Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Medium?

In this house most of our books are in the attic on sturdy shelves I bought at Home Depot. The grand wall-to-walls of our biggest house, St. Albans Hotel, we called it, are no more. Books in current use occupy various diasporas. A cluster lives in my basement “office,” another in my actual office; we have bedroom libraries, his and hers, with resident books that after long or short sojourns return home again. We have three diasporas on the main floor too, on shelves in Brigitte’s office and in the living room, and out in the sunroom are less organized aggregates more or less helter-skelter in stacks. As luck would have it—this situation keeps me slim—the book I want is rarely on the floor where I happen to be; so up I go two flights to fetch the book, forget to repatriate it, hence the next time I go down two flights, etc. In one of these passes, up in the attic, my eye fell on a volume that has achieved honorable retirement: Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. This once very popular book by Marshall McLuhan, published in 1964, was the source of a phrase that has persisted: “The medium is the message.” I’d read the book, and here it was again. With it came that strange cloudy feeling in which the impression the book had left is there again as a kind of mood. This book was part of a prophetic upsurge in those times, prostate before the clay feet of technology, much as the counterculture dreamt of The Greening of America. Neither cult appealed to me, but I did perceive a certain bright originality in Marshall McLuhan.

The medium is the message? This phrase, alas, suffers from a deep flaw in the modern understanding of reality. It assumes that structures, objects, things communicate. Marshall McLuhan was, you might say, merely updating Emerson who said the same thing midway through the nineteenth century at a higher level of abstraction:

The horseman serves the horse,
The neat-herd serves the neat,
The merchant serves the purse,
The eater serves his meat;
‘Tis the day of the chattel,
Web to weave, and corn to grind,
Things are in the saddle,
And ride mankind.
       [Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Ode Inscribed to William H. Channing”]

My attic experience lies about a month in the past, but it came back to me with a rush as I was reading the New York Times this morning. There was another cloud there, in my chest, another mood that wished to be rendered into concepts. And the concept hidden in the murk was, “It’s the intention that’s the message, and the medium be damned.”

Experience supports me. I well remember how, after we met in Germany, Brigitte and I used to watch television, German television—back when a single channel, which said good-night at midnight, did all the work. That kind of television sent quite a different message and, in effect, contradicted, by our own experience, what McLuhan claimed, namely that the content didn’t matter; it was the medium itself that spoke the volumes. On the contrary. The intention behind German television then reflected a noble intention. It intended to serve a public in a quite conscious way, and the content reflected that. The seasoned woodman knows his woods and the merest branch or rock or shade tells him of hidden things. So it is in other realms. The right nose can smell the intention behind every communication, however it may be packaged. And once you discern the intention, you already know how the content will be shaped.

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