I have to admit that I’m not used to writers in the field of sociology who “refus(e) to moralize” (Scannell 2007, p. 135). So my first reading of Marshall McLuhan’s “The Medium is the Message” was deeply frustrating (1964). It wasn’t until I read Paddy Scannell’s ‘gloss’ that I was able to figure out what kind of mind I was trying to scrutinize. McLuhan is at once talkative and obtuse, hyperbolic yet without judgement. The man simply wanted to understand media – he was the first theorist to bother (Scannell 2007, p. 136). In the spirit of ‘McLuhanism’, I present three works which inspire much chin-stroking and verbosity (up to 500 words of course!)
The Road – Cormac McCarthy
While The Road (2006) is a linear narrative, unlike McLuhan’s preferred ‘mosaic’ form (Scannell 2007, p. 139), McCarthy’s tale begins at the apocalyptic ‘end’ of Western civilization. And the uncertainty of the human race at the novels’ end could hardly be called “narrative closure” (Barthes Eco in Scannell 2007, p. 132). McCarthy rejects generic ‘rules’ of syntax, creating an arbitrary system belonging only to him. At times his writing resembles ‘stream of consciousness’, resulting in the “intimate and involving” prose which both McLuhan and his mentor Harold Innis had judged the exclusive property of orality. This example of metafiction brings the author into the reader’s line of sight (Barthes 1967). In a break from Realism, the medium is self-consciously and unapologetically ‘the novel’, not a claim to render a fictional universality with the grossly inadequate written word.
4’33” – John Cage
What is the medium here? Cage’s masterpiece is a metaphysical question about the “formal properties” of silence (Scannell 2007, p. 134). The composition is a sociologist’s dream : hundreds of listeners struggle to maintain a ‘front’ (Goffman in Abercrombie, Hill & Turner 2000) deafened by their inner monologues, willing hungry tummies to be quiet. The original performance was intimately tied to ‘place’ (Scannell 2007, p. 137), the formal setting and its attendant expected behaviours forming a crucial part of the mediation. Recently the piece was reimagined as a charity single for the Royal British Legion; celebrities performed, recorded and then commodified silence. The organisers also ascribed a social value to the project, citing the “poignancy of silence” as a medium of remembrance (Wallop 2010).
The Ascent – Yehuda Duenyas
This interactive installation allows unadulterated, unmediated brainwaves to ‘perform’ a communicable action. Or does it? Is this transcendental ‘evidence’ a form of communication? And does the EEG-driven apparatus change, expand or limit the message? I’m afraid that is a question for a wiser Zen master than I, but what I do know is that McLuhan would have been intrigued. He speaks prophetically about the “final phase of the extensions of man – the technological simulation of consciousness”, (Scannell 2007, 135) but this installation pushes Singularity theories to their limit, suggesting that one day humans may have technologically mediated quasi-embodied experiences which defy space and time.
Abercrombie, N, Hill, S, & Turner, BS, 2000, Dictionary of Sociology, Penguin Reference, London, p. 155.
Barthes, R 1967, ‘The Death of the Author’, viewed 6 January 2013, <http://www.tbook.constantvzw.org/wp-content/death_authorbarthes.pdf>.
McCarthy, C 2006, The Road, Alfred. A. Knopf, New York.
McLuhan, M 1964, ‘The medium is the message, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, The MIT Press, Massachusetts, pp. 7-21.
Scannell, P 2007. Media and Communication, Sage, London.
The Ascent 2007, Viewed 6 January 2013,
Wallop, H 2010, ‘Two minutes’ silence released as a charity single’, The Telegraph, viewed 6 January 2013, <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/music-news/8115674/Two-minutes-silence-released-as-a-charity-single.html >.