- “Instead of tending towards a vast Alexandrian library the world has become a computer. … [A]s our senses have gone outside us, Big Brother goes inside. … [U]nless aware of this dynamic, we shall at once move into a phase of panic terrors.”
Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographical Man (University of Toronto Press, 1962) 32
- IN MEMORY OF MILTON GLASER 1929-2020
- J. C., “Massages,” TLS 27 March 2020
“’The medium, or process, of our time—electric technology—is reshaping and restructuring patterns of social interdependence and every aspect of our personal life.’ How often have you heard a variation on that in the past few years? Book after book appears to examine the ways in which ‘practically every thought, every action, and every institution formerly taken for granted … is changing.’ That includes ‘you, your job, your government, your relation to the ‘others.’’ The author is talking about changes in electronic media. ‘Our time is a time for crossing barriers, for erasing old categories.’
Marshall McLuhan published The Medium is the Massage in 1967. It wasn’t an underground or cult book—these categories were themselves only then emerging—but a popular hit. McLuhan made difficult concepts sound easy to grasp, such as the ideas that societies are shaped ‘more by the nature of the media by which men communicate than by the content of the communication.’ Have you read a better summation of the workings of Twitter?”
- Richard Cavell, Speechsong: The Gould / Schoenberg Dialogues (Santa Barbara: Punctum Press, 2020)
“As speech that is not speech and song that is not song, speechsong occupies an acousmatic space that is congruent with the technologies of voice that now dominate the sonic landscape. Richard Taruskin states about his Oxford History of Western Music that ‘its number-one postulate [is] that Western music is coherent at least insofar as it has a completed shape. Its beginnings are known and explicable, and its end is now foreseeable (and also explicable). And just as the early chapters [of his book] are dominated by the interplay of literate and preliterate modes of thinking and transmission (and the middle chapters try to cite enough examples to keep the interplay of literate and nonliterate alive in the reader’s consciousness), so the concluding chapters are dominated by the interplay of literate and postliterate modes.’ This overview of musical history is congruent with the media history traced by McLuhan in The Gutenberg Galaxy, although McLuhan more accurately traces the history from oral to literate to acoustic, a ‘secondary orality’ (in the formulation of Walter Ong), which has major implications for the understanding of music. If music is now entering a post-literate phase, as Taruskin suggests, a phase in which acoustic space prevails, that shift was articulated by Schoenberg in his rejection of the linear and teleological aspects of music inherited from literacy (exemplified by Wagner’s Handlung), and is evident in Gould’s technological performance practices of the splice and of multiple takes. It is this shift to acoustic space that Moses und Aron adumbrates. The site of mediatic translation from song to speech and speech to song, Sprechstimme embodies the recursions of media history and does so as a mode of practice.” (135-6)
- Hal Jensen, “Bookish Books,” The TLS 4 September 2020
“For much of the postwar period, literary criticism and textual studies have remained worlds apart. W.W. Gregg’s essay ‘The Rationale of the Copy-Text, “ a landmark of New Bibliography, appeared in 1950, sandwiched between the publication of The Well Wrought Urn (1947) and The Verbal Icon (1954), two classics of New Criticism. But the giants of bibliography and criticism had nothing to say . to one another and, it would seem, no common language. A few prophetic voices—Walter J. Ong, Marshall McLuhan, Eric A. Havelock—drew attention to the profound connections between media technology and the creation and reception of literature. Their news, although not unheralded, was perhaps too much to take in. … Thankfully, and finally, there are signs that this cultural distancing has had its day. The terminology hasn’t settled down yet. ‘Book,’ ‘work,’ and ‘text’ are still battle-scarred from the great Theory Wars at the end of the twentieth century. But the signs of recovery are encouraging: textual scholars, editorial theorists and historians of the book are all helping, in positive ways, to reshape literary studies. What was once regarded as a preliminary or peripheral task of only specialist interest (often condensed, in paperback editions, to a short and perfunctory ‘Note on the Text’) now finds itself increasingly at the centre of history and criticism.”
- Michael Tomasky, “What Did the Democrats Win?” The New York Review of Books 17 December 2020
“Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez … told the Times that many House Democrats lost in large part because they were running antiquated campaigns and not responding directly to attacks. ‘They were vulnerable to these message,’ she said, ‘because they weren’t even on the mediums [sic] where these messages were most potent. Sure, you can point to the message, but they were also sitting ducks.’” (38)
- Virginia Heffernan, Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art (N.Y.: Simon & Schuster, 2020)
“In 2014 I had been living with the Internet in one form or another for thirty-five years, from my preteen adventures on Conference XYZ to my work reviewing mobile apps like Square Cash and Device6 for Yahoo! News. The ethereal leanings—leanings, literally, toward the ether—of tech developers, evangelists, critics, engineers, executives, and hackers were familiar to me. I saw them in myself. ‘Electronic circuitry,’ as Marshall McLuhan called it, was doing something to my nervous system, something not quite empirical and not quite measurable.
