New media to old (and vice versa): Om nom nom

The “content” of a medium is like the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind. 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. (31)

This passage occurs towards the end of the first chapter of McLuhan’s Understanding Media (1964) – the chapter that details his most famous statement: “The medium is the message.” In the context of explicating that statement (explication that, for McLuhan, entails both explanation and further encryption), he makes the above comment about content – or message – as both a distraction from the real issue, form – or medium – and, at the same time, a kind of palimpsest or accretion of legacy media.

McLuhan’s statement that “the medium is the message” became famous as a well-worded, soundbite-friendly wake-up call to pay attention not to the “content” of cultural production but to its “form.” In addition, the way it’s worded suggests that form and content, medium and message, can’t be easily distinguished from each other – they are mutually entangled, mutually constitutive of each other. Treating form and content as separate and opposed tends to oversimplify how cultural production works.

Other scholars and artists have made this point too. As Slavoj Žižek puts it: “form is not the neutral frame of particular contents, but the very principle of concretion” (190). “We need to do more than explain what our texts are saying,” says Romantic literary scholar Jerome McGann; “we need to understand what they are doing in saying what they say” (viii). Henry James, in a personal letter from 1912, anticipates McLuhan’s own statement: “Form is substance,” he writes. “Form alone takes, and holds and preserves, substance” (235).

Understanding this admittedly complicated statement of McLuhan’s is a priority for the student who would succeed in literary, cultural, or media studies. Rutgers U English professor Jack Lynch translates the idea into practical terms: “in an English paper, don’t talk about the ‘real world.’ Talk about writing.”

Don’t assume literature is a transparent window that shows us the real world – it’s not something we can reliably look through. Often it’s more like a painting than a window, and instead of looking through it we should learn to look at it.

Or as I’ve put it, in my own discussions with students, the focus in literary study shouldn’t be on what the text says, but rather on how it says it. Write about the literary work not as though it’s a “window” you can ignore while you watch the scene through it, but instead as though it’s a tapestry: a dense network of textual threads that have as much interest – or more – for their intricate interweaving and connections, as for the scene they show.

So one way McLuhan suggests the mutual constitution of medium and message, as well as the socially determining power of the former, is by giving examples of how new media interact with old. To call old media the content of new media is, first, to describe cultural production as more of a practice of adaptation. While we are accustomed to thinking of art-making as “creation” (according to traditions inherited from Romanticism and the reproduced in the rhetoric of the entertainment industry) – as, instead, more accurately understood as a practice of appropriating and transformatively re-working existing texts, genres, and discourses. As McLuhan’s colleague at the U of Toronto also observed, “Poetry can only be made out of other poems; novels out of other novels” (97). Hence, Linda Hutcheon appropriates this very passage from McLuhan as a fitting epigraph for A Theory of Adaptation (2006).

“The content of a movie is a novel or a play or an opera.” Any text you can think of – and by “text” I mean any kind of cultural production (movie, novel, play, opera, etc.) – is to a greater or lesser extent an adaptation of other existing texts and conventions; nothing gets created out of nothing. Even William Wordsworth, exemplar of Romantic originality, wrote his celebrated poetry by responding to and reworking an extensive repertoire of earlier literature (Hayden 215).

Here’s an example from one of Western culture’s most adapted – and adaptive – playwrights, Shakespeare. His play King Lear – itself an adaptation of a story from medieval Anglo-Celtic folklore – provides source material adapted by Japanese director Akiro Kurasawa, for the feudal epic Ran; or by Margaret Atwood, for the novel Cat’s Eye, whose beleaguered protagonist is named after Lear’s dutiful but persecuted daughter Cordelia. And every production of a dramatic script is is own adaptation. The 1993 staging of Lear by London’s Royal Shakespeare Company presented a postmodern historical pastiche, with characters starting out in period costume but then appearing in progressively more modern garb. By the ultraviolent finale, characters looked like they had arrived onstage from the killing fields of Serbia and Croatia. The production’s ironic costuming and prop strategies thus turned Shakespeare’s play into a critique of ethnic nationalism, and even of modernity’s master narrative, progress.

Now, McLuhan, for his part, isn’t interested so much in adaptations of texts and genres but in adaptations of media, as institutions, to one another. The point of observing that the content of a movie is a play is to illustrate how new media adapt, interact with, and – as he tends to see it – integrate and assimilate older media. The content of commercial radio in its early days was a compbination of drama adapted from stage, journalism adapted from print, performed music, and recorded music. The tiny iPod has eaten the giant jukebox. The tablet screen I’m typing these words on is also the typewriter. The desktop computer is often cited as the apotheosis of media convergence (I’ll get back to the example pictured here).


