Marshall McLuhan declared that “the medium is the message.” What did he mean and does this notion have any value?

Roderick Munday

Looking about me upon the wide waste of liquid ebony on which we were thus borne, I perceived that our boat was not the only object in the embrace of the whirl. Both above and below us were visible fragments of vessels, large masses of building timber and trunks of trees, with many smaller articles, such as pieces of house furniture, broken boxes, barrels and staves. I have already described the unnatural curiosity which had taken the place of my original terrors. It appeared to grow upon me as I drew nearer and nearer to my dreadful doom. I now began to watch, with a strange interest, the numerous things that floated in our company.

Edgar Allen Poe, A Descent into the Maelström

Introduction

Edgar Allen Poe’s story, A Descent into the Maelström, describes the thoughts of a sailor who saves himself from being swallowed by a gigantic whirlpool by studying the effects of the currents. McLuhan, a graduate in English Literature studying for his PhD, reviewed the story in 1947. Later, Professor McLuhan came to see Poe’s maelstrom as a metaphor for the chaos of the modern world; a whirlpool swallowing and destroying everything of value. The actions of the sailor, however, also suggested to him a survival strategy.

It’s inevitable that the whirl-pool of electronic information movement will toss us all about like corks on a stormy sea, but if we keep our cool during the descent into the maelstrom, studying the process as it happens... we can get through . (McLuhan 1995, 228)

Influenced by Harold Innes and the work of Lewis Mumford, McLuhan became interested in studying the effects of media and technology on humankind. Out of this study he developed an iconoclastic thesis that media were the extensions of human senses. He published two books on the subject, which were regarded (at best) as sucsès d’ estime. His third book however, Understanding Media (1964), was a popular success and McLuhan became a media personality in his own right: “the oracle of the electric age.”

Academics and scholars, confronted with his novel ideas, were generally more sceptical, if not hostile, in their appraisal. Dwight Macdonald in his review of Understanding Media remarked that: “the parts are greater than the whole... A single page is impressive, two are stimulating, five raise serious doubts, ten confirm them...” (Stearn 1968, 237)

This observation is essentially true of McLuhan’s writing, but Macdonald fails to follow it to its logical conclusion. If (to paraphrase him) the perception of the "whole" numbs appreciation for the "parts," perhaps it would have been better to have studied one of those parts in more detail? Today McLuhan is best remembered for two phrases: “the medium is the message” and the “global village.” This is appropriate, because they essentially sum up his entire philosophy. I intend in this essay to explain what McLuhan meant by “the medium is the message” as well as examining some criticisms of his media thesis, in order to assess its value.

The Medium and the Message

McLuhan’s definition of media, by his own admission, was broad: “any technology that ... creates extensions of the human body and senses” (McLuhan 1995, 239). Thus, for him clothing was an extension of the skin, the wheel; an extension of the foot, the book; an extension of the eye, etc. He believed that these technological extensions had the effect of amplifying a particular human sense to the detriment of the other four. Therefore technology effectively interfered with the sensory balance of individuals, which in turn affected the sensibilities of the societies in which they lived. This process was the subliminal cause of all the major cultural shifts that characterise different epochs in human history, such as "the renaissance" and "the industrial age."

McLuhan believed that in prehistoric times humankind (or preliterate man to adopt his sexist terminology) lived in a condition where all the senses worked together in "synesthetic" harmony. “Before the invention of the phonetic alphabet, man lived in a world where all the senses were balanced and simultaneous, a closed world of tribal depth and resonance.” (ibid, 241) Humankind lived in an “acoustic space;” without centre or margins. The only way preliterate people could communicate was through speech, so the exchange of information was sound based, instantaneous and social. McLuhan cites all the advantages of face-to-face communication and concludes that “Speech is utterance, or more precisely outering, of all our senses at once.” (ibid, 240) For this reason he was particularly concerned with the effects of the phonetic alphabet, and of printing. The implications of the phonetic alphabet were that the exchange of information was no longer instantaneous and that reading created individuals because of the solitary nature of the activity. The phonetic alphabet also led to the dominance of the sense of sight in the human sensorium, (the single and detached point of view) and, through the mastering of its abstract symbols, the development of abstract thought.

The phonetic alphabet fell like a bombshell, installing sight at the head of the hierarchy of senses. Literacy propelled man from the tribe, gave him an eye for an ear and replaced his integral in-depth communal interplay with visual linear values and fragmented consciousness (ibid)

This imbalance was further amplified with the introduction of the printing press, which ultimately created industrial “mechanised” culture.

