Tag: Marshall McLuhan

The Medium is the Message: Marshall McLuhan on Media, Humor, and the Media Child

images-1

Marshall McLuhan, one of the main pioneers of media studies, is most famous for his expression “the medium is the message.”   His work, to be sure, is very difficult to comprehend; it is complicated. His writings on media are a combination of literary criticism, philosophy, historicism, and a utopian reading of media. Reading him, one can feel his excitement over the power of media to transform life as we know it.   We can see that he is struggling to create a new language with new idioms to describe the transformations we are in the midst of in our “media age.” This struggle may still speak to us today since, in many ways, he anticipated a world in which we would live most of our lives through electronic media. In many ways, he anticipated facebook and twitter. He would see social media as an expression of what he called a “global village” – it, more than TV, brings out what he was getting at by many of his idioms that, to many people, seemed, utopian or even totalitarian.

In order to make his concepts of accessible, McLuhan worked together with Quentin Fiore to create a text juxtaposed with text and images that anyone could pick up, read, scan, feel, and understand how the medium is the message. This book, published in 1967, is entitled The Medium is the Message: An Inventory of Effects.   (An audio version of the book also was circulated at the time; the correlation between the two, however, is complicated.)

 

What I find most striking about this little book (without page numbers) is the fact that it sees the subject of this new media transformation as a kind of man-child and it finds that the best medium for educating the man-child to be humor.

McLuhan begins by noting that our “anxiety” with the new age has to do with the fact that we are approaching the changes we are going through with the “wrong tools”:

Everything is changing – you, your family, your neighborhood, your education, your job, your government, your relation to “the others.” And they’re changing dramatically…Innumerable confusions and a profound feeling of despair emerge in periods of great technological and cultural transitions. Our “Age of Anxiety” is, in part, the result of trying to do today’s job with yesterday’s tools – with yesterday’s concepts.

However, “youth instinctively understands the present environment – the electronic drama.” They understands everything in terms of “interfaces.” They also understand that education can longer be based on the previous educational system which was too “serious.” Today, in the media age, humor must be the new basis for education:

Our time presents a unique opportunity for learning by means of humor – a perceptive or incisive joke can be more meaningful than platitudes lying between two covers.

One needs to live in the “social drama” by way of the witty response which focuses on “means or processes rather than ‘substance’.”   And instead of the “family circle” or the school being the basis of education, “character no longer is shaped by only two earnest, fumbling experts. Now all the world’s a sage.” This last pun, playing on Shakespeare, indicates that our new kind of education is, because of the media “buzz”…everywhere.

Juxtaposing a picture of a young boy, McLuhan writes, in a section entitled “Your Neighborhood”: “you can’t go home again.” This section suggests that the child is, so to speak, abandoned to the endless time and space of the media. What is a child to do? Wouldn’t this provoke anxiety? What role does humor or wit play vis-à-vis this child’s new anxiety and homelessness?

Anticipating these questions, McLuhuan writes about “the child” of the past and compares it to “today’s child.”

The “child” is an invention of the seventeenth century; he did not exist in, say, Shakespeare’s day. He had, up until that time, been merged in the adult world and there was nothing that could be called childhood in our sense.

Today’s child is growing up absurd, because he lives in two worlds, and neither of them inclines him to grow up. Growing up – this is our new work, and it is total. Mere instruction will not suffice.

What I find so fascinating about McLuhan’s comments about “today’s child” is the fact that he is describing a “man-child” of sorts (a schlemiel). His description rings an interesting note if it is juxtaposed to A.O. Scott’s recent New York Times Magazine article entitled “The End of Adulthood.”   As I noted in a blog on Scott’s article, Scott finds it nearly impossible –with the sheer amount of films, TV shows, and young adult fiction (read my people in their 30s and 40s – for us to “grow up.”   He sees this problem pronounced in Adam Sandler and Judd Apatow’s popular films. They pronounce the “end of adulthood” and a perpetual adolescence.

 

If anything, the last words of Scott’s article – “get off my lawn”- show us that he has no solution.

Does McLuhan?

At the very least, he says that “growing up” is our “new work, and it is total.” But, as we saw, this “growing up” has something to do with being witty and ready for anything that comes at one in this “social drama” otherwise known as the media age. However, since he can’t appeal to old models, its not certain what he means by “our work.” It’s as if we have to put the pieces together and in improvising this we will, somehow, “grow up.”

What he suggests, as a way of becoming mature, is a kind of understand of the world we are living in. His descriptions of how we have, because of media, become “responsible for each other” suggest this. We see this in a section entitled “the others.”

The shock of recognition! In an electronic information environment, minority groups can no longer be contained – ignored. Too many people know too much about each other. Our new environment compels commitment and participation. We have become irrevocably involved with, and responsible for, each other.

