Marshall McLuhan, General Idea, and Me! (2011)


"Marshall McLuhan, General Idea, and Me!" was delivered as the McCready Lecture in Canadian Art on 9 November 2011 at the Art Gallery of Ontario in conjunction with a Marshall McLuhan symposium. The lecture was reproduced in Counterblasting Canada: Into the Social and Intellectual Vortex of Marshall McLuhan, Sheila Watson and Wilfred Watson, ed. Gregory Betts, Paul Hjartarson, and Kristine Smitka (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2016) as well as an appendix to Glamour is Theft: A User's Guide to General Idea. The version printed here is from Counterblasting Canada.

For Glamour is Theft version, click here.


Marshall McLuhan, General Idea, and Me!

What was it about Winnipeg, because is this not the initial connection between Marshall McLuhan, General Idea, and me? [1] When in 1968 I bought a pocket-book edition of Understanding Media, attended architecture school in the wake of Michael Tims (soon to become AA Bronson), and saw an exhibition of Ron Gabe’s (soon to become Felix Partz) large-scale hand paintings in some loft in downtown Winnipeg, what was it?—because the McLuhanesque outlook of that time seems so foreign to the insular surrealism that has dominated that city recently, albeit in its rise to attention. [2] However, this is not a question of Winnipeg but Toronto and the Toronto School: the Toronto School of Communications, that is, which included Harold Innis, Eric Havelock, and Marshall McLuhan—and, why not, General Idea?

Could these original bad boys of Canadian art ever belong to a school—even a night school, the title of one of their 1989 exhibitions? Not that I am trying to get my foot in the door of such an elite institution as the Toronto School by tagging along in the title. Of course, by “me” I mean everybody. There is some trace in mine, though, of Roland Barthes’s initial title to his essay “Longtemps je me suis couché de bonne heure,” which was “Proust et moi” (“Longtemps”). But instead of a homosexual coupling of two, my title is a ménage à trois (or a ménage à cinq). Ménage à trois is also the name of a 1978 General Idea exhibition and publication. There is a reason for maintaining three in my title, rather than two: Marshall McLuhan and General Idea…or, again, General Idea and me. “Two” is the number of rivalry—or mimicry (which are one and the same). The number two ensures that we would talk here of influence: the influence of Marshall McLuhan on General Idea. The number two would give us our marching orders—one, two, one, two—to traditionally conceive influence, marching straight ahead, as unidirectional, which is often the case only of “mechanical matching” (McLuhan, Gutenberg 268), as McLuhan would say (rather than the possibility of the reverse: a posthumous queering of McLuhan, if that is at all possible—probably not!). On the other hand, and by saying this—that is, by saying “on the other hand”—we are already caught within the binary logic of handedness (one, two, left, right), the binding logic of either-or. Nonetheless, on the other hand, the number three complicates matters. It dispels influence in undermining one of the mainstays of its concept: that of authorship that a collective implicitly denies. Not that this passage from two to three is an overturning, which applies the same dualistic language, when we are concerned instead with the flipping or oscillating back and forth of ambiguity as it operates in General Idea’s system, an ambiguity that is regulated instead by the contradictory logic of myth. General Idea materially realized this logic in the mirrored venetian blinds of their 1973 prototype Luxon V.B.

The numbers two and three underlie everything. They rule it since these numbers as well engender General Idea’s system. This is easy to remember, not easy to see. One, two, three, a numeric cosmology rules General Idea’s system.

Not the least concern in the passage from two to three is the anti-oedipal nature of the transition, which renounces the father figure. I’ll leave this question of renunciation and paternity suspended but it does touch upon, in the period between 1975 and 1977, what was abandoned in General Idea’s system by arguably turning away, however unconsciously or ironically, from McLuhan. The threesome—becoming three—had something to do with this.

General Idea would have been the first to acknowledge the pervasive influence of Marshall McLuhan, as when, for instance, AA Bronson wrote in a text for the Art Gallery of Ontario’s 1997 exhibition The Search for the Spirit: General Idea 1968–1975, “As children of the Summer of Love (1967) and spectators of the Paris riots (1968), we were well aware of the International Situationists and Society of the Spectacle on one hand, and of Marshall McLuhan, drug culture, digger houses, underground papers and free schools on the other” (Bronson “Myth” 18). This is a complex “awareness” for a group that formed in 1969; but McLuhan, or the name McLuhan, could be taken at the time to sum them all up. And for at least AA Bronson, we know that McLuhan was a hero of sorts.

