Saturday, March 30, 2019

The Medium is (is not) the Message: Marshall McLuhan and His Legacy

On March 19, 2019, I gave a talk in the Valade Family Gallery on the campus of College for Creative Studies in conjunction with the exhibition "Feedback 4: Marshall McLuhan and the Arts." I used a quote from avant-garde filmmaker and critic Jonas Mekas as a preface: "The film critic should not explain what a movie is all about, surely an impossible task; he should help to create the right attitude for looking at movies." Similarly, my talk was not about the show, but about McLuhan as a jumping off point for subsequent developments in media theory, which would be useful in looking at the work on view. Below is the text of my talk, slightly edited for publication. Also, several of the original images have been replaced due to copyright. I want to thank the CCS Communications Design Department, and in particular Professors Doug Kisor and Susan LaPorte, for the opportunity.

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Marshall McLuhan and me in the Valade Family Gallery at CCS (Photo: Matt Raupp).
“The Medium is the Message” is perhaps one of the best known aphorisms of Canadian media guru Marshall McLuhan. Among his most influential books include: Gutenberg Galaxy, a study of the influence of moveable-type printing on culture and human consciousness; Understanding Media, a more comprehensive study of the ways in which various media, especially the electronic, affect society; and The Medium is the Message, an inventory, as its subtitle suggests, of the effects of different media on the human sensorium, co-authored with graphic designer Quentin Fiore.

Media, McLuhan holds, are not just technologies that humans invent but the means by which humanity is itself reinvented. Emerging in the early 1960s, McLuhan’s understanding of media, and more particularly the condition of mediation, contrasts with most mainstream theories up to that point. (An exception was Harold Innis, a professor of political economy at University of Toronto whose books Empire and Communication and The Bias of Communication, influenced McLuhan early on.)

A good example of then mainstream thought is Harold Laswell’s famous model of communication from 1948, which understands the process of mediation with the formula: “WHO says WHAT in WHICH CHANNEL to WHOM to WHAT EFFECT?” Theories in this vein are also known as Hypodermic Models, which view the process of mediation as proceeding in one direction, from the encoder of message through the medium of communication to the receiver with the content essentially injected into the mind of the intended recipient. The Hypodermic Model sees media as transparent, i.e., a membrane to be looked through to the content,with the message being affected by the “noise” a medium might embody to distort the sender’s “true” message.This perspective often sees mass media, in particular, as a tool of indoctrination, an apparatus for, to use Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky's term, "manufacturing consent,” in modern liberal democracies as well as in authoritarian regimes.