I had studied McLuhan’s stunty musings since college. I knew him to be a Roman Catholic mystic, whose far-out ideas of media as the ‘extensions of man’ derived from the anthropology of the beaver trade in remotest Canada. How did such far-flung, lonesome, and polyglot traders build a market—a shared space, with transmissible values—if not through the air, through the ether, through strange systems of semiotics that seductively eluded explanation?” (211-212)
- Ligaya Mishan, “The Sacrifice,” New York Times Magazine 6 December 2020
“On Twitter, people speak scoffingly of canceling themselves, as a joke or a pre-emptive gesture, since presumably any of us could be canceled at any time, living in our glass Instagrams, leaving a spoor of digitized gaffes behind us. (The Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan eerily anticipated cancel culture in his 1967 book ‘The Medium is the Massage’ … expressing concern, before the first resource-sharing computer network was even completed, about the ‘womb-to-tomb surveillance’ made possible by ‘the electrically computerized dossier bank—that one big gossip column that is unforgiving, unforgetful and from which there is no redemption, no erasure of early ‘mistakes’).”
- Jacqueline McLeod Rogers, McLuhan’s Techno-Sensorium City: Coming to Our Senses in a Programmed Environment (Lexington P, 2020)
In McLuhan’s Techno-Sensorium City: Coming to Our Senses in a Programmed Environment, Jaqueline McLeod Rogers argues that Marshall McLuhan was both an activist and a speculative urbanist who drew from crossdisciplinary and ahistorical sources to explore constitutive exchanges between humanity and technologies to alter human perception and imagine a sustainable future based on collective participation in a responsive urban environment. This environment—a techno-sensorium—would endeavor to design and program technology to be favorable to life and capable of engaging with multiple senses. McLeod Rogers examines McLuhan’s active engagement with the vibrant art and urban design culture of his day to further understand the ways in which the links he drew between media, technology, space, architecture, art, and cities continue to inform current urban and art criticism and practices. [from the back cover]
Pantelis Michelakis, ed., Classics and Media Theory (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2020)
- Till A. Heilmann, “Friedrich Kittler’s Alphabetic Realism,” 29-51
While in her own work [Sybille Krämer] tries to reconcile the conflicting perspectives of generativism and marginalism, Krämer portrays media theory as adhering, by and large, to the ‘maxim of generativism’: ‘In the heterogeneous field of media theory a small common denominator is the idea that media not only relay their contents, but are also fundamentally generative.’ In a way, this is simply a paraphrase of McLuhan’s verdict that ‘the medium is the message’. And in the eyes of many observers and participants, the so-called German media theory exemplifies this theoretical stance better than any other school in media studies does.
Although media already play a central role in the first stage of Kittler’s work, the concept of media is not given a lot of consideration. In Discourse Networks 1800/1900, the seminal text of the stage, readers will not find a definition of the term. Rather than elaborating on the concept, Kittler makes only a short reference to Marshall McLuhan’s media theory in passing. More than twenty years later, he would admit as much in an interview: ‘I only started working on the conceptual history [of media] very late. Initially, I simply took the concept from McLuhan’s Understanding Media.’ Accordingly, in Discourse Networks 1800/1900 phenomena such as the alphabet and the script along with writing, printing and books, poetry and literature, film and gramophone are all indiscriminately called media.
At least since McLuhan’s seminal Understanding Media, media theory has applied an extensive idea of what constitutes media and has conceptualized and analysed an ever-growing field of research objects under the label ‘medium’. Not coincidentally, Kittler repeatedly quotes McLuhan’s proposition that the content of a medium is always another medium. In the historical sequence of media, every new technology incorporates the logic of an older one so that the historian of media can trace the evolution of media in reverse order ‘until at some point one returns back to the Babylonian tower of everyday languages’. Unlike McLuhan, however, the late Kittler explicitly excludes (spoken) language from the evolutionary line of media as their non-technical point of origin: ‘Now, scripts and writing systems are media technologies, and I would go so far as to say that they are the very beginning of media technologies […] And language is no medium, no technical medium at all. I think Heidegger’s beautiful saying about language, that language is the house of being, is true.’