Turning to General Idea’s work, one might think that it would make sense to examine McLuhan’s influence on the artists through their media works, their brilliant television productions, such as Pilot (1977), Test Tube (1979), or Shut the Fuck Up (1985). Meant to be broadcast on television, these videos tended to deal with the mechanics not the medium itself—that is, when the artists were not directly talking back to the media, as in Shut the Fuck Up. The 1984 Miss General Idea Pageant performances (1970, 1971, 1975) were already “television,” performed as if in television studios; they rehearsed both the performers and audience in their staged cues. They were ceremonies meant to parody the art system’s methods of evaluation and elevation as seen through—or commented on by—the format of the beauty pageant. (In the end, they were all commentary, commentary being the linguistic basis of much of General Idea’s fabrications.) Television was taken over as one other format to parody or plunder. Such nesting of contexts literalizes McLuhan’s statement that “the ‘content’ of any medium is always another medium” (Understanding Media 23).

Rather than a specific medium—the television medium, for instance—we need to discover the immersive environment within which General Idea’s own system operated, but not necessarily as the visible “anti-environments, or countersituations made by artists” as McLuhan called them stressing the importance of artists in revealing the unconscious effects of new technology (Medium 68). When McLuhan wrote that “Environments are invisible. Their ground rules, pervasive structure, and overall patterns evade easy perception” (68), we might apply these comments word for word to General Idea’s system itself, which likewise was invisible. Their system was the medium within which their work functioned.

Then again, we might look to FILE Megazine, General Idea’s picture magazine in the guise of LIFE magazine, which began publishing in 1972, and find its source in McLuhan’s The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man, first published in 1951 and reissued in soft cover in 1967 to capitalize on his fame—although by then, admittedly, the book was a bit dated. Yet General Idea always proved that the dated was fertile ground, indeed, camp ground; they took it as a principle of their work. Their retrospective futurity—creating an archaeology of the past’s image of the future—based itself on the same type of images McLuhan used (in their case mainly drawn from Fortune magazine from the 1940s and 1950s), except these images were contemporary to McLuhan and retro for General Idea. Perhaps McLuhan gave General Idea licence to proceed with their own parody of the media in FILE, turning the media’s devices against them, much the way McLuhan had done later when he stylistically adopted advertising lingo and techniques in his popular editions The Medium is the Massage (1967) and War and Peace in the Global Village (1968). By the way, FILE published from a Canadian point of view, which is its own special kind of irony, as we all know. It is important to remember that at a high point in Canadian nationalism, General Idea were nationalists, too, in spite of their international outlook (another McLuhanistic trait perhaps). Yet General Idea had an advantage over McLuhan in that their criticism was parasitical, not seemingly objective; it was produced from an artistic not academic point of view. It took place as an artwork mimicking the mythmaking processes of advertising or popular culture but at a higher semiotic level. They “criticized” performatively, their operations taking place within the mechanisms they put on display. As Roland Barthes wrote in “Myth Today,” an essay extremely influential on General Idea around 1974/1975, yet only offering a more sophisticated analytical language for what was already in their work,

It thus appears that it is extremely difficult to vanquish myth from the inside: for the very effort one makes in order to escape its stranglehold becomes in its turn the prey of myth: myth can always, as a last resort, signify the resistance which is brought to bear against it. Truth to tell, the best weapon against myth is perhaps to mythify it in its turn, and to produce an artificial myth; and this reconstituted myth will in fact be a mythology. Since myth robs language of something, why not rob myth? All that is needed is to use it as the departure point for a third semiological chain, to take its signification as the first term of a second myth. (135)

The latter proceeded from Barthes’s observation of myth as a second order semiological system parasitical on a prior sign. General Idea’s Glamour myth was a third order semiological system parasitical on a second order myth that it in turn cannibalized. While myth naturalizes, hiding its ideological construction, Glamour does the opposite: it artificializes. It’s hard to imagine how an artificial myth can be produced except as an artwork, especially an artwork about artifice. Imagine Miss General Idea’s shoes as a model of this artificiality: “They raise the Participant into an unnatural (hence cultured) position in which walking is rendered difficult (General Idea, “Glamour” n. pag.).

