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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  • Fr.Kirupakaran says:

    The insights of the Real­i­ty cre­at­ed by the Media prestine­ly put for­ward in a lan­guage of some final­i­ty by the Apos­tle of Media Cul­ture Analy­sis Mar­shal McLuhan still hold good call­ing for deep­er reflec­tion. They keep the Stu­dents of Media Analy­sis alive, awake and alert. May be we need to reread McLuhan with our foot­notes of mul­ti­pli­ca­tion, indi­vid­u­al­i­sa­tion, neb­u­lous and bot­tom­less graph­i­cal­i­sa­tion and pre­sen­ta­tion with­out ethics to those con­cepts of his for chang­ing times. Fr.Kirupakaran, Tuti­corin, Tamil­nadu, India

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