The Importance of McLuhan’s “Medium” – Two Translations

Queenscliff Lighthouse (Queenscliff, Australia) by Lachlan Manley Photography. Sourced: Pinterest

During the year that has just reached its conclusion (2017) I had come to think that I would not need Marshall McLuhan in my priority reading. He seems to have become, in the world of media studies, old-fashioned. It feels that the sound of “technological determinism” is rather sickening for many critical thinkers in humanities because the image of technology is full of neoliberal spectacle and its ghosts of exploitation.

But in the last days I have picked up again his well-known Understanding Media. The Extensions of Man (the 1964 version). McLuhan’s texts are first of all texts of great confidence as he speaks from the positions of arts and cultural studies, but this confidence is not in vogue today. We rather think in terms of resistance, interventions, “hacking” and so on. As McLuhan admitted, his book was written in the faith – “a faith that concerns the ultimate harmony of all being” [1].

We should not dismiss McLuhan’s work because it continues to be a revealing, stimulating, and yes, creative and liberating worldview – useful for cultural practice. What I can gather from McLuhan’s politico-cultural analysis is two translations that expand the very approach to “media” while, of course, he is associated with “media” and while it has – also – become a widespread everyday notion. Knowing his formula: the Medium is the Message, how to understand the implied importance of medium/ media?

Firstly, “media” as totality of everything. This is the ecological and unitary medium of all forms of existence. Indeed, that vision of “harmony” must be linked to the aspiration for embracing the medium, the aspiration for comprehension. It comes to mind how exhilarating was the perception of technological audio-visual communication media by artists in the 1960s and 70s. That was an experience of “the life” itself – technological abilities were about tapping into the energy. A couple of years of ago I looked into Bush Video (1973-1975) artists’ memories which showed  – for them this energy was somewhat mystic, but therefore also enormously attractive and potent.

Alas, the human experience gets trapped in the focus on technology, its specifics, parameters, updates, and (new) limitations. But everything IS connected. McLuhan has famously pictured the electronic epoch of culture: “as electrically contracted, the globe is no more than a village” [2] – but what if we think about the connectedness that ultimately reveals how “small” our world is, and the supremacy of what is Nature? As Paul Davies explains in Other Worlds, the electromagnetic force is the one that determines all forms of chemical life for us (there are also gravity, and two nuclear forces: weak and strong yet these are not sufficient for life); this is just our definition of “life” [3]. Besides, as he noted – “living systems are examples of organised matter and energy at extreme levels of complexity, but no boundary exists between the living and non-living” [4].

So it is reasonable to avoid drawing separation within understanding of life. One example is chaos theory which goes beyond studying the “living systems.” It appears that “the extensions of man” – for McLuhan – are intentional processes for locating this wider physical space on individual and group level of consciousness, primarily, as this connectedness is echoed with modern “electric technology.” That was an aspiration for the state of empathy.

Secondly, “media” as multiplicity. This is the question of a medium, especially in relation to the social sphere, here – everything is media. The whole book Understanding Media was basically looking at various examples of cultural media (also to be understood as technologies) – clothing, housing, ads, weapons, television, radio, games, movies, comics and others. For McLuhan, media is not about content. These appear as concepts. And it feels that it is important for the understanding of media to clear it from the contents of “good” or “bad” criticisms. “For electric light and power are separate from their uses,” he wrote [5]. This understanding should rather place the focus on the effects of a medium and then – scrutiny and/or instrumentalization.

McLuhan’s analysis – his somewhat quirky narratives of these various media in human history – liberates one from the tension, the materiality of negativity and it becomes interesting to explore: what is a particular form of media (McLuhan’s own list is only a small selection for potential analysis), and then, what can be done with a particular concept?

Interesting parallels can emerge. Art and sport – both as social / group practices. Linked through the concept of games, sport is popular games, art is like games. McLuhan wrote: “Art and games need rules, conventions, and spectators. They must stand forth from the over-all situation as models of it in order for the quality of play to persist;” and continued: artistic play modeled situations that were not yet matured, and thus it was “ahead of its time.” [8]. McLuhan  sought to emphasize the study of media patterns – the opposite to their contents, the importance of / differences in the senses and means employed. In the context of this approach we have to address art as a social technique rather than “artworlds;” it is necessary to look at it through the possibilities as a medium.

Image: Queenscliff Lighthouse (Queenscliff, Australia) by Lachlan Manley Photography. Sourced: Pinterest

[1] Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media. The Extensions of Man (1964), critical edition, edited by W. Terrence Gordon (2003), Berkeley, CA: Ginko Press, 2015, 7.

[2] Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media. The Extensions of Man (1964), critical edition, edited by W. Terrence Gordon, Berkeley (2003), CA: Ginko Press, 2015, 6.

[3] Paul Davies, Other Worlds: Space, Superspace and the Quantum Universe (1980), London: Penguin Books, 1988, 148.

[4] Paul Davies, Other Worlds: Space, Superspace and the Quantum Universe (1980), London: Penguin Books, 1988, 147

[5] Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media. The Extensions of Man (1964), critical edition, edited by W. Terrence Gordon, Berkeley (2003), CA: Ginko Press, 2015, 21.

[6] Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media. The Extensions of Man (1964), critical edition, edited by W. Terrence Gordon, Berkeley (2003), CA: Ginko Press, 2015, 324.

[7] Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media. The Extensions of Man (1964), critical edition, edited by W. Terrence Gordon, Berkeley (2003), CA: Ginko Press, 2015, 324.

[8] Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media. The Extensions of Man (1964), critical edition, edited by W. Terrence Gordon, Berkeley (2003), CA: Ginko Press, 2015, 322, 325.

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