Lecture 7: The wacky words of Marshall McLuhan Or “The Medium is the Message”MS 2900 Exploring Media TheoryUniversity of WinchesterDr Marcus Leaning
This week we are going to look at the work of the Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan. McLuhan is very famous and his work has been influential in Media Studies. While McLuhan‟s work lost ground for a number of years, since the advent of the internet it has gained in popularity again. Marshall McLuhan 1911-1980
Even though he died before it got going McLuhan‟s work prove to be amazingly prescient regarding the internet and new media. He foresaw and predicted many of the changes that we have seen in recent years. Moreover his work seems to offer great insights into the power of media technology.
McLuhan is a „Formalist‟. Early media theory was strongly concerned with media technology - does specific technology cause change in a society? As the field developed interest shifted to the „meaning‟ of texts – not technology but what (and how) texts mean that is significant. We can broadly divide media studies into: ◦ Those who think the type of media technology is important – „Formalists‟ ◦ Those who think the content and how meaning is made is important – „Culturalists‟
The formalist approach, focussing upon the qualities of the media, finds its strongest support in the work of Mcluhan. McLuhan‟s ideas informed a broad swath of theories within the embryonic field of media studies. Culturalist approaches see culture as more important. They came to dominate media studies for a long time - media and cultural studies became linked. But the Formalists, using McLuhan and later Baudrillard have mounted a fresh attack.
Attended University of Manitoba, got BA in 1933 and MA in 1934, both in English Literature. Went to Cambridge and got another BA in 1936, started doing graduate work but got a job as a teaching assistant at the University of Wisconsin. Got his PhD from Cambridge in 1942. Had lecturing jobs in ◦ St Louis, ◦ Assumption College in Ontario, ◦ University of Toronto – key figure in the Toronto School Married in 1939 had 6 children.
The Mechanical Bride (1951) The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) Understanding Media (1964) The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects (1967) War and Peace in the Global Village (1968) From Cliché to Archetype (1970) Laws of Media (1988) (published posthumously by his son). Started the journal Explorations.
Converted to Catholicism in 1937. Studied under the psychologist and theorist I. Richards and the literary theorist F.R. Leavis at Cambridge. Worked with Harold Innis at Toronto. All these aspects can be considered to have influenced his work.
His work is a little bit odd. It does not read like normal academic text, he used what he called “the mosaic style” short chapters that can be read in any order – a bit like a hypertext. His work is full of pithy little statements such as “the medium is the message” and later “the medium is the massage” that make sense in the wider body of his theory but which seem to lack much rigour. It is very much of its time, wacky 60s counter culture. McLuhan was very popular and a key figure in US popular counter-cultural life and was visited by many leading cultural figures, the Beatles and he had a cameo in the Woody Allen film Anne Hall.
McLuhan started out in English literature, he followed F.R. Leavis‟ lead and started to examine not only literary texts, the traditional subject of study but also other media texts, like adverts. His first major book, the Mechanical Bride was on advertising, the first time anyone had studied adverts as texts.
From this position he the content of a medium developed the idea that is like the juicy piece of it was not the content of meat carried by the media that is important but the form or burglar to distract the technology of the media, watchdog of the he turned inwards. mind...The effects of He began to argue that technology do not occur technology and at the level of opinions or specifically media leads concepts, but alter sense to great cultural ratios or patterns of changes. perception steadily and without resistance. (1964)
McLuhan proposed a schema that divided human history into four distinct technologically orientated „ages‟ or epochs; ◦ an oral/primitive age in which the dominant sense was aural, ◦ a literate age in which the visual sense gained some importance as visual artefacts rose in importance, ◦ a print age which the visual sense dominated, ◦ an electronic age in which other senses begin to play a greater part.
McLuhan is understood to argue that the system of media technology that dominated each age, auditory, textual, print and electronic played a considerable part in structuring human experience. Media technology operates as the „prime mover‟ in structuring human interaction and experience of the world.
Of the various ages it is the „print age‟ with which McLuhan has the greatest reservations as the sensory lives of individuals living within it were fragmented and impoverished.
The electronic age is understood to offer salvation as it offered a new more diverse and multi-sensory environment. We use more of our senses with „multi- media‟ than we did with any other singular media form. And using more senses is good, it makes us more true to our natural state.
Against this rather spurious historical framework McLuhan developed various other theoretical ides.
The idea that all media borrow; ◦ systems, ◦ techniques, ◦ styles ◦ social significance from previous forms of media. All media is essentially remediation, new combinations of old things.
At Toronto McLuhan worked with the economic historia Harold Innis. Innis argued that some media are related to time, they are time based, clay tablets, vellum, - they last a long time but only reach a limited number of people because they are hard to transport while others are space based, newspapers and other ephemera – don‟t last long but move through space and reach many people. McLuhan worked from this idea that media work in different ways. Indeed media work with the senses or functions of the body. Media extend these functions of bits of the body.
The notion that all technologies in some way seek to extend the capabilities and senses of humans. ◦ “ All media are extensions of some human faculty-psychic or physical… The wheel is an extension of the foot. The book is an extension of the eye...clothing, an extension of the skin...electric circuitry, an extension of the central nervous system.” Marshall McLuhan & Quentin Fiore, The Medium is the Massage, (NY: Bantam) 1967, ps. 26-41. McLuhan proposes that the „extension of senses‟ radically changes the experience of the world and accordingly culture of those involved. Thus developments in technology bring about changes in cultural form.
McLuhan proposes that rather than focus upon the content of media attention should focus upon the „form‟ in which it is delivered. It is the form of media rather than its specific content that has the power to structure relations and human action. New forms of media bring about new forms of interpersonal interaction and it is this that McLuhan contends that we should be focusing upon.
With the shift from visual to electronic media societies will change. We will lose the individual fragmented nature of print culture and enter a new age of the Global village – a shared group mind. But this is not a good thing as systems of control will be deep seated in the world.
Various ways McLuhan ahs been criticised. He is not empirical, no real evidence, just theory. His work is very un-provable and un-testable. ◦ How do we know media are the extensions of man? ◦ What experiment could prove this?
His account of the development of media is completely at odds with verifiable history. Seems nice but takes lots of liberties with historical data. ◦ Is it universal? ◦ Do all societies follow this path? ◦ Just western ones?
Problems with his theory being „normative‟ it takes certain conditions and says they are how things „should‟ be. Heavily criticised by disability theorists, are we lees of a person for not having all the senses? ◦ Are blind people not as „human‟ as the rest of us? Based on rather questionable ideas – related to his faith – talks of soul and the idea of perfectibility is deeply woven into his work.
Does technology really determine our society? Does it do it because it extends a sense?
McLuhan is a very interesting figure and his work has been re-evaluated after some years of neglect. Has had a significant effect – new formalism an interesting development. But it‟s of its time and very wacky, while interesting it is hard to really evaluate. Has some rather problematic issues at its core.