Not limited in their media analyses to McLuhan, General Idea were incredibly syncretic in amalgamating various influences within their fictional system. And being mediumistic, these influences extended, as well, to the Kabala and Mme. Blavatsky. In the real world, Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle and Roland Barthes’s Mythologies were equally important as McLuhan, not to mention the wild card of William Burroughs’s provocative media speculations, which were more about radical media intervention breaking viral mind control than comfortable academic or ideological analyses of content. After outlining the mix of late 1960s influences cited earlier, AA Bronson went on to say, “Now we turned to the queer outsider methods of William Burroughs, for example, whose invented universe of sex-mad, body-snatcher espionage archetypes provided the ironic myth-making model we required” (“Myth” 18). Burroughs offered models, methods, and lingo, even to the advice to simulate a newsmagazine as here in his early 1960s novel Nova Express:

“We need a peg to hang it on,” he said. “Something really ugly like virus. Not for nothing do they come from a land without mirrors.” So he takes over this newsmagazine.
“Now,” he said, “I’ll by God show them how ugly the Ugly American can be.”
And he breaks out all the ugliest pictures in the image bank and puts it out on the subliminal so that one crisis piles up on another right on schedule. (Burroughs 11–12)

When you look at the ideas in this short dialogue—virus, the subliminal inhabitation of media (i.e., taking over formats such as a newsmagazine), mirrors (although the influence of Robert Smithson should be remarked here as well), and image banks—you realize how influential Burroughs was (not to mention his concept of cut-up) not just to General Idea but the whole correspondence network of mail artists.

But to keep our sight on McLuhan, consider this 1973 General Idea reference to McLuhan’s The Medium is the Massage:

Concerning the mechanics of vision it is necessary to see that a shift in realities is simply shifting seeing. It is necessary to realize the levels of vision, the split between naturalized and culturalized information and the manner in which culturized [sic] information may become ritualized as natural information to the point where it in turn may be absorbed by the cultural processes as raw material for further processing. The famous “Medium is the Massage” is simply this, media inversion and the raising of vision to additive levels and complexities. (“Pablum” 26)

Shifting seeing as shifting focus in order to look at the ways of seeing actually was more about the mapping of word lines on sightlines, a technique whereby the artists directed or, rather, controlled our vision. Both McLuhan’s media inversion (the embedding of previous media as content of a new medium) and Barthes’s second order semiological system could be seen to be the models here for how cultural information is ritualized, as if it was natural, and then taken to an additive level of parodic complexity by our artists. Yet the very mention of a nature/culture division should cue us to Claude Lévi-Strauss, whose writings on structural anthropology, strongly influential on early General Idea, also uncover the same mechanisms. Under the influence of Lévi-Strauss, General Idea saw themselves as anthropologists of contemporary myth. In fact, before the influence of Barthes’s Mythologies, Lévi-Strauss’s was General Idea’s model of myth.

As an influence, McLuhan was only part of a mythic mix (a subversive mix, one might add). So I don’t want to traditionally track down influences, which makes no sense in a body of work like this, but rather look at the relationship between McLuhan and General Idea in a more diffused way. For instance, listen to McLuhan’s pronouncement from his 1968 book Through the Vanishing Point: “Perhaps the mere speed up of human events and the resulting increase of interfaces among men and institutions insure a multitude of innovations that upset all existing arrangements whatever” (xxiii). Increasing interfaces upsetting all existing arrangements perfectly describes the ethos and methodology of General Idea’s early work, which was a radical collage aesthetic, but which owed as much or more to William Burroughs as it did to Marshall McLuhan, and which was shared amongst the short-lived correspondence art movement, and, moreover and significantly, which set up the long-term systematic framework within which General Idea’s work developed (the Pageant and Pavillion)—which was a system of myth. In light of McLuhan’s quotation above, consider this description from General Idea’s May 1973 FILE article “Pablum for the Pablum Eaters”:

