"I Drew the Coffin": The "Oblique Strategies" of Marshall McLuhan
July 19, 2009 4:09 PM   Subscribe

Wow, what a great discovery I made tonight! You may have heard of "Oblique Strategies" (previously mentioned on MeFi). Subtitled "over one hundred worthwhile dilemmas," it is a deck of cards first created in 1975 by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt to help jump start creative thinking by having the users draw, read and react to a card bearing an abstruse aphorism. There are by now plenty of online versions (easily googled!) as well as an iPhone app. (More info available at the Oblique Strategies fan page!) I just discovered today, however, that "Oblique Strategies" was not the first in its genre, but rather was following in the very footsteps of Marshall McLuhan!

In 1969, renowned media prophet, philosopher and "patron saint" of Wired, Marshall McLuhan published a similar concept with his newsletter, "A Distant Early Warning," better known as DEW-line (Based on his quote, "I think of art, at its most significant, as a DEW line, a Distant Early Warning system.") As the Collectors' page at the McLuhan Global Research Network explains,
the card deck was intended to stimulate problem-solving and thinking, in a manner that later came to be known as "thinking-outside-the-box", and perhaps "lateral thinking". The instructions direct the player to think of a personal or business problem, shuffle the card deck, select a card and then apply its message to the problem.
Since then, this deck has been - as the Collectors' page states - one of the more difficult items to find of McLuhaniana. That is, until now, since the ENTIRE DECK was scanned and made available on Flickr back in 2006 by Jeff Trexler, Wilson Professor of Social Entrepreneurship at Pace University and author of uncivilsociety.org & The Blingdom of God. (Not to mention that there's also a flash version referred to here...)

As you'll see, the cards are very much products of their time. The picture set's description says, "there's a lot of thought-provoking stuff here, but one caveat: a few of the cards reflect then-popular attitudes toward women, akin to the crudeness and not-so-latent sexism portrayed in Mad Men." In addition, there's also a rather pervasive insensitivity about disability, what was likely supposed to be a deliberately provocative blackface character, and at least one completely myopic reference to what will turn out to be incredibly short-lived popular culture. (In addition, it seems to me that he was also playing a lot with matching his aphorisms not only to the face cards, but also to the suits, of which some love and sex quotes for the Hearts seem to be the most obvious examples...)

In the end, though, as the Collectors' page concludes, "although it is difficult to see what bearing some of the sayings might have on business problems ('Thanks for the mammaries'?), the card deck reveals McLuhan’s love of jokes, especially one-liners, puns, and pithy aphorisms. It illustrates as well his willingness to experiment with a variety of communication media, no matter how lowly or taken for granted"! What might he have done today with Twitter, for example?

P.S. Last but not least, if you want to have your very own original deck of McLuhan's "Distant Early Warning" cards, a set just happens to be available RIGHT NOW on eBay!
posted by Misciel (16 comments total) 52 users marked this as a favorite
Pretty cool.
posted by TwelveTwo at 4:16 PM on July 19, 2009

posted by Optimus Chyme at 4:24 PM on July 19, 2009

Sounds like the Creative Whack Pack that accompanies Roger Von Oech's A Whack on the Side of the Head.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 4:31 PM on July 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

That is pretty cool. I think the last time I looked around for a deck of Oblique Strategies I couldn't find it for very cheap. I may have to pick one up in the future.
posted by P.o.B. at 4:32 PM on July 19, 2009

To clarify my "what," this is a good, comprehensive post, but I can't imagine how any of these decks could help any person solve any kind of problem. It's like a Discordian's tarot.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 4:36 PM on July 19, 2009

Free Palm version here. Also, Previously (on Cool Tools).
posted by ostranenie at 4:47 PM on July 19, 2009

Not linked from any of the above is the Oblique Strategies Dashboard widget for OS X, including all four original iterations of the deck. Definitely a favorite among my (writing/editing) coworkers.

Also good along these lines is Richard Bach's Messiah's Handbook—to use it, close your eyes, focus on a question, then open to any page, and there's your answer.

The McLuhan info is quite interesting, too. Wish someone would make a Dashboard widget for that deck!
posted by limeonaire at 4:49 PM on July 19, 2009

Well, if you want to look for distant antecedents, there's always the I-Ching Not exactly the same thing (obviously), but relying on some of the same principles. And I-Ching is ancient.

I actually bought Oblique Strategies from the Eno shop a few years ago, and I've got them near my computer at all times - I downloaded some electronic versions, but somehow the tactile sensation makes a difference to me.
posted by VikingSword at 5:37 PM on July 19, 2009

I made an Oblique Strategies deck for Screenlets (Linux/X11 version of OSX Dashboard widgets) which you can get here. You can choose between all the versions or have it display a random bit of text from some other source. I also made a Dashboard widget version a long time ago, but the one available now is way better than the quick hack I made.
posted by DecemberBoy at 6:25 PM on July 19, 2009

This is pretty cool, but more as a cultural artifact, like Clifton Fadiman, than something I could see myself actually using.

I made myself a set of bilingual Oblique Strategies cars in high school based on the handful of cards quoted in various articles about Eno, plus some quotes from Satie, Michael Leunig, Robert Anton Wilson and other sources. God, I may still have the deck somewhere around the house. It's probably excellent blackmail material.
posted by maudlin at 6:47 PM on July 19, 2009

Brian Eno is doing a lecture here in a few weeks...still trying to justify the $$$ for that.
posted by anazgnos at 8:27 PM on July 19, 2009

To clarify my "what," this is a good, comprehensive post, but I can't imagine how any of these decks could help any person solve any kind of problem.

I'll vouch for Eno's being good for getting artistically un-stuck. Practical problems, not so much. Or at least, that's been my experience.
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:33 PM on July 19, 2009

This is all well and good but it'll be no match for my copyrighted Jump To Conclusions mat.
posted by toddie at 8:53 PM on July 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

I favor the "labeled dartboard" method, myself.
posted by Greg_Ace at 10:04 PM on July 19, 2009

Excuse me, I'm Marshall McLuhan, and you clearly have no idea oh wait this is actually a really good post.
posted by hifiparasol at 10:38 PM on July 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

one year for burning man i made oblique strategy fortune cookies. still have a couple in the freezer, to break when needed. this was the best: listen to the quiet voice

i dunno, i find them pretty inspiring still. some interpretations
posted by jcruelty at 1:21 AM on July 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

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