Often when people think of Marshall McLuhan, the first thing the think is his thesis that “the medium is the message.” While this is indeed an important dimension of McLuhan’s thought, it seems to me that McLuhan’s thesis that mediums are anything that extends the senses or the body of man [sic.] (Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, p. 7) is far more significant to understanding the import of McLuhan’s project. With this thesis, McLuhan vastly expands the domain of media studies, such that media studies take on general ontological import. Indeed, we can now say that through McLuhan’s definition of media, media studies is now without an object, for media studies will now no longer be the investigation of a “regional ontology” or a particular domain of the world such as newspapers, comic books, and films, but will now define a dimension or feature of general ontology. To wit, media studies will be that branch of general ontology that investigates how one object extends another.
While it is indeed the case that newspapers fall well within the scope of McLuhan’s concept of media insofar as they extend human beings by allowing us to participate or witness (though in a different way) events and actions elsewhere in the world that they weren’t present to, the “mediality” of media will not consist in whether an entity is text, film, radio, clay, etc., but rather in whether or not it extends human bodies and senses in some way or another. In this respect, cars, mountain passes, rivers, sticks, and guns are no less media in McLuhan’s sense than texts, signs, language, images, and so on. Indeed, a medium need not be an artifact in order to be a medium in McLuhan’s sense. A mountain pass or river is a medium because it extends humans from one area to another. Likewise, even humans are mediums for one another as in the case of congressional representatives that extend their constituents or a friend who extends you to other friends. An in all these cases, extensions also involve translations. As leftist supporters of Obama are discovering, much to their dismay, for example, the manner in which the Obama administration has translated the wishes of his supporters is very different than what they intended or wished.
(Painting by Eva Folks) For our part, Ian Bogost and I see no reason to restrict the concept of media to being extensions of humans. In The Pentad: McLuhan and Object-Oriented Ontology, we argue that a medium is just any relation in which one object extends the capacities of another object. The moon is a medium for the oceans, creating translations in the form of tides. Humans are mediums for cane toads, allowing them to expand their empire throughout the world. Urban sprawl surrounding the city of Atlanta is a medium for the climate, leading to translations of more intense storms generating tornadoes. A street lamp is a medium for all sorts of insects, unhappily extending their nightly behavior. Yellow anti-poaching signs are mediums for all sorts of wildlife in national parks, and new laws, ecological-scientific groups, and government funded grants are mediums for wolves in Yellowstone National Park.
In their first two laws of media, Marshall and Eric McLuhan invite us to ask,
*What does the artefact [sic.] enhance or make possible or accelerate? This can be asked concerning a wastebasket, a painting, a steamroller, or a zipper, as well as a proposition in Euclid or a law of physics. It can be asked about any word or phrase in any language.
*If some aspect of a situation of a situation is enlarged or enhanced, simultaneously the old condition or unenhanced situation is displaced thereby. What is pushed aside or obselesced by the new ‘organ’? (Laws of Media, 98 – 99)
Often McLuhan will speak as if it is only a technology that enhances or obselesces another medium, thereby setting aside semiotic mediums. Thus, in Understanding Medium, McLuhan will write,
The Instance of the electric light may prove illuminating in this connection. The electric light is pure information. It is a medium without a message, as it were, unless it is used to spell out some verbal ad or name. This fact, characteristic of all media, means that that the “content” of any medium is always another medium. The content of writing is speech, just as the written word is the content of print, and print is the content of the telegraph. If it is asked, “What is the content of speech?,” it is necessary to say, “It is an actual process of thought, which is in itself nonverbal.” An abstract painting represents direct manifestation of creative thought process as they might appear in computer designs. What we are considering here, however, are the psychic and social consequences of the designs or patterns as they amplify or accelerate existing processes. For the “message” of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs. The railway did not introduce movement or transportation or wheel or road into human society, but it accelerated and enlarged the scale of previous human functions, creating totally new kinds of cities and new kinds of work and leisure. This happened whether the railway functioned in a tropical or a northern environment, and is quite independent of the freight or content of the railway medium. The airplane, on the other hand, by accelerating the rate of transportation, tends to dissolve the railway form of city, politics, and association, quite independently of what the airplane is used for.
Let us return to the electric light. Whether the light is being used for brain surgery or night baseball is a matter of indifference. It could be argued that these activities are in some way the “content” of the electric light, since they could not exist without the electric light. This fact merely underlines the point that “the medium is the message” because it is the medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action. (UM, 8 – 9)
In the first example of trains, McLuhan echoes a sentiment of Lenin’s with respect to the massive numbers of tanks (tanks disdained by the Germans) produced by the Soviet Union during World War II: “A change in quantity is a change in quality.” By transforming the quantity of human associations, the train transformed the quality or nature of human associations. Prior to the train people seldom ventured more than fifty miles from their home during their entire lifetimes. Likewise, with the invention of electric light, human relations change qualitatively. Suddenly night life, night games, night reading, and night work becomes possible.
Often McLuhan is accused of technological determinism, and rightly so given these sorts of examples, but the truth is far more complex. McLuhan can be faulted for his prose often getting away from him, but can he really be faulted for the fact that the manner in which objects function as mediums for one another is incredibly complex and the medium of speech and writing only allows us to say one thing at a time? The reality is that it is not merely the lightbulb that here functions as a medium, but also language, signs, baseball teams, bats, fields, zoning laws, and a whole host of other media. Theories are no less mediums than electric lightbulbs, nor Lacanian mathemes any less mediums than trains or airplanes. Likewise, signifiers are no more a medium than the moon translating ocean tides which in turn function as a medium for when a massive container ship can enter a particular harbor in the course of its international trade. And this, ultimately, is the task McLuhan presents to us: the analysis, too large for any one human being, of how objects functions as mediums for one another, constraining and affording certain relations, giving rise to patterned forms of existence such as classes, groups, emerging species, and tides.