Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Medium is the Massage

Visually stimulating, Marshall McLuhan’s study The Medium is the Massage is, in a word, cool. When I purchased this little cool book back in April, I was working on a research paper dealing with the “electronic church” and how televising religious phenomenon undermines the meaning and the message of that phenomenon which I titled “The Falcon Cannot Hear the Falconer,” which I thought was clever.[1] It seemed like a book that would be popular among indy kids because of its cult status and coolness as well as for people like me who hate television, though McLuhan doesn’t seem to think TV is all that bad of thing. In this regard, I am more attune with Neil Postman’s book Amusing Ourselves to Death and, of course, DFW’s essay “E Unibus Pluram” but I do find this book to be informative and stimulating. It works in this way, by being stimulating and informative, the book which incorporates the work of graphic designer Quinton Fiore into the body of the text mimics the medium it is critiquing, critiquing in a more favorable way than I should like, probably. That is also sort of why I didn’t like it, I am sure, since I don’t think a book must resemble television to be relevant or popular, not to say that was really the intention of McLuhan, which it wasn’t, but I think its intention was to overwhelm us, if I am not mistaken, in the way that television overwhelms us. But as a product of a television culture, I don’t think anything can overwhelm us sensually. This is most likely the product of always living in a television culture as opposed to McLuhan’s “Age of Anxiety” where our mental faculties, at present that is, are much better equipped to sift the constant bombardment of images—it is all we know. The “mind control”[2] like images are well within our ability to handle.

In regards to the name of the book, the “Massage” here is not a typo on my part; it was actually a mistake on the part of the typesetter who originally made the mistake of setting the e in “message” to an a thus “massage.” When showed the mistake, McLuhan was reportedly thrilled with the typo since the book deals with the effect media has on all our sensory perceptions.[3] As McLuhan says “All media work us over completely. They are so pervasive in their personal, political, economic, aesthetic, psychological, moral, ethical, and social consequences that they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected, unaltered.”[4]

One of the main themes McLuhan explores in the text is the idea of a global community with the world becoming a smaller, more media dependent place as technology evolves and becomes more accessible to the world at large. He pretty much considers this a good thing, something I for the most part disagree with since this is somewhat presumptuous of us to assume everyone in the world want this—I mean this type of invasion was one of the reasons the media savvy Al Qaeda cited among others for the 9/11 attacks.[5] Such is the nature of community that determine and develop who we are. Children, for example, are no longer raised by only their parents, nor are they solely the products of their immediate surroundings, as McLuhan illustrates, technology means that “all the world’s a sage.”[6] He adds “electric circuitry has overthrown the regime of ‘time’ and ‘space’ and pours upon us instantly and continuously the concerns of all other men. It has reconstituted dialogue on a global scale. Its message is Total Change, ending psychic, social, economic, and political parochialism… Nothing can be further from the spirit of the new technology than ‘a place for everything and everything in its place.’ You can’t go home again.”[7] This comes in 1967, a full two and half decades before the internet totally obliterated the need for the two as we can now carry our information and community with us in high-speed-global-networking with technology allowing us instant access to all the world’s entertainment at any time and at any place, whenever we choose, 24/7/365, from “womb-to-tomb.” [8]

One of the areas McLuhan’s media theory is most genius and spot-on is with the idea that “all media are extensions of some human faculty—psychic or physical.”[9] According to this theory, the wheel is an extension of the foot, just as the book is to the eye, clothing to the skin, electric circuitry is to the central nervous system and so on. I do agree with this assessment, however, this has the potentially scary implications that McLuhan seems to think more positive than I could ever admit writing “Media, by altering the environment, evoke in us unique ratios of sense [perceptions. The extension of any one sense alters the way we think and act—the way we perceive the world. When these ratios change, men change.”[10] The reason he sees these as being good things, and superior to gaining knowledge through “book learning,” is because they compel, according to him, people to interact with the medium and with others. Books, on the other hand, he believes are opposed to social interaction since they are read typically alone by solitary individuals and thus isolate and alienate the individual. I tend to agree that being a reader does alienate from others who are more of the television watching variety and I do believe that this is the product of new technology that has made our literature far less relevant, but I think this is a very negative development and instead of producing a more intelligent/connected community, in this case global, in its vastness in its bombardment of fragmented/contextless information, it destroys the real sense of community people once shared with their family and neighbors and classmates and coworkers because in this world of internet and television and cell phone and email dominance, the individual is left even more alone and silent only knowing a machine while fooling themselves into thinking they are actually part of a real community.

