The Medium is the Massage 1 [The Trenchant Edges]
Quick and dirty
Welcome back to The Trenchant Edges, which I’m rushing out after six hours of unexpected phone calls with a couple of dear friends that, in fact, couldn’t wait.
So, yadda yadda, we do deep dives into fringe subjects.
We’re still on our McLuhan kick and since the time I set aside for writing this went to freakish socializing, today’s going to be pretty short and unpolished.
Marshall McLuhan’s most well known book is 1967’s The Medium is the Massage, which consists of a mix of funky typography and what McLuhan called “Probes”.
Probes are, basically, somewhere halfway between hot takes and aphorisms.
Statements that can be unpacked and recontextualized however the reader likes. Which has produced no shortage of McLuhan interpreters.
The book itself fits nicely in pockets and is only about 150 pages. My copy happily informs me that it costs $1.45.
It’s kind of a mess of quotes, mostly from Alfred North Whitehead with a little James Joyce and Meister Eckhart on the side.
So let’s dive into some of the things McLuhan says:
“The environment as a processor of information is propaganda. Propaganda ends where the dialogue begins. 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 doing.”
Earlier in the book, McLuhan describes technology as extensions of humanity’s senses and body, so media are extensions of our sight, hearing, and imagination. Which makes his statement here pretty odd. I have no idea what he means by it.
But the idea that propaganda is pre-processed information just strewn about so people catch on it seems very on point.
Propaganda is dead information, dialogue is information living between living beings.
So how can you dialogue with television or radio? Or even books.
And then I look at my hands typing this and remember that I’m writing in part to discover what I already know or believe. Is this what he’s talking about? Taking an active role in the creation of media, to let it shape your thoughts and to attempt to reshape them in a more coherent form?
I have no idea.
“Real, total war has become information war. It is being fought by subtle electric informational media- under cold conditions, and constantly. The cold war is the real front- a surround-involving everybody- all the time- everywhere. whenever hot wars are necessary these days we conduct them in the backyards of the world wit the old technologies. These wars are happenings, tragic games. It is no longer convenient, or suitable, to use the latest technologies for fighting our wars, because the latest technologies have rendered war meaningless. The Hydrogen bomb is history’s exclamation point. It ends an age-long sentence of manifest violence.”
Here we have a mix of ahead of his time observations about information warfare (or out of date, if you count Sun Tzu) and the kind of European chauvinism that runs through a lot of McLuhan’s work. Not surprising from a classicist, but nevertheless problematic. We’ll have more to say on the subject when we get to the Gutenberg Galaxy.
Barfing forth apolocaptica, McLuhan writes a eulogy for the era a decade or two ahead of the time he wrote this.
Let’s do one more before I crash.
“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. The medium is the massage. Any understanding of social and cultural change is impossible without a knowledge of the way media work as environments.
I think the big point here is that our technologies change us. They make us think in their terms and with their metaphors. So much of 20th century thought can be traced to popular culture trying to parse the scientific and technological myths of the age. From Newtonian physics at the beginning to computers and information theory at the end.
Everything gets shuffled around when new big patterns are found.
I don’t think McLuhan’s strong technological determinism here is exactly right. It’s closer to say our media deform and distort us rather than working us over entirely.
It’s more of a dialectical back and forth. The way a song will develop a theme and play variations of it building to a climax.
A messy process, at least.
McLuhan’s most famous phrase about the medium being the massage is about how the habits of thought and perception conducive to using the medium shape individuals and societies far more than any content the medium might transmit.
And that’s all for today.
I’ll be 34 in 22 hours and 30 minutes.