The Medium Is The Message | Transcription

Posted on April 2, 2013


(The following transcription is from all three parts of the “Monday Conference.”)

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Q: When you say the “medium is the message” does that leave any room at all for criticism of individual, say, television programs?

MML: Or content. You see, it doesn’t much matter what you say on the telephone. The telephone as a service is a huge environment. And that is the medium. And the environment affects everybody. What you say on the telephone affects very few. And the same with radio or any other medium. What you print is nothing compared to the affect of the printed word. The printed word sets up a paradigm, a structure of awareness which affects everybody in very very drastic ways, and it doesn’t very much matter what you print as long as you go on with that form of activity.

Q: You said that television promotes illiteracy. I’m wondering if you think that’s a bad thing?

MML: I don’t think it promotes illiteracy. I think it creates another form of awareness. Literacy had very strange antecedents, very strange effects on people, and we’re only beginning to notice what those effects were now that it tends to be pushed aside. Literacy as a form of awareness is highly specialist and objective sort of thing. Literate man can stand back objectively and look at situations. The TV person has no objectivity at all.

Q: But does television, say, promote illiteracy, or doesn’t it?

MML: It tends to create [a] totally different kind of awareness, which is rather that of involvement. Literacy of objective. TV is subjective, totally involving.

Q: In fact, people who watch a lot of television, or listen to a lot of radio, do they read more or less?

MML: I think radio people are far more literate that TV people. This is complementarity of the media. I personally have avoided making value judgments, because I long ago discovered that value judgments are so personal that it confuses people enormously.

Q: Yes, that is a kind of value judgment of itself, isn’t it?

MML: Not of a medium, but of people. People are very diversified. It’s been known for a long time that a reader… for example, the word “read,” “to read” means “to guess.” Look it up in the big dictionary. The word “raden” means “to guess.” Reading is actually an activity of rapid guessing, because any word has so many meanings — including the word “reading,” — many many meanings, that to select one in a context of other words requires very rapid guessing. That’s why a good reader tends to be a very quick decision maker. And a good reader, or a highly literate person, tends to be a good executive. Because he has to make decisions very fast while reading. And so, the very nature of reading calls for quick decisions and guessing. That’s what the word means.

Q: One last point from me. You said that advertising is the folk art of the 20th century. In what sense is it an art?

MML: I think it is a very great art form, and it’s not a private art form. It’s corporate. But the concern of the advertiser is to make an effect. Any painter, any artist, musician, sets out to create an effect. He sets a trap to catch someone’s attention. Any painter, poet, musicians, sets a trap for your attention. That is the nature of art.

Q: Do you think there are any masterpieces of advertising or radio or television in the sense that there are masterpieces [of art]?

MML: We’ll know better in, what, 50 years.

Q: What’s your guess now?

MML: Well, I know there are. On the other hand, the ones we may select now as the great ads of the year would probably not get the same vote 50 years from now. Remember, Mr. Shakespeare wrote plays that were considered very vulgar and popular entertainment in his own day. And nobody had any criteria for measuring his greatness at that time. He was a popular artist. TV is a popular folk art. We have no criteria for measuring it. The measurements that we do use are just results. Bottom line. How many sales resulted from this particular ad? But that’s box office.


Q: If the medium is the message, and it doesn’t matter what we say on TV, why are we all here tonight? Why am I asking this question?

MML: I didn’t say it didn’t matter what you asked on TV. I said that the effect of TV, the message of TV is quite independent of the program. That is there is a huge technology involved in TV which surrounds you, physically. And the effect of that huge service environment on you personally is vast. The effect of the program is incidental.

Q: Those of us who are McLuhan students know how clearly you define a problem for us. We also know that very often you point to an answer too. Earlier in your talk this evening you spoke about the search for identity through violence. I think we’d all agree now, if we ever could afford violence, as weaponry becomes more efficient, we can no longer corporately afford violence. So what do you suggest as alternatives that we offer instead the search for identity through violence?

