Table of Contents
Of course, McLuhan began in medias res, in the middle of things. This is what Horace says of the blind poet Homer, that he "hastens into the action and plunges the hearer into the middle of things." For Homer, who was the product of a nonliterate culture, beginning in the middle was common sense. Not only would it grab the attention of his audience, but it also matched their experience as listeners.
As McLuhan taught us, sound comes to us from all directions at once, surrounding us. The hearing subject is therefore situated in the center of acoustic space, in the middle of the aural ecosystem. The experience of the reader is entirely different. The fixed gaze can only focus on one fragment of the visual field at a time. We move from letter to letter, word to word, line to line. And we learn to read our environment as if it were a book. We become voyeurs, outsiders looking in, occupying an objective position and objectifying what we see.
With the power of this alien vision, we can reorder the world and impose a linear structure. In this way, McLuhan could determine that the shift from ear to eye began with writing over five millennia ago, reached its peak with the invention of the printing press some five centuries ago, and came to an end with television about five decades ago.
The history of civilization is the story of the war between the ear and the eye. It is an epic tale that Homer would have been proud to sing of. McLuhan would no doubt have been amused to learn that one small skirmish is being fought by Fordham, the battle lines drawn along Southern Boulevard in the Bronx. There, a stone's throw from his old office stands WFUV's half-completed radio tower, its construction halted by legal action on the part of our neighbor, the Bronx Botanical Gardens. The tower is an electronic extension of the ear, a mass hearing aid. But to the Botanical Gardens it is also an eyesore, a tower of babble marring their picture perfect landscape. Their concern is understandable, given that the garden is a visual and osmic medium. It presents us with nature, that is, with the biological environment as an alien other, objectified, mastered, and made available for the elite eye's appreciation.
McLuhan suggested that the concept of nature has been made obsolescent by electronic media such as radio. It has been replaced by the idea of ecology which, like acoustic space, situates us in the middle of our environment as active participants. In sum, radio and the garden are natural enemies, fighting for competing media ecologies. Were McLuhan available to comment on our dilemma, he no doubt would conclude that this is hardly a Homeric tragedy, but rather an Ovidian tale of metamorphosis, a modern-day Echo and Narcissus. The courts have yet to decide whether our radio tower will fade from view, so I must end this story in the middle.
Of course, beginning and ending in the middle is part of the human condition. We are born into history, and McLuhan, like us all, was a product of his times. Had he been born in an earlier era, he no doubt would have taken up philosophy. Had he been born more recently, I am confident that he would have become a communication major. But he was born in 1911, and like many of his contemporaries, he found the most agreeable form of general education in the study of literature.
But he was not content with the literary focus on creative production as a body of work waiting to be dissected. He therefore turned early in his career to the study of the communication process, specifically the ancient art of rhetoric, defined by Aristotle as "the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion." In Aristotle's day, the available means of persuasion and expression was limited to the techniques used in public speaking, but by McLuhan's time they include a growing number of communication media.
McLuhan found himself in the middle of a major change in the media environment, and this unique vantage point made it possible for him to gain his understanding of media. McLuhan explained media, and his explanation also explained McLuhan. He was the product of hybrid energy, much as Homer was some twenty-seven centuries ago. Homer was a singer of tales whose songs were recorded in writing, and who was thereby transformed by the power of the alphabet into an author. McLuhan was a literate scholar transmogrified into a media celebrity.
Figures such as these, emerging when worlds collide, are often admired as archetypes. But they may also be shunned as anomalies. Perhaps because he was one himself, McLuhan embraced anomalies. He was not bound by Aristotle's literacy-based laws of logic, not by the law of noncontradiction, and most certainly not by the law of the excluded middle.
McLuhan understood media by including the middle and mediating contradictions. He combined the word "medium" with its near opposite to give us "the medium is the message." These five words are enduring and endearing; and yet I cannot tell you how many times I have heard someone say, "Of course, the medium is not the message."
As one of the editors of the anthology, Communication and Cyberspace, I dealt with an article that would otherwise have made McLuhan proud, but which included in the first paragraph that very phrase. I told the author that that sentence was a clicheÇ and a bore, an insult to the reader and an embarrassment for the writer. I am pleased to tell you that you will not find that phrase in that particular chapter, or anywhere in Communication and Cyberspace.
The problem with that sentence is not that it opens up discussion, but rather that it closes it down. It is a form of dismissal, not debate. And it misses the point. It makes no sense to say that "the medium is the message" unless you already know that the medium is not the message, that is, unless you begin with the conventional categories of medium and message. McLuhan builds on this basic understanding, working towards a more complex conception of media and technology.
Saying that the medium is not the message does not refute McLuhan's aphorism, it simply returns us to square one. Must we always begin at the beginning? The answer is "no" so far as McLuhan is concerned. He hastens into the action and plunges into the middle of things, and all he asks of us is to meet him halfway.
McLuhan's media ecology approach is in part a form of materialism, based on analysis of the human body and its extensions. In contrast to Marx's dialectical materialism, however, McLuhan gives us a rhetorical and grammatical materialism. But McLuhan's perspective is also grounded in the North American tradition of pragmatism. By medium, McLuhan refers not only to the material, but also to the means, modes, and methods by which we operate on the material world.