So when McLuhan, whose book I really like and agree with in terms of how we are shaped by our media though I am critical of some of his interpretation of their effects on modern society, makes statements like “[mass culture is] a world of total involvement in which everybody is so profoundly involved with everybody else and in which nobody can really imagine what private guilt can be anymore”[11] and “information pours upon us, instantaneously and continuously” and “as soon as information is acquired, it is very rapidly replaced by still newer information “ and “our electrically-configured world has forced us to move from the habit of data classification to the mode of pattern recognition”[12] to illustrate that they are preferable to the old way of reading outright, I have to say he misses an important characteristic of mass culture and fails to see the significance of life that was known more fully and intimately before the whole technological revolution that is a product far newer than we can imagine with mass media having always been a part of our lives. In his view, people are unhappy because they are trying to use “outdated mental and psychological responses”[13] in order to experience and make since of the world which is complete horseshit. What would he have us do than, give up on such concepts as family and instead let our televisions, or worse yet, the internet, raise a child so things like love and understanding don’t get in the way of development in this postmodern, media addicted hyper-reality.

This idea, less naive than insane and twisted, also carries over into other areas of our lives such as our work and especially our education. To McLuhan, “today’s television child is attuned to up-to-the-minute ‘adult’ news… and is bewildered when he enters the nineteenth-century environment where information is scarce but ordered and structured by fragmented, classified patterns, subjects, and schedules.”[14] Here, again, one has to wonder what he would have us do about it, accommodate the child who he says is “growing up absurd” by integrating our educational system with technology, which is what has happened, and you have a media savvy little kid who can give you a lot of facts but you sacrifice theory and breadth in doing so. Of the television generation—i.e. those who are more or less raised by the set—he does say they are “a grim bunch”[15] but not for the reasons that one might expect. In this rare instance when he is somewhat critical of television but this is more of the crap being produced on it than of the medium itself, a development I found surprising considering the book is about media effects and such saying that “commercials” are the best reflection of understanding the medium since in them “there simply is no time for the narrative form, borrowed from earlier print technology.”[16] With that, he seems to be saying that we should embrace the fact that the medium and stuff we watch on TV is necessarily short and viewer friendly. However, he does make mention the medium in a somewhat critical way at least (and for as far as I can recall only) once when he talks about what is on the old tube, which he sort of defends saying “The environment as a processor of information is propaganda. Propaganda ends where dialogue begins.” Thus in this assessment, the television medium has the potential to be a negative that reinforces itself self-referentially in that when used to process and distill information, it enforces its cultural authority simply by its own design, a design that I argue inhibits us from true dialogue. However, in a hate-the-sin-love-the-sinner type argument, he tells us defends television content wise by writing “You must talk to the media, not to the programmer. To talk to the programmer is like complaining to a hot dog vendor at a ballpark about how badly your favorite team is playing”[17] Despite the terrible and somewhat misleading analogy, he does have a point, yet he undermines it with the fact that most of what he has to say about the medium of television is overwhelmingly optimistic and even goes so far as to defend it against critics who miss the significance of the medium itself.

The defense, which I completely agree with in terms of theory but again disagree in terms of the way we see the results that are more or less the same in both of our assessments, illustrates his deep understanding of the television medium and also how he believes in it. Responding to a 1965 cartoon from The New Yorker with the caption “When you consider television’s awesome power to educate, aren’t you thankful that it doesn’t,” it states the following:

The main cause for disappointment in and for criticism of television is the failure on the part of its critics to view it as a totally new technology which demands different sensory responses. These critics insist on regarding television as merely a degraded form of print technology… Critics of television have failed to realize that the motion pictures they are lionizing… would prove unacceptable as mass audience films if the audience had not been preconditioned by television commercials to abrupt zooms, elliptical editing, no story lines, flash cuts.

With this, assuming as it does that we actually prefer this medium because we conditioned to it, it is clear he is much more optimistic and far less critical of the medium than I am as a born, nay, conditioned cynic, which is true of most technology, I would imagine.