When a junky when any junky when we art junkies gotta get our fix we gotta make a connection we gotta get a fix we need our correspondences…The logic of myth is the logic of connections. Image making room for words. Naming of partz, sensing the network working plugged into the subliminal. The key to this logic is the borderline situation, the neither one nor the other, camouflaged indifference, mirror mirror on the wall. Flip flop. Lip flap…. The logic of myth is the moving territory of words, cut word lines, shift linguals. The logic of myth is the sense of image upon image image overdose the network causality affair with ideas raining in the corner…Image trouble is no trouble at all. Image overdose and suddenly snap you’re out there broken through the borderline floating on the dead edge of nowhere with images diving in all directions, a sky full of claws and feathers…Then there is jumbled jargon, lip flap, loose vowels. Cut words lines shift linguals. (29)

As crazy as this sounds, in its increasing interfaces upsetting all existing arrangements, all General Idea is here, even if we don’t recognize their main themes. For, after all, we believe, that as architecture, General Idea’s is a stable system. But theirs was a “system in motion” that was only temporarily stable, or was only an illusion of stability based on alternatives:

In this article seeing art as a system of signs in motion as an archive and indicator and stabilizer of culture as a means of creating fetish objects as residence for the field of imagery defining a culture, seeing all this and more in many ways we have become aware of the necessity of developing methods of generating realizing stabilizing alternate myths alternate lifestyles. (20)

Taking seriously General Idea’s early writing would allow us to shake up our understanding of their work—upsetting all existing interpretative arrangements. What are the implications of a “system of signs in motion” for interpreting a pre-existent body of artworks?

The problem with interpreting General Idea’s work is that we take the artists at their word and at the same time we don’t take them at their word. Their work was not just one big joke; it was a coherent system. Moreover, it was a coherent system that can be examined analytically with the period’s interpretative tools, which General Idea used, significantly, as well to construct their work: Claude Lévi-Strauss’s structural anthropology, Roland Barthes’s semiology, Marshall McLuhan’s media theory, amongst others. General Idea’s work appeared as artworks—that is to say, visually—but its mode of appearing, or its event of appearing, one might say, was performative: it came into being through a language act; the Pavillion was erected through language—it did not exist otherwise. The system put the Pavillion in place (i.e., erected) and kept it standing (i.e., operating). As it was in their work, so it should be in our analyses: a priority given to language—in our case the close examination of their writing.

Twenty-one years after the end of General Idea, the systematic nature of their work needs to be addressed. This is a difficult task because the system, in work that was all about presentation, did not show itself. In other words, in work that was all about articulation, the system could not articulate itself—but it was there in the telling, as the telling. While thus not appearing, nonetheless, this total system regulates all the operations of General Idea’s enterprise, and, as in any system, all these operations are linked. The system’s ruling term is Glamour. Glamour is a concept whose operations are achieved through the application of techniques produced by strategies and insinuated by tactics. Although there might be a number of sub-categories for each, there is only one concept: Glamour; one operation: reversibility; one technique: cut-up; one strategy: theft; one tactic: camouflage. (What is consequential for any interpretation of their work is that theirs was also a “system in motion.”)

As a substitute for this discussion, here is a structuralist diagram of Glamour’s operations, which explains the commutable system of reversibility of General Idea’s work. I believe that everything in General Idea is expressed in this diagram.

So I want here briefly to uncover the early ground that instituted this system, the ground on which the Pavillion later stood, which rather was an abgrund: an ungrounding of system at the same time. The Pavillion was built on a fault line—a fault line that was both spatial and temporal. A recurring problem of critical interpretation is that we don’t go back far enough in figuring out General Idea’s work but tend to stop when it was consolidated in the period between 1975 and 1977: when the Pavillion—and its destruction—was most fully articulated. Articulated. General Idea were architect-advocates. Through their verbal advocacy, the Pavillion was erected. They were also advocates of their own program; their program was this advocacy, so why shouldn’t we believe them? After all, they were persuasive: the Pavillion was built by persuasion, as the artists both directed our view of it and thus our understanding of their artistic program: “This is the story of General Idea,” they said in 1975 (“Glamour” n. pag.). They told this story better than anyone else. And we have believed them. But, we also know that behind every story there is a backstory, even an underground story, or perhaps an ungrounding story.

