The Medium is the Message: Marshall McLuhan on Media, Humor, and the Media Child

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Marshall McLuhan, one of the main pioneers of media studies, is most famous for his expression “the medium is the message.”   His work, to be sure, is very difficult to comprehend.  One needs to have a wide grasp of the humanities to understand him.  To be sure, his writings on media are a combination of literary criticism, philosophy, and historicism.   Through them, he attempts understand and communicate the meaning of media. The result: a new idiom for media that is literary historical, and philosophical.  Reading him may be difficult, but it is a thrill.  One can feel his excitement over the power of media (TV, newspapers, radio, advertisements, Movies, telephones, etc) to transform life as we know it.

We can see that he is struggling to create a language with new idioms that can describe the transformations we, in our “media age,” are currently going through.  This struggle for find media idioms may still speak to us today; in many ways, he anticipated a world in which people would live most of their lives through electronic media. And he was right: we do.  In many ways, McLuhan anticipated Facebook and Twitter. He would see social media and its bringing of people together as an expression of what he called a “global village” – social media, more than TV, brings out what he was getting at by many of his idioms.  To many people, these new words, descriptions, and predictions seemed, utopian or even totalitarian.    For instance, the great American author Norman Mailer.  In this debate, he keeps a great distance from McLuhan and is apprehensive of the implications for humanity.  Mailer fears that what McLuhan speaks of is something much worse, something tragic: the end of humanity and something totalitarian.

Despite his differences from Mailer; he, like Mailer, appealed to an entire generation of youth in the 1960s.  McLuhan wanted to create a buzz of sorts around his ideas about media.  So, in order to make his concepts of accessible, McLuhan worked together with Quentin Fiore to create a text juxtaposed with collaged images that anyone could pick up, read, scan, feel, and understand how the medium is the message. This book, published in 1967, is entitled The Medium is the Message: An Inventory of Effects.   (An audio version of the book also was circulated at the time; the correlation between the two, however, is complicated.)

What I find most striking about this little book (without page numbers) is the fact that it sees the subject of this new media transformation as a kind of man-child and it finds that the best medium for educating the man-child to be humor.

McLuhan begins by noting that our “anxiety” with the new age has to do with the fact that we are approaching the changes we are going through with the “wrong tools”:

Everything is changing – you, your family, your neighborhood, your education, your job, your government, your relation to “the others.” And they’re changing dramatically…Innumerable confusions and a profound feeling of despair emerge in periods of great technological and cultural transitions. Our “Age of Anxiety” is, in part, the result of trying to do today’s job with yesterday’s tools – with yesterday’s concepts.

However, “youth instinctively understands the present environment – the electronic drama.” They understands everything in terms of “interfaces.” They also understand that education can longer be based on the previous educational system which was too “serious.” Today, in the media age, humor must be the new basis for education:

Our time presents a unique opportunity for learning by means of humor – a perceptive or incisive joke can be more meaningful than platitudes lying between two covers.

One needs to live in the “social drama” by way of the witty response which focuses on “means or processes rather than ‘substance’.”   And instead of the “family circle” or the school being the basis of education, “character no longer is shaped by only two earnest, fumbling experts. Now all the world’s a sage.” This last pun, playing on Shakespeare, indicates that our new kind of education is, because of the media “buzz”…everywhere.

Juxtaposing a picture of a young boy, McLuhan writes, in a section entitled “Your Neighborhood”: “you can’t go home again.” This section suggests that the child is, so to speak, abandoned to the endless time and space of the media. What is a child to do? Wouldn’t this provoke anxiety? What role does humor or wit play vis-à-vis this child’s new anxiety and homelessness?

Anticipating these questions, McLuhuan writes about “the child” of the past and compares it to “today’s child.”

The “child” is an invention of the seventeenth century; he did not exist in, say, Shakespeare’s day. He had, up until that time, been merged in the adult world and there was nothing that could be called childhood in our sense.

Today’s child is growing up absurd, because he lives in two worlds, and neither of them inclines him to grow up. Growing up – this is our new work, and it is total. Mere instruction will not suffice.

What I find so fascinating about McLuhan’s comments about “today’s child” is the fact that he is describing a “man-child” of sorts (a schlemiel). His description rings an interesting note if it is juxtaposed to A.O. Scott’s recent New York Times Magazine article entitled “The End of Adulthood.”   As I noted in a blog on Scott’s article, Scott finds it nearly impossible –with the sheer amount of films, TV shows, and young adult fiction (read my people in their 30s and 40s – for us to “grow up.”   He sees this problem pronounced in Adam Sandler and Judd Apatow’s popular films. They pronounce the “end of adulthood” and a perpetual adolescence.

If anything, the last words of Scott’s article – “get off my lawn”- show us that he has no solution.

Does McLuhan?

At the very least, he says that “growing up” is our “new work, and it is total.” But, as we saw, this “growing up” has something to do with being witty and ready for anything that comes at one in this “social drama” otherwise known as the media age. However, since he can’t appeal to old models, its not certain what he means by “our work.” It’s as if we have to put the pieces together and in improvising this we will, somehow, “grow up.”

What he suggests, as a way of becoming mature, is a kind of understand of the world we are living in. His descriptions of how we have, because of media, become “responsible for each other” suggest this. We see this in a section entitled “the others.”

The shock of recognition! In an electronic information environment, minority groups can no longer be contained – ignored. Too many people know too much about each other. Our new environment compels commitment and participation. We have become irrevocably involved with, and responsible for, each other.

This suggests that we recognize this “fact” and do something about it. However, there are many problems with this.   Many people may see the news about this or that oppressed group in the world by way of this or that facebook feed, or even by means of humorous media such as The Daily Show or the Colbert Report (amongst others), but who takes this seriously enough to “commit” oneself or “participate.” Do we feel “compelled” to do something by virtue of a facebook feed or comedy episode? What happens when there is media indifference? When there is too much media?

Perhaps it is the case that our inability to grow up (or rather our failure to do so), which Scott accuses us all of, has to do with the fact that though we feel responsible we don’t want to do anything. We’d rather not. After all, its easier to float around the media world which, more often than not, is full of humor.

Unlike Scott, who argued that feminism has something to do with the “end of adulthood,” McLuhan suggests that the process of media is responsible for the latest displacement of adulthood.   His answer is that we should respond to the media around us which “compels” us to “commit” ourselves and “participate.” Yet, somehow, this must be done with wit which, to his mind, is more mature than childish humor.

This opens up many questions as to the distinction between the two. At the very least, he sees humor as the primary modality today for learning and action. Scott seems to see humor as incompatible. What’s the difference?

…to be continued….

One thought on “The Medium is the Message: Marshall McLuhan on Media, Humor, and the Media Child

  1. Marshall McLuhan: I heard what you were saying! You know nothing of my work! You mean my whole fallacy is wrong. How you got to teach a course in anything is totally amazing!

    Alvy Singer: Boy, if life were only like this!

    Great Post! I just watched that you tube Media is the Massage a few weeks ago (again) so ahead of his time.

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