While reading Understanding Media, I was really grateful for KF’s tip about not trying too hard to make logical sense out of McLuhan’s arguments. He has a tendency to bury seemingly key points in clouds of weird speculation, and the essays seem booby-trapped with headache-inducing rhetorical turns to confuse the unsuspecting reader.
On the whole, though, I found the reading engaging, thought-provoking, and (dare I say it?) fun. I read a little bit of McLuhan for a class last year and came away frustrated. Now, after slogging through 60+ pages of the stuff, I think I’m finally starting to get it.
McLuhan has a playful, idiosyncratic style, atypical of most academic writing but (I think) appropriate to the argument(s) he’s trying to make. Namely, that the medium is the message, and that form and function are always interrelated. McLuhan’s style isn’t just ornamentation, or worse, obfuscation, it’s important to the substance and rhetorical impact of his writing. However, for all the good work it does in support of the relationship of form and function, style is also what makes McLuhan a frustrating read: there’s a definite irony in trying to describe the pitfalls of print culture in, well, print.
In general, I found it helpful to keep in mind that his weird speculative ideas are just that: speculative. Which is not to say that they’re baseless, simply that he had to do a lot of extrapolating from limited information to develop his theories, well before “media studies” existed as an academic discipline. A lot of the work he’s doing is just trying to figure out how to analyze media. Some of his approaches caught on, while others just seem wacky and convoluted to today’s media-savvy readers.
McLuhan himself argues that “in the electric age there is no longer any sense in talking about the artist’s being ahead of his time” (65). There are, however, many respects in which McLuhan seems very much ahead of his time, especially considering he was writing only about thirty years after the invention of television, and at least thirty years before the widespread availability of personal computers and the Internet.
Interesting side note: As I did the reading this weekend, I periodically updated my Facebook status with odd/funny quotes from the essays. (I’m experimenting with actually “going paperless” for this class and doing the reading on my computer, so it seemed natural to flip back and forth between Adobe Reader and the tab in Firefox I leave perpetually open to Facebook, and I happen to know a few media theory geeks who I thought might be amused. They were.)
I was totally oblivious to the thought that my (distr)action bore any relation to the content of the class or the reading…until now, that is! McLuhan is right: each new technological extension of ourselves significantly but imperceptibly alters our ways of thinking, acting, and interacting. Far from being dated or outmoded, many of the tendencies he observed in the 1960s have been amplified by the Internet, and I’d argue, especially by social media like Facebook.
Would McLuhan consider Facebook (or social networking sites in general, or chatrooms, or any kind of real-time-ish written communication online) to be “hot” or “cold” media? Is the distinction, as described by McLuhan, still relevant today?