Even when they were telling stories about others, it was still about themselves: for instance, the article “Pablum for the Pablum Eaters.” Ostensibly, this was an article about Vancouver’s Image Bank, which, in the process, was intended to describe the methodologies of the correspondence art movement. Without elaborating its complete thesis, which was about describing myth as a total system, what is important for our story here is the idea of alternatives (“alternate myths alternate lifestyles”)—but not only hippie alternatives or the alternative myths that artists create through cannibalizing the detritus of commercial capitalistic culture. No, we are talking of the very concept of the alternative itself, the alternative in alternation with itself (what at about the same time in French philosophy began to be called différance): that is, a perpetual alternation of ideas, words, and images—a cut-up methodology where everything was in constant motion and in perpetual crisis. “Everything is permitted” was a Nietzschean slogan General Idea took from Burroughs.

To return by example to McLuhan, who wrote, “We actually live mythically and integrally, as it were, but we continue to think in the old, fragmented space and time patterns of the pre-electric age” (Understanding Media 20), General Idea’s enterprise was a system of myth produced by the cut-up method. McLuhan’s own method was collage-like—and his books were image banks of “what’s happening.” McLuhan called The Medium is the Massage “a collide-oscope of interfaced situations” (Medium 10), which is a perfect description of what General Idea were writing about. Even an academic book such as The Gutenberg Galaxy McLuhan called a collage event: “Thus the galaxy or constellation of events upon which the present study concentrates is itself a mosaic of perpetually interacting forms that have undergone kaleidoscopic transformation” (Gutenberg ii). This perfectly describes what the whole correspondence art movement was all about: image banks were individual myths, archives of like images obsessed upon by artists, which were solicited through the pages of FILE and submitted through the mail by fellow subliminal networkers to surface again sometimes in the same pages of FILE. Detached from their intended meaning or function within one context, they were perversely put into circulation in another. Belying their symbol of stability (that of a bank), image banks were systems of signs in motion composing varied cosmologies. “Pablum” continued: “Correspondences are the key to the mythical universe, the cosmology of moving bodies, images in collision, classification by jointing” (27). As image banks, not only FILE, but The 1984 Miss General Idea Pavillion itself were such precarious constructions.

Perpetually changing, constantly colliding, collage conjunctions were events that brought together, in continual cut-up, different alignments of words and images. Different classifications by jointing led to ever-new configurations. These were momentary events that were hardly visible, or at least visible only as after-images that offered the illusion of stability. Their conjunction was a vacillating borderline that was temporary.

The borderline (really, an interface) was a concept that General Idea shared with McLuhan, not surprisingly given that McLuhan posited it as part of the makeup of the Canadian persona (engendered vis-à-vis our relation to the United States). [3] An ambiguous model signifying between the domains of politics and psychology (as both the boundary between nations and a personality disorder, i.e., borderline personality), the borderline was a major operative concept for General Idea. In their September 1973 FILE article “General Idea’s Borderline Cases,” the artists wrote, “Ambiguity is not a symptom of a schizophrenic who travels back and forth across the line but a quality of the border dweller who performs in the stolen moments” (12). Borderlines came into existence every time there was a mirror insertion or collage cut. In fact, mirror, cut-up, and borderline were one and the same: silent and invisible, yet engendering the verbosity of myth. (“The vacuum created by your invisibility has got to be filled with words,” read a complementary article in the same issue [“Are You” 35]). Unlike the Pavillion or Pageant, which were containers or formats, the borderline was an operative concept by which and on which the Pavillion was erected through means of disguise and theft. The Pavillion was built on this unstable borderline where the border dweller (General Idea) performed in stolen moments.