From left: tube amp, iMac, scanner, printer on speaker

McLuhan, deeply engaged with issues of modernity, tended to see media change and development in terms of epochs and revolutions, as though they succeed one another and make each other obsolete: video killed the radio star. He was surrounded by kids who took to television in a way that books seemed unable to compete with. McLuhan’s comment aout old media as the content of new implies something of this sense of turnover and perennila obsolescence: if a play is the content of a movie, then plays are on the way out. This is patently false, of course, and more recent scholarship has both critiqued this premise of McLuhan’s work (among others) and extended McLuhan’s investigatons of how new and old media interact, suggesting instead that emergent media negotiate and make accommodations with existing media. Bolter and Grusin suggest the term “remediation” to describe how new media both incorporate old media and strive to seem “immediate,” or transparent. Henry Jenkins’ term for the interaction of new and old media, and the consequent blurring of distinctions between producers and consumers, is convergence culture.

To give a few examples: The novel’s conventions changed after the advent of film, plays as easily incorporate video as video adapts drama, and video games and movies are constantly turning into each other. A decade’s worth of file-sharing has also been a decade of growing and sometimes record profits for big entertainment industries. The popularization of computing has entailed not the paperless office or ubiquitous telecommuting, but more paperwork (literally) and new laws to regulate computing while commuting. My family computer functions as a radio, a CD player, a DVD player, a TV, a game console, a photo album, and a film studio. It also, sometimes, serves as a computer. But this is a two-way street: as far as my big old vacuum-tube amplifier is concerned, the computer is just one input channel, no different than the cassette deck also hooked up to it. serves as just one input for my big old vacuum-tube amplifier and vegetable-crate sized speakers.

McLuhan himself later “discovered a better way of saying the medium is the message,” as follows: “Each technology creates a new environment” (qtd. in Gordon 175). He thought this wording better addresses how media strive for “immediacy,” how they become taken for granted, invisible, and natural in their social implementation – and thus how they effect their most profound transformations on subjectivity and society, time and space.

Works Cited

Bolter, Jay David, and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge: MIT P, 1999.

Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1957.

Gordon, W. Terrence. Marshall McLuhan: Escape into Understanding. Toronto: Stoddart, 1997.

Hayden, John O. “The Road to Tintern Abbey.” Wordsworth Circle 12.4 (1981): 211-16.

Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Adaptation. New York: Routledge, 2006.

James, Henry. Letter to Hugh Walpole (19 May 1912). Rpt. in Novelists on the Novel. Ed. Miriam Allott. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, ca. 1959. 235.

Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York UP, 2006.

Lynch, Jack. “Writing about the Real World.” Getting an A on an English Paper. Rutgers U, n.d.

McGann, Jerome. Social Values and Poetic Acts: The Historical Judgment of Literary Work. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1988.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964). Corte Madera: Gingko P, 2003.

Žižek, Slavoj. “Afterword,” in Lenin, Vladimir Ilyich. Revolution at the Gates: A Selection of Writings from February to October 1917. Ed. Slavoj Žižek. London: Verso, 2002.


7 responses to “New media to old (and vice versa): Om nom nom

  1. Sir,
    If I may respectfully argue, you open your blog entry with this quote from Marshall McLuhan: “The “content” of a medium is like the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind” (a paraphrase of Eliot on poetry). However, you then, I would suggest, miss the point when you say:
    “…to pay attention not to the “content” of cultural production but to its “form.””

    McLuhan, in the first paragraph of the first chapter from Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, explains precisely what he means by his statement “the medium is the message” (first uttered in 1958 in Vancouver):
    “This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium—that is, of any extension of ourselves—result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology.

    It is a popular error to interpret his ‘enigmatic’ phrase so: ‘McLuhan is saying that it’s not the content, but the FORM which is important’, or ‘it’s not what you say, it’s HOW you say it. But these are errors.

    If one looks to McLuhan’s definition of ‘medium’, in the second paragraph, it make a lot more sense. While he doesn’t say “when I say ‘media’ I mean ‘environments’, McLuhan does make plain that when he’s speaking of a ‘medium’ he’s not talking about a piece of hardware like a television set, but about the consequences of a particular technology.

