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?

May 232013
 

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qoung tart tea room

On this day in 1889 Louisa Lawson, Australian campaigner for women’s rights, poet, and mother of Australian poet Henry Lawson, founded the Dawn Club at a meeting at Forresters Hall, Sydney. It was one of the earliest clubs to discuss women’s rights, especially the right to vote.  It was an outgrowth of her journal, Dawn

After the inaugural event, meetings were commonly held in one of Quong Tart’s tea rooms. Tea rooms at the time were popular places to meet and have tea with light snacks and pastries of all sorts.  Quong Tart was a tea and silk merchant from China, and his tea rooms were spectacular. A popular meeting place for the Dawn club was the Loong Shan Tea Giyse at 137 King Street, Sydney. It was his grandest tea room, with marble fountains and ponds with golden carp. Upstairs was a reading room and large meeting hall.

These quotes are from her speech at the inauguration of The Dawn Club:

“Now as we have no time to be elaborate or diffuse, we must be methodical, and we will take first the reasons why women claim the right to vote; and then we will pick up the objections one by one and turn them inside out to show their entire vacuity, and finally review briefly what women are doing now in other countries (in order to show how woefully we in New South Wales are behind the times).”

“The whole principle of the Justice of the woman’s vote agitation may be compressed into a question: Who ordained that men only should make the laws to which both men and women have to conform?”

“Men tell us we are responsible for the home and education of children, that the morals of society are in our keeping; they have bound our hands and placed us in the front rank of the battle”

“I see a new heaven and a new earth . . . brother and sister standing shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart in the great fight for right, truth and justice, for better laws, for better protection to our sons and daughters, for better and purer homes.”

The self-governing British colony of South Australia gave women the right to vote and, furthermore, enabled women to stand for the colonial parliament in 1894, well before any European nation, and only a year behind New Zealand, first in the world.  The Commonwealth of Australia federated in 1901, with women voting and standing for office in some states. The Australian Federal Parliament extended voting rights to all adult women for Federal elections from 1902 (with the exception of Aboriginal women in some states). Catherine Helen Spence stood for office in 1897 in South Australia (unsuccessfully), a first for the modern world.

Tea rooms were originally set up in the Western world by tea merchants so that people could taste the many varieties of tea on offer.  Dainties typically accompanies the tea sampling.  Soon they grew into places of social gathering with more elaborate foods on offer, sometimes even full meals.  Many had meeting rooms for large gatherings. Quong Tart’s tea rooms had meeting rooms for up to 500 people.

Let me take this opportunity to correct an error that is a royal pet peeve of mine. People in the U.S. and restaurants there continue to perpetuate the error that afternoon tea with little sandwiches and fancy cakes is “high tea” thinking “high” in this context means “regal” or lofty.  It is not.  High tea is the opposite of afternoon tea.  It refers historically (and to a degree now) to a full dinner eaten by working class families directly after returning from work, and by children who ate their dinner early because they were too young to eat with the adults.  There is some debate as to the meaning of the word “high” here. Some people say it is in contrast to low tea, based not on quality, but on the height of the tables. High tea was eaten at a high table, low tea at a low table (like a coffee table).  Others believe it refers to the early hour it was eaten (5:30 to 6 pm), related to the meanings  of “high” in “high time” or “high noon.”  Whatever the reason, STOP USING “HIGH TEA” TO REFER TO AFTERNOON TEA!!!

I’m giving a recipe for classic English tea cakes today, to have for afternoon tea. They’re a bit like a scone except they are raised with yeast.  Typically you eat them fresh from the oven. If you have leftovers you can cut them in half, and brown the cut faces under a broiler.  Then slather them with butter.  This recipe is nice and spicy.  The ‘mixed spice’ of British cookery is primarily used in sweet baking, similar to France’s sweet quatre-épices. It typically incorporates powdered cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves and allspice in equal parts. In this case because cinnamon and nutmeg are already in the ingredient list I would add a pincheach of ginger, cloves, and allspice.

English Tea Cakes

Ingredients:

13oz (375g) strong white bread flour
½ tsp sea salt flakes, lightly crushed
¼oz (7g)  fast-action dried yeast
1 tsp ground mixed spice
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
½ orange, zest only, chopped fine
1¾oz (50g) caster sugar
1¾oz (50g) unsalted butter, cubed
5fl oz (150ml) 2% milk
1 egg, beaten
4½oz (125g) mixed dried fruit
sunflower oil, for greasing

Instructions:

Mix the flour, salt, yeast, spices, orange zest and sugar in a large bowl.

Put the butter and milk in a small saucepan and heat very gently until the butter is melted and the milk is just lukewarm. Remove from the heat and whisk in the egg. Make sure the milk and butter mix is lukewarm only, otherwise it will scramble the egg and kill the yeast.

Make a well in the center of the flour mixture and pour in the warm butter, milk and egg. Stir with a wooden spoon until the mixture forms a ball.

Turn out on a very lightly floured surface and knead for five minutes to form a smooth, pliable dough. Knead the fruit into the dough until evenly distributed, then place the dough in a lightly greased bowl. Cover loosely with a tea towel and leave to rise in a warm place for 1½ hours, or until doubled in size and spongy to touch.

Knead the dough lightly, divide into six portions and roll into balls. Using a rolling pin, flatten each ball to a circle about ½in (1cm) thick and place on a large baking tray lined with baking parchment. Cover with a tea towel and leave to rise for a further 45 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C). Remove the tea towel and bake the teacakes in the center of the oven for 15-18 minutes, or until well risen and golden-brown. Serve warm, cut in half and spread thickly with butter.

Yield: 6 teacakes