Pivotal Terms in Media Ecology: A Dialogue

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"The Medium Is the Message"

PZ: "The medium is the message" is an ambiguous line, making it even more seminal.

One read: The MEDIUM is the message. This is the MEA orientation.

Another read: The medium IS the message. This is the rhetorical orientation. In John Dewey's words, "it is a vehicle which becomes one with what it carries; it coalesces with what it conveys."1

Did McLuhan actually start with the latter - the rhetorical understanding, and then, through a strategic (or tactical) shift of focus (which is a rhetorical exercise), arrived at the former emphasis?

There are at least two pages explicating this dictum in The Book of Probes. It should be fair game to seek to enrich the exegesis.

EM: Dewey's use of "vehicle" (possible reference to the tenor/vehicle theory of literary criticism) puts him in the Shannon/Weaver camp. He has no sense of ground. Read Understanding Media, Chapter One, page one, first two to three paragraphs. McLuhan is careful to indicate exactly what he means by "medium." Perhaps the best interpretation is "the medium is the message." By "medium," McLuhan means environment or milieu, a total situation.

PZ: Does this make the situationists "natural" media ecologists? Two quotes from Dewey seem to indicate his ground awareness:

"... the nostalgia of the mountain-bred man when cut off from his surroundings is proof how deeply environment has become part of his being."2

"An 'inner' rational check is a sign of withdrawal from reality unless it is a reflection of substantial environing forces."3

EM: True/serious art always issues forged checks. (Ever read Ezra Pound's "The Serious Artist?" Strongly recommended.) A major character in Finnegan's Wake, Jim the Penman is both artist (writer) and forger ("penman" - slang). Fd hope to understand "withdrawal from reality" to mean numb stance = withdrawal into awareness, but I don't think that's what Dewey means by it. He's waxing a little too philosophical much of the time.

PZ: "Withdrawal from reality" means not having awareness, I think.

The Shannon/Weaver model aspires to an ideal communication situation (and therefore reminds me of Jürgen Habermas), in which the vehicle is transparent, and therefore ignorable. Dewey sees a sense of oneness between vehicle and what it carries - herein lies a rhetorical sensibility. McLuhan takes a giant step further by shifting attention to vehicle, understood as a hidden environment, rather than simply as part of a mechanistically conceived figure. Put otherwise, McLuhanism foregrounds the ground, or reverses figure and ground. This is the hardest thing to do for the visually (as against acoustically) oriented Westerner.

Dewey's point about the oneness of vehicle and what it carries calls to mind (but also differs from) Nietzsche's point about the reversal of form and content (to the effect that form is content whereas content is merely formal) by the artist.

Kenneth Burke's sense of "scene" is a giant step closer to McLuhan's sense of ground. (The pentad, made up of scene, act, agent, agency, and purpose, is central to Burke's dramatistic study of communication.) But there is still a lingering visual orientation in his or, to be more precise, his followers' understanding of "scene." A weak (twisted, non-Burkean) understanding of Burke goes: we are objects in a visually conceived scene or setting, impacting and impacted by each other like billiards. A strong rhetorical sensibility, by contrast, is ground oriented: ethos and pathos are more deadly than mere logos. A political manifesto that is divorced from the collective unconscious (that does not flow from the collective desire) is easily contained and defused. By contrast, a new medium has the irresistible potency to change everything. This gets us to rethink revolutions, 1989, the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, and so on. …