I find reading McLuhan (father and/or son) fascinating because of why some, on the face of it, pretty weird ideas are quite important for understanding how to be effective professional communicators. It’s going to take a few posts to get there, but hang on to the story.
Laws of Media spends a lot of the first chapter contrasting ancient Greek* ways of engaging with the world and articulating thought in speech, song, and writing with the functionally equivalent activities in the Enlightenment and Victorian era. I say Victorian era because the mode of thinking that McLuhan calls the visual mode of conceiving of your experience began slipping from its dominance in the West in the early 20th century.
|Western culture has made a romantic idol out of ancient|
Greek culture ever since the Romans, and we've since
added Roman culture to our historical pantheon.
* Remember what I wrote a few posts ago about McLuhan’s concentration on ancient Greece as the site of many of the epistemic revolutions that built the visual-themed engagement with the world. A lot of what McLuhan credits ancient Greek culture with inventing was actually an innovation of Hebrew culture. Ancient Greece has been fetishized and romanticized in Western culture for centuries. The light of its undeserved worship not only obscures the contributions of other cultures, but also obscures the messier reality of what ancient Greek culture and life was really like.
The McLuhans call experiences where you interact with your communicators in real-time dialogue or performance acoustic. Their prime example is the recitation of epic and philosophical/theological poetry. The spectators entirely enrapture themselves to the performance so they can memorize the words.
The visual mode of experience conceives of all of space laid out before you simultaneously, but direct interaction is usually extremely limited. We don't need to involve ourselves so deeply in our experience of the work that we memorize it because the communication will preserve itself beyond our individual experience of it. This is the mode of painting, but most importantly for McLuhan’s analysis, the written word. Dante and Dickens are before us in their works right now as they were in their own time.
Media that mimic simultaneity in dialogue and communication arose in the 20th century, and it began transforming our encounters with the world around us again, training us to think in new ways. As the McLuhans present it, this new acoustic media atmosphere is very much like the old ways of thinking.
Modern media present us dialogue that flows along with our experience: spoken words. Performance. McLuhan presents the nature of this performance in the immediacy of our interaction. He’s analyzing the world we experience as pure visceral affect, so he discusses the audio-visual unfolding of media like film and television as their sounds and sights actually hit you. He concentrates on the immediacy of experience with cinematic and television media, in which it’s the same character as ancient Greek recitation and theatrical media.
But there’s more to the nature of cinematic and television media itself than their immediate experience. This is where media analysis gets a little meta, because our understanding of the media we experience shapes our immediate experience of the media. Sounds trippy, but I’ll explain.
An audience experiences live theatre and poetic recitation** in real time, from performers in their vicinity, the performance moving with the same pace as the flow of time. An audience experiences a book entirely in the abstract, with all its action a product of the imagination. Its speed is however fast the reader can read, and its author is, as far as experience goes, infinitely distant.
** Well, for the Greeks, it’s poetic recitation. We experience this sort of media today as poetry slams. If only Plato could come to our time and see the low social stature to which poetic recitation has fallen, just as often referred to as a punchline as an art form. Of course, Plato would also be appalled at every other aspect of modern life. So, you win a couple . . .
But recording and broadcasting cinema and television preserves the infinite distance of the creators, while unfolding itself for the audience in real time. In the immediate experience of the medium itself, this distinction doesn’t appear. McLuhan is able to bracket how we’re thinking about our media products as we consume them simply by defining his problem as one of visceral experience.
Yet we never experience art purely viscerally. We’re always thinking about what we experience as we experience it. I have a friend who is a major fan of silent film, and she’s even doing a research project on it for a cultural/media studies program. She live-tweets her experience of watching that era’s films for her work.
One of the very touching elements in her feed is her reflection on the immense distance (usually a grave’s length) between her and the people in her films. These thoughts aren’t part of her immediate, visceral experience interacting with the medium, but they’re inextricable from her experience of the film and the emotional and cognitive affects it has on her.
Our own self-consciousness, our understanding of media, is now a part of our experience of media itself. The next few posts will explore this idea further, how popular knowledge of the structure of media actually changes how the public experiences media and the world. To be continued . . .