MML: Dialogue. The alternative to violence is dialogue, which is a kind of encounter interface with other people and situations. Yes, we live in a world in which we have so much power. In the old days you could pull a trigger on a revolver and hurt people, but today, when you trigger these vast media that we use, you are manipulating entire populations. The kinds of violence that we can now exert collectively are such as to require the situation to cool right down, cool, cool, cool. By means of the overkill, we have created a kind of universal peace in the world. The means of destruction are so vast at our command, war becomes unthinkable. In the same way, people are cooled off by media and situations which require dialogue, rather than self-expression. Violence is a kind of self-expression. So the quest for identity; the person who is struggling to find out “Who am I?” by all sorts of maladjustments, quarrels, encounters, such a person is a social nuisance, of course. But the quest for identity goes along with this bumping into other people in order to find out who am I, how much power can I assert, how much identity can I discover that I possess by simply banging into other people. So, that’s what I had in mind when I said that the quest for identity is always a violent quest. It is a series of adventures, and encounters that create all sorts of disturbance. I don’t think you have to go very far in literature for examples; I suppose Don Quixote is a great popular hero, and Flash Gordon, and Superman. The new Hollywood thing, Star War, which is based on Flash Gordon; the Bionic Man and Woman, these are vicarious forms of violence in which young people are trying to discover “Who am I?” I once asked one of my granddaughters, who was then six, What do you want to be when you grow up?, and she said instantly, “Bionic Woman.” This is the kind of violence that permits one to discover who you are. I was using violence in a rather large sense, of simply abrasive encounters.

Q: In what way would the message that you’ve given us tonight be different if this meeting, instead of being here in the Sydney Hilton Hotel were, say, in the center of the Sydney Cricket Ground?

MML: Well, Cricket is a very organized form of violence. I would insist on studying the game of Cricket as a manifestation of the controlled forms of violence in the community. Baseball or football, any kind of sport is a dramatization of the typical and accepted forms of violence in the business community. So you could learn an enormous amount about the business community by studying the rules and procedures in Cricket, or baseball, or golf, as far as that goes. All these games are huge ways of discovering — dramatizing — what the society you’re in is all about. By the way, without an audience, these games would have no meaning at all. They have to be played in front of a public, in order to acquire their meaning. A baseball game without an audience would be a rehearsal only, a practice. The game requires a public and the public has to resemble a whole cross-section of the community. I’m very interested in games as dramatizings of violent behavior under control.

Q: Quite some time ago you said that life was very much like driving a car, but only being able to look into the rear vision mirror. After you’ve gone, who’s going to drive the bus?

MML: I made a strange discovery about the rear view mirror having accused a lot of people of living in the rear view mirror, and having meant by that, that they were out of date — that they were nineteenth-century minds. I then took another look into the rear view mirror, on my own, and I discovered, somewhat to my surprise that when you look in the rear view mirror, you do not see what has gone past. You see what is coming. And the rear view mirror is the foreseeable future. It is not the past at all. The title, the phrase “rear view mirror” appears to distort the situation. Most people think of it instinctively from the sound of the phrase, “It must be the past.” In terms of media, of course, the thing that occupies the foreground in terms of the rear view mirror is nostalgia. Nostalgia is the name of the game in every part of our world today, including the program “Roots.” Nostalgia is a kind of rear view mirror if you like, but it’s also the shape of things to come. When people have been stripped of their private identities, they develop huge nostalgia. And, nostalgia for the jeans and levis of the young today are nostalgia for granddad’s overalls. His work clothes now become the latest costume. But this is a rather mysterious thing. The costumes worn by the young, are really very old hat. Nostalgic. And someone called it “international motley,” that the costumes worn by young people today are a kind of “international motley” or “clown” costume. Paradoxically, a clown is a person with a grievance. His role in medieval society was to be the voice of grievance. The clown’s job was to tell the emperor, or royalty, exactly what was wrong with society. He often lost his head in the process. The clown — the international motley of our time — is trying to tell us his grievance. The beards and the hairdos and the costumes of the young are a manifestation of grievance; and anger. You’ve heard about the streakers, a kind of manifestation of anger about the lack of jobs and goals in our world. In America we call them “passing panties” but I understand it has a different meaning here.

