Understanding Media – Marshall McLuhan

Chapter 1: The Medium is the Message
McLuhan sees media as the extensions of man (“the extension thesis”). These extensions alter the balance between the senses and thereby change the way we experience the world around us (note: his definition of media conflates the traditional distinction between media and technologies). The hammer can herein be seen as the “extension of the arm” and the wheel as “an extension of the foot.” In addition, McLuhan found that the “content” of a medium was always another medium e.g the content of a movie is a novel or play, and the content of writing/print is speech (later adapted by Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin in “Remediation: Understanding New Media”). He therefor found it necessary that in order to study media, we need not be looking at the content (which is only another medium/”anti-content thesis”), but rather at how it alters the sense ratios and/or patterns of perception.

Chapter 2: Media Hot and Cold
In tackling the second chapter it is important to keep the extension thesis in mind as McLuhan makes a distinction between hot and cool media based on the level of sensory participation they prescribe. An example he gives of a hot medium is the radio, as it extends just one sense. The radio is low in participation and thereby also exclusive. The television, on the other hand, is a cool medium, demanding involvement in the process (the eye functions as a hand filling in and completing the low-res image – recall this is 1964, no high def) and thus inclusive. Furthermore, McLuhan also makes a distinction between hot and cool cultures, wherein a low literate culture is seen as a cool culture. He warned that using a hot medium in a cool culture can give rise to aggression.

Of what use, if any, are these theories when studying contemporary media? (consider the distinction between hot and cold media for instance and the anti-content thesis)

Interesting to watch in relation to the reading:


~ by karinvanes on February 13, 2009.

14 Responses to “Understanding Media – Marshall McLuhan”

  1. Why do you say: “his definition of media conflates the traditional distinction between media and technologies”? Aren’t media also technologies? And indeed, the definition of ‘medium’ goes way beyond, let’s say, our idea of ‘mass media’ etc. But this is not unusual. Money is seen by many as a medium. But to come back to the technology point: McLuhan’s argument on the Today Show is an interesting case in point, when he compares the two candidates’ effect when listened to as if it were radio, or with regard to their appearance on b/w and colour tv.

  2. Bad word choice: “traditional”, but I identify the conflation of medium and technology because it is used to explore two different approaches to media studies (technological determinism – marshall mcluhan- and cultural studies – raymond williams):

    While Mcluhan conflates media and technology….

    “It is often implicit for Williams that a medium is a particular use of a technology; a harnessing of a technology to an intention or purpose to communicate or express […] Williams is also wary about the theoretical implications that the term ‘medium’ has come to carry. First, he critizes and virtually dismisses it as always being a misleading reitification of a social process. Second, he sees that it is also a term that is used to recognise the part that materials play in a practice or process of production, as in artistic processes where the very nature of paint, ink, or a certain kind of camera will play a part in shaping the nature of an artistic product” (Lister et. al. 88).

    The distinction in their approaches summarized as “New Media: determining or determined?”

    * Lister et al. New Media: A Critical Introduction (2nd Edition). New York: Routledge, 2008.

  3. Williams is certainly a good author to bring into the discussion, but then I feel even more that the term “conflate” is problematic. I think the issue here is indeed the technological determinsim of McLuhan’s media theory. Technology certainly ‘informs’ the functioning of a medium, but cannot prescribe the uses it can be put to. And here lies a very important problem media theory has to tackle.

  4. True – that is why Latour’s ANT is an interesting methodological approach as it tries to “bridge” these two approaches to media theory.

    To my mind this “the important problem media theory has to tackle” currently expresses itself in questions concerning materiality (and materials resistance), but also in a more dynamic need to understand the engagement with media, the practices of media: performativity.

    Perhaps this has to do with game studies trying to define itself within media studies without falling to the horseless carriage syndrome (a metaphor by McLuhan – stage of media development in which it is discussed in terms of previous media). Or, in extension of this, symptomatic of convergence. Existing terms such as “viewer” and “gamer” prove too static. (Hence my suggestion that we look at “media engagers” instead)

    In human geography Nigel Thrift developed “non-representational theory.” It moves away from “products” but looks at performance and enactment. Exemplary of non-representation to him is dancing.

    In media studies Nanna Verhoeff suggests that we look at “theoretical consoles” – which I like precisely because it doesn’t fall to the ANT symmetry and nherent is already this idea that technologies provide their own resistance and the flexibility of appreciation practices of user-appropriation. Notwithstanding the vast curiosity in Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome as a means to overcome dualisms (in this case media determining or determined).

    At the same time though – to me it seems this might be creating too much loose sand on which no theories can really be constructed.

  5. Reading McLuhan again, I appreciate his explanation of media as extensions of man, that they shape our view of the world or our way of engaging with it through using them. What I have problems with grasping though is the remediation aspect, that the medium does not have a message because it only contains another medium. Where does this stop? If the content of writing is speech, is speech another medium and then what does it contain? Ideas? Than what follows. I understand this lack of the message better in seeing media as institutions of power (in relation with the other articles for this week), social relations and technological determinism fit in here.

    Considering Karin’s question about links to studying contemporary media, I would like to add to the hot/cold-distinction that this is very much dependent on time and place.

