Thoughts on McLuhan – Understanding Media

I’ll find this interesting, I don’t know how many other people will.  Here are my thoughts upon finishing Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media.

This was a strange and lucid book, and difficult to read; McLuhan’s apprehension (dislike?) for the medium of print shines through the text in its strange lucidity and obscurity.  I almost feel that McLuhan seems upset to be writing a book, and so he writes a book exactly how he wants to write it – in weird vignettes with a certain unhinged fervor.  Overall a valuable book for its opening of new theoretical avenues around an expansive notion of ‘media,’ but I found its individual conclusions about particular media forms generally off, but occasionally enlightening.

The key to everything: The real message of media is the change in the scale, pace and pattern of human relations.

First – the idea that the content of a medium is the media that preceded it.  This makes a bit of sense – I think it puts the relationship between form and content into perspective by challenging the assumption of easy interchangeability between media forms,  while making sense of the actual manifestations of media.  So, cinema ties to make movies out of books before shifting to its own specialized style; television appropriates that style before becoming televisual as such.  For web technology, in a ‘convergence culture‘ that in many ways spells the end for hardware-driven technological revolutions, the content of every shift in media technologies will increasingly be the web itself: so the content of ‘web 2.0’ is websites themselves – blogs and wikis put the power of creating static websites into the hands of users.

The Tactility of television and video: just as touch only reveals a limited portion of an object, requiring time to eventually cover the whole object, the unfolding temporal elements of video allows for a gradual unveiling of a place that parallels tactile interactions.

The key to media consciousness/literacy involves making forward-looking critiques of contemporary media forms.  IE, we will never have a book-centered or television-centered society again, and critiquing web-discourse as petty, overpersonalized, poorly spelled, etc. in the hope of defeating technology change… well, you’re not really getting anywhere.  The key (vis a vis the definition given above) is to think about the ways that media restructures the patterns of human interaction – independent of content- and understand what that means for political power.

Gadgetry – actually one of the most engaging parts of the book, and perhaps a key to media study that has gone overlooked.  Gadgets are talismans that ‘amputate’ certain social functions and condense them into concrete forms – they take a stress created by dominant media forms and attempt to resolve that stress by developing new technology.  So, in every new technolgy, or dream about new technology lies hints about the media technologies it seeks to replace.  We should learn to read theories of the future or cure all technology backwards to understand our contemporary media environment

Thinking about publics and texts – doubtless pursued in Publics and Counterpublics, the next book I’ll tackle – the notion of a coherent public sphere arises from the printing press medium, which propagates the image of a uniform public space because of the concrete, stable text – you know everyone will get the same text, in a roughly similar form, allowing the illusion of a unified public.

Forms of social change – Print, in developing an aesthetic of uniformity and regularity in space management creates struggles that center on defining and defending difference versus homogenizing forces imposed from above.  Television, while making these struggles its central focus (see the point about ‘prior technologies’ above), shifts the vanguard of social change to escaping monetarization of social change, creating sub-cultures that subvert the styles and trends of consumer capitalism (think punk). This raises the issue of developing non-spatial forms of sovereignty – once technology shifts to allow people to be targeted as members of a diffuse social group, they must develop counter-power able to check demographic exploitation.

Light – McLuhan says at least two interesting things about light – that it ‘puts the world in a frame,’ establishing the idea of indoor and outdoor, fragmenting experience by drawing out time indoors and bracketing it with an outdoor space.  Lights make indoor spaces possible after dark.  Second, that light is the purest form of media, with no pretensions to content.  This points towards a question of space that McLuhan dances around throughout the book – he holds on to the idea of embodied experience as the foundational ‘stuff’ of life, and treats media technologies as simple redistributions of that ‘stuff’ between places – with that corporeal life determining the distributions of power within a society impacted by a particular media form.  I don’t necessarily think this a mis-step, but it points towards a need to theorize power first before theorizing media as-such.  Without understanding power, there’s only a rudimentary understanding of what drives media change – I’d be interested to see what television without capitalism (and thus commercials) would look like, and how that would change the experience of television for viewers.

Every change in dominant media forms implies the transformation of the previous dominant media into a decadence.  With the rise of cars, horse carriages became symbols of decadent wealth.  In the same way, movies (on the big screen) have become immensely decadent.  I think The Dark Knight is the ultimate expression of this fact: seriously, that was just 2.5 hours of explosions meant to look good on screens larger than what you can fit in your house.  When rendered obsolete by new media distribution systems, movies have become pure expressions of their own power (IMAX?)

The production of political priorities – I think the defining issue of contemporary politics is health care and specifically health insurance.  This issue has salience because of the interpersonal foundations of television and new media technologies,  using profiles and qualities of individuals as such as the foundations of their content and experience of the medium.  The personal-protection element of health care makes it a perfect fit for campaigns on the people-obsessed internet.  A few well worded stories of personal suffering backed with a consistent media presence generates a lot of buzz (Bobst boy?).

Umm, that’s it for now

One response to “Thoughts on McLuhan – Understanding Media

  1. mcluhan prophecy

    “This was a strange and lucid book, and difficult to read; McLuhan’s apprehension (dislike?) for the medium of print shines through the text in its strange lucidity and obscurity.”
    Very good. In an intrview with Joe Medjuck (now the right hand guy for Ivan Reitman in LA) in the late 60’s McLuhan stated that he was done writing books and was going to concentrate on making films. His films he said would have no content but would be pure filmic form.

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