This article was its own case of cut-up correspondence of words and images. The borderline cases were ten exercises in creating seeming symmetries between words and images. Between one and the other, between word and image, though, was the surreptitious insertion of a mirror. From the start, the mirror image, of course, always added up to two. Between one and the other, between the numbers one and two, were all the resources of mirroring, mimicry, and mockery as language clichés were married to banal images. Here is the text from the second case, titled “Imitation of Life (Mimicry)”:

It’s only natural to try to be part of our vision, our culture. Like chameleons at odds trying to be part of it all. Like letting our one hand know what the other is about. When one body is imitating one body lying down its life imitating life. This act of bodies rubbing is merely a shadow of things to come. Was meeting face to face the mother of invention of the looking glass? Was this prop-osal to end our singleness? There’s safety in numbers and two can have a mind of its own. Our two hands applauded the engagement and came out dueling. In the crack of dawn a narcissus is blooming. All together now, one two, one two, one two. (“General Idea’s Borderline Cases” 14)

Yet, the two, or the mirror image of two, did not mean equality or even actual symmetry. One brought forth the other (as if in a mirror), and engendering it gave it life, as simulacral as that life was since it was only mimicry. (Mimicry was viral: indeed, a virus. The point of entry, the mirror act was a viral, replicating invasion.) One preceded two and that one was the word. That is, the word came first and did not merely caption an image after the fact. It took off from its invasion: serially, creating content in the process. Words, too, were mirrors.

Each case was an application: the application of a method through the insertion of a mirror. It was purely artificial. There was no given place to insert a mirror, however. No guideline. The borderline did not pre-exist. The act of mirror insertion created the borderline situation. Only the mirror preceded—as invisible as it was. As invisible as it was, it was an event, the instantiation of a case, an instance of now: a collage collision. It was the inaugurating act: the origin of all General Idea’s work.

“The Great Divide was words,” they said (20). Words made images secondary; in fact, they doubled them. Words split images. Or, the proliferation of words split images into mirror images of themselves. Here is case number three, “Self Conscious”:

Now that we’ve got our distance we look back over our shoulders. Could this be our skin? Still waters reflect our eyes reflecting still waters running deep. Let’s keep this all on the surface. The surface of the silvered glass narcissus. Could this be our connection? Score one for us and chalk it up to experienced. Driving the wedge down deep through the centre and splitting the images in halves. There is two of us to contend with now. Two heads are better than one but it’s really just one more mouth to feed on. Casting our image in the mirror revealed a cast of two. Our very own dialogue to talk to ourselves. We’re not the one we used to be. (16)

Splitting in half was only a beginning that had no end. Words, like mirrors, were viral.

So in retrospect, when we read the statement from FILE’s first editorial (“Every image is a self image. Every image is a mirror” [“Some” 3]), we must now presume that between every image (that is, between every self-same image) is a borderline. This does not just make the image reflect itself (as if in a mirror) but is a fissure of words, indeed, of “cutting remarks” (“General Idea’s Borderline Cases” 10). Words were a method of invasion, even of the image.

Identity, too, was viral. Identity—or role—was a mirror effect produced serially: one plus one plus one, which did not add up to three, however. Two was a precarious couple, not really the pillars of social and familial stability we think. As in a tripod, a motif in their late 1970s work, three was the stable number as when the 1977 “Right Hand Man” Showcard reads, “The three of them are all each others right-hand man but they aren’t taking any chances. If one was lost on the job it would throw off the balance. They know that three’s a crowd and a basic social unit and they’d hate to be reduced to a couple.” General Idea were not always a threesome—the three men they became. A loose coalition at the beginning, General Idea did not conceptually consolidate themselves into a trio until 1975, when the first of their self-portraits began to appear: first as architects, then as their impersonations of babies, poodles, scholars, baby seals, etc. Is this fact significant? Yes. It is an intentional turn within their work, though not acknowledged: a crisis, you might say. And it pertains to the influence of McLuhan, which in 1975 ends, I would claim. The three-fold corporate stability could be argued as a turning away from both McLuhan and the principles of the collage-based correspondence movement, the origins of their early work that subsists throughout, nonetheless, in having set up the ground of their system.

