors have to work harder than ever at maintaining students’ interest. In some ways, that brings the teaching process back to the days of Aristotle, when individual student engagement and dialogue were paramount. In other ways, though, it makes teaching a performance art, attempting to satisfy the shifting self-indulgence of the student.
What makes a good teacher today? How do you manage to command attention in the classroom in an age of interruption characterized by information overload?
I sure wish I knew the answer to both these questions. I’m not sure but I suspect it begins with the assumption that there is such a thing as Truth, that not everything is merely a matter of opinion. This assumption alone can inspire both the teacher and the student with a passion for learning. After all, if everything I read or hear is merely what someone else thinks – someone whom I probably don’t even know – then why bother? Why not just continue with whatever opinions I already have, regardless of whether or not they are valid and true.
I suspect a second critical ingredient for teaching, and learning, is authenticity. Both as teacher and as learner, the process must involve, as much as is possible at any given moment, the real you.
Being popular or getting a promotion is not an effective motivation for a professor. Students, who are most adept at spotting fakes, will see right through the charade.
Conversely, the relentless pursuit of grades is a poor motivator for student learning. Some students have approached my courses strategically, as though they were running a business or playing a game of hockey: figure out what the rules are, ignore them if you’re sure not to get caught, find the professor’s weaknesses and exploit them, either by agreeing with everything he or she says, or making the teacher feel good about herself or himself some other way.
This kind of masquerading of teaching and learning does wonders for enrollment figures and, perhaps, for ratings in Macleans magazine, but it destroys the idea of a university, which, in my view, is the unbridled pursuit of knowledge.
So, trying to answer both questions at once, I would say that if true knowledge is freely and generously given and received, both teacher and student will have achieved their respective ends. It is not a matter of technique. It is a matter of intent.
What advice would you give to young graduate students and aspiring university professors?
Try very hard to break through what is considered by those around you to be obviously true and/or valuable. Challenge the consensus openly and respectfully.
I find that there is a rapidly increasing uniformity of thought on university campuses these days, in that certain things are universally accepted as being true and, therefore, unchallenged. There seems to be a great drift toward conformity, not only of thought, but also of dress, music, lifestyle, and worldviews.
So, it is about breaking beyond what is politically correct with considered, researched opinions of your own. The term “politically correct” isn’t used much these days (it was a popular phrase 10 or 15 years ago), but I think it is still applicable today. There is a tendency to speak only that which is socially acceptable. If you have dissenting opinions, you are likely to meet with indifference or hostility. We have seen that on certain university campuses across the country with regard to Middle East, with regard to pro-life/pro-choice questions, and with regard to limitations on freedom of speech. Those students and/or professors who dare to venture beyond majority opinion are usually severely sanctioned, if not formally then informally. That is unfortunate because it’s creating homogeneity of opinion and is thus killing the very idea of the university.
Let’s move on. You are one of the organizers of a series of technology and religion seminars to be held at the University of Manitoba this coming May, provocatively titled Surfing the Divine: McLuhan Looks at Religion Looks at McLuhan. Which “outlook” is most significant in your view: what McLuhan had to say about religion or what religion has to say about McLuhan?
I find the question to be the wrong question, because when I look at McLuhan I see a unity.
Let me put it this way: I do not think anything that McLuhan did or said after he was in his twenties was not influenced by his religious views. I believe a certain religious environment and personal spiritual growth formed the man, and then the man spoke from that perspective. So, in McLuhan’s work, media, society and religious faith are inextricably intertwined. McLuhan was a deeply religious person; he saw all of reality, in my honest contention, through the eyes of somebody who had profound beliefs in the Divine – in something beyond that which is merely human and merely visible. So I do not think you can think about McLuhan without thinking about religion. And, personally, I cannot think about contemporary religion without thinking about McLuhan.
I guess my question aimed at the fact that McLuhan didn’t pontificate about institutionalized religion, at least as a public figure. As far as I know, he never wrote explicitly about God, at least in his major works…
I am afraid you are wrong about that! History has buried the many things McLuhan said and wrote overtly about religion. And this is one of the things we are trying to correct through The Marshall McLuhan Initiative.
I just finished reading material McLuhan wrote when he was a student at the University of Manitoba, when he was about 20 years old. He was already writing about religion. And then right up until the 1960s, which would have put him in his 50s, he spoke openly about religion. What has happened is that what he had to say about religion has been ignored and suppressed – ironically by academics and the media. The only overt manifestation of what McLuhan had to say about religion is the book The Medium and the Light – but that is just a tiny fraction of his religious thought. He was writing about religion, technology and media throughout his adult life, and history has chosen to forget that.
Is this what the seminars at the University of Manitoba are about – highlighting the religious side of McLuhan?