Q: Since in the 20th century we’re so conditioned, hemmed in by the media, should we be teaching our children what value judgments they should really make concerning different programs they should watch on TV or listen on the radio, as part of their development of achieving adult maturity.

MML: Answer is “yes.” But one of the peculiarities of electric speed is that it pushes all of the unconscious factors into consciousness. This began with Freud and Einstein back in 1900. The hidden aspects of the media are the things that should be taught. Because they have an irresistible force when invisible. When these factors remain ignored, remain invisible, they have an absolute power over the user. So, yes, the sooner that the population — the young or old — can be taught the effects of these forms, the sooner we can have some sort of reasonable ecology among the media themselves. What is desperately needed is a kind of understanding of the media which [will] permit us to understand the whole environment so that, say, literate values would not be wiped out by new media. If you understand the nature of these forms you can neutralize some of their adverse effects, and foster some of their beneficent effects. We’ve never reached this level of awareness.

Q: Can we ever reach that level of awareness?

MML: I have been working for that for a long time. You may be surprised to hear that Finnegans Wake of Mr. James Joyce is one of the top guides to the effects of media. The work is entirely devoted to that theme. And the thunders in Finnegans Wake are statements of the effects of particular media. The last thunder in Finnegans Wake on page 424 is television, and with all effects, social consequences carefully dramatized. Finnegans Wake is a drama, it’s a play, and the actors in the play are the media themselves. Very few Joycians know this.

Q: Up ’til now, while television may have dominated our lives and our minds, the actual box in the corner hasn’t dominated our living room. But large screen television sets are being developed, screens say, the size of a living room wall. What effect do you think that will have? Will we tolerate giants watching us?

MML: I think it’s a very important thing to keep in mind. A very important question. I have not personally seen those big screens. They tend to have them out on the playground, play fields, in America, so you can watch the game on television while the games is in process. This is a kind of situation that invites an enormous awareness of actual process, to participate in the kind of replay of the thing while it is still ongoing. Participation in replay is a form of pattern recognition that is new in the media and has, I say, rather large consequences, mostly cognitive, mostly consequences that will affect our nature of our cognition and awareness, and I would think entirely in the direction of extreme self-awareness. I once asked a famous quarterback in American football, on television, what the effect of the instant replay had been on the game of football. He said, “We have now to play the game in such a way that the audience can watch the actual process that we’re performing. They’re not any longer interested in just the effect of the play, they want to see the nature of the play. So, they’ve had to open up the play on the field to enable the audience to participate more fully in the process of football play. It’s an unexpected effect. I think it would be an effect that would extend also to our educational world, to the classroom. That the future of education requires that we pay much attention to the media we’re employing as forms of study. Not necessarily merely the hardware skill in the use of cameras and microphones, but an awareness of the nature of the operation.

Q: When you said that television uses the eyes and ear, what did you mean by that?

MML: It is a phrase of Tony Schwartz in a very interesting book called The Responsive Chord. What he means literally is that the image is constituted by millions of these resonating particles. There are no pictures on television, no snapshots, no shutter, no camera. There is an outpouring of these small bits of information in patterns that are entirely active and dynamic. So they resonate. So he was really saying that the television image is primarily not visual, but a resonating form of experience.

Q: Is television the ultimate medium or is the worst to come?

MML: You’ve heard of the hologram. The hologram goes completely around you. Television only goes a little bit around you. The hologram is 360 degrees. It’s been anticipated by the rock music, in which you have to become just enclosed in a sound bubble. The hologram does for TV what rock does for auditory entertainment. But the hologram is technically here.

Q: Earlier you spoke to us as going out for our privacy and coming home for the social aspect. I’d like to hear you comment on that in relation to electronic man’s new thirst for meditation, contemplation, mystical experience.

MML: Well, as you know, the transcendental meditation has become exceedingly popular. All forms of mystic meditation have become very popular in our television age. We have gone very far to the east since television. Just as an exercise in awareness, meditation has come in very big since television. I’m not sure that that is a good or bad at all, it has happened. Do you think of it as a very significant event?

Q: I think of it very significant, almost as that nostalgia, as a return to that private self without going outdoors to find it. Return to an inner union with God, with yourself, which electronic man seems to need and is looking for in this way.

