Tom Nickel wrote to me the following:
Well Hans, as one of the lead-off Summarizers I have no model to guide me and no confidence that what I have produced will fill the bill. I find the task daunting. In the end, I just sat down and wrote, and what I have attached is what came out. It is definitely not a Summary — more like free-form remarks that represent my attempt to grapple with some of McLuhan’s foundational concepts. I hope it will be useful in some way.
Find his “remarks” and two great questions below. I think they are certainly useful!
Chapter One: The title, “The Medium is the Message” is probably McLuhan’s most famous and enduring phrase, (even though most people say it as, ‘the media is the message,” getting their singulars and plurals mixed up. But that’s not the issue. The issue is that two of the four words in his most famous phrase did not mean the same thing to McLuhan as they do to almost everybody else.
To most people, the term “media” refers to the vaguely defined constellation of tv, movies, radio, newspaper, books and magazines, although “the media” is rarely thought of in terms of its constituent parts. It is more like some nebulous, powerful force that exists in a realm beyond our normal lives. McLuhan saw it more or less that way too, but not for the same reasons.
McLuhan would definitely agree that tv, movies, radio, newspaper, books and magazines are media — to which he then might add, “and that’s just the beginning.” From his perspective and in his use of the term, just about everything is media, not just “the media.” To McLuhan, a car is a medium, our clothing is media. They “mediate” our relationship to the world; we live aspects of our lives through them.
The word used most frequently by McLuhan and McLuhanesque thinkers to describe the relationship between ourselves and media is “extends.” Anything that extends us is media. Sometimes the definition gets a very little bit more precise and it is stated as, “anything that extends our five senses is media.” I think the latter is a too-limited view. A car extends our legs, enhances our mobility. It’s not only about the senses. McLuhan means that absolutely anything that extends our overall set of capabilities in the broadest sense of that idea, including but not limited to the senses, is media.
Then what exactly is meant by that key word, “extends?” I think Mcluhan is unusually clear about this, when he says that it is the medium that, “controls the scale and form of human association and action.” A telescope scales up human vision and cars scale up mobility and both do so in an individualistic, free-form way that can become a social experience.
And that’s the message of cars and telescopes. To most people, the word “message” refers to the content of a communication. To McLuhan the meaning is something more like, “effect.” Suppose you received a telegram that said your best friend just died and you fainted right after reading it. If you asked most people, “what was the message?” They’d say, “Your best friend just died;” McLuhan would say, “fainted.”
In fact, to McLuhan the content of the medium seduces our attention and makes it hard to see its actual effect. The path to clear understanding is further confounded by the fact that, as McLuhan claims, the content of a new medium is always an earlier medium. The content of television is the novel, he says.
In an unusually colorful simile for him, McLuhan states that,
the content of the medium is like the little juicy piece of meat the burglar takes to distract the watch dog from what’s really happening
McLuhan speaks in macro terms and also drops in micro references that sometimes seem to exemplify his sweeping pronouncements. One of the points he dwells on most frequently is the primary role of the print medium, throughout its technological development, as a driver of human evolution. Literacy and print are, to McLuhan, at the heart of our seemingly hardwired mental image of ourselves as distinct from the object of perception. That whole way of feeling that other things just are separate from us comes from our visual bias and all the media extensions that reinforce and strengthen it. We are wired, but not hardwired. We’re programmed by our media environment at the most fundamental level of our being.
Subject/object distinction is the message of all media that play into vision’s game. It’s existential. That’s one huge example of why McLuhan says the medium is the message.
I think the typical understanding of McLuhan’s most famous phrase is something close to,
“the stuff on TV is what matters.”
I’m not making this claim in order to brag about some kind of elite understanding that transcends the standard one, but more to wonder why. McLuhan knew he was using words in non-standard ways. Even though he talked as though his view was all so blandly obvious, he also knew that most people simply did not grasp what he was actually saying.
I think we tend to misunderstand the role in which McLuhan saw himself. He is portrayed as a “media theorist,” or more generally as a philosopher or just a “thinker.” I think he was more like a novelist, writing an exploratory story. The stylistic similarities between Marshall McLuhan and James Joyce are striking. They both make up words. They don’t follow a consistent narrative or point of view. They operate simultaneously at a mythic level and a contemporary pop culture level.. Neither can be understood in an analytical way. Neither wrotes expository prose. They write to be misunderstood, to provoke through misunderstanding. With McLuhan and Joyce, it’s not about understanding them. It’s about experiencing them.