88 My own upbringing and subsequent adult life resulting from that upbringing, has virtually lacked all forms of mass culture, thus I am more adept than most at assessing and critiquing that culture, according to McLuhan, so maybe I have something here. He writes that “whoever sharpens our perception tends to be antisocial; rarely ‘well-adjusted,’ he cannot go along with currents and trends. A strange bond often exists among antisocial types in their power to see environments as they really are.”[18] This may account for our differences in the way we perceive media effects—I am rather far from away from being “well-adjusted” and pride myself on being an individual immune to trends of fashion or thought or whatever—as I do have a decent ability to see things “as they really are,” or so I am told. Maybe I could be sort of like the Tocqueville of mass media or something; but that is a world I choose not to visit—or spend very much time in anyway. I don’t think I will ever conform to it because it is something I cannot imagine really finding pleasure in, thus to suddenly spend time watching and learning from a culture that I am thoroughly uninterested in would be paradoxical and lose for me the status of amateur. Don’t get me wrong, I do watch the occasional program and spend a lot of time thinking about them, Lost would be the best example here, but I never get my news from the box, preferring print media to all others with NPR a distant second and relegated to time commuting to and from work in my car—but even that is only when there are no good songs on the alternative station and ESPN radio is talking about I sport I don’t care about like baseball. And I never connect with or through that culture—about the only thing I can talk about and sustain a decent conversation in is in the world of books, which are clearly very important to me. But as uninterested as I am in television culture, I am interested a thousand times more so in media theory, which some find dissonant, however, all of the great media theorists in my mind are those that McLuhan would call “antisocial” in that they go against the popular grain and choose to live outside the box that dominates American discourse. Such greats, to me at least are the likes of DFW and Jonathan Franzen (neither of whom are media theorists per se but deal with television culture as a whole) and Francis Wheen and Neil Postman, and none of them share McLuhan’s optimism. In fact, those writers are as or even more critical of the culture than I am.

With all of that said, I think McLuhan is a genius and I think this work is genius even though I tend to disagree with some of the outcomes he sees from the visual medium so a part of our lives. Plus I find the concept thoroughly interesting and engaging—the collage type images and words mingled in book form—and think it well worth anyone’s time reading. Some of the most memorable images from the book, which I will close by discussing, are one that depicts a sculpture of a giant woman with people around it to give its size some perspective and an image of women sewing onto a quilt the phrase “Keep into circulation the rumor that God is alive.” The first image, depicting a woman 82-feet-long and 20-feet-high that is titled “The Biggest and Best Woman in the World”, is interesting because it shows that you can walk around inside her, entering through the vagina like sperm. The concept and picture, of which all I can say is it is cool and interesting, are intriguing and make you think about the strangeness of modern art. The second image, which references Nietzsche’s famous “God is dead” is meant to be ironic I think. I am not sure what these women who are quilting the piece are motivated by or intending to convey—I suspect that they are suggesting people still have a need for church even though technology has made God unnecessary or killed Him/Her or whatever. Regardless, it is very apparent that the “the groundrule of [our] universe,” namely God, “upon which so much of our Western world is built, has dissolved”[19] and this quilt is meant as a representation of that fact. And it is for this reason and for making connection impossible that I find our media so toxic. Because even if religion is a fiction, I believe it is a necessary one for most of us, and keeping that in circulation can actually be a good thing so long as it is not tied in with the status quo, which means reinforcing that infernal piece of furniture.

See also:

[1] The title derives from the William Butler Yeats poem “The Second Coming” which is one of my favorite poems. In this second line of the poem, Yeats uses the falconer and falcon as metaphors for man (or woman) and technological advancement respectively. Man’s inability to call forth the product of its own imagination to control its message is the point of using this as a title. So it is clever.
[2] It kind of reminded me of the “Reorientation Film” that poor bastard Carl had to watch in ABC’s Lost which moved by at breakneck speeds and flashed words and images on the screen. I am like 99% sure that the show’s director had this book in mind when creating the montage. In fact, Jeff Jensen of Entertainment Weekly claims to have been given “secret documents” that suggest McLuhan’s work had even more influence on the show than with this one instance giving a version of the DHARMA Initiative’s mission statement, a mission statement I have never seen, that goes into specific detail about the effect of this work on the good old DI which can be found here. Plus there is a reference to mathematician Michael Faraday, the name of the guy that Lost’s Daniel Faraday gets his name from.
[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_medium_is_the_message
[4] Marshall McLuhan, The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects, (Corte Madera, CA: Gingko Press, 1967), p. 26.
[5] http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2002/nov/24/theobserver
[6] McLuhan, The Medium is the Massage, p. 14.
[7] Ibid.. p. 16.
[8] Ibid.. p. 12.
[9] Ibid.. p. 26.
[10] Ibid.. p. 41.
[11] Ibid.. p. 61.
[12] Ibid.. p. 63.
[13] Ibid.. p. 63.
[14] Ibid.. p. 18.
[15] Ibid.. p. 126.
[16] Ibid.. p. 126.
[17] Ibid.. p. 142.
[18] Ibid.. p. 88.
[19] Ibid , p. 146.

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