The passage from two to three was a crisis indeed. Until this coup to the rule of three, the numbers one and two dominated in General Idea’s system (as I’ve suggested by selecting the borderline cases cited earlier). Not even that many: the number one was above all. (Miss General Idea was the number one above all.) Two was only the effect of a mirror, engendered there as a simulacrum. But what an effect! Their whole system was sustained by it. But in 1975, henceforth the number three began to rule General Idea’s work and it would have room for no others. This number, a troika, was all about control: controlling our vision, or, rather, constructing our vision in order to erect the Pavillion through these sightlines—and to elevate Miss General Idea at the same time. General Idea’s corporate consolidation was consequential. Their fixed point of view, albeit established by a trio and not an individual, was a throwback. Paradoxically, it re- instituted the single-point perspectival system; “fixed relationships in pictorial space” were no longer images in collision (Gutenberg ii). “Fixed relationships in pictorial space,” McLuhan claimed, with an accompanying fragmented private point of view, were key to establishing the concept of individual identity during the print epoch, and were at odds with a mythic vision brought about by today’s “electric implosion” (Understanding Media 20). The latter was the mythic universe of correspondence and collage cut-up—”the cosmology of moving bodies, images in collision” with its collide-oscopic McLuhanistic overtones—that General Idea, having earlier participated in, seemingly gave up. For example, here is one of General Idea’s guiding statements produced in that mid-1970s period that evokes their fixed point of view, accumulated, though, to excess:

THE FRAME OF REFERENCE is basically this: a framing device within which we inhabit the role of the general public, the audience, the media. Mirrors mirroring mirrors expanding and contracting to the focal point of view and including the lines of perspective bisecting the successive frames to the vanishing point. The general public, the audience, the media playing the part of the sounding board, the comprehensive framework outlining whatever meets their eye. (“General Idea’s Framing Devices” 12)

That the triadic turn of 1975 re-established identity—that is to say “authorship,” even though of a collective nature—when the whole ethos of General Idea’s early work was the flouting of copyright is one of the anomalies of this intriguing body of work— but, of course, it was then turned to ironic ends. This is no criticism on my part of the further development of General Idea’s work, only a way of designating the end of McLuhan’s influence. Not only can we not judge, we cannot argue with a mythic system such as General Idea’s.

As a corporation General Idea had become what McLuhan had first written about in 1951 in The Mechanical Bride:

Ours is the first age in which many thousands of the best-trained individual minds have made it a full-time business to get inside the collective public mind” and in the process creating a “folklore of industrial man, so much of which stems from the laboratory, the studio, and the advertising agencies. But amid the diversity of our inventions and abstract techniques of production and distribution there will be found a great degree of cohesion and unity. This consistency is not conscious in origin or effect and seems to arise from a sort of collective dream. (Mechanical Bride v).

General Idea were all three—a laboratory, a studio, and an advertising agency— and their collective dream was The 1984 Miss General Idea Pavillion.


1. A version of this article was first delivered as the McCready Lecture on Canadian Art, November 9, 2011, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto.

2. Formed in 1969, General Idea was Michael Tims, Ron Gabe, and Slobodan Saia-Levy, who respectively took the pseudonyms AA Bronson, Felix Partz, and Jorge Zontal.

3. See Marshall McLuhan, “Canada: The Borderline Case.”



Barthes, Roland.“Longtemps je me suis couché de bonne heure,” The Rustle of Language. Trans. Richard Howard. Berkley: U. of California P, 1989, 277–90.
–––––.    Mythologies. 1957. Abr. ed. Trans. Annette Lavers. London: J. Cape, 1972.
–––––.    “Myth Today.” Mythologies. Trans. Annette Lavers. New York: Hill and Wang, 1972. 109–159.
Bronson, AA. “Myth as Parasite/Image as Virus: General Idea’s Bookshelf 1967–1975.” The Search for the Spirit: General Idea 1968–1975. Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario, 1977. 17–20.
Burroughs, William. Nova Express. New York: Grove, 1992.
General Idea. “Are You Truly Invisible.” IFEL/FILE 2.3 (September 1973): 34–35.
–––––.     “Borderline Research.” FILE Megazine 1.1 (April 1972): 31.
–––––.    “General Idea’s Borderline Cases.” IFEL/FILE 2.3 (September 1973): 12–31.
–––––.     “General Idea’s Framing Devices.” FILE 4.1 (Summer 1978): 12.
–––––.    “Glamour.” FILE 3:1 (Autumn 1975): n. pag.
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–––––.    “Some Malicious and Juicy Gossip.” FILE 1.1 (April 1972): 3.
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