Understanding Media. Reflections. 50 years later.

understanding media

“I don’t explain – I explore”
M.McLuhan (1967)

McLuhan method of creative knowledge was strictly connected with the analogic way of thinking through metaphors. Following this transdisciplinary perspective, I will try to build a chain of concepts, all chosen in the semantic field of the ‘medium’, whose interconnection should make clear how the thought of McLuhan might influence the view of contemporary philosophy of languages.

MEDIUM. At the beginning of Understanding Media (1964), McLuhan tells us that a medium is “any extension of ourselves”. He suggests that a hammer extends our arm and that the wheel extends our legs and feet. Each enables us to do more than our bodies could do on their own. Similarly, the medium of language extends our thoughts from within our mind out to others. Indeed, since our thoughts are the result of our individual sensory experience, speech is an “outering” of our senses – we could consider it as a form of reversing senses – whereas usually our senses bring the world into our minds, speech takes our sensorially-shaped minds out to the world.  McLuhan always thought of a medium in the sense of a growing medium, like the fertile potting soil into which a seed is planted, or the agar in a Petri dish. In other words, a medium – this extension of our body or senses or mind – is anything from which a change emerges. And since some sort of change emerges from everything we conceive or create, all of our inventions, innovations, ideas and ideals are McLuhan media.

MEDIUM as ME(A)SS-AGE. “The medium is the message” made its firts unassuming appearence in McLuhan’s 1960 typescript “Report on Project in Undestanding New Media” that he wrote for the “National Association of Education Broadcasters pursuant to a contract with the Office of Education, United States Department of Health, Education and Welfare”. By 1964, the phrase had become the all-important title of the first chapter of Undestanding Media. Two years later, “the medium is the mess-age” appeared in Counterblast (McLuhan & Parker, 1969), and the 2mess-age” became the “mass-age” in Take Today: The Executive as Dropout (McLuhan & Nevitt, 1972).

MEDIUM as CONTENT. “The ‘content’ of a medium is like the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind” (McLuhan, 1964).  We think and converse abput what we read on the newspaper, magazine, or book, what we heard on the radio, what we saw on television, much more often than we do about the fact that we were reading a newspaper rather than listening to the radio or watching television, etc. “The effect of a medium is made strong and intense just because it is given another medium as ‘content’ (McLuhan, 1964). The content of any medium – that ‘juicy piece of meat’ that takes prominence on our perception and distracts us from the deeper impact of the medium at hand – is none other than a prior medium tamed from its former wild, invisible state, and brought to lie now on our carpet in full view. Not only is the content not unimportant, it may be the best way of examining a medium and its impact.

USER as CONTENT. In a 1978 essay in New York Magazine, Mc Luhan further observed that “when you are ‘on the telephone’ or ‘on the air’ the sender is sent. The disembodied user extends to all those who are recipients of elecric information”. That means that the person who speaks on the phone or on radio or television creates and bocomes disembodied content for the medium – a voice without a face or a body, or, in the case of television, a voice with fae and body but no substance. In the case of online writing, coming to the present, the process becomes even more streamlined, as users become content in the lines of text they create. This equation of user and content goes back as far as the literary criticism of I.A.Richards, who argued that the meaning of a text resided not in its author’s intentions but its reader’s legitimate interpretations.

LANGUAGE. TODAY. The complexity of the language as medium, is philosophically well known. In this sense, Derrida argued that language is an endlessly complex and unwieldy medium, and that writers are never entirely in control of their words, for this reason. When Plato is trying to explain, for example, why speech is a dramatically more effective way to communicate than writing, he ends up with this justification: Speech “is written in the soul of the listener”. With time, thanks largely to the influence of thinkers such as Agostino, was developed in the philosophy of language the idea that language is a semiotic structure: each term must have a corripondending meaning. This thesis produces the conviction that all the words of a language are functioning as denotational tools and that the language can be treated as an isolated medium (completely different direction from that suggested by McLuhan). Also, if the language is something that concerns the mind as Agostino argued, this concept opens a long season of mentalism in western philosophy. Mentalism and semantics deprive the word of his prosodic life, or as McLuhan would say, of his own life.

LANGUAGE. TOMORROW? With the growing importance of the philosophy of technology and the recovery approaches of visionary thinkers, indeed, this research, the research of a new philosophical point of view related to the language, is taking place today. It’s about finding an access to the significant that does not depend on a previous semantic reconnaissance of what that meant. If this can be achieved, finally we could have a convergence of theories about the study of language, in all its senses. Will the future of the philosophy of language be a Theory of the significant without significance? Will this be the theoretical heritage of McLuhan?

Articolo apparso su NoemaLab, consultabile al link: http://noemalab.eu/ideas/mcluhans-understanding-media-is-50/