Geo Barcan: Marshall McLuhan - Understanding Media

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Marshall McLuhan - UNDERSTANDING MEDIA (part I)


"Media Hot and Cold", "Reversal of the Overheated Medium", "The Gadget Lover: Narcissus as Narcosis" (1964)

Key terminology & ideas

  • global village
  • predicted the World Wide Web
  • medium is the message
  • we are shaped by the media, not media shapes us
  • we lost control of the media
  • craving for stimulation
  • overstimulation from too many media
  • the eye, the ear
  • the tactile senses: touch screens? → tactile technology
  • media interacts with our body and brain ⇒ reading ⇒ thinking in straight lines





  1. the extension thesis [everything that extends the human body is media ⇒ broad definition of media]


⇒ I would however argue that the book is not only an extension of the eye, but an extension of the whole body as it has the capacity to trigger bodily reactions. Of course, not to extent that a movie can, as I believe that we have become a bit immune to that after being so accustomed to many stimuli and triggers. So from a neuroscietific point of view, the literature has the power to transpose the human body to different places, to tense our muscles, to make us cry or to create other involuntary reaction. I believe that a book is not just about visualisation, but it rather involves many other senses.



2. the environmental thesis [the media surrounding us are like water to a fish]

the new media are not bridges between man nature, they are nature.

INSTRUMENTALISM ⇒ substantivism = understanding media as substances, just like water is the substance a fish swims through and air to a primate

  • we may not actually be able to consciously reflect upon the media environment we are so entertained which might seem so natural to our circumstances ⇒ media are not instruments through which we interact with the world but they form the world.

Media deterministic views:

Determinism is the philosophical view that all events are determined completely by previously existing causes. Deterministic theories throughout the history of philosophy have sprung from diverse and sometimes overlapping motives and considerations. The opposite of determinism is some kind of indeterminism (otherwise called nondeterminism) or randomness. Determinism is often contrasted with free will.


⇒ "we shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us" [McLuhan], but the "we" that are shaping those tools are not prestine entities, free and separable from the tools that have already shaped us. the extensions of our bodies help us to interact with the world, so for us to keep on creating tools some other preexisting ones need to exist.


3. the anti-content thesis [media cannot be understood through their content ⇒ the medium is the message. it is the media itself that changes our lives, not its content]

  • Historical changes and revolutions are the products of developments in media technologies that change the substance of our environment that changes the way we engage and exist in that environment.
  • electric light is a medium without content
  • avoiding the narcotic effects of media = don't be lured into mistaking the medium's content for its meaning



"Today, after more than a century of electric technology, we have extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace, abolishing both space and time as far as our planet is concerned. Rapidly, we approach the final phase of the extensions of man-the technological simulation of consciousness when the creative process of knowing will be collectively and corporately extended to the whole of human society, much as we have already extended our senses and our nerves by the various media. " → internet

  • extensions of man
  • central nervous system extended to the whole mankind → consequences of action
  • THE AGE OF ANXIETY: for the reason of the electric implosion that compels commitment and participation, quite regardless of any "point of view". → If the Nineteenth century was the age of the editorial chair, ours is the century of the psychiatrist's couch. → The psychiatrist employs the couch, since it removes the temptation to express private points of view and obviates the need to rationalise events.

 Art in the Age of Anxiety by Kholeif

"Today the action and reaction occur almost at the same time".

The Medium is the Message

(...) the technique of fragmentation is the essence of machine technology.

  • The content of media is irrelevant to understanding the effect media have

The electric light escapes attention as a communication medium just because it has no "content." And this makes it an invaluable instance of how people fail to study media at all. For it is not till the electric light is used to spell out some brand name that it is noticed as a medium. Then it is not the light but the "content" (or what is really another medium) that is noticed. The message of the electric light is like the message of electric power in industry, totally radical, pervasive, and decentralized. For electric light and power are separate from their uses, yet they eliminate time and space factors in human association exactly as do radio, telegraph, telephone, and TV, creating involvement in depth. → Media eliminates time and space?

(...) mechanisation is achieved by fragmentation of any process and by putting the fragmented parts in a series.

In other words, cubism, by giving the inside and outside, the top, bottom, back, and front and the rest, in two dimensions, drops the illusion of perspective in favor of instant sensory awareness of the whole. Cubism, by seizing on instant total awareness, suddenly announced that the medium is the message.

in the past, the message was the "content", but now we are in the age of the "total field", of simultaneity instead if sequencing → form and function as unity

A Passage 'to India by E. M. Forster is a dramatic study of the inability of oral and intuitive oriental culture to meet with the rational, visual European patterns of experience. "Rational," of course, has for the West long meant "uniform and continuous and sequential." In other words, we have confused reason with literacy, and rationalism with a single technology. Thus in the electric age man seems to the conventional West to become irrational.

We are no more prepared to encounter radio and TV in our literate milieu than the native of Ghana is able to cope with the literacy that takes him out of his collective tribal world and beaches him in individual isolation. We are as numb in our new electric world as the native involved in our literate and mechanical culture. [zine]

It is in our I.Q. testing that we have produced the greatest flood of misbegottten standards. Unaware of our typographic cultural bias, our testers assume that uniform and continuous habits are a sign of intelligence, thus eliminating the ear man and the tactile man.

The effect of the medium is made strong and intense just because it is given another medium as "content." The content of a movie is a novel or a play or an opera. The effect of the movie form is not related to its program content. The "content" of writing or print is speech, but the reader is almost entirely unaware either of print or of speech.

For the man in a literate and homogenized society ceases to be sensitive to the diverse and discontinuous life of forms. He acquires the illusion of the third dimension and the "private point of view" as part of his Narcissus fixation, and is quite shut off from Blake's awareness or that of the Psalmist, that we become what w:e behold.