This perspective goes back to the Greeks, particularly to Plato who in The Allegory of the Cave denigrates mimesis as an imperfect representation of the Truth of the Ideal Forms and also in Phaedrus where he quotes Socrates as being critical of writing as an interruption of the direct communication of soul-to-soul intercourse. (The irony is that we know this because Plato wrote it down.)
McLuhan's Tetrad of Media Analysis (Image: CC BY-SA 3.0)
Where traditional theory sees media as transparent, McLuhan sees it as what Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin in their book Remediation: Understanding New Media term “hypermediated,” which is to say, a process of “looking at” vs. “looking through.” McLuhan’s Tetrad of Media Analysis proposes a multifaceted perspective that looks at what a medium (1) “enhances,” for example, a music video adds a visual narrative (sometimes for the better, sometimes not) to the performance of a song; (2) what it “reverses,” for example, painting’s reversal into its condition of flatness in the face of photography’s capture of the real; (3) what it “retrieves,” for example, radio’s recovery of the spoken word vis-a-vis print, and (4) what it “obsolesces,” the hypertext’s deconstruction of print’s linear flow.
Deer Hunt, Neolithic Wall Painting, c. 5750 BCE (Photo: Klaus Peter Simon CC BY-SA 3.0)
We first see the effect of mediation in what McLuhan’s student Walter Ong terms the transition from orality to literacy. In oral cultures, communication is direct between those present at the time. Orality seeks to preserve and reproduce existing meaning through repetition and mnemonic devices. We see this in the epics poems handed down through the millennia and among the griots of Africa. This zis encoded in visual culture, as well. In the above example from Neolithic Era, before the invention of writing, space is undifferentiated and time is static. Literacy on the other hand separates the originator of a thought from its receiver in space and time, promoting a distinct understanding of individual interior subjectivity.
Cunieform, c. 3500-3200 BCE (Photo: Bjorn Christian Torrisen
CC BY-SA 3.0)
The invention of writing changes that. This is an example of cuneiform, one the earliest known examples of writing developed in the 4th Millennium BCE in Sumer in Mesopotamia. Cuneiform started out as a system of accounting prior to being adapted to communication more generally. Similarly, McLuhan recognized computers as not just counting machines but as communication tools that would have profound effects on society and human consciousness.
Victory Steele of Naram Sin, c. 2250 BCE (Photo: Rama
CC BY-SA 3.0)
We can see the introduction of narrative into visual culture early on. Not long after the introduction of cuneiform, The Presentation to the Innana, (also known as the Warka Vase), 3200-3000 BCE, tells a story, literally from the ground up, of agricultural surplus being grown, harvested, and offered up to the Sumerian goddess Inanna. The sequential segments of the object further introduces the horizon line to delineate space, a technique also evident in the later Victory Steele of Naram Sin, c. 2250 BCE, depicting the King of Akkad leading his troops to victory over the Lullubi mountain people.
Meister des Marchel de Boucicart, page from a French Book of Hours, 1410-1415 (Public Domain).
We see a similar transition from manuscript to print, from the unique, private expression of the individual hand to the stirrings of mass communication.
Page from the Gutenberg Bible, The Epistle of St. Jerome, 1453-1455 (Public Domain).
McLuhan marks the origin of modernity with the development of moveable-type printing, calling the book the “first commodity.” Print enables the broad dissemination of information across large distances. In addition to being the first inklings of what we now call consumer culture, print had other profound social, cultural, and political implications. In Understanding Media, McLuhan identifies print as the founder of the modern nation-state. Prior to print there was no standard grammar or spelling. National languages are standardized under print as are the geographic boundaries under which they are understood. Print gives rise to what Benedict Anderson terms “the imagined community” of nationalism under which individuals think of themselves as a people bound by a common sense of identity even though they have no direct contact with one another.

Print additionally ushers in the vernacular. Prior to the invention of print and the standardization of language, official communications in Europe were conducted in Latin with “the masses” essentially left out of the loop. The formation of national imagined communities using the vernacular further gives rise to notions of a universally literate public and eventually with the Enlightenment the idea of the form of national self-governance called democracy.

There’s another aspect of media evolution that is relevant to the discussion, which Bolter and Grusin term “remediation.” McLuhan notes that the content of one medium is always another medium. For example, the content of writing is speech. Bolter and Grusin refine that idea to posit that as media emerge, they begin by capturing previous media. So in the case of print, the first iterations of typography, as seen for example in the Gutenberg Bible, sought to mimic uncial manuscript; other manual processes, such as hand-illuminated pages, were also remediated in published books. Narrative cinema begins by remediating the novel and indeed the Library of Congress continues to organize film studies under the heading of literature.
Albrecht Durer, St Jerome in His Study, 1513, engraving/Nadar, The Sewers of Paris, 1864-1865, photograph (Public Domain).
Bolter and Grusin use as one of their primary examples of remediation the transition in visual art in the 19th century with the invention of photography. As Bolter and Grusin, as well as the art historian Erwin Panofsky, note, media transparency as a representational form, i.e., “looking through” the picture plane vs. “looking at” at it, has its origins in Western culture in the Renaissance with the development of linear and atmospheric perspective. Before the development of these techniques, representation was, to use Bolter and Grusin’s terminology, “hypermediated,” that is, imbued with the awareness of form as a material construction, as opposed to the “immediacy” of media transparency. That photography remediates Renaissance perspective can be readily seen by comparing Albrecht Durer's St. Jerome in His Study, 1513, with Nadar's mid-19th-century images of the Paris sewers where the perspective is quite similar.