    I think that a newer medium always manifests itself as beeing more “hot” because it contains more (elements of) other media and thus stimulates our senses more. I was missing this somehow in chapter 2. Also thinking about more traditional media being valued exactly for their coolness, because the mind has to do more work, and because people are bored of hot media (like preferring to do away their tv to listen to the radio and read books instead). Cooler media then seem to be more of a challenge and a feast for the senses and mind then. I found that this does not really come up in McLuhan’s writing, or I am misunderstood.

  6. Lotte: how do you understand “interactivity” and new media (which I think there is a correlation between … at least the promise of) within the hot/cold distinction?

  7. I would agree that ‘the medium is the message’ argument (as each message is a merely another medium) might imply the baffling chicken or egg dilemma. Therefore it comes as little surprise that H.M. Elzensberger denounces McLuhan as a ventriloquist delivering mystique. However, even if this mystique becomes what Karin calls loose sand, I tend to buy it for a few reasons.

    Firstly, I believe, McLuhan’s partisan theory serves as a departure point in fettering media theory from traditional producer/receiver binary. Secondly, his cool/hot taxonomy (even though with it we delve into yet another binary) opens up creative ways of exploring the experience of media beyond the notion of receiving, which in his view, brings about either hypnosis (in the case of hot media) or hallucination (as a result of cool media). In other words, McLuhan’s theory questions what are the reasons we experience certain media in a particular way (like the example of watching Carter and Nixon on colour and monochrome television sets). This is where I personally do not see much difficulty to embrace the conflation of media and technology as in my view that leaves room to discourse on both of them. However, I believe that these questions should be embedded in cultural background and perhaps this is where I go along the lines of those who miss social/cultural context in McLuhan’s work.

    To go back to the question whether there is room for McLuhan in conceiving ‘theoretical consoles’ (and I would love to read on the latter more) which would be apt nowadays, probably one of the reasons we are still quoting him is the fact that he questioned the nature of the media and their relation to us regardless of their content: ‘[they] accelerated and enlarged the scale of previous human functions, creating totally new kinds of cities and new kinds of work and leisure’ (8).

    It could be questioned whether the emergence of new or reemergence of old media (L.Manovich points out that in fact we are not inventing new forms of culture: ‘Today media companies are busy inventing e-books and interactive television; the consumers are happily purchasing music albums and feature films distributed in digital form, as well making photographs and video with their digital cameras and cell phones; office workers are reading PDF documents which imitate paper’(2008: 35) is introducing new ways of experiencing them? And if media are the extension of ourselves, how do they reflect on the way we change in the mediated environment?


    Manovich, L. Software Takes Command. Available at: http://www.manovich.net/

  8. I couldnt’ help noticing how many times McLuhan mentions Narcissus as a reference for the way media entrance us and obscure the way they alter and extend our being. I wonder if it is possible in a mediatized society as we now live in to break free from this Narcissus-syndrom and be able to see and reflect on the way our senses are constantly extended and placed outside ourselves. Or maybe the presence of so many different media in our lives create a fragmented perception that redirects the attention to the role of the media. I know that many artists try to raise an awareness of the effect of mediation and return the gaze of our technological doubles (or Narcissus’ gaze so to speak) to offer the possibility to reflect on they way our senses and our selves are extended through media.

  9. @ Karin: “Lotte: how do you understand “interactivity” and new media (which I think there is a correlation between … at least the promise of) within the hot/cold distinction?”

    Would an interactive medium be hot and a non-interactive medium be a cool medium due to the overwhelming nature of the multitude and speed of contributions of the participants to for instance a blog?
    However, this does relate more to the higher more fluid (always changing) amount of information, than to the combination of senses that McLuhan wrote about. Could this be a more contemporary explanation of his hot/cool-distinction?

    Interactivity is of course not always the promissed freedom that we think it offers. Weblogs and fora can be very much restricted and supervised and not available for everyone, so I have trouble saying it subverts power relations because it is not a one-way medium.

  10. To shed a little more light on this difference between media and technology, I recall something Lina and I were taught in ‘Technobodies’. Donna Haraway’s text pointed to the idea that technology should not be considered an object, but rather a practice. The practice of technology designs its purpose.
    “Guns have an agency: people invented them to kill”
    If technology’s agency is communication, we can speak of a medium.
    If we change technology’s agency, and so we change the medium. So within one unchanged medium, I am not sure to what extent we are able to change “the uses it can be put to”, without creating a bug> something that does not fit into this a medium and therefore changing the complete nature of the medium. > creating another medium.

  11. […] mooi voorbeeld van het horseless carriage syndrome: ooit werd Twitteren ‘microbloggen’ genoemd. Bij bloggen staat ‘zenden’ echter nog […]

  12. […] shined light on some of his most brilliant viewpoints, including the study of media theory  (More on that here).  His famous quote, “The medium is the message” describes how important media itself […]

  13. […] mooi voorbeeld van het horseless carriage syndrome: ooit werd Twitteren ‘microbloggen’ genoemd. Bij bloggen staat ‘zenden’ echter nog […]

  14. […] ‘Understanding media’, McLuhan uses the hammer as an example of a tangible object (medium) by which, man has been able to express himself beyond […]

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