Jul 212021

Today is the birthday (1911) of Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian philosopher whose work is one of the cornerstones of the study of media theory. McLuhan coined the expression “the medium is the message” and he was a fixture in media discourse in the late 1960s, though his influence began to wane in the early 1970s. In the years following his death, he continued to be a controversial figure in academic circles. However, with the arrival of the Internet and the World Wide Web, interest was renewed in his work and perspective. I am not going to indulge in a big song and dance number about his life’s work – which was profoundly influential – nor talk about his background. Look them up if you are interested. I am going to concentrate on “the medium is the message” and then give some amusing quotes before looking at how the medium impacts the recipe.

McLuhan’s most widely-known work, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964), is a seminal study in media theory. McLuhan famously argues that in the modern world “we live mythically and integrally…but continue to think in the old, fragmented space and time patterns of the pre-electric age.” He proposed that media themselves, not the content they carry, should be the focus of study—popularly quoted as “the medium is the message.” McLuhan’s concept was that a medium affects the society in which it plays a role not by the content delivered over the medium, but by the characteristics of the medium itself. McLuhan pointed to the light bulb as a clear demonstration of this concept. A light bulb does not have content in the way that a newspaper has articles or a television has programs, yet it is a medium that has a social effect; that is, a light bulb enables people to create spaces during nighttime that would otherwise be enveloped by darkness. He describes the light bulb as a medium without any content. McLuhan states that “a light bulb creates an environment by its mere presence.” More controversially, he postulated that content had little effect on society—in other words, it did not matter if television broadcasts children’s shows or violent programming—the effect of television on society would be identical. He noted that all media have characteristics that engage the viewer in different ways; for instance, a passage in a book could be reread at will, but a movie had to be screened again in its entirety to study any individual part of it. This dates his work, because, of course, now with streaming movies we can pick any bit we want and watch it over and over.

Let’s put things in personal (and contemporary) perspective. In 1960 the Olympics were held in Rome and I was living in South Australia. The only way we could watch anything newsworthy at that time was to view a newsreel at the cinema which was projected before the feature film. Television was not available then. Newsreels of the Olympics were weeks out of date, and contained no more than short clips of someone winning a race or making a spectacular jump. A week’s events were compressed into 2 or 3 minutes. Turn the page to the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo.

The 1964 Olympics were Japan’s opportunity to showcase its post-war culture and to emphasize its superior command of electronic technology. They were the first Olympics to be televised live – and by then South Australia had a television system, and we had a TV. Everything had changed. We used to go to the cinema once a week – a family outing. Now we had movies (old ones) every day. Our living room where the seating used to be roughly circular was now arranged to that all the seating faced the television in the corner. From then on, no matter the style of house, the seating was always focused on the television. In this respect, television transformed our living space much as McLuhan’s example of the light bulb. But there was more.

My world was completely turned upside down by this television window into the hyper-technologized Japan of the new decade. It was not simply that I was able to watch the whole of a 10 km race in real time (Ron Clarke of Australia won bronze), as opposed to just the last few seconds on a weeks-old newsreel, but I could also absorb the distinctive flavor of Japanese culture. I got completely carried away by what I saw – so much so that I began a scrapbook and journal of images of the games and of Japan, and spent many idle hours dreaming about going there (which it took me 50 years to accomplish). I also began training in sprinting, leading to a secondary school career as a track athlete. Life altering.

All that said, I am not willing to acknowledge the value of McLuhan’s analysis in any bold sense. I very much agree with Umberto Eco who argued that McLuhan’s definition and treatment of the word “medium” was simplistic and that McLuhan’s term conflates channels, codes, and messages under the overarching term of the medium, confusing the vehicle, internal code, and content of a given message in his framework. In like manner, Régis Debray takes issue with McLuhan’s envisioning of the medium. Like Eco, he too is ill at ease with this reductionist approach, summarizing its ramifications as follows:

The list of objections could be and has been lengthened indefinitely: confusing technology itself with its use of the media makes of the media an abstract, undifferentiated force and produces its image in an imaginary “public” for mass consumption; the magical naivete of supposed causalities turns the media into a catch-all and contagious “mana”; apocalyptic millenarianism invents the figure of a homo mass-mediaticus without ties to historical and social context, and so on.

Glib wordiness of this passage aside, we agree that we cannot ignore the content of a message independently of the medium. As a friend of mine in graduate school noted – in a course on symbols (paraphrased) – Hamlet is Hamlet whatever the medium. Whether in a book on a stage or in a movie, he is still that ‘to be or not to be’ guy.”

McLuhan in Annie Hall

McLuhan himself, in his own defense, argued that his words were more poetic than discursive, and should be springboards for discussion. Fine – here’s some springboards:

“I don’t necessarily agree with everything that I say.”

“Every society honors its live conformists and its dead troublemakers.”

“Our Age of Anxiety is, in great part, the result of trying to do today’s jobs with yesterday’s tools!”

“We become what we behold. We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.”

“A point of view can be a dangerous luxury when substituted for insight and understanding.”

“In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is a hallucinating idiot…for he sees what no one else does: things that, to everyone else, are not there.”

“There are no passengers on spaceship earth. We are all crew.”

“One thing about which fish know exactly nothing is water, since they have no anti-environment which would enable them to perceive the element they live in.”

“Many a good argument is ruined by some fool who knows what he is talking about.”

“Politics will eventually be replaced by imagery.
The politician will be only too happy to abdicate
in favor of his image, because the image will
be much more powerful than he could ever be.”
[For the era of Reagan and Trump]

“the only people who have proof of their sanity are those who have been discharged from mental institutions”

Let’s be McLuhan-esque with today’s recipe. How do you prefer to learn a new recipe – orally from a friend? from a cookbook? or from a YouTube video? Here’s two of the three for Mrs Beeton’s tea-cakes.

Which one works for you? Note that the video has no spoken words. How does it make you feel?

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