    Please pardon my insolence,

    Andrew McLuhan

    • Thanks, Andrew. You make an important point, it’s just that I had thought my post was making it too – in maybe too roundabout a way. The post has two motivations: 1) specifically, to explicate the idea of media as the “content” of other media; 2) generally, to draw on McLuhan’s ideas to help students in literary studies get a grasp on analyzing form.

      While I do start my discussion of McLuhan’s statement as you quote, it doesn’t end there, but rather with (what I had intended as) the more nuanced, dialectical understanding that “medium and message […] are mutually entangled, mutually constitutive of each other.” My opening description isn’t the conclusion I arrive at, it’s where I start the discussion, particularly for students who may be accustomed to approaching literature with simplistic assumptions about looking for what a work “means” or “symbolizes.” Pedagogically, it seems to make more sense to start out by challenging assumptions that privilege “content” over “form” than by suggesting the whole form-content distinction is untenable. However, I appreciate that this approach does replicate the popular (pernicious?) idea that McLuhan’s statement is enigmatic – reinforcing its mystification certainly isn’t the desired effect.

      I trust the post’s closing paragraph better reflects the meaning of McLuhan’s core idea, in quoting his own revision of it.

      Thanks again for your thoughtful comment, and for taking the time to share it.

  2. Mark: Your essay brings up the interesting question of the distinction between form and medium. Andrew has said that media, according to McLuhan, is not reducible to a piece of hardware. That is, the book is not “simply” the assemblage of ink and paper and alphabet. It is also the spread of literacy and the protestant reformation. The ink and paper are, strictly speaking, the hardware of the book. The software is language, and its attendant forms.

    And yet, I can’t help but think that the word “scale” in the quote Andrew wielded refers more to the hardware than the software. It was the steam-cylinder press, after all, that enabled the circulation of newspapers to make leaps and bounds in the nineteenth century. Scale concerns quantity, not quality. Even though McLuhan’s conception of a medium encompasses more than just the hardware, it is the hardware that becomes the extension of our bodies, and the forms through which these extensions communicate are like the patterns of the nerve system that enables us to control these extensions.

    Pedagogically speaking, I find McLuhan’s conception of medium too broad and all-encompassing; it becomes almost semantically empty. To distinguish it from the idea of form, which I relate to software, I prefer to relate it to hardware.

  3. Mark – thanks for allowing me to wade in. I don’t mean to be argumentative for the sake of being disagreeable; I think that dialogue is important to find understanding.

    Your closing paragraph does indeed do what you say in your reply to my comment. I believe it is important (especially for teachers) to differentiate between the modern use of the word ‘medium’, which today is understood as a piece of hardware, and ‘media’, which today people reduce to ‘the media’ or just news media; and McLuhan’s meaning of the word as it signifies an entire ‘environment of services and disservices’ – much beyond a simple piece of hardware.

    Trevor, you mention the word ‘scale’ which is important as McLuhan said that the ‘message’ is the new scale introduced by media. But again, he wasn’t talking about the hardware itself, but of the environment which the hardware brings with it. The hardware is obviously relevant as a catalyst (or enabler) – but it’s the environment which introduces the new scale.

    Many people find McLuhan’s definition of medium too broad – and I think that’s why they try to reduce it to a definition of hardware. But the message is in the broad and all-encompassing definition of medium as environment.

    But these are my thoughts, and I am just a student myself, searching for meaning and understanding.

  4. If we look to McLuhan’s revised statement – “each technology creates a new environment” – together with his central statement of this environment’s effect – “the new scale that is introduced into our affairs” – then maybe we get a clearer sense of his main idea here.
    By technology, McLuhan does at one level mean “hardware”: Understanding Media is a catalogue of such hardwares and their effects, and The Medium is the Massage provides a pared-down version (pages 30-40) – e.g. wheel, book, clothing, circuit.
    But McLuhan includes “psychic” as well as “physical” media among these extensions,” and this inclusion does considerably broaden his definition of media (so as to include software, then). But as I read it, his definition doesn’t broaden to the point that the medium means the same thing as with environment: as you both suggest, a medium or technology “enables” or “catalyzes” a new environment – it’s a cause-effect relationship.
    Consequently, “scale” is ambiguous enough in McLuhan’s writing, I think, to mean both: 1) the “ratio among the senses” that he ranked among the most important and widespread effects of media-made environments; and 2) the industrial-economic sense of “scale” (as in “economies of scale”) that, as Trevor indicates, “concern quantity” and that, in McLuhan’s theory, manifests as concern over “the global village.”
    In short, I think the debate here is revealing some important points of agreement on the interpretation of McLuhan’s thesis (which of course need never be a singular interpretation anyway).

