Understanding McLuhan

Marshall McLuhan broke into the world of communication theory in 1964 with his equally heralded and deplored third book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. In a single brilliant, maddening work, McLuhan, a Toronto-based English professor, tried to capture the entirety of mankind’s history and every major development in communication and media, which to McLuhan represents everything from spoken language to the electric light bulb. In McLuhan’s world, development doesn’t come quietly, but in the forms of explosions that rock the world and carry humans toward more change.

Subtlety is not one of McLuhan’s strong suits–on this both his celebrants and detractors can certainly agree. To him, everything is an explosion, and even the smallest, most seemingly insignificant things are of great importance. One of  McLuhan;s most profound observations is that all our inventions and media technologies are “extensions of man” that not only change the old world order, but also interact and conflict with each other. To me, that seems an interesting summation of the underlying premise of this seminar and most writing on media: That they are not just inorganic tools, but rather means of expanding our nervous systems and thought processes beyond our immediate physical space and creating the possibility of previously unimagined connections.

Of course, as the passages we read today from Understanding Media and The Gutenberg Galaxy amply demonstrate, reading McLuhan and understand his arguments is no easy task (hence his jokey cameo in Annie Hall, which had audiences in 1977 rolling but flies right over the heads of my students today). McLuhan writes in a kind of rampant, flowing prose that is filled with endless technical jargon, repetition, and contradictions. Although his writing has a nice, rhythmic flow to it, the words contained in the sentences often make little or no sense. His style of writing (and confusing the reader, some would say) is so unique that it has garnered its own term: “McLuhanese.” His jargon, which contains words and phrases such as “overheated media,” “configuration,” “detribalization,” and “cross-fertilization,” have come to be known as “McLuhanisms.”

The basic premise of Understanding Media is the constant development of new media — especially electronic media — and how those affect man. Because McLuhan sees these media as extensions of man, they have great and lasting effects, not only on mankind himself, but also on the environment he lives in. The bottom line, though, is that  “The medium is the message.” To McLuhan, what is said and how it is said is not nearly as important as what medium carries that message. As he puts it, “This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium — that is, an extension of ourselves — result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology” (203). A few paragraphs later, he writes, “the ‘content’ of any medium is always another medium” (203). This would seem to suggest that there really is no actual content, just media within media, a concept of the utmost importance because the media are our inventions, which we cannot separate from ourselves because they are merely extensions of our own bodies.

In some ways, this assertion makes sense; in other ways it doesn’t. Every media scholar will admit that the medium has a profound impact on the message it carries. The same message carried through a newspaper and a television screen can often have much different effects. Reading about a horribly violent event is never as affecting as actually watching it, yet it is the same content. But, this is not far enough for McLuhan. To him, the medium is everything because media creates new environments which change man’s perceptions. History is nothing but a series of technological revolutions that constantly add more extensions to man and transform his life.

Sorry–I just couldn’t help including this clip.