The printing press hit... like a 100-megaton H bomb... The new medium of linear, uniform, repeatable type reproduced information in unlimited quantities and at hitherto-impossible speeds, thus assuring the eye a position of total predominance in man’s sensorium. (ibid, 243)

McLuhan perceived many far-reaching consequences of the invention of print, including: nationalism, the reformation, the industrial assembly line, the notion of causality in science and perspective in art. Paradoxically as an avid reader and the product of a bookish education, he viewed these developments pessimistically. In contrast, he was much more sanguine about the electronic age, ushered in by the invention of the telegraph, radio, film, the telephone, the computer and television. The electronic age restored humankind’s lost sensorial balance. It did this because the nature of electronic communication was instantaneous; collapsing the constraints of time and space imposed by mechanistic technologies. Electronic media did not extend individual senses, as print media had done with the eye, but extended the entire human nervous system (all five senses simultaneously). Electronic media not only restored the pre-literate “tribal” balance of the senses, but also extroverted the human nervous system out into the world creating a planet-wide neural awareness.

The electronically induced technological extensions of our central nervous systems... are immersing us in a whirlpool of information... the aloof and dislocated role of the literate man of the Western world is succumbing to the new intense depth participation... decentralising - rather than enlarging - the family of man into a new state of multitudinous tribal existences. (ibid, 249)

The second part of McLuhan's “medium is the message” aphorism concerns (or rather doesn’t concern) the content of a medium. Historically, when people have thought about messages, they have concentrated exclusively on what they were saying (their content) and have ignored their media. This is born out by the experience of other scholars, for instance when Elizabeth Eisenstein attempted to survey the literature on the impacts of the printing press, she was struck by the paucity of available information about the medium: “I could not find a single book, or even sizeable article which attempted to survey the consequences of the fifteenth century communications shift.’ (Eisenstein, 1979, xi).

McLuhan's approach reverses the traditional dominance of content over medium, for in his thesis, content plays a massively subordinate role: “it has about as much importance as the stencilling on the casing of an atomic bomb.” (McLuhan 1995, 238) His argument is that the medium has been neglected for so long because it is, to all intents and purposes, invisible. He compares this to electric light - or more precisely the electromagnetic waves/particles that make up the visible spectrum. Light is invisible to the naked eye, but paradoxically illuminates the world. “The electric light is pure information. It is a medium without a message, as it were” (McLuhan, 1964, 23) The content of electric light is anything it happens to be shining on “Whether the light is being used for brain surgery or night baseball is a matter of indifference.” (ibid, 24)

The medium is the message, because media creates its own environments, which are beneficial to some messages whilst being hostile to others. Just as sodium-vapour light mutes all colours to an orangey-grey and ultra-violet light makes white and some colours glow eerily, so different media amplify and repress their content. If some people lived in a world constantly illuminated by sodium vapour light, they would have very different perceptions of reality compared with people who lived in a world illuminated only by ultra-violet light, although the people of both worlds would be unaware of any distortion in their vision.

Criticisms of the Medium is the Message

It is outside the scope of this essay to examine all of the many criticisms of McLuhan, but to give a flavour of them, I have chosen five. Firstly there are critics like Jonathan Miller, Ben Lieberman, and Dwight Macdonald who refuse to engage with McLuhan on his own terms, preferring to force his thesis into the constraints of traditional analysis. Miller is most explicit in this respect.

Since I remain unconvinced by McLuhan’s reasons for eschewing a linear arrangement of his ideas, I shall try, for the sake of the uninitiated reader, to reduce his argument to that very form to which he so violently objects. (Miller, 1971, 8)

This is the equivalent of faulting a Cubist painting because it does not look like reality. While this line of reasoning is notionally quite correct, it misses the point (and the target) entirely and becomes an example of the typical response of “typographical man.”

A second line of criticism, expounded by Raymond Williams and James Carey, was that McLuhan was a “hard technological determinist.”

The work of McLuhan was a particular culmination of an aesthetic theory which became, negatively, a social theory […] It is an apparently sophisticated technological determinism which has the significant effect of indicating a social and cultural determinism […] If the medium - whether print or television – is the cause, of all other causes, all that men ordinarily see as history is at once reduced to effects. (Williams 1990, 126/7)

Actually it is difficult to pin the charge of hard technological determinism on McLuhan, because he never ascribed any autonomy to the technologies he described. They were always the extensions of man, and thus always directed and utilised by man. McLuhan’s determinism was that the affordances and constraints of a given technology create the boundary conditions in which an individual can operate. Electronic man wore his nervous system on the outside of his body, therefore he was liable to react to his surroundings in a different way to his pre-electronic “internalised” predecessors.

A third criticism comes from Umberto Eco, who employs Roman Jakobson's transmission model of communication to accuse McLuhan of confusing the links in the transmission chain.