This suggests that we recognize this “fact” and do something about it. However, there are many problems with this.   Many people may see the news about this or that oppressed group in the world by way of this or that facebook feed, or even by means of humorous media such as The Daily Show or the Colbert Report (amongst others), but who takes this seriously enough to “commit” oneself or “participate.” Do we feel “compelled” to do something by virtue of a facebook feed or comedy episode? What happens when there is media indifference? When there is too much media?

Perhaps it is the case that our inability to grow up (or rather our failure to do so), which Scott accuses us all of, has to do with the fact that though we feel responsible we don’t want to do anything. We’d rather not. After all, its easier to float around the media world which, more often than not, is full of humor.

Unlike Scott, who argued that feminism has something to do with the “end of adulthood,” McLuhan suggests that the process of media is responsible for the latest displacement of adulthood.   His answer is that we should respond to the media around us which “compels” us to “commit” ourselves and “participate.” Yet, somehow, this must be done with wit which, to his mind, is more mature than childish humor.

This opens up many questions as to the distinction between the two. At the very least, he sees humor as the primary modality today for learning and action. Scott seems to see humor as incompatible. What’s the difference?

 

…to be continued….

 

 

 

 

 

 

Humor as Prosthesis: On Comic Word Play and Ironic Victories

images

Some schlemiel theorists like Ruth Wisse and Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi read comedy as a kind of compensation for failure and powerlessness. Comedic language, in this scenario, is a kind of prosthesis.   The feverish pace of comedy is, in this scenario, structured to give the writer, joke-teller, and audience a false – read fictional – sense of control.

Reflecting on the excessive use of language in Sholem Aleichem’s schlemiel-comedy, Ruth Wisse writes:

Sholem Aleichem generally employs the technique of monologue, of which the epistolary form is but a variation, to convey the rhythms and nuances of character, and to underscore the extent to which language itself is the schlemiel’s manipulative tool. Through language the schlemiel reinterprets events to conform to his own vision, and thereby controls them, much as the child learns to control the environment by naming it. One need only read Menachem Mendl’s joyous, and incomprehensible, explanation of the stock market to appreciate how proficient handling of language can become a substitute for proficient commerce. Moreover, the richness of language in some way compensates for the poverty it describes. There is in the style an overabundance of nouns, saying, explanations, and apposition….The exuberant self-indulgence of…description takes the sting out of failure itself….Maurice Samuel called…it “theoretical reversal.” (54)

In this scenario, all comic language is ironic as is the laughter that goes along with it since, in this view, everyone goes along with the joke. Nonetheless, we know what the schlemiel is doing. He is, as it were, not fully absent minded. And, as Wisse suggests, the schlemiel uses language like a “manipulative tool” so as to reinterpret events and things that they cannot master so that they can “conform to his own vision.”

Writing on the telephone as a prosthesis, Avital Ronell argues that it is “capable of surviving the body which it in part replaces” and it “acts as a commemorative monument to the dissolution of the mortal coil”(88, The Telephone Book). Playing on Freud, Ronell goes on to call the prosthesis a “godlike annexation of a constitutively fragile organ.” It performs a “restitutional service” by going right to where the trauma touches the body.

Ronell argues that Freud anticipates Marshall McLuhan who argues that if the body fails the prosthesis succeeds. However, for McLuhan, the prosthesis is not simply a substitute for a weak or “fragile organ.” It is an extention of our existing organs. Citing McLuhan, Ronell notes that for him the prosthesis will no longer be a buffer between the body and the world. It will directly relate to it. In other words, it is no longer a substitute and it no longer is false. And now when it is shocked or traumatized there is an “auto-amputation of the self.”

Ronell contrasts this new understanding of trauma mediated by a prosthesis which now becomes “real” to Freud who argues that the enjoyment of this false limb amounts to a “cheap thrill.”

Bringing all this together, I’d like to test out the prosthetic theory of humor posited by Wisse, above. If humor is a prosthesis, than wouldn’t our enjoyment of it be, in Freud’s words, cheap? Perhaps this suggests that the schlemiel is understood as a prosthesis and that our “ironic victory” is…ironic. Without that understanding, our laughter would in fact be cheap.

On the other hand, if we read prosthetic humor along the lines of McLuhan there is no false limb. It is not a tool so much as an extention of our bodies. If that is the case, humor – as an extention of our bodies – exposes us to existence. It doesn’t protect us and it can potentially harm the schlemiel. This insight, to my mind, bears some interesting fruit. We see the effects of this more in stand-up comedy than in Yiddish literature. While Sholem Aleichem’s Motl or Mendel Mocher Sforim’s Benjamin seem to be immune to existence – by way of their humor – stand-up comedians and some contemporary schlemiel characters, like Philip Roth’s Portnoy or Shalom Auslander’s Kugel are not. Sometimes language can provide us with an ironic victory othertimes the same words can signify, for a schlemiel, defeat.

It all depends on how you read the prosthesis for sometimes the substitution afforded by comedy doesn’t compensate for lack so much as expose us to excess.

I’ll leave you with a clip from Andy Kaufmann since his comic words and his gestures seem to expose him rather than protect him from failure.