MML: Jane Austen of all people has quite a big comment on that inside/outside. She said that people go outside to be alone just to prove their inner resources. That they don’t need people. We can make it alone. And that the romantic movement was based upon this psychic development. Jane Austen has quite a bit to say about that, of all people. I was amazed to come across it in her work a few months ago. There is another American writer, Hawthorne, who regarded this American habit of going outside to be alone as an undermining of democracy. He said this is sheer aristocracy. This is putting on the aristocratic thing and it is going to undermine our whole democracy. So Hawthorne regarded it with great alarm. The moralist, by the way, is always a person who never studies effects, so much as studies the content of situations; studies the figure and not the ground. This, I think, is a great concern to advertisers who are here tonight in some numbers. Advertisers tend to study figure and not the ground. They tend to count noses than to estimate the pressures under the noses. The form of gnosis.

Q: If the world had not discovered your great thinking and writing, how do you go about creating a demand for it? What would be your advertising campaign, the gist of it? What section of the media would you use?

MML: I “put people on.” “Putting people on” means teasing them, challenging them, upsetting them, befuddling them. Any comic puts on his audience by hurting them. You can’t name a comic who doesn’t put on his public by hurting them. The technique of “putting people on” in my case consists simply in pointing to the things they have ignored, the things that concern them very nearly, but have been totally pushed aside as insignificant. A “put on” is a sort of situation that I study a good deal.

Q: Can advertisers use it to an effect?

MML: Advertising is to, a large degree, “put on,” yes, and there has to be a certain comic element in good advertising. Comic is always the registration of a grievance. The funny man is a man with a grievance, whether it’s W.C. Fields or Rablay[?]

Q: What’s the grievance of an advertiser? What kind of grievance would it be?

MML: The grievance is, of course, you’re not buying my product. Very simple.

Q: Does the fact that professor Bronowski’s book, The Ascent of Man, the fact that it was on the best seller list in America for month after month, is that a victory for advertising and marketing, or is that a victory for professor Bronowski’s ideals and the message he was trying to get across?

MML: I didn’t see these shows, and, of course, the Ascent of Man is a popular cliché, also very nostalgic. Since that is not necessarily the way things are going. I know the best seller is a mysterious thing, that is mainly created, not a spontaneous thing. Publishers have methods for creating best sellers any time they have to. It means investing a good deal of money in a book. Now his program had many millions of dollars invested in it quite apart from the book. So, a big multimillion dollar program automatically guarantees a best-seller status for the book off the shelf.

Q: Getting back to your rear-view mirror syndrome, and your new definition of it tonight, shouldn’t we, some of us, especially politicians, be looking in that same rear-view mirror to see what carnage is being left behind?

MML: In the case of politics, it’s not too difficult to see what’s being left behind. Which parties are up and which are down. One of the peculiar things about the effects of media on politics is that parties and policies become very unimportant, and the image of the politician takes on a tremendous new importance. This is television at least. Radio politics are a completely different form. Radio politics are a completely different message. But, TV politics do not permit very much interest in the policy or the party, but the individual candidate must have charisma. Now charisma means looking like a lot of other people. That is my technical analysis of that problem. Poor Mr. Richard Nixon looked only like Richard Nixon. He was sunk. He had no charisma at all. To look like a lot of other people means acceptable people, interesting people. Jimmy Carter looks like the all-American southern boy. Huck Finn in the White House. He’s a big archetype. Whereas Jack Kennedy looked like the all-American boy of the more Bostonian variety of the successful, pushy, and aggressive boy. Carter, the Southern boy is not aggressive, whimsical, Huck Finn style. The first time a deep south boy ever entered the American White House, so the civil war is over.

Q: Did you see Richard Nixon’s program with David Frost?

MML: Yes I did. I was amazed.

Q: How did you think Richard Nixon came out?

MML: I thought this is the first time in human history that a major actor in history played himself.

Q: What would be your interpretation […] your comments about the power of the nature of the electric media to say that it would be a waste of time for the regulatory authorities to concern themselves with the content of television and radio. If it’s a wrong interpretation, what particular things do you think they ought to be thinking about controlling?