From this perspective, the Late Gothic is not a more “primitive” form of representation vis-à-vis the Renaissance, but one with a different set of concerns. The culmination of representational transparency in painting is arguably Impressionism, in which the artist is rendered as a conduit for recording the instant of pure perception, the threshold between subject and object. Photography makes a more radical claim to immediacy via the insertion of a mechanical apparatus between the observer and the observed, removing any trace of the hand, which cannot be completely eradicated in drawing or painting. (Of course, there is a conundrum in that notion as a "representation" the medium is always already at once removed from the "real.")
Pablo Picasso, Still Life with Chair Caning, 1912, mixed media (Image courtesy:
It is around this moment historically that painting begins its turn back to hypermediation, resulting in Cubism and the invention of collage. And it is Cubism that subsequently provides McLuhan’s initial insight that the medium is the message. (It is interesting to note that immediacy continues to hold sway in Hollywood’s fetish for special effects and in new media in areas such as virtual reality and immersive environments.) This idea in media theory has its parallel in art history in the argument that it is photography’s superior claim as “an imprint off the real” that frees painting to explore its more formalist conditions. There is cause for questioning this argument in looking at photography at the end of the 19th century, which has its moment of remediating Beaux Arts aesthetics (see for example the portraiture of Julia Margaret Cameron and the still lives of Roger Fenton) whereas much painting of the Impressionists actually presages the street photography of several decades later. This can be seen, for example, in Edgar Degas's Place de la Concorde, 1875, with its dynamic composition of one figure entering the picture plane on the left and another walking out it on the right, the two separated by a triangle of empty space thrusting down between them, pushing the classic pyramid organization of figures off center.

One of the more fruitful extrapolations of McLuhan is the mediology of French theorist Regis Debray, which studies the transmission of meaning in culture through language and images. In his book Media Manifestos: On the Technological Transmission of Cultural Forms (Verso, 1996), Debray sees cultural transmission as operating within “mediaspheres,” epochal shifts in the organization of culture, and indeed being itself, in the wake of innovations in communications technology. Prior to the invention of writing, culture was transmitted within the mnemonosphere, the sphere of oral culture, as described by Ong. This was followed by the logosphere, which emerges after writing. The graphosphere emerges after print, and finally there is the videosphere, which emerges with the audiovisual (by which Debray means primarily television). Debray organizes these last three spheres under three regimes: the idol, art, and the individual, which respectively cast the image as a being, the image as a thing, and the image as a perception.

A comparison I find particularly illuminating, as it were, for Debray is sources of light: the spiritual (from within), the solar (from without), and the electric (from within), the last reaffirming McLuhan’s notion of electronic media as extensions of the nervous system. Again we see this in visual art.
Cover of the Codex Aureus of Sankt Emmeram, 870 (Public Domain).
The medieval cover of the Codex Aureus of Sankt Emmeram, 870, from the logosphere is a prime example of hypermediation.
Edgar Degas, Place de la Concorde, 1875, oil on canvas (Public Domain).
Edgar Degas's Place de la Concorde, 1875, comes from the graphosphere. Note the dynamism of the composition and the immediacy of its representation, again particularly in relation to photography of the period.
Robert Rauschenberg, Retroactive II, 1963, combine painting (Image: Sharon Mollerus CC-BY-2.0).
Robert Rauschenberg's combine paintings from the videosphere are good examples of hypermediation and what we would term “remix” culture today. One wonders if the current intellectual property rights regime were in effect then would there have been anything such thing as Pop art.

Another application of McLuhan is Joshua Meyrowitz’s study No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior, which adds sociologist Ervin Goffman’s dramaturgical theory, the fact that social life is like a theatrical performance, into the mix. Meyrowitz takes Goffman’s notion of “frontstage” and “backstage,” that relations in public are stage-managed as a result of practices that have been rehearsed in private, and flips them, arguing that television as a communications medium brings things that have typically constituted the backstage into public view and vice versa. Television further breaks down barriers of place, bringing the far off into the living room and presenting the domestic for mass consumption. Television, Meyrowitz notes, is a “secret-exposing machine.”

While rejecting McLuhan’s technological determinism ( i.e., the theory that technological change is the prime mover in the development of social structure and cultural values), Birmingham Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies theorist Raymond Williams does note the profound effect television as a technological and cultural form has had on daily life.

Principal among them is the concept of “flow,” the way in which television programming serves to organize one’s time, from the morning newscast and daily weather and traffic report as we prepare for our day, the daytime programming geared to the stay-at-home to the unwind of the evening news and the respite of so-called “prime time” entertainment at night. The television is a constant presence in the home. Even when it is not on, we have the sense that something is happening in there. We often turn on the television with no plan of what to watch specifically, but rather simply to see what is on. When watching any program there is always an awareness that there may be something else to see. (Jerry Seinfeld has a quip that men don't watch television to see what is on, they watch it to see what else is on.)

