Friday, January 13, 2017

Core Response (to the Readings of Week 2)

Reading McLuhan with Williams and Feuer, aka:
 “Is media theory anything you can get away with?”

The starting point of the first chapter in Television: Technology and Cultural Form by Raymond Williams is the author’s perception that is has become commonplace to claim that “TV has altered our world”. His aim is then to give an overview of what kinds of casual relation between technology and society is implied when making such statements. This analytically inclined attempt on Williams’s part is a sort of thing Marshall McLuhan would never get into, because in the McLuhan universe, causality is never a complex issue but apparently always clear-cut and straightforward, identified by McLuhan with a swimming ease—or it isn’t an issue at all. To be more precise, in McLuhan’s version of the television utterly changing the world, the problem of how television as a technology come about, of how it has been connected with or embedded in other social phenomena, is ignored.

More than that, McLuhan’s writing style uncannily resembles the kind of flow in television Williams points out and offers examples of in Chapter 4: the quintessential McLuhan/ TV experience might then be the kind that induces or is preconditioned by a certain trance in which the mind is liberated from the shackles of conventional logic, an analytical orientation, or the reality principle.

“The media is the message” may be a rhetorical exaggeration, however, in the case of the McLuhan phenomenon it might be more true, as the latter’s sweeping success could be attributed, to a large extent, to its features as a medium, its workings (patterns and pace) as a form of communication, rather than to its exact content, i.e. the sweeping generalizations and arbitrary, and, at times, quasi-psychotic musings that McLuhan’s statements actually are when examined more closely and individually, giving credit to them as if they added up to academic arguments. If the TV flow did resonate or has been resonating so well with the wavelength of the minds of the masses, then McLuhan was riding those waves with an outstanding sensibility, and in a timely fashion. What Williams and Feuer investigate in relation to the specificities of TV as a medium seems to be quite skillfully put in practice in the sphere of print culture (and live public performance) by McLuhan: tendencies of "variability and miscellaneity" (Williams, p80)[1]; the simultaneity of fragmentation into small units (responding to, or constituting, a restricted  attention span) and of the suturing of those fragments into a more or less continuous stream (or, “a dialectic of segmentation and flow” as Feuer puts it); and the reliance on catchy headlines and signals, and the promise and pretension of something exceptional to be witnessed (okay, I could have just said “sensationalism”). This parallel between TV characteristics and McLuhan’s writing style and the nontraditional book format The Medium is the Massage takes is all the more curious because of McLuhan’s own emphasis on the utter difference of the phenomenology of TV as a medium from that of literacy and print culture.

While Williams emphasizes  that the flow is supposed to keep viewers watching the given channel (and thereby making it commercially successful as viewership attracts ads and sponsorship), Feuer focuses on TV’s ideology of “liveness” as continuity as that which serves the illusion of a “national and family unity” (which would, in turn, obfuscate real clashes in class interests, and support the peaceful acceptance of the status quo, i.e. the illusionary unification would happen at the expense of the lower classes, Feuer’s full argument would go I suppose, Feuer, 17-18).  That is, both Williams and Feuer direct the attention to the ends to which the TV flow can be appropriated. In contrast, McLuhan himself seems to appropriate much of what he detects to be behind the overwhelming popularity of the relatively new media of his age, his printed works and presence bearing witness to some great media-savviness. Also, I must say that his smooth arrogance is quite entertaining.  One thing that personally excites me – considering his apparently self-conceited boldness, untamed narcissism, performative omniscience, and occasionally, completely unsupported (well... mad) statements – is whether this smart thinker was an exceptionally skillful player or authentically delusional.  

[1] Reading McLuhan gave me the impression that for him, nothing is beside the point: in the midst of discussing television, he does not miss a chance to share the truth about the looks of European cars, or the intimate communication between lovers. 

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