In the McLuhan selections, “The Galaxy Reconfigured” and “The Medium is the Message,” he focuses on sense ratio, the printing press and resulting commodification of literature, the Romantic practice of stream of consciousness and the simultaneity it facilitated, the role of electric media in proliferating that simultaneity, and the tension that results from coexisting technologies offering competing organizational models. Central to these foci is his celebrated assertion that “the medium is the message,” which is somewhat misleading as “the ‘content’ of any medium is always another medium” (McLuhan 203).
According to McLuhan, technology has the power to alter the ratio among our senses when “one sense or bodily function is externalized in technological form” (194). Such alterations limit “interplay among experiences,” and they are especially detrimental given status technological media have in our society—a status on par with fossil fuels—and society’s generally uncritical acceptance of them (McLuhan 195). Rice, however, points out that identity can result in a shift in our sense ratio as well.
Rice posits that all of the events and contexts in one’s life are all agents “affecting each other and shaping identities in the process,” such that his particular “mixture of moments extends [his] own senses and rations” (6, 7). Rice employs the conceptual model of a network, from which there is no escape, to account for identity formation; the benefits of this account are the consideration of the minutiae of existence and the possibility of “multiple identities in multiple space” (5). As scholars, we participate explicitly in cite other works; in doing so, we create a sense of identity by locating ourselves relative to those whom we cite. For Rice, “citation is consumption” achieved through the identification with others (12).
Citation is a “print driven practice of consumption,” stemming from the economics and logic of print—that is, the facilitation of referring to the materiality of ideas (Rice 13). The mass printing of literature “transformed the text into an exchangeable commodity” and birthed the novel, which legitimized the author as a “man of letters,” involved the reader as co-author, and utilized narratives that conveyed “the knowledge of vice and virtue with more efficacy than axioms and definitions” (Brody 7, McLuhan 199).
While one consequence of this commodification was the exaggeration of lineal awareness, the Romantic writers who generated the literature were able to find “the artistic keys to the world of simultaneity, or of modern myth” (McLuhan 196). These artists were able to offer the public a “mosaic of the postures of the collective consciousness,” thereby increasing the options for the conception of a shared experience, as well as stream of consciousness narration, which stood in opposition to the “‘uniform and continuous and sequential’” (McLuhan 196, 202). Electric media further supported this move to the simultaneous with the simple application of speed.
Cinema, through the rapid succession of still pictures, “carried us from the world of sequence and [lineal] connections into the world of creative configuration and structure” (McLuhan 205). The electric brings the mythic, the simultaneous, squarely into daily experience while “creating involvement in depth”; Brody extends this with new—that is, digital—media, which “actually connect the user to the world” (McLuhan 204, Brody 3).
Brody is quick to identify the inherent contradiction of new media: “[U]sage of any medium is based upon the communicative conventions,” so can any media be meaningfully classified as new (2). For Brody, the medium is not the message, but rather the memory, as “the technology, the message, and the memory ultimately conflate”; this is evident in our collective inability to fully exploit new media’s syntagmatic(…?) qualities (5).
The coexistence between old and new technologies, old and new organizational and perceptual paradigms, “brings trauma and tension to every living person” (McLuhan 202). Media, by their nature, work under the radar, distracting us, shaping us with its assumptions, and locating us in the global village with “such proximity of ideas to ideas, we experience tension, conflict, awareness, and understanding” (Rice 7).
I find this contemporary condition compelling, particularly as we struggled in class to pin down what it even means for a media to be new. As a teacher I also would want to explore further the aggression I exert on my own students in the name of “education,” as well as the capacity I have to effect change in the world given the return to the “medieval model” Brody describes, presuming that control of information dissemination would fall under the purview of those similar to McLuhan’s “very few people” (3, 196).
I am also taking the realization of the nu—as authentic involvement in “response to a situation, problem, tribute, or exigence”—in my classroom as a professional challenge (Rice 22).
Brody, Florian. “The Medium Is the Memory.” The Digital Dialectic. MIT Press, 1999.
McLuhan, Marshall. “Two Selections by Marshall McLuhan.” The New Media Reader, by Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort, MIT Press, 2010, pp. 193–209.
Rice, Jeff. “I Am McLuhan.” Enculturation, University of Kentucky, 30 Dec. 2011, enculturation.net/i-am-mcluhan.