McLuhan Said “The Medium Is The Message”; Two Pieces Of Media Decode the Famous Phrase

For my money, “I don’t necessarily agree with everything I say” tops the list of Marshall McLuhan-isms, followed closely and at times surpassed by “You don’t like those ideas? I got others.” Many prefer the immortal “You know nothing of my work!”, the line McLuhan delivers during his brief appearance in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. In 1977, the same year Allen’s protagonist would summon him to defeat that pontificating academic, McLuhan flew to Sydney to deliver a lecture. Then, for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Radio National, he recorded a program answering questions from students, nuns, and others about his views on media. (Find Part 1 above, and Parts 2 and 3 here and here.) McLuhan happened to view media in a way nobody else did at the time, and the fields of media studies and media theory would go on to develop in large part from his work. This Joyce-loving, God-fearing, sixteenth-century-pamphlet-studying professor of English literature nevertheless deployed modern sound bites with as much industry as he scrutinized them. Hence the endurance, over thirty years after his death and over forty years past the peak of his popularity, of “The medium is the message,” a phrase that, seemingly since the moment McLuhan first uttered it, has stood as a lightning rod to his detractors.

Very often, someone will insist that, no, the content of a message matters too, making the pronouncement with the attitude of having seen through the emperor’s clothes. A disembodied voice makes a similar criticism of McLuhan’s critics in The Medium is the Massage, the 1968 album that mirrors both the content and the dense, experimental visual collage form of McLuhan and graphic designer Quentin Fiore’s eponymous book. Listen to the album (side A, side B) at UBUweb’s Marshall McLuhan sound archive and get an aural glimpse into the mind that, upon receiving a proof of his book back from the printer’s with the title misspelled, suddenly realized that only the word Massage, with connotations of the mass media in whose age he lived, expressed the full extent of his meaning. But he did believe that the very existence of the telephone or television, and the effects of their existence on humanity as a whole, made for an infinitely richer object of study than whatever content humans happened to send across them. Through the pieces of media in this post, you can see and hear McLuhan expand upon this idea in his deliberate, oratorically metaphorical, sometimes maddeningly oblique manner. He works through the implications of, extensions of, and possible contradictions to this oddly robust notion, which some, in our hypercommunicative, endlessly mediated internet age, would in hindsight call prophecy.

Related content:

Marshall McLuhan on the Stupidest Debate in the History of Debating

Marshall McLuhan: The World is a Global Village

Norman Mailer & Marshall McLuhan Debate the Electronic Age

Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.


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