This is, more or less, what our efforts at Saint Paul’s College have been about for more than a decade already. We come from the perspective that religion is natural to the human condition – it always has been, since the beginning of time; people have been involved in organized religion since the beginnings of recorded history, and, even today, most people actually do live by religious beliefs, even though these are not always identified as such.
In particular, we have tried to identify those media places where religion exists less obviously. I happen to be a fan of film, and I can hardly think of any movie that I have seen in the past few years that does not have some traces of a religious theme in it, or of its nemesis, evil. Am I biased? Do I project my own beliefs onto the screen? Perhaps. Yet I am convinced there is symbolism in movies and there is symbolism in the physical world that speaks of something other; Carl Jung identified that quite strongly in his writings, for instance.
So, yes, we have been trying to illustrate that much of what McLuhan had to say was a manifestation of his religious beliefs. And then we are taking it a step further: we are trying to see religion and contemporary media in the way he might have seen them, as intrinsically linked. Thus, with the upcoming seminar, we are trying to look at the Internet and Prayer through Marshall McLuhan’s eyes.
What attracted you to McLuhan in the first place? When did you begin to read his work systematically?
Well, I am a late-comer: I read McLuhan for the first time in the late 1990s, and I came to him through a man named Pierre Babin. He is a French priest in Lyon, France who has been trying for forty years to address the question of how religion gets communicated in the electric/electronic age. His mentor was Marshall McLuhan.
When I first studied Babin – I took a course with him in university – he pointed out that almost everything that McLuhan had to say was a consequence of his religious beliefs. At the same time I was also exposed to Bernard Lonergan, a Canadian philosopher who wrote two major books: Insight: A Study of Human Understanding and Method in Theology. He was a contemporary of McLuhan and they taught at the University of Toronto at roughly the same time.
To my amazement, though they hardly knew each other, I found that both of them struggled with the same question: how collectively – as a society – and as individuals we search for truth, for Truth with a capital T. There is evidence that, despite their vastly different academic styles, they carefully read each others books.
So there, once again, you have religion as a starting point. As I said earlier, I have always believed that religion, contrary to what a lot of people think these days, is the natural human state. We are going through an abnormal phase right now with religion being privatized and relegated off to the side. And we are denying the role of religion in places like the conflicts that are happening in the Middle East, or how people are coping with the multiple tragedies in Japan, or the surge in violence in North America, and so on. Religion today is not part of the public discourse, and yet I contend that it’s part of being human, a defining part of who are as individuals and as societies.
Today, when religion does enter public discourse it is almost always negatively: some preacher molested somebody, or some church accumulated a certain amount of wealth, or something of that sort. I think society suffers from this, because it’s not including religion in the public discourse – and that of course applies to McLuhan. All that exploration of Marshall McLuhan that is going on around the world this year because of the centenary … virtually all of it is ignoring his religious beliefs. And that is very limiting. By assuming that he had nothing to say about religion, by assuming that religion did not influence him, people are getting a severely skewed understanding of who McLuhan was and what he had to say.
So that’s what attracted me to McLuhan: he was a deeply religious man who lived by his beliefs and whose notions, concepts and perceptions of reality were formed by those religious beliefs. I wondered how his understandings of media could be applied to communication about religion.
Was McLuhan a religious man or was he a man of great faith? Why don’t we speak of faith instead of institutionalized religion?
What is religion if not an assembly of people who share the same faith?
I think McLuhan was both religious and a man of faith.
He went to church regularly. That of course does not prove anything (a lot of people go to church every day for all sorts of reasons), but he actually practised his faith.
More importantly, though, I think he saw the operation of non-observable, non-tangible things operating in reality – electricity being one of those things …
Are you referring to the so called “effects” of media?
No, I mean media almost being an analogy for the spiritual; I mean, when you and I are talking right now (via the Internet), I have to have faith that you exist, and you have to have faith that I exist. I can’t shake your hand; you can’t shake my hand. Yet, I believe you are at the other end of this telecommunications line; you believe that I am at this end of the telecommunications line. This is a profound act of belief on our part.
Let me illustrate further. When I was a kid our landlord in Montréal was a peasant from Europe, and he had never been to a movie until he was well into his forties. During the first movie that we talked him into seeing, there was a scene in which there was a snake. Well, this man jumped off his seat and ran to the screen to try and catch that snake to keep it from hurting the people in the theater. It was not a physical snake; it was a manufactured snake created by film and put on cellulose, but he believed it was real.