"The medium is the message" expresses with perfect economy the idea that how we do something has much to do with the results we obtain, no matter what our original intent may be. This idea is present in Henry David Thoreau's observation that "we do not ride on the railroad, it rides upon us." It is there in Mark Twain's wonderful quip, that when you have a hammer in your hand, everything looks like a nail. It is entirely absent, however, from the slogan of the National Rifle Association, that "guns don't kill people, people do." If you believe that guns themselves have increased the potential for violence, then you are with McLuhan.
"The medium is the message" implies that we must begin in the middle, with the medium. The medium comes first. Before the sculpture, there is the stone and the chisel. Before the painting, there is the paint and canvas. Before the song, there is the instrument and voice. And consider the process of language acquisition. First, the newborn cries and screams; later, he or she begins to babble. And out of this babble eventually emerges speech. Before meaningful words can be uttered, we must learn how to recognize and produce the sounds of our language. The medium of speech precedes the messages formed through language. Failure to account for this hidden ground is the fatal flaw that runs through much of semeiology, structuralism, deconstruction, and postmodernism.
Of course, in declaring that the medium is the message, McLuhan was doing nothing more than carrying out the ancient injunction to seek "media in all things, including media." He began with communication, but stretched the concept to cover all technology. In Understanding Media, he includes such items as clothing, housing, money, clocks, transportation, weapons, and automation as media. All technologies are media because they go between ourselves and our environment. As buffer zones, they become our environment, and in using them, we are at the same time used by them. This is as true for speech as it is for tools.
The products of opposable thumbs are no more artificial than the products of opposable tongues. Technology covers both labor and dialogue, both mechanical and rhetorical invention. McLuhan continued to expand the concept in his later work on the laws of the media, treating such disparate phenomena as the Copernican Revolution, the periodic table, crowds, hermeneutics, semiotics, pollsters, romanticism, and Aristotelian causality as media. Truly media in all things, even media.
Implicit in McLuhan's work is a General Media Theory that can be used to understand any phenomenon, be it cultural or biological, physical or metaphysical. The idea of media is present even when he used other terms such as gaps and intervals, resonances and total field; it is there in the notion of clichÇ in relation to archetype, or of ground in relation to figure. It is particularly useful for reframing concepts that are otherwise presented as opposing forces or irreconcilable ideas. For example, in place of the conflict between mind and body, we can understand the body as the medium from which the mind is born. The mind is not the body, but it emerges out of the body, is contained within the body, depends upon the body, but may also affect and alter the body.
Along the same lines, technology is the content and biology is the medium. Technology is produced by the biological, extends the biological, and also acts upon the biological. By the same token, instead of a polar opposition between the conscious and the unconscious, we can see the conscious mind as the figure and the unconscious its ground. This is consistent with Carl Jung's understanding of the psyche. Or to plug in St. Augustine's commentary on the experience of time, we can identify the present as the medium whose content includes a remembered past and an anticipated future. Along similar lines, chaos is the medium out of which order may emerge. And we might say that evil is only the content which all too often monopolizes our attention, while good is the medium that constitutes our invisible environment.
Marshall McLuhan is best described by the phrase he used to characterize G.K. Chesterton: "a practical mystic". He was practical because his work was grounded in the materialities of communication and the pragmatics of technology. And he was a mystic because his work was building towards a concept of media transcendence. That is, on the one hand, he was developing a transcendent concept of the media, and on the other he understood that media are the bridge to transcendence. The key to mysticism is the encounter with a medium without content. Ritual incantations and prayers in unfamiliar tongues, by their repetition, lose their meaning as a message and move towards the state of pure medium. Meditation takes the process a step further through the technique of repeating a nonsense syllable, a sound entirely devoid of meaning-we might call it transcendental mediation. Religions based on the written word also treat the writing system as sacred, for example in the Cabalistic contemplation of the alephbet.
In the tradition of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, God communicates through the medium of the word, both spoken and written. It is significant that Genesis describes His first act as taking the form of speech, the message being "Let there be light." Speech and sound precede light and vision, just as orality comes before literacy. In this tradition, God also uses human beings as media, in the form of prophets or the Christian belief in the Divine Incarnation. To see ourselves as a medium is humbling, be it the medium of divine will, the medium through which the spirit of an age expresses itself, or the medium through which our genes reproduce themselves. When we see ourselves as the message, we stray into Narcissism. When we see ourselves as the medium, we become like Echo, an invisible environment.
In the tradition of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the beginning is God's act of creation. Creation, then, comes into being after the beginning-it exists in the middle, and it is God's medium. The natural philosophers, for example Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, and Giambattista Vico sought to move closer to the divine through this medium, by reading and studying the book of nature. Their successors continue to unravel the complexities of the universe, and there is no indication that the task will ever be complete. But when we consider the properties of the universe, we can discern a few basic messages inherent in this medium.
They are embarrassingly simple, but nonetheless worth stating. They are existence and life, relationship and communication, consciousness and understanding. McLuhan moved us far along the path of understanding. He could not help but leave us still in the middle of things, and most likely he would have it no other way.
Note: This article formed the opening address at the Fordham Conference. For more information about the conference, see the Introduction to this issue.