* * *
|Marshall McLuhan and me in the Valade Family Gallery at CCS (Photo: Matt Raupp).|
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)|
|Deer Hunt, Neolithic Wall Painting, c. 5750 BCE (Photo: Klaus Peter Simon CC BY-SA 3.0)|
|Cunieform, c. 3500-3200 BCE (Photo: Bjorn Christian Torrisen |
CC BY-SA 3.0)
|Victory Steele of Naram Sin, c. 2250 BCE (Photo: Rama |
CC BY-SA 3.0)
|Meister des Marchel de Boucicart, page from a French Book of Hours, 1410-1415 (Public Domain).|
|Page from the Gutenberg Bible, The Epistle of St. Jerome, 1453-1455 (Public Domain).|
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).|
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: PabloPicasso.org).|
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).|
|Robert Rauschenberg, Retroactive II, 1963, combine painting (Image: Sharon Mollerus CC-BY-2.0).|
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.
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)|
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.
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.