Wednesday, July 13, 2011

One Hundred Pages of Solicitude #4: Understanding Media

“The price of eternal vigilance is indifference.”

This Wednesday's hecto-reading is Marshall McLuhan's seminal work, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. It is, to your average media scholar, either the single most important book in the entire corpus, or a book you you occasionally pull random quotations from and mean to read someday, honest. I'm rather in the latter camp, and it's been admittedly one of the more glaring omissions in my scholarly readings. Until today, that is.

The first hundred pages of McLuhan's book gets you through section 1, wherein he outlines his basic ideas, and a good ways into section II, wherein he outlines a few comments on every single form of media he can think of. My Section II reading covered the spoken word, the written word, and half a discussion on roads. Section I can be very roughly summed up in his three main ideas: the difference between hot and cold media, the oft-quoted sentiment that "the medium is the message" and the idea that our media--and our technologies--are ourselves. And if that last bit sounds a little Stieglerian to the audience, then I'd have to agree. That's what struck me first about the book: just how much modern media scholars are in debt to him, particularly Stiegler (for the technics = human equivalence), Kittler (for the emphasis on literacy), and Virillio (for connections between speed, technology, and power). And even if it's not a debt, the sheer frequency of parallel discussions means that anyone who studies these scholars really needs to consider McLuhan as well.

The other thing I noticed about McLuhan is how quotable he is, and how compact each of his paragraphs are. I found something on just about every page worth quoting. And even if it didn't make any sense, especially out of context, it still seemed worth noting: "
The Roman solider was a man with a spade" (72). "Much of it was by pack animal--woman being the first pack animal" (93). “Man becomes, as it were, the sex organs of the machine world, as the bee of the plan world, enabling it to fecundate and to evolve ever new forms.” (46) And each paragraph is, generally speaking, an example of good writing. I forcibly try to drill into the heads of my first years that they should adopt the model of the quotation sandwich in essay writing:make a claim, introduce a quotation to justify the claim, then follow up with the explanation of how the quotation justified the claim. McLuhan follows the same pattern, if you replace "quotation" with "idea," and it works very well.

Sadly, it's not all great news. McLuhan has a tendency to jump around a lot, and leave ideas rather undeveloped. Essentially, to borrow his own terminology, his writing is a cool medium. (McLuhan crash course: a "hot" medium is one that focuses on limiting experience to a single sense and allows little in the way of participation; a "cool" medium is one that focuses on a more disperse experience, and leaves lots of room for interpretation and participation. For the longest time, I couldn't remember that distinction, largely because it's based on meanings of "hot" and "cool" in regards to culture that were a lot more precisely defined than what we now use them for; ironically, the terms "hot" has become cool.) That means there's a lot of work for a dedicated scholar to do, but it's a double-edged sword, which I think may be one of the reasons why he gets short shrift. Essentially, you can either draw out the full meaning of one of hist statements, which involve patching together a fairly disparate argument with strange parallels and connections sprinkled throughout his books at large, or you can reduce the statement into a semi-useful aphorism and move on--most people seem to prefer the latter.

Further, he does have a tendency to indulge in generalization, generalization that occasionally tends towards hyperbole. Personally, I'm a little suspicious of his term "artist." For McLuhan, the artist is anyone who draws attention to the way people engage with their media. And he seems to acknowledge, at times, that anyone can be an artist: “If men were able to be convinced that art is precise advanced knowledge of how to cope with the psychic and social consequences of the next technology, would they all become artists?” (66)
. At the same time, though, I can't shake the feeling that there's something elitist in the notion that society, the dormant masses, are complacently waiting for these artists to come save them. But I'm willing to recognize that's my own (mis)interpretation. The larger charge of hyperbole still stands: “The computer, in short, promises by technology a Pentecostal condition of universal understanding and unity.”

Does it, Mr. McLuhan? Is that what it promises? Thank goodness; I can't understand why universal understanding has taken so long.

Verdict: His hyperbole aside, this is the most important book in history of media since Gutenberg invented the printing press. (Hey, I said *his* hyperbole aside. Mine's still allowed.)

Would Read the Rest?: Absolutely. In fact, I probably should have read it long before now.

Addendum: I wanted to be sure to include this quotation:“Lack of homogeneity in speed of information movement creates diversity of patterns in organization" (91). I mention it because, in one of life's odd serendipitous sync-ups, it rather exactly describes the dispersal of information and the resulting disruptions of plans that characterize much of the first 400 pages of
A Dance with Dragons, the latest book in George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, which I have been reading ferociously since... um, yesterday. 'S good.

Later Days.

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