So what the media is doing is stretching our belief to the point where, when we go to a movie theater we get caught up in the story, we cry, we get frightened, by something that is not really there. Media – especially electronic media, but even books – lead our imaginations far beyond that which is tangible. You can read a book about the Napoleonic wars, and for those hours you are in the midst of those wars. You cannot physically pick up a gun or lead an army, but you place yourself there. So, in a way, the media are an analogy for religion: they are bridges between that which is tangible and that which is imaginary – or which is somewhere else in time or place. I am not sure if you are following me…
Yes, essentially, when you are reading that book and you are fully absorbed, you are speaking of transcendence. But why don’t we speak of transcendence in an ontological or temporal sense instead of a theological one? Why don’t we say, to paraphrase Peter Fallon, that it is “us” who are metaphysical? I mean, isn’t every theology an anthropology to begin with – a story about the human being unable to stop thinking about this thing we call “God”?
I think we are just recovering from the Enlightenment. The dividing up of academic disciplines into hundreds of fields in universities – breaking things down into intellectual categories – is falsifying. For example, when you go for a walk in the woods, the moment you start to categorize your experience in words, you are reducing the experience. And I think that’s the way McLuhan saw the world: the moment you start to create mental compartments for holistic experiences, then you are either completely misunderstanding or totally missing those experiences.
Let’s change the subject. Media Ecology, Medium Theory, Canadian Communication Studies, The Toronto School of Communication – do these terms signify the same thing?
The short answer is “no,” because I don’t think we know what we mean by any of those. I don’t think we know or understand the roles and the effects of media at all. I think we are still trying to figure out what the relevant questions are. “Media theory” should really be “media hypothesis”, at best.
We are still trying to formulate appropriate questions that need to be multidisciplinary or, better still, non-disciplinary. I can’t figure out how a person can try to understand anything about the modern media without understanding something about human psychology, physics, history, beauty, love and everything else that’s makes us human. Perhaps that is the anthropology or transcendence you of which you spoke in your previous question.
Nonetheless, I think the reductionism of trying to understand facets of media in disciplines such as communication studies or media ecology is, at least potentially, bad thinking.
Do you think there is a distinct Canadian School of Communication? What is so distinguishable about it?
Canadian communication studies and Canadian communication theory, in short, the Canadian understanding of media is, and has to be, rooted in our history and our geography.
One of the key elements of our geography is that we are a vast country spread across a very thin line, which means that we have had to figure out how to keep a country of that nature together. One way we have done that is by building a railway but, more significantly, we have built a vast and efficient telecommunications infrastructure.
Consequently, no country in the world has done more to contribute to communications technology than Canada – starting with Alexander Graham Bell and the invention of the telephone, all the way through to the development Packet Transmission and Switching, which is the backbone of the Internet. All of the basic communications technologies that are in use today, including fibre optics, were to a large extent developed here in Canada. And that is a function of our geography – human beings adapting to the situation in which they find themselves: the people in Vancouver needed to figure out how to speak with the people in Ottawa, and the people in Ottawa needed to figure out how to speak with the people in Halifax.
So the underpinning of the Canadian understanding of communication is really quite different from other countries, such as the United States. We see communications here in Canada as essential to the social fabric, as part of the political system, as something that binds us together as a nation. In the United States communications is seen as an industry, as entertainment, as not really different from the automotive industry or the steel industry.
Here, communications has a vital political significance, and it is for that reason, for instance, that we have the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, with no equivalent in the United States. Back in the 1930s, Canada recognized that if it was ever going to exist as a sovereign country (back then it was still emerging from being a colony), then it needed to build a telecommunications bridge across the country that is run by the government – and to this day it is.
Similarly, the CRTC is seen as a valuable instrument of national identity with Canadian content and regulations having been in place for more than a generation. The CRTC is kind of symptomatic of the seriousness with which we in Canada consider communications as part of the national fabric. Again, in the United States, except for the entertainment and economic value of the so-called mass media, you can do away with those and still have the United States; they are not essential to American identity.
Those basic assumptions as to what communications means to society are quite different between Canada and the United States. And the situation is also different in Europe. Their mediated communications tend to be seen as propaganda, as means of bringing about certain ideological changes in countries or regions. So again, the European approach is different from the Canadian and the American.
In short, communication seen as a necessary part of Canadian identity distinguishes us from most others.
In 2002 you wrote a book review of Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium and the Light: Reflections on Religion. Is God the Light?
Yes, God is the light. But we don’t need to call the light “God.” You can call God anything you want: in the title of our seminar, we call it the Divine. I prefer to call it the Truth – that which is ultimate; that which is immutable; that which is unchangeable.
These days, and especially on university campuses, anything resembling absolute truth is seen as being suspect. McLuhan believed (and I believe) that there is objective truth, which is not just a matter of perspective or opinion; and that we are all trying to discover that objective truth, which we see from different perspectives.
I am sure you know the story of the blind man and the elephant. I don’t need to go into that, but there is an elephant, and that elephant is absolute truth. The fact that some of us may perceive the leg of the elephant and others may perceive the tail of the elephant doesn’t change the fact that there is an elephant. So the light is that which has existed from the beginning and which will continue to exist until the end of time, if that is possible.