McLuhan’s theses on the nature of media stem from the fact that he uses the term… broadly, for phenomena that can be at times reduced to the Channel and at other times to the Code, or to the form of the message. (Eco 1987, 138)

Implicit in the arguments and examples Eco offers is his inability to distinguish between “content form” and “media form." This misses McLuhan's point about the importance of media form, for while James Joyce’s literary style (for example) adopted many diverse content forms, he only ever wrote in one media form – the book.

A fourth criticism concerns the “heretical” consequences of McLuhan’s style. For instance, his brushing over the tragedies of history to exemplify a point. Humanist critics like Christopher Ricks chides McLuhan for his “Olympian” epigrams, which come across as unfeeling: “The moral position… is shaky… McLuhan may insist that he is ‘withholding all value judgements'… but in fact his terms are as neutral as a bigot” (Stearn 1968, 247). Benjamin DeMott continues in this vein:

What is the Key factor in the Southern civil rights struggle? The internal combustion engine … Why were the Jews murdered by the million? Because radio came before TV. [these] flip comments [are] deadenings of feeling and sympathy that distance holocaust and shame. (Stearn 1968, 279/80)

It is true that McLuhan’s aphoristic style does not allow for in-depth analysis of complex social phenomena, and his lack of tact in the phenomena he chooses to reduce to media effects can be staggering at times. In the light of this, his claims to be value free - “once a surgeon becomes personally involved and disturbed about the condition of his patient, he loses the power to help that patient” (McLuhan, 1987, 267) - seem less "heroic" when expressed in a style that mixes flippancy with bad puns. To quote George Steiner: “The world of Auschwitz lies outside speech as it lies outside reason.”

Conclusion

When reading McLuhan it is hard not to feel a sense of giddiness sometimes from the welter of concepts: rather than offering advice on how to navigate a whirl-pool, his prose at times starts to resemble one. McLuhan’s insistence that his work should not be an explanation of media, or a parody of the literal-minded form he is criticising is understood, But it does not follow that it is impossible to present anti-rational arguments in a coherent form. McLuhan proved this himself when he was asked to explain his ideas in interviews. Also, the task is not without precedent, as the work of phenomenologists like Husserl and Merleau-Ponty illustrates. They also attempted to uncovered the negations to the sensorium caused by rationalism, but in a coherent and rational way. Although, as one of McLuhan’s biographers states:

McLuhan was never tempted by the academic ... virtue of carefully qualifying his statements... when accused of purveying half truths, he often defended himself with the remark, worthy of Lenin, that half a brick can break a window quite as well as a whole brick (Marchand 1989, 189)

Overstating causes or effects, logical leaps, non sequiturs, endless repetition and reductio ad absurdum arguments do not engender academic confidence. However ironically academics are often guilty of the same excesses in their enthusiasm to make sport out of McLuhan’s scholarly inadequacies. But these are not grounds on which we can easily dismiss his insights, as history has proven. Elizabeth Eisenstein, who has begun to fill in some of the vistas that McLuhan merely sketched, offers a more measured response.

By making us more aware that both mind and society were affected by printing, McLuhan has performed in my view at least a most valuable service. But he has also glossed over multiple interactions that occurred under widely varying circumstances in a way that may discourage further study. It follows that we need to think less metaphorically and abstractly, more historically and concretely about the sort of effects that were entailed. (Eisenstein 1979, 129)

The value for media studies of McLuhan's aphorism, the medium is the message, cannot be separated from the contested value of McLuhan's thesis on media. But while the intellectual challenge of taking him seriously is similar to panning for gold in a river of silt, there is nevertheless gold to be found there. McLuhan's ideas are still met with hostility in some intellectual circles, this is unfortunate because, as Christopher Pendergast pointed out in a different context: “When, in the cut and thrust of polemic [something] automatically trips off the tongue as a taken-for-granted term of abuse... this is a sign that the channels of more serious augmentation have become blocked.” (Pendergast 1986: 4)

McLuhan’s work elevates the importance of media as the prime shaper of human destiny and he insists that the study of media is imperative for our cultures very survival. This can (and has) been dismissed as merely romantic idealism. But perhaps neophyte practitioners of any subject need to feel that their chosen field is of universal importance, in order to become engaged with it. McLuhan’s value to media studies is that he maps out this high ground. Bertrand Russell cautioned that “the purpose of education was to teach us to defend ourselves against the seductions of eloquence.” But his warning does not imply that we should do without the seduction. Far from it! Because it is in the seduction that they seeds of scholarly diligence are perhaps planted. “The medium is the message” undoubtedly seduces, is it not therefore the task of media studies to educate?

References

Janurary 2003