MML: I would hate to regulate the thoughts of any bureaucracy. But the tendency of any any medium is to attract to itself types of content which are consistent with its limits. In the long run, as people get the government they deserve, so the medium gets the content it deserves. There has to be some sort of interplay, some sort of harmony between these things. I would point to the fact that TV is primarily concerned with complex processes. The kinds of content that best serve it are complicated processes. Radio is far more a package medium, far more concerned with the definite and wrapped up message and package. It’s a hot medium. Whereas TV with it’s cool or involving character is much less able to cope with packages and much more concerned with processes. If you watch, even Sesame Street, you will see this grotesque character peeping out at you. Sesame Street is made by advertising men. They have learned the nature of this medium very thoroughly and it is a very much a teddy bear tactile playful medium. And a very dramatic one.

Q: I was disappointed that professor McLuhan’s address didn’t confront more serious technological issues, nuclear energy in particular, and I’d like to ask him, if he’d agree that nuclear energy represents mass suicide, the ultimate expression of the death wish or more in line with his terminology the last ditch fight to the death of the left hemisphere world of the military industrial complex. … He claims that the world is moving towards the software world of the brain’s right hemisphere, but the other side now seems to have such an upper hand in terms of big money and media control and I’m curious how he thinks they’re going to lose?

MML: It’s a whole bundle of questions there. But the main development in these electric media is the loss of private identity. Mass man means man as related to all other men simultaneously. So the nuclear world is a kind of rip-off as far as private identity and private goals are concerned. Just how that relates to the atom bomb and so on, it would take a little while to develop. But these forms have a kind of inner logic, inner dynamic which can be traced. Which can be discerned and patterned and recognized.

Q: Do you think that media will always be commercially based, and if it will be always commercially based, do you see it getting more responsible or otherwise?

MML: I appreciate the issues you raise, but the commercial sponsor of the media is naturally more sensitive to the audience than anybody. The commercial sponsor is going to demand a kind of rapport between his investment and the show, which will ensure a great deal of popularity and representativeness to the show. If you can think of a sponsor who ignores the audience, maybe the CBC in Canada, a big bureaucratic organization which feels its quite above the needs of the audience. And, so, it creates a great many unpopular shows. I wouldn’t say they’re especially interesting, they’re just unpopular. To what extent the BBC is in the same boat, I don’t know, but you might be able to comment.

Q: You were talking earlier about how the new brain research has opened up new avenues in perception about the left hemisphere being more towards the logical aspects and the right towards the intuitive. Can you enlarge on the parallel you used between how this is related to the Eastern and Western cultures?

MML: Yes. The people of the West developed their visual point of view and acuity of vision along with Euclidean geometry; no other country in the world every had Euclidean geometry except the country of the phonetic alphabet. Without phonetic alphabet you don’t have Euclidean space. There is no Euclid in the Orient. Neither is there any individual, private identity in the Orient. But, the kinds of left and right hemisphere things correspond very well to East and West since the lineal nature of the left hemisphere is very visual. Visual space is the only space that is lineal and connected. Acoustic space is not lineal or connected. Acoustic space is a sphere, who we hear from all directions at once. Acoustic space is a space whose center is everywhere and whose margin is nowhere. That is a simultaneous sound which creates that kind of space. It is the space of the sound bubble in rock music. But right hemisphere is simultaneous, acoustic, and this is very favorable to the corporate identity of oriental man. People who “play it by ear.” As opposed to those people who have a strong bias of point of view and who play it by the eye and by logical connected estimates, bottom line, quantity and so on. This is all left hemisphere. But the right hemisphere has no bottom line and is interested only in quality, not in quantity. And so the other-worldliness, the non-worldly Orient, with its interest in the way of life rather than in the amount of product. You might say, Polynesia. Various attempts have been made  to organize the Polynesians into dynamic producers of this or that, and they remain completely indifferent to such performance. They’re very acoustically oriented people; very right hemisphere. But the right and left hemispheres both affect us to some degree. It’s not just a plain either/or. We use both hemispheres to some degree. But, in some cultures, one or the other gets much stress, much play.

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