- Karin Harrasser, “Underweavings of Tactile Mediality,” trans. Aileen Derieg, 167-186
Teletactile technologies, which enable remote intervention (such as battle drones), and those moving ever closer to us, which we take into bed with us, which may even be implanted, and which store sensory-related data, have become the normality of the twenty-first century. The phenomenological differences between technically modified sensations and those that come from the activity of the senses may not have been erased by the ubiquity of technical media, but in the practice of everyday life they have been minimized. Nor is a multiplication of interfaces to be discounted: all these textures, media skins, and high-performance tubes of the twenty-first century are the not really distant heirs of the psycho-physics of the nineteenth century and the prosthetic–cybernetic research of the early twentieth century. However, they have also inherited the fragility and the ambivalence of the tactile, qualities that have clung to it since Aristotle: the more technologies intervene in the soma, the more diverse the fields of experimentation become. But also the potential access to our sensory maps and access to the data casually generated just by living go deeper and deeper as well. This applies to health and communication data, but also to the diffuse and elusive affective states that can be increasingly queried and exploited.
(p.183) Another trace leads from sensory physiology into the philosophy and art studies of the early twentieth century. References to the psycho-physics of perception introduced a cultural studies turn in the view of art, which also helped the sense of touch to gain some prominence. This may be exemplified by Alois Riegl’s theoretizations of haptic and optical images, which arose in association with Ernst Mach, Pavel Florenskij’s study on the inverted perspective and the tactile character of icons, or the view of art interested in affect and movement, which led Aby Warburg and Fritz Saxl back to the fable of Arachne. In all these cases, the tactile is a promise of expansion and renewal, not only in a scientific perspective. What is hoped for is no less than a liberation of the reception of art (or also of perception as a whole) from the corset of ocularcentrism. In this respect, art history bears a certain resemblance to the avant-garde of its time, such as Raoul Hausmann’s speculations on ‘eccentric sensation’ coming from Ernst Marcus. The inheritors of this expectation towards the tactile are found in very different fields over the course of the twentieth century: in philosophy with Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Michel Serres, as a founding figure of a new science—namely, that of media studies by Marshall McLuhan—and specifically also in contemporary cultural studies, which query and map the relation of bodies, signs, discourses, and practices, while tracing the historical and media specificity of sensory perception at the same time.
- Genevieve Liveley, “White Noise: Transmitting and Receiving Ancient Elegy,” 237-265
For a semiotician such as Umberto Eco, … unintended noise is necessarily dysfunctional and entropic. Any noise in the medium threatens to distort the intended message. Too much of it, too varied the set, and any message is irrecoverably lost in ‘white noise’, that is for Eco ‘the undifferentiated sum of all frequencies―a noise which, logically speaking, should give us the greatest possible amount of information, but which in fact gives us none at all’. However, for [Wolfgang] Ernst: ‘White noise does not mean nonsense.’ It means a different kind of information. In Ernst’s model of media archaeology, all media end up transmitting much more information than their intended message or content alone. Thus:
In a free interpretation of McLuhan, to listen media–archaeologically is to pay attention to the electronic message of the acoustic apparatus, not primarily to its musical content as cultural meaning. The media–archaeological ear listens to radio in an extreme way: listening to the noise of the transmitting system itself.
Here, Ernst suggests the transmitting/receiving device of the radio as offering one opportunity of listening to the message of the medium, of listening for other content in the information that is carried in white noise. Recording devices and other media offer similar opportunities. Digital archives, video cassettes, audio tapes, phonographs, poems, letters, and tombstones all record and store the unintended ‘noise’ that is (p.254) distinctive to their respective media―the scratch of a phonograph stylus, the indentations of a pen, the whirr of a cassette motor, the click of a button, the compression of a digital transfer. In Greek, Hellenistic, and Roman elegy, these distinctive ‘noises off’ would include the sound of lament―the elegiac cry of ‘woe, woe’ that is the traditional transmitted content of this medium. But what else can we hear?
As Kittler similarly observes, metre (or rhythm) represents an ancient technological solution to an ancient telecommunication problem: how to ensure that a message to the gods, or to the dead, or to future generations of readers, reaches its remote target destinations with minimal distortion or noise. Language encodes the message into a signal, but it is metre that constitutes the channel or medium through which this signal is then adapted for transmission, metre that acts as the device for storing and retrieving the message. Thus, Kittler can hypothesize:
At the origin of poetry, with its beats, rhythms (and, in modern European languages, rhymes), were technological problems and a solution that came about under oral conditions […] the storage capacity of memory was to be increased and the signal-to-noise ratio of channels improved.
The idea that ancient metre might function as a technological solution for recording and transmitting, storing and retrieving a particular dataset―in ways analogous to those in which the ancient Greek alphabet is considered to have made possible the recording and transmitting, storing, and retrieving of the oral sounds of speech―is certainly appealing for the media archaeologist. But Kittler’s media aetiology for metrical poetry overlooks the McLuhanian message here. The transmitting system―the rhythmic tick-tock of the metre―itself contributes noise, (p.255) changing the signal-to-noise ratio of the channel by adding greater information to the received signal. The medium also always speaks.
