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McLuhan: Stop-motion intellectual

Several caveats before I skewer Marshall and his media:

  1. I am in a bad mood and thus predisposed to be unpleasant to ambiguous and dead intellectuals;
  2. I have only read the first two chapters (roughly one tenth) of Understanding Media and can only assume that some of the more contentious questions and normative statements these posed are more fully explored in later chapters. After reading Lewis Lapham’s introduction to the book, however, I fear this assumption may be more charitable than is merited;
  3. Isn’t it amazing how Lewis Lapham can relate any topic to the sorry state of contemporary public affairs with nothing more than alliteration and disparaging pop culture references? But like all magazine writers, he dates quickly. That Lapham would write about Clinton’s personal foibles in an introduction to a book–especially one about the mass media and one that is obviously going to be read for some time to come–is either an ironic comment on media saturation and our short memories too clever to hit the mark or an arrogantly willful disregard (and unintentional demonstration) of McLuhan’s principal premise: the medium, in Lapham’s case the ephemeral magazine, is the message. By turning a book introduction into a political editorial, Lapham unsuccessfully tries to transplant a message from a magazine into a book, and by its shocking irrelevance reveals just how tied the messenger is to his medium.

Anyway, enough vitriol for the hapless emcee, I have a whole bottle left for the main act!

First, can I just say that while I sometimes appreciate what I’m calling the stop-motion approach to argument (include a couple of key frames and the reader will fill in all the movement between them)–a form of which Foucault is a master–it’s not all that effective when the key frames are so far apart they can accommodate entire (and entirely absent) chains of reasoning in the spaces between them.

I’m speaking of chapter 2 and its questionable “hot” and “cool” media taxonomy. As best as I can tell (please refer to caveat 2), the temperature of media has to do with the demands it makes on its users/receptors. Thus the phone is cool because when you talk on the phone you have to fill in and interpret a lot of missing information and the movies are hot because you just sit there and all your senses are bombarded. Cooling begets participation while heating engenders terror and then numbness. If this is the case, then why is TV cool? Does pushing buttons on a remote really constitute user participation? And what heuristic or hermeneutic purpose does the distinction serve? And what of the oh-so-clever reference to the “cool” war between the USSR and the US? And jazz? He’s mixing metaphors like they’re paint. Too many and you end up with brown. Inescapable brown. Humph.

Humph also to the normative dicta he sprinkles flatulently throughout. Print created individualism? It caused religious wars? I think not. I hate technological determinism. Technology makes certain things possible but it does not make them inevitable. From what I understand (again, caveat 2), this seems to me like the greatest hole in all this message medium mishmash: where is human agency? Are the media truly independent from their masters, from those who create them? If they are extensions of human senses, then aren’t they also subject to the same control? McLuhan writes as if the consequences of new media are inescapable, as if all audiences are by their very nature captive to some disembodied and authorless message. Not so. I don’t watch TV. My life is affected by television I’m sure, including in lots of ways of which I’m not even aware, but I do not think in a “televisive” way. I rely much more on the internet as a general medium, but if I feel it’s interfering with my thinking, I turn it off, for months at a time. I am not an unthinking unblinking receptor.

But I guess one might argue as he does, at least given the tenor of political discourse in this country (and his book, come to think of it), that message is an effect rather than a meaning. Maybe that’s why he relies on Shakespeare and versified anagrams as evidence for his contentions in the first chapter. Because if media act on our senses rather than our reason (another distinction I shake my finger at), then it only makes sense that our eyes would be so delighted by the poetry’s novel indentation and our ears so entranced by its meter and rhyme that we would somehow overlook that a couplet from Troilus and Cressida does not constitute a viable premise for elaborate media theories. (Please see caveat 1.)

Maybe that’s just because I’m arguing from a standpoint of traditional, “literary” western rationality, which like a paragraph is “uniform, continuous, and sequential.” There’s no arguing that despite what I consider a kind of intellectual sloppiness, McLuhan’s ideas gained a mainstream recognition totally out of proportion to their academic nature. It’s possible that he emerged from the Marabar Caves and out the other end of Finnegan’s Wake with a new understanding of reality, one shaped by modes of communication that had left many people feeling lost and over-extended, a master of the catchy but meaningless sound bite (the medium is the message, the content of all media is other media) that leaves you scratching your head wondering where the medium ends and what the message is but feeling clever for trying.

Ong wryly notes that the only way to be heard once a new mode of communication becomes prevalent is to use that mode. Maybe that’s what McLuhan is trying to do, reworking the written word into a kind of textual billboard analog. And maybe it’s just that like Lapham, I consider my particular point in history the only reasonable point and forget that just as oral man was replaced by literate man, so too will a literate man like me be replaced by an electronic man shaped not by books and carefully wrought thoughts but by M&M-like bits of information on YouTube and Facebook and Twitter. Maybe the rising darkness that I perceive in an educational system that increasingly privileges the piecemeal over the complete, “useful” knowledge over causality is simply my own anachronistic shadow.

Electronic media erase the lag in communication, says McLuhan, eliminating the space between call and response and delivering us into an everpresent now devoid of the pensive pauses and other non-verbal punctuations of face-to-face conversation. Modes of communication definitely shape the messages they convey, but their primary function is still to exchange information. In the absence of that information can we really say that they are the message?


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