    Trevor: to answer your initial question, I don’t know of research that investigates the form-medium connection. John Guillory provides an interesting historical account of the word media: see his “Genesis of the Media Concept” in Critical Inquiry 36 (2010). And Mark Rose recounts the origins and development of the concept of form in 18th-century German Romantic theory; see Authors and Owners, p. 131.

    Andrew: on a tangential, more personal note, I want to commend you for your critical engagement and how you’re conducting it. I can’t imagine how I personally would deal with so many people (a global villageful, really) who presume to know so well the ideas and thoughts of one’s own grandfather.

  5. I enjoy discussion, as did Marshall McLuhan. Marshall’s collaborative work is plainly recognized – sometimes as a criticism. However, he used conversation (collaboration) as a tool for learning and developing his ideas. As a student, it helps enhance my learning and refine my understanding.

    I have a ‘google alert’ for ‘Marshall McLuhan’. While I can’t comment on every blog which mentions ‘the medium is the message’, for example, I do try to weigh in on occasion, especially where there is a chance for conversation and discussion.

    Thank you for making this exchange a positively critical one.

  6. Mark: thanks for the pointer from AU Landing to your post on McLuhan. I’ve never been a fan of McLuhan’s, and I’m certainly far from an expert on his work, but I can’t resist weighing-in on this one. I’ve always thought about McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” claim in Hegelian/Marxist terms, not because he prescribed it, but because it seems, at least to me, to clarify what McLuhan struggles to find the concepts and words to express.
    I really don’t think it’s about “adaptations” of media, or iPods “consuming” jukeboxes, or computers typewriters. And I don’t think it’s about old media being the “content” of new. Nor do I think it’s about “remediation” and “incorporation.” What I see McLuhan struggling to express is the process of negation/sublimation, the movement from one concrete particular to another.
    I don’t want to get tangled up in the intricacies of Hegel’s thought, or debates regarding what Hegel “really” meant (about as useful as trying to identify what McLuhan “really” meant!), but reading McLuhan with Hegel’s concepts provides, I believe, a much clearer vision of what McLuhan is talking around.
    If we look to Marx’s Hegelian analysis of capitalism, he clearly identifies a number of modes of production that precede and pre-date the capitalist mode of production, feudalist, mercantilist, barter (and you could even through in Strauss’s pot-latch economy). Marx’s point is that something very strange occurs once capitalism takes the stage:
    “In all forms of society there is one specific kind of production which predominates over the rest, whose relations thus assign rank and influence to the others. It is a general illumination which bathes all the other colours and modifies their particularity. It is a particular ether which determines the specific gravity of every being which has materialized within it.”
    Once capitalism emerges, every perspective that preceded it is reinterpreted, recolored, as an instance in a chain of inevitable events leading up to capitalism’s ineluctable emergence.
    Capitalism is not just another particular mode of production among a range of others, it is a concrete particular: it is, at once, a species of production and the genus itself–no one even thought about modes of production in a systematic way before capitalism. Capitalism provides the framework to make sense of itself and all that preceded it. It’s more than a substance/form distinction, capitalism “is a general illumination which bathes all the other colours and modifies their particularity.” In this sense, one could say capitalism introduces a new “scale,” a new symbolic order that reinterprets all that preceded it.
    The key to this process is its retroactivity, a retroactivity that reaches back and creates a teleology that declares its own inevitability. A more trite example can be found in literary genres. Think, for instance, of the many science fictions novels that “preceded” Gibson’s Neuromancer but simply remained as particular instances of novels without a genre until the genre of Cyberpunk emerged with Neuromancer to redeem them as precursors to a new present. A rather telling comment accompanies a Wikipedia listing of cyberpunk novels: “These works could be labeled cyberpunk’s “precursors”, but a causal connection is not always clear.” That’s because cause and effect are reversed–once the event takes place, everything is reinterpreted as a series of causes leading up to the event.
    I think McLuhan is trying to draw our attention to this process of sublimation, cautioning us to remain cognizant that media have the potential to provide the framework for making sense of themselves and can thereby subsume all preceding media in the process.
    But unlike capitalism or Cyberpunk, we haven’t yet experienced a medium that is capable of functioning as a concrete particular, of sublimating all the others, and this is what makes McLuhan’s caution a little confusing.
    Anyway, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it!

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