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.
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.