Media Hot and Cold

  • hot medium → high definition = High definition is the state of being well filled with data. A photograph is, visually, "high definition. ⇒ low participation ⇒ fragmentation

⇒ Any hot medium allows of less participation than a cool one, as a lecture makes for less participation than a seminar, and a hook for less than dialogue.

  • cool medium → low definition = And speech is a cool medium of low definition, because so little is given and so much has to be filled in by the listener. ⇒ high participation


  • Media is always in a constant interplay with other media

  • effect vs. meaning

For myth is the instant vision of a complex process that ordinarily extends over a long period. Myth is contraction or implosion of any process, and the instant speed of electricity confers the mythic dimension on ordinary industrial and social action today. We live mythically but continue to think fragmentarily and on single planes.

The effect of electric technology had at first been anxiety. Now it appears to create boredom. We have been through the three stages of alarm, resistance, and exhaustion that occur in every disease or stress of life, whether individual or collective. ————————→ ANXIETY ————————>THE AGE OF ANXIETY: for the reason of the electric implosion that compels commitment and participation, quite regardless of any "point of view". → If the Nineteenth century was the age of the editorial chair, ours is the century of the psychiatrist's couch. → The psychiatrist employs the couch, since it removes the temptation to express private points of view and obviates the need to rationalise events.

Marshall McLuhan - UNDERSTANDING MEDIA (part II), case study 


McLuhan begins this chapter by pointing out that in England, the movie theatre used to be called “The Bioscope, because of its visual presentation of the actual movements of the forms of life (from Greek bios, way of life )”.

This opening statement shaped my understanding of the chapter, as I believe that there are reverberations of  the idea of the Bioscope in our contemporary times. Unfortunately, McLuhan died before seeing how much visual media will penetrate our lives, from the internet, to interactive street ads, to billboards and so on.

So I would like to argue, from a contemporary standpoint that the Bioscope is a more appropriate name for cinema nowadays than for the moving pictures of the early 20th century. Hence today, name of the Bioscope does not only extend to the use of the film medium for scientific, anatomical purposes, as it did in its early ages, but it reflects the transfer of the skin of the film onto us. The moving image is present in our daily lives to the extent that it defines who we are, as a Western society. It is present on the bus, in the toilet, in our beds, at the dinner table and so on.

The Bioscope is our current biological habitat.

  • In an earlier chapter, McLuhan states that media generates other media.
  • He furthers this idea by stressing that there are similarities in the reactions they generate between printed media and the cinema.

“The reader in projecting words, as it were, has to follow the black and white sequences of stills that is typography, providing his own sound track. He tries to follow the contours of the author's mind, at varying speeds and with various illusions of understanding. It would be difficult to exaggerate the bond between print and movie in terms of their power to generate fantasy in the viewer or reader.” (p. 285)

  • In this sense, both of these mediums serve as a form of escapism, of generating fantasy.
  • Hence, our ability to accept the film form, hence the sequencing, is due to the pre-existence of the printed word.

All one need do is to imagine for a moment a film based on newspaper form in order to see how close film is to book.” (p. 286)

  • He demonstrates that natives, who did not have as much contact with the literary form, will find it difficult to accept the tropes of film or simply to suspend their disbelief, as one does when accepting the “illusions” of cinema.

McLuhan stresses that at the core of the cinematic form is sequencing, which orginated in the “typographic fragmentation”.

  • Sequencing has extended to the fragmented perception we have of the events in our lives.
  • Today, sequencing is scrolling through Instagram or looking at Youtube recommendation, it is opening too many tabs in your browser.
  • In this sense, our bodies had to adapt to this scattered, erratic abundance of media. See for example, how our eyes move when looking at a screen or an editorial page in a magazine.

The widespread nature of cinema has changed the course of other media as well. MuLuhan gives the example of literary forms, in the sense than a writer no longer has to express what a film can do. => symbolism

He also mentions the relationship between theater and the cinema, saying that the illusions of theatre are less believable than the ones created by film.

However, I would like to mention that in the beginning, cinema was very much like theatre. It is also interesting to think about how the moving image influenced theatre today.

“The stage and TV can make do with very rough approximations, because they offer an image of low definition that evades detailed scrutiny.” (p. 288)

  • Thoughts are like editing, like cuts and jump cuts, like POV shots.

“Yet film and the stream of consciousness alike seemed to provide a deeply desired release from the mechanical world of increasing standardization and uniformity.”

  • But film editing has also give new possibilities to the human mind, such as the bird’s eye view, extreme close-ups, and the possibility to see things from impossible perspectives to the human body.
  • Cinema has expanded and changed the possibilities and perceptions of the human body

McLuhan, in his visionary theories anticipated that the movie theatre and the TV will be constantly present in our pockets…

“At the present time, film is still in its manuscript phase, as it were; shortly it will, under TV pressure, go into its portable, accessible, printed book phase. Soon everyone will be able to have a small, inexpensive­ film projector that plays an 8-mm sound cartridge as if on a TV screen.” (291)

McLuhan did point to the fact that TV and cinema will merge, anticipating the boom of streaming programs. He did mention however that TV had a lower quality than the movies, providing realism rather than dreams.

He observes that Hollywood is selling the American dream, bringing the capitalist lifestyle to places it has not been thought of before, implanting dreams of a fake lavish lifestyle (see page 291).

“It is, therefore, not accidental that the movie has excelled as a medium that offers poor people roles of riches and power beyond the dreams of avarice.” =>  similarities with Keeping up with the Kardashians, The Simple Life, Youtube stars allowing the viewer into every minute of their life, Instagram stories.

Due to the circulation of movies and the growing Hollywood industry, “(…) the American way of life was exported to the entire world in cans.”