the medium is the message

After my 9.30 class Friday morning, I stopped in the library to browse some books. I went there looking for a book titled Avatars of the Word: From Papyrus to Cyberspace and while in that section of the stacks (roughly, media and language studies, some history of writing mixed in), I cruised a few other titles–something I enjoy doing in libraries, as I enjoy doing in Google books or other online databases of books; both take up time and can be refreshingly distracting. One book I brought back with me was Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media, a famous book from the 1960s by a so-called media guru. I got it to browse a few items that I felt would be worth bringing into our discussion. McLuhan defines media in that book as “extensions of man.” Contrary to someone like Birkerts, who neglects the medium of the book and tends to view media only as the new, the electronic, McLuhan understands that a medium is anything that extends the capability of a human who uses it. Thus any and all forms of communication tools are media, starting with language itself: writing, pencil, book, printing press, variety of computer mediated forms of writing and language. And in this book he extends this notion of extension: literally any tool that can be considered an extension: clothing, wheels, houses.

In the same book, McLuhan repeats a saying he made famous (perhaps you have heard of it): the medium is the message. He means in large part that the significance of any  medium  is the mediation it provides; he also means that a new medium contains aspects and traces of the old medium it supposedly replaces. A bit later in the course we will get back to this idea that has come to be called “remediation.”

Perhaps another way of putting this is to say that  a medium such as writing (print or electronic) is significant and meaningful in part (McLuhan a bit more boldly might say entirely) for the way it pulls back the curtain on the communication (or extension) it provides. This foregrounding of the medium is on my mind in the readings this week. We have Birkerts who is focused so intently and intensively on the privacy of print and writing, on the qualities of a book to be a medium of transport and self-extension–yet thinking very little about the medium (machine) of the book or even the writing that goes into it. At the other end, with Hayles and the reading we start for Friday (Writing Machines), we find an author similarly transported by literature and the private life of reading, yet who insists upon the material encounter with the medium of writing, of print, and of electronic text. And in the middle, Frankenstein. A story, it seems to me, about the mediated nature of creativity, authorial and biological; about being consigned, as humans, to the workshop of filthy creation.

McLuhan highlights for me the ways that Birkerts is neglecting to define and consider and reflect upon and understand the mediated nature of new media (instead of generalizing, too quickly brushing them off). And though he does do a better job being more deliberate and reflective regarding the media of print (all the reading and writing he discusses), there is still this problem. He gets, I think, the medium of print wrong. Consider this paragraph from McLuhan that evokes Birkerts’ senses of passivity vs. activity, except it locates the passive not with television but with the technology of literacy.

Western man acquired from the technology of literacy the power to act without reacting. The advantages of fragmenting himself in this way are seen in the case of the surgeon who would be quite helpless if he were to become humanly involved in his operation. We acquired the art of carrying out the most dangerous social operations with complete detachment. But our detachment was a posture of noninvolvement. In the electric age, when our central nervous system is technologically extended to involve us in the whole of mankind and to incorporate the whole of mankind in us, we necessarily participate, in depth, in the consequences of our every action. It is no longer possible to adopt the aloof and dissociated role of the literate Westerner. [Understanding Media, 4]

I see a good bit of Birkerts in this image of detachment. Ironically, McLuhan gives us to imagine this scenario at home: parent yelling at child to put down that book, stop being so lazy, and get on the internet and do something.

What do you think?

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