The light, in this context, is that which is eternal, unchangeable, and absolute.
Here is a recurrent question in the Figure/Ground series: it seems that the electric light has always been a privileged medium within McLuhan’s system. In fact, he believed it was the only medium that had no content – the only medium where medium and message were the same. This is very phenomenological: unlike the empiricist notion of consciousness as a passive absorption of sensory impressions bombarding us from the external world, the phenomenologists regarded consciousness as transcendental, i.e., as pointing outward into the world. In a sense, both the electric light and consciousness could be viewed as a sort of nothingness, following Sartre. Consciousness, by way of intentionality, emerges attracted by something other than itself, while the electric light becomes transparent and withdraws from our conscious awareness to create an environment or ground that allows the perceiver to focus upon specific figures. Our invisible media environments then, much like consciousness, seem to be a kind of room-making nothingness that pierces through the heart of being. Isn’t God, following this line of reasoning akin to both McLuhan and phenomenology, also a sort of nothingness – an undifferentiated totality – as opposed to a specific entity along the lines of the “Supreme Being”?
McLuhan first came up with the phrase “The Medium is the Light” in his contemplation of Jesus Christ. He realized that Christ was both the medium by which the divine reality revealed itself to the world, and the medium by which the divine was becoming present in the world. That is what triggered his idea that a medium and its message could be one and the same.
And then McLuhan began to look around to see if there were examples of this notion that that might be more comprehensible or palatable to people who are indifferent or antagonistic to religious faith. So, to some extent, yes, the electric light is medium and message; but I think McLuhan meant something deeper than that, because electricity itself has to be generated by something – it’s not self-sufficient. It needs a creator. So, it is medium and message together, but it’s missing something else: the source and the goal, the place where the light came from and where it is going.
There was a story in the paper a week or two ago about some fellow here in Manitoba who pointed a laser pointer at an overhead helicopter. He was arrested because he almost blinded the pilot. Had that plane not been there, where would have that laser beam gone? It would have kept on travelling and travelling and travelling until it became infinitely small. So to understand a laser, which is a form of light, you need to take into account where it is coming from and where it is going to end up.
The electric light being an example of medium and message simultaneously is a rough approximation of what McLuhan meant, but the common explanation, as I’ve tried to illustrate, is missing something: source and destination.
As for Sartre, I personally don’t think there is such a thing as nothingness. One of the questions I have been studying over the past few years is silence and its significance both as figure and ground. I started off very simply with the question: “What are the consequences of the fact that there is so little silence around these days?” People of your generation seem to be surrounded by music and noise.
I did a presentation on silence both as figure and as ground at an academic conference five years ago, and was challenged by a student from MIT. He said I was wrong, that it isn’t true that people of your generation are different from previous generations in that they don’t have silence. The example he gave me was that when young people walk around with an MP3 player and ear buds, the device is playing the same set of songs for that person over and over and over again, which is analogous to the chant that happens in some monasteries, or the sounds you hear in the forest. That ambient sound creates a kind of cocoon for the person, so that he or she can then experience an inner silence. There has always been physical sound or noise in our environment; it’s just the nature of the noise which has changed.
That led me to thinking that, if there has always been noise around and it’s only the nature of noise that is changing, then how is it possible that there is something we call silence? I began to wonder if silence is a mental construct that doesn’t actually exist in reality; that there is no such thing as silence; that it’s something that we have made up in our minds: “If there were no noise, there would be a condition called silence.” But that is not empirically verifiable.
I think the same is true of “nothing”; it is not verifiable. Nobody has ever encountered nothingness. And in my own research I have tried to come up with some questions as to what happens when silence or nothingness are figures. What is the ground of that? My answer? Could it be the light? The divine? God?
What are you currently working on?
Two things: First, I continue to explore the relationship between communication and religious faith – and by religion I mean faith that is not private, that is shared by a community of people who have faith in the same thing: organized religion, so to speak, though not necessarily structurally or hierarchically organized. Within that I am exploring three questions: How does one communicate effectively about faith? How does one communicate effectively from the perspective of faith? And how does one communicate faith itself?
The second big question I am exploring is the one that we have just talked about: if silence as we perceive it is figure, what is its ground?
Are you collaborating with anybody on these areas of inquiry?
Not formally. But, informally, there is a loose association of people who are interested in these questions, such as Eric McLuhan himself. But there is no formal means of collaboration on this, largely because these research areas, as well as the connection between McLuhan and his faith, are not yet recognized as legitimate, mainstream areas of inquiry. We are quite alone in that regard. However, there are groups around the world that have been tackling some similar questions, for example, Signis, based in Brussels, and the World Association for Christian Communication, based in Toronto.
There are, of course, also hundreds of how-to books on religious communication, but I tend to dismiss these because they are based on rather shaky intellectual grounds.
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