Chapter Two: is based on one simple concept — media can be hot or cold, which is nothing more than a spectrum of involvement or participation. But once again, exactly what McLuhan means by participation or involvement is not the way these terms are generally understood. He doesn’t mean emotionally involved as in a linear melodrama, he means involved at the level of “sense ratios or patterns of perception.”
Well, yes, but … McLuhan himself extends the idea of hot or cool beyond the sensory level of perception and into the realm of style. Television, to him, is cool in that it is a relatively low-res medium which force our perceptual systems into an intense fill-in-the-missing-info exercise. Watching, or more accurately, making sense of television as we watch it is an extremely demanding activity — it demands our active involvement at a deep neurophysiological level.
But then he goes on to make statements about Jack Paar’s cool demeanor being a perfect fit for the cool medium he inhabited as host of The Tonight Show. Hot and cool are useful and flexible concepts that can refer not simply to perceptual activity but also to a kind of emotional and cognitive involvement invited or even demanded by the personna of individuals.
I have always found this to be extremely insightful and it leads me as I attempt to “summarize” chapter 2 of “Understanding Media” to the question: Is McLuhan hot or cool? My answer, for now anyway, is — both. And the key to which one you experience lies in the terms invite vs demand.
Here’s what I mean:
- We’re used to Biographies (of instant pop culture celebrities) and strong-narrative stories, where we can just sit back and let the books read themselves to us they are so complete and so hot.
- There is no narrative with McLuhan (other than the non-linear narrative in which describes human evolution in broad strokes) — but he can still be regarded as hot, in that he is so assertive, so hard-edged in his pronouncements. You can read him and just let his words wash over you as a semi-passive consumer. This is, in truth, what I have sometimes done in my reading of McLuhan over the years.
- Or, you can choose to try to deeply penetrate what he means in his non-linear presentation, with concentric passes around central themes over and over again, and his lack of complete thoughts. In the case of most “best sellers,” there is not this element of choice. There is no deeper level a reader can choose to get involved in. With McLuhan there definitely is. Trying to Summarize him as a part of this Group means that I have to be more conceptually participatory. I have to get more involved with McLuhan and let myself be drawn into his coolness.
- These remarks about his style are independent of his media embodiment. Most of my McLuhan-time has been mediated through print, a hot medium. Maybe that’s why most of the time when I read him, I tend to let him wash over me rather than allowing myself to be drawn deeply in. But I have also viewed him a fair amount on video, a cool medium, and when I do, I feel that I tend to get drawn more deeply without making an explicit effort.
Chapter Three asserts that every medium or structure has a point at which it begins becoming its own opposite — the chapter is about old forces meeting new forces, clashing and producing a reversal. It has the appearance of what Marx calls dialectical materialism, but for McLuhan I’m not sure that the progression is dialectical and it is almost definitely not materialist.
Does an existing and prevalent media environment inevitably generate its own opposite? I don’t think that McLuhan has much to say about where new media forms come from. But they do emerge and they do yield new affordances, new extensions of ourselves which mingle uneasily with older ways of being human.
I think the term “global village” makes its first appearace in this chapter, capturing McLuhan’s big point that the fragmented, structurally delimited, ever-expanding and individualized culture enforced by the formerly dominant print media is now coexisting uncomfortably with a re-tribalized, instant, whole-field culture, contracting culture generated by the newly dominant electronic media. This view leads to his seldom noted insight that the real population issue is not the numbers, but the intimacy — the closeness in which we now live with all the other inhabitants of spaceship earth.
The conflict that he diagnoses leads to my first question:
Question One: McLuhan claims that the problems of the Global Village turns even progressive people into reactionaries, into conservatives longing for a past in which their familiar private and individualistic preferences seemed to be more viable. But some people who are highly print-trained and highly literate manage to adapt and feel very comfortable in the new electronic world — while others most definitely do not.
What accounts for the difference? And if the answer is simply, “education” — what is the mechanism of action? How does education, still based on print and literacy make anyone comfortable with its opposite?
. . . . . . . .
Question Two goes back to Chapter One and the idea of entities we do not ordinarily think of as media have profoundly transformative effects due to their message — in this case, money. McLuhan claims in Chapter One that the money economy broke down the feudal structures in 17th century Japan and that it reorganizes the lives of people and the structures of all societies.
I can understand money as an extension or scaling factor for our labor. It is an abstraction that allows our labor to be converted into goods and services from anywhere in the world. That is the economic view of money. But how about its financial aspect, a further abstraction? How are financial instruments such as mortgage-related investment packages an extension of our senses or ourselves? How are they reorganizing our world? And are they an indication of what McLuhan and Kenneth Boulding call a “break boundary?”