The invention of VCRs, DVDs, DVRs, and now on-demand and online viewing have radically disrupted the old model of televisual flow. Time-shifting has emerged to both customize and atomize the consumption of visual content and the way we experience space and time.

Hypertext (Image: Andrea Riverac CC: BY-SA 3.0)
The binary digit, and the communication technologies that have been built upon it, have greatly impacted the practice of everyday life. One media effect is the development of hypertext, which on the one hand connects an astounding array of archives and individuals across the globe, what Pierre Levy terms “the collective intelligence in cyberspace” and others term “the hive mind,” and on the other hand deconstructs narrative flow of the printed text as understood by McLuhan and those who have worked in his shadow.
One of the key effects of print, according to McLuhan, is the division of labor in society, or what sociologist Emile Durkheim termed “organic solidarity,” the fact that social relations are like different organs of the body, each performing a particular function that cannot stand on its own but is necessary to the functioning of the whole. Sociologists term this “differentiation.” Digital technology is contributing to a new condition of “de-differentiation,” or what media scholar Henry Jenkins terms “convergence culture.” That is, media and social roles are collapsing back together.

We see this, of course, in smart devices that enable us to manage a whole host of communications, entertainment, and other life functions from a single mechanism. In the corporate sector this is evidenced by so-called “flat” organizational structures where layers of management have been removed, to be replaced by information technology systems of oversight, and authority pushed down to lower levels.

Another example is the collapsing of work and leisure—we are connected to our devices 24/7 and are thus always on call. The second largest shopping day of the year is “Cyber Monday,” where consumers complete holiday shopping left over from Black Friday online, typically from the workplace. Then there is the “prosumer,” the melding of producer and consumer in social media platforms such as Facebook, Snap Chat, and the like, where individuals are entertaining themselves and their friends in the form of “user-generated content,” all the while providing data intelligence to advertisers and other elements of surveillance society to be harvested for profit and power.

McLuhan foresaw this process of convergence in what he termed the “global village,” or what globalization theorist Manfred Steger terms “the global imaginary” (after Benedict Anderson’s notion of the imagined community writ large, facilitated by the proliferation of electronic communications technology at the planetary level).

By virtue of an integrated communications network, a foreshadowing of the internet, McLuhan foresaw a contraction of global relationships as far-flung parts of globe came into more frequent and closer contact with one another, either physically or virtually. Positive interpretations of this suggest the prospects for a new age of cooperation in the evolution of humankind and the planet. On the other hand, McLuhan also understood the potential of global communications to put stress on notions of the nation-state and local identities. As McLuhan is often quoted as saying: “The global village absolutely ensures maximal disagreement on all points.” Steger and others have since noted what Samuel Huntington terms “the clash of civilizations” in negotiating what constitutes a global imaginary.

This begs the question: “Where does that leave us?” McLuhan continues to be relevant to the conversation. The inaugural issue of Wired, for example, was dedicated to McLuhan. In a 1969 interview with Playboy magazine, McLuhan expanded upon his observations on the global village thus: “The global-village conditions being forged by the electric technology stimulate more discontinuity and diversity and division than the old mechanical, standardized society; in fact, the global village makes maximum disagreement and creative dialog inevitable" (emphasis added).

It is in exploring the possibilities of the latter part of that statement that cultural producers (i.e., artists, designers, and other creatives) have both the opportunity and responsibility to act as thought leaders and productive citizens, to map out imaginary futures and then set out to realize them, using their best knowledge of media technologies and effects, for the greater good.


  1. A terrific text offering endless possibilities for thought. Will linger long thinking about the global village and the responsibility of artists to be thought leaders and productive citizens.

  2. Thanks for reading. Glad you found it useful. So much to be done and not enough time to do it.

  3. "cultural producers (i.e., artists, designers, and other creatives) have both the opportunity and responsibility to act as thought leaders and productive citizens, to map out imaginary futures and then set out to realize them, using their best knowledge of media technologies and effects, for the greater good."
    an excellent summary of what must happen but, unfortunately and as always, the how to get that to happen goes untreated.

    there is no evidence that this is happening and in fact it is not and will not under the current circumstances.

    some who understand the necessity and urgency for this to be undertaken, perhaps like Vince, will have to be willing to go to the next step and do something; or help others who agree.

    1. Thanks for your comment. Yes where to go is always the tough part.