Marshall and Eric McLuhann manage, I believe, to sum up everything Ian Bogost and I are trying to accomplish with our own object-oriented media work. In the opening pages of Laws of Media, McLuhan writes,
It makes no difference whatever whether one considers as artefacts or as media things of a tangible ‘hardware’ nature such as bowls and clubs or forks and spoons, or tools and devices and engines, railways, spacecraft, radios, computers, and so on; or things of a ‘software’ nature such as theories or laws of science, philosophical systems, remedies or even the diseases in medicine, forms or styles in painting or poetry or drama or music, and so on. All are equally artefacts, all equally human, all equally susceptible to analysis, all equally verbal in structure. (3)
The first thing to note is just how weird McLuhan’s concept of media is. Ordinarily when we think of media– or, at least, when I think of media –we think of artifacts that are transmitted through various devices such as film, television, books, and radio. McLuhan thoroughly explodes the myopia of this conception of media. McLuhan’s famous thesis is that media are “extensions of man”. Anything that extends man is, according to McLuhan, a medium. Already we sense that what constitutes media is not whether a medium transmits content, but whether or not it extends man in some way or another.
Four additional observations follow from this first pass. First, media are objects thought in relations of exteriority. An object becomes media when it extends another object in some manner or other. Put differently, a medium is an object coupled to another medium. This coupling creates new phenomena, new effects, that would not otherwise come into being. Second, McLuhan’s conception of media is thoroughly ecological and directed at what Morton calls “the mesh“. McLuhan wishes to draw our attention to what I call “exo-relations” or relations of exteriority that come into existence when objects are coupled with one another. He asks, as I did in my earlier work on onticology, what difference does this object make when it is coupled with other objects?
Third, and perhaps most importantly, despite McLuhan’s thesis that media are extensions of man, his concept of media thoroughly contests the primacy of the human or even what the human is. On the one hand, insofar as couplings of the human and various mediums produce something new, there is no longer any single index to what the human is. At best we can speak of local manifestations of the human produced as a result of these couplings and the practices they render possible. Moreover, the “causality” here is not one way. It is not simply that media extend man, but rather humans often extend media. Take the example of lawn grass. Does grass extend the human? Certainly we see children playing in the grass, laying in the grass, having picnics in the grass, etc. However, isn’t it equally true that grass uses humans to extend itself? From a Darwinian perspective– and especially from the perspective of sexual selection in the Origin of Species –isn’t it true that grass has seduced humans so as to get itself reproduced? Isn’t the softness of grass, its rich verdant color, its pleasant earthy smell, the satisfaction it provides when being mowed, etc., a sexual strategy to get itself reproduced? Is it at least not partially true that contemporary Western civilization is an effect of grass’s drive to get itself reproduced? Has not grass carefully cultivated local manifestations among humans (primarily male humans) that take pleasure in neat lines on their lawn, the sound of a lawn mower, the luster of a thick lawn, and so on? Have we not been engineered by grass? Moreover, we could even say that in its race to domesticate man, grass generates an antagonistic war against not only weeds, but rather different varieties of grass, all using humans as queer sexual organs to get itself reproduced and to get achieve the hegemony of its particular species or variant.
This leads to a fourth observation. If there’s some plausibility to the analysis in point three– and I confess there’s hyperbole here –there is no reason to suppose that media are extensions of man. Rather than being extensions of man media are extensions of any other object. What McLuhan thus offers is not a technique or method for analyzing media in the restricted sense, but a general ontology of translation or what takes place when objects couple with one another. Mediology, to use Vitale’s term, is the analysis of queer couplings and the effects they produce, regardless of whether or not humans are involved.
This leads to my second main observation: McLuhan’s conception of media displays both a flat ontology and a deep ontological promiscuity. Note the manner in which McLuhan places both “hardware” and “software” on equal footing, treating them promiscuously as objects on equal footing. For McLuhan, semiotic entities like theories and styles– and dare I say, signs and fictions? –are no less actors than entities such as writing, telegraphs, and rivers. What we get here is a highly complicated ecology that allows us to think extensions of objects in a non-linear fashion radiating in all directions like rhizomes. Indeed, we even get the strange mereology of objects that simultaneously belong to entirely different objects by extending these objects in entirely different ways.
Contemporary critical theory is divided, in broad strokes, between two schools of thought and practice. On the one hand, we have those variants of theory focused on content and the analysis of the semiotic. On the other hand, we have that school of theory that focuses on historico-material conditions such as the role played by new communications technologies, by writing, by the factory, etc. What McLuhan’s weird, promiscuous, conception of media offers is a way of thinking the ecology of these objects together. And here, above all, we encounter Bogost’s concept of the unit, where it becomes possible to think these media not simply as couplings of different objects, but as genuinely productive of new units or objects. For in the interplay of these queer couplings what we get are the emergence of new objects such that semiotic actors rebound back on the technologies that engender them, producing new units and pushing these units to overturn themselves becoming something else, and technologies and nonhuman actors generating unheard of social and semiotic units in the form of new forms of thought, new theory, new signs, new styles, new collective, and so on. Chinese rice production generates an entirely new form of human collective, as does Final Fantasy. This promiscuous and weird ecological ontology of weird couplings thus provides us with a new critical theory directed at composition rather than critique.