Monday, May 23, 2011

Marshall McLuhan's Medium Is Still Relevant

The Medium is the Message
Marshall McLuhan called new media the "electric" media in the 1960s. We now call it "electronic" or, strangely, "digital." I like his use of "electric," particularly because of the other images it conjures: hair standing on end, excitement, a brightly lit room. The new media is exciting, it does have enormous potential, it has already made our hair stand on end and altered us. While the hardware and software have evolved since he first wrote about it, the impact the new media has upon us hasn't changed much at all. McLuhan felt that the medium is the massage: all parts of us are kneaded and pushed, psychologically and physically. The media encompass us and stimulate us from all angles. Additionally, "All media are extensions of some human faculty—psychic or physical" (40).

The Medium is the MassageThe Medium Is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects by Marshall McLuhan and graphic designer Quentin Fiore, although first published in 1967, is an uncannily relevant book today. I borrowed a copy and was astonished by the bold graphics, the placement of words and images on the pages, the pacing—everything I am concerned about when I teach and make book art. Then I read it. And I was surprised by how the content grabbed me.

The title of The Medium Is the Massage was supposed to be The Medium Is the Message, which was something McLuhan said constantly, but it came back from the typesetter wrong, much to McLuhan's delight since he liked puns and wordplay. He was known for his work in media analysis, and many of his observations are still useful. I want to focus on just one of the numerous concepts he worked with, namely, the experience of art, environment, and life.  

The Medium Is The Massage: An Inventory of EffectsThe process of making and viewing art affects how we see the world and vice versa. McLuhan wrote that once "easel paintings"  took on the concept of a fixed perspective, the "detached observer" became "placed outside the frame of experience," but "The instantaneous world of electric informational media involves all of us, all at once. No detachment or frame is possible" (50-53). Viewing paintings that use the traditional European perspective, we still feel outside the frame, voyeurs looking from a distance. The new media, on the other hand, engulfs us completely, swallows us up, and our bodies become part of the experience, seemingly without boundaries.
The Medium is the Massage: an Inventory of Effects
"Pre-alphabet people integrate time and space as one…they put in everything they know, rather than only what they see….The primitive artist twists and tilts the various possible visual aspects until they fully explain what he wishes to represent…Electric circuitry is recreating in us the multidimensional space orientation of the 'primitive'" (56-57). 
It is quite strange to think that by reaching forward and embracing certain technologies we are actually recapturing an experience humans had centuries ago of putting everything in the picture. Our new media environment presents many views and engages more of our senses at once. In addition to space, it captures a sense of narrative time.

The narrative time is continuous. Information is constant; we are completely immersed in it. McLuhan wrote, "As soon as information is acquired it is replaced by still newer information" (63). Nabokov's quote that "the finder cannot unsee once it has been seen" (Speak, Memory 310) could be seen as a layered version of McLuhan. While the new information pushes out the old, it is not forgotten: once you know, you can't un-know. We know about perspective and how we can take something flat and make it seem three-dimensional. Instead of discarding that knowledge, we can add that fourth dimension of narrative time to the picture (coincidentally or not, the McLuhan/Fiore book also uses sequence, rhythm and time nicely). With art, we hope that viewers will want to come back over and over, adding layers to their knowledge rather than swapping new for old. We cannot be detached observers anymore.
I learned that there is a new version of Medium out, a centennial edition. Read it for the content, view it for its relationship to book art and book design of today. I think you will find that in this light, the old medium still works, although in celebration, perhaps it should take on the form of an electric book…


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