- Peter Bexte and Martina Leeker, eds. Ein Medium namens McLuhan: 37 Befragungen eines Klassikers (Lüneberg: Meson P / Centre for Digital Cultures, 2020)
[The book is comprised of 37 interviews with participants who attended the conference “Re-Reading McLuhan: An International Conference on Media and Culture in the 21st Century,” held at Schloss Thurnau in Bayreuth, Germany in 2007. At that conference, participants were asked a series of questions about the role McLuhan played in their own practices of media studies, and in 2019 the participants were approached again with similar questions. The book is comprised of their answers; excerpts follow.]
(1) What role does McLuhan play for you today, in 2019?
… I try to extend what I call his ‘re-socratic’ agenda to reaffirm subjectivity and the intractable embodiedness and situatedness of thinking, against any claims of immateriality … .
(2) What are the tasks of media studies today? Is it one coherent field of study? Or should it be addressed only in the plural form?
The most urgent task for media studies is to demystify the apparatuses by understanding how they are materially produced and how their functionality is materially reproduced.
(3) “Which areas of our culture will be spared from the influence of the computer in the coming years?” That was the question in 2007. How does it present itself in 2019?
Why is it a language of “spare”? Is it not time to embrace contamination from our machines? There is nothing left to save. …
(3) None, because digital cultures expand everywhere and influence even those areas that seem to lie beyond technology and media, and operate beyond digitalization. …
(3) There is very little anymore that exists outside computational logics and what some call ‘planetary computation.’ …
(3) My favorite answer to this question in 2007 was “love,” or, to be precise, “falling in love.” I admit that I don’t remember on the spot who said it, but I hope it’s still true …
(3) None. At least for most persons in well-off societies and also for many poor societies, all aspects of our world are at least partly computer-mediated, including the walk in the woods and the swim in the sea. Which is not to say that one cannot choose to do things without computer mediation. …
(3) The question evinces a degree of paranoia that is typical of its historical moment. …
(3) Das Walten des Technologós gehört zum Wesen der Wissenskultur selbst. …
Derrick de Kerckhove
(3) I am afraid that there isn’t that much to add or change here (except the halted language!) to my 2007 answer. If anything, there is even less human biological experience that is left untouched by digital effects. …
(3) Hier wusste ich schon damals nicht, ob die Frage richtig gestellt ist. …
- Burckhardt Wolf, Sea Fortune: Literature and Navigation, trans. Joel Golb (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2020 )
20 “Should we choose to not consider the sea solely from the land, then the sea can only reveal itself as an open experimental field between technics and poetics.”
226-31 “The mutual engulfing of figure and background in Leonardo’s studies of water already announce a drowning of perspective—hence of that symbolic form simultaneously guaranteeing and concealing the framed ‘presentedness’ of the world from a point of fixed vision and configuration, the construction and fiction of a consistent sense of space and world. … [In Poe’s “Descent into the Maelstrom,” the fisherman in the vortex], in place of having the fixed or territorial standpoint of deductive knowledge as his starting point, … has conquered a provisional observational level and viewpoint in the gulp and pull of this elementary experience: a perspective, in addition, that takes in precisely those laws governing irregular and turbulent phenomena. In a paradigmatic manner this combination of immersion and reflection describes, as Marshall McLuhan has observed, the epistemological position of modern media theory.”
466 “Facing Clarke’s novel of 1968, also entitled 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick’s film appears to readily offer an initial lesson in media history. If, as Marshall McLuhan maintained in his pioneering writing on media theory of the 1960s, the cinematic medium’s message ‘is that of transition from lineal connections to configurations,’ then with film an evolutionary leap past writing and a corresponding dominance of technical media seems to be confirmed. But in fact, tied to this media evolution is less a process of disempowerment than a new orientation of literary forms of writing. As McLuhan put it in 1964, ‘the film has confirmed the writer in verbal economy and depth symbolism where the film cannot rival him.’ … Hence here ‘media evolution’ by no means implies one medium’s simple dominance over another medium.”
471 “[Kubrick’s] 2001 overleaps the time of history, as well as that of literature. The film is partly located in prehistory and in a placeless primal landscape, partly in posthistory and outer space. In both respects, it reveals an evolutionary movement connected to a cinematographic recursion of the Odyssey. In place of the alphabets as an extra-sensory unity of all the senses, we are offered an acoustic visual combination based on a separation and feedback loop of optical and acoustic sense-fields, render possible ‘experience’ in a complex spatial, aesthetic, and experimental way. ‘It’s not a message that I ever intended to convey in words. 2001 is a nonverbal experience,’ is the way Kubrick put it. ‘I tried to create a visual experience. … To convolute McLuhan, in 2001 the message is the medium.’ Under Kubrick’s direction, the message or material of the Odyssey becomes a means or medium to enter into